Object Four: Computer hard disk

Computer hard disk found on the tideline
Computer hard disk found on the tideline

For something we rely on so heavily in our daily lives, I am surprised I don’t find more remnants of electronic equipment resting on the tideline. There was no telling what had been saved to the computer hard disk I had found, as it had been smashed and corroded so badly. My imagination decided this had been a deliberate attempt to destroy classified files and nuclear missile codes, but in all reality, the broken appearance was probably the result of time in the water at the mercy of the tides.

Hard disks are an electronic memory which surpasses our own. They enable us to cherish thousands of holiday snaps, without the need to rummage through shoe boxes of prints in the loft. They store the contact details of hundreds of colleagues, that important wedding planning spreadsheet or every piece of coursework written at university. These storage devices are essential to our workday and are increasingly supporting our leisure time too, enabling us to save endless episodes of Magnum PI to a magic box connected to our television.  

As extensions of ourselves, we are seduced by the slick design of the latest iPhone, or the graphic capabilities of a powerful new laptop, and rarely think of their shiny components being crudely mined from deep within the earth. In fact, electronic devices contain many precious metals – circuit boards and computer chips are comprised of silicon, copper, tin, aluminium, coltan, cobalt, tantalum and even small amounts of gold and silver.

These valuable minerals and elements “keep your computer running so you can surf the internet. They save your high score on your Playstation. They make your cell phone vibrate when someone calls you” explains Delly Mawazo Sesete who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo where huge deposits of these materials are being mined. While minerals from Africa have enriched our lives in the West, they have undoubtedly brought violence, rape and instability to Delly’s home country.

In our love affair with the latest technology, social media timelines expose that which is most dear to us – we are putting down our own layers of opinions, photos, friendships, anecdotes, articles, tweets and updates as we negotiate our way through life. Via this personal stratigraphy, we can publish and share the minutiae of our lives via mineral rich devices carried in our pockets.

The lives we live today would be unrecognisable and baffling to our grandparents’ generation. Interactive technology and portable devices are changing the very way in which we interact with one another. Indeed, the way we are recording our lives, documented on frequently updating timelines offers a more detailed and immediate insight into someone’s life than a handwritten diary ever could. (At times, I wonder what I might learn about my great grandparents if I was able to browse through their Facebook profiles.)

I wonder about the information that is held on the broken hard drive I have found. How many similar components have I imbued with my own personality and, perhaps more importantly, what became of them? A series of zeroes and ones which defined us as individuals are held in obsolete devices. Whispers in binary code are forgotten and inevitably returned to the ground as worthless rubbish or consigned to landfill where the planet banks these future fossils as an archive of our activity within the geological record. The Earth is a recording device, holding evidence of life across changing epochs and eras, from ferocious dinosaurs to a huge cache of 1980’s Atari video games buried in the New Mexico desert – a latent memory defining our time on the planet.

Two timelines converge in the device you are reading this on – deep, geological time repurposed in the minerals found on your hard drive make it possible for you to capture and share fleeting moments of your daily life and interact with people across the world. As computers increasingly supplement and enhance our own memories, the broken hard disk and the materials contained therein speak of a much greater memory beneath our feet, one to which we are all contributing. 

Further reading

  • Minter, A. How we think about e-waste is in need of repair Anthropocene – Innovation in the Human Age (2016) Issue 1. p.31-39
  • Parikka, J. A Geology of Media (2015) University of Minnesota Press
  • Turkle, S. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2011) MIT Press