Is Big Tech the New Big Oil? Notes

Link to article

This article takes a general look at the last revolutions we have had – from industrial revolution to tech revolution. We are now in an IT revolution in which we mine ourselves, our data for resources.

  • The industrial revolution = energy revolution
  • Current tech revolution is comparable to the industrial revolution in its scope, impact and effects
  • We learned to capture increasing amounts of energy and then build things called machines
    • Machines manipulate the energy to do something we want it to do
  • We have extracted energy trapped in concentrated biomass (fossil fuels)
    • This was the start of oil
  • The tech revolution is about capturing and processing data
  • Similarities and dissimilarities in the positives and negatives of the two revolutions

The Flow of Money

  • Wealth created during the Industrial Revolution → made for “industrialized countries” 
    • Increased the gap between well-off and not so well-off countries
  • The tech revolution also played a huge role in globalization + level of connectivity 
    • Led to the concentration of global wealth
    • Plays a major role in reducing inequality across countries but increasing it within and at the level of humanity
  • Tech revolution → playing a major role in reducing inequality across countries but increasing it within and at the level of humanity
  • Just 9 of the world’s richest people own more wealth than the poorest 4 bilion
    • 6 out of 9 are from tech industry

The Collateral Damage

  • Our current global ecological footprint is 1.7 Earth’s
  • Mass extinction of species, pollution of air/water, and destruction of natural systems
  • We hacked and exploited the natural ecosystem 
  • IT revolution is doing something similar → but 
  • We are mining ourselves 

The curse of short-sightedness…

  • Long term consequence of pumping large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
  • Moved from being farmers to factory workers, lawyers, programmers
  • Humans have a.) physical labor, b.) mental labor → physical labor taken away from us in the industrial revolution and mental labor taken away by the tech revolution. 
  • Short-sightedness or ignore the problems for the sake of financial gains
  • “Move fast, break things” in silicon valley→ but what if the thing that is broken is unrepairable?
  • Not undervaluing the contribution of tech → but we need to have these discussions to shine light fro our last revolution to the current one so we can learn from the mistakes

Interview with Kara, Sims Recycling Center

Interview Notes

Some Takeaways:

  • What happens when electronics show up… they become co-mingled with all the other waste like metal, glass, plastic
    • At the recycling center there are a series of technology that sort out the different materials that then get sold to the smelters
    • With an electronic products, there’s no technology that sorts it out from the mix
    • If it accidentally gets in the mix the consequences are dangerous
    • Especially with batteries, fires can occur at the center if they are mixed in
  • Other problems that happens when electronics get mixed into the waste batch
    • Electronics are going to waste —> negative consequences when they go to landfills and incinerators
    • If it ends up in a waste bail (tightly compressed cubes), they bail up the waste and the electronic ends up going to incinerator
    • What happens if the electronic ends up the waste pile? Need to know specifics!

Interview with Christine, LES Ecology Center

Interview Notes

Some Takeaways:

  • Still a youth opportunity to educate people more about what happens to electronics when they are thrown and why they should care about it
  • Advocate for in the industry → items are not just produced → planned obsolescence in mind → then the printer doesn’t work → really build things that can be created → cell phones that have batteries that can be exchanged to live together → better design of these products → pushed by the industry to sell → not just about squandering 
  • “Big picture is that we want to see devices not get thrown away so easily” – Christine

Conversation with Marina – 11/25/19

Monday, 11/25/19

Good books/articles/websites she recommended

Other notes or reflection

She was extremely great at helping me take a step back and reflect on what it is I want people to take away from this project? As opposed to making a speculative project (something I feel uncomfortable doing anyways), the nudge was to make a connection and create validity amongst the community at the forefront of e-waste. Ultimately, whose attention am I trying to get and what are the takeaways I want people to have? Is awareness even the issue? How to make changes in habit? Also, she has the most spot-on references. So much gratitude for her.

Other self-reflective questions and notes to think through: 

  • What is the best strategy for learning?
  • Nudges to stay away from speculative art as it will be harder for the waste community + experts to take me seriously this way
  • Can I trace the emotional journey that I went through since I began my research?
  • What happens to the products after sorting? This is just something I should find out.
    • Outreach campaign on the appropriate ways to dispose?
    • What happens to recycling after sorting in NYC?
  • What is the effective/affective outcome that I want? I should think outcomes and work backwards
  • Issues with using the microscope as a metaphor for looking closer in this context
  • Semiconductor fields: beautiful films that explain scientific concepts 
    • But the question remains…what next? 
    • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Awareness; change habits? 
  • Who is this for?
    • For kids? If so, need to know protocol
    • Why are you asking people to care?
  • What’s the next generation of recycling?
  • Is there really a value in seeing this arc of life to death?
  • Ask the experts, ask LES ecology, ask SIMS Recycling Center.

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

Library Database Research

Step 1 (Library Catalog/Classification Sheet): I first tried to do the Library Catalog/Classification worksheet using the NYU Library Database. This was extremely helpful for helping me understand the key words to use for searching.

Library Catalog sheet here.

Step 2 (Research Diary): Over the weekend, I started using the Research Diary! Before the research diary I spent countless hours reading random articles on the internet, and I would constantly feel like I had achieved nothing afterwards. I’m finding that this research diary helps me structure my time and record my findings in a more productive way.

I also watched a documentary that Becca recommended me regarding my topic called “Manufactured Wasteland.” I found it especially helpful to have the Research Diary to help me reflect on everything I was thinking and feeling after watching such a disturbing documentary.

Documenting my findings and jotting down my reflection is much more helpful then just saving links in my page. I will definitely keep adding on to this research diary  – it has now become a very therapeutic document to have in my life.

Research Diary Entries here.

Step 3 (Meeting with Margaret): On Monday, Becca, Maya and I met with Margaret to go over best practices for searching and using online databases. I found this to be extremely fruitful for understanding the nuances of a search. She also walked through how to search for each of our specific topics. For mine, she used the EBSCO database and papers in the ACM Digital library.

Here are some notes from our meeting

Step 4 (Database): 

Database Sheet here. 

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.