Guarantees and Ghosts: Breakdown in Eeveryday Life

Padma Chirumamilla is a doctoral candidate at the School of Information, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She holds an MA in South and Southeast Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and an AB in English language and literature from the University of Chicago. Her current research interests lie in the histories of postcolonial mass media infrastructures in South Asia, theories of everyday life and temporality, material culture, forms of apprenticeship, and science and technology studies. She has worked as a research assistant for associate professor Aswin Punathambekar on an SSRC-funded project studying mediated activism in India, China, and the Middle East/North Africa. She has presented her work at conferences, including those of the International Communication Association, the Society for the Social Studies of Science, and the American Anthropological Association.

Are we apps, or are we bodies filled with apparitions? Operating applications, stuck inside an Apple prison, Chicken hack, and download updates that lack religion. Or are we more… –Lupe Fiasco, “Mural” (from Tetsuo & Youth)

Technology—tools, apps, devices, wires—has a way of sneaking up on us, winding in and through the rhythms of our everyday practices. The power cuts out, the microwave beeps its inscrutable errors insistently, and the ferocious fragility we do our best to tamp down into manageable, mundane moments breaks free, forcing itself to the forefront of our consciousness. Things break. They break unexpectedly. And then what? Are we newly afraid? Exposed to latent fear? To possibility?

The sociologist Susan Leigh Star suggests that we stop thinking about computers as “information highways” and instead envision them as “symbolic sewers.” [1] The imagery here is deliberately evocative: we move into a realm that envisions technology not as the promised road that takes us out of ourselves and our earthbound reality, but as the sewer–the thing we dare not look at lest we be forced to confront the muddy truth of our everyday life. The truth being that our very sense of sleepy normalcy is a messy thing, in need of upkeep, of constant care that goes unacknowledged. It is hard to be, and remain, boring and consistent. Ordinariness is a quality that needs to be fought for, a quality that needs to be created and maintained, against the ravages of time, of weather, against the unwavering tide of breakdown.

The familiar modes of exchange are all over #exstrange: delivery in a reasonable time for the right price, PayPal, credit cards accepted, we ship free to the contiguous United States (additional charges for Hawaii and Alaska). Guarantees of all sorts, from fraud protection to payment processing, color the possible ways one can interact with art and imagination both. Certainty—the Sisyphean pushback against fragility and breakdown—is on clear, consistent display throughout eBay’s frame, the frame that envelopes and unites all these diverse and divergent pieces. Buying from eBay will not hurt. Indeed, you, dear buyer, will be safely ensconced within all the protections eBay (and PayPal, and their underlying system of secure servers and trust certificates) can offer you.

And yet, pushing through these familiar frames, there are other modes of being, other kinds of ordinariness: walking, missing socks, paper shreds, shadows, old (once-and-no-longer valued) currency notes. Two kinds of ordinariness intertwine in the exhibition, as in life: the exchange, and the experience. PayPal meets devalued currency; shadows meet delivery guarantee dates. What can we make of this, of the strangeness that results from this twining?

Thinking about the work of repair and the “broken world” it intervenes in, the scholar Steve Jackson has written that “broken world thinking draws our attention around the sociality of objects forward, into the ongoing forms of labor, power, and interest—neither dead nor congealed—that underpin the ongoing survival of things as objects in the world .” [2] This tense and tenuous connection—this ongoing push-and-pull between the sociality that underpins everyday moments of life and the frozen transactionality that characterizes an encounter on the eBay interface—lies at the center of the #exstrange artworks.

When I spent time in a television repair shop in South India, this tension between exchange and experience wound its way through workaday life: blasting music from a customer’s particularly expensive speaker system after keeping it in the shop for an extra day, enjoying videos on televisions too expensive for any of us, turning the volume up for music videos and clips of fast motorbikes. With the customers, the façade of regulated transaction: the tags, the careful notation of model and serial numbers, the follow-up calls, the logging of problems on a “job sheet” in English (in duplicate), all for the maintenance of a stern face of knowledge. Explanations were brief analogies: none of the repairmen ever seemed to think the customers would understand, or care for, the technical details of repair too much.

With each other, as fellow workers who saw enjoyment in fixing up the television and watching the thing work—evidence of labor tangibly rewarded—there were films, there was a spliced cable trying to feed programming into three sets for the price of one. There was music, there was camaraderie, and this was how knowledge about work, about the sets themselves, was transmitted (through YouTube videos, not necessarily in English or Telugu, playing on the big screen of a customer’s expensively smart TV).

The few trappings of official work-order that decorated the workshop—the whiteboard with mysterious initials and numbers (that never was explained to me, in eight months), the clock (which was mostly ignored for the mobile phone)—mattered far less to the constitution of the working day than tasting each other’s lunches, or gossiping about the bosses, or escaping the confines of the workshop to trawl the bazaar for parts. (Until and unless visitors from regional HQ were due in shop, and then the rules took on a more severe form—the floors swept of months-old dust, the cannibalized circuit boards of old sets stashed away from sight and mind, the cut-up plastic cups of water to test microwaves thrown out with their moldy inhabitants. Everyone in name-tags and uniform, for a moment, grumbling under duress.)

Looking at South Asian mobile phone repair shops, the anthropologist Assa Doron noted the symbolic value of the receipt (and its more abstracted cousin, the contract): “With the receipt in hand, customers feel endorsed and relieved, guaranteed of Nokia’s international value and confirmed in their own participation in what Herzfeld called ‘the global economy of value.’ ” [3] And yet it is precisely this constancy, this confirmation and reliability that the #exstrange works pull into question, and cast into doubt. The frame of PayPal and the eBay guarantee, plastered all over the exhibits, should—if they perform as intended—give us clarity and a sense of protection, as relatively anonymous buyers trawling the seas of the Internet’s offerings. And yet here these very guarantees are rendered unfamiliar, ripped from their anodyne non-presence and placed into glaring contrast with the quietly ordinary experiences on display.

Consider John Freyer’s Seven Left Socks, now residing in Ohio. [4] Sock loss (to washing machines and gym lockers, to vigorous pets, to imaginative children) is probably that most mundane of Monday morning problems, colored with a humorous irony all its own. Placed within the frame of the eBay auction, with its need for a named price and its admission that “seller does not accept returns,” are the (comical, horrifying) algorithmically generated items of interest that encompass the actual experience laid out in the “seller’s description”—an experience of quiet memory, a story of the haunting that suffuses the rhythms of mundane life.

This contrast forces us to confront the question, the question that Doron politely asks of South Asia, but that is perhaps a more fundamental inquiry for those of us living in the world of transactional exchange: Why are the contract and the guarantee the planks that undergird our sense of normalcy, of ordinariness and boredom?

There are other ways to be and to exchange, after all: Doron’s contrast is the street-selling mobile phone repairmen, who work in a mode guaranteed not by contract, but by dialogue and sociality. You, as a customer desirous of making a transaction, talk with a (very human) repairman, constructing a sense of certainty in the repair and the repairman as you speak, back and forth, about prices and parts. It is a fundamentally social and not-entirely objective guarantee, unlike the printed-down, always-same and endlessly-reproducible promise of the contract. Maintenance, in this mode of transaction, is a promise between parties who can contend with the musky reality of each other’s presence. You talk, and are convinced (or not). You agree to a price (or walk away). The terms are fluid, moving.

The Internet, with all its posthuman promise, cannot quite bring itself to replicate the fundamentally and intimately contestable nature of this sort of transaction. And so our sense of what constitutes the ordinary sense of our lives is upturned, defamiliarized. The contract, the guarantee, is rendered alien to the altogether familiar experiences (of loss, of Sunday morning walks [5] , of old video game systems and diaries once beloved [6]) placed within its confines. How to come to terms with this? With our desire for clarity, with the diffuse flexibility of our everyday experiences in the world?

This is not to say that there is no place in the world for the clarity which enforcement and guarantee can provide: as Michael Idov notes in New York magazine, Russian “life after trust” was marked “less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge.” [7] But it’s that amorphous principle itself– trust –and the varying ways in which it embeds itself within our everyday experience that is worth paying attention to.

As Idov notes, it’s an act of conjuration, an act of magicking up faith in street-side vendor or a printed contract that renders a guarantee a believable entity and transforms it into an underpinning of our everyday life. And is that not in and of itself an enduringly strange thing? In #exstrange, we confront the ghost and the guarantee both: the fragile experiences woven together to form our everyday lives, the loudly-proclaimed certitudes that we hope underpin them, and the constant work of belief (in printed word, in vendors encountered, in friends and in strangers) necessary to bind the two together.


[1] Star, Susan L. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (1999), 377-391.
[2] Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and
society, eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Kirsten A. Foot (2014): 221-240. Cambridge: MIT Press.
[3] Doron, Assa. “Consumption, Technology and Adaptation: Care and Repair Economies of Mobile Phones in North India.” Pacific Affairs 85, no. 3 (2012): 563-85.
[7] Idov, Michael. “Russia: Life after Trust.” New York (January 22, 2017). Accessed April 17, 2017.

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.104-107
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