Author Archive

Collyer Brothers

By: Elizabeth

I’m sure most of you have heard of the Collyer Brothers, but in case you haven’t… I just saw a puppet film (all done with paper puppets as opposed to animated) about them and was reminded of their ridiculous story.

They were two wealthy eccentric brothers who lived in Harlem and became insane horders over a period of decades (allegedly both a boat and an entire car were found among the rubble of their excavated apartment). They ended up literally being killed by the stockpile of their own household refuse- One brother was crushed by an avalanche of stuff, leaving the second (who, handicapped and blind, depended on his brother for survivial) to starve to death.

Their home was eventually destroyed and turned into a park, in their honor.


Do you have a card?

By: Elizabeth
One form of “E-waste” that comes to mind for me is all those contact numbers and email addresses entered into your phone that will never be used. Because everyone is so electronically connected now, it doesn’t seem like as big a deal to “plug someone in” to your system. Just get their email address- not too personal, right? Or even their name- find em on facebook. But in many cases how likely are you to “use” that information again? Or, god forbid, commit it to memory (when was the last time you memorized a phone number)?

I would say that the likelihood of me ever thinking about a person again (let alone contacting them) is multiplied at least 10 fold if I have received their personal/business card, as opposed to simply entering their info into my phone. There is a good chance I will come across the card again and again (cleaning out my bag, moving things around my desk, searching through my card collection for someone else). I hold it in my hands, it is tactile, the font, information included, material choice (usually paper but sometimes even plastic or rubber- as seen above) are all used to express something about the individual- all this works together to capture my attention in a way that I don’t consider “wasteful”.

This all goes back to the personal/nostalgia elements of paper we’ve all talked about but I think it is interesting in terms of our discussion of the way time/attention is used or wasted in an e-world, as compared to how it functions in the experience of producing, receiving, and retaining the material version of this very same information (in this case, someone’s name, occupation, and contact information).

I was at a film festival this weekend and, taking my own small paper cards with me, was initially a bit insecure and uncertain as to what the “card culture” would be. However I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was far from alone, and became the thrilled recipient (as well as donor) of many business cards- items that I will likely keep (in my rubberbanded stack) for a long time to come.

(Hoarder alert! :)

Plastic in Paradise

By: Elizabeth


A few weeks ago I had the rare pleasure of exponentially increasing my carbon footprint and flying to Bali! Although I was certainly stunned by the abundant natural beauty, it wasn’t long (50 steps or so to walk from hotel to beach) before I was struck by something else- the island’s overwhelming trash problem. I was there in the rainy season, a time when daily showers wash the island’s unsightly waste woes down to coast, concentrating refuse at the water’s edge. Not surprisingly, most of the trash I encountered was plastic, and I spent a morning gathering all the pieces I came across in a 1/4 mile range of beach in front of my hotel. The “pull” was overwhelming (I had to get 2 friends to help me carry it all), and though I had plans to photograph and/or “do creative things” with this booty, unfortunately one of the hotel staff mistook my pile of collected items for trash (!) and threw it out before I got a chance.

Below are some pictures I later took of plastic trash I found mingling with other natural “refuse” (flower petals, fallen leaves, coconuts) on the streets of Ubud. This “natural” (i.e. organic, biodegradable) sort of waste product is the type of “Trash” the island was used to dealing with until just recently when tourism and influences from foreign markets began to introduce other materials. Unfortunately Bali has become a prime example of a place where materials (plastic, among others) are introduced to a society before disposal methods or cultural understanding of these products are properly in place. Thus the result is an island where citizens end up throwing plastic packaging on the ground, because there is no historical familiarity with the material, and adequate infrastructure isn’t provided.

I will also include a link to a video which (though it provides a somewhat inaccurately optimistic picture, and is a bit boring at times) offers some more information on the subject:

Peanuts- The Least of Our Problems

By: Elizabeth

Obviously, as Susuan Stasser points out, much of the economic and cultural structures built around paper are reliant upon preoccupations with hygiene and general cleanliness. Or as she puts it, a younger generation with “a  passion for clean garments and the feel of personal daintiness.” She then goes on to outline the many ways in which cleanliness “became big business,” a business largely built upon scare tactics regarding the “Dangers of Dirt.”

However these have proved to be ironic breeding grounds for this industry, as now many studies are now pointing to the potential dangers of humans sanitizing themselves out of a functioning immune system. There has been much published on this topic but there was an interesting article in The New Yorker just last month about the ways in which scientists and nutritionists are changing their tune about how to prevent (the alarming rise of) food allergies in children. Essentially the shift is one from a belief in protecting children from anything potentially harmful early on to an educated understanding that in fact you MUST expose them to these things (be they foods, germs, or “dirt”), or risk raising little bodies that never learn how to process these things and thus develop dangerously low levels of immunity.

Of course this could turn out to be the ultimate (long term) ideal for the Pushers of Paper (and cleanliness in general): If you successfully create a society of people unable to set foot outdoors without sneezing, you’ll be selling more Kleenex than ever.

Up Shit Creek

By Elizabeth

“From a sanitary viewpoint, poor cities on every continent are little more than clogged, overflowing sewers.”

-Mike Davis, ‘Slum Ecology’

In all this reading about slums and their problems with waste disposal (as it pertains to health, hygiene, water sanitation, etc) I could not help but think of the dry toilets I encountered in my travels to New Zealand and Mexico, where we were studying many of these same issues (focused primarily in an environmental context but regardless, the outcome is the same).

In both these places I was shown (and used- thank you) dry toilets which seemed at the time to be the obvious solution to so many urban/waste/water/environment/health woes. I still don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about these!

“Less than 10% of homes in metro Manila are connected to sewer systems” (Davis, 139)

The beauty of these toilets is they do not have to be connected to anything- dry toilets do not require any elaborate piping systems OR water.

The toilets I encountered on my trip required no electricity, but simply a manual addition of wood chips after each use. This, in combination with another (also simple, non-electric) built-in system for separating wet and dry waste, resulted in a simple and efficient processing of waste into compost. “The way nature intended” (but sped up). As Davis states in another section of this same chapter, “Cities need an alliance with Nature in order to recycle their waste products into usable inputs [for farming, gardening, and energy production.]”

I found an incredible youtube video (the production-value of which should be an inspiration to anyone pursuing a degree in Media Studies) that explains/advertises the Biolet toilet. It is a form of dry toilet that, while designed for smaller numbers of people (ideally 4 per toilet), and reliant upon electricity (however this could be achieved through solar power), still gives the general sense of how the toilets operate and how well they could service many of our urban waste problems if developed and implemented properly.

Voice-automated customer service


In my opinion, one of the hands-down most annoying “productivity platforms” of recent years is voice-automated customer service. Launched to streamline customer traffic and optimize company minutes and dollars, I find this approach to be not only irritating and impersonal, but consistently less effective than the traditional customer-service route (known as “speaking to another human being”). In my experience the automated machine’s ability to decipher and interpret the customers statements or “vocal commands” is frequently so flawed as to cause the call to take at least twice as long as it would if simply speaking to a human.

A productivity platform aimed at saving the companies time and money (through labor-costs) seems to me to have the opposite effect on the customer side, where this development has the adverse effect of offsetting (company) time onto our (the customers’) watch. Not to mention giving us a headache (I found it hilariously ironic and yet perfectly appropriate that this should be among the first 10 images to pop up when google searching “voice-automated customer service”):

Click here and check out “Verascape,” a voice-automated  call processing service that promises to

• Increase revenue
• Capture valuable marketing information
• Dramatically lower costs – by 35-70%

Their homepage closes in stating that with Verascape’s voice automated solutions, you’ll find your business in “a little less conversation and a little more action.”

In search of instant-value

By: Elizabeth

As Susan Strasser explains in ‘Waste and Want,’ the promise of convenience was once advertised as a promise of freedom – “from attention, care, and responsibility.” I would like to highlight these three words as precisely the elements that serve to instill value in something, that is to say, prevent it from being disposable. To “free” ourselves (through myriad and constantly evolving methods of time-saving) from these “burdens” is in effect to put ourselves in the position of one who does not care, one who does not pay attention, one who does not take responsibility.
These are the ingredients for a valueless society.
The things we most value in life (be they objects, places, or relationships), are generally those which we have “spent” the most time on. A baseball bat doesn’t hold value because it was purchased for $45 or is latest in the Ken Griffey Jr series, but because it belonged to our father and had it since he was 8 years old, or because we used it for every softball game we played growing up. Curtains don’t have value because we bought them at Target but because we made them ourselves (and it took 4 hours! Because it was our first time sewing! And we really sucked at first!). Everyone knows that that one treasured childhood stuffed animal is not the one that was the cutest or the most expensive, but the one that we spent the most time with. You might throw out the Target curtains without thinking twice, but the same could hardly be true for the ones you “spent” the time to make yourself.
These things sound cheesy, but of course they are true.
It seems that as long as we continue our avid efforts of saving time and avoiding “putting time” into things, we will in effect be perpetuating a cycle of disposability wherein the value of things (be they items or relationships-as Zygmunt Bauman discusses in his speed-dating piece) is constantly degraded due to lack of “time spent.” More and more people seem to want (and expect) a “quick fix” for everything. But the fact is that for many things, the fix itself is achieved through time. To have a good relationship with you daughter, you have to spend time with her. There is no book you can buy or place you can move or room you can redecorate that will make it happen faster. The relationship itself will be defined through time spent and commitment to those very three things – to a sense of responsibility, a dedication to “pay” attention, and an effort to truly “give” care.
It is time (and responsibility, and attention, and care) that ultimately gives things their true value. The more we succeed in freeing ourselves from those “burdens” (as labeled by marketers of convenience), the more one begins to wonder …what will be left worth saving all this time for?