Wasting the Future: The Technological Sublime, Communications Technologies, and E-waste

Sabine LeBel
2012
Literally speaking, e-waste is the future of communications. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, much of it communications technologies from cell phones to laptops, televisions to peripherals. As a result of policies of planned obsolescence working computers, cell phones, and tablets are routinely trashed. One of the most powerful and enduring discourses associated with emerging technologies is the technological sublime, in which technology is seen as intellectually,
more » ... tellectually, emotionally, or spiritually transcendent. It comprises a contradictory impulse that elevates technology with an almost religious fervor, while simultaneously overlooking some of the consequences of industrialism, as well as ignoring the necessity of social, economic, and governmental infrastructures necessary to the implementation and development of new technologies. The idea that a new technology will not pollute or harm the environment is a persistent, though often quickly passed over, theme in the technological sublime, echoed in discourses about emerging technologies such as the silicon chip, the internet, and other ICTs. In this paper, I make connections between the discourse of newness, the practice of planned obsolescence, and the mountains of trashed components and devices globally. Considering the global context demonstrates the realities of the penetration of ICTs and their enduring pollution and negative implications for the health of humans and nonhumans, including plants, animals, waterways, soil, air and so on. I use the discourse of the technological sublime to open up and consider the future of communications, to argue that this discourse not only stays with us but also contains within it two important and related components, the promise of ecological harmony and a future orientation. I argue that these lingering elements keep us from considering the real future of communications -e-wasteand that, as communications scholars, we must also engage with waste management literature and practices if we take the future of communications seriously. Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. This article is available in communication +1: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cpo/vol1/iss1/7 When we discuss the future of communication, the focus is often on technologies and markets, predicting trends, developments, and innovations. The future of communication is not simply how we will communicate in the near or distant future or which technologies, software, and hardware we will be using or will have become obsolete. It is more than the whims of the market, emerging markets, or innovations to existing technologies to make them better, faster, and smaller. Given our reliance on communications technologies, e-waste is literally the future of much communication. Waste has become a defining, yet often unspoken, problem in information society. Scientists at the United Nations University in Tokyo do life cycle analyses of high tech devices in order to enumerate the amount resources used in their production and they estimate that 240 kilograms of fossil fuel, 22 kilograms of chemicals, and 1500 kilograms of water are required to make every desktop computer. 1 Multiply this figure by current consumption levels, and add to it the growth from emerging markets, including the increase in resource consumption, pollution, and waste, and it is clear that the future of communication must include an analysis of the environmental impacts of communications technologies. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, much of it communications technologies from cell phones to laptops, televisions to peripherals. Jonathan Sterne shows that computers and other devices "are designed to be trash, to make room for future profits, additional hardware sales, and performance upgrades." 2 These devices are usually only 'new' for about six months, after which the monetary value of the machine drops significantly, although typically it still functions as intended. As a result of this policy of planned obsolescence working computers, cell phones, and tablets are routinely trashed. Lisa Parks establishes that distinctions between 'old' and 'new' media technologies are directly linked to the corporate policy of planned obsolescence, so that when studying so-called 'new' media we must be alert to corporate agendas as we scramble to account for and theorize those changes. 3 With the exciting and rapid changes to communication technologies, and perhaps because we are trying to analyse them at the same exhilarating speed of those transformations, there are aspects of information and communications technologies (ICTs) that remain radically under-theorized, namely their environmental effects.
doi:10.7275/r5z31wjk fatcat:axefs6yzkres3ncrhsdjrlhy2a