disposables - process

In January and February 2017, we visited electronics retail sites in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya to buy a collection of new USB cables as part of an exploration for a new direction within the project. The group of participants included Catherine Chapman (journalist), Chris Williams (international relations scholar), Greenman Muleh Mbilleh (artist), Joan Otieno (artist), Dani Ploeger (artist), Brigitte Mutengwa (anthropologist), Hannah Whittaker (project coordinator), and Alexia Manzano (photographer).

Until this latest journey, the project’s engagement with e-waste had mainly focused on the export of – often still working – second-hand devices from the Global North to the Global South. These devices usually remain technically functional for many years after the original owner discarded them. After having been used by their new owners for a period of time, these devices then eventually end up on e-waste dumps. It is these devices that we engaged with in our workshops in Lagos and Hong Kong.

However, already during our stay in Lagos in early 2015, we became aware of a development in global electronics consumption that has thus far hardly been addressed. After I lost my smartphone in a car robbery, I went out to buy a basic replacement phone (see the blogpost below). To my surprise, a brand-new Nokia brick phone, directly imported from East-Asia, was much cheaper than a similar secondhand model imported from Europe; the ‘original’ model from 15 years ago was considered better quality than the new product.

Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, an increasing amount of e-waste is now generated by low-grade new electronic devices and peripherals (mobile phones, data cables, battery packs etc.). These new devices, which are imported directly from China, Malaysia and other producing countries in East-Asia, often break shortly after purchase and are usually instantly discarded. This trend is also becoming apparent in Europe, where discount retailers like Poundland (UK) and Action (NL) are offering an increasing assortment of peripherals of equally low durability. Thus, a change in the dynamics of global trade in new and used electronics is taking place.

Several questions arise from this development:

-Consumer technologies such as computers and mobile phones have long served as symbolic objects in visions of the ‘new’ and the futuristic. How does the current drive towards conspicuous disposability and transitoriness of these objects affect this symbolic trope?

-The availability of directly imported low-cost new electronics means that Europe and North-America’s role in the supply of consumer technology to Sub-Saharan Africa is declining. In what ways might this development relate to China’s expansion of its geopolitical interests in sub-Saharan Africa in a broader sense (large scale investments in infrastructure, energy supply and raw material mining)?

-How can the degree to which various markets (ranging from the urban to the rural and the pastoral) are penetrated by specific electronic devices (e.g. mobile phones and its peripherals) be read as a degree of connection to and participation in globalized culture?

A consideration of electronics consumption in Kenya is of interest to these questions: the country encompasses a particularly broad range of electronics retail and use practices, ranging from westernized urban mall culture, to pastoral communities where electronics play a very different role. Street vendors and small scale shops are omnipresent in Kenya. Their form of trade seems especially compatible with the dissemination of these cheap, new electronic devices and peripherals. The speed and informal nature of the transactions in public space make it a typical environment for the impulsive purchase of products without long term-use perspectives.

During our visit to Kenya, we decided to examine the rise of low-grade new electronics by tracing the way in which one specific common and cheap electronics accessory – the micro USB charging cable – is represented and sold in a broad range of geographical and cultural environments across the country. We explored the trading sites where we found the various cables through a psychogeographical approach. In his article, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955), Guy Debord describes psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ In such study of the environment, the method of the ‘dérive’, or ‘drift’, takes a central place. Debord describes this as ‘a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.’

In each site we visited, participants conducted several dérives. Throughout these drifts (individually or in pairs) through the retail environment the participants purchased cables and used writing, photography and sound recording to document their environments in terms of their social, geographical, economic, and aesthetic dimensions. In addition, photographer Alexia Manzano created visual overviews of the general environments of the dérives, while also acting as a paparazzi of sorts, taking distant shots of participants with a zoom lens while they were exploring the environments. The resulting set of data from our explorations includes the following:

-a collection of physical cables

-a series of white box studio photographs of these cables

-individual participant documentation of the environments in which the cables were collected (including text, snapshot photos and sound recordings)

-photographic overviews of the various sites

-photos of the participants interacting with their surroundings during their explorations

Through this combination of documentation in different media and with different scopes the project builds on the acknowledgement that the electronic commodities we investigated do not exist as autonomous objects, but are embedded in a network of stories, expectations and practices. Importantly, the buyer also plays an important role in this network. Thus, the project participants are also implicated as research subjects themselves. While performing their explorations, they operate – and are perceived – in a certain relation to the commodities they buy, based on (assumptions about) their background in terms of class, gender and race. Hence, part of the documentation is focused on showing how participants navigate and interact with the various retail environments.

An evaluation of some of our findings in relation to this, as well as a reflection on the potential and limitations of the project’s methodology will follow soon. For now, here is a selection of photos and participant notes from five of the sites we visited:

Gaikindo Market, Nyeri County (regional rural market)

Greenman: ‘My phone is a fake Sony. I asked Jimmy from Jimmy’s Enterprises if he has an original USB cable for my phone. The cable he sold me malfunctions. Charging is frequently interrupted’.

Joan Otieno: ‘Salesman Karioki was not aware that he had a USB cable in his assortment. He didn’t recommend the one he had: “Please don’t buy it, it’s fake! There’s another shop that sells originals. You have money, so you can afford an original one.”’

Gakindu, Nyeri County (settlement, 5km from Gaikindo)

Dani Ploeger: ‘We found no USB cables. Kids offered to go home and look for some for us to buy from their families. Here, only the sheep had cables.’

Westgate Shopping Mall, Westlands, Nairobi (upmarket shopping centre)

Joan Otieno: ‘I perceived this as a place where only the rich go. I didn’t interact with people and only saw prices at a distance. The cables were very expensive. On the way to the toilet I spoke with a security guard. “Do you just want to have a look or do you want to buy?”, he asked. I felt bad about going to shops without buying anything.’

Dani Ploeger: ‘Several of the cables I saw here are advertised with a focus on their innovative characteristics. The promoted features often seem absurd, e.g. the cable doesn’t tangle cos it’s very short.’

Luthuli Avenue, Central Business District, Nairobi (electronics wholesale area)

Catherine Chapman: ‘There are many wholesalers here and nobody seems to know what’s going on. There is no control of products coming in and going out and traders seem to have little to no knowledge of the products they are selling.’

Chris Williams: ‘I was looking for a mini USB lead for my somewhat older phone. I didn’t find any and nobody I met had an understanding of cable types. They were just sales people.’

Nyayo Market, Ngara, Nairobi (secondhand market close to the city centre)

Greenman: ‘I overheard the traders speaking among each other: “Did you have the whites in your shop? They look like money”. They asked me: “are you buying this for yourself or for them?” I was perceived as part of a group of foreigners, rather than a local individual visiting the market.’

Chris Williams: ‘I felt that the atmosphere on the market was relaxed. I spoke with a trader who appreciated secondhand products: “old is gold”’.