Crawford does this by bringing us on a global journey, from the mines where the rare earth elements used in computer manufacturing are extracted to the Amazon fulfillment centers where human bodies have been mechanized in the company’s relentless pursuit of growth and profit. In chapter one, she recounts driving a van from the heart of Silicon Valley to a tiny mining community in Nevada’s Clayton Valley. There she investigates the destructive environmental practices required to obtain the lithium that powers the world’s computers. It’s a forceful illustration of how close these two places are in physical space yet how vastly far apart they are in wealth.
By grounding her analysis in such physical investigations, Crawford disposes of the euphemistic framing that artificial intelligence is simply efficient software running in “the cloud.” Her close-up, vivid descriptions of the earth and labor AI is built on, and the deeply problematic histories behind it, make it impossible to continue speaking about the technology purely in the abstract.