I need a job! If any of you folk out there need a writer/toymaker/artist/analyst let me know. I will work for you with unflagging fervor, intellect, and creativity. I only need a smidgen of money for catfood and rent (and someone else to manage the spreadsheet)!
Sadly, according to the want ads I have been looking at, the world does not want astonishing super creativity. Right now, the market economy only wants these infernal i-phones and tablets which everyone is looking at all the time. The majority of jobs available are for low-level sales-clerks and admins to staff humankind’s great transition into a fully functional hive mind (where we humans, the individual neurons, are all always networked together through our androids and blackberries).
I’m no Luddite. I enjoy technology and I can imagine great benefits arising from the internet when it fully grows up into a vast colony-mind. Yet, so far iphones mostly provide a solipsist diversion—or, at best—a platform for buying and selling more unneeded junk or channeling resources to Carlos Slim and other anointed telecom winners. Naturally, I exempt Wikipedia from this grumpy jeremiad—it is indeed an amazing realization of the great utopian dreams of the Encyclopedists. I suppose I should exempt this very blog and you, my cherished readers, as well… but, after a day of looking at ads for junior marketing interns and assistant admin assistants, I can’t entirely. Here I am creating “content” for free so some MBA higher up the tech food chain can point at an infinitesimal rise or fall on a bar chart while his colleagues clap him on the shoulder and talk of “synergies.” I certainly don’t want to be that guy either! But what else is there? What are we supposed to do?
Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China
To escape these circular author-centric thoughts, let’s take a field trip around the world. To provide a more comprehensive vision of the smart phone revolution, today’s post takes us to Inner Mongolia—the vast landlocked desert hinterland of China. There, amidst the lifeless dunes and the alkaline sink holes is a vast manmade lake—Lake Baotou—which reflects some of the complicated dualities of the globalized market and the technology revolution. It has been said that each computer screen and cellphone window is a “black mirror” where we watch ourselves. Lake Bautu is a different sort of black mirror. It is literally a layer of super-toxic black sludge which is left over when the rare-earth elements and heavy metals necessary for smart phones have been processed.
Waste draining into “rare earth lake” Baotou, Inner Mongolia of China (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
Ferrebeekeeper has visited the world’s biggest lake, and we have dipped our toes into the fabled waters of Mount Mazama where the Klamath spirit of the underworld dwells. We have visited Lake Lonar where a space object slammed into the black basalt of a long dead shield volcano, and we have even been to China’s biggest lake where the world’s largest naval battle took place. However, Lake Baotou is a whole different manifestation of the underworld. Sophisticated modern electronics require cerium, neodymium, yttrium, europium, and goodness only knows what else. These so-called rare earth elements are also necessary for wind turbines, electric car arrays, and next generation green technologies.
Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)
Yet the refinement process for these elements is unusually corrosive and toxic and the waste products are horrifying. The raw materials tend to be found in great evaporitic basins (like those of Inner Mongolia, where an ancient ocean dried into vast dunes) but most nations are wary of processing these materials because of the unknown long-term cost. China’s leaders recognized the economic (and defense!) potential of becoming the world’s main (only?) supplier of these esoteric elements and the end result has been cheap consumer electronics, a communication revolution…and Lake Baotao, which slouches dark and poisonous beneath the refining towers and smokestacks of Baotao City.
On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists’ paradise I was wishing for last week!
A former roommate of mine visited Inner Mongolia and walked the streets of Baotao City. He described a wild-west boomtown filled with brothels, bars, Mongolian barbeque places, and…cell phone stores! Crime and excess were readily apparent everywhere as were prosperity and success—like old timey Deadwood or Denver. I wonder if Baotao City will develop into a modern hub like Denver or Chicago, or will it disappear back into the thirsty dunes when this phase of the electronics boom is over (or when its effluviums become insuperable).
In the mean time we all have to flow with the shifting vicissitudes of vast entwined global networks. We must make ends meet in a way which hopefully doesn’t harm the world too much. Now I better get back to scouring the want ads! Keep your eyes open for a job for me and please keep following me, um, on your computers and smart phones…