Smarter than ‘Smart’: Using Interactive Narratives to Represent the Life Cycles of Digital Devices

10:00 AM, Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 (1 hour)

This paper explores how interactive digital narratives can engage users in learning about the life cycles of digital devices—the beginnings and endings, or, the befores and afters of product consumption and screen reception. To begin, I briefly describe how proliferating illusions of media immateriality (including the “all-screen interface” of the new iPhone X) discourage users from thinking about where their technological devices come from and where they go after they are thrown away as part of the churn of planned obsolescence.

In opposition to so-called “smart” devices, I align the agency of an interactive e-lit reader with the agency of a smarter technological user. The dynamic narrative content of e-literature can draw attention to users’ active engagement, potentially highlighting, as projects such as the 2011 video game Phone Story did, that they are complicit in narrative as well as consumption choices. For this kind of research, storytelling methods are valuable for communicating strong and even uncomfortable messages across through platforms in which everyday users are already literate and to which they are already accustomed. To shape my approaches, I draw upon the field of media archaeology’s construction of alternative histories and discourses of media and technology that are intent on etching out—for scholars, students, and the public alike—more comprehensive and responsible approaches to technological consumption.

To demonstrate an interactive narrative on device lifecycles, this paper introduces my in- development e-lit project Open (Re)source, which combines critique with making to offer a digital narrative of several parts that will mediate different roles of materiality in digital infrastructure—from minerals to processors, from interfaces to open source methods towards sustainability. I discuss what kinds of narrative platforms and methods are able to engage e-lit users-as-readers in the life cycles digital devices. I will discuss interactive mediations of a short video that I filmed at an eWaste plant in Hong Kong, a global hub for illegal and toxic eWaste “recycling.”

This paper expands questions of what is visible and legible of digital devices to asking questions of who and when. As the project Open (Re)source is nascent, this paper would potentially open conversation about thoughtful consumption and engagement, whether of digital technologies or digital narratives.

University of Waterloo