A Media History of Matter: From Scrap Metal to Zombie Media

Throughout this essay I am interested in alternative accounts of how to talk about the materiality of media technology. One aspect, with a concrete ecological edge, is the acknowledgment of the growing waste problem resulting from discarded media technologies. And another aspect relates to energy and power as already mentioned above.[1] Indeed, what I want to map as the alternative deep time relates to geology in the fundamental sense of the anthropocene. Crutzen’s original pitch offered it as a transversal map across various domains: from nitrogen fertilizers in the soil to nitric oxide in the air; carbon dioxide and the condition of the oceans; photochemical smog to global warming. (Is photochemical smog the true new visual media form of post–World War II technological polluted culture?) Already Crutzen had initiated the expansive way of understanding “anthropocene” to be about more than geology. In Crutzen’s initiating definitions it turned into a concept investigating the radical transformations in the living conditions of the planet.

The anthropocene can be said to be—in the way the German media philosopher Erich Hörl suggests referring to Deleuze—a concept that maps the scope of a transdisciplinary problem. So what is the problem? Hörl’s suggestion is important.[2] He elaborates the anthropocene as a concept that responds to specific questions posed by the technological situation. It is about the environmental aspects but completely tied to the technological: this concept as well as its object are enframed by technological conditions into which we should be able to develop a further elaborated insight with the tools and conceptual arsenal of the humanities. Indeed, this is where a geology of media can offer necessary support as a conceptual bridge between chemical and metallic materials and the political economy and cultural impact of media technologies as part of the discourses of the ongoing global digital economy.

The concept of anthropocene becomes radically environmental. It does not mean purely a reference to “nature” but an environmentality understood and defined by the “technological condition.”[3] The environmental expands from a focus on the natural ecology to an entanglement with technological questions, notions of subjectivity and agency (as a critique of the human-centered worldview) and a critique of such accounts of rationality that are unable to talk about nonhumans as constitutive of social relations. The anthropocene is a way to demonstrate that geology does not refer exclusively to the ground under our feet. It is constitutive of social and technological relations as well as environmental and ecological realities. Geology is deterritorialized in the concrete ways in which metal and minerals become mobile, and enable technological mobility: Benjamin Bratton’s words could not be any more apt when he writes of how we carry small pieces of Africa in our pockets, referring to the role of, say, coltan in digital media technologies.[4] Also apt is when visual artist Paglen sees the geo-orbital layers of satellite debris as outer reaches of earth’s geology and the anthropocene (The Last Pictures project).

iPhones are, in the words of mammolith, an architectural research and design platform, “geological extracts” drawing across the globe earth resources and supported by a multiplicity of infrastructures. The bits of earth you carry around are not restricted to small samples of Africa but include material from the Red Dog pit mine in Alaska (zinc ores) which are then refined into indium in Trail, Canada. But that’s only small part of it, and such sites, where material gradually becomes media, are “scattered across the globe in the aforementioned countries, as well as South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru.”[5] An analysis of dead media should also take into account this aspect of the earth, and its relation to global logistics and production.

More concretely, let’s focus for a while on China—but China understood as part of the global chains of production and abandonment of media technologies. This geopolitical China is not solely about the international politics of trade and labor (which are not to be neglected either). In a sense, we can focus on the material production of what then ends up as the massive set of consumer gadgets, and the future fossil record for a robot media archaeologist, but also as discarded waste: both electronic waste and scrap metals, necessary for booming urban building projects and industrial growth. So much of this is driven by the entrepreneurial attitude of optimism: of seeing the world in terms of material and immaterial malleability, which in the case of media technologies has been recently realized also to include hardware in new ways. Indeed, in the midst of the wider enthusiasm for a global digital economy of software, some business correspondents such as Jay Goldberg have realized that hardware is dirt cheap and even “dead.”[6] His claim is less related to the Bruce Sterling–initiated proposal for a Handbook of Deadmedia, “A naturalist’s field guide for the communications palaeontologist,”[7] than it is an acknowledgment of a business opportunity.

Goldberg’s dead media business sense is focusing on the world of super-cheap tablet computers he first encounters in China and then in the U.S. for $40. In this particular story, it triggers a specific realization regarding business models and hardware: the latter becomes discardable, opening a whole new world of opportunities.

When I show this tablet to people in the industry, they have universally shared my shock. And then they always ask “Who made it?” My stock answer is “Who cares?” But the truth of it is that I do not know. There was no brand on the box or on the device. I have combed some of the internal documentation and cannot find an answer. This is how far the Shenzhen electronics complex has evolved. The hardware maker literally does not matter. Contract manufacturers can download a reference design from the chip maker and build to suit customer orders. If I had 20,000 friends and an easy way to import these into the US, I would put my own name on it and hand them out as a business cards or Chanukah gifts.[8]

The reduced price of the tablets means widespread availability even for specified niche uses: from waitresses to mechanics, elderly people to kids, tablets could become the necessary accessory in visions that blow one away when one realizes the business prospects. The Goldberg’s visceral reaction is followed by rational calculations of what it might mean in the context of digital economy business models:

Once my heart started beating again, the first thing I thought was, “I thought the screen alone would cost more than $45.” My next thought was, “This is really bad news for anyone who makes computing hardware. . . .

No one can make money selling hardware anymore. The only way to make money with hardware is to sell something else and get consumers to pay for the whole device and experience.[9]

Even hardware gets drawn into the discourse of experience economy with its connotations of immateriality. Hardware softens, becomes immaterialized, and its materiality seems to change before our eyes. What Goldberg misses is that hardware does not die, not even in the Sterling sense of unused dead media that becomes a sedimented layer of fossils left for quirky media archaeologists to excavate. Instead, it is abandoned, forgotten, stashed away, and yet retains a toxic materiality that surpasses the usual time scale we are used to in media studies. Such abandoned media devices are less about the time of use, or practices of users, but the time and practices of disuse. It would be interesting to write a history of cultural techniques of technological disuse. The chemical duration of metal materiality is also an important concept here. Think of this idea as the media technological equivalent of the half-life of nuclear material, calculated in hundreds and thousands of years of hazard; in media technological contexts, it refers to the dangerous materials inside screen and computing devices that are a risk to scrap workers as well as to nature, for instance, to the soil.

Next, look at the case from a different perspective. Adam Minter’s journalistic report Junkyard Planet offers a different story of hard metals and work, and looks at the issue from the geology of scrap metals.[10] China is one of the key destinations, not only for electronic waste but scrap metals in general; this offers a different insight into the circulation of what we could call the geology of technologies. China’s demand for materials is huge. Part of its continuing major push to build projects from buildings to subways to airports was the production or reprocessing of more metals: scrap copper, aluminium, steel, and more.:

On the other side of the mall, in all directions, are dozens of new high-rises—all under construction—that weren’t visible from the subway and my walk. Those new towers reach 20 and 30 stories, and they’re covered in windows that require aluminum frames, filled with bathrooms accessorized with brass and zinc fixtures, stocked with stainless steel appliances, and—for the tech-savvy households—outfitted with iPhones and iPads assembled with aluminum backs. No surprise, China leads the world in the consumption of steel, copper, aluminum, lead, stainless steel, gold, silver, palladium, zinc, platinum, rare earth compounds, and pretty much anything else labeled “metal.” But China is desperately short of metal resources of its own. For example, in 2012 China produced 5.6 million tons of copper, of which 2.75 million tons was made from scrap. Of that scrap copper, 70 percent was imported, with most coming from the United States. In other words, just under half of China’s copper supply is imported as scrap metal. That’s not a trivial matter: Copper, more than any other metal, is essential to modern life. It is the means by which we transmit power and information.

The wider picture of technological culture is not restricted to worried comments about the rare earth minerals essential to iPhones. The bigger picture becomes clear when we see the geology of technical media revealed by the phase it is in when it is discarded. The material history of media—for instance, telecommunications—extends to the copper extracted from wires, the outer covers stripped off to reveal this mini-mine of valuable media materials. The history of mining of copper with its environmentally dangerous effects is extended to the re-mining from wires for many novel repurposings. One could say, following Minter’s narrative, that such a technological history of materials and material history of media as matter does not really follow a life-of-use to death-of-disuse logic. In places such as Foshan’s Nanhai District, technologies and media materials never die: it is the place where scrap metal gets processed.[11]

In Zombie Media with Garnet Hertz we address the wider context and impact of the “dead media” devices refusing to disappear from planetary existence.[12] Building on Sterling’s work, we argue that there is a need to account for the undead nature of obsolete media technologies and devices in at least two ways: to be able to remember that media never dies, but remains as toxic waste residue, and also that we should be able to repurpose and reuse solutions in new ways, as circuit bending and hardware hacking practices imply. The zombie media angle builds on two contexts not specific to digital media but present in such accounts as Goldberg’s and the wider micropolitical stance that ties consumer desires with design practices. Planned obsolescence is one such feature we address, as do other art/hacking projects combining hardware hacking and circuit bending, such as Benjamin Gaulon’s Recyclism. Such approaches take into account the current issue of abandoned hardware, which even in functional devices totals hundreds of millions of screens, mobiles, and electronic and computing technologies that still are not properly dealt with after their use. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics from 2013 describe 2.37 tons of electronics ready for their afterlife management, which represented “an increase of more than 120 percent compared to 1999.”[13] The primary category is related to screen technologies, but we can safely assume that the rise of mobile technologies soon contributed a rather large share of this dead media pile, of which only 25 percent was collected for any sort of actual management and recycling in 2009. The amount of operational electronics discarded annually is one category of a geologically significant pile that entangles first, second, and third nature:[14] the communicational vectors of advanced digital technologies come with a rather direct link and impact to first natures, reminding that the contemporary reliance on swift communicational transactions is reliant on this aspect of hardware too. Those communicational events are sustained by the broader aspect of geology of media: technologies abandoned and consisting of hazardous material: lead, cadmium, mercury, barium, and more.

National, supranational and NGO bodies are increasingly forced to think the future of media and information technologies as something “below the turf.” This means both a focus on the policies and practices of e-waste as one of the crucial areas of concern, and planning towards raw material extraction and logistics to ensure supply. As the above short mention of scrap metal in China illustrated, the usual practices of mining are not considered the only route for future geology of media. In any case, the future geo(physical)politics of media circulate around China, Russia, Brazil, Congo, and South Africa as key producers of raw materials. This politics connects to a realization that the materiality of information technology starts from the soil and the underground. Miles of crust opened up by sophisticated drills. This depth marks the passage from the mediasphere to the lithosphere. An increasing amount of critical materials are found only by going down deeper into the crust or otherwise difficult-to-reach areas. Offshore oil drilling is an example of this: the Tupi deposits of oil off the shore of Brazil, beneath “1.5 miles of water and another 2.5 miles of compressed salt, sand and rock;”[15] new methods of penetrating rocks by fracturing them or by using steam-assisted cavity drainage; deep sea mining by countries such as China; the list could be continued. Corporations such as Chevron boast of depth records for their mining—tens of thousands of feet under the ocean bottom[16] in search of oil as well as minerals. Suddenly an image comes to mind, one familiar from an earlier part of this essay: Professor Challenger’s quest to dig deeper inside the crust that is alive.

Depth becomes not only an index of time but also a resource, in the fundamental sense of Martin Heidegger’s standing reserve: technology reveals nature in ways that can turn it into a resource as well. For Heidegger, the writer of trees, rivers, and forest paths, the Rhine turns from Hölderlin’s poetic object into a technological construct effected in the assemblage of the new hydroelectric plant. The question of energy becomes a way of defining the river, and in Heideggerian terms, transforming it:

The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth. That challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing.[17]

This notion of transformation becomes a central way to understand the technological assemblages in which metals and minerals are mobilized as part of technological and media contexts. Technology constructs new pragmatic and epistemological realms where geology turns into a media resource. And similarly geology itself transforms into a contested technologically conditioned object of research and a concept that we are able to use to understand the widespread mobilization of nature. It also transforms questions of deep times from the merely temporal past to futures of extinction, pollution, and resource depletion, triggering a huge chain of events and interlinked questions: the future landscape of media technological fossils.

This transformation of geology of media, and media of geology/metals works in a couple of directions. Theorists, policy makers and even politicians are increasingly aware of the necessity of cobalt, gallium, indium, tantalum and other metals and minerals for media technological ends, from end user devices like mobiles and game consoles to more generally capacitors, displays, batteries and so forth. In short, the geophysics of media consists of examples such as:

Cobalt: Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels

Gallium: Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED

Indium: Displays, thin layer photovoltaics

Tantalum: Micro capacitors, medical technology

Antimony: ATO, micro capacitors

Platinum: Fuel cells, catalysts

Palladium: Catalysts, seawater desalination

Niobium: Microcapacitors, ferroalloys

Neodymium: Permanent magnets, laser technology

Germanium: Fiber optic cable, IR optical technologies[18]

Moments of deep time are exposed in such instances as Clemens Winkler’s 1885/1886 discovery of Germanium (named of course after his home country) when he was able to distinguish it from antimony.[19] Winkler’s discovery in Freiberg is certainly a part of the history of chemistry and the elements, but it also initiates insights into computer culture, where the semiconducting capacities of this specific alloy competed with what we now consider a key part of our computer culture: silicon. But such deep times are also telling a story of the underground . . . which is not to be confused with a discourse of underground art and activism, as we so often revert back to in media art-historical discourse. This new definition of media deep time is more in tune with mining and transportation, of raw material logistics and processing, and refining of metals and minerals. The underground haunts the military imaginary and reality through the geography of bunkers, guerrilla trenches, and passages (such as those used by the Viet Cong) as well as the nuclear silos that are burrowed into the landscapes of the U.S.;[20] and it haunts the technological reality of modernity. The underground has, since the nineteenth century at least, been the site of imagined technological futures, as Rosalind Williams shows,[21] but it is also the actual site of technological development.[22]

To reiterate the argument: The long historical durations of deep time as introduced to media art discussions by Zielinski take place in antique times, with medieval alchemists and in nineteenth-century science-art collaborations as exemplary events of deep time media artistic techniques and ideas. But what if we need to account for an alternative deep time, which extends deeper toward a geophysics of media culture? This is a possibility not to be missed: an alternative media history of matter. Such a geophysics extends the historical interest in alchemists to contemporary mining practices, minerals, and the subsequent materialities. Would this sort of approach be something that is comfortable to tackle with materiality below the ground level (such theory is definitely “low theory,” to refer to McKenzie Wark’s notion),[23] stretched between political economy of resources and art practices (as we will see in the next chapter more clearly).

The geology of media that nods toward Zielinski but wants to extend deep times toward chemical and metal durations includes a wide range of examples of refined minerals, metals, and chemicals that are essential for media technologies to deliver audiovisual content in miniaturized form. Understanding Media is complemented with the duration of materials as significant for media temporality.[24] In other words, we don’t just understand media but it has other material effects and affects as well.

The interactions of chemicals, material sciences, and technical media were never really forgotten in such accounts as Friedrich Kittler’s. His media-historical insights often took account of the grounding role that material sciences and discoveries have in enabling both media technologies and military operations. Hence his attention to such details as a blockade of Chilean nitrate to Germany[25] by the telegraphically effective British naval troops in World War I lays out as a story the geopolitical importance of sodium nitrate mining in Chile, and the necessary substitute of synthetic ammoniac through the chemical innovation of Haber and Bosh, as it was needed for German munitions production. Technologies are matters of war and logistics; these categories bring the particular Kittler-perspective to bear on a media history of matter:

For over a century, wars and technologies have dreamed of being ahead of their day. In reality, however, they are forced to engage in recursions that burrow into ever deeper pasts. Lack of nitrate scuttled Alfred von Schlieffen’s ingenious plan of attack. Just as up-to-date computer design is steadily closing in on the big bang, the logistics of war (irrespective of wishful ecological thinking) consume ever-older resources. The Second World War began with the switch from coal and railroads to tank oil and airplane fuel, the Pax Americana with the exploration of uranium (in Germany, the task was assigned to Hans-Martin Schleyer).[26]

The history of fertilizers meets in this chemical conjunction the history of war and technological culture. The thousands of years of cultural techniques of manipulating the soil for purposes of agriculture reaches one sort of a singular point by World War I, but also shows how histories of the anthropocene entangle with histories of war and technology, where the latter have been discussed in media theory and history. But in this context, as already hinted at some points in earlier chapters, the chemical constitution of technological culture is not to be neglected. Industrialization becomes a point of synchronization of various lineages of cultural techniques. The agricultural metaphor of “culturing” is in the scientific age part of the development of chemical means of manipulation of the soil. The history of the geological impact of humans is also about the isolation of ingredients such as phosphorus (1669), nitrogen (1772), and potassium (1807). The years constitute recent events in the nonlinear history of earth becoming adapted to technical cultural history. The technical-scientific ties with together with the anthrobscene too: “The arrival of industrialization, ushering in the Anthropocene, is marked by the human ability to move vast quantities of geologic material.”[27]

Nation-states and their media-supported wars are themselves fueled by material explorations and, to put it simply, energy. But these are wars with a punctuated imbalance: as Sean Cubitt notes, much of the contemporary geological resource hunt and energy race is conditioned by neocolonial arrangements, targeting territories traditionally belonging to indigenous people: “Geological resources are sourced in lands previously deemed worthless and therefore earmarked as reservations for displaced indigenous peoples during the period of European imperial expansion from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.”[28] This is a good way of demonstrating that in some ways contemporary states—and corporations—are still utterly modern in their manner of operations. Eviction, massacre, and conquering are part of the normal repository of actions allowed in guaranteeing resources, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young writes.[29]

Oil is the usual reference point for a critical evaluation of earth fossils, modern technological culture, and the link between nation-state and corporate interests in exploiting cheap labor and cheap resources. But of course it is not the only one. Other material is also moved on an increasingly massive scale and with an important function in the militarily secured energy regimes of the globe. Genealogies of logistics, media, and warfare are particularly “Kittlerian”; what is missing from his media materialism is often the theme of labor. Indeed, we could as justifiably track down genealogies of media materials back to labor processes, exploitation, and the dangerous conditions that characterize also the current persistence of hardwork alongside persistence of hardware. [30] Perhaps these two are better indexes of digital culture than software creativity or immaterial labor.

  1. Sean Cubitt, Robert Hassan, and Ingrid Volkmer, “Does Cloud Computing Have a Silver Lining?” Media, Culture & Society 33 (2011): 149–58.
  2. Paul Feigelfeld, “From the Anthropocene to the Neo-Cybernetic Underground: A Conversation with Erich Hörl,” Modern Weekly, Fall/Winter 2013, online English version at http://www.60pages.com/from-the-anthropocene-to-the-neo-cybernetic-underground-a-conversation-with-erich-horl-2/.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bratton, The Stack. Michael Nest, Coltan.
  5. Rob Holmes, “A Preliminary Atlas of Gizmo Landscapes,” Mammolith, April 1, 2010, http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2010/04/a-preliminary-atlas-of-gizmo-landscapes/.
  6. Jay Goldberg, “Hardware Is Dead,” Venturebeat, September 15, 2012, http://venturebeat.com/2012/09/15/hardware-is-dead/.
  7. Bruce Sterling, “The Dead Media Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal,” http://www.deadmedia.org/modest-proposal.html.
  8. Goldberg, “Hardware Is Dead.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. For a specific focus on scrap metals, technology, and China, see Adam Minter, “How China Profits from Our Junk,” The Atlantic, November 1, 2013, www.theatlantic.com/. On the life cycle of metals as part of technological society, see Graedel et al., “On the Materials Basis of Modern Society,” 1–6.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo 45, no. 5 (2012): 424–30.
  13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics,” 2009, http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm.
  14. McKenzie Wark, “Escape from the Dual Empire,” Rhizomes 6 (Spring 2003), http://www.rhizomes.net/issue6/wark.htm.
  15. Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 12.
  16. “Chevron Announces Discovery in the Deepest Well Drilled in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico,” press release, December 20, 2005, http://investor.chevron.com/.
  17. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), 16.
  18. European Union Critical Raw Materials Analysis, by the European Commission Raw Materials Supply Group, July 30, 2010, executive summary by Swiss Metal Assets, October 1, 2011. www.swissmetalassets.com.
  19. Clemens Winkler, “Germanium, Ge, ein neues, nichtmetallisches Element,” Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 19 (1886): 210–11
  20. See Ryan Bishop, “Project ‘Transparent Earth,’”
  21. Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination, new ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008).
  22. The underground was also the home of technological magic much earlier than this, such as Celtic “people under the hill” who had marvelous objects at their command, or Teutonic dwarves who were the masters of metal and invention, including the Kobolds, for whom cobalt was named.
  23. McKenzie Wark, Telesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class (Cambridge: Polity, 2012), 12.
  24. Jonathan Sterne has also flagged the need for a deep time perspective, without using those terms: “if the span of media history in human history amounts to approximately 40,000 years, we have yet to really seriously reconsider the first 39,400 years.” Jonathan Sterne, “The Times of Communication History,” presented at Connections: The Future of Media Studies, University of Virginia, April 4, 2009.
  25. Friedrich Kittler, “Of States and Their Terrorists,” Cultural Politics 8, no. 3 (2012): 388. See also the University of Brighton project “Traces of Nitrate: Mining History and Photography between Britain and Chile,” funded by the AHRC. Online at http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/traces-of-nitrate.
  26. Ibid., 394.
  27. Chris Taylor, “Fertilising Earthworks,” in Making the Geologic Now: Responses to the Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, ed. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (New York: Punctum, 2013), 130.
  28. Sean Cubitt, “Integral Waste,” presentation at the transmediale 2014 Afterglow-festival, Berlin, February 1, 2014. The paper is forthcoming in published form in the journal Theory, Culture & Society.
  29. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Hunting a Whale of a State: Kittler and His Terrorists,” Cultural Politics 8, no. 3 (2012): 406. He continues with a reference to Pynchon’s words about World War II in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) but perhaps a relevant guideline to the wider issue of media, materiality, ideology and wars: “This War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology. . . .The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite.” Quoted in Winthrop-Young, 407.
  30. iMine game, http://i-mine.org/. See also Parikka, “Dust and Exhaustion.”

Copyright © 2014 by Jussi Parikka