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Foregrounding the Implications of Technological Obsolescence through Ecomedia

There is another double-barrelled ECREA 2016 keynote session today, and it starts with Joanna Zylinska, whose interest is in technical obsolescence in media history. Media forms and devices emerge and decline again over time; Joanna is interested in a kind of shallow media geology that explores the various media pasts and futures at local, national, and global levels. This enables an exploration of the dynamics of the contemporary media ecology. In part this is also about the planned media obsolescence that is now designed into many devices.

Joanna's focus here is especially on photography, but this is also part of a wider media landscape that includes photography tools and accessories as well as the broader range of crucial support technologies that are required to enable photographic practices. There is a kind of self-loop here as well, as some forms of ecomedia also specifically focus on the ecological impacts of media technology change and obsolescence.

It was only in the 20th century that media came to mean the mass media; previously it also had some more environmental meanings. Today, photographers and other environmental activists focus on the toxic e-junk dumps in developing nations, being raked over by scavengers and low-paid workers; this may be aimed at evoking moral outrage or generating financial support for these populations. But some such photos are also staged, even using actors rather than actual locals; this complicates these depictions, turning them into scenes designed for viewers who are arriving into a world which the other already inhabits.

What reaches out to us from these pictures is not just the gaze of the workers or actors depicted; it is a material reality that calls us to responsibility and encourages something that is not just a moral response. Such moralistic responses tend to be highly fleeting, too – as experienced also in the responses to crisis photography. Immediate support is often withdrawn again as these images recede from the mainstream media.

Such images challenge our ethos – our habitat and habitual lives. We are called to develop new habits rather than new morals, in an attempt to master the scenes in front of us; such mastery is represented by iterations of compartmentalising thought processes that engage with but then also seek to contain the personal response to these disruptive images. There is an ethical opening available here, but no assurance that it will be activated.

Such photographic artefacts also end up in national media museums such as that in Bradford in the north of England. These tend to take an openly nostalgic approach, and take on the feeling of a funeral parlour commemorating the passing of early and conventional photography. The boxes displaying early camera technology take on the air of open funeral caskets here.

This is also an anticipation of the decline of conventional analogue photography, with many exhibits pointing to the eventual replacement of these technologies with more recent photographic tools. This feeling is heightened by the jumble of large, early cameras and associated tools that gradually gives way to the collection of smaller and smaller devices.

The digital revolution, by contrast, tends to be underrepresented here, as are the historic failures of companies like Kodak to anticipate the potential of digital technologies. What is displayed here are the fossils of forgotten dreams – a very western story of photography that also highlights the failure of the American dream of continued progress given the disruption of digital technologies.

More recent transformations push the museum display towards a more technologistic approach to media: there is a turn to science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM) coverage at the expense of artistic and cultural themes. But this ignores that in the wake of networked photography technologies, photography itself has never been as exuberant as it is today.

In the U.K., the cultural aspects of photographic media are now moving to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and thus to the national capital that may see itself as a cultural hub but in reality is now merely a faceless neoliberal financial hub. The move away from Bradford with its rich history of post-industrial redevelopment is therefore also an act of cultural vandalism.

This is perhaps also representative of wider changes in technology. Joanna's own photographic project is to capture the technological messes caused by continuing change: the increasing wire salads and technological assemblages that underpin our current media and technological experiences. Cables, for instance, have been expected to disappear for some time, but persist still; even in spite of the move towards wireless connectivity, chargers and connectors have continued to multiply, and wireless home networks still crucially depend on wired national and international connections.

These wires accumulate, tangle, and gather dust under our desks and behind our screens; highlighting these tangles also has an ethical dimension as it foregrounds various media processes and connections while hinting at others that still remain invisible. Wiredness points to privilege, distancing us from those who have remained disconnected. And we don't know what to do with the mess we have made: can ecomedia call us to act and address these messes? Waste is inevitable, but if this is the case, then how do we deal with this? This is a most pressing eco-political task.