Image credit: “Radio owned by Herman and Minnie Roundtree,” Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, available under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Time is a funny thing, when it comes to the electronics that saturate our mundane routines. The time of updates (and out-of-date), the cycles of annual upgrades and 30-years-back-in-style retro fashioning. The ticking-up of delayed delivery dates, the ticking-down of in-stock, release-day, or limited-time-only items. There are several sorts of time we live in, and live through, when it comes to the consumer goods that we need, or desire, in shaping our everyday life. It’s too much. It’s never enough.
Writing in 1960—decades before “personal computing” would become an unremarkable part of our daily lives—the journalist Vance Packard declaimed that Americans “must learn to consume more and more or, they are warned, their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them.” It’s a strange thing to think of personal consumption as the prelude to an inevitable and gory collapse, yet here we are, in a time of fires, floods, and far, far worse. Consumption—or at least, the corporate insistence to consume unceasingly—has spread far beyond Packard’s complaints about General Motors’ yearly car models, and into entities much more amorphous.
There is little publicly available (or comprehensible) insight into the physical or algorithmic mechanics that undergird the devices that accompany us through both the boring and the terrifying parts of our lives. What we are told, time and again, is that their internals are very, very complex, and that they are getting decidedly better, year after year. Until, of course, there are fires in Naka and freezes in Texas, and boats lodged sideways, comical, in the narrow straits that link the world’s waterways. Until, of course, we are told that the carefully-protected formulae governing what we see online—through media meant to link us to each other’s wealth of knowledge—is not actually conducive to growing with each other as friends.
Despite all this—despite being driven to consume by forces we can only tear at in tiny ways, despite devices that tether us to logistics chains we’ve only begun to grasp the fragility of, despite struggling ceaselessly against the specters of algorithmic enemies—we marshal our devices to become tools that might do otherwise from what their makers intended them to be. Not just devices to ease our movement through everyday life, not just repositories of commercial entertainment. We’ve also made them unforgiving records, where once there were never acknowledgements, we’ve also made them conduits to mobilize other ways of life and being with others—however fleeting—into reality.
What does it mean, then, that the decadence of consumer electronics might be made otherwise, might be made into a repository of care, whether we turn monitors into planters, or dream up ways of being with each other that might make our present (and future) conditions more livable?
If nothing else, it illuminates the way in which having to live and grow within the society of Packard’s “waste makers” might generate futures that we are in no place, in no time yet, to predict. What might become—of us and our daily devices entangled together—remains an open, vexing wound of a question.
NAF programme title:
In Living Company
Vance Packard, The Waste Makers. New York: David McKay Company, 1960.
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