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Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”

Peter Little is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Rhode Island College, and author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press 2014). I asked him a few questions about his new project on electronic waste recycling in Ghana. His answers touch on the politics of electronics waste and pollution, surprising links between first and second projects, and the challenge of doing fieldwork in a place that everyone’s talking about. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Brooks: What was the genesis of your second project? How did you move from Endicott [the field site for Toxic Town] to Ghana?

Peter Little: The original project was on a high tech production site, a birthplace of electronics. That led me in to thinking more about the lifecycle of electronics, from production to discard. When we think of electronic waste, China pops up, of course, but more and more, I started to notice West Africa and Ghana. I came across a circus of journalists and other social scientists focusing in on this Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Ghana in Accra, which had been branded by one journalist as “a mass electronics graveyard.” The site was the focus of a major international Greenpeace report in the 2000s, around the time when electronic waste really started to be reported on, to become a much more targeted dimension of waste distribution. When I recognized it as a problem related to my original research, I thought, why not try to do something there? (more…)

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Another Architecture is Possible: Politics, Value, and Architecture in Argentina

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In the world of business they call it the “elevator pitch”: a short, pithy speech that summarizes the unique aspects of a product or service to interest a potential customer or client. So named because it ideally lasts no longer than the span of an average elevator ride—which the management guru Tom Peters once considered to be two minutes—the purpose of the elevator pitch is to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to sell an idea quickly. Under Peters and others, the elevator pitch became a requisite part of 20th century business. In the world of science, where verbosity is a practiced, even revered, art, the need to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to quickly sell an idea has never seemed quite as necessary. Yet when taxpayer money is increasingly used to fund research, taxpayers generally expect scientists to communicate briefly the findings of that research in understandable (more...)

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Among the most important and common questions that historians of science and STS scholars address is how technical cultures interact with various "lay" communities, such as policymakers, executive decision makers, juries, and public stakeholders. Within STS broadly, scholars have usually thought about these relations within an analytical framework of boundary negotiations. In this framework, technical experts do political work to stake out an epistemic terrain in which their claims will carry an unchallengeable authority. The idea of “science” is important in this framework, because it supposedly signifies (to historical and contemporary actors) knowledge that is uniquely authoritative and stands outside the influence of society and culture. My research on the history of “operational” or “operations research” (OR) has led me to question how well this model describes actual cultures of expertise. One of the prototypical sciences of decision making, OR originated in World War II in scientists’ scrutiny of military (more...)

Interview: Corinna Kruse on the Social Life of Forensic Evidence

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The Poetics of Soil Health

Optical mineralogy is a gaze turned deeply earthward into seeming dark, still, and silent depths. Indeed, when I first peered into a petrographic microscope in the Soil Science Laboratory of Colombia’s National Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi (IGAC), I was slightly disappointed to find myself staring at what appeared to be an unassuming slice of magnified dirt.[1] As soon as the polarizer filter was slipped into place, however, uniform darkness exploded into a kaleidoscope of fuchsias, yellows, violets, and blues. Odd shapes took form, mutated, and then disappeared as though enveloped back into a slowly churning color wheel. Hues shifted in intensity from shades of light to dark, more radiant and increasingly dull as the light diffracted mineral particles and the voids between them at different angles. The IGAC mineralogist who invited me to his workbench that morning registered my surprise, and reminded me that this was only the color spectrum (more...)