When Smart City Becomes E-Waste

Taeyoon Choi
7 min readMay 13, 2023

Return to Sender

The small island neighboring the southeast of India, Sri Lanka was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch colonialists between the1600s and 1700s, and then by the British Empire from 1796 until 1948. Many years after the official independence, the relationships with the former colonizers unfold with twists. Between 2017 and 2019, a British company shipped about 263 containers, listed as ‘Mattress, carpets and rugs’ to Sri Lanka. The containers were actually filled with bio-waste, body parts, and other illegal waste. Sri Lanka returned 3000 tonnes of waste back to Britain and asked for $8.7 million in damage. This story of Return to Sender tells one of the many ways objects move between former colonizers and the colonies today. The former colonizers, including but not limited to European nations, initially extracted natural resources and displaced and exploited humans. Nowadays the former colonizers of the Global North continue to extract natural resources and newly valuable rare earth minerals, cobalt, and nickel, from their former colonies in the Global South, all the while dumping their trash back into the former colonies in both legal and illegal ways. While there is much more trash talk to be had, I want to focus on the e-waste which can not be easily returned to the sender, and which sometimes becomes weaponized as toxic environmental waste in the Global South.

Supply Chain Maintenance

“The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way, we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

Colonialism was a supply chain maintenance for transporting goods and humans. The Dutch East Indian Company in South East Asia operated sprawling businesses of extraction and exploitation using primitive forms of double-entry bookkeeping. Their methods of accounting, although did not involve electronic machines, were essentially foundational forms of modern financial computing. Colonialism, a worldview that legalizes criminal activities, domination, and theft, is also a technology project. The well-known painting American Progress depicts Manifest Destiny “the idea that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America.” The message is loud and clear, and unsettling from today’s view. The destiny is portrayed as a fairy-like white female figure, accompanied by white men expanding to the West with colonial technologies, transatlantic ships which transported White European settlers as well as the slaves and laborers who built the physical infrastructures that are in use today, telephone networks which enabled long-distance telecommunication. The colonialism of the 16th century onward was the time of the disciplinary society and the technologies of confinement and enslavement through compartmentalization, as Franz Fanon has said. New technologies, the Internet, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and others, rely on colonial infrastructures and materialize the intangible ‘imperial formations.’ Colonialism is given a new life to mutate into forms of implicit compartmentalization that result in social inequalities and alienation of marginalized people. It’s also worth noting a growing number of middle-class, in both Global North and South, who live in a technopopulist equilibrium, a condition where people don’t worry about food and can enjoy endless streams of entertainment on their smartphones, but the prospects of dramatic economic growth is unlikely as well as a social change towards a progressive society. In this technopopulist equilibrium, as Adam Tooze said in 2022, the prospect of social change seems farther away.

Green Colonialism

Electric Vehicles(EV) are advertised as solutions for future mobility needs. Everyone from Biden, Musk, Toyota and Hyundai are selling EVs as futuristic clean mobility. Putting aside the question of how and if they are actually environmentally friendly, and how the rechargeable batteries are notoriously difficult to recycle or reuse, let’s look into the ways EVs components are sourced and manufactured. Cobalt is one of the key components of the Secondary Cell, rechargeable batteries for EVs. More than 70% are produced by artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt suddenly became highly valuable due to electric vehicles, leading to disarray in the local social and economic systems in Congo. Their labor conditions in Congo, systems of disenfranchisement, and the conditions of exploitation based on class, race, and gender, have not changed much since the 1600s.

EVs are only a small part of the greenwashing narratives. SDG(Sustainable Development Goals) and other forms of civic, political, and cultural agendas around E.S.G(Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) greenwash centuries-old agendas into socially acceptable, green rebranding. While many of the specific policies do bring highly necessary changes for the environment, we need to critically examine how these large agendas further inequality and violence in the Global South and within the marginalized communities in the Global North. Big lenders(World Bank, IMF) and intergovernmental organizations, and transnational corporations are primarily interested in maintaining their supremacy, the systems of exploitation and displacement that created the current conditions in the first place. They inspire us to become individual do-gooders towards sustainability while holding back possibilities for fundamental changes. That is how colonialism became Green.

When Smart City Becomes E-Waste

When was the last time you discarded your smartphone, laptop or car? It’s natural to feel guilty about our personal e-waste. Yet, the largest e-waste we produce may be in smart cities. In South Korea, many New Cities(신도시) are built on the outskirt of megalopolis. Some are built specifically for high-tech industries, Samsung’s Nano City in Hwasung(화성), or Hyundai Motors in Asan(아산). Many of these Smart Cities are suburban bed towns that replicate urban conditions of gentrification and displacement. They are exported and locally adapted. South Korean corporations build smart cities in South Asian countries, and countless similar cities are built in China (Zhuhai), Indonesia(Nusantara), India(Chennai), and more. Possibly the most sinister forms of smart cities may be Sri Lanka’s massive Smart Cities projects, airports, and others that depend on overseas lenders. The most striking feature of these cities is how similar they are regardless of geographical and cultural differences. Then, are our Smart Cities universally designed?

“To ‘provincialize’ Europe was precisely to find out how and in what sense European ideas that were universal were also, at one and the same time, drawn from very particular intellectual and historical traditions that could not claim any universal validity.” Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference(2007 edition; xiii)

Much like our personal electronics, smart cities are designed for planned obsolescence. Smart cities become obsolete because they manifest the ideologies of their time. David Harvey writes in his book, Enigma of Capital(pages 124~126), about the time he was invited to jury designs for Sejong, a new municipal city in South Korea. He learned the bureaucrats and architects preferred a ‘mental conception’ of the city over the actual experience of the inhabitants. When the people with the power wanted a symbolic city, they got one. When Sejong City was built a decade ago, it was lauded as the pedestrians-first city. Ten years have passed and the city’s inhabitants report various complaints, largely the insufficiency of public transportation and lack of parking space. Since the ideologies of smart cities are universal as their idealism and symbolism, they become obsolete at the speed of personal electronics.

Decolonial Computing

Colonialism is embedded in the aesthetic, linguistics, and politics of computer code. Take the UNIX operating system and the mode of social segregation. The popular narrative of Silicon Valley as the birthplace of computing and the erasure of people of color and women from its history. Code is an episteme of its time and the structural, philosophical ontological connections between power, capital, and communication. Then, how can we decolonize code and computing? Here are a few references to start with. Syed Mustafa Ali’s ‘A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing’, Nabil Hassein’s ‘Computing, Climate Change and All of Our Relationships’, Dhanashree Thorat’s ‘Colonial Topographies of Internet Infrastructure: The Sedimented and Linked Networks of the Telegraph and Submarine Fiber Optic Internet’ can be the first steps. I’m also following works by my peers, Unmake Lab in South Korea creates datasets of real and artificial animals and species endangered by climate change, Soichiro Mihara in Japan was directly affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and now creates works by composting, Riar Rizaldi in Indonesia who makes works by and about e-waste, and ARTCOM in Kazakhstan that fosters a community of cyberfeminists working towards environmental justice. For their approaches to technology, environment, solidarity, and community building, decolonization is important but it’s not the end goal. The end goal is rewiring the human and indigenous relationship to the land, animal species, habitat, and creation through ecological art and tech practice.

This posting is a work-in-progress essay for THIS TOO, IS A MAP, to be published in September 2023 for Seoul Mediacity Biennale. I’m posting the draft to share my process with the community of collaborators.

This is a draft posting that may get taken down after some time. For questions, contact studio@taeyoonchoi.com

The main image is created with Beomjun Kim.



Taeyoon Choi

immigrant. art. tech. learning. accessibility. inclusion. Co-founder @sfpc. fellow @datasociety. artist http://taeyoonchoi.com