disposables: shopping-as-research

The field research project Shopping-as-Research in Cheap Electronics examined the increasing prominence of low-cost and seemingly disposable new consumer technologies in Sub-Sahara Africa. These are gradually taking the place of imported second-hand devices from the Global North as the most prominent everyday digital technologies. In January and February 2017, a group of artists and academics from Kenya and the UK traveled through Kenya to trace the distribution and retail of cheap, throw-away quality electronics. They visited downtown shopping streets, rural markets, luxury shopping malls and wholesale traders to buy and document one of the cheapest electronics accessories: USB charging cables.

Over the past decades, large numbers of used electronic devices from Europe and North-America have been exported to countries in Africa and East-Asia, where they have been re-used and eventually discarded and processed as waste. However, in recent years a change has been taking place in the global distribution of electronic devices and their accessories. More and more often, new low-grade, cheap electronics – including phones, tablets and their accessories – are now exported directly from manufacturers in East-Asia to consumers in both the Global North and the Global South. In the nearby future, this stream of new devices may replace the export and re-use of second-hand devices from Europe and North-America. At the same time, everyday electronic devices and peripherals that are so cheap that even consumers in developing economies can afford throwing them away quickly are likely to become commonplace.

The artists and academics taking part in this project examined this development through psychogeographical explorations of various trading sites for consumer electronics in Kenya. While drifting through different environments, they purchased a range of USB phone charging cables and documented various aspects of these objects, their surroundings, and the stories accompanying them. This has formed the starting point for reflection on the ways in which these seemingly small and banal objects might reflect broader themes. What does the rise of ultra-cheap technologies mean with regards to the role of technology as a classic cultural symbol for progress and the new? How might the changing global distribution of consumer electronics reflect larger shifts in international (neo-colonial) power dynamics?

The project has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, UK and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, among others. Its core participants were Dani Ploeger, Catherine Chapman, Joost Fontein, Greenman Muleh Mbillo,  Joan Otieno and Chris Williams.

Shopping-as-Research was presented at the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi and at the Whitechapel Gallery Creative Studio in London in 2017.