The Life Cycle of the Computer: A Study in the Materialities of Risk
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The environmental effects of personal computers, from dangerous chemicals used in chip production to e-waste, have largely been ignored in pop culture, mainstream media, and much academic research. In order to take up these questions, this dissertation pursues a cultural study of the personal computer. The life cycle analysis (LCA) is a scientific method that calculates all the resources used in the life of a given object, from resource extraction, production, use, user, to disposal. As partial method for my study it brings an environmental accounting, as used in the sciences, and a structure to my cultural study, which approaches the computer as a cultural artifact. In order to more fully consider cultural aspects from daily personal negotiations to larger political questions, I extend the LCA with assemblage theory to consider the social and representational spaces associated with computers and the environment. What my primary sources have in common is that they represent moments of visibility of these problems. My research sources include documents from news media, policy papers, art practice, management discourse, corporate texts, and activist reports. The relative absence of these topics in academia, the news, and popular culture functions as the structuring absences of this project. A large part of my work has been to follow these fleeting moments in academic and mainstream sources. Because of the emphasis on the visual in our culture, my central problematic involves theorizing the visible, especially in relation to the visual, in risk culture in order to theorize how and why environmental risks remain outside to so many understandings of computers and the information age. I argue that to fully understand the environmental effects of technological culture we need to examine six interlocking factors: notions of materiality and immateriality; the geopolitics of toxicity and risk; the shift from industrial to risk society; cybernetics and the environment; the relationship between visibility and visuality; and risk culture.