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date: 27 October 2020

Digital Garbology

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

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 that 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 that require a significant amount of physical and social resources to operate (such as Facebook, Netflix, and Bitcoin). This means that 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 empathetically and strategically counteract the socio-ecological consequences of the world’s fastest growing waste stream.

Waste is a quintessential anthropological topic because it crosscuts the subfields of archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and socio-cultural 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, discarding, recycling, and reuse. However, it is only in the last decade 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 Anthropocene. The creation, maintenance, and destruction of digital and electronic objects are intimately entangled with the pervasive effects of industrialization on the climate, ecology, and the very geology of Earth. In practice, digital garbology will help to identify and recommend strategies for confronting uneven, and often unjust, distributions of e-waste. 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 renewable energy and digital technologies.