The Symbolic Order of Technological Progress


Technological artifacts in postindustrial consumer societies are increasingly experienced as perpetually new, and are primarily associated with notions of connectivity, disembodiment and “progress.” Unlike products from the early days of the production logic of planned obsolescence [1], such as light bulbs and nylon stockings, contemporary consumer technologies – mobile phones, computers, printers – are often removed from people’s everyday lives before they have reached a state in which they show clear signs of physical decay. Whereas stockings and light bulbs actually look broken when they are disposed of, inkjet printers are often equipped with a chip that causes the device to “break” when a certain page count has been reached [2], thus promoting the disposal of devices that show little outer signs of material deterioration. Furthermore, the rapid obsolescence of software, which necessitates frequent hardware replacement, increasingly results in mobile phones and computers being discarded when the devices are still fully functional [3]. The manufacturing logic of consumer products appears to have shifted from a mode of “analog planned obsolescence,” where products become obsolete in such a way that the user is confronted with their material transformation into something that appears “broken,” toward a strategy of “digitized planned obsolescence,” where the consumer experience of the artifact is sanitized from the moment of acquisition until its disposal, and an engagement with the “dirtiness” of perceptible material decay is precluded. This latter form of planned obsolescence is specific to digital devices, as it depends on automated processes that remain hidden from the user’s perception (such as the page-counting chip in the printer, or system operating retardation effected by software updates) inside what Bruno Latour [4] has called the “black box” of electronic devices.

Mary Douglas’s [5] writing on the function of waste and dirt in the organization of societies offers insights into the possible cultural function of this sanitization of the experience of consumer technologies. Douglas suggests that relations between subjects and objects in society are organized as a symbolic structure in which the concept of dirt plays a central role. The notion of defilement can act as a way to discipline behavior in areas where human control and enforcement of regulations are difficult. Defining dirt as “matter out of place,” Douglas identifies a progression of waste from a stage of “dirt” to what she calls “common rubbish.” In the dirt stage, rejected objects still have a degree of identity; they are perceived in relation to elements of the cultural structure but they have been rejected in order to secure this order. After a process of “pulverizing, dissolving and rotting,” which removes all identity from the rejected matter, it becomes “common rubbish” and as such no longer poses a “threat to good order” [6].

In the transition of contemporary consumer technologies from their useful life span to their status as common rubbish, the dirt stage seems to be less and less conspicuous in the user’s experience and in many cases is virtually absent from it: The product is removed from everyday life before it shows noteworthy signs of decay, and it is transferred straight to the rubbish heap without going through a noticeable dirt stage. In the context of Douglas’s understanding of culture as a symbolic structure, the consumer experience of technological devices increasingly functions in terms of what I propose to call a “symbolic order of technological progress,” which precludes an engagement with the bare materiality of consumer technologies as dirt and contributes to their construction as mere signifiers for immaterial and abstract notions such as social connectivity, well-being and innovation.

Central to the logic of this symbolic order of technological progress is the avoidance of signs of material aging and decay, which establishes a sanitized experience of digital devices. This avoidance suggests that technological innovation and planned obsolescence can continue ad infinitum and bear no relation to impending ecological catastrophe and exploitative labor conditions.     Such drive for the elimination of signs of decay can also be found elsewhere in consumer cultures, most notably in contemporary attitudes to human bodies. Building on Julia Kristeva’s [7] writing on the abject, cultural theorist Deborah Caslav Covino [8] draws attention to the obsession with obtaining a “clean and proper” body in contemporary consumer culture. Particularly in advertising for plastic surgery, but also in the promotion of anti-aging cosmetics and fitness regimes, body parts represented with characteristics of aging-related physical decay (wrinkled faces, sagging breasts, belly fat) are considered abject: that which is positioned outside the symbolic order and is rejected by social reason. Advertisements and other sources in popular culture suggest that through the consumption of surgical interventions, fitness programs and cosmetics, these abject elements can be eliminated to obtain a proper, sanitized body.

With this dynamic in mind, I would like to consider the final destination of the obsolete electronic devices I discussed above. After they have been discarded by their initial users, most of whom reside in the Global North, a large number of these devices are exported to countries in the Global South, including China, India and West Africa. Here, the devices are usually sold as secondhand products or are repaired for continued use, but eventually they end up in a dump. And this is where the process of perceptible material decay takes place properly: Dysfunctional devices are slaughtered for recyclable parts, and the leftovers are left behind in pieces. If we consider this decaying e-waste in relation to the logic of digitized planned obsolescence, the notion of the abject also seems appropriate: These artifacts are positioned outside the symbolic order of consumption and are rejected by social reason. Furthermore, in accordance with Kristeva’s concept, a confrontation with this decaying e-waste threatens a breakdown of meaning of consumer paradigms in which engagement with electronic commodities is disconnected from its material consequences.

There are some differences between the notion of the abject in the world of consumer technology and the notion of the abject in “clean and proper” body culture as discussed by Covino: Whereas in the former the abject is hidden right from the start to facilitate the illusion that electronic devices are disconnected from their material context, the latter model is based on a continuous heightening of experiences of the abject within consumer culture in order to stimulate consumption patterns focused on expelling these abject elements. However, in both cases a process of sanitization through the elimination of abject elements is of key relevance to the stimulation and acceleration of consumption. “Body beautiful” incentives and digitized planned obsolescence both contribute to a cult of timeless, enduring newness and youth that depends on uninhibited consumption.

[1] Bernhard London, Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence (1932).
[2] J. Katz, “Xerox Phaser Drum Unit Hacked, Lives to Print Another Day” (2011), <>.
[3] Simon Forge, “Powering Down: Remedies for Unsustainable ICT,” Foresight 9, No. 4, 3--21 (2007).
[4] Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999).
[5] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 2002 [1966]).
[6] Douglas [11] p. 197.
[7] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982).
[8] Deborah Caslav Covino, Amending the Abject Body: Aesthetic Makeovers in Medicine and Culture (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004).