My research is shaped by an ethnographic lens. I am interested in the specifics of a research site and want to understand why the actors behave in the way they do, and why infrastructures work the way they do. To unfold the social dynamics of handling electronic waste, thus, participant observation and a qualitative engagement with texts and other objects from field sites are important. Depending on the particular social situation, this can also result in ethnographers using and following quantitative patterns, as emphasized in my research in part III, where I draw on digital methods from the computational social sciences.
What I briefly want to emphasize in this section, however, is that the social sciences need to experiment with and invest in language styles to unfold the complexities of a research site. My book uses creative language tools where it fits, but it only scratches the surface of what might be possible.
I benefitted a lot from a writing workshop with energy ethnographer and Senior Lecturer in Energy & Society at the University of Edinburg Laura Watts (facilitated by the fabulous RUSTlab). She reminded us of the importance of writing as a craft for social scientists, and I used material from my e-waste research to explore possibilities. Below is one vignette from my research at a high-tech recycler, written from three different angles and making use of different literary tools. The first snippet is adapted from a recent journal publication. Moving on to the second and third snippet, the focus shifts towards world-making: towards moving the readers to the site and what knowledge is required to move competently in them. The entire research refers to part II of the book.
Understanding a recycler through the lens of the author
I am doing an internship at a leading recycling company of electronic waste. On this day, I’m following a foreman who’s in charge of greeting and verifying deliveries. The foreman is informed via walkie-talkie when a new truck delivery arrives and registers at the entry gate. For him (and me, as I am following him doing this), the arrival means quickly grabbing our helmets and going downstairs to the designated drop-off area.
Truck drivers and this recycling employee—let’s call him Mario— know where to meet. Mario greets the driver and pinpoints the place where the materials should be dropped. When a truck presses out its materials—trucks and containers are equipped with devices that actively push—Mario becomes alert and aware. The pressing-out is a process that takes about two minutes. Printers are squashed, ink is bursting out, computers break, and small pieces of metal start falling and rolling—and Mario sees, hears, smells, and senses what is falling out. Here the diffuse mix of e-waste is being de-formed. Economic calculation is being performed. Because of the way in which the materials move away from each other, or are being squeezed together, it will be possible to distinguish different materials.
Invoking the reader
You’re in charge of recycling e-waste now, your job is to register trucks dropping heaps of waste in front of you. When your contractual partner – say, your local municipality – visits your company, it sends you heavy and colourful stuff, different stuff in each and every truck. Although it’s different, you’re supposed to learn. Patterns matter. You need to make sense of things dropping in a matter of minutes.
You and the company more generally will work with this waste, the colleagues down the line will shred and melt the printers, computers, smartphones and diffuse racks, they will get out the valuable metals. This is energy-intensive, and your company will very likely break a few machines while processing the stuff. This is normal. But this is also why it’s important that you carefully register the e-waste materials right at the moment when they’re dropped. In front of you. In minutes. Step into the waste. Sense the items, take notes, remember previous deliveries. Get to know the waste; try not to think about the story the waste wants to tell about its past. Think of where it’s going, forget where it’s coming from.
Sensing the material challenges
You’re in charge of recycling e-waste now, the charge is on you. The bureaucracy is looming; think of the contract, think of the municipality, but don’t think about the thinking. Heavy and colourful electronics will be dropped on your premises. Promises.
This is money, this is value, even though you might not see it at first glance. 20 metric tonnes of electronic waste in front of you, and it’s crucial that you register the materials right at the moment when they’re dropped; you have to get it right. Step into the waste. Sense the items. Items make sense. Get to know the waste, and capture the value of the materials.
What is something electronic? 101101, on-off, code not working, from code not working to forming new arrangements to breaking, to working, to breaking, to working, to PFSCHHHHHHH. Don’t take too much time, things have to keep going, flowing. Breaking. Traceback.