Sand in the Gears: Notes

Dearest Rashida pointed out this wonderful Ingrid Burrington piece . Below are some of my notes on it.

This is such a great point: “This may or may not be reassuring information. It can conjure scarcity anxiety: we could run out of these precious resources, and then how would our (fraught as it may be) way of life continue? But if the early 21st century’s love affair with tar sands oil teaches us anything, it’s that “running out” of a resource is the wrong question; the question humanity needs to worry about is what devastating environmental and political lengths it is willing to go to in order to not “run out” of a resource.”

Another great point: “To see the world as its grains of sand, and to remain attentive to the networks and systems of this era often means facing ugly truths. Building equity or justice into networked technologies is a perpetually Sisyphean project, but necessarily so.”

In her piece, she partially focuses on sand and how everything around us – from the roads to our digital devices – are an aggregate of various sands. This perspectives reminds me very much of the first chapter from “High Tech Trash” in which the author describes how we are basically sourcing minerals from the earth, turning them into devices for our products, and disposing them once we are done with them. In the disposing process, they either end up in landfills, are scavenged for parts in god awful conditions, or are returned into this mineral form. Essentially, we are moving the Earth’s minerals around and leaving a destructive trail behind. Often times in this process of making something from minerals, there is incredible amounts of waste involved both directly and indirectly. Not all parts of the product are returned to ‘sand’ or to a mineral form that can be used. The next step for me is to find out how much of electronics that are recycled is even ‘recyclable.’ The hazardous chemicals and toxins involved in the making of the electronics render many of the components hazardous for recycling.

Maintenance and Care: Notes

Notes on Shannon Mattern’s article Maintenance and Care.

  • rather than fixing the systems we have, we gravitate towards shiny new technology (i.e. autonomous vehicles and blockchain-based services)
  • importance in focusing on the act of maintenance, not creation
  • “what we really need to study is how the world gets put back together…the everyday work of maintenance, care taking, and repair.”
  • “Rethinking Repair”, Steven Jackson
  • “broken world thinking” – take into consider erosion, breakdown and decay rather than novelty, growth and progress
  • “To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.”
  •  The Maintainers blog
  • Fixers “know and see different things…” then designers or users.
  • “I’d say that if we want to better understand and apply maintenance as a corrective framework, we need to acknowledge traditions of women’s work, domestic and reproductive labor, and all acts of preservation and conservation, formal and informal.”
  • “avoid romanticizing maintenance and repair”

Rust: Urban Repair

  • you get a lot of press for a new project…you don’t get a lot press for maintaining
  • yet…the world is constantly being fixed and maintained all around us, every day
  • social infrastructures: caregivers, therapists, social workers. people who are “carers” as instruments of “urban kindness”
  • urban life is a giant system of repair and improvisation. developing regions also become offshore “back lots for wealthier nations”… like breaking up rusty ships and processing e-waste
  • “deferred maintenance” of public infrastructures as slow-motion disasters, which sustain the oppression of marginalized and undeserved populations

Dust: Spaces of Labor and Care

  • maintenance involves a wide spectrum of professional expertise: “preservation, material science, development, policy, insurance law, and building codes,” 
  • “maintenance those women had long been doing at home without compensation”
  •  Mierle Laderman Ukeles pioneered the genre of “Maintenance Art”: performing the mundanity of this exhausting work
  • “As they cooked, cleaned, and nannied for affluent families, they were often less available to care for their own.”
  • Example of disregarding those who maintain in the architectural design: house that Koolhaas designed for Lemoine

Cracks: Fixing Objects

  • “Yet the lifespan of an object also depends on context. While in the West a cracked screen can mean death; elsewhere, it opens up possibilities for reuse.”
  • objects, like architectures, open up the need and possibility of how they are taken care of
  • Iowa Sate launched a program in 1940s where students were required to “take apart and reassemble machinery in order to appreciate details of its construction, operation, and repair.” Also launched a program in 1929 for women so they could study household appliance maintenance – study how to upkeep domestic appliances.
  • smarter technology –> harder to break down and fix
  • “what happens to our broken laptops and Alexas?” –> we can still find old radios and film projectors at store but rarely do you see an iPhone that can be reused
  • “Scholars in various fields have turned their attention to “discard studies,” including flows of electronic waste.”
  • “While Western media has commonly portrayed Ghana as a node in the “shadowy industry” of e-waste disposal, Burrell sees the country and its diasporic communities as networks of entrepreneurial refurbishment and secondhand trade, where workers have opportunities to develop technical skills.”
  • If those machines have lived out their second life –> move to city where scrap collectors, processors, traders decompose the parts
  • This “ecosystem of distribution, repair, and disposal” is, Burrell argues, a “fact of life in everyday places marked by scarcity.”
  • Mend rather than discard their own broken things!
  • “teach[es] us something about material ordering processes, about the ordinary life of … objects, and about the role of the people in charge of them.” Damage to a seemingly fixed object like a subway sign reminds us that the world is fragile and that we all bear some responsibility for attending to it. We participate in systems of distributed maintenance. “
  • iFixit: wiki page of fixing it strategies and instructions!
  • “So we need to be aware of how these stories of maintenance traverse geographies and scales, and take care in mining them for ethnographic insight, morality tales, aesthetic inspiration, and design solutions.”

Corruption: Cleaning Code and Data

  • “Many manufacturers aim to keep their wares out of repair and remix economies, and they carefully control the evolutionary lifecycle of their products. “
  • “smart cities” – code now has a huge role in maintaining architectures and networked cities; most coders are actually fixing stuff
  • System administrators + content moderators: “Just like buildings and cities, most software applications and platforms and portals would break down quickly were it not for the maintenance workers who keep them in good working order.” this work is usually low-paying and psychologically disturbing –> they work to maintain a “clean” internet
  • maintaining the “cleanliness” of the internet is not unlike maintaining our ecosystem, cultural sites, buildings
  • “Data maintenance is particularly consequential in medicine, and thus caring for medical sites, objects, communities, and data has been recognized as an important part of caring for patients.”
  • “Across the many scales and dimensions of this problem, we are never far from three enduring truths: (1) Maintainers require care; (2) caregiving requires maintenance; and (3) the distinctions between these practices are shaped by race, gender, class, and other political, economic, and cultural forces. Who gets to organize the maintenance of infrastructure, and who then executes the work? Who gets cared for at home, and who does that tending and mending? Agreements about what things deserve repair — and what “good repair” entails — are always contingent and contextual. If we wish to better support the critical work performed by the world’s maintainers, we must recognize that maintenance encompasses a world of standards, tools, practices, and wisdom. Sometimes it deploys machine learning; other times, a mop.


5 questions to investigate with my thesis

  1. What are the chemicals and materials used in our electronic products and how are they sourced? What is the full process of obtaining all the materials used in our electronic devices?
  2. Where do our electronic products go when we dispose of them and how are they disposed of? 
  3. What are the human health, socio-political, and environmental consequences that arise from the making and discarding of an electronic item?
  4. How are governments, local organizations, communities and individuals dealing with the issue of e-waste currently and how can it be improved upon (if at all)?
  5. Obviously, society won’t be giving up our phones, laptops, and electronics, but what can we do on an individual and local level that can offset this increase in e-waste? 

3 possible venues for the work to be shown. Why?

  • Science or Natural History Museums (i.e. The Natural History Museum of LA, The Natural History Museum of NY, The Henry Ford Museum, Museum of Science and Industry)
    • I can see my project being very explanatory and fitting well with the playful yet informative spirit of science exhibit interactives. I intend to mix visuals, animations, code, fabrication, and physical computing together to create a “playful” approach towards the serious research.
  • LES Ecology Center
    • Jenny Odell displayed her “Bureau of Suspended Objects” during her artist residency at the Recology dump in San Francisco. Inspired by this project and approach, I think an approach could be to first get to know the community of LES Ecology Center. Then try to see their awareness/campaign/design needs. Hopefully this would be an extension of the LES Ecology Center’s mission and I could also ask them for their expert opinion. It’s also an excuse for me to be more involved in their community and ground my work with their cause.
  • Public Spaces/ Libraries/ Pop-ups in Different Locations (i.e. Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College Columbia University, James Gallery space at CUNY’s Center for Humanities Department)
    • It would be great to have my interactive be movable so that I can share the information with more people. I am thinking that entrances of libraries and school galleries with a humanitarian focus would work well for what I have in mind. The James Gallery at CUNY seem to promote dialogue, so it would be great to also create an event that allowed for discussion that focused on the topic of e-waste.
  • ALT: Website (as an alternative to the above)
    • All the content in this “exhibit interactive” could also be put into a website format. This way people who don’t have access to the physical form can still read the content/research.

3 experts or types of people to speak to about my thesis. Why?

  1. Kathryn Garcia, NYC Department of Sanitation Commissioner
    1. It would be amazing to have an interview with Kathryn to find out more about how e-waste is handled in the city. She would help me better understand the infrastructure that is setup in New York City to handle e-waste. 
  2. Natalie Jeremijenko, Associate Professor at NYU in the Visual Art Department + Artist + Engineer
    1. Another great recommendation by Margaret Smith. To put it broadly, her work uses technology as a way to inspire social and environmental change. She also teaches at NYU in the Visual Arts Department, so would hopefully be accessible to speak with. I am inspired by many of her pieces, specifically How Stuff is Made, Suicide Box, and her Fish Interface.  
  3. Christine Datz Romero, Co-founder and Executive Director of Lower East Side Ecology Center
    1. She is the co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Christine has also been at the forefront of the Compost Collection Program and the Ecology Center’s innovative Electronics Waste Recycling program. Dr. Robin Nagle mentioned that I look into her work and the LES Ecology Center. Christine would be helpful to ask questions about how to both gain awareness and take action in a local way.
  4. Dr. Robin Nagle, Clinical professor of anthropology and environmental studies in New York University’s School of Liberal Studies
    1. She was previously an anthropologist-in-residence for NYC’s Department of Sanitation. Her research is focused on the relationship between trash and cities. As recommended by Margaret, I reached out to Robin about the subject of e-waste. She was extremely helpful in my research process and recommended me a few books and articles to read. I plan to maintain my communication with her. 
  5. ITP Professors to be in constant communication with: Tom Igoe and Marina Zurkow as our in-house sustainability + ecology gurus; Shawn Van Every as tech expert as my end product will most likely involve web development; Genevieve Hoffman as data visualization guide

Narrowing + Reflecting

Image result for the story of stuff book


The past week, I’ve been reading “The Story of Stuff” by Anne Leonard. This book takes a closer look at the lifecycle of material products and how that ties in with our consumption habits. One of the main takeaways is that our western concept of trash is really messed up. She makes the case that the idea of trash” is a mental one. When the author visited another country, she noticed that when she put something in her garbage bin, that item would end up being used by someone else. For example, a shampoo bottle became someone’s flower vase. Although it is trash, it all needs to end up somewhere. In America, we put it away and somehow it gets put out of our site. But the truth is, trash doesn’t magically disappear. Some other takeaways were: e-waste is increasing 3x faster than other municipal waste. It is also the fastest growing and most toxic type of garbage today. According to the book the five most common reasons for e-waste are: 1.) cell phone upgrades, 2.) digital tv conversion. 3.) software upgrades, 4.) can’t change the battery on products, 5.) disposable printers. It goes without saying that all this stuff is highly toxic!

Becca, who is the most generous sharer of information, also sent me “The Environment is Not a System” by Tega Brain.

Our amazing GA, Ilana, also shared with me the article by Kate Crawford called “Anatomy of an AI.” It is a mind-blowing article that is completely spot-on for my topic. 


Conversation with George: 

On Monday, I had a phone conversation with George, the manager of ground and waste at NYU. He also manages the techno scrap (e-waste). This interview was extremely informative on many levels. From his explanation of how NYU handles it’s garbage and e-waste, I’ve gathered a few notes: 

a.) how little transparency there is in understanding what happens to our discarded electronics

b.) the whole process makes sense but requires work orders and the involvement of the facilities manager

c.) there are two types of “e-waste” at NYU: universal waste and techno scrap 

Notes from our meeting.

Conversation with Robin: 

On Thursday, I had office hours with Dr. Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation and a Clinical Professor in NYU’s Center for Humanities Department. Upon doing more research on the topic of e-waste, several people have referred me to her and suggested that I take her course (which I will!). Upon telling her about my topic, she recommended me many sources. 

Readings she mentioned: 1.) “High Tech Trash” by E. Grossman, 2.) “Discard Studies” website – specifically their e-waste section, 3.) “Picking Up Trash” by herself 4.) “Cell phone recycling experiences in the United States and potential recycling options in Brazil” by Geraldo T.R. Silveira *, Shoou-Yuh Chang, 5.) “How are WEEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical and electronic wastes” by F.O. Ongondo, I.D. Williams, T.J. Cherrett

Names she mentioned: 1.) Josh Lepawsky who writes for the “Discard Studies”, 2.) Christine Datz-Romero of the LES Ecology Center


Ideas and Avenues: 

a.) The making of an electronic product Process of disposing/ breaking down an electronic product Current consumption habits that lead to extra waste, harmful human and environmental consequences All the people that come into contact with our electronics  Better practices/ actions we can take

a.) The making of an electronic product

b.) Process of disposing/ breaking down an electronic product

c.) Current consumption habits that lead to extra waste, harmful human and environmental consequences

d.) All the people that come into contact with our electronics 

e.) Better practices/ actions we can take

What else is out there like it?

Not sure of exactly what I will make, but here are some projects that I am inspired by and is related to what I’d like to make:

  • Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford
  • Bureau of Suspended Objects – by Jenny Odell
  • Museum of Plastic Age – by Carrie Wang
  • Where Almost Everything I Used, Wore, Ate or Bought on Monday, April 1, 2013 (That Had a Label) Was Manufactured, to the Best of My Knowledge – by Jenny Odell
  • HSIM by Natalie Jeremijenko

What is the world/context/market that your project lives in?

Educational settings, public spaces, online (so accessible to anyone who has access to the internet and a computer

Manufactured Landscapes

My research began with a documentary called “Manufactured Landscapes.” In this documentary, we follow the photographer Edward Burtynsky as he visits landscapes that have been significantly damaged by large-scale human production and activity. These sites include a Chinese factory where parts are assembled, a Bangladesh coast where oil tankers are disassembled and the Three Gorges Dam. Through this film, we are able to take a closer look at the people whose livelihoods are based on assembling, scraping, dissembling electronic and manufactured parts. They are constantly putting their lives at risk because they are a part of an uneven cycle.

Initial Concept

Every object has a story to tell. My interest is in investigating and communicating that story. I would like to take a closer look at our everyday objects by examining the invisible forces that make them possible. By invisible forces I am thinking of the people who made this product, how it was made, the materials used to make it, the science behind it, and the policies that perpetuate this system.

I also wonder about what happens to a product when it “dies.” Where do the materials go, how is it recycled (if it is). What about the parts that contain toxic chemicals, what are the environmental factors and human health hazards that come into play, where do they end up if they aren’t recycled?

The plan is to trace a product by following it from birth, life to death. By doing so, I aim to understand the efforts and conflicts involved in the making of something. Other questions that come up for me: Can simply being aware of a device’s story change how we consume and dispose of products? Is awareness enough? After awareness, what’s next?