Raw Data: A Geopolitical History of Hard Drive Technology, 1978-2016

At both the academic and popular levels, scholars of the history of computing have studied the development and proliferation of specific technologies such as the microprocessor, the great people that made these technologies possible, as well as the history of the entrepreneurial and business culture that first gave birth to the modern Silicon Valley. However, in studying the history of computing, most scholars have neglected the history of data, and the rapid construction of the infrastructure needed to support the ever-growing swaths of data we create and consume. This infrastructure is large and complicated, so in order to begin to address its history, this thesis will focus specifically on the mass production of a small but essential component of the personal computer hard drive: The NdFeB (Neodymium-Iron-Boron) magnet. The invention and universal standardization of this magnetic material has roots in Cold War policies, civil unrest in Africa, and is closely tied to China’s rise to economic power in the 1990s. By investigating the history of the production, implementation, and continued acquisition of this magnetic material, this study will show that the personal computer revolution, the miniaturization of hard drives, and eventually the proliferation of cloud computing are chained inextricably to a dense geopolitical history of violence, military strategies, and industrial infrastructures. It will reveal the beginnings and continuing struggles of the resource war constantly waging underneath innovations in digital storage, a war in which the neodymium magnet is currently at the center.