Deserted Devices and Wasted Fences. Everyday Technologies in Extreme Circumstances
Triarchy Press, Axminster, UK, 2021
120 pp. b/w. Paper, £12.50; PDF & ePub, £10
ISBN: 978-1-913743-43-7; ISBN: 978-1-913743-44-4; ISBN: 978-1-913743-45-1.
If the content of a book is what one finds between two covers, then Deserted Devices and Wasted Fences is definitely one whose covers, in the broad sense of the word, do not totally tell the same story (the book itself, however, as it becomes clear at the end, proves to have a very unified approach, building clear bridges between critical theory, science and technology, and practice-based artistic research).
The introductory and first part of the publication –the front cover if one prefers– insist on a program that is rather close to a classic topic of technology and society studies: the reappropriation of technological artefacts in unforeseen and not always programmed situations and contexts as well as the creative reuse that people can make of thinks by giving them new forms, but also new functions and functionalities. To paraphrase the SCOT axiom, “form follows failure” (itself a reinterpretation of the designer’s credo “form follows function”), one could say that the essays of this book, all of them the critical and theoretical counterpart of practice-based artistic research, are variations on the idea of “function follows failure.” Foregrounding the theoretical stakes of his research rather than a commentary of his own works, Dani Ploeger unfolds a fascinating collection of technological objects out of joint, such as for example old-fashioned smartphones used to avoid police surveillance, outdated computers finding a second life in African ICT shops, or no longer functioning slide projectors that are nevertheless sold and bought as … slide projectors.
Very rapidly, the key notion that comes to the fore is that of waste, not only waste as what consumers and companies in the Global North tend to write off and discard and what is then often very smartly recycled in the Global South, but as the symptom of the larger economic and ideological disruption of the traditional cycle of innovation, consumption, obsolescence and disposal by the hegemony of a new cycle of endless and permanently faster and always increasing consumption that tend to dispose of objects and technologies even before the moment where they can no longer be of any use. The logic behind this acceleration extends beyond the mere tendency toward economic and material overconsumption, since at another, properly cultural and ideological level, it strengthens the belief that materiality is no longer part of technological life. If objects are withdrawn from circulation before we are confronted with the technical problems their failure may raise, it is not only to faster sell us always newer versions of the same, but also to prevent us from being confronted with moments where the materiality of our failing tools becomes painfully visible. Such putting between brackets of technological issues creates as well as reinforces the illusion that technology has become so natural and so smoothly integrated in our daily lives that it is pointless to ask questions on the material infrastructure and operations that drive our overconsumption. The political and ecological consequences of “smart” technology can, therefore, remain hidden, with all that this involves for our perception and critical judgment of the power relationships and inequalities of consumption culture. This is a clear and sound message, although it misses a little bit the point, so strongly emphasized by McLuhan as well as Friedrich Kittler, of the possible traumatizing effects of innovations, which are not automatically accepted (that is: easily used) by all consumers. Disability studies, for studies, would certainly have something to say on the illusion of “transparent” technology, even in the most advanced Global North.
Yet the more one progresses in Ploeger’s book, the more a second program emerges. This program is overtly activist, and its major elements are outlined in the final section of Deserted Devices and Wasted Fences – the part close to its back cover, so to speak. Indeed, some of the technologies studied in the second part of the book are not really waste items getting a second life, but examples of modern technology that simply do what they are meant to do, even if their user’s manual and the public discourse that goes along do not refrain from a different and purposively deceptive message. For instance, the new types of barbed wire used to discourage unwanted immigration in the EU and other parts of the Global North (but one can easily imagine their use in certain parts of the Global South as well) represent a technology whose form and function perfectly coincide with their intended outcome, even if they also aim to further advance ideas of immateriality and invisibility.
In the final essay, Ploeger’s political and activist analysis explicitly refers to Barthes’s semiotic analysis of the myth, in other words the socially accepted discourse that helps frame a cultural object as perfectly natural and thus without any links to context, materiality or history. As in Barthes’s Mythologies (1953), the aim of decoding a myth is not only to disclose what lies underneath the universalizing and dehistoricizing discourse of daily life technology, but also to elaborate a counter-discourse capable of liberating us form both the myth and the society that is built on it (by the way, similar concerns could already be found in Marshall McLuhan’s 1951 The Mechanical Bride, which the author presented among other things as a manual on how to escape the “fall-out” of modern advertisement culture). Ploeger sticks to the same ambition, which he develops in two stages. First, he shares with Barthes the desire to oppose the myth by the creation of counter-myths, that is by analyzing the technologies of daily life not to dissimulate the role of materiality, politics, and history but instead to unearth and stress these ordinarily hidden aspects. Second, he expands this counter-mythological discourse to a larger call for revolution – without actually saying what he really means by that, although the artistic research projects that are briefly referred to in the final compendium of the book may give a first flavor of such a revolution, whose main target is the dead end of mindless overconsumption.
Deserted Devices and Wasted Fences is an interesting contribution to the critical reflection on modern consumer technology. While always closely focusing on specific objects, Ploeger makes an excellent use of theoretical references and powerfully shows the possibilities of translating general insights in very specific and concrete reappropriations, both in real life (the core of this publication) and in art and technology/science research projects (which the reader is encouraged to visit, for example on the author’s website: https://www.daniploeger.org/).