Petrified Media: Book Launch

Today, as part of the exhibition Seismic Mother in London, we launched Petrified Media. Below is the text of the talk that I gave, which is just an updated version of the talk posted 18 months ago and given at the exhibition opening. But somehow the conclusion is much more satisfying here, so repetition or not, I’m posting it here:

At its core this book is about the relationship between rocks and digital image technologies, or as I now think of them – earth media and technical media. Everything we make, every cultural object, is derived (or grown) from the resources beneath our feet. By changing the physical state of rocks we have made hammers, cars, iPads and the instruments used in volcanology. From the lithosphere humans have built what geologist Peter Haff refers to as a technosphere, that extends from the deepest mine cavities and underground science facilities up to the geosynchronous orbit of the most distant communication satellites. Haff now describes this technosphere as a planetary paradigm, one whose potential impact is equal to that held by the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere or biosphere. However, Haff writes, “unlike the other paradigms, the technosphere has not yet evolved the ability to recycle its own waste streams”. Volcanoes, I quickly discovered on starting this project are part of the lithosphere’s circularity. One of the main causes of volcanic activity is the geological process of subduction. This takes place at tectonic boundaries where one plate is pushed beneath the edge of another, forcing the softer of the two down into the Earth’s mantle and triggering the release of magma. Subduction zones are sites of geological recycling, where portions of the crust are folded back into the planetary metabolism.

At the beginning of the Earth Art Fellowship from which this book developed, these were some of my questions:

– What is the difference between a rock and a camera?

– If a camera can be made from a rock then is the rock not already capable of photography?

– And what happens when a camera turns back into a rock? (as is presumably already happening at some unknown depth in the crust). Does it return to a previous lithic state or will it sediment new minerals to be unearthed by future geologists?

More recently I’ve been experimenting with extending this playful equivalence between rocks and camera into my personal life, to see if it might be possible to simply replace the memento role that photographs play with rocks. I never print a photograph any longer, but my house is increasingly littered with stones collected from particularly memorable locations or events, and when I hold them, sure enough, I am reminded of the site and time where I picked them up. Following this principle I have decided to illustrate today’s talk with objects rather than power point.

The short video I made during the fellowship begins with the line: “To photograph a rock is to point polished pebbles at a rock”. Which is really just to say that the image sensor in our cameras is a sliver of near-pure silicon, extracted from a predominantly silicate planetary crust, refined, and hooked up to a series of also-silicon computer chips to process light into image data. But, long before human beings made cameras : weren’t rocks always already processing light into data? The photosensitivity of silver and silicon are not inventions after all, but discoveries. Benjamin Bratton writes that with the appearance of the first photograph of a black hole the aperture of the camera has become the size of the planet – meaning just that this image is triangulated from simultaneous telescopic exposures at multiple terrestrial sites. But hasn’t the earth – absorbing incident solar radiation and developing a photosynthesised bio-image across its land masses – always in fact been a camera?

Speaking with Professor Heidy Mader, who sadly passed away before the publication of this book, I was struck by the centrality and continuity of silicon in the experiments being conducted on the Disequilibrium project, with which my Fellowship was associated. Silicate rocks are collected from volcanic sites, they are imaged onto silicon image sensors in the synchrotron at Diamond Light Source and these images were analysed and input into a computer model in Manchester – an algorithmic magma chamber, synthesised in silicon, in which the behaviour of liquid silicates can be modelled. By the time I return from my first trip to visit the various scientific partners in the consortium, this reflexive arc of silicates within the Disequilibrium experiments has captivated me. I summarise it in the video so: Minerals are melted into machines to analyse minerals as they melt.

In volcanology, disequilibrium refers to moments in which the key variables: namely temperature, pressure, gaseousness and crystallization are in constant flux, as for example during eruption. One of the central problems addressed by the Disequilibrium project was therefore to develop a methodology to photograph a rock while it is melting. I turn these words over and over in my head:

  • To photograph a rock while it is melting.
  • To photograph a melting rock.
  • To melt a photographic rock.
  • To melt a rock while it is photographing.

…and resolve that my response should be to melt the camera.

But my camera is largely plastic, and most photos are no longer taken with a camera, so perhaps inevitably, I turned my attention to my recently broken iPhone 5, the camera of which also has a scalar relationship with the samples used by volcanologists. Heating a contemporary technical artefact to a temperature at which the melting points of its component parts are surpassed reveals its underlying materiality. Melting breaks down the temporary arrangement of these materials into a functional whole, forcing apart alloys and rearranging elements according to their physical properties rather than their electronic schematic. Anode and cathode seep together. Neat metallic squares of micro-components located to control electrical currents flowing between them now flow together : cobalt, copper, titanium and chromium recrystalise with one another in a matrix of molten aluminium that previously enclosed them in commodity form. A molten phone, baked in the subterranean heat of a nearby magma chamber, is one potential future. To melt a camera – is to manufacture a technofossil.

Jan Zalasiewicz has written extensively about contemporary technofossils, the likely traces of our Anthropocene era that will be evident in the stratigraphic record of the planet to future paleontologists. Silicon and quartz are so inert and resistant that, in his opinion, they are most likely to defy the chemical weathering of deep time, perhaps even more so than the industrially hardened types of steel found in many consumer technologies. It is possible then that some of our semiconductors might survive the extremes of temperature and pressure, and that the microelectronic paths etched into them will retain or imprint their form in the surrounding bedrock. Graptolite fossils have survived to the present as the hollow spaces left by their skeletons became pyritised (pyrite is more commonly known as fool’s gold). In commenting on the likely candidates for pyritization among our current urban detritus, Zalasiewicz identifies “the interiors of any of the myriads of tiny metal and electronic gadgets that we now produce in their millions … for these in themselves contain iron, one of the ingredients of pyrite”. Even in this brief discussion of the futurity of media objects, it is clear that the samples of molten phone I produced will bear no resemblance to the real effects of deep time on today’s electronic waste. Isolated from the hydration of the subterranean environment and dramatically accelerated in comparison to centuries or millenia of gradual baking and compression, the furnace is a blunt instrument whose results are in no way comparable to the speculative future they seek to materialise. Yet this is also how Science operates, by removing samples from their context and simulating the forces upon them in a controlled environment.

In another essay Zalasiewicz uses the example of the Antikythera Mechanism, which was found 120 years ago in the Aegean Sea inside a 2000 year old shipwreck. 72 years after it was found its purpose was understood by analysing it with X-ray tomography, revealing it to be an analogue computer engineered to predict astronomical positions and eclipses, the toothed cogs which enabled its identification also appear to us now as a 2 millenia ancestor of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. It seems inconceivable to us that our current technologies of computation could be forgotten, reinvented and then rediscovered in as little as 2000 years.  And yet this has already happened in the geological blink of an eye that we refer to as History.

Among the temporalities of geological processes such as sedimentation, compaction, metamorphosis, and deformation, the assembly of a mobile digital technology in the early twenty-first century represents a radical rematerialization of terrestrial resources both in terms of speed and geographic reach. We might even describe these mutually alien timescales as existing in a state of disequilibrium. Our media hardwares are pinched together in a geological nanosecond by an industry whose reach encompasses the planet and delves deep into its crust. In the current absence of an internationally scalable program of disassembly, a few years later, discarded and perhaps partially stripped for parts, the terrestrial temporalities of oxidization, erosion, and crystallization take over again. This disequilibrium between the planetary capacity to regenerate material and the technosphere’s capacity to produce waste causes technological flotsam to pile up in “sacrificial zones” across multiple continents.

After a period of lockdown I returned to the samples of molten iPhone in the basement labs in Bristol. I process the resulting lumps of molten metal using the tools and techniques of the petrologist, grinding and polishing them for microscope imaging and electron microscope analysis. Media theorist Jussi Parikka speaks of A Geology of Media to draw our attention to the deep time planetary processes that produce the ores extracted in the service of our industries and sciences. The pounding of waves that has ground and sifted monocrystalline quartz for centuries before sand is scooped into furnaces, the gradual accretion of heavy minerals in the coastal sands of Western Australia and Senegal, or the coursing of thermal springs through volcanic pumice that precipitates a lithium-rich brine now pumped from beneath the Atacama desert for our batteries. But, in practice, the dark grey ingots of no-longer-smartphone are relatively unyielding to the tools of geology. What is required instead is perhaps closer to a Metallurgy of Media.

According to a project conducted at the University of Plymouth where an iPhone was ground to dust and X-ray diffraction performed on the results, a smartphone consists of 22 different metals:

33g of Iron                           
13g of Silicon                        
7g of Chromium                    
7g of Chromium        
6g of Copper                       
2.7g of Nickel                   
2.5 g of Aluminium               
1.6g of Calcium                     
0.7g of Tin                             
900mg of Tungsten              
160mg of Neodymium         
90mg of Silver                       
70mg of Molybdenum          
70 mg of Cobalt                    
36mg of Gold                        
30mg of Praesodymium       
20mg of Tantalum                
10mg of Niobium                 
7mg of Antinomy                  
5mg of Gadolinium               
2mg of Dysprosium              
2mg of Germanium              
2mg of Indium                      
7mg of Antinomy                  
5mg of Gadolinium               
2mg of Dysprosium              
2mg of Germanium              
2mg of Indium                      

To identify a rock using the traditional method of optical mineralogy it must be sliced and polished to a thickness of 30 microns or 0.03mm. At this thickness it becomes translucent and its index of refraction can be measured by the interference pattern of polarised light shone through it. To identify a rock then, it must first be turned into a lens. The rock is incorporated into the body of the camera: earth media becomes technical media. The screen of a phone is similarly polished, buffed smooth to the molecular level using the rare-earth element Cerium. However, the refined metals contained in my manufactured slices of iFossil cannot be identified by optical mineralogy, so, I use the electron microscope. I am told that looking for rare-earth elements in molten lumps of iPhone is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. But I persist and eventually find that in addition to the 22 metals identified in Plymouth I find fragments of a white lattice made of pure Zirconium, and contacts around a capacitor containing Bismuth as well as gold and silver.

To disassemble a complex technology into its constituent elemental metals requires considerable energy expenditure, involves toxic processes, and will never recover all of the materials. In a 2018 paper titled ‘Limits of the Circular Economy’, the authors model the recycling of metals from a Fairphone 2 by three different routes: smelting the phone in its entirety, dismantling and selectively smelting its modules, and shredding, sorting and metallurgical processing. Of these three techniques, the second has both the smallest environmental footprint and recovers the highest quantity of critical materials. However, even though as much as 80% – 98% of valuable metals such as gold, copper, silver, cobalt, nickel, palladium, gallium, indium, and zinc were recovered, the total percentage of material recycled was only 28%. The circular economy is currently proffered across industry and public policy as a silver bullet to the problems of finite resource and exponential waste, but when at looked at from the perspective of holistic commodities, there will always be a remainder – perhaps as much as 70% – which constitutes slag that cannot be recovered industrially.

Technologies are internally awash with circular systems, feedback loops, and recursive processes. But science is yet to design an apparatus for the re-crystallization of media into minerals, hence there is no means to metabolize all the “integral waste” of the technosphere. We can turn rocks into cameras but we cannot turn cameras into rocks. Having folded the planet into urban environments, scientific apparatus, and media technologies, the question remains as to how we might selectively unfold those actions.

I recently visited the geologist – Dr Arjan Dijkstra – who blended his phone to perform the compositional analysis that I just listed , and I put this question directly to him. He is now working on a means of synthesizing rare earth minerals in the lab, dissolving pure neodymium in phosphoric acid, filtering and baking the resulting residue to produce monazite powder. When asked whether such a procedure could be applied to objects of e-waste like batteries it quickly becomes clear that the only means of doing so would be to shred it into a fine powder, dissolve this in acid and bake the resulting sludge to powder at high heat over long durations. To turn technical media back to earth media, is as toxic and energy intensive a process as the manufacture of the technology in the first place.

Every juncture in the formation, transformation and deformation of minerals and media discussed here is shaped by intense thermal energy. From the production of metal-rich magmas in subduction zones to their scientific synthesis in the laboratory furnaces, from the notional technofossil of my molten smartphone to the selective smelting of e-waste recycling; these processes are all powered either by the “high-temperature internal heat source of the planet”, or by the cheap, widespread availability of geologically fossilized sources of fuel. Even in the currently science-fictional proposition of a completely circular economy, the maintenance of the technosphere would remain dependent upon such energy intensive combustion to de- and re-manufacture its component parts – unless of course everything can be built to last as long as Voyager 1 which was launched two years before my birth and yet continues to broadcast successfully to earth from a distance of 23 billion kilometres – perhaps the furthest extent of the technosphere. I wanted to end today with a somewhat facetious science-fictional proposal of my own. On the wall over there is the first work I have made of this type, a proposal to perpetually generate renewable electricity from the magnetosphere by constructing a continent-scaled copper coil in Antarctica. According to the Anthropocene Working Group the industrial extraction of minerals and metals has now altered the geological functioning of the planetary system that we inhabit. On the surface of that planet the effluents of industry and wastes of overproduction and rampant consumption poison the biosphere and atmosphere. So perhaps we need to find a way to reintegrate these solid waste products – the unrecyclable dross of this circular economy we are supposedly building – into the lithosphere from which it came, to allow the planetary process of subduction to process our waste. Rather than dumping waste in the so-called sacrifice zones of Baotou in China, or Agbogbloshie in Ghana, perhaps we should dump our waste in Subduction Zones, to be sucked at a tectonic pace back into the mantle of the earth, molten and erupted again as metal-rich minerals for novel production. What would happen if we tried to start recycling our waste using tectonic movement and volcanic heat instead of the mechanics of the shredder and the fossil-fuel furnace? Imagine for a second a civilization so convinced of their own ingenuity and so addicted to the speed of their engines that they routinely dump end-of-life tesla batteries into magma chambers to speed the recrystalisation of their nickel-cobalt cathodes for remanufacture. And then wonder: how far are we really from such a futile fantasy?

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