I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few years—ever since I helped to coordinate a workshop to teach African refugees about properly disposing of electronic waste like computers and television, only to discover that among the places the US illegally dumps their electronic waste is, in fact, Africa. We also dump quite a lot of it in China.
I’ve also been thinking about this in terms of cell phones, since I get really pissed off about how I have to re-negotiate my contract every two years, which entails getting a new phone because my old phone has broken. My last phone’s hinge broke—yes it was a flip phone—which meant it wasn’t even salvageable for charitable purposes. (Not to mention that every time I have to re-negotiate my contract, my cell phone provider also tries to mysteriously tack on a data plan that I have to then call them about.)
Finally, last semester, I was in a book history class where we read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008), in which he talks about the complex ways in which digital media are and are not ephemeral, etc. Two significant points that resonated with me from all the things Kirschenbaum says are that 1) information stored on computers isn’t actually ephemeral. Even computers that have been destroyed in fires or sunken in rivers can occasionally have their data recovered—they’re pretty durable. And 2) even though computers have this kind of permanence, there is a sense in which what materially exists becomes inaccessible. In other words, you can’t always run your old software, especially in 2013 when computers are constantly being updated without your consent, scooting your device slowly into obsolescence. By the way, did I mention that all that information stored in “the cloud” is probably stored at a 24-7 diesel-engine powered warehouse in some low-income area?
What I’m getting at is that while I don’t know where all of our old media is going, I’m pretty sure it isn’t going away. If I may raise a very artificial, unhelpfully binary distinction, books are compostable and e-readers are not. Electronic devices (not just e-readers) are made of silicon chips, flame-retardant plastics, circuitry, and a bunch of stuff I’m not even aware of. Not to mention all those old televisions and monitors that had between 4 and 8 pounds of lead in them that don’t get use anymore but exist somewhere in the world.
Anyway, I’m hanging out on my soap box too long. I’m not trying to raise some kind of opposition between e-books and paper books in which paper books are victorious. What I’m really mad about is that concept of planned obsolescence.
I knew people growing up who kept all their old stuff in their yards. Washing machines, mattresses, old cars, refrigerators. I thought it was, well, trashy I guess. Now I think they may have a point.
Here’s an article I found that talks about this issue: Vivien-Elizabeth Zazzau, “Becoming Information Literate about Information Technology and the Ethics of Toxic Waste,” Libraries and the Academy 6.1 (2006): 99-107. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to link to this content, but I found it in Project Muse.
[One last thing so this isn’t all doom and gloom—there are places that help to address this problem; one in our area that recycles computers is Remachines. They’re on capital square, and in my experience, they’ve been really helpful with recycling laptops.]