Where our techno-future is taking us

From the New York Times: There’s Money in Dirt, for Those Who Find Bits of Silicon

Sifting black earth inside her hole, 14-year-old Nurzada Meerim admits to breathing problems. “But here is money,” she said, holding up a crinkled silver flake.

Across a vast landfill just outside this tiny farming town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, the heads of girls continually pop up from narrowly constructed 10-foot shafts. Mothers and other female relatives wait on the rim, hands outstretched to take the flakes and gnarled pebbles of silicon that the girls have retrieved from the soil. There are some men, too, and they bark threats to outsiders who walk past their holes.

The landfill covers the garbage cast off from a shuttered factory that produced mostly trinkets and souvenirs from silicon-bearing rock, as well as waste sent from a nearby Soviet-era uranium mine. Flattened plastic bottles carpet the area.

It is China’s rapidly expanding computer chip industry that is fueling the rush for Orlovka silicon, which is sold by middlemen in the bazaars to Chinese traders in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I find this article (and the accompanying photograph) profoundly depressing. Our production and consumption habits, exported to the rest of the world, are partly responsible for these sorts of practices. It makes me want to stop working with technology that involves computer chips (unfortunately we cannot turn back time), or, on the other hand, work to reduce the amount that we rely on things with chips in them (extremely difficult in our cultural and business environment), or move to a different field of study that doesn’t contribute to this “need” (which is simply running away).

There are no good options.

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