This story appears in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
I was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News in 1989 when, at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, tectonic plates shifted under the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California and the ground started rumbling. When the magnitude 6.9 earthquake finally stopped, scores of people had lost their lives; parts of the Bay Area would not fully recover for a decade.
At that same time, other forces were shaking Silicon Valley, though many of us didn’t realize it. The information industry was being radically transformed by technologies coming to life all around us—an upheaval that continues today, with enormous implications.
Technology reporter Michelle Quinn has been there to cover it all, from the early days of the dot-com bubble until now, when digital devices touch every aspect of our existence, for good or ill. Thanks to the technology developed in Silicon Valley, our lives have become exponentially richer and easier. Yet we also are haunted by security breaches, unauthorized uses of personal data, the difficulty in discerning the truth amid the blizzard of information at our fingertips.
In this month’s magazine, Quinn writes of the billions “made on start-ups I dismissed as toys, solving problems I didn’t know people had.” Such success is great for an invention’s creators and often for users. But it spawns economic inequality that has pushed out people who can’t afford to live where median home prices top a million dollars. “You could argue that every great thing about the digital era is going to have an unintended consequence or a trade-off,” says Quinn. “You get to talk to people around the world—but the trade-off is, then your information’s out there. So how do you mitigate the harm?”
Along with Silicon Valley, we look at what fuels these tech toys: lithium. We sent writer Robert Draper and photographer Cédric Gerbehaye to Bolivia, where the world’s largest salt flat covers one of the biggest deposits of lithium, nearly a sixth of the planet’s total.
“What gold meant to earlier eras, and petroleum to the previous century, lithium may eclipse in the coming years,” Draper writes. It’s “an essential component for the batteries in computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices,” as well as in electric cars.
The mining of lithium has the potential to lift Bolivia out of poverty. But it also raises urgent questions about whether the benefits of this “white gold” will accrue to corporations more than to Bolivians and whether mining will mar the environment and affect tourism to the salt flat that lies above. Like the story of Silicon Valley, the tale of Bolivia’s lithium is a complicated one—with, as Quinn might say, inevitable trade-offs.