Project Proposal: Where Does Technology go to die?

I have been fortunate to grow up in a particularly interesting time in history. The world is currently going through a period of rapid change the likes of which have never been seen before. The uptake of mobile phones and digital communications technologies, in general, are facilitating this change and shaping our lives in previously unimaginable ways.
In my lifetime, I have seen technology become so powerful that I am now permanently networked with all corners of the world and through an internet connected device that is stored in my hip-pocket. This is not, however, the reality I was born into. When I was a child, the internet, and digital communications technologies in general, were yet to become the pervasive force that we see today. I can still recall when in 1999 when I was age ten, my father brought home his first mobile phone; a clumsy brick-shaped Nokia with a monochrome screen and antenna. At the time Dad’s Nokia was a state of the art piece of technology; a mobile device that could cheaply and efficiently make and receive calls and messages from people all over the world. Fast-forward to 2016 and that Nokia has long since been retired, replaced by a mobile computer with internet connectivity, apps, and comparatively massive processing power. The rate in which Dad’s previously state-of-the-art phone has become obsolete is astounding, yet all too common in the twenty-first century. Since playing with the Nokia in 1999 I have seen countless phones, computers, tablets, and consumer electronics become antiquated soon after they are born. For example, when I first signed up for a mobile plan I was given a brand new device and a two-year contract, two years later that previously modern phone had become obsolete and was tossed aside as my mobile provider handed me a newer, faster, and more powerful device. This seemingly accelerated rate of obsolescence among technological devices has raised curiosities within me. I want to understand how these devices can reach their use-by date so quickly, and what happens to them after they die.

 

no5110_00
The Nokia 5110 was state of the art in 1999. Nowhere to be seen in 2016. Image courtesy: GSMARENA.com

Over the following weeks, I will attempt to answer these questions by conducting a study that investigates what happens consumer electronics once they reach the end of their lifespan. I will be collating information for this project from a mix of peer-reviewed academic sources and reputable contemporary news sources. I will use the information collected to produce a video that can simultaneously depict my research journey and present my findings. All research on this project will be conducted using the autoethnographic methodology that I have detailed in previous blog posts. Autoethnography is described by German ethnographer Christiane Kraft Alsop as a qualitative research method that uses the tenets of autobiography and ethnography to produce research in which the researcher can describe and analyze personal experience in order to form an understanding of a culture different to their own. Essentially, it is a method that encourages the researcher to position themselves inside the research, with a goal of providing an understanding of a culture from their perspective. From sitting in lectures at university I am led to believe that much of the world’s e-waste ends up in what one lecturer described as  Chinese”techno shanty towns”. This leads me to assume that my obsolete electronics are being shipped to China. Using autoethnography will enable me to unpack this assumption, determine the credibility, and understand whether or not I am contributing to this process. The other key benefit of using autoethnography in this instance is that it enables me to highlight the realities of e-waste and technological obsolescence from an Australian perspective. This culture is completely foreign to me, so producing an autoethnographic account, I hope, will detail an “outsiders” understanding of the culture surrounding e-waste deposits in China.

Autoethnographic research has previously been published as text in academic articles, or blog posts, however, I believe the methodology lends itself well to the video format. The method is frequently and intrinsically practiced by YouTubers and internet users, on a daily basis, sometimes unwittingly, and to great effect. I am however going to attempt to produce my autoethnographic account in a slightly different format to those which I have seen on YouTube. The video will include components where I discuss my initial thoughts and assumptions on the topic before giving detailed explanations of my findings after researching the culture of obsolescence and e-waste. I have designed a video format that I am confident will accurately depict the autoethnographic methodology and present relevant findings in a digestible way.

background digital artifact.png
This image will be displayed in the final video. The intention is to signify the author sitting in an Australian digital media space. This frame will play as I discuss my initial thoughts and assumptions on e-waste in China & obsolescence.

The video will be broken down into two parts. The first part will investigate the emergence electronic waste (e-waste) deposits, and whether they have emerged as a result of our rapidly expanding technology dependence. I aim to provide an overview of e-waste detail my understanding of the realities surrounding e-waste processing, particularly in areas of China. I assume that my role in the production of e-waste in China is negligible, yet I have no idea if this is correct.

In part two I will investigate whether planned obsolescence plays a part in contributing to the emergence of e-waste deposits in China. I harbor curiosities surrounding planned obsolescence as a result of seeing my electronic devices become obsolete in ways that I imagine are preventable, such as those mentioned above. From what I already understand the purpose of planned obsolescence is to force consumers to purchase newer products by shortening the natural end of life of the current product they own. This can be fostered by companies either through physical obsolescence mechanisms or technical obsolescence mechanisms. Technical obsolescence specifically refers to when producers introduce a new product to replace the existing one. It is more common in electronic products. The practice is voluntary as the device is still working and does not need to be discarded, but the current state of the product does not provide the satisfaction consumers want from their product due to the fact that newer versions with more functions are available. It sounds like planned obsolescence and e-waste go hand-in- hand. Is my reliance on electronic devices with limited life-span is contributing to the frequency of e-waste in areas of China? Do tech companies produce goods that quickly become antiquated? Are these companies responsible for the e-waste that is accumulating on earth? Should they be? Are the forces of physical and technical obsolescence mechanisms contributing to an e-waste problem? Has this always been the case? Will I find Dad’s old Nokia laying in an e-waste deposit in China?

My research journey will be compiled into a video and published on YouTube. At this stage, I assume my research journey will raise and answer more questions that I am not aware of yet, and should the need arise I will allow for additional questions and findings to be included in the final video. The final product will be published on October 28 and in the meantime, I will attempt to keep blogging as I uncover new information.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Project Proposal: Where Does Technology go to die?

  1. Hi Eddie,

    This is an exciting research project! I love the idea of investigating what has happened to your Dad’s old Nokia phone. In fact, just the other day I was reading an article in the SMH about a new documentary called ‘Death by Design’. It examines the human and environmental costs of the manufacturing and disposal of digital devices. It seems very relevant to your research. You can check the article out here: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/why-you-shouldnt-buy-a-new-iphone-when-the-new-model-is-unveiled-20160902-gr7t3v.html.

    It’s fantastic that you have so clearly identified how you plan to present your findings. I think perhaps you could expand further on how autoethnography will inform your research process – in particular, describing how you will connect your personal experience (the rapid obsolescence of your Dad’s old Nokia phone) to larger social and cultural contexts.

    For example, you might like to explore the reasons why your Dad replaced his Nokia phone. How long was it used for? Did he replace it before it became technically faulty? If so, why? How conscious was your Dad of the consequences of disposing it? Did your Dad have any feelings about discarding it?

    Based on these responses, you can then draw on academic literature regarding modern consumerism to understand your Dad’s (and Western consumers’ more broadly) inclinations towards the early disposal and replacement of phones and how this contributes to the growing e-waste problem in China. While the idea of planned obsolescence indicates that Western consumers are being driven by market forces to adopt throwaway practices, I also wonder whether psychological factors play a role as consumers often seek self-actualisation through the purchase of up-to-date devices.

    On a different note, have you heard of the Fairphone? It has been heralded as the world’s first ethical smartphone. The Fairphone is designed for product longevity and repairability to reduce the environmental and social impact of e-waste. You can find more information here: https://www.fairphone.com/.

    As a conclusion to your video, you could consider possible solutions to the problem of e-waste. For example, do you think the Fairphone will revolutionise the supply chain of smartphones? The Fairphone isn’t as sleek as the Apple iPhone, nor does it have as many features as the Samsung Galaxy. This raises the question as to whether it will ever appeal to the broader mass market. It is also questionable whether increasing product durability on its own is likely to overcome the very significant cultural and psychological factors which underpin the rapid replacement of products in our modern ‘throwaway society’.

    I look forward to reading your next blog post as you delve deeper into this topic.

    Like

    1. Hi Giverny,

      Wow! Thank you for providing me with such thorough and thought provoking feedback. Your suggestions have been noted. The Fairphone, in particular, is interesting. I am hesitent about looking to find solutions to problems associated with e-waste before I have even determined whether solutions are required. My initial thoughts are that e-waste is simply product of capitalist reality that we live in. I agree that finding sustainable communication systems should be a prioritised, yet I am still unsure of how we have reached this point where devices are disposable. This is something I am partiicularly interested in learning more about.

      Cheers,

      Eddie

      Like

Comments are closed.