Archivo de la categoría: Bibliografia

Discard Studies Compendium

Discard Studies Compendium

The Discard Studies Compendium is a list of critical key terms. In the past few years there has been both a resurgence of approaches to studying waste and wasting as well as an interest in the potential of waste to build interdisciplinary bridges of relevance to pressing questions of our time.

This list is critical in the sense that it comes out of methods in the humanities and social sciences that contextualize the problems and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Our task is to trouble the assumptions, premises and popular mythologies of waste. Waste and pollution are the material externalities of complex cultural, economic, and political systems, and solutions need to address these wider systems rather than fall to technological or moral fixes that deal with symptoms rather than origins of problems.

This online version of the Compendium is the initial step of a larger project that aims to create a print version with a comprehensive list of terms. The greyed out terms in the chart are a small sample of an expanded future list. If you would like to contribute terms to the online or print version of the Compendium, please email Max Liboiron at

The Discard Studies Compendium is a project by Max Liboiron, Michele Acuto, and Robin Nagle.

Core Concepts Methodologies Critical Histories
Abjection Humans-as-waste Solid waste management Materiality Actor-Network Theory Disposables
Camp Legal issues in waste Waste flows Nuisance Follow-the-thing Incinerators
Cottage-Industrial pollution Neoliberalism Waste-to-energy Ruins Life-cycle Analysis Landfills
E-waste Nuclear wastelands Body burden Sacrifice zones Media Archaeology Pollution
Environmentality Nutrient rifts Dirt Sinks Political Economy Recycling
Garbage Patch Sacred waste Freeganism Throwaway society Science and Technology Studies Scrapyards
Hoarding Segregation Industrial ecosystem Waste regime Visual Art Wastelands

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Engineering obsolescence

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social

Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”


Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?


As Charlotte Linde has pointed out in her work considering the question of whether we still remember how to go to the moon, obsolescence of storage formats and engineering architectures means that we may find most technical specifications and infrastructures useless in the future. Yet the struggles and pains that the engineers I studied went through in figuring out how to sustain cutting-edge science with the limited computational resources of an outdated vision (from a time when 2 gigabits was considered forward-thinking) might yet have some value. Their questions about the translatability of engineering practices across generational gaps and changing engineering paradigms became my own, as I too had found myself in the position of having to justify the relevance of understanding their social-computational work practices, and ask what role the ethnographer plays in translating across engineering cultures past and present.

This caused me to reflect on the ways that ethnographers of technology are often called upon to understand what is technologically au courant. As recent critiques have pointed out, studies of technology have tended to focus on novel systems and their introduction and adoption and adaptation to various contexts, presenting a bias towards the early phases of technological life cycles. This is a time, perhaps, when technologies are still open-ended and malleable, when ethnographic work might provide value through design implications or critique, or when cultural values are embedded into systems with consequences for how these technologies in turn shape current practices. This is not to say that such work is not critical of the privilege placed on novelty and innovation, but there is still a tendency not to make visible the stories of when and how technologies become old or outdated.

This same tendency plays out in the world of planetary science. By the time the spacecraft was on its way to its destination, the history of the mission as an engineering accomplishment was in many ways already written. The long term maintenance and operations of a spacecraft is engineering work that is marginalized and largely invisible within the public outreach about science, or in celebrations of the historical significance of the work being done at NASA. It is devalued by a “done at launch” perspective that treats infrastructures as static resources – management thinks that “it does the job, and the job can’t change,” one engineer told me, so why should the software? At the same time, engineers are under increasing pressure to bring their infrastructure up-to-date in ways that stretch an already quite lean and fragile set of resources that maintain communication with the distant spacecraft.

In studying such legacy computational systems and obsolescent forms of engineering work, I found myself going against the implicit norm and pressure to study technologies that are current, not least of which seemed to stem from a concern that my work might be deemed obsolescent and irrelevant. Yet there was something intriguing, if a bit foreboding, about the role of ethnographer as a preservationist of dying (engineering) cultures and (programming) languages that hearkened back to the problematic colonial origins of anthropology’s study of the dying cultures and languages that such colonialist enterprises were participating in killing off.

As a result, I gave a lot of thought about what it even means to be technologically current or to be technological contemporaries. Early ethnographic work has been critiqued for constructing narratives of progress and a great chain of being in which so-called savage practices were considered backwards and taken as a window into the past. What does it mean, then, to claim that current engineering practices are backwards and stuck in the past? Is nothing to be learned from a bespoke system that has evolved over many years, even if in many ways it has evolved itself into oblivion? What is at stake in claiming a technology as irrelevant because it is obsolete, or a “one-off” or “disposable” piece of technology? Are we constructing a great chain of engineering cultures and how then is the ethnographer implicated within that?

What can be learned from legacy systems? Image courtesy the Computer History Museum.

One implication of this evolutionary framework might be a claim that some forms of engineering work have remained static while others have moved on. In actuality the engineers I studied with have continued to work with and further develop a continually dynamic and changing system. They have been exploring what might reasonably be considered a alternate set of engineering frontiers, doing things with obsolete programming languages that have never been done before, finding out what happens as an infrastructure gets old and becomes new again and again through loss, aging and decay. Another implicit claim might be to acknowledge that their work practices have co-evolved over time but that their “one-off” is a system without a legacy. It is an evolutionary dead end.

If we examine such technological systems within the context of the lab, we can see the co-evolution of practices and technologies is still afoot. There is always work to be done to keep older systems working with newer ones, and the idiosyncrasies of practice can continue to reveal novel challenges. Even “bugs” in software that is over 40 years old can surface for the first time after years of routinized work. However, when we place such systems alongside their technological contemporaries, within the context of the larger ecology of the technology industry, we realize that there is more at stake than perhaps an evolutionary framework can capture or describe.

Understanding obsolescence as a process

While it can sometimes come as a shock, the sheer abundance of legacy systems in the world means that the work of maintaining such systems is worthy of empirical investigation. Recent work on repair and database graveyards has called for precisely such an understanding of this tail end of the technological life cycle as something not well understood. What work is involved in maintaining the ability to translate between new and old systems to keep them (backwards) compatible? How do engineers working on this mission stay current in their careers and skills? How does obsolescence happen in practice?

As one of my colleagues put it,

If we were all at the bleeding edge, we would be bleeding all the time.

It turns out that the majority of systems are legacy in some way, and if we are not studying these, we are missing a big piece of technology and engineering practice. But what this also calls attention to is the fact that while we may be critical of novelty and notions of technological progress, our participation in studies of the contemporary can participate in this very privileging of the new if we do not attend to the forms of loss and decay that are concomitant with processes of innovation – that is, if we ignore the ways that we are in fact bleeding all of the time, and just just mop the blood on the floor under the rug, or fail to ask what kinds of technological possibilities we are cutting away?

Even the more progressive politics of human computer interaction and feminist science and technology studies, which call for open-ended (rather than deterministic) understandings of technology, are still invested in something that might be called “evolvability” – the inherent possibilities in (or design value of) technology so that can evolve along a multi-directional path and into multiplicity. What work might an investment in a notion of technological “evolvability” do towards increasing processes of obsolescence?

Long-lived technological imaginings

There are some obvious ways in which a study of obsolete systems work might reveal insights of value. For one thing, if we are interested in shifting design towards more sustainable and long-lived systems, perhaps we should look at one that has already been sustained over many years. Is longevity something that we can achieve through developing systems that are more and more evolvable, so agile that they can remain forever relevant and current? Or, as some of my interlocutors in the field suggested, perhaps that is a naïve perspective: “Sure, the new software systems are more adaptable, more flexible,” he said, but the software used on this mission “has been around for 40 years or more. Do you think that python will still be the language that is used 40 years from now?”

While it should be obvious that any software tool or programming language will have a limited lifetime, this becomes a rather profound statement in the face of quite commonplace over-evaluations of present technologies and their futures. His statement also points out how even such values as adaptability are merely trends in software methodologies that are subject to the whims of obsolescence – or they may even participate in accelerating obsolescence.

One of the more serious consequences of this naiveté is that it obscures what is at stake here: not the death of a particular obsolete programming language, but the kinds of technological commitments that are necessary in order to imagine long-lived sociotechnical outcomes. Science missions to outer planets of our solar system become unimaginable within a framework in which technologies must be impervious to obsolescence. It takes seven years to get to Saturn, for example, and seven years is now longer than the life cycle of many technologies we design. In this paradigm, we all, engineers and users alike, have gained the skills of adaptation and evolvability, of short-lived commitments to technology, at the expense of more long-lived ones. As anthropologist of memory Paul Connerton has pointed out, planned obsolescence is itself a form of forgetting, one that is a necessary form of participation in the market.

The consequences of studying the cutting-edge

It may seem an over-reaching analogy, but if we think about the seven years it takes to get to Saturn and what it means to understand phenomena on the temporal scale of the Saturn year (29.7 earth years), we also have to imagine how our investments into technological agility might actually preclude our understanding of processes in other domains on similarly large temporal or geopolitical scales. In other words, the foreshortened lifetimes of our technologies may actually be participating in the foreshortening of other kinds of lifetimes.

As others have pointed out, we have shifted from a time when storage was expensive and processing cheaper (the world where my fieldsite still resides) to one where storage is cheap and processing is expensive. But what makes processing expensive is in part that we are so wasteful with the storage we do have, because we believe that the unlimited powers of future processing can be applied to our current storing practices. From the perspective of a long-lived system, this is naïve because of the obsolescence of storage media and the obsolescence of any particular software programming language or development paradigm. Who knows if in the future agile processes may seem outdated and not suitable to the kinds of work that needs to be done? What if slow computing, light on storage, and carefully and ethically sourced modes of processing, are actually the way of the future? What if we actually should be looking back to find a way forward?


Returning to the question of the role of ethnography in understanding contemporary engineering cultures, what would it mean to consider how obsolete engineering cultures that sit side by side with current ones are not representative of the “past,” nor of some “phase” in a essentialized technological evolutionary life cycle. Instead, they are different sociotechnical forms with different temporal patterns, and studying them might actually give us clues about the a much richer set of possible technological futures we might yet imagine.

When I first arrived to my field site, I did think of it as a kind of window into the history of computing. In many ways it was the pedagogical experience in computer science I had always dreamed of but never received – an immersive introduction to computation in practice where the histories of the field are not erased away. Oral histories of where and why a particular tool was developed were still intact. I could learn not only about new technologies but also FOTRAN and hex code. As some of the engineers pointed out, this diversity of old and new is what makes long-lived technologies a rich environment in which to work, instead of the “cookie-cutter” approach to software development found elsewhere.

However, after spending 9 months with these engineers, I realized that being an ethnographer is not only about encountering different sites of technology production, but understanding the temporal dimensions of these technologies. I was situated not within a “past” of engineer culture, but within a context which could reveal something about the lifetimes of technologies and what it means to live along side of them. I came to see myself not as a preservationist, but as someone who is a member of an engineering culture that is currently entranced with short-lived systems rather than long-lived ones. That the processes of legacy-making and obsolescence are also open-ended ones – and that I might be able to participate in building legacies that are yet to come.


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WEEFORUM: Key figures platform

The WEEE Forum is the world’s largest multi-national centre of competence as regards practical and operational know-how concerning the management of electrical and electronic waste. The Key Figures platform allows member organisations to benchmark their performance and to provide solid, comparable data to stakeholders. Every year, around Easter, members are asked to provide their statistics to a web-based software platform on the quantities of electrical and electronic equipment that their client producers have put on the market, the quantities of WEEE that they have collected, and the costs related to WEEE management, broken down by WEEE categories.

All data are stored in a black box; members are not in a position to see other systems’ cost structures. The overviews do not disclose the identity of the provider of data, averages are calculated and minimum/maximum ranges are provided. Each member can make its own overviews of the type of results it is interested in.

The platform will, from 2014 onwards, also contain market and business intelligence, i.e. qualitative information on the WEEE market, regulations, and information of a general nature that will allow the users to benchmark their activities.

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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. / Josh Lepawsky / SoundCloud



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).

Annemarie Mol: Alexander von Humboldt Lecture: What methods do. / Huib Ernste / YouTube

Where did all the provocation go. Reflections on the fate of laboratory life (1979) / EUSPchannel / YouTube

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


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Myopic spatial politics in dominant narratives of e-waste

  • Posted on 03/06/2014

A new open access article by Josh Lepawsky in The Geographical Journal, “The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem,” argues against the popular notion that e-waste travels predominantly from ‘developed’ countries to ‘undeveloped’ countries. By looking at 9400 reported trade transactions from 1996 to 2012 between 206 territories, he finds that:

[Developed] territories are predominantly trading intra-regionally, with 73–82% of total trade moving between [developed] territories. In contrast, [developing] territories are mostly trading inter-regionally: by 2012 less than one-quarter of [developing] trade moved to other [developing] territories with the rest moving to [developed] territories.

Inter-regional trade, 1996–2012. Annex countries are developed countries, and non-Annex are developing countries. From Lepawsky, Josh. (2014).

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