The Digital Technology & Culture program added a new 200-level course this year. It’s called Digital Inclusion and will serve as a counterpart to the program’s 400-level course Digital Diversity, which is organized around various digital divides. Digital Diversity begins with the standard socio-economic concept of a digital divide that separates the “haves” from the “have nots” of digital society, then expands it to make sense of digital divides organized around sexual, racial, and political differences. The course shows how contemporary digital culture falls far short of the ideal of a global village, given that virtual spaces are as segregated and hierarchical as the cities where we live. Digital Inclusion, by contrast, starts at the foundation by asking students to consider what it means to be part of the global village promised by digital technologies. How does one participate? Does participation come with responsibilities? To what extent do particular platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress) determine the roles available to us?
The catalog description doesn’t do justice to the complex questions that the course will address, but it does provide a sense of what’s at stake in understanding digital inclusion:
206 [DIVR] Digital Inclusion Examination of global reach of digital environments, structures, and tools with focus on inclusion in terms of access, availability, affordability, adoption, and application across cultures.
In practice the course will invite students to study everything from web design to voting machines, legal structures to diverse emoticons, broadband access to website domain name registration—each viewed through a critical lens that makes visible how inclusion and equity are imagined, achieved, or undermined. One key course goal aims to teach students how access, so often understood as a unitary condition, depends on a matrix of social and technical circumstances that determine whether a given technology is available, affordable, or even relevant.
To my mind, no contemporary issue frames the problem of digital inclusion better than e-waste. The EPA defines e-waste as “used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler.” According to Jacopo Ottaviani‘s award-winning web documentary “E-Waste Republic,” the world produces over 40 million metric tons e-waste annually, “a total weight equal to seven times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.” The map below, included in the web documentary, shows that no single nation produces more e-waste than the United States. Yet a good portion of that mass—no one knows exactly how much—ends up overseas in places that generate comparatively little e-waste and that have far fewer restrictions on how it’s handled. The results have been poignantly documented by photographers such as Kai Löffelbein and numerous news articles. In short, people in the global south end up handling the toxic scraps of Western consumerism.
And in response to global crises come global solutions. The EPA has partnered with the United Nations University’s Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative to find fixes to this urgent threat to environmental health. In answer to abysmal regulatory mechanisms, our liberal agencies for environmental protection recommend more awareness, better laws, disruptive innovation. StEP offers vague ideas rendered in neoliberal jargon about “engaging with various stakeholders and incorporating relevant scientific wisdom” to solve the e-waste problem. Scientific wisdom tells us that exposure arsenic and mercury causes health problems. But the problems driving e-waste have more to do with political wisdom than scientific wisdom. In the United States, at least, the federal government doesn’t dare stymie economic growth or even appear to hamstring technological innovation.
Innovation weighs heavily in discussions of e-waste. Sometimes innovation appears as the villain of e-waste narratives, driving planned obsolescence in the name of financial growth. Other times, innovation appears as the savior of a deregulated world in crisis, offering unbridled consumerism an ethical outlet for the collective lust that craves new technological solutions. In the video below, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition suggests both at once. The exponential growth in technical facility (explained by Moore’s Law) drives rapid obsolescence, the video tells us, but innovation turned toward the development of long-lasting electronics could turn back the red tide of e-waste.
The handy notion that the right kind of innovation will save us speaks to a certain theoretical truth. We need new methods for producing and recycling electronic equipment, no doubt. The problem, as one contributor to this blog points out, is that innovative solutions quite often rely on commercial interests, as in Washington State’s reliance on big-box stores to handle cellphone recycling. “Washington’s main E-Waste plan for cell phones is literally Best Buy or, god forbid, Radioshack,” Tyler Perry explains. “That seems a little dumb to me, especially considering that I don’t know of a Best Buy around here.” Best Buy may have the best of intentions, but as a business they can’t open stores where no commercial motive exists. What happens when the recycling program fails to earn a profit or contribute to corporate branding?
Hopeful gestures toward innovation as the commercially viable, ethically minded solution to our e-waste problems almost always look toward Western consumerism as the driving force behind change. What makes e-waste an interesting issue for understanding digital inclusivity, however, is that it demands ingenuity from those folks who face the brunt of its massive material reality. Ottaviani makes no bones in “E-Waste Republic” about the fact that the exportation of discarded electronics to developing nations poses extreme hazards for the people who dispose of the waste materials. But he also shows how, faced with the refuse of information society, those people find innovative ways to make use of seemingly dead tech. Ghana’s Agbogbloshie may appear like some post-apocalyptic hellscape from the perspective of Vice reporters, but Ottaviani points toward local markets and emergent practices for handling the tons of garbage dumped on Ghana’s shores. He documents a culture in need of information technologies, served by access to recycled electronics that would not be affordable otherwise. That need drives local innovations as surely as corporate profits do. Just check out the water-tank tower for proof.
This is no triumph, the exemplary design of a waterproof computer notwithstanding. The fact of exploitation remains. But the question of inclusive, innovative digital culture changes. Viewed from Ottaviani’s perspective, we can see e-waste simultaneously as a manifestation of neocolonialism and an example of de facto opportunity. The question of what it means to be included in a digital society comes into clearer focus. We see that it does not mean equality, freedom, or access to the latest information technologies. For the folks facing the burnt ends of mass consumerism it means making something from the wasteland of discarded electronics. For those of us who make a habit of discarding our electronics in a hedonistic pursuit of the latest gadgets it means recognizing innovation in the last place we expected to find it—our own trash heap.
If there is a solution to salvage from the mountains of e-waste that the United States creates every year, it might be a new appreciation for the technological creativity evident at Agbogbloshie. Surely that’s the sort of enterprising innovation that lawmakers and businessmen can appreciate. Rather than passing laws to restrict the exchange of e-waste, we might instead push for laws that ensure fairer trade and better assurances for safe working conditions.