Monday, March 28, 2016

On freegans, pre-peeled oranges, and ethical consumer ‘Whack-A-Mole’

Photo courtesy of the author.

Food justice activist and doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley

Whole Foods felt the wrath of the Twitter-sphere this month. The episode started with consumers questioning the company’s ethical bona-fides but, in the end, cast into doubt the effectiveness of “ethical consumerism” itself. It’s another example of the unlikely lessons, recounted in my new book Freegans: Diving Into the Wealth of Food Waste in America, we can learn from looking at the cast-offs of our food system—in this case, orange peels.

“OrangeGate” started when a shopper in a London Whole Foods tweeted a picture of a new product: pre-peeled, individually packaged oranges. She acerbically remarked, “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn't need to waste so much plastic on them.” Online outrage ensued and the photo was retweeted 110,000 times. Whole Foods eventually declared that the innovation was, in fact, “a mistake” and promised that they had been “pulled” from the shelves.

It was a modest win, but one worth celebrating. The problem is not so much the packaging the oranges were being sold in—plastic—as the one they were not—the peel. Stores like Whole Foods pre-cut, pre-peel, and pre-cook food in order to increase selling prices in a competitive market where the raw materials—that is, the food itself—are unprecedentedly cheap. These practices “add value” for the company, but they subtract from foods’ shelf life—contributing to the U.S.’s 50% increase in food waste per capita since the 1970s. The environmental impact of the water, fertilizer, and land area that goes into a piece of produce we don’t eat is often even worse the more visible waste of excess packaging.

But environmental activists’ celebrations were cut short. Disability-rights advocates pointed out that, although certainly not the intention behind their introduction, Whole Foods’ pre-peeled oranges (and pre-cut foods in general) are a boon for people with limited hand dexterity or arthritis. That this had not been taken into consideration showed that “protesters prioritized the environment over the experiences of disabled people.” Some environmentalists conceded that these counter-critiques had a point.

But this leaves those of us still following the story at an impasse. What do we as consumers do if we care both about the environment and accessibility? The problem, I argue, is the assumption behind the question itself: that we should confront social problems as individual consumers.

As OrangeGate showed, ethical consumerism is a bit like Whack-A-Mole. As the one-time consumer activists I interviewed for my book realized, we often solve one problem in our lifestyle only to uncover three new ones. It’s the frustration that confronts vegans who discover that the production of vegetable crops on industrialized farms kills billions of small animals; conscientious shoppers who start buying from “natural” foods stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods only to find out their promises of perfect food make them often the most wasteful; people who patronize their local farmers’ market religiously until they learn that small producers, too, can have abusive labor practices.

These realizations can lead to disenchantment—or to a creative rethinking of what effective activism is all about. My book centers on one group of people who embarked as individuals on a search for ways to live both ethically and efficaciously and wound up adopting a new and poorly understood collective approach: “freeganism.” Freeganism, as one of my respondents told me, is a kind of “practicing anti-capitalism” in which participants refuse, as much as possible, to buy anything. Freeganism is founded on the idea that every product in an increasingly un-regulated market economy—even those labeled “organic,” “fair trade,” or “humane slaughter”—can be traced back to abuses of one kind or another.

Instead, freegans recover the unused or wasted resources left behind by our capitalist economy and repurpose them toward putting in place alternative values of mutual aid and sustainability. Freegans are best known for “dumpster diving”: taking food discarded by supermarkets and redistributing it for free. Nonetheless, freeganism isn’t just about recovering wasted food: the group I studied in New York also ran a free bike workshop, organized “skill-shares” to train people to repair discarded textiles or forage for wild food in city parks, and helped set up “really really free markets” to circulate unneeded goods that, for one person, might seem like “waste” but for others was really useful “wealth.”

The practices of freeganism are, unsurprisingly, not exactly appealing to everyone (although resistance tends to soften as soon as one sees a dumpster full of one-day-expired bags of premium coffee or an entire trash bag filled with still-warm donuts). Nor is freeganism an accessible practice to a large part of the population. I outline in my book how the movement struggled to overcome barriers to participation related to class, race, and ability, as well as a pushback from stores concerned about the negative publicity (so much so that some started bleaching their garbage and guarding their dumpsters!).

But the point of freeganism was never to convince everyone to jump into a dumpster. Instead, freegans use the provocation of uncovering waste—“Did a store really throw that out?”—to question the assumptions behind ethical consumption. As freegans constantly reminded me, money in a capitalist economy is fungible; even if you buy the oranges in the peel at Whole Foods, you’re still supporting a business model that produces pre-peeled oranges and sells them at double the price. Moreover, “free markets” are anything but efficient in translating consumer demands into concrete changes. The products we boycott are often still produced, but then thrown out—and the proof is in the dumpsters themselves (where those Whole Foods oranges “pulled” from the shelves—alongside the approximately 90% of new food products introduced each year which “fail”—probably wound up).

But perhaps, most importantly, freegans remind us that the question “How can I make the world a better place?” should never be reduced to “What should I buy?” Freegans avoid wasting food not by buying fancier packaging, but by sharing with one another when they have too much; when they can’t find the right ingredients, they don’t rush to the store, but they cook together. As soon as we look at our food system as something we are constantly producing as a group—whether through gardening, foraging, or gleaning—some of the problems confronting us when we see ourselves only as consumers, left to manage as best we can with whatever the market makes available to us, disappear. Not being able to peel oranges, after all, is only a problem when we expect people to shop, prepare, and eat their meals alone—rather than, as freegans did, treating feeding ourselves as a collective effort in which everyone has something (literally and figuratively) to bring to the table.


Alex V. Barnard is author of Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. He is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a food justice activist.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair publicly launched the first idea of the television and what it can do.

This publicity photograph from RCA emphasizes the wealth
and prestige of the first television viewers posed in front of the
TRK-12 RCA receiver.
Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library. 


Today, we take television for granted. It is everywhere, in different sizes and shapes, in our pockets and our living room walls. It is ubiquitous.

The idea of the television we know today was introduced to the American public in the 1920s and then more as a reality in the 1930s. John Vassos (1898-1985), an American artist and the Radio Coporation of America’s lead consultant industrial designer, played a critical role at the start of the television age, creating a shape for the first mass-produced televisions in America. RCA, a dominant force in radio production and broadcasting through its affiliate NBC, was a leading innovator in television technology and manufacturing. Vassos’s televisions were introduced in a big splashy presentation at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, also in 1939 and 1940. RCA’s broadcast of the opening of the World’s Fair marked the commencement of regular television broadcasts in North America and was the first opportunity for a large public to see television in operation. Vassos’s earliest television receivers used the then-futuristic idiom of streamlining to create a receiver design that became outdated before it hit the market.

The large TRK-12 receiver was named for its 12-inch screen. Vassos had been challenged to find an appropriate cabinet for RCA’s newest and most ambiguous technology. Indeed, the terminology “television” was still so new that the machine had not received its name and “receiver” more accurately described what the machine did: capture the transmission of television. RCA was unsure how to promote the new medium. Was it radio with pictures or something else?

The challenge of creating a shape for television forced Vassos to consider issues affecting design for the home for a truly new technology. The freestanding unit’s large mechanical parts posed a design difficulty. He chose to integrate some elements of radio in a design that is now considered a classic. The TRK-12’s importance to RCA cannot be underestimated. It suggests an instance of a visionary design worthy of study despite its failure in the marketplace due to a disruption in production during the war and advances in television technology that soon replaced the cumbersome receiver.

RCA, a leader in television manufacturing, introduced its premier technology at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Its opening speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 30, 1939, marks the advent of regularly scheduled broadcast programming in the United States. It aired on W2XBS, the predecessor of NBC. The ceremony was viewed by several hundred viewers on TV receivers inside the RCA Pavilion at the fairgrounds as well as on receivers installed on the 62nd floor of Radio City. Ten hours of programming, including shows from the NBC studio in Radio City, were played on the multiple receivers housed in the RCA Pavilion.

RCA - Harvey Gibson, "Miss Television," and James E. Robert
stand with an earlier iteration of the television, c. 1935-45.
Image from Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

This striking receiver was the first thing that visitors saw upon entering the RCA pavilion along with Stuart Davis’s wall mural as a backdrop and illuminated by natural light from a spectacular glass curtain. The Phantom TRK-12, the one-of-a-kind Lucite version of one of four mass marketed televisions available in department stores, was mounted on a circular stage and surrounded by smooth curving metal bars. The object was like an exotic, beautiful, and perhaps dangerous animal held back by a cage. The effect on visitors is clear in the photo where they gaze at the receiver, not quite knowing what to make of it. Journalist Orrin E. Dunlap remarked on the rarity and cost of the object and the difficulty posed in mass producing it. He wrote:

by inspecting a special television set built in a glass cabinet visitors at Flushing have the opportunity to observe the complexity of the radio-sight chassis and why the machines are priced from $200 to $1,000. To see this gleaming glass encased instrument is to realize what a trick it is ahead to swing such an intricate outfit into mass production. It is evidence that the manufacturer as well as the showman has been tossed a challenge by the research experts who now anxiously watch to see what artistry can do with the new giant long-range eyes. (New York Times, May 7, 1939.)

An article shows curious spectators surrounding
TRK-12 televisions at various locations in the
New York City region.
Broadcast News, July 1939.
Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.

RCA released the TRK-12 for sale soon after the start of the fair. Stores were mobbed with bystanders—an image of a televised crowd watching television that would be replicated again and again. In many ways, the World’s Fair was the ideal place to unveil a new technology. The exhibit, like the fair as a whole, was meant to express the values of freedom from scarcity and hope for a future saved by technology and administered by big business. The timing was right for a look at the future since the country had endured a decade of depression and was on the verge of joining a war that had already erupted in Europe. These fears and hopes were expressed succinctly by President Roosevelt's opening address at the fair: “The eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” This was literally the case as thousands of people at the Fair and at department stores around New York City watched and listened to his address on the new medium of television and dreamed of a new tomorrow.


Danielle Shapiro is author of John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life. She is an independent scholar who has served as senior program officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. She earned her PhD in art history and communications studies from McGill University.

"John Vassos is a complex portrait of an artist and designer whose early illustration work criticized the tempo and commercialism of modern life but whose later design work took for granted those same qualities and attempted to accommodate people to them."
—Jeffrey L. Meikle, University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Disagreement abounds about the best way to serve deaf children.

Assistant professor of human development/family studies and women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Connecticut

A common argument for using sign language with hearing babies is that it would have benefits that are practical (less fussing), emotional (creates a closer parent bond), and cognitive (boosts brain development). “Fewer tantrums and more fun!” claims the website Baby Sign Language. Using sign with babies has become popular in recent years, and many claim it facilitates communication—which is key for healthy development. There is a dearth of research to support these claims.

In perhaps the greatest irony for deaf children, signing is often discouraged in the United States—which also happens to be the world’s largest medical device market. As I outline in my book, Made to Hear, the cochlear implant (CI) has become more frequently used in deaf children, and clinics often give parents the opposite advice that they give parents of hearing children: signing is risky and will impede your child’s speech development. But there is a dearth of research to support these claims, too, and even research to suggest that the opposite is true and that sign may actually aid in the spoken language development of children with CIs. While my book outlines these patterns of advice to mothers, particularly when it comes to newborns and infants, I have since turned my focus to examining what becomes of deaf children who are denied sign language early in life. What about children who may in fact have benefited from access to sign? How do these clinical practices translate into educational practices and what problems arise because of it?

On March 2, 2016, a coalition of supporters for a recent bill introduced in the House of Representatives, H.R. 3535, also known as the Macy-Cogswell Act, converged on Washington, DC. According to attendee Jeff Bravin, more than 100 people showed up to advocate for new laws that they believe would better support deaf, as well as blind, students. While some students are indeed deaf-blind (that is, have both visual or hearing impairments), the partnership between educators who teach deaf children and educators who teach blind children came out of necessity. On their own, a coalition of deaf education-related organizations was unable to garner the support needed for the bill. But in joining forces with stakeholders in education for blind or visually impaired children, the Macy-Cogswell Act was eventually introduced. The meetings that took place on March 2 resulted in a new co-sponsor of the bill, Representative Larson, D-Connecticut.

The Macy-Cogswell Act is described by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD) as necessary for ensuring that deaf students get the specialized teaching they need in a timely manner. This organization is made up of those who educate children in deaf schools; that is, they work with deaf children in a sign language-friendly environment and tend to promote bilingualism in both English and American Sign Language (ASL). The push for “appropriate” assessment of children’s language or instructional needs partly comes from patterns like this: The average age of enrollment in the American School for the Deaf is between 12 and 14 years of age. A portion of these students (including some with CIs) had been denied meaningful access to sign in their prior placement in an effort to focus on spoken language. Deaf schools are then enrolling children who are far behind, but could have been given access to ASL earlier. We know that language deprivation has devastating effects on development, but without comprehensive, aggregate empirical data on how those children ended up being placed at ASD, where they were before, and what spoken language skills they brought with them, it is hard to make evidence-based claims about which practices are best. Nevertheless, the arguments and analyses of those who are on the ground in deaf schools on a daily basis are clearly that more sign language access is needed and it is needed sooner. This group does not articulate an argument to exclude speech, only an argument to include sign. Would it be possible to add ASL as a viable tool in the clinical context or earliest educational placement, especially since there is no evidence to support the claims that sign impedes speech?

The Alexander Graham Bell Association (AGB) characterizes the legislative efforts regarding Macy-Cogswell as “well intentioned,” but critiques these laws that “frequently have language that focuses on access and rights to sign language which is not relevant to the majority of students who are deaf and hard of hearing in the public schools.” They go on to cite that 52% of deaf children are pursuing a spoken language approach. AGB is the largest organization in the US that promotes a “Listening and Spoken Language” approach and even has certificate programs that train teachers in such approaches. It suggests a number of aspects that should be included in the laws instead, including setting their certificate in listening and spoken language as the standard for providers who work with deaf children. In their view, ASL is irrelevant.

These two groups could not be more different. This pattern of viewpoints is nothing new when it comes to the question of what we should do about deaf children. Do they need to overcome their deafness through medical and educational intervention that could give them a better ability to hear and speak? Or should their deafness be accepted, dealt with through using a visual language like American Sign Language (ASL), and all other developmental and educational milestones achieved through this method? There never seems to be agreement over which is the ‘right’ answer and there is no formula for knowing which is the best route for all deaf children. But what if we stopped assuming it was an either/or question? What if the CI and ASL were standard and utilized in tandem? It seems the biggest barrier to combining efforts to serve deaf children is professionals’ refusal to hear each other.


Laura Mauldin is assistant professor of human development/family studies and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Connecticut. She is author of Made to Hear: Cochlear Implants and Raising Deaf Children.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Internet of Things and the rise of planetary computerization: How environmental sensing technologies multiply rather than consolidate versions of the planet.

Reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

Planetary computerization—and the making of a computational planet—are terms and concepts that now occupy considerable attention in media studies and environmental theory and practice. Yet these developments have been underway since at least the post-war context, since renderings of the planet as expressed through communication technologies can be found in works as far flung as the writings of Arthur Clarke, to Marshall McLuhan’s observations about the birth of ecology with the launch of Sputnik, to Barbara Ward’s discussions of Spaceship Earth emerging through telecommunication technologies—as well as FĂ©lix Guattari’s mapping of the possibilities of “planetary computerization.” More contemporary works continue to revisit these themes, including the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW) exhibition, The Whole Earth, which considers how particular cultural practices and environmentalisms emerge by revisiting the often communication-based imaginings of the Earth from the Apollo missions onward. In these diverse approaches, the earth appears as a highly interconnected techno-political artefact that is nevertheless under stress.

Why do I begin with this discussion of multiple versions of computational planets? Because while the planetary is often a focus exactly because the Earth is seen to be under considerable environmental stress, one recurring response to the planet in crisis is to propose that more monitoring and more data, particularly through environmental sensor networks, will help to address environmental problems and make the planet more sustainable. In Program Earth, I take up considerations about the planetary and its environments by addressing the rise of ubiquitous environmental computing. In current imaginings of ubiquitous environmental sensing, technology companies often put forward a vision of the Earth as brimming with sensors, where every environmental process and activity will be monitored for ideal performance and responsiveness. Tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, of sensors are proposed to be deployed in order to ensure earthly systems are optimized. At multiple levels, sensors are presented as a solution to the problem of the planet in crisis, from monitoring global systems to enabling citizens to become more effective sensors and participating nodes in these systems.

At multiple levels, sensors are presented as a solution to the problem
of the planet in crisis.
Images from IBM's Internet of Things videos, Part 1 and Part 2.

The Internet of Things,” one of many promotional videos developed by IBM to convey the technological revolution that ubiquitous environmental computing is meant to usher in, presents a version of interconnectivity where the planet has effectively “grown a central nervous system” through the rise of environmental sensors, to the point where there are more things than people connected to the Internet. Here is an intelligent planet that can coordinate the flow of traffic, facilitate the timing of commutes, report blockages in water mains, and balance energy grids. As the video narrator notes, in this coordinated vision of the Internet of Things, “you could look at the planet as an information creation and transmission system. The universe was hearing its information, but we weren’t, but increasingly now we can.” Sensors are meant to allow us to tap into planetary intelligence, and to augment and intervene within these systems in order to realize new efficiencies and insights.

Perhaps in contrast to the usual visual representations of the planet as a fragile object viewed from the distance of outer space, these computational articulations of the Earth are instead focused on connecting up processes and events in order to maximize earthly operations. Here is a planet—a programmed earth—where data and networks that have always already existed in a seemingly natural way can be better understood and harnessed through the unique insights provided by environmental sensors and actuators.

Often these imaginings of environmental sensors present a unified planet operating as one intelligent uber-organism. But rather than argue that new “whole” or unified earths are emerging through these computational technologies, I instead demonstrate how there are a proliferation of sensing technologies, datasets, networks, and practices, which might attempt to realize new types of interoperability but which multiply rather than consolidate versions of the planet. The “program” of Program Earth is then not a singular script or code executing a command-and-control logic on environmental systems. Instead, Program Earth asks how specific sensor occasions demonstrate the splintering and multiple ways in which these environmental computation technologies take hold.

How do sensing technologies connect humans and nonhumans,
along with their environments?

Within this focus on particular modes of sensing, the question also emerges as to how sensing technologies connect humans and more-than-humans, along with their environments. Here, citizen sensing is a key way in which this question is taken up. How do “citizens” and citizen-sensing practices become configured along with sensor technologies and processes? There is no shortage of examples of citizen-sensing projects underway that take up low-cost environmental sensing technologies to create evidence about air and water pollution, as well as document the activity of organisms and intervene within urban ecologies. Along with the proliferation of sensor technologies that are remaking versions of the “planetary,” here is a new set of practices for monitoring environments and generating evidence, and for engaging with environmental and political matters as data-based problems.

This is an area of research that is ongoing, since I am conducting a research project, “Citizen Sense,” which focuses more centrally on the question of citizen-sensing practices that emerge with the rise of low-cost computational sensing technologies. The project asks: What new political practices do these technologies enable? And how do they potentially limit environmental engagement to data-focused modalities?

Environmental sensing technologies, and the intensification of planetary computerization, generate particular ways of encountering and relating to the Earth as under stress and in crisis. It is the specific environments and entities that materialize in the process of this planetary computerization to which Program Earth attends, while also asking how these new technological arrangements might be reworked and rerouted toward less deterministic and more open-ended engagements.


Jennifer Gabrys is a reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is author of Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (out this month) and Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics.

"Program Earth is a tantalizing account of digital, citizen-sensing worlds in the making."
—Kevin McHugh, Arizona State University

"Impressive and original, Program Earth is not just concerned with the collection and dissemination of data, but also—and more crucially—with the transformation of these data and with their effects."
—Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things