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A new field of study aims to reveal the complexity and devastation of global supply networks

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Underneath the expansive salt flats of Argentina lie some of the world’s largest lithium reserves — at least for now. The brine is pumped at a rate of two million gallons per day into a series of solar evaporation ponds, whose rectangular shapes contrast with the asymmetrical hexagonal ridges that pattern the white crust of the flats. Lithium is a cornerstone of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries found in smartphones, laptops, and electric cars, but the details of its journey from the Atacama region of South America to our electronic devices are murky. To track it requires relentless determination — scouring corporate documents and public registries, coaxing information from company representatives, and slowly building a map of the connections that link producers to processors to manufacturers to retailers.

Our relationship to technology cannot be understood purely in terms of how we make use of it

Over the last several years, a growing number of studies have tried to trace the vast networks of human labor, data, and natural resources that fuel our digital lives. From Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s “Anatomy of an AI System” to David Abraham’s The Elements of Power, these investigations cast new light on the exploitative practices masked by the staggering complexity of global supply chains. Academics and journalists have long been interested in chronicling the long and convoluted travels of various commodities, from sugar to T-shirts. But the supply chains of our technologies are even more overwhelming. Apple publishes a list of its top 200 suppliers working out of a total of more than 1,000 facilities. Samsung states that it works with approximately 2,200 suppliers around the world. These suppliers have their own networks of hundreds if not thousands of providers.

This focus on supply chains — or supply studies, as some have called it — is rooted in the knowledge that our relationship to technology cannot be understood purely in terms of how we make use of it. Instead, the approach is premised on investigating the metals, refineries, factories, shipping containers, and warehouses that not only manufacture and deliver our electronics, but also form the infrastructure that organizes our society. Supply studies attempts to distill and make legible these global networks, whose complexity obfuscates the harm they cause. It provides a crucial lens for understanding the real origins, and the real impacts, of our devices.

The interrelated fields of logistics and supply chain management originated in a military context, becoming more important in the late 16th century, when the expansion of Europe’s armies made it difficult to furnish troops with food and supplies while in enemy territory. In the 20th century, logistics began to dictate strategy in earnest, with the massive ammunition demands of industrial warfare necessitating reliable transportation networks and systems.

The parallels between the organizational requirements of militaries and those of corporations did not go unnoticed. From the 1960s to the 1980s, supply chain management emerged as a key consideration for company performance — due in part to more production being outsourced, but also to vast improvements in electronic data gathering and analysis, allowing for more accurate forecasting and scheduling. Today, logistics and supply chain management are respected as specialized areas of focus in business schools. The goal is to optimize the flow and transformation of goods, from raw materials to final products in the hands of users.

Typically, supply chains are discussed from the perspective of those who manage them, framed in terms of boosting efficiency and minimizing disruption. More recently, however, scholars in disciplines like geography, information studies, and media studies have taken up the study of global supply chains from a critical — rather than “how-to” — perspective. If the corporate goal is to build a supply chain so seamless that its existence barely registers with consumers, such researchers seek to turn this process inside out, exposing the human and environmental costs obscured by slick design and packaging, or nebulous concepts like “the cloud.” Media historian Matthew Hockenberry’s supply studies website includes an extensive syllabus showcasing the wide range of work in the field, spanning academic publications (Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics), investigative journalism (Tim Maughan’s “The Changing Face of Shenzhen, the World’s Gadget Factory”), advocacy efforts (The Enough Project), documentaries (Frank Piasecki Poulsen’s Blood in the Mobile), and simulation games (Molleindustria’s Phone Story).

Ethnographies of global commodity production and circulation do have an extensive history, particularly in anthropology (see June Nash’s 1979 study of indigenous tin miners in Bolivia). Media and communications theorists have since adapted this approach, combining fieldwork with research methods from other disciplines to interrogate the material histories of technological objects. In their 2018 visual essay, “Anatomy of an AI System,” Kate Crawford, co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, and Vladan Joler, a professor of new media at the University of Novi Sad, map the supply chain of a single product, the Amazon Echo — through mining, processing, assembly, and shipping, as well as the crowdsourced digital labor required to train the virtual assistant Alexa. The project is meant to show that even purportedly automated artificial intelligence services entail a great deal of worker exploitation (as Crawford explores at more depth in a forthcoming book). Like many academics in supply studies, Crawford and Joler share much of their work in public channels, contributing to a shift in popular perception around the gadgets we often take for granted.

Socially engaged artists are also increasingly grappling with logistics and supply chains in their work. The Unknown Fields Division is a “nomadic design research studio” directed by Kate Davies and Liam Young in collaboration with other artists and designers, who undertake expeditions to “dislocated landscapes” — places that, while geographically remote from urban dwellers in the Global North, are intimately connected to us via processes of extraction. The collective expresses their findings through art, including a set of Ming style vases fashioned out of toxic clay collected from a radioactive tailings pond created by a rare earth minerals refinery in Inner Mongolia. These minerals are employed in the production of consumer technologies — cerium, for example, is converted into cerium oxide used to polish touchscreens. It is notoriously difficult to unravel modern supply chains, but a Berlin-based organization called Tactical Tech helps members of the public conduct their own investigations with a freely available toolkit simply referred to as “The Kit.”

Many works of supply studies are effective because they are immersed in the sites of production normally obscured by remote locations and nondescript buildings

Other pieces zoom in on a particular stage of the production process, alerting readers to poor labor conditions at manufacturing facilities, or the detrimental environmental and health impacts of mineral extraction. In their Washington Post feature on lithium mining in Argentina and Chile, Todd Frankel and Peter Whoriskey examine the inequitable deals negotiated between transnational ventures like Minera Exar and local villages: In exchange for sweeping rights to extract lithium from their ancestral lands, the company will compensate each of the six indigenous communities with annual payments ranging from $9,000 to $59,000. Meanwhile, the operation is projected to yield around $250 million a year in revenue. With demand on the rise, more mainstream media outlets are taking an interest in the human toll of mining and processing the natural resources that power our devices.

What makes many works of supply studies so effective is the way their authors immerse themselves — and by extension, the reader — in the sites of production and distribution that are often obscured by remote locations, or nondescript buildings with scant signage concealing factories, warehouses, or server farms. They also attend industry conferences and trainings for a better understanding of how supply chain decisions are made. Sometimes the sites of production are virtual, not physical: In a piece in the New Yorker, Miriam Posner recounts her experience of a 40-hour online training course to learn to use SAP SCM, a leading software solution for supply chain management. Posner, an assistant professor of information studies and digital humanities at UCLA, engages with the global network of assembly from the vantage point of a corporate supply chain manager. She observes how the program’s tables and spreadsheets provide an abstract view that is divorced from the complex realities navigated by workers on the ground. We have been warned that drone strikes gamify warfare, desensitizing operators to the horrific act of killing another person. Perhaps supply chain management software has similar implications: achieving a faster turnaround starts to feel like solving a logic puzzle, rather than prolonging a worker’s shift or eliminating time for breaks.

Media reports have specifically targeted Foxconn, the Taiwanese-owned company that is one of Apple’s biggest suppliers, particularly following a spate of worker suicides at its plants in mainland China in 2010. The electronics manufacturer has since been scrutinized for its inhumane practices, including housing workers in crowded onsite dormitories, exposing them to hazardous chemicals, and creating a high-pressure environment requiring long hours without proper breaks or overtime pay. Workers labor over repetitive tasks, the need for which would never occur to consumers — one undercover investigator spent her shifts removing dust particles from 1400 Amazon Echo Dot speakers equipped with only a toothbrush dipped in rubbing alcohol. Foxconn exposés — including Charles Duhigg and David Barboza’s 2012 article in the New York Times and the BBC’s investigative documentary from 2014 — marked a significant turning point for many consumers. Whereas they may have associated their iPhones with convenience and functionality, or Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley, they now had to make room for images of assembly lines populated with Chinese youth and yellow safety nets installed to prevent workers from jumping off factory roofs.

Ethical concerns regarding human rights abuses linked to the global supply chain are not new. In the late 1700s, for instance, slave-grown sugar from the Caribbean was boycotted by an estimated 300,000 Britons. This campaign appealed to the conscience, calling on individuals to wield their power as consumers to support the abolitionist movement.

Historian Thomas Haskell argues that the rise of the market-based economy produced two seemingly contradictory effects: it permitted labor exploitation in the name of self-interest, while also extending the limits of moral responsibility. For some, this raised a fundamental question. Were they citizens first and foremost, or consumers? As consumers, their role was simply to make choices that satisfied their needs and desires. As citizens, however, they had a broader obligation to the common good, even when that meant compromising their own interests. This dilemma was further complicated by the recognition that local actions increasingly had the potential to impact distant individuals and communities, thereby expanding the scope of citizenship to the global. This awareness explains how the web of commerce that connected an enslaved person in Barbados to a resident of Leicester — home to Elizabeth Heyrick, who helped organize the sugar boycott — aroused in some a sense of guilt and personal liability.

More recently, clothing companies like Nike came under fire in the 1990s, leading to advocacy efforts to improve brutal working conditions at sweatshops in their supplier networks. One of the most popular books of this era was Naomi Klein’s 1999 bestseller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Klein charts the rise of the “travel light” mantra among multinational corporations — as they funneled resources into brand marketing, they also minimized reliance on factories of their own, replaced full-time employees with contract and temporary workers, and ramped up outsourcing. This meant poor wages, safety risks, and the use of child labor at subcontracted manufacturing facilities. The dynamics underscored by Klein and other anti-globalization activists are amplified in many supply studies projects, which seek, in a way, to reverse the corporate attempt to hide material origins through careful branding.

Thinking about coltan as a digital mineral helps to combat the enduring trope that equates virtual identities and interactions with disembodiment

In many ways, technology-focused supply studies offer a new framework through which to understand the well-established problems of colonialism, capitalism, and globalization. Take coltan, a key ingredient in the production of capacitors required by most electronic devices. In his study of subsistence mining in Congo, anthropologist James Smith makes the case for thinking about coltan as a digital mineral. Framing it as such helps to combat the enduring trope that equates virtual identities and interactions with disembodiment, by emphasizing the people, places, cultural traditions, economic relationships, and political contexts embedded in our technologies.

Consumers are often separated by class and geography from the individuals and communities involved in production, and are therefore shielded from the oppression and environmental destruction generated by their devices. The difference between a pair of running shoes and a smartphone is that the latter is often understood to be part of the economic shift away from traditional resource-intensive industries and toward information-based activities. When we purchase a new MacBook, we might perceive it as a machine awaiting our instructions, or an empty container for our personal collection of documents, photographs, and videos. In this way, we overlook the circumstances around its construction, focusing instead on how it mediates our own liberation. Technology companies build on this narrative, advocating the transformative potential of remote work and platform-based business models.

But behind the illusion of magic are the workers whose labor — and very existence — goes unacknowledged. Critical analyses of supply chains seek to ground technologies in their material foundations. Ignoring dependencies on natural resources, human labor, and infrastructure feeds into the misconception that the digital world is somehow distinct from the physical one.

Supply studies research and advocacy has intensified pressure on governments to adopt new legislation, and on corporations like Amazon and Apple to change their practices. Some now undertake regular supplier audits, in order to ensure that partner companies throughout their global supply chain comply with environmental, labor, and health and safety standards. In 2019 alone, Apple conducted 1,142 supplier inspections in 49 countries. The uptick in auditing suggests that technology companies may at long last be pushed to accept responsibility for the plight of outsourced and overseas workers.

While government regulations and greater corporate accountability can yield some positive results, however, modern supply chains are so complex, opaque, and distributed that making change is often like fighting the many-headed Hydra: for every problem addressed, two new ones seem to emerge in its stead. Electric cars are frequently held up as an example of how technological solutions to environmental and social issues tend to reproduce injustices. While promoted as a “green” innovation over greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles, extracting and processing lithium for their batteries contaminates soil and water, disrupts livelihoods, and devastates local ecosystems.

The prototypical objective of logistics and supply chain management is to “get the right product to the right place at the right time.” By showing us the true costs of our technologies, supply studies forces us to reckon with what we value

As many works of supply studies make clear, corporate initiatives like supplier audits are inadequate when consumer-facing companies also expect their suppliers to provide the maximum amount of output for the minimum cost, thereby exerting downward pressure on labor conditions and wages. The drive to increase profit margins also encourages less sustainable practices. In Peter Whoriskey’s Washington Post report on the extensive pollution of Chinese villages adjacent to graphite plants — another component of lithium-ion batteries — he notes that purification is often conducted using toxic substances, rather than the more environmentally friendly but slightly more expensive “baking” method.

The strength of supply studies lies in its capacity to illustrate for readers the networks of interdependency that sustain our lives. Literary scholar Bruce Robbins suggests that this can induce a brief moment of consciousness — a surge of insight “that one is the beneficiary of an unimaginably vast and complex social whole.” This produces discomfort, and, overwhelmed, we soon fall back into everyday habits, scrolling and tapping away on the very devices that had seconds ago caused such dissonance. Robbins refers to this dynamic as “the sweatshop sublime.” But perhaps in confronting our limits as individuals, we recognize that — in contrast to corporate supply chain management, which seeks to exert top-down control over the whole system — our power lies in collective mobilization from below.

While the problems of technology production cannot be solved by personal consumption choices alone, the rise of supply studies seems to indicate that a growing number of people are expanding the limits of their moral responsibility. One path forward for the field is to surface stories about workers and community activists pushing back against human rights and environmental abuses, to complement reporting on the violations themselves. This is an approach employed by Thea Riofrancos, an assistant professor at Providence College who writes on the multi-stakeholder grassroots coalitions fighting against resource extraction in Latin America. While Riofrancos acknowledges that building alliances across globally dispersed supply chains is necessarily challenging, disseminating knowledge of existing efforts can strengthen solidarity and increase political pressure.

The prototypical objective of logistics and supply chain management is to “get the right product to the right place at the right time.” But too often, fulfilling this goal “for the right price” comes at the expense of the earth’s resources, healthy ecosystems, and the rights and autonomy of individuals and communities. By showing us the true costs of our technologies, supply studies forces us to reckon with what we value — each project is a context-specific window into the tangled web of exploitation hidden behind the polished products we take for granted. To borrow from William Blake, supply studies makes it possible for us to see a world in an iPhone or an Amazon Echo; to hold its enormity in the palm of our hands.

Jackie Brown is a researcher and writer based in Toronto. Her work focuses on economic justice and the relationships between people, technology, and their environments.