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Unmaking Technology: The Case of Waste Legacies

(abgesagt im Rahmen der Eindämmung des Corona-Virus)


Networking Workshop, 26–27 March 2020 (Th./Fr.), TU Berlin
Organiser: Heike Weber, History of Technology, TU Berlin

Workshop Theme

This workshop brings together researchers from different fields (history, history of science and technology, sociology, human geography) who work on issues of waste, disposal and recycling, contamination and toxicity, and extraction legacies and their histories. It will raise fundamental questions concerning what might be called the “unmaking” of technology: What happens to technologies and the “made” – infrastructures, production units, consumer goods, chemicals, etc. – after they have been used? And what have been the consequences of the afterlives of such technologies for society, the economy and the environment in the past?

Socio-metabolic studies of material flows suggest an increasing amount of resource extraction on the input side of societies and a corresponding increase in waste on the output side ever since the onset of industrialisation. Yet we lack a concise history of waste and of the diverse challenges connected to the “unmaking” of the “made”. Meanwhile industrialised societies have increasingly been confronted with a lack of so-called “sinks”, i.e. places for the disposal of what is no longer used, and past technologies have left behind problematic legacies such as contaminated landscapes requiring aftercare-engineering far beyond the temporal phase of their original use.

The following thematic fields, challenges and questions will be considered in more detail:

Thematic fields:

– Persistence and unexpected consequences of pesticides and toxic materials such as PCBs, asbestos, hazardous and toxic waste, etc.
– Persistence of the “made” in more general terms
– Waste, disposal and recycling
– Waste legacies, extraction legacies, contaminated landscapes
– Industrial wastelands
– Questions of afterlife and aftercare: the long-term engineering and management of waste sites and sites of past resource extraction (e.g. remediation, heritagization)

Theoretical concepts & methodologies:

– How can we conceptualise the “after-use” stage of technologies? What do we mean by terms such as “afterlife” and “aftercare”, by “unmaking”, “residues” and “legacies”? (And e.g. by German terms such as “Hinterlassenschaft” and “Vermächtnis”?) Do we need to formulate new terms?
– Critical reflection on metaphors such as “slow violence”, “unruly technologies”, “afterlife” and “technofossils”
– Methodological issues: unreliable or nonexistent sources, ignorance, non-knowledge, uncertainty; challenging temporalities and long timescales, etc.

Workshop Goals

The workshop will bring together researchers from different fields (history, history of science and technology, sociology, human geography) and foreground issues of temporality and historical change. It is intended to serve as a forum for exchange and as a gateway for setting up a research network on a European level, both within and beyond the “Tensions of Europe” network.

Our aims are:

– to explore current and emergent thinking in the research fields described above
– to share knowledge about empirical case studies and participants’ individual research
– to critically reflect on the theoretical frameworks and methodological challenges involved in the analysis of waste legacies
– to develop a framework for future collaboration/s (see “Potential Outcomes”)

Potential Outcomes

The main goal of the workshop is to establish a research network and to carve out potential avenues of future collaboration:

– What might be common research topics?
– What funding formats should be taken into consideration in the future?
– Can we envision panels, edited volumes, etc. to strengthen the visibility of our research?
– Discussion of potential involvement in the “Tensions of Europe” (ToE) network:
– For the larger programme, see www.tensionsofeurope.eu/second-flagship-program-technology-societal-challenges/
– ToE discusses the current “grand challenges” debates from a historical perspective, including issues of climate change, environmental crisis, and energy and resources.
– Waste/Unmaking is still a missing subject. I will propose a research field tentatively called “Unmaking Technology: Waste, Reuse, and Other Afterlives of Technology”.

Workshop Format:

Since this is an initial workshop that aims to inspire future collaboration and/or a research network, it will be based on short input statements by participants and on collaborative brainstorming and discussion.

We will start with short opening statements by participants on:
– your research subjects
– what you see as important questions for future research

…followed by group discussions. On the second day, ideas about funding formats will be discussed. In the wrap-up, we will decide on possible next steps (e.g. common panels on conferences, frameworks for publications, potential funding formats).

Workshop Location:
Technische Universität Berlin, Straße des 17. Juni 135, 10623 Berlin, Hauptgebäude, room H 3004.
If you want to participate as guest, please send an email to

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