Extractive Landscapes

of the Cloud 

countries with the largest production of some of the most critical elements that go into the production of mobile devices

Lithium    Cobalt    Tin

Through deployment of “a weave of networked perception” that seeps through spaces and places, and that wraps things and bodies, the purveyors of the internet of things (IoT) and smart cities are pushing for a future in which connected people and things translate to more efficient operations. This “colonization of everyday life by information processing,” as Adam Greenfield has called it, is mediated through a network of devices and perceptors that harvest data about environments, cities, places, bodies, and the various flows that take place within and around them. The immensely important questions about the control of the data and the unbalanced power relations that this relationship entails remain unanswered, if not ignored. The truth is that while the networked sensors and devices of smart cities possess incredible observational and sensing capacities, very little computing actually happens locally in them. They are essentially there to syphon data. It is once this data is aggregated within databases and correlated with other databases that patterns emerge, upon which decisions are made. So, the mediators of smart cities are inherently dependent on communication networks and centralized computing resources for the actualization of their power and the monetization of the data they collect. They simultaneously construct and depend on the cloud.

An increasing number of these perceptors are embedded within public spaces hiding in lamp posts, underneath streets, on buoys out on water, or integrated into billboards. They track public transportation, regulate traffic, collect utility meter data, or detect weather patterns. They are designed to be out of sight and are very much integrated within the daily life and infrastructural flows of any urban area. Complementing this hidden, but critical, network of perception is a more mobile network of personal devices that have become so centrally tuned to our daily lives that we cannot go a day without them. As such, mobile devices play an important part in the extended geography of the cloud: as material assemblies that connect the data extractive practices of tech corporations to more traditional sites of resource extraction, i.e. mines.

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The life and death of mobile devices: from mining and refining of the elements that go into the various components, to assembly, logistics, and ultimately waste.

The minerals and the elements that go into each component of mobile devices come from all over the world, sometimes from the most troubled regions. For example, about half of the global supply of cobalt, which is a key component in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries used widely in smartphones and tablets, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A 2016 report by Amnesty International found that of the total cobalt exported from DRC, 20% come from artisanal mines with significant human rights issues, including the use of child labor. Many of the smartphone manufacturers named in the report have stated that their vendors do not buy cobalt from these artisanal mines. However, the report has found that given the complexity of the global cobalt supply chain it is highly likely that the cobalt mined illegally in DRC artisanal mines does find its way to China where it is smelted. In fact, a further inquiry by the Washington Post confirmed the prevalence of cobalt from artisanal mines that use child labor in the global supply chain of cobalt. Once we consider the thirty or so other elements that make up the iPhone, the reach of the productive landscape of mobile computing touches almost every corner of the globe.

Locating South America's Lithium Triangle, where more than half of the world'd lithium resources are located

Lithium is a critical element for mobile devices and electric appliances and vehicles that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The area known as the "Lithium Triangle" in South America, encompassing parts of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, holds more than half of the world's lithium deposits. Salar de Atacama in Chile alone contains about 27% of the world’s lithium reserve and provides almost 30% of the world’s lithium carbonate supply.[1]

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The Lithium Triangle, between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia

The process of mining lithium requires water to produce lithium brine which then goes through evaporation pools and ultimately is used to produce lithium carbonate. This is important, especially in one of the driest parts of the world. Over extraction of water can have dire consequences for the ecology of the region and will negatively effect the livelihood of the indigenous population of the region. Environmentalists and indigenous groups in Chile have rightfully objected to the massive amounts of water and brine extracted by the two active lithium miners in Salar de Atacama, the American Albemarle Corporation and the Chilean Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM).[2][3] 


a small fraction of SQM's lithium mining operation in Salar de Atacama, Chile


mining and refining process of lithium followed by battery production, assembly of a typical iPhone, logistics, and recycling. It is important to note that recycling accounts for a fraction of elements and components put back into the system. Developed nations send more than 20% of their e-waste to developing countries.