Repairing (electronic) vulnerabilities: towards an Ethics of e-waste.

This is my presentation at the research seminar “When all that is high tech turns into waste”.

You can read it here: presentation blanca_ewaste seminar2

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Repairing (electronic) vulnerabilities: towards an Ethics of e-waste.

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I’d like to start my presentation reading you a news.

Recent chemical analyses on rice imported from China and Taiwan to the USA have found lead levels 12 times higher that the ‘tolerable’ maximum dictated by the US Food and Drug Administration. Investigations revealed that farmers irrigate their rice crops with sewage water outflow from industry, and the contamination derived from the irregular treatment of e-waste aggravates the problem.

It means that the well-known illegal exportation of e-waste and its polluting and highly contaminating effects on land, health and bodies in countries far from Europe is not a one-way trip.

* But what all these trajectories also reveal is that we live in a deep, problematic, but ignored interdependence with others. We become the contaminated rice that we eat, and this rice embodies the obsolete computer that we threw away.

In this sense, I suggest that e-waste works as a critical standpoint and explanatory operator through which to make visible, analyse and comprehend our modes of existence and the everyday bonds that weave our life in common.

In the face of the ‘naturalized’ growth and ‘dematerialized’ technologies that commercials use to suggest, I want to present some informal repairing practices around e-waste that confront us with failures, obsolescence, breakages and filth. Somehow, all the following practices re-materialize electronics and problematize certain notions of autonomy, progress or socio-technical innovation by bringing dirt to the surface and revealing unsustainable patterns of consumption, material and environmental damages of global capitalism, visible/invisible labour and workers’ bodies, uneven distribution of resources and responsibilities, or a limited knowledge of our own technological environments.

3.- Repair as care?

* But then, how to host all this vulnerability and fragility as our inevitable ontology but also as a condition of possibility and an arena to be politicized? (López Gil, 2013). How to raise supporting linkages for a sustainable life that considers these uneven material conditions and the ambivalence of the interdependence with alterity, between diverse natural-cultural elements?

All these questions point to a wider concern about ethics of care (for matter): how to raise ethical engagements by and within ‘others’, vis-a-vis our finite and limited material world? If we define care as “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (Tronto, 1993:103), then what can we learn from the following repairing practices in order to live in this world (as well as possible)?

* Combining works on repair and maintenance, specially the ‘broken world thinking’ proposed by Jackson (2013), with feminist readings of economy/ecology and care, we will try to answer these questions by exploring some informal ‘repairing’ activities of e-waste as care (for matter) practices. In this sense, we propose to essay and imagine an empirical ethics of/from e-waste. **Multi-focus ethnographic fieldwork with a group of informal immigrant waste pickers; Obsoletos, a hacking and makers’ project and Cyclicka-Labdoo, a learning repair workshop, supply the situated experiences for our analysis.

* FINDING / RECOVERY or “This is not waste”

* All the observed practices start with an initial moment of collecting others’ waste (Thompson, 1979). “I’ve never admitted the word ‘rubbish’”, a waste-picker from Barcelona says, “all has been found in the street and has some value”. In many cases, working with waste does not respond to an ecological interest or concern but to a practical sense of economy and resources. “How can they throw this computer out? … you are being a bit silly because you could make the most of it, you know?” said one of the ‘makers’. For waste-pickers in particular, this act requires defying legalities, as “the selection and extraction of waste placed in the public thoroughfare” is considered as a minor infraction that is fined up to 450,76€.

Collecting waste involves chance, the luck of a find, but it also requires skilled recognition, addressing one’s attention to the margins. This combination involves embodied knowledge developed through repeated immersions in the environment, like the repeated wandering of the waste-pickers. As a result, they develop a ‘skilled vision’, a trained looking background that makes signs meaningful, in their case, in the shape of metal materials and components.

But the relevance of recovering and collecting does not lie only in recognition but also in virtual transformation, because what seemed definitively ended might be different: ‘the commitment to care can be a speculative effort to think how things could be different’, as Puig de la Bellacasa states. Then, this is just the beginning of a process of contesting predefined ontologies and objects: a waste-computer stops being a single object determined by its final disposal.

* Collection and recovery seems to ask us about what is neglected or overlooked, about what we forget and leave aside, or about what fails. In this sense, in caring terms, an attentive and responsive turn towards what is behind us could be named ‘responsibility’ or ‘responsiveness’, a kind of sensitive reaction towards those devalued or discarded stuff, be it waste or ‘human waste’. As feminist theorists have argued, these attentive and caring but devalued ordinary practices, like removal and collection of waste, have been usually accomplished by also the most devalued, invisible, marginalised, feminised and racial ‘others’.

* From repair to hack

* Both Cyclicla and Obsoletos taught courses and ran workshops on repairing and mounting old computers. Also, those computers found by informal waste-pickers that apparently work are sent to second-hand markets in their countries of origin in Africa to be repaired and sold again. One of the waste-pickers explained that: ‘Everything is mended in Africa, but not in Europe. Here you just change the pieces because there is more money and spares’. Here, just “break, throw, buy another”.

Despite these differences, any of these repairs and refurbishments start with an ongoing and situated inquiry, a trial and error method. Through ‘exploratory action’ and guided by ‘symptoms’ and signals, such as different sounds, they isolate the failure and replace the damaged piece with a reused one extracted from another obsolete computer. As some participants explained, repairing and refurbishing obsolete computers is about making the most of our material resources and potential, including knowledge, skills and competences: ‘that’s why you bought it’, they said. Yet, there were no duties to do it, nor ecological or moral explanations: just use, exploitation and affective reasons because, according to some participants, ‘the more you get attached to something, the more you extend its life cycle’.

* These repair practices reveal that a recovered computer cannot be considered as a closed piece or a ready-to-consume object with a unique function anymore. Repair is achieved by daring to open up the objects and defying their unity/singularity through skilled embodied labour. In this sense, they do not intervene or care for material objects but for ‘systems’, as one said: an assemblage composed of different interdependent and co-functioning heterogeneous elements.

But these repairers also care for (and are cared for by) wider and more complex systems: those repair ecologies that daily and mutually link repairers and devices through affective and lasting attachments, as they mentioned before. Then, repair as care is not a dyadic nor individualistic activity but a more complex and networked one.

Following this progression, in some cases, the repair of obsolete computers pass the blurring limits of a mere refurbishment of their original functions and enters into hacking and making actions. This way, ‘what starts out as repair may soon become improvement, innovation, even growth’ as Henke says. Obsoletos define hacking as ‘the experimental modification of systems for creative reasons or for obtaining advantages’. It is about knowing enough the rules to break them creatively. This way, when they have an idea or project to make, they try it, expand it, or ‘combine things with things until something functional comes up’.

* Unlike with the previous repairing moment, caring as hacking doesn’t have to do with the stabilisation of an order, the restoration of an object, the preservation of a function or the conservation of something about to disappear. There is nothing to preserve or an order to observe. Instead, hacking points to repair and care as the experimental transformation of materials, shapes or functions until solving a problem or creating a new ‘system’. In this sense, there is not a singular or correct way of caring but many.

Repair and hack ‘occur’ ‘through the continual sensory attunement of the practitioner’s movements to the inherent rhythmicity of those components of the environment with which he or she is engaged’. Then, it is impossible to normalise care since a central aspect of maintenance and repair draws on situated watchfulness and sensitive and ongoing attention. Improvisation and continual adaptation is required and all the repairs, but especially hacks (because of its experimental nature) overwhelm any kind of standardised procedures. The final hack is then the result of a mutual, dialogical and ongoing sensual and situated enquiry, a process of ‘needs interpretation’ and mutual adaptation between all the heterogenous components in play, until a fulfilling but precarious ‘compromise’ is found.

* DESTROYING / TAKING APART or scrapping politics

* Judging by its destructive character, the last practice might seem counter-intuitive when talking about repair. We refer to taking apart old computers or other electronic devices in order to turn them into scrap, in the shape of ferrous materials, copper, brass or aluminium, as the group of informal waste-pickers in Barcelona do. They sell what they find to bigger scrap-traders, who sell them in turn to foundries. As most do not have the knowledge or resources to repair and need to extract value from their finds quickly, they smash or cannibalise those computers that appear not to work and cannot be sold entire. For every find, they make a very quick and accurate calculation of how to extract the most (monetary) value. To dismantle it they need to know how and where to open, to locate the components and to know the materials they are made of. It is important to act quickly and cleanly as a bad opening or a blow in the wrong place could make the extraction of materials much more difficult. As one waste-picker noted, ‘you never know what you might find inside’. In the case of computers, the work is straightforward due to their similarity. The most precious piece is the transformer, because it contains most copper; then the hard disk, either for its aluminium or for resale; then small pieces of copper that are welded to the motherboard.

* What this practice firstly shows about repair as care is that caring has limits, that it is not intrinsically good or rather that its adequacy and form is something contextual: to be defined in each specific situation. In this case, the need for money to earn a living for illegal informal waste-pickers makes them prioritise destruction over repair. To moralise care and treat it as if it was good in itself or to essentialise it, as if it had a predefined content and form, would be dangerous. Why should we prefer the repair of a computer over its destruction? Whilst these practices could be interpreted as neglectful and utilitarian towards others (goods), there might also be a particular ethics of care to the environment and to sustaining oneself through dismantling and recycling components that will be sold and reintroduced into the manufacturing chain. In this case, repair might also be destruction, or something’s destruction might be another’s repair.

A focus on preservation and material durability that rejected any limit for repair and condemned any kind of destruction would then create new dependencies and dominations. An attempt to compensate an anthropocentrism that has neglected resources and nature for such a long time is then symmetrically failed by an object fetishism that looks for keeping things alive at all costs. However, the idealisation and universalisation of repair as care might hide other inequalities and coercions: such as the subordinated positions and bodies of those who cannot access repair technologies and knowledges and depend on waste to survive.

In every case and situation we need to ask: what does care mean? For whom? What can we care for, and what not? Whose matter and life is being maintained and repaired? Whose is not? As Tronto (1993: XX) notes, “a theory of care (particular) is incomplete unless it is embedded in a theory of justice (universal) as well. But justice without a notion of care is incomplete”. In other words, ethics and politics cannot be divorced. More specifically, electronic waste is not the only material problem or negligence in the electronics industry, but we should include those subjugated and neglected people, matters and bodies whose caring but invisible labour sustains the capitalist system by sweeping away the wasteful but hidden effects of production and accumulation.

* Conclusions: towards an Ethics from/of e-waste

* Considering these limits, we cannot continue to understand durability and stability as good forms of care ‘per se’, neither being desirable conditions for every entity, object or matter. The response to obsolescence and waste – as structural inequalities produced by the economic productive system – is not merely more durability and stability through reparation, but sustainability of the heterogeneous systems and ‘ecologies of practices’ that they are part of. In this sense, an ethics of/from e-waste that pursues sustainability of life needs to be based in an ‘ecological logic of care’. This might in fact be based on (more or better) reparability, but it needs to be deduced within and from situated, critical and multi-layered political analysis that connects the conditions of reparability with fairer and more integrative systems of design, production, distribution, consumption or treatment. Otherwise, as happens with the mercantilisation of care services, repair and maintenance could be easily subsumed by the productive and accumulative logic of capitalism as trendy profitable markets to be exploited, without having changed any of their structural inequalities.

* The particular ethics of care that has been sketched through this analysis is not about specific practices (as moral recipes), nor about determined entities, but about the interdependent ambivalent embodied relationships with some naturecultural ‘others’. This, then, is an empirical ethics grounded in heterogeneity and commonalities among different singularities: the common but different damages that intimately connect computers-water-rice-bodies in a continuous transnational economic and ecological chain. Nevertheless, as feminist care ethics remind us, relationality and interdependence does not mean equality. Care is never done between equals and autonomous agents and it is impossible to void differences, conflicts or dissent. We cannot possibly care for everything. ** However we have proposed that repair or other ‘care for matter’ practices might be taken as practical epistemic and political repertoires pointing at matters that, despite remaining usually hidden, are still crucial and necessary for the fragile continuity of our common socio-material worlds. Thinking with care, as Puig de la Bellacasa proposes, means asking ‘How do we build caring relationships while recognising divergent positions?’.

* The three observed repairing gestures suggest a collective responsibility not reducible to individual ethics or wishful gestures, as they point to a structural injustice that concerns all of us. Following our initial example, we all – people, water, soils and crops – are involved in, networked and affected by the same economic ‘wasting system’. Also, these practices call for careful profiting from collective resources, competences and knowledges in favour of the reparability (as sustainability) of matter. This problematises the productive and accumulation logics inside capitalism and enables a greater and empowering autonomy from markets by partially disconnecting well-being from consumption. Nevertheless, this might only be possible if we proceed through a multi-layered, non-innocent and situated analyses of the plural meanings of care and the differential distribution of damages, vulnerabilities, strength and support. Then, more than to mere durability, reparability refers to the ways we provide mutual and heterogenous support for dealing with and getting over daily difficulties and inevitable wears. Finally, the experimental and creative character of repair (especially hacking) brings to the fore the innovative and transformative component of care, which contests the false dichotomy between productive (progress) and reproductive (maintenance) spheres and labours.

* I contend that the greatest value of this ‘caring’ reading of repairing e-waste is that it allows us to connect very intimately the economic, ecological and ethico-political dimensions of life. From a feminist economy perspective, as Pérez Orozco notes: ‘injustices of redistribution (of material resources) and recognition (of subaltern identities) feedback each other’. This particular ethics of care (for matter) attempts to understand how we can collectively sustain ourselves and satisfy our interdependent needs through the use, treatment, organisation and distribution of vulnerable matter and finite resources, such as technology, in a fairer and less painful way.

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