Extinct Device

Posted on 1 November 2014

Discarded flip phones

The latest edition of the Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update contained an astonishingly prosaic projection: “By the end of 2014, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the number of people on earth.”

The newest new gadget is simply the latest future dead media. A small percentage of our old devices—desired then discarded, their data having been mined and dumped—end up in poor countries, where poor workers disassemble them by hand in toxic shops. But mainly consumers insource their e-waste to local landfills. According to EPA estimates, only 8 percent of the 129 million cell phones discarded by Americans in 2009 were recycled.

Roughly speaking, a smartphone is 40% metals, 40% plastics, 20% ceramics. Given the facts of their composition and ultimate disposition, it seems reasonable to ask: Will our devices recur as fossils? The International Commission on Stratigraphy—the body with definitional authority over the proposed “Anthropocene Epoch”—is imagining such a future. The lead investigator, Jan Zalasiewicz, imagines that a future “Urban Stratum” will have novel types of what geologists call locomotion traces (or, to be technical,  repichnia). Subway tunnels, for example, could become molds for tubular rock outcroppings.

Zalasiewicz takes up the separate issue of “technofossils,” or preserved material remains of technology. Mobile devices recovered from the World Trade Center site after 9/11 (seen here on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.) offer a preview of the opening stage of lithification:

Devices recovered from World Trade Center

Full fossilization will require permanent deep burial. Zalasiewicz ponders the sedimentary fate of current coastal and deltaic cities in a future with much higher sea levels. “Wherever cities are buried in mud, pyritization will take place. … What might [be] the fossil-equivalents? … The interiors of any of the myriads of tiny metal and electronic gadgets that we now produce in their millions seem to be good candidates for such sulphidic coating and infill, for these in themselves contain iron, one of the ingredients of pyrite. Part of the detritus of human civilization will certainly bear the sheen of fool’s gold. One may [also] predict a range of fossilized plastic tubes and bottles among the Urban Strata, varying in color from pale yellow to brown to black, depending on how deeply they were buried. Other plastics might, under heat and pressure, break down completely into their component molecules … to become a minute fraction of newly forming oil and gas reserves.”

Extinct Device AAs an art project, I’ve created a material metaphor: a pseudo-fossil of a gadget—a BlackBerry Curve 8300—that has gone extinct despite being mass introduced as recently as 2007. Few people under age twenty could instantly identify it, though for a pop culture nano-epoch it was globally iconic.

There’s a pre-digital—indeed, pre-analog—context for my art. In early modern Europe, when aristocrats and naturalists assembled Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, they collected freak forms embedded in rock: unclassified lusus naturae, or sports of nature. Many objects in these proto-scientific mini-museums were works of artifice, much like my fossil. Tellingly, Wunderkammern (chambers of wonders) were also called Kunstkammern (chambers of art). On their shelves, collectors played with the categories of artificialia and naturalia. My artwork is both—a layer of sculpted polymer clay (a petroleum byproduct) adhered to a piece of mudstone from Utah.

My specimen might be called Rimus rubus curvus because the progenitor of my fossilized BlackBerry was Research in Motion, and because the genus name for the blackberry plant is Rubus.

I make my analogies to biology and extinction in sport and also in seriousness. There’s a troubled relationship—verbal and material—between throwaway consumer capitalism and biodiversity loss. Brazenly, technologists have coopted the language of ecology and evolution to naturalize planned obsolescence and to pay tribute to the economic game of extinction.

Tech writers tell us that devices must evolve or die; they create endangered gadget lists; they warn us that even adaptable gadgets can go extinct if they live within an innovation-starved technological ecosystems. Consumers have been trained to expect, even celebrate, mass extinction events (e.g., Zune, Nook, Palm, BlackBerry) as necessary and inevitable functions of capitalism.

Extinct Device B

The ever-shorter half-lives of consumer electronics belie their long supply chains and even longer waste pathways. How do we visualize the clouded materiality of tech ephemera and the enabling infrastructure euphemized as “the cloud”? What critic Jusi Parikka calls the “geology of media” is sure to gain artistic attention in coming months and years. Tellingly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Art Gallery recently exhibited “Fossils of the Anthropocene.” And in December 2014, my extinct device found a temporary habitat at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where it greeted visitors at the entrance to the special exhibition “Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands.”

Extinct Device at Deutsches Museum

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