Learning from the Atacama

Orit Halpern

‘Learning from landscapes is a way of being revolutionary for an architect’.

Robert Venturi, Dennis Brown and Scott Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, 1972.

How should we rethink the ethical, political, and social impacts of infrastructure? What might one ‘learn’ from landscapes? Taking my lead from the famous architectural and design treatise, Learning from Las Vegas, I want to begin studying these sites as landmarks in a landscape that very well may herald our future. This is a territory that bridges data and matter; both the producer of some of the largest non-proprietary data sets on earth and the provider of many of the very materials that create the information age. In this essay I will argue that these sites collectively form the landscape of a planetary testbed, a petri dish cultivating potential futures of life, politics and technology on both Earth and beyond.


‘Chile is copper’ is an often repeated mantra in this place I am told by Katie Detwiler, an anthropologist working on the Atacama and my guide to this place. And copper is in almost every machine, the conductor of all our electricity. The Atacama has some of the largest copper mines on Earth. Copper is industrial material, it also rests (although perhaps only for now) on an industrial economy. Copper markets are still relatively unleveraged, unlike some other energy, mineral and metal markets, there is little futures or derivative action. As a commodity it suffers from modern economic concepts of business cycles, and its political economy is seemingly still grounded in terms like GDP and GNP along with concepts stretching from Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century of resource limitation, scarcity, demand, price and above all population and nation. In Chile, copper is equated above all with nationalism. Under Pinochet these mines were actually unionized (contrary to what we might expect), and the state corporation CODELCO continues to smelt all the copper. This rather surprising history for a dictator whose name is synonymous with the Chicago Boys emerged from an alignment with right wing nationalists, authoritarianism and neo-liberalism.

But a few miles from ALMA is another landscape of extraction, metal and energy. This one is linked to the stars and future(s). Space X, Tesla and the high-tech industries that in theory will eventually replace the vestiges of our old heavy industrial and carbon based economies all bank on the Atacama. For in this desert also lies the new gold, the future Saudi Arabia I am told by business journals and newspapers, the Salar de Atacama. These salt flats bear lithium. This is the lightest of metals, the future supposedly of both machines and energy. The medium that will replace the carbon futures that financial markets and nations have so heavily bought into and leveraged.

The beds are beautiful, they are created by brine, just bought to the surface. Lithium is never pure, it is mixed with other things, also all valuable – magnesium, potassium. As one looks over the fields, there is an array of colours going from yellow to the very bright blue. The first fields are still full of potassium that might serve as bedrocks for fertilizers, as the beds dry longer they turn bluer and then yellower, finally after almost year they dry and lithium salt, LiCl emerges. The salt is scraped from the bed, harvested, separated from trace boron and magnesium, and affixed with Sodium Carbonate for sale. Alejandro Bucher, the technical manager of the installation, takes us on a tour. Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM), he tells us, is environmentally excellent, almost no chemicals are used in the process. The extraction of lithium is solar powered. The sun dehydrates the water and draws off the salts. A pure process. Except it drains water. He assures us, however, that the latest expansions and technical advances will ‘optimize’ this problem. Better water evaporation capture systems and planned desalinization plants will reduce the impact on this desert, which is the driest on earth, and on these brine waters that are also the springs for supporting fragile ecosystems of shrimps, bacteria and flamingos. Environmentalists, however, beg to differ; inquiries have gone into the environmental impact of the fields, and the general process of assessment has been criticized as opaque.

What Pinochet never did, privatize mining, is now fully private with lithium. While SQM is Chilean, it is private. SQM has been attacked for anti-trade union practices, and unions are fighting to label lithium a matter of national security so the state can better regulate the material. This corporation also partakes in planetary games of logistics around belt roads and resources. In 2018, the Chinese corporation Tianqi acquired a 24% share of SQM, essentially enabling them to dominate the corporation. While the government continues to monitor the situation and demand limits of Chinese participation on the board of the corporation, the situation continues to fluctuate. These games also demand even privatized water supplies. Water is a massive commodity. The largest desalinization plants on earth will soon be built here by the global syndicate Veolia to fuel the mining. This new infrastructure of corporate actors merges high tech with salt and water in order to support our fantasies of eternal growth, so that we may drive clean cars, and eventually arrive to the stars in order to extract ever more materials.


The lithium mines more than anything suggest new attitudes or maybe practices of boundary making and market formation. They demonstrate a move away from the perfect stabilities of supply and demand curves to the plasticity of another order of algorithmic finance and logistical management. The relationship between these very different and radically shifting territories of mining, salt harvesting and astronomy can therefore only be realized in the turn to mathematics.

The incommensurabilities in scale and materials between the operations of mines and the seeming metaphysically interests of astronomical sciences is unified at the Centre for Mathematical Modeling in the University of Chile, located in Santiago some 1600 kilometers south. It is one of the world’s premier mathematics research centers for applied mathematics in mining. In the lecture room where we were bought to hear the presentations, a number of researchers presented to us on themes of how machine learning, big data and complex modelling might transform mining. One of the lead scientists in mathematical modelling at the center, Alejandro Hofre, is trained in optimization and game theory. He explains that the center’s mission is to bring the best in mathematical modelling to bear on questions of mine optimization, discovery, and supply chain management. Cheapening and improving exploration is critical, as it is the most expensive and difficult and expensive part of the extraction industry process, often bearing no return. This search for ways to do more with less is necessary as all the materials on earth, are, without question, running out. But this finitude in resources can be addressed through an infinity of data.

This new optimization economy is also aligned with rethinking mining unions and labour, as argued by Dr. Eduardo Vera, the executive manager of innovation and development at the CMM and member of the National Laboratory for High Performance Computing. The hierarchies of mines must go, to be instead managed by regular feedback loops derived from billions of sensors and automated systems that sense and decide the best actions; the best manner to ventilate, heat, cool, dig, chemically separate, mix, dispose and scavenge through material. The space of mining opened to the space of mathematics and abstraction; making terran limits plastic, scavengable, optimizable and ultimately grounded in the math of physics and astronomy. These communication systems, complex geological models, fluid and energy dynamics, and communication systems might also find themselves at use in other places. Over lunch he tells me that entire computational infrastructures are being built for these purposes, and ultimately the maths being generated here may be used in asteroid and other mining. In Santiago, researchers speak of how astronomy’s wealth of data and complicated analytics can be brought to bear on developing the complex mathematics for geological discovery and simulations of mine stability and resources.

The discussion also indicates a shift of economy, perhaps from extraction to optimization. Vast arrays of sensors, ever more refined chemistry, and reorganized labour and supply chains are developed whose main function is to produce big data for machine learning that will in theory rummage through the tailings, discarded materials, supplementary and surplus substances of older extractive processes in order to reorganize the production, distribution, and recycling of materials in the search for speculative (and financializable) uses for the detritus and excrement of mining. These computational-industrial assemblages create new economies of scavenging, such as the search for other metals in tailing ponds, or the reuse of these waste materials for construction or other purposes, currently in vogue globally. In this logic the seeming final limits of life and resources become instead an extendable threshold that can be infinitely stretched through the application of ever finer and more environmentally pervasive forms of calculation and computation that facilitate the optimization and ever finer salvage and extraction of finite materials. One might argue that this optimization is the perverse parallel of the event horizon. If one watches a clock fall into the event horizon, all one will see is time forever slowing down, the horizon will never be reached. History eternally deferred. In a grotesque mirror, futures are always deferred through big data, financial algorithms and machine learning practices. Except we are not travelling at the speed of light, and the Earth is not a black hole, rather these practices make crisis an impossibility, and blind us to the depletion of the ecosystem.

Technical Futures

The desert I visited therefore is both the site of new capacities to recognize new forms of life in astrobiology for example, or new maths for fluid and materials dynamics in the realtime monitoring and modelling of massive mines, or to produce new images of the universe. The Atacama maybe is always dying. Its flora and fauna vanishing, but as engineers at SQM tell me the new technologies will allow them to optimize water usage, to recycle and collect what evaporates, and to make water in the desert. What was once a limited, finite resource in the desert – water – is now elastic, optimizable, and the environment is fortified and made resilient. The new minerals and economies of space and lithium envisioned to replace the older metals and energies of industrialism will be run on algorithmic finance markets, hyper speculation, and an embrace of transformation and shock. Resource limitations and catastrophic environmental events are no longer understood as crisis necessitating a response through expertise and Milton Friedman fiscal policies, but rather as ongoing processes that can be incrementally experimented with and addressed through endless adjustments and manipulations in time and data collection.

But time and data can be manipulated in many ways. As recounted in Waiting for the Light (2010), a film by Patricio Guzman, in the immediate aftermath of the coup, on 11 September, 1973, there was subsequent torture and disappearance of thousands and the exile of nearly ten percent of the population, the paramilitary talked Chile. Traveling in a Puma helicopter from detention site to detention site, the so-called ‘Caravan of Death’ carried out the executions of 26 people in Chile’s south and seventy one in the desert north. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves or thrown from the sky into the desert. The desert was militarized and turned into a weapon for the killing of dissidents and for the training of troops. Its resources supporting this state. Guzman parallels the search for bodies by mother’s of dissidents killed by Pinochet with astronomers watching and recording the stars in the Atacama’s high altitude observatories (the wave millimeter arrays had not yet been operational). Above all his theme is that the landscape is a recording machine for both human and inhuman memories, the trace of stars 50 million years away, and the search for loved ones within human lives. The implications of the film are that the desert itself provides some other intelligence or maybe memory not only for humans.

When I hear scientists speak of the possibility of real-time decision making in mining and the optimization of energy and materials through the perfection of sensing technology and big data in the mine, I hear a dual fantasy of stretching finite resources into infinite horizons through big data and artificial intelligences. I also hear a smaller more embodied parallel fantasy of a new form of experience and cognition no longer nested in single human bodies, whether those of laborers or those of expert economists, and rather bequeathed to large networks of human-machines. These dreams of AI and machine learning managed extraction might herald back to the history of machine learning.

In a pessimistically optimistic vein, however this might also be the final possibility to undo the very fantasies of modern imperialism and anthropocentrism? There is hope in those infinitesimally specific signals found of a black hole from aeons ago, beyond human, even Terran time. The reminder that there are experiences that can only emerge through the global networks of sensory and measuring instrumentations; that there are radical possibilities in realizing that learning and experience might not be internal to subject but shared. Perhaps these are just realizations of what we have known all along. That our worlds are comprised of relationships to Others, but there is a possibility that never has this been more evident or been made more visible then through our new technologies, even our financial technologies and our artificial intelligences. As they automate and traumatize us, they also reveal perhaps what has always been there – the socio-technical networks that exist beyond and outside of us. Realities impossible to fully visualize.

The event horizon telescope presents us with the radical encounter with our inability to ever be fully objective and the possibility that there are things to learn and forms of experience that are beyond the demands of capital or economy in our present. My hope is that perhaps in encountering the impossibility of ever imaging the reality of the event horizon, we might finally be able to witness and engage the precarious reality of life on Earth.