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Dirt Research

‘Dirt is the stuff that makes a system jump’.
Born, Furján, Jencks, 2012

The phrase ‘dirt research’ described the ‘direct’ method by which Canadian political economist and communications theorist Harold A. Innis (1894-1952) collected material for his research on economic history in Canada. The result of extensive travels across Canada, where he gathered oral testimonies on the staples industries (fur trade, cod fisheries) and transport systems (rivers, railways) combined with exhaustive archival research, Innis’ method of dirt research sought to establish a ‘general organizing principle’ by which patterns of economic and social development could be understood ‘beyond the basic data’.1

Innis’ method of dirt research during his staples work was later combined in his communications work with a form of data-mining from his ‘idea file’ – an index of file cards consisting of telegraphic notes, ideas and quotations derived from his expansive reading across Canadian economic history, ancient history and philosophy.2 The resulting texts comprised a predigital form of recombination – or what John Watson calls ‘textual scrambling’ – to the extent that some might consider them partial works of plagiarism. Innis, on the other hand, was refining a method that enabled him to sketch vast historical relations in an effort to crystallize his thesis on the correspondence between civilization and culture and the spatial and temporal power of communication media and transport technologies.3

Dirt research might be understood as both a priori and a posteriori metadata organizing a research process. Architect-designers Born, Furján and Jencks suggest that ‘Dirt is designed. It is uniquely composed, site specific, and innately intelligent. … Dirt is a design tool. Collecting and composing dirty matter is a fruitful foundation for the creation of spaces, artifacts, and atmospheres’.4 As architects and designers are often wont to do, there is a tendency here of valorizing an aestheticization of that which, in the case of depletion design, is also a political practice addressing the proliferation of data. Nevertheless, we get a sense that dirt research is at once shaped by the model or program of investigation (design) while feeding back into the organizing principle itself as a result of the material and affective properties or qualities of the object of research (data).

Data consists of materials, details, inscriptions and symbols in motion. We gather or capture data and in so doing render it temporarily static to produce information and knowledge about the world. The digital coding of data within the grammar of algorithms shares with the analog technology of archives the logic of governance, of ordering, of method. How to move between the digital and the analog is a question of translation across time and space. Some relevant analytical methods within media research include the political economy of ‘supply-chain capitalism’ as a way of identifying the production, distribution and labour of electronic waste.5 Another consists of media archaeologies that bring medium theory stemming from Innis together with cybernetics, German media theory and software studies to register the transformation of bodies and institutions technologically situated within communication systems.6 These sort of interests in the materiality of communication can be considered as contemporary extensions of dirt research.

In the age of ‘big data’ everything and anything is or has the capacity to become digitally encoded. Data sets are everywhere, residing as a standing-reserve awaiting incorporation as topological parameters into analytical models and capital expropriation. Within a topological horizon, the politics of parameters amounts to a battle around epistemological and social legitimacy in the form of measure. Parameters are also a matter of protocols, which Alexander Galloway understands as ‘the technology of organization and control operating in distributed networks’.7 Both parameters and protocols are rules that govern systems. If a person, thing or phenomena is without rule or measure it might just as well not exist. In assembling data sets selection is predicated on the poverty of excess, which is data gone to waste. This, at least, is the doxa of a logistical world view where everything is about accountability, efficiency and productivity calibrated in systems of real-time. Data produces and is accompanied by other forms of waste, forms more insidious than the economist’s ‘wasted opportunity’.

Forms of pattern recognition beyond the basic data hold relevance for how the emergent paradigms of digital humanities and software studies analyze the massive volume of big data generated by digital transactions and user-consumer practices online. Big data analysis of habits of consumption is interesting for commercial entities, but not particularly exciting for social and political analysis of network ecologies. How to ascertain a relation between data, materiality and subjectivity is a problem little addressed by either digital humanities or software studies. What would the practice of dirt research consist of in the study of big data? How might such practices be designed on transnational scales involving networks of collaborative constitution? What are some of the particular problems surrounding the politics of depletion that come to bear both in the method of dirt research and the data sets under scrutiny? Where is the dirt that disrupts the pretense of smooth-world systems so common within industry, IT and state discourses around global economies and their supply chains? And can disruption be understood as a political tension and form of conflictual constitution?

Within cybernetics, dirt is ‘noise’ in the system. Noise is a force of ambivalence, interference and disruption, refusing easy incorporation within prevailing regimes of measure. Constituent forms of subjectivity and the ontology of things often subsist as noise. Undetected, without identity and seemingly beyond control, noise is the ‘difference which makes a difference’.8 Dirt research diagrams the relations of force and transformation operative within ecologies of noise populated by unruly subjects, persistent objects and algorithmic cultures. The capacity for change does not assume some form of conscious will. Such a faculty is beyond the reckoning of objects and code and assumes an articulated agency only occasionally displayed in the case of subjects more inclined toward the unconscious routines of habit. As noise, it is enough for entities to resonate as material and immaterial perturbations.

Yet the paradox of noise is the unforeseen gift offered to technologies of control: as contingency, noise is the prompt for biopower to remodel its parameters and in so doing bolster the fortunes of control and its technologies of extraction. A story of origins within Italian operaismo consists of the refusal of work as the catalyst for capitalist restructuring and the transformation of labour processes.9 The shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production and the governance of labour-power was not a result of management of their own volition refining structures of capital. Rather, the refusal of work in the form of factory strikes, infrastructural sabotage and willful acts of laziness cajoled capital into adjusting its mode of production in ways that could accommodate more flexible, mobile and contingent modes of work and capital accumulation.

Within the economy of networks the extension of this logic is taken to its extreme, with the rise of ‘free labour’ as a norm through which productivity is registered in the online action of users.10 Content is not so relevant here as the proliferation and aggregation of data, which media proprietors endlessly recombine to mine user’s tastes and habits in the packaging of profiles to be sold to third parties. Data is the myth of a new empirics, of abstraction made concrete. Where does this leave a politics of refusal if not as withdrawal made anew in the social production of value, where life itself is put to work? What new forms of capital restructuring are precipitated by informatized labour? Mental and social fatigue within the ecology of networks eventually leads to the depletion of refusal. Politics as a practice of conflictual constitution is left empty handed.

Dirt research within the current conjuncture investigates how circuits of capital connect with the constituent force of labour, life and things, shaping the production of time, space and economy in variational ways. The social production of value and the algorithmic mining of data seem the last frontiers of economic extraction. But so often we’re talking about a social milieu and informational economy that is profoundly abstracted from the multiple informal economies and geocultural settings engaged in secondary forms of value extraction. A substantial portion of the latter are associated with economies of electronic waste, with the Global South structurally and historically consigned the role of manufacturing and later dispersion of discarded ICTs and consumer electronics. Both the production and dismantling of e-waste exposes ‘workers and ecosystems to a morass of toxic components’.11

With Internet transmissions long ago exceeding measure, and annual increments in computational power ensuring planned obsolescence, both analytical capacity and consumer desire become destined to their own forms of obsolescence. Jennifer Gabrys: ‘Obsolescence is not so much innovation in reverse as it is the ongoing maintenance of a sense of technological development’.12 On the sidelines of speed, dirt research might seem left pondering the disaster as a program beyond control.

Depletion design, however, is also a practice of organization. This includes tracking the distribution of electronic trash following the stages of manufacture and consumption to investigate how electronic devices ‘become the means for possible infrastructures of reuse’.13 And it consists of generating rumours as a tactical intervention into fluctuating contours of markets, corporate practices and government agendas. As Keller Easterling proposes, ‘Design also vividly anticipates and materializes change, using tools found in many forms of cultural persuasion’.14 The use of pictograms and design databases as techniques of cartographic analysis in projects by Bureau d’études and Josh On’s They Rule are indicative of how design engages in the production of counter-imaginaries of corporate capitalism.15 Dirt research of global infrastructures and logistical operations special to supply-chain capitalism would do well to design counter-depletion into its repertoire of methods.

The recent revival of media archaeology is one idiom of analysis that registers within media theory the practice of dirt research. In his entry on ‘dust matters’ in this volume, Jussi Parikka notes how ‘practices of reuse (zombie media), alternative design, an attention to components and materials used, are all tapping into the entanglement of intensity of non-human matter (dust), and the matter of abstract political economy of work and production’. Intensity and political economy. Affect and power. To diagram the relations of such agencies is to design the operation of depletion and generation, of subtraction and multiplication. At this point the material condition of dust with its often imperceptible force shifts to the level of program, or dirt research.

As a method, dirt research brings institutional borders, disciplinary limits and expertise into question. First and foremost, dirt research challenges what Innis termed ‘monopolies of knowledge’ shaped by the spatio-temporal bias of communication media in conjunction with institutional forms. In the case of electronic waste, it is clear the academy is well behind other actors in understanding the economic operation, environmental impact and conditions of work associated with this industry. Dirt research entails, then, a certain intermingling of bodies and brains, institutional settings and disciplinary practices. As a transversal mode of knowledge production it necessarily encounters conflict of various kinds: geocultural, social, political and epistemological. How dirt research organizes itself across a diagram of coordinates and forces cannot be programmed but must instead engage the social-technical practice of translation.16 The seriality of disruption, dissipation and undulations of intensity and attention will then define the transnational organization of dirt research.

* Published in Carolin Wiedemann and Soenke Zehle (eds), Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, Amsterdam: XMLab and the Institute for Network Cultures, 2012, 41-45.


  1. John Watson, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, 123.
  2. Ibid., 267. See Watson, 267, 280. See also 265-273, 276-278, 280-281. See also William Christian (ed.), The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
  3. Harold A. Innis, The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951. See also Harold A. Innis, Empire and Communications, Victoria and Toronto: Press Porcépic, 1986.
  4. Megan Born, Helene Furján and Lily Jencks with Phillip M. Crosby (eds), Dirt, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass.: PennDesign and MIT Press, 2012, 9.
  5. Anna Tsing, ‘Supply Chains and the Human Condition’, Rethinking Marxism 21.2 (2009): 148-176.
  6. See Friedrich A. Kittler, Literature, Media, Information Systems, Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 1997 and Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. & intro. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999. See also Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology?, Cambridge: Polity, 2012.
  7. Alexander Galloway, ‘Protocol’, Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 317. See also Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
  8. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
  9. See Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. See also Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009.
  10. Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, London: Pluto, 2004. See also Tiziana Terranova, ‘Another Life: the Nature of Political Economy in Foucault’s Genealogy of Biopolitics’, Theory, Culture & Society 26.6 (2009): 234-262.
  11. Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 3.
  12. Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011, 116.
  13. Ibid., 152.
  14. Keller Easterling, ‘Rumor’, in Megan Born, Helene Furján and Lily Jencks with Phillip M. Crosby (eds), Dirt, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass.: PennDesign and MIT Press, 2012, 31 (30-35).
  15. and
  16. See Naoki Sakai, ‘Translation’, Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 71-86 and Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On ‘Japan’ and Cultural Nationalism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
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