On Repurposing Digital Waste

The other day I was rethinking the concept of “carpentry” as extended by Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology as well as Jim Brown Jr. and Nathaniel Rivers in their article on rhetorical carpentry, Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop. Bogost’s understanding of carpentry as “philosophical lab equipment” is useful to those of us working between rhetoric, philosophy, and the natural sciences. [1] Carpentry might be viewed as a return to the ancient, poetic roots of rhetoric [2] and appeals to our predilection for making, inventing, and being more than mere grammarians. [3] Brown and Rivers’ conception of carpentry, moreover, provides a method for carrying out rhetorical work with/in such technical and practical fields as computer programming and hardware engineering. Fabricating need not be the sole purview of software developers, roboticists, or artists; philosophers and rhetoricians can intervene with Erasmus chatbots or natural-user interface (NUI) installations of our own. [4] I'm charmed by these artifacts. Really. And I object-oriented philosophy has had an enormous effect on my attitude toward all manner of bugs. Living and dead. Animate and inanimate. 

I am grateful.

However, I wonder if one problem with “carpentry" in practice is that, by playing up the production of the new (including but not limited to playing up the potential rewards of making new things in academe—of becoming makers) it ignores the state of ecological crisis in which we currently operate as scholars and humans beings. The state I'm referring to, of course, is the pathological production, consumption, and excretion of materials that are toxic to our (own) bodies, other species, and the planet as a whole. As an ecosystem. The state is hive collapse and eagle eggs with shells as thin as bone china. The state is Detroit's pipes—eroded. Or Hamlet's Denmark—rotten.

In years past, when I've wrung my hands over what happens to the stuff scholars produce (the products that result from pet projects or class projects or experiments in carpentry) after they're no longer useful, I've chalked it up to a penchant for anthropomorphism. Too much Velveteen Rabbit as a little girl.

These days I know it's a much more exhaustive, exhausting problematic.

To wit: last Friday I attended a talk by David M. Rieder, Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State and Co-Director of the Circuit Research Studio. I admire the autodidactic Rieder for teaching rhetoric and writing through microcontrollers and code and for seeking to combat injustice and extremity (e.g., the Mediterranean refugee crisis and its global analogues) through praxis and poiesis. Doing and making.

His talk presented three canons for the era of physical computing [5]: transduction, allegorization, and eversion. My mind began generating pedagogical uses almost unbidden; as I've mentioned before, I teach a course on human computation and am always looking for new ways to figure human-computer interaction. But as my brain plugged away, I heard a small, vaguely familiar voice pipe up:

What will become of those bits of hardware and software when they're old and gray or sick and tired?

I could barely hear over the cacophonous, herky-jerky machinations of my thinkin' gears. But no, I wasn't just imagining the voice, there it was again (!):

Where will these materials end up when they stop mattering? Rusting away in landfills, cold and stinking? Illegally exported to nations that can't afford to refuse our refuse? Leaking chemical ichor into the soil and waterways, polluting an already gasping planet? 

As I sat in the audience, the voice made me feel a bit insane (not only because I thought I was probably the only one hearing it, but also because it brought tears to my eyes and that struck me as highly unprofessional). God forbid—

 

I felt like pulling a Nietzsche. I wanted to kneel down and wrap my arms around every piece of junk that has ever collapsed into obsolescence.

 

Apparently, though, I lack the requisite courage for such showings. [6] Instead I opted to join the comparatively tame performance of Q&A; I won't reiterate my Q here, really no point. But the worry that motivated my Q remains. The worry that little voice imparted—

I've experienced inklings of it before, while watching my fiancé struggle in his former job as a software developer for UT’s Faculty Innovation Center (FIC). Nearly every day I would come home from teaching or proctoring the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), flop down on our office chaise, and quietly observe Maxwell as he coded some new piece of software for a faculty member. I don’t think it’s overly glib to say that these had the distinct flavor of pet projectery...

The interaction generally unfolded thus: a professor in some liberal arts department would get a grant for a digital research or pedagogy tool they wanted to develop (e.g., a Faculty Innovation Grant), they would bring the conceptual skeleton (asset lists, archival materials, wireframes, etc.) to Maxwell and he would spend months putting script-meat on its bare bones. His job, in other words, was generally considered to be making ideas into realities, making concepts work.

He brought the skills (not unlike a carpenter). Faculty brought the ideas. It seems like a happy-enough marriage.

On that office chaise I might have vented about my mad family or my well tended secret garden of compulsions and delusions. I might have been the prone patient of some Teuton-tongued psychoanalyst. I might have been my own great, great grandmother, Susanne, during one of her stays in a Danish sanitarium. But it was not so. Rather, I would lie as Maxwell sat, muttering recursively about dead, defunct, and abandoned assets. [7]

 

Digital waste was the heartsickness, he the patient, and I not (yet) a doctor.

 

Sometimes I took notes. On so-called legacy programming languages left for him to maintain: "I think of them as my bébés," he mused softly. On the lack of documentation provided by prior compilers: "it's like translating the fragments of strangers' grand ambitions," he divulged darkly. Every day he waded through artifacts brought into being by well meaning formers...again and again facing the sharp fact that scholars can be a fickle bunch (he'd never say that, but I can).

It's worth mentioning that this wasn't the annoyed whinging of an officious tech nerd, as programmers are so often characterized in popular media. Maxwell got his BA in Classics before becoming a software developer and analyst; he's perennially sympathetic to the humanistic skills and sensibilities of clients. But even when a collaboration went smoothly, even when it resulted in a piece of software that granted greater accessibility to and extensibility of knowledge, I began to noticed an odd melancholia creep over my dear patient.

Once he returned from a trip to Germany, for example, where he'd presented his work on a contrastive linguistics platform. I asked if the experience had gotten him fired up about finishing the Texas German dialect project and his response was surprisingly morose: “Not really, it kinda made me wonder what the point of all this is.”

As a poet, I’m perfectly acclimated to expending lots of effort on lines that have extremely limited use. Practical value. Any value. But Maxwell wasn't so prepared—he’d been trained to produce lines of executable code that were solely valued for their practical use. The realization he was coming to was that such valuation was fundamentally shortsighted and ego-driven; based on anthropocentric assumptions, there was nothing wrong with making a program or interface that would be trashed down the line. The gloom he was beginning to feel was ethical in nature. For what it’s worth, this isn’t a problem unique to the men and women tasked with fabricating and maintaining digital assets...rhetoricians and philosophers wanna make and maintain, too.

Through craftiness (vs. “craftsmanship”), I hope to shift away from the concepts of rhetorical and philosophical carpentry and toward media archaeological methods that seek to invent new uses for obsolete and/or broken technologies. The physical computing companions will be designed to perform the argument presented in/by my dissertation text. They will show what I can only currently claim: bugs across multiple media play a critical role in vexing our fixed, anthropocentric, humanistic category distinctions (e.g., virus-bugs vex the line between living/nonliving; text-bugs vex the line between passive/active). More than that, they also draw our attention to ecological crisis, an intensity of bugs that I would be remiss to ignore.[8]

We’re (all) in trouble, bugs warn.

It’s incumbent upon scholars and practitioners in rhetoric, communication, art/design, computer engineering, and software development to stay with it and respond in kind(ness).[9]

Garnet Hertz’s Dead Media project is one artistic model for the physical computing companions I propose, as it aims at the active (re)contextualisation of creation via three modes:

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1) “Repurposing” as a creative and artistic methodology that re-uses the “leftovers” of the information technology boom and addresses the problems of electronic waste...the creation of a new temporality in terms of detaching the cycle of consumption from the short-spanned individualised human time of “use-worthy” technologies and extending it towards non-human dimensions.

2) Through DIY methodologies and circuit bending, a whole new realm of understanding and extension of the use of media technologies is opened...the creation of new communities forming around the opening up of archaic technologies.

3) “Innovation through analysis of media history” points towards an active reframing of the temporalities of media evolution. Instead of a linear conception of past media understood as bypassed presents, time is implicitly understood in such a media archaeological context as a continuous relocation and reallocation of potentialities. Time is not a flow from the past to the future via succeeding presents but a continuous shifting of emphases, which in this case means tapping into past media as a reservoir for the sustainability of a future.[10]

 

I also point to the techno-bug works of Julie Alice Chappell, which creatively repurpose broken technology components. [11]

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To these aesthetically driven, highly literal works, I would add a layer of programmability and functionality. The resulting companion pieces will, therefore, share an embodied bugliness (i.e., resemble arthropods of various ilk, “work” on a literal/representational level) while simultaneously performing bugliness (i.e., reassemble broken, discarded, and/or obsolete components in order to enact specific arthropod intensities, corresponding to the media bugs I discuss in each companion-chapter).

I’m interested in pursuing a creative, physical-computing side to my dissertation because a media archeology of bugs demands that they be taken as “literally” and playfully as they’re taken “metaphorically” and seriously.[12] Physical computing objects and their makers have demonstrated a facility for simultaneously containing and releasing (propagating, spreading, enacting) multiplicities of meaning and being. They have already proven rhetorically fruitful.[13] And, I would argue, their ethos is exceptionally buggy: physical computing objects contain (code) bugs that move makers in uncomfortable, inventive directions whenever they pop up; meanwhile, the way in which microcontrollers move and act in/between computer interfaces and human bodies demands an overturning of the anthropocentric model. These objects force makers (simplistically construed as omniscient, omnipotent authors) into the periphery, into the interstitial spaces where we normally relegate bugs and other pests by virtue of their ability to go “where human animals may not even tread.” Why not push them in an even more literal direction: bug ad absurdam?

 

[1] Especially those of us interested in new and improved modes of academic publishing (Alien Phenomenology, 100).

[2] ποίησις, “to make something new.” On the poetic origins of rhetoric see Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (2000).

[3] On rhetoric versus grammar see George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition (1999).

[4] Internet artist Darius Kazemi asked Bogost a question that remains less-than-adequately answered by the author himself, as well as by DHers, philosophers, and rhetoricians: “how is carpentry different from art?” To put that issue aside, however, I am interested in bringing recent rhetorical work on physical computing and programming to bear on existing insect-modeled design such as swarm intelligence (an offshoot of crowd intelligence and crowdsourcing) and bugly robotsI’m particularly compelled to engage with defunct, abandoned, and broken media for ethical reasons I will elucidate shortly.

[5] The era of physical computing (related to ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things) is understood as demarcated from the previous era of personal computing.

[6] Maybe it's just that I'll never shake my painful shyness...or the aversion to drama my sturdy Minnesotan mother instilled in me.

[7] Or, more accurately, things that were once assets, but had become nuisances.

[8] “Real life” bugs draw our attention to ecological crisis, as well. See blog post titled "Collapse."

[9] Again, thinking of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Staying with. Responding in kin(dness) as well as kind(ness).

[10] Dead Media

[11] “Computer Bugs Highlight E-Waste Problems,” Deutsche Welle, 2015.

[12] NB: This may sound familiar to anyone who’s read prior bits n' pieces of my project or has ever talked to me about Phaedrus—it’s the way I read Plato’s views on rhetoric, technology, and media. The first chapter of my diss. further into the rhetorical effects of the choric, choral cicadas (or locusts) in that dialogue but in brief, my reading  of Phaedrus resists easy characterizations of Plato's theories as either “positive” or “negative." Rather (been arguin'), Plato proposes that rhetoric, technology, and media not to be taken too seriously only insofar as taking things “seriously” tends to reify a hard-and-fast subject/object distinctions. Seriousness tends to perpetuate an understanding of the authoritative (human) subject gazing upon, grasping, and moving his object (of study) while ignoring the ways in which objects gaze and grasp back; move us. This “alternative” reading of Phaedrus is what a media archeology of specific bugs (e.g., Tέττιξ) affords us.

[13] These designs build communities, form assemblages, beg questions, address accessibility, command attention, and move us to react. See Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things; Tom Igoe, Making Things Talk; Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things.

E.R. Emison