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Exploring the World's Electronics Mines

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 6, 2011 02:33 PM

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Yesterday the American Society of Magazine Editors announced its nominations for the National Magazine Awards -- and the excellent Virginia Quarterly Review grabbed six of them, behind only the New York Times and The New Yorker. If you don't know VQR, now's a great time to get acquainted with the magazine. Its most recent issue, focused on "the mines that feed the tech revolution," is extraordinary.

Image from VQR.

When we think about new information technologies, we naturally focus on their costs and benefits in our own societies -- we wonder, for example, how the rise of e-readers will affect our own reading habits and, by extension, our political, artistic, and civil lives. iPhones, iPads, and Kindles pull information out of the air, and it seems that, whatever changes they may be bringing, they'll be abstract changes in the world of ideas. And yet, as VQR editor Ted Genoways explains in "The Price of the Paperless Revolution," "No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood." Microprocessors, in particular, depend on rare minerals that are mined all over the world, by mining operations large and small, legal and illegal.

In fact, the human and environmental impact of mining for electronics is huge. The pace of innovation in electronics is so fast, with many devices getting replaced after only two years of use, that electronic reading is actually far more costly, in energy terms, than paper reading. If you take all of the resources that go into making iPad-like devices and gather them up, "the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books" each year for the transition between paper and paperless to come out even. Reading a book on an iPad uses almost fifty times as much energy as reading one by electric light. Of course, people do far more with their iPads than read books; the point is simply that "paperless" does not equal "energy neutral."

Even more incredible are the huge numbers of people who are swept up in the production of such lightweight, ethereal devices. Whole cities' worth of miners, working in South America, Asia, Africa, India, and right here in the United States, risk life and limb to find copper, lithium, and other metals. Information technology is, in many ways, a force for good. But, Genoways argues, "we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production." High-tech devices are still old-fashioned physical objects, and there's a reason, besides the ingenuity required to dream them up, that they're so expensive. VQR's issue sends reporters and photographers to mines all over the world to document, in effect, the material and human substrate upon which the edifice of information is built. We like to think that "information wants to be free" -- but there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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