Engineering Illusions Part II: State and Technology -III
In 2000, the National Academy of Engineering compiled a list of the most revolutionary engineering achievements of the twentieth century. Topping the list of modern engineering marvels was electrification — the implementation of the vast networked infrastructure that provides ubiquitous electrical power. A technology so fundamental that it permanently changed the technical enterprise itself, grid electrification further enabled the development and deployment of new technologies that would be impossible without the availability of widespread electrical power.
In the twenty-first century, the availability of portable electrical power, enabled by the aforementioned lithium-ion battery, has once again dramatically changed the technological landscape. While it may not rise to the Promethean status of twentieth century electrification, batteries powering mobile device systems such as GPS, micro-processors, cellular connectivity, cameras, and associated software applications make possible a global swarm of such systems dispersed around the world. This portability and enables the digital enterprise we see today, with cloud-based applications spawning entire industries. Fed with large quantities of data from the world, services have been built that have changed human behaviors and enabled new capabilities that we never thought possible — as many TED talks and technology symposiums will recite. At the heart of this frenetic economy then lies the humble battery. Fundamental to the battery is lithium.
According to the 2020 United States Geological Survey report on lithium, the metal’s “consumption for batteries has increased significantly in recent years because rechargeable lithium batteries are used extensively in the growing market for portable electronic devices and increasingly are used in electric tools, electric vehicles, and grid storage applications.” The report notes that batteries account for 65% of lithium usage globally. On the production side, US production of lithium was limited to a brine operation in Nevada, while Argentina, Chile, Australia and China accounted for the majority of the world’s lithium production. U.S production statistics are withheld in the report for confidentiality.
Lithium has become a key resource of economic and strategic importance, and “lithium supply security has become a top priority for technology companies in the United States and Asia. Strategic alliances and joint ventures among technology companies and exploration companies continued to be established to ensure a reliable, diversified supply of lithium for battery suppliers and vehicle manufacturers.” Due to continuous exploration, confirmed global lithium reserves have increased significantly to approximately eighty million tons. Reserves in the U.S total approximately seven million tons. While Argentina, Chile, Australia and China account for most of global production, none of these countries claim top spot in total reserves. With 21 million tons, that unfortunate distinction goes to Bolivia in central South America.
In the October 2019 elections, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader Evo Morales secured his fourth presidential term. Following a military coup, Morales was forced to resign a month later. As the Washington Post reported on a key factor reinforcing the coup, “Morales’ stunning fall after nearly 14 years in office came hours after the Organization of American States (OAS) said it had found ‘clear manipulation’ of the vote last month in which the elder statesman of the Latin American left claimed victory.” Under the threat of the military and police, Morales was forced to flee to Mexico. The consensus around manipulation was covered by the generality of U.S media. As the New York Times also reported in December 2019, “An independent international audit of Bolivia’s disputed election concluded that former President Evo Morales’s officials resorted to lies, manipulation and forgery to ensure his victory.” The report also cursorily noted that “some economists and statisticians in the United States” questioned the OAS investigation.
Indeed, an analysis by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), also verified by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, disproved the manipulation charge, noting, “We cannot find results that would lead us to the same conclusion as the OAS. We find it is very likely that Morales won the required 10 percentage point margin to win in the first round of the election on October 20, 2019.” The group reported their findings in a February 2020 Washington Post article. It would be later reported in May 2021 that the U.S Department of Justice under President Trump had threatened these researchers with a subpoena in collaboration with Bolivian coup regime.
These disputations did not dampen President Trump, who celebrated the coup, declaring, “After nearly 14 years and his recent attempt to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people, Morales’ departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.” Expressing the blessing of the United States, he said, “The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution.”
In response, member of UK Parliament Jeremy Corbyn noted, “To see Evo Morales who, along with a powerful movement, has brought so much social progress forced from office by the military is appalling. I condemn this coup against the Bolivian people and stand with them for democracy, social justice and independence.”
In June 2020, after Morales’ ouster, the New York Times reversed its original reporting by noting that the OAS study was “marred by grave irregularities,” and that “a close look at Bolivian election data suggests an initial analysis by the OAS that raised questions of vote-rigging — and helped force out a president — was flawed.” The reporting referenced an independent study by the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University. The authors of the study noted, “We examine the patterns that the observers deemed inexplicable, finding that we can explain them without invoking fraud.” Critics had also charged Morales of seeking a fourth presidential term in violation of constitutional term limits. However, the Bolivian judiciary had overruled the term limits, giving Morales the green light to seek a fourth term. As the Intercept observed, this was not unlike New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg inducing the City Council to overturn a term limit referendum so he could seek a third term.
Morales’ victory was foreseeable. As the Associated Press observed in 2014, Morales’ administration was successful by virtually every metric. “While known internationally for his anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric, the 54-year-old coca growers’ union leader is widely popular at home for a pragmatic economic stewardship that spread Bolivia’s natural gas and mineral wealth among the masses.” Despite missteps such as alienating some indigenous allies by planning a highway through an indigenous reserve, or promoting mining, Morales remained the most popular politician in the country.
Following the coup, the indigenous leader’s replacement was Jeanine Anez, a representative from the country’s minority European-descent and Christian population, comprised of the more conservative and wealthier vote. As the Intercept reported in June 2020, “Her new, unelected government promptly massacred dozens of indigenous protesters and then vested the responsible soldiers with immunity.” “Massacre” isn’t mere rhetoric, but how the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights described it. Anez once tweeted that she “dreams of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rights,” and her actions display a strong commitment to that dream. A November 2019 statement from the U.S Embassy and Consulate read, “The United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez for stepping up as Interim President of State to lead her nation through this democratic transition, under the constitution of Bolivia and in accordance with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
Morales had long seen the nationalization of the country’s lithium resources as a means of uplifting the country out of poverty. He had declared, “The state will never lose sovereignty when it comes to lithium.” After Morales’ first victory in 2005, a renewed promise of developing Bolivia’s natural resources for the benefit of its people, instead of being claimed and exploited by foreign multinationals, spread a wave of optimism within the indigenous population. Morales’ administration initiated state-backed lithium development projects, with the explicit goal of uplifting Bolivia by transforming it into the premier green technology hub in South America. In 2008, Morales reiterated that Bolivia’s lithium was a “strategic resource and national priority,” considering the growing lithium-ion battery industry servicing the technology sector. Morales’ vice president Álvaro García Linera had predicted that the lithium will one day be “the engine of [Bolivia’s] economy.” Every Bolivian will benefit, he had declared, “taking them out of poverty, guaranteeing their stability in the middle class, and training them in scientific and technological fields so that they become part of the intelligentsia in the global economy.”
However, for reasons ranging from unconducive chemical composition of the lithium resources, underdeveloped infrastructure, and the lower and wetter lands of the deposits, the country has had a difficult time realizing commercial production of the local lithium. After striking a strategic partnership with a Chinese consortium to develop commercial lithium projects in February 2019, Morales cancelled a December 2018 agreement with Germany’s ACI Systems Alemania (ACISA) in November 2019. ACISA is a battery supplier for Tesla, among other customers. In February 2020, Anez’s deputy Samuel Doria Medina invited Tesla CEO Elon Musk “to build a Gigafactory in the Salar de Uyuni to supply lithium batteries” on Twitter, referencing Bolivia’s lithium rich Salar de Uyuni salt flats. In an unrelated note, Musk responded to a user regarding Bolivia’s political situation, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” The tweet was later deleted.
Amidst the political turmoil, businesses and governments remained apprehensive. As geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor described in November 2019, “In the longer term, continued political uncertainty will make it more difficult for Bolivia to increase its production of strategic metals like lithium or develop a value-added sector in the battery market.” Noting the inopportune timing of this uncertainty, Stratfor observed that “the poor investment climate comes at a time of expanding global opportunities in lithium-ion battery production to meet rising demand from electric vehicle manufacturing.”
Morales believes that the U.S had not “forgiven” him for pursuing lithium development projects with U.S adversaries. In an interview, he elaborated, “It was a national and international coup d’etat,” said Morales. “I’m absolutely convinced it’s a coup against lithium.” While it is unclear that the coup was determined by the lithium reserves, or even had direct involvement of multinational corporations, it is undeniable that the state-operated project of a sovereign country seeking to control its own resources now hangs in the balance. Development of this resource once held promise to uplift the indigenous population of the country, which faced the full boot of the violent Anez administration, before Morales’ MAS party returned to power through democratic elections in late 2020.
In January 2020, sometime after the coup, then U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the Washington, D.C office of OAS. Expressing his support for OAS’s work in the Bolivian election, he glowingly declared, “the OAS honored the former Bolivian government’s request to conduct an audit of the disputed election results. The probe conducted uncovered proof of massive and systemic fraud.” Seemingly forgetting the violence that began under the Anez administration, he said that the probe “helped end the violence that had broken out over the election dispute.” Declaring his commitment to human rights, Pompeo noted that the OAS “honored the Bolivian people’s courageous demand for a free and fair election, and for democracy.”
Lithium is a soft, silvery-white metal. The element has exploded onto global markets in the twenty-first century primarily due to energy storage requirements for phones, laptops, electric vehicles and other products. Given its growing requirement in stationary storage and other renewable energy technologies, lithium has already become critical to the arsenal in the fight against climate breakdown. If we ever manage to honestly reconstruct our economies to combat our grim environmental challenges, the Bolivian coup must not be forgotten. The significance of it lies not just in lithium, but in the indigenous population as well. Our technologically advanced state is a member of what is celebrated as the civilized world, which today seeks to avoid anthropogenic climate and environmental catastrophe. On the other hand, the technologically backward state constitutes what is considered the uncivilized world, one that seeks to protect its natural resources. These efforts mirror those of the First Nations in Canada, tribal communities in India, Aboriginal populations in Australia and other counterparts in Latin America. Armed with technological advancements, the ‘civilized’ people now aspire to save the environment from their own reckless, destructive actions, while it is the ‘uncivilized’ populations who have protected their environment since time immemorial.
Paradoxically, the elevation of the state to terrestrial supremacy and the resolute belief in its infallibility creates an opportunity for private interests to twist the state with even greater force. By appealing to the national interest and national security, arguments wrapped in the flag become potent devices to swat away challenges that may emerge from the broader populace. Just as entrenched industries are well practiced in this art, so too Silicon Valley, deft at deploying the language of nationalist appeal and the recitations of state worship to achieve private interests. Special interests then, become national interests at the expense of the population.
In an August 2019 New York Times op-ed titled Good for Google, Bad for America, venture capitalist and benefactor of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign Peter Thiel admonished Google for setting up an A.I lab in Beijing, dismissing Google’s claim that “A.I and its benefits have no borders.” Thiel expressed his frustration with Google’s decision to cancel a controversial Pentagon contract that sought to build an AI system for the US military. Project Maven as it was called, was discontinued in response to employee backlash as four thousand Google employees signed a petition demanding “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” Several employees also resigned in protest. The dichotomy of setting up an A.I lab in China and cancelling a Pentagon program showed that Google was evading “responsibility for the good of the country,” noted Thiel.
“The country” does not comprise of its workers of course, who seek to assert some control over their own work, as Google employees did with Project Maven. Indeed, such “a rebellion among rank and file employees” must instead be squashed. Thiel declared, “A.I. is a military technology,” and “the first users of the machine learning tools being created today will be generals rather than board game strategists,” demonstrating the flippancy of investors and executives of the technical enterprise who recast technologies into arbitrary molds.
Perhaps such patriotic indignation from Thiel would be believable if he wasn’t one of the primary supporters of the libertarian Sea-steading movement, which sought to create autonomous off-shore cities free from the U.S Government. As Wired magazine observed at the time, “for decades, an assortment of romantics and whack jobs have fantasized about fleeing the oppressive strictures of modern government and creating a laissez-faire society on the high seas.” After all, mere patriotic posturing is not tax deductible unfortunately. In addition, Thiel applied for and was granted citizenship of New Zealand in 2011. He wrote in his citizenship application, “I am happy to say categorically that I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand,” and that “it would give me great pride to let it be known that I am a New Zealand citizen and an enthusiastic supporter of the country.” This “view of the future” doesn’t get in the way of seeking profitable U.S Government contracts for his data analytics company Palantir. Palantir provides Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) with advanced digital tools used by the state to commit human rights violations and break its own asylum laws at the southern US border.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, for his part, assured an adamant President Trump in 2019 that Apple would continue to assemble the Mac Pro computer in the U.S, after Trump warned the company that critical components would not be exempt from tariffs if Apple moved its production to China. Both these paragons of patriotism harbor such deep love for their country that the President passed prodigious tax cuts for U.S corporations, which the CEO used for sweeping stock buybacks and dividend payouts to furnish profits to Apple’s shareholders. Trump’s 2017 tax cuts will pass 83% of the benefits to the top 1% of the income bracket by 2027, while the top 0.1% would secure 60% of the benefits. These cuts only augment Apple’s efforts to minimize or eliminate its tax obligations to the state. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans would pay more, at a time when the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution. One cannot help but salute such dedication to the country and its people.
While Thiel sings flag and country, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook sings save the country. Amid a growing consensus for breaking up Facebook’s tech monopoly on digital markets and stricter data regulations, Zuckerberg claimed in a 2018 interview that if Facebook’s control was threatened, “the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies.” China taking over the global digital markets would be a very concerning development for the U.S as “they do not share the values that we have.” Indeed, the claim goes, it is in the best interest of the US to ignore popular policy demands of the domestic population and allow an unregulated Facebook. “I think you can bet that, if the government here is worried about — whether it’s election interference or terrorism — I don’t think Chinese companies are going to want to cooperate as much and aid the national interest there.”
Repeating this appeal during a 2019 Congressional testimony, David Marcus, co-creator of Facebook’s digital currency project, Libra, noted that “if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will.” “If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different,” and that the digital currency “can provide an opportunity for leadership consistent with our shared values.”
These “dramatically different” and “shared” values did not seem to collide when Facebook decided to build a censorship software tool to help the company enter the Chinese market in 2016. Such an understanding was developed after multiple meetings with Chinese state officials. As the New York Times then reported, the tool would “enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network.” Conceivably, Facebook’s clients in China would then wield complete control to regulate information online. Helpfully, the Times offered an alternative path, one taken by other US internet companies in China. Instead of directly developing censorship and tracking tools, “finding a [local] partner — and potentially allowing it to own a majority stake in Facebook’s China operation — would take the burden of censorship and surveillance off the Silicon Valley company.” While the “dramatically different” values may not seem too different, it would be unfair to say Facebook has no values. Here they demonstrated how much they value a lucrative market of 1.4 billion people.
Nevertheless, these attempts to ostensibly protect U.S national security pale in comparison to a particularly fearless and heroic tactic by Zuckerberg. Perhaps the most admirable display of patriotism came during a 2015 White House dinner, when Zuckerberg asked President Xi Jinping of China to name his unborn child. The President declined. Valiant efforts to protect American national security
“America is the land of opportunity…there is no other country where I could have done this,” declared Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, reflecting on his exploits in the US. Truly, with a $465 million Department of Energy loan, more than $220 million in sales and use tax exclusions from California, zero emission vehicle and renewable energy credits backed by the state, $959 million in New York state subsidies to build a solar cell factory, and cumulative government assistance that has exceeded $5 billion dollars, America truly has been the land of opportunity for Musk. Nevertheless, after years of receiving these lavish gifts, Tesla has transitioned a portion of its manufacturing to China, similarly securing financial patronage from the country, including a 2019 $1.6 billion loan for a factory. Musk changed his tune, declaring, “China rocks in my opinion. The energy in China is great. People there — there’s like a lot of smart, hard-working people. And they’re really — they’re not entitled, they’re not complacent, whereas I see in the United States increasingly much more complacency and entitlement especially in places like the Bay Area, and L.A. and New York.”
As the Department of Defense was bidding out its $10 billion contract for cloud services called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project in 2018, the employees of potential suitors Microsoft and Google expressed their opposition to it. The employees specifically opposed building systems that could be used for waging war. After Google pulled out of the bidding process, Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon was also in the running, grumbled that “if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.” Disappointed at the deficient patriotism on display, he said, “This is a great country — it needs to be defended.” After Microsoft won the contract in 2019, Amazon somehow lost its national team spirit, instead suing the Pentagon to challenge its decision.
These trivial examples of business hypocrisy and cheap public relations nevertheless reveal some fundamental assumptions. On the global stage, the state is supreme, and any ambition or scheme once attached to its preservation, indeed, its elevation, is axiomatically justified. Even if such action may hurt the people of the nation and the direction of their technical enterprise which ostensibly serves them, state worship provides autonomous apologia. Such contradictions can only be sustained if there exists faith in state supremacy. As Rocker observed, “Just as the state is always trying within its borders to abolish equality of social position among its subjects and to perpetuate this separation by differences of caste and class, so externally, too, it must take care to keep itself distinct from all other governmental organizations and to instill into its citizens the belief in their national superiority over all other peoples.”
Under the boot of this tragic march, technology and its promise are trampled. Under the guise of state service, the owners service their own interests. Matters of responsible technology regulation and development, public interest, and ethics are inconsequential space debris in the solar system of the nationalist technical enterprise. Dire consequences of wasteful and detrimental use of technologies are of no concern, as the owners and executives of the technical enterprise construct Doomsday escape plans that include luxurious bunkers in territories like New Zealand. Despite pretensions of intellectual preeminence, otherworldly insight and modern mastery, tech CEOs make banal and antiquated appeals to jingoism. Contained herein is a pre-cooked ideology that advances personal interests at the expense of the many, or as Zuckerberg called early Facebook users, also his compatriots, the “dumb fucks.”