Upload your pictures. Download new software. Facetime your family, text your friends. Screen lights up. Finger scrolls down. Screen goes black. What reflects back?
These days, we don’t just use the glossy phones and ubiquitous electronics sold to us in the masses: we accessorize with them. Where traditional accessories (the charm bracelets and the mini purses) live analogically beside us, the vast digital capacity of New-Age Electronics allow devices to be accessories of higher stakes. They assist in one’s construction and understanding of selfhood and begin to merge with our identities. Take a look at your Google Drive files, your Photos application, your Instagram feed, and your scattered digital Notes. Each one reflects the process of unloading experiences and memories onto devices. Each one proves devices to be mere housing ports for us to funnel remnants of experiences. So when they reach their inevitable shelf-lives, they become complex pieces of trash: reflections of humanity, remnants of time, and ghosts of ourselves.
The technological “upgrade cycle” and the pressure of “relevance” are inextricable. We need our material media to be relevant so that we can engage with our peers and simply use our devices– ever tried to update the software on an iPhone 4s? Meanwhile, we need our electronics to be relevant to remain “on trend.” But once we’re done with our playthings and vices, what does abandonment hold? It’s not as simple as clearing the trash bin on your computer. What does mass abandonment of material media mean for our economy? Our environment? Our Legacy? We’re at the whim of a collection of servers.
There’s an ancient African proverb that reads “when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Now, when Tech giants compete to push new products and technology into an ugly cycle of consumption, it’s most glaringly the people and the earth that endure the pain. With this comes the inevitable obsoletion of our electronics, swept away to offshore landfills. The ports that receive this E-Waste are oversaturated, leading to improper recycling practices that allow toxic chemicals to percolate from once-so-shiny devices. These toxins, emitting into airways and seeping into water sources, are ultimately an embodiment of ourselves. During the decomposition of our organic bodies into the earth, the chemicals and information that leach out transfer into nutrients for the soil. The chemicals and information that we have systematically offloaded onto devices do no such thing. The process of deleting a file from your computer is so simple: drag a file to the trash bin, then empty the bin. The computer erases the reference to that file from your computer. Poof. Gone forever? Maybe not. Even when a file is deleted it often remains on a computer’s harddrive until it is fully overridden. When E-waste decomposes where do these files and memories go?
Growth and decay coexist indefinitely in nature. Somewhere along the way an illusory line was plotted between human consumption and nature’s rot. Teetering on this line is the necessity for the very electronics that consume us. The very electronics that pump waste into our earth are the ones that provide us new avenues for art, identity, education, and salvation. We have never stopped to ask ourselves if this enlightenment is worth the toll it takes on Mother Nature: the environment itself now must bear the memories of human salvation.
Now, with our constant upgrade cycle, the once so clear structures of Time collapse around us. Our years now defined by the latest iPhone, our days by the constant influx of the 24 hours news cycle, and our hours by the time that slips from us as we scroll and scroll and scroll on social media. As the lifespan of our devices shrinks further, we must reflect on what happens to our obsolete items when they are no longer of use. When devices are constructed to become an intimate piece of us, they in turn become an intimate piece of our history. Our legacy becomes a story so clearly told by the devices we interact with and the memories we store.
But while our new electronic “world” extends the limits of our imaginations and capabilities, we must not muddle this new-age Universe with the existing one that we inhabit. While devices creep into our livelihoods, we remain as mere footnotes in history. If we are not intentional about the information that we offload onto our devices, we may lose ourselves, becoming footnotes, too, of the electronic worlds we have created. The chemicals and materials that our devices produce will long outlive us. They may even outlive a fleeting organic earth. But what we leave behind in landfills and recycling centers is more than scrap metal and broken batteries: it is the pieces of ourselves that we have lost.
Creative Direction Josie Zimmerman and Isabelle Roig
Words Lu Gillespie
Photographs Mai-Han Nguyen and Isa Zisman
Editor Haley Harris
Stylists Kamy Chong and Josie Zimmerman
Featuring Katie MacPherson G Hao Lee
Armour Magazine Season 26 — S/S 2021