Reassembling Rubbish

How do we know e-waste? Electronic discards and the double social life of methods.

Here is an abstract for a presentation I gave at a workshop called When All That Is High-Tech Turns Into Waste:
How do we know e-waste? The evidential basis for analyzing e-waste relies on various forms of data and their collection; among these, in no particular order, are trade statistics, photography and video, asset tags, forensic digital data recovery, and expert testimony. STS literature argues that, rather than being neutral tools through which we come to know and represent the world, all methods have a double social life. They are doubly social in that they are situated (i.e., they are articulated by and from particular places and people) and they have affects (i.e., they are epistemologically and ontologically generative). This world making activity of method generates what Law (2010) calls collateral realities; these are realities that are created incidentally and by stealth, yet which partly make the phenomenon methods typically claim to only study or observe. In this presentation I explore the implications of the double social lives of the various ways those who study e-waste come to evidence it and know it. I explore the performative effects of these various ways of evidencing e-waste, query how those effects are fashioned into analytical narratives, and examine what performative force those narratives have beyond themselves, that is, how they are taken up in subsequent attempts to intervene in the management of e-waste.
Below, you can read the presentation, which includes additional material. Here is the audio and Q&A session at the end of my presentation.
How do we know e-waste? Electronic discards and the double social life of methods.

I open this path with some analytical concepts summed up in John Law's phrase the social life of methods. Two concepts embedded in it are the idea of a 'method assemblage' (Law, 2004) and the idea of 'collateral realities' (Law 2009). A method assemblage is the tangled bundle of relations on which any method must rely so as to, as it were, do it its business. Doing that business necessitates making some aspects of the world present and others absent. This simultaneous move of making present and absent is necessary in any research. Imagine trying to make sense of the world with some sort of panoptic camera that could literally take a picture of everything in one frame. How would a viewer of that picture have any idea what the researcher is providing such a photograph as evidentiary material of since nothing is excluded and everything is present? That which is more or less knowingly excluded is what Law calls 'manifest absences'. Such absences may or may not be good, but they are necessary. But there is another kind of absence, one Law calls 'Othernesses' that are produced more inadvertently by method assemblages and which, while that production is unavoidable, also go more or less unknown. For example, the moment a researcher decides she wants to study e-waste and, in so doing, poses questions like How much e-waste is produced? Where? By Whom? and Where does it go? in which e-waste is understood to be electronics that consumers discard, then a host of Othernesses - we might say, non-manifest absences - are already in play even before the researcher makes some informed choices about what methodological recipes to use (e.g., surveys, interviews, documentary film, etc). These Othernesses include many other possible ways of knowing e-waste, for example, as a phenomenon of raw material extraction (e.g., for metals and water), groundwater contamination from manufacturing or health effects on assembly line workers (see Lepawsky, 2012). It is not that these other ways of knowing e-waste are better than those the researcher is proposing. It is that they are other to them and largely disappear in the very process of asking questions about e-waste in certain ways and not others.

A related idea to the Othernesses of method assemblages is 'collateral realities' (Law, 2009). Collateral realities are those that are enacted more or less inadvertently and along the way as other reals are enacted. This might sound rather abstract, perhaps even a bit kooky, but Law's claim about collateral realities is actually quite realistic. We saw a concrete demonstration of it in the brief example above where a hypothetical researcher interested in e-waste poses her research questions about it in such a way that they presuppose a particular version of e-waste as waste: that which appears after consumers are done with their electronics. A whole set of worlds partially or totally disappear: design practices that partly determine the material content of that which will eventually be discarded, waste produced in mining, manufacturing, and on the assembly line, for example. At the same time a whole set of worlds partially or wholly appear: landfills piled with discarded electronics, people as 'consumers' and their behaviour, individual and household waste streams.

In sum, what Law is doing is making the argument that social science methods (like surveys) play a role in  creating the world they purport to only study. It does not follow from this claim that the world is not also 'out there' - there are always the hinterlands of method assemblages - but it is not 'out there' in some straight forward sense in which we can bring it back 'in here' without partly generating it. The importance of Law's (see also Mol and Woolgar) arguments is that they draw our attention the ontological politics in play: thinking about the performativity of methods, Law argues, enables one to ask about how the real might be "better enacted" (Law, 2009: 242).

So let's turn to how the world(s) of e-waste is or are enacted through various method assemblages.

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