Ji Sun Lee's moonlit flower project
Dec 14: Also posted at The Hacktory.
E-waste sucks. In the US we trash about 400 million electronic devices every year. A study published this summer says that soft circuits and e-textiles are on track to become an even more intractable waste problem, unless early adopters turn it into a green technology.
An article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology from August discusses how the very thing that makes e-textiles interesting–the unobtrusive integration of electronics and fabric–could make them an e-waste nightmare.
What makes traditional e-waste so difficult is that it contains valuable stuff like precious metals and rare earths, but in small quantities that are hard to recycle and laced with toxins.
Enter e-textiles. Who isn’t charmed by the idea of a biking sweatshirt with built-in turn signals or accessories that could let your doctor know if your heart rate goes wacky? Not only that, but soft circuits have driven the use of electronics and microcontrollers by women and beginners through the roof.
The problem is that soft circuits contain valuable substances in even smaller concentrations than traditional electronics. Even in Europe where e-waste laws are the strongest, it’s a battle to recycle old gadgets. E-textiles as they are currently designed make it harder to classify them as either clothing or electronics, and make it harder to reclaim valuable materials like silver in conductive thread.
But the authors urge technology and fashion developers to think ahead before the problem hits the mass market. Can we use design thinking to make e-textiles out of non-toxic or biodegradable materials? Can we simplify the separation of electronic ingredients from fabric? Most importantly, how can we prevent pollution while products are still on the drawing board?
At the moment, the people who are experimenting with soft circuits and e-textiles generally aren’t thinking about the waste implications, but they should be. How can creative thinkers, designers, makers and hackers help this emerging technology become a green investment opportunity? What tools do designers need to help them design for a product’s entire lifecycle, all the way through recycling to its rebirth as a new object?
Tagged: art, e-textiles, e-waste, safety third
I’m inspired by the speakers at Textile Messages earlier tonight, an event about e-textiles organized by Yasmin Kafai at UPenn. One of the speakers, Leah Buechley, developer of the Lilypad Arduino, is also speaking tomorrow at a UArts/Hive76 event that I wish I could make it to. The Lilypad took the Arduino idea and put it in a sewable form that gave e-textiles a big kick in the pants. E-textiles or soft circuits are exciting for a lot a reasons that deserve their own exploration, but suffice it to say that what gets me gesticulating excitedly is the idea of mashing up different audiences with fluency in different technologies. Putting electronics in crafts/clothing/sewing gives it a new accessibility, and gives it access to new creative thinkers. By clearing a path for crafters and sewers to start thinking about conductivity and sensors, soft circuits make space for electronics (especially sensors) in the minds of people with different expertise. Soft circuits (and play dough circuits and slime circuits) give electronics a new physical vocabulary.
As a result, conductivity and computing are undergoing an invigorating re-think. Crafters don’t think about circuits the same way electrical engineers do, and they are free to ask new and compelling questions and demand innovative solutions.
Anyway, that’s a whole ‘nother thing but one undeniable outcome of the e-textile movement is that it has massively increased womens’ use of microcontrollers. According to Leah’s dissertation, makers of high-visibility projects with Arduino are about 86% male and 2% female, while Lilypad user are 25% male and 65% female. (The genders of the rest of the users couldn’t be determined.) You can read more of Leah and Benjamin Mako Hill’s work over here.
So it got me thinking again about gender and tech, which is coming up a lot this year. There’s some big stuff in the works. I’ve been meaning to post my notes from the UN panel that I spoke on in March, and now’s a good time to start. The talk is split into 3 sections about the professional, volunteer, and leadership positions I’ve been in. Here, I’ll start with the professional bit.
But first, please enjoy this awesome NSF-funded study called “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering” and the author’s great summary. A hat-tip to Tracey Welson-Rossman from TechGirlz who hipped me to the study:
As noted in our research, it’s a myth that women undertake rigorous educational training and join the workforce only to quit their jobs for ‘lifestyle reasons.’ Most cannot afford to or even want to quit. Stymied by long-standing institutional and structural barriers and entrenched gender stereotypes at work, many women professionals often alter their career trajectories and seek to satisfy their career ambitions in workplaces that respect, promote, and leverage their skills and talents. Again, not very different from what men do.
Ok. Now on to my 2 cents about it as a woman and sysadmin.
Categories: Gender tech and
Tagged: e-textiles, electronics, gender, soft circuits