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Article

Gideon Singer

What is electronic waste? E-waste is both a by-product of manufacturing processes and the disposal of end-point devices in our digital infrastructure—the mountains of televisions, microwaves, video game consoles and handhelds, Christmas lights, and so on which are often visualized in news reports and popular media. However, digital garbology reveals an alarming assemblage of additional externalities resulting from the hyper consumption of electronic devices and even digital services requiring significant amounts of physical and social resources to operate (such as Facebook, Netflix, and bitcoin). Consequently, digital worlds are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them. And yet, digital media is often perceived as immaterial because of a growing disconnect between people and the wires, power sources, and data centers that enable them to access digital worlds. Anthropologists practicing digital garbology have a critical role to play in helping to counteract the socioecological consequences of the world’s fastest growing waste stream empathetically and strategically. Waste is a quintessential anthropological topic because it crosscuts the subfields of archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology. The digital is also becoming an essential topic for 21st-century anthropologists looking to interpret and design the interactions people have with social media, surveillance technology, geographic information systems (GIS), and Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART). Anthropological archaeologists have increasingly integrated archaeological and ethnographic methods to make contributions to policy, public perceptions, and behavioral interventions concerning consumption, discard, recycling, and reuse. However, it is only in the last decade, from 2010 on, that anthropology and closely related disciplines have begun paying attention to electronic waste. Digital garbology, a synthesis of digital anthropology and garbology, is a novel and essential framework for practicing anthropology in the 21st century. Digital garbology helps to identify and recommend strategies for confronting uneven, and often unjust, distributions of e-waste onto marginalized communities. Furthermore, digital garbology encourages anthropologists to support community-based actions such as organizing repair cafés, participating in local government, banding with activists to challenge multinational corporations, and drawing attention to the blind spots in environmental, economic, and social discourse concerning waste produced by digital technologies.

Article

Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno

In line with rising public and policy concern about wastes, there has been a distinct rise in scholarly analyses of these and other developments associated with economies of recycling, focusing especially on people’s material and moral encounters with reuse. These range from nuanced investigations into how lives and materials can both be re-crafted by recovering value from discards; following an object through its many social lives; or focusing on a material such as plastic or e-waste and tracking how waste is co-produced at each stage of creation and (re)use. Examining contested property rights in wastes, together with the infrastructures and ethics of engagements with wastes and their recovery or otherwise, reveal how global economies intersect with a rapidly shifting policy environment and systems of waste management. The global entanglement of policies and practices not only shapes what becomes of waste but also how it is variously imagined as pollutant or resource.