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✦ Open source and work-in-progress meditation on magic, society and technology

Tech Collapse

On the occasion of IAM 2021 Weekend, Alessandro Y. Longo continues his research on the idea of Tech Collapse, that was started with this article.

It takes an entire civilization to build an iPhone. California, Japan, Taiwan, Congo, Switzerland, China are all connected by the supply chains of tech capitalism, in a twisted realization of the old Nokia motto “connecting people”.

Like the idea of the fold developed by Deleuze, a device embodies the realms of the microscopic and the macroscopic, from the knowledge of Korean engineers to the layering of minerals underground. Global supply chains are needed to let us play Candy Crush on the bus. Old lesson from military history: the longer supply chains become, the more fragile.

But what if that fragility becomes unsustainable? In a world where, eighty years from now, summers will last about six months, such a scenario might not be so far off. If that sounds too catastrophic, you are right. Let's take it as a thought experiment and imagine a tech collapse.

Below, you’ll find the original script of the video.

My presentation is dedicated to what I’ve emphatically called ‘Tech Collapse’. We’ll see what it is about. Let’s take this as a thought experiment, a research hypothesis. Tech Collapse is about how in the near future tech devices may disappear or, at least, not be as available as they are right now.

To understand what a tech collapse may look like, we have to explore some ground assumptions about the technological world and how it is connected with environmental collapse. Some of these may seem common sense or even obvious, but I think that it is good to through them to define a materialistic perspective on the topic.

Let’s start with a first assumption, which is also a reminder provided to us by the American philosopher Timothy Morton, namely that there is no elsewhere. That is, there is no place, in which the consequences of Anthropocene cannot reach and so every aspect of human society will be stroke by that.

And that is also true for The technological devices that surround us, the entire technological infrastructure that we have built is included in this planetarian space and there is nothing immaterial about them.

The promise of the digital economy to overcome the fumes and sweats of the industrial age has turned out to be a lie. Cause to build these devices it is necessary to maintain EXTRACTIVISM alive, namely the attitude to extract natural resources from Earth to sell them on the world market.

So, Extractivism is the condicio sine qua non of the technosphere, the backbone of every digital operation we do, and of every piece of information circulating on the planet. To really understand the technological world then we have to follow the traces of its supply chains, trying to grasp the fractal complexity of our economic system, which works precisely because each agent operates without total knowledge of the process. Perhaps, total knowledge is impossible, if also the same technology companies like Intel or Siemens admit their ignorance of their own supply methods. The system is designed to be opaque; the reality of production is obscured by the glossy appearance of spectacle.

Let’s move to the second ground assumption. Since technological world is the reign of extractivism, we can say that the digitalization of the world is a triumph of metallurgy. The post-iPhone industry has at its heart a long line of base metals like iron, tin, and nickel. But the metallurgy of computing has also conquered another portion of the periodic table: the 17 rare earth elements, the production of which has grown more in the last decade than in the rest of human history.

So what are they useful for?

They are incorporated into laptops and smartphones, making them smaller and lighter, as the marketing people like to highlight. They play a role in color displays, speakers, camera lenses, GPS systems, rechargeable batteries, hard drives, and many other components. They are key elements in communications systems, from optical fiber to satellites and GPS technology.

Once we have in mind the underlying materiality of the tech world, we can elaborate a second ground assumption: exactly this relevance of minerals - in particular, rare earth, challenge Western dominance over technology. We all know that the main actors, come from the US and they have a close connection, if not intersection, with the government apparatus, like the Pentagon. But it’s not like that for materials.

Just look at Apple’s list of suppliers (but the same could be said for other major tech giants): 90% of rare earth extracted in 2019 come from China and Myanmar - which, not surprisingly, is undergoing a coup in recent months. South Africa, Tanzania, Greenland, and Australia are other major exporters of rare earth. Lithium, not rare earth but one of the most crucial minerals of the digital revolution, is mainly mined in South America, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.

If we look at the history of the last century and to the history of oil, as a strategic resource, the political consequences of this distribution of resources should certainly not be underestimated. To have an example of this, let’s think about semiconductors. Semiconductors,  like silicon and germanium, are crucial materials for the production of microchips and transistors, the structure of the planetarian tech infrastructure. Semiconductors are mostly produced in Taiwan, which accounts for more than 50% of the global market. Semiconductors are so important that often ministers from Western countries personally reach out to Taiwan to make sure that their companies have the capacity to sustain their manufacturing capacity. Given the structural importance of these materials, it should not come as a surprise that the insular State is nowadays the epicenter of the so-called Second Cold War between the US and China, the war front of this economic conflict. So you see the entanglement between geopolitics and resources, and how this is a factor of fragility for our tech infrastructure.

But let’s move beyond geopolitics. The mining components of our devices realize the dream of an old Nokia slogan: connecting people, then taken up ad nauseam by Californian rhetoric. Every digital device we handle connects us with the realms of the microscopic and the macroscopic; like a fold - to use another Deleuzian term - that gathers the knowledge of Korean engineers and connects it with US designers, Bolivian miners with Chinese workers, and so on. Global supply chains are needed to get us to play Candy Crush on the bus. But let’s remember an Old lesson from military history: the longer supply chains become, the more fragile. This international interdependence brings us one step closer to the tech collapse.

The connection goes not only across space but also across time. Since there is no elsewhere, everything comes from somewhere. Rare Metals supposedly have an ancestral origin, as they were created during the process of Supernovae Nucleosynthesis, - and I apologize for the simplicity of my explanation - which is basically a giant stellar explosion that synthesizes new chemical elements. So, every time we interact with these materials we are dealing with an ancestral past, hidden across the layers of our phones.

However, this temporal bond also moves forward, connecting us with the future of our planet.

Let’s remember that there is no elsewhere: thus, rare metals must have an origin. The best hypothesis about that is that Rare Earth supposedly were created through a process of. Basically,

This alleged space origin will maybe convince the human race to follow the vector of extra

Probably when the Steve Jobs of the world were talking about connecting people, they weren't even thinking about connecting them with their most ancestral ancestors or with their great-great-grandchildren. Yet, that's what rare earth and other minerals do. Let us remember, that there is no elsewhere and that nothing is created or destroyed. ctive up to the Moon and asteroids, to make up for the absence of rare earth. Perhaps, in the future entire asteroids will be destroyed to generate Bluetooth headsets. So, rare earth connect us with the cosmic past. But they also connect us to the near future on our planet.

This connection is quite obvious but still often forgotten: the rampant technological production is collaborating in killing the planet, condemning younger generations to a dark future. The production of technologies is artificially inflated by planned obsolescence, that is the policy of designing devices with a shorter lifespan every year. This cycle fuels the purchase of more devices rising profits and increasing the need for scarce materials like the minerals we mentioned before. So, the hundreds of thousands of technological devices that surround us will have to dispose of and in doing so will end up killing even more of our planet.

So, the story sounds like this: we extract ancestral materials in order to use them for a very short time, and while doing it we accelerate the destruction of our millenarian ecosystem. To me, such a strategy, planned obsolescence sounds like a precise ecocidal plan,And this brings us, finally, to the tile of this presentation. The Collapse of the technosphere.

From a slow process of element development, these elements and materials go through an extraordinarily rapid period of excavation, smelting, mixing, and logistical transport - crossing thousands of miles in their transformation.If we add to this, that the technological gadgets have, as it is known,  planned obsolescence we realize that we are in front of a precise technical-political program, a complex and multifaceted program to drain the planet of its resources.

So, we have talked about three aspects of technological production - the importance of minerals, the geopolitical distributions of these materials, and their environmental impact. All of these three aspects define a fragile system of dependenceis. The question behind my talk is the following:

What if this fragility becomes unsustainable? In a world wherein the span of 80 years summers will last about six months, such a scenario may not be so distant, though it is certainly a catastrophic or collapsing prospect. According to the most optimistic assumptions, the planet's temperatures will increase by at least 2°C. In such a situation, it is not hard to imagine the political chaos that will follow and the upheavals that will occur around the world. And this is to not mention the current supply chain chaos, caused also by the pandemics. So, to imagine such a scenario may not be crazy, especially thinking local collapses taht happened in these years.

Moreover, given the recent "scandal" over the energy consumption of NFT technology, such an exercise in imagination may prove useful in understanding the environmental impact of the devices and technologies we use.

It's impossible to think that similar events won't happen again in the future, perhaps even in worse forms. So, in my opioni, Tech collapse is two-sided: on the one hand, there’s the collapse of telecommunication infrastructures, the networks that connect us and this may happen due to the lack energy sources that power them, as in the examples above, could fail; This is not a particularly extreme exercise in imagination, as such events have already taken place in various parts of the world. In September 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the energy and telecommunications infrastructure was deeply damaged. The hurricane knocked down 1,360 of Puerto Rico's 1,600 communications towers meaning - a near-total collapse of the small island's ICT system. The collapse of communications, the impossibility of communicating through the sophisticated devices we have created, has multiplied the weight of the environmental disaster.

Again, last February, when a snowstorm and freezing temperatures led the Texas power grid to a complete failure, leading internet technologies to be almost unusable. This collapse was unequal: these outages were felt disproportionately in low-income areas and neighborhoods where minorities live. This collapse was also the result of years of energy privatization policies. Anyway, the freezing cold isolated some areas, almost 5 million people, from the rest of the country.

A further example of collapse, albeit more localized, is the recent fire at an Ovh data center in Strasbourg: as Wired headlined, "a piece of the Internet" catching fire. Ovh is the largest European company for cloud services and hosts on its servers about 1.5 million web pages, which in the following days were no longer reachable (an example was the site of the Centre Pompidou in Paris). Moreover, it has been suspected that several data, without backups, risk being lost forever. The Ovh server fire can be read as a painful reminder of how physical the economic and digital dematerialization we are experiencing is. What would happen if the online services that host our medical data disappeared? What happens If, because of a problem with the servers, you could no longer access your government or your banking service? That’s a possible outcome of a Tech Collapse.

The second side of tech collapse looks like a supply chains shock that can led to digital austerity, where tablets, smartphones, and laptops could become luxury goods.

In this helps us, In The Rare Metals War, the French journalist Guillaume Pitron has documented the dependence of the entire tech industry on supplies of rare metals, whose extraction has been "delocalized" to China, South America and Africa, bringing with it political instability and great pollution. The West is dependent on these resources: so, if, for environmental or political reasons, one of these countries were to interrupt its trade on rare earth with Europe and the USA, we could experience a real and tangible situation of digital scarcity.

Similar to the 1973 oil crisis or the 1979 energy shock, we can imagine a period of digital austerity, where access to digital resources could be rationed or restricted by authorities, with long lines to access key online services. Limits could be placed on purchasable devices: one laptop per family, for example. China has a de facto monopoly on rare earth, more than OPEC had on oil in the 1970s: from this position of power, it is not clear why China should not use this benefit to its advantage. After all, in 2019, at the height of the trade war between China and Donald Trump, China threatened to stop exporting rare earth, confirming its hegemony in the extraction of the metals on which our technological development depends. That also brings us back us to the importance of Taiwan for strategic reasons.

Such a historical turning point could even have positive effects on the collective consciousness: just as the oil shock put, in part, a brake on the dreams of the economic boom, a digital shock would remind us how important the purely material aspect of the digital revolution is. The madness of planned obsolescence could be stopped, highlighting the importance of what has been called the "right to repair". In an extreme situation, we would have to learn to familiarize ourselves with our devices and disseminate the knowledge necessary for maintenance, perhaps by getting funding from companies that have shamelessly sold short-lived devices for decades.

On a more material side, we could have to literally build on another way our tech world. We’ll briefly explore two local examples of a renewed attitude. In a temporal short-circuit, we could see technologies suitable for the future return from our past. The first example is the Collapse OS: an operating system designed to survive a catastrophe. The stated purpose of Collapse OS is "to preserve the ability to program microcontrollers through the collapse of civilization." It is an operating system designed to "run on minimal, improvised machines," perhaps "built from scrap parts with low-tech tools." Collapse OS will allow it to interface with improvised keyboards and displays, read, write and store data, and even assemble itself to be deployed on another machine. According to its creator, the system is intended to be: "as autonomous as possible. With a copy of this design, a capable and creative person should be able to succeed in building and installing Collapse OS without external resources (i.e., the Internet) on a machine of his or her own design (perhaps made from scrap parts)." In addition, Collapse OS can assemble 8-bit processors (the Z80s): a very limited technology compared to what we use today and which was used in various capacities in the 1970s and 1980s. The creator of the project preferred it for its robustness and simplicity as if to demonstrate that some answers to the problems of the future can be found through a technology of the past. To test Collapse OS there is an online simulator

The idea of Collapse Os can be traced back to that of Deep Adaption, a long-term strategy that takes seriously the catastrophic predictions coming to us, in this day and age, from the scientific community, and not just a few fanatical bunker-huggers. Deep Adaption is the idea that humanity can survive the collapse of capitalist civilization. The destruction of the system is not a direct tunnel to extinctionbut could activate positive and constructive forces, new ideas, and organizations able to navigate the instability of the catastrophe. This is the same mood as the slogan that appeared in several centers of the 2019-'20 global uprisings: Paris, Chile, Minneapolis. The idea is simple and radical: another end of the world is possible.

Another extraordinary example of this attitude is Low-Tech Magazine, a site powered by solar panels and, for this reason, sometimes offline (the site has even been printed entirely inside Again, the design is spartan, with a static, retro page design to save space and energy. The site explores many "obsolete" or alternative, unrefined technologies that may nonetheless prove useful for a truly sustainable future, where inevitably "progress" has had to retreat a few steps. What today is branded as anachronistic by techno-optimists could actually be the best alternative for our future. Breaking the technological determinism in which we live, whereby the most desirable alternative is always the most sophisticated and advanced one, with the consequence that problems are always framed as "technical problems", also passes through the imagination of these counter-futures and alternative pasts.

To summarize with one word, we could call this attitude salvagepunk. This term, coined by science fiction author China Miéville, plays on the meaning of the English salvage: the term, as a noun, means "remains," "wreckage," while as a verb it can be translated as "to save," "to secure" something damaged. Salvagepunk is both a literary genre and an attitude towards disasters of the past and future: exemplified by films such as Mad Max or Miéville's own novels, salvagepunk imagines future worlds in which humanity restarts from the scraps of our society, formulates creative strategies of post-collapse adaptation, and rebuilds a new technique. As Collapse OS and Low-Tech Magazine show, there are technologies abandoned in the past from which we can still learn a lot: garbage could be the high road to revolution. It takes a civilization to build the iPhone: a fragile, material, unfair, and ecocidal civilization. From this civilization, we can still get out alive. When dystopia is found in the official reports of governments or climate agencies, it is at the limits of our chronicle that we must look for utopia and hope. By rummaging through these limits, we might concretize and plan our escape.