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Digital Rubbish

A Natural History of Electronics

Jennifer Gabrys

Publication Year: 2011

This is a study of the material life of information and its devices; of electronic waste in its physical and electronic incarnations; a cultural and material mapping of the spaces where electronics in the form of both hardware and information accumulate, break down, or are stowed away. Electronic waste occurs not just in the form of discarded computers but also as a scatter of information devices, software, and systems that are rendered obsolete and fail. Where other studies have addressed "digital" technology through a focus on its immateriality or virtual qualities, Gabrys traces the material, spatial, cultural, and political infrastructures that enable the emergence and dissolution of these technologies. In the course of her book, she explores five interrelated "spaces" where electronics fall apart: from Silicon Valley to Nasdaq, from containers bound for China to museums and archives that preserve obsolete electronics as cultural artifacts, to the landfill as material repository. All together, these sites stack up into a sedimentary record that forms the "natural history" of this study. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics describes the materiality of electronics from a unique perspective, examining the multiple forms of waste that electronics create as evidence of the resources, labor, and imaginaries that are bundled into these machines. By drawing on the material analysis developed by Walter Benjamin, this natural history method allows for an inquiry into electronics that focuses neither on technological progression nor on great inventors but rather considers the ways in which electronic technologies fail and decay. Ranging across studies of media and technology, as well as environments, geography, and design, Jennifer Gabrys pulls together the far-reaching material and cultural processes that enable the making and breaking of these technologies. Jennifer Gabrys is Senior Lecturer in Design and Convener of the Masters in Design and Environment in the Department of Design, Goldsmiths, University of London. Jacket image: Computer dump ©iStockphoto/Lya_Cattel. digitalculturebooks is an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library dedicated to publishing innovative and accessible work exploring new media and their impact on society, culture, and scholarly communication. Visit the website at www.digitalculture.org.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

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pp. v-x

This project did not begin with Sterling’s modest proposal, but it is in no small way interested in the challenge of charting the dead and dying qualities of media technologies, particularly our contemporary electronic technologies. The “paleontological” record of dead electronics is surprisingly extensive and diverse. ...


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: A Natural History of Electronics

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pp. 1-19

If you dig down beneath the thin surface crust of Silicon Valley, you will find deep strata of earth and water percolating with errant chemicals. Xylene, trichloroethylene, Freon 113, and sulfuric acid saturate these subterranean landscapes undergirding Silicon Valley. ...

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1. Silicon Elephants: The Transformative Materiality of Microchips

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pp. 20-44

In Palo Alto, California, one can tune the TV set not just to the nightly news and game shows but also to local programming designed to instruct viewers on the finer points of computer systems. A computer system, one such program notes, is comprised of two elements: hardware and software. ...

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2. Ephemeral Screens: Exchange at the Interface

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pp. 45-73

Throughout most of its history, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) conducted the majority of its transactions through the medium of paper. Ticker-tape remainders and other paper scrap that recorded the latest stock quotations circulated and accumulated in the flurry of trading. ...

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3. Shipping and Receiving: Circuits of Disposal and the "Social Death" of Electronics

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pp. 74-100

Electronics eventually circulate toward other spaces of exchange that are situated far beyond those apparently dematerialized interfaces discussed in the last chapter. Electronic technologies that once powered markets reach obsolescence and are discarded. The outdated debris of computer monitors, printers, hard drives, power cords, ...

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4. Museum of Failure: The Mutability of Electronic Memory

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pp. 101-126

In the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a veritable warehouse of machinery is on display. Here are a Jacquard loom and Hollerith punched card machine, the Cray 7600 supercomputer and the JOHNNIAC. Many of the machines are notable for the contributions they made to the development of computing; ...

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5. Media in the Dump: Salvage Stories and Spaces of Remainder

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pp. 127-146

Having moved through the material and spatial registers of fossilized chips and screens, plastic packaging and electronic memory, this study arrives at the most obdurate, if disparate, aspect of electronic waste—that formless mass of peripherals and scrap, wires and printed circuit boards, ...

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Conclusion: Digital Rubbish Theory

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pp. 147-158

Two waste fantasies occupy the imagination of Kevin Lynch at the beginning of his study Wasting Away. These are opposing fantasies, one involving a “waste cacotopia,” a society that produces waste rampantly and profligately, destroying everything it touches. ...


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pp. 159-200


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pp. 201-220


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pp. 221-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029402
E-ISBN-10: 0472029401
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117611
Print-ISBN-10: 0472117610

Illustrations: 23 color and 2 B&W halftones
Publication Year: 2011