Panel Preview

Presider: David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW)

Hashmod: R. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou)

This is one post in a series of Panel Previews for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference (#TtW14) in NYC. The panel under review is titled Consensual Hallucination: Wa$ted: The Making and Unmaking of Commodities

From the clean lines of an Apple product to the intangibility of the Internet, we are encouraged to think of the Web as something that doesn’t take up much room, let alone produce waste. At the heart of digital dualism is the false assumption that what happens on the internet, stays on the internet. The panelists in Wa$ted thoroughly debunk that notion by showing just how tangible the Web really is. Even if the work that happens online is largely intangible, it often organizes bodies and physical means of production. Wesley Shumar, Nora Madison, and Tyson Mitman’s work on craft beer communities demonstrate how networked individuals are enrolled in the production of goods that is both a part of and in contention with the neoliberal regime that created it. Heather Rosenfeld demonstrates a similar point by showing how energy smart devices and utility grids both feed into the neoliberal conception of the citizen-consumer but also point toward liberatory potentialities and environmental justice. Silicon Valley isn’t usually lumped together with energy and car companies as major polluters but, as Andrea Zeffiro and Mél Hogan’s work on techno-trash and Brian Thill’s work on digital wastelands show, the Internet makes a lot of trash. From spam folders to mercury-laden landfills, our status updates have deleterious effects on ourselves, others, and the environment. While Zeffiro and Hogan’s work underscores truly global nature of ewaste streams, Thill shows how deeply the problem of waste is misunderstood by those that create the most of it.

Andrea Zeffiro (Co-authored by Mél Hogan) (@AndreaZeffiro) Out of Site & Out of Mind: A (Speculative) Historiography of Techno-trash
In Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (2011), Jennifer Gabrys nuances the incarnation of digital information with a focus on the devices on and through which information travels. Counter to the hype of new media, she brings attention to the cultural processes that make media fail, and in turn the politics and ramifications of (often planned) technological obsolescence. Similarly, in Greening the Media (2012), authors Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller diagnose an increasingly wasteful culture, enhanced and encouraged by devices that are quickly replaced and put out of use. Most recently, a study completed by the Solving E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative estimates that the amount of global electronic waste will increase by 33 percent, from the 49 million tons tracked in 2012 to over 65 million tons by 2017 (StEP 2013). Given the magnitude of waste, what if we were required to physically store and care for our personal computing devices, such as cell phones, laptops and iPads, long after these machines served their intended function? In such an imaginary, unusable technologies remain within our sights, and in our sites. We use this paper as an occasion to think through this query by digging into the numerous layers in which our personal technologies and media practices contribute to a mode of ‘technological trauma’ and ‘drama’ that is best described as the trauma and drama of disembodied techno-trash (McLuhan 1962, 1964; Pfaffenberger 1992). For McLuhan, it was electric speed that inundated even the most remote areas in the world with Western technology. Today, the West continues to deluge the Global South with its devices and gadgets, but more often than not, these technologies quickly become obsolete and inoperative, or simply, trash. Electronic waste is increasingly unloaded in countries like China, Ghana, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Vietnam, where facilities or regulations governing recycling initiatives are lax. We employ our personal histories of technological ownership and put forth a speculative historiography of the life cycles of our devices and gadgets. In doing so, we illustrate not only the environmental burden of individual consumption practices, but also the scale of environmental trauma and drama that is symptomatic of contemporary global capitalism.

Brian Thill (@brian_thill) Tab-Flab, Dry Docs, Fave-Holes: On Digital Wastelands

One of the chief byproducts of modern life online is the endless proliferation of digital waste products: cluttered inboxes, unkempt feeds, open tabs, dead links, neglected faves, to-read piles, half-written blog posts. Historically, our relationship to the discarded bits of our everyday material lives has been one of abjection and removal. Traditionally, trash, as soon as it is classified as such, is wiped from sight, and often from memory. Our collective mountains of rubbish are submerged within great distant mountains of refuse, left to their entombment unloved and largely unconsidered.

Our relationship to digital detritus, however, opens up new possibilities for thinking about the dematerialized (or differently materialized) nature of virtual waste. These digital midden-heaps can serve an array of emergent functions: as aids to memory, as new forms of journal-keeping and self-discovery, as deep archives of collective energies bound to specific cultural moments, and more. Of course, digital waste is not “freed” from the realities of material existence; it consumes energy, resources, time, and space just as the proliferating garbage of the pre-digital ages did (and continues to do), and as such, it is inextricably bound to political, economic, and social crises just as material waste has been. But the current tendency for digital detritus to be more expansive and more distributed also means that it can serve as a mechanism for rethinking our relationships to waste, place, time, memory, and the self.

Efforts at reducing digital clutter, like “inbox zero,” misunderstand how the practice of everyday digital life is, by its very nature, even more “wasteful” than the disposable consumer culture that digital natives were born into, and attempts to think about digital garbage in the ways that seem most comprehensible to the lifestyle politics and environmental ethos of an earlier era. There are many productive things that ascetic philosophy or eco-awareness can do to shape how we think about digital waste, but we need to make sure we are not ignoring or downplaying the fact that notions of waste and value have been as radically reshaped by the digital age as communications, social relations, commerce, and labor have been.

Wesley Shumar (Co-authored by Nora Madison & Tyson Mitman) Mediated Worlds: Navigating the Hybrid Spaces of Craft Beer

Our ethnographic project examines how the Philadelphia craft beer movement- as a specific example of the larger craft movement in the U.S.- is exemplary of many of the features of the 21st century marketplace. One emphasis of our analysis is a focus on the use of social media in producing social spaces of affinity where people who share an interest in the aesthetics of microbrew consumption as well as the production of craft beer can gather. A second emphasis of our analysis looks at how the traditional separation of producer and consumer is giving way to a blended identity. Like the traditional separation of blue collar and white collar are being blurred in some new industries (Neff 2012; Ross 2003), we see these binaries between producer and consumer (and white collar and blue collar) being blurred in the craft beer world, too. Most critically, we will discuss craft beer in context to shifting economic movements and how worker and owner – producer and consumer – depend upon a social space that is broadened, enriched, and codependent on internet technologies.

In Gershon’s (2011) article, “Neoliberal Agency,” she argues we are all being hailed to become businesses, and that as businesses, we perceive ourselves and our world in particular kinds of ways. These ways are defined by a capitalist marketplace, where market exchange is supreme and other forms of the social are erased. On the one hand, it would be easy, and partly correct, to see the craft beer movement as part of this neoliberal ideology. On the other hand, craft beer, as a social movement, is motivated by a number of competing beliefs valuing community, quality, and creativity where these values are more important than profit. Our contention is that craft beer producers are creating a shift in capitalist commodity production that is resistant to the traditional profit-above-all model and moving towards a form of commodity production that privileges quality and community over profit accumulation. Ultimately, we see “craft” as an interesting and contradictory movement beholden to the logic of neoliberalism while at the same time having the potential to promote forms of resistance to consumer capitalism. We present the argument that the alternative economy space that craft beer inhabits is not possible (nor easy) without the web. Further, we argue that the internet has made the craft beer industry a notably different entity due to how its prosumers inhabit a space that is mediated.

Drawing on contemporary thinking about the ways the online and offline, mediated and physical spaces are articulated, the paper suggests that media is central to fostering the bonds of affinity (Gee 2005) that one finds in the craft beer community. Using Tom Boellstorff’s (2008) notion of the gap between the virtual and the actual and James Gee’s (2005) notion of affinity, this paper looks at how producers and consumers are sutured into spaces of affinity where new social as well as economic forms are possible, and quality of experience and commerce can mix in creative new ways.

Heather Rosenfeld (@brainvom) Plug Into Choice? The Neoliberal Environmental Justice of Smart Electricity Technologies

While not about the web per se, this paper investigates the integration of a particular set of digital technologies into daily life: smart electricity technologies. At the surface, ‘smart’, or digitally enhanced, electric grids offer myriad environmental and social benefits relative to the industrial electric grids of the last century. Through adding information and communication technologies to electric grids, they provide data on electricity consumption and flows at households and at key points in the circuit. This in turn can empower consumers, prevent energy from being wasted, and facilitate the integration of renewable energy into grids otherwise powered by fossil fuels. At present, however, smart electric grids are currently being installed, contested, and modified, to the point that they are better understood as a gesture away from a past of a non-smart grid and towards future possibilities yet to be determined and realized.

In this paper, I explore what these technologies, in their installation, contestation, and modification, mean for environmental justice. Environmental justice is commonly defined by activists and scholars as considering the distribution of pollutants, the recognition of different perspectives, an inclusive process in environmental decision-making, and community capacity-building. Through their reliance on the self-empowering, rational-choosing “consumer-citizen”, smart grids can be understood as being (a certain kind of) ‘neoliberal’, and neoliberalism is most often associated with environmental injustice, rather than justice. However, I find that precisely the neoliberal aspects of the smart grid – embodied by one utility’s motto, ‘plug into choice’ – are precisely what allow them to offer degrees of environmental justice. This neoliberal environmental justice is, however, limited, and I conclude by speculating about ways smart grids might be more just, in ways that challenge their neoliberal aspects but recognize possibilities for co-optation and counter co-optation of neoliberal rhetorics. This research is based on a case study of a municipally-owned electric grid, but it also draws connections to other smart grid projects.