research design laboratory

Museum of Failure

I'm reading Jennifer Gabrys's Digital Rubbish: a Natural History of Electronics -- one of the best reads ever! She argues for a natural history approach -- channelling a variety of theorists like Sterling, Foucault, Benjamin, Kittler, McLuhan, Acland, Butler and Zielinski -- to situate e-waste within material and cultural discussions of e-tech.

Gabrys expands the definition of waste: it's is not just matter, it includes technological imaginings, progress narratives and material temporalities. She demonstrates this through a natural history approach that relies on gathering stories, as method. She focuses on 'remainders' and argues that virtuality can enable even more extensive consumption and wasting. She also discusses obsolescence and the ways in which decay and discarded objects force us to reevaluate the material present. Together these counter the idea of progress and the logic of onward and upward.

Materiality effects are indicative of the economies and ecologies of transience that course through technologies, and the cultural and political contexts through which they circulate. Materiality effects also highlight a complex set of material processes and relations, especially the speed and volume of the cycle of production, consumption and disposal of e-tech.

In Chapter 4, Museums of Failure, Gabrys discusses the ways in which some cultural objects are preserved in archives and museums while others are cast out and disposed. But preservation becomes a way to manage decay, to delay the inevitable process of disposal. Each instance raises questions of duration, value, and ultimately highlight the built in tendency toward termination of technology. Technologies fail to remain new and as such become records of material and technological imaginings. Digital archives and preservation repositories alike become museums of failure, evidence of what is no longer the dream of something better, faster, more...

Jennifer Gabrys's Digital Rubbish: a Natural History of Electronics is available for free online.