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The Erosion of Silicon Beach

Issue: 933c4igqn5gg
Purchase Edition

An edition of mementos from Santa Monica, California — nicknamed “Silicon Beach” for its rapid influx of tech companies. Each souvenir bottle contains a mixture of beach sand and hand-crushed silicon crystal. In the video above, sunbathers and sand-castlers smash silicon wafers near the Santa Monica Pier, returning them to sand. These glittering disks embody the material core of today’s ubiquitous technologies — computers, phones, cameras — anything with a microchip depends upon silicon crystal as its essential semiconductor. This project re-imagines the very real problem of beach erosion in Southern California (exacerbated by human-caused climate change) with a further anthropocentric twist, staging a participatory shattering of techno-optimism that is both quotidian and sublime.

A small glass souvenir bottle filled with sand and bits of metal, on a silver chain, in a sea-foam green box, over concrete.
The silicon souvenirs were originally commissioned for LRLX Publication 4 Spellwork: Technologies and Conjurings. Now available for purchase through Fulcrum Arts.
Audio version of this text read by Nina Sarnelle.

Tide Line

“the boundary between sea and land is the most fleeting and transitory feature of the earth.”

-Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

An ecotone is a transition area between two biological communities, a meeting and mixing of worlds. In The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History John Gillis explains that “the human species, from the beginning, was an animal of the edge, flourishing where ecosystems overlap.” In pre-modern Europe, the sea was associated with chaos and death; the land with order and life; as Gillis explains:

The Old Testament horror of floods, and its treatment of the sea as a barrier rather than an opportunity, was deepened by Christians, who added to the pagan world’s view of the ocean as a terrifying void by introducing an active agent, the newly invented figure of Satan.

Within these ideologies, the coast was positioned as a liminal space between life and death, a site of supernatural encounters, “a place to communicate with ancestors but also a haunted landscape.” And these anxieties of crossing the threshold likely emerged from the violence of ocean confronting rock. Early mariners approached the shore with “great trepidation, knowing it to be far more unpredictable and treacherous than the sea itself.” (Ibid) Shipwrecks during this time were so frequent as to be unremarkable, even expected, and most of them happened near the shore. In his 2018 book The World in a Grain Vince Beiser writes:

It is difficult to believe that there was once a time when cities turned their backs to the sea, distancing themselves…from what was regarded as its dangerous, degrading qualities…It was said of the coasts of Nova Scotia, now regarded as some of the most beautiful sights in the world, that they were repulsive to the earliest visitors, places “from which the eye turns with painful dissatisfaction.”

Edges are dynamic spaces, moving, changing, cycling; if humans are to live successfully at the ecotone, we should probably learn to move with them. In the Western hemisphere, indigenous ancestors built temporary structures on the beach—camps for fishing and working at the water’s edge—but permanent architecture was concentrated in places safe from temperamental tides and storms. And there are contemporary communities that still respect and respond to the volatility of the coast. In 2004 when a tsunami hit Thailand, the Moken tribes that spend most of their lives on and in the water were able to escape the disaster, while 175,000 others drowned. In Colombia, inhabitants of the El Choncho Barrier Island made a difficult choice to migrate their village to the mainland to avoid worsening impacts of erosion and flooding. The island of Kauai passed an ordinance requiring construction to be set back from the shoreline to account for future erosion, offsetting the need for coastal armoring and sand management, which have proven harmful to beach ecosystems. But unfortunately, these are exceptions; models like this should be carefully studied, but are rarely emulated. Instead, where capital meets the sea, it creates ostentatious, brittle structures, far more likely to shatter than to move or bend. 

The tide-line is not a line, but a soft, slippery transition. An aggregate. A mixing. This legal boundary dissolves as it is approached, like an imperceptible crossfade, a gradient between wet and dry, soft and firm, moving and static, public and private. We place our buildings on one side, water on the other. Gillis describes how this fluid edge of the “world’s greatest commons,” is being concretized into a “heavily patrolled border that discourages entry from both land and sea. With wetlands drained and shores seawalled, what had been a soft edge has become a hard, impenetrable one. In the United States, 83% of the eastern coasts and 60% of western shores are privately owned.” Sand emerges from the sea and we make contemporary life from it: the concrete, asphalt and glass of the built environment are all made of sand—as well as the silicon circuitry of digital life.

The California Coastal Act of 1976 mandates public access to all land seaward of the mean high tide line. Which is to say, all your wet sand are belong to us. In their 1983 book The Beaches are Moving, Wallace Kaufman and Orrin Pilkey write, “Coastal law is the chaotic battlefield on which our firm and orderly notion of private property and real estate battles with the huge dynamic forces of nature, which recognize legal systems even less than iron or concrete markers set in shifting sands.” On the land-side: an attempt to fix, make permanent, static, solid, defended, owned.On the sea-side: a fluid commons—also, historically, a fear of invasion, of the foreign, of the other—of an unrestrainable, unstable, unmanageable, unknowable abyss. John Gillis, again, places this fear within early European mythology:

“According to biblical geography… God had ravaged the once-smooth earth in retribution for humankind’s sins, setting sea against land and reducing coasts to “nothing but ruins.” The rocky shores that we now see as natural bulwarks, as our first line of defense, were then viewed as points of vulnerability, potent sources of disease and death. And people associated with coasts were considered as savage as the sea itself, to be avoided whenever possible.”

Drone video from IgniteHDcom. Animation by Nina Sarnelle.

The shore has a long and contested history of labor and leisure. Victorian England marked a turning point in upper class attitudes toward salt water; it was the first time the European elite turned to the sea as a remedy for the sick, inventing masochistic treatments around pain and cold. This, of course, wouldn’t be the only time the rich decided to dip a toe into the world of the poor, in pursuit of the rigor and vitality they perceived in working people. But more on that later. Out of these shifting class dynamics, the shore was re-imagined and redesigned as a place for leisure: an early appearance of the “beach” as we know it today. At the turn of the century, boardwalks and pleasure piers “carried visitors over rather than onto the beach,” providing protection from sand, seaweed, and the waterfront’s working class. (Gillis)

By the Post-War period, the beach had begun what Jean-Didier Urbain calls a “desavaging”: the total “conquest of the shore by the vacation ideology.” Meanwhile, containerization in the shipping industry also greatly reduced the number of dock workers needed to load and unload cargo, undermining their hard-won union power, exacerbating safety hazards, and sparking massive labor unrest. At the same time, the dual rise of the container ship and modern cruise liner funneled industrial waterfront usage into only the deepest international harbors, leaving the rest of the coastline open to real estate development. In the decades that followed, “80 percent of all construction in the United States took place in coastal areas, often right on the beach. Once the least populated parts of this country, the coasts are now the most densely populated.” (Gillis)

Watergazers, Conquistadors

“The fittest locality for human dwelling was on the edge of the land, where the constant lesson and impression of the sea might sink deep into the life and character of the landsman, perhaps impart a marine tint to his imagination.”

Henry David Thoreau, Paradise (To Be) Regained

“The current turn to the sea … [interprets it as] not something to be inhabited but something to be contemplated as an expensive backdrop…”

Michael Taussig, The Beach (A Fantasy)

The contemporary beach is what John Gillis calls a “non-place.” Sterilized, swept, nourished, managed, it is a simulated landscape, a fantasy of “pristine” or “pure” natural experience.

Beaches have forgotten their history. Redevelopment has expunged most traces of the prior life of coastal peoples. Even those fishing villages that remain are disconnected from the past, mere simulacra of working lives now extinguished. The appeal of the beach lies in the fact that it excludes all that is “workful”… [a space] of getting away, of oblivion and forgetting… [it] is no longer a place but a landscape. (Gillis)

And yet, this phrasing seems to place the act of forgetting on the shoulders of the landscape itself, rather than the people (and organizations of people) whose interests such amnesia might serve. Furthermore, is it simply a matter of absent-mindedness—of stories drifting out to sea—or, like so many histories of displacement from this land, would it be better understood as a forced forgetting, an erasure? In 2016, Karen Barad gives a more useful account of how this forgetting functions:

The fact that the void is not empty, mere lack or absence, matters. The question of absence is as political as that of presence. When has absence ever been an absolute givenness? Is it not always a question of what is seen, acknowledged, and counted as present, and for whom? The void—a much-valued colonialist apparatus, a crafty and insidious imaginary, a way of offering justification for claims of ownership in the “discovery” of “virgin” territory—the notion that “untended,” “uncultivated,” “uncivilized” spaces are empty rather than plentiful, has been a well-worn tool used in the service of colonialism, racism, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, nationalism, and scientism.

Every colonization justifies its violence through a narrative of empty space, rendering invisible, unimportant, or even in contemporary terms, uncool, any person or thing that would stand in the way of its expansion and exploitation. Enter gentrifier: a blissful interloper with no connection to city, neighborhood, history, or context; transient, fickle, he has means—that is, options—that the locals might not have. He doesn’t necessarily even want to be here, just to buy here; a sweet investment, a flexible lease, TBD. He’s a neatly bearded Thoreau, clutching a pitch deck for his new platform called tabula rasa. And he’s come for the unobstructed view.

Silicon Beach is a nickname given to a strand of neighborhoods on the west side of Los Angeles that have seen an influx of tech companies and startups in recent years. This same shoreline was a site of subsistence for the Tongva people living in the area for perhaps 10,000. This was a place of fishing, gathering, boatmaking. Today I stand in the recently-combed sand, watching the Pacific Wheel turning in the distance. A discomforting circularity turns in my stomach, thinking about Santa Monica’s full-circle from place of work to “workplace.” And yet, the tech firms and startups settling the coast in the 2000s may have more in common with early conquistadors than with aforementioned native predecessors. Peering out at the ocean from behind glass and concrete, the gentrifer doesn’t inhabit the complexity of the coast as ecotone; on the contrary, he hardly even interacts with his neighbors. Rather, like the Spanish of the 16th century, his gaze returns a flattened idea of “beach” as a means of mobility and accumulation.

It’s a strange phenomenon watching companies moving to Venice, Santa Monica, or Playa Vista, drawing nearer to the sea. Why set up shop in vacationland anyway? I mean, the property is not cheap. And didn’t we just define “beach” as the opposite of work? Therein lies the inversion. The audacity of opening a new office on the sand can be best explained by the simple fact that work in this sector is no longer supposed to be work. Tech firms today must concoct an aggregate of labor and leisure in their pursuit of a life-encompassing office culture. Labor has returned to the waterfront, but in an almost unrecognizable form—as a kind of surf-on-your-lunch-break all-inclusive luxury package. With this surge of capital and “creative” economy workers, Silicon Beach has become the spiritual home for what Sarah Jaffe dubs the neoliberal “labor-of-love” ethic, a type of labor coercion reliant on the myth of work as personal fulfillment. Indeed this candy pill might be easier to swallow for a creative technologist whose office overlooks the Venice boardwalk than for a gig worker or warehouse runner who makes that beachgazer’s app function, but Jaffe reminds us that “exploitation is the process by which someone else profits from your labor. This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion. The labor of love is just the latest way that this exploitation is masked.”

Big Sur, Catalina, Mavericks: Mac Operating Systems are clearly being made by people who worship the California coast; but these place-names also function as iconography. There are ways in which the techno-colonial ideologies of flexibility, speed, transformation, and unregulated, unpredictable experimentation seem to resemble the laws of sand and sea. As Gillis reminds us, unfortified beaches are mobile. “Sands are constantly moving, shifting on, off, and alongshore, replenished by sediments washing down from the interior.” Man-made shoreline infrastructure like marinas, jetties,  and ports block the natural circulation of ocean sand. River dams and modifications to inland watersheds also cut off the flow of sediment needed to replenish beaches. Defensive engineering like seawalls and groins intensify erosion by strengthening currents, reflecting waves back onto beaches, and blocking sand migration. Barrier islands prevented from moving will “literally die, shrinking in size and viability.” (Ibid) Given this dynamic backdrop, a free-market libertarian could easily assemble an argument for non-intervention—demanding that state power let the system (i.e. environment, i.e. market) run its course without restraint. But this coalescence around speed and flexibility only occurs at the level of buzzwords, for the simple reason that free markets are actually not analogous to ecological systems. 

Ecosystems find equilibrium precisely because the earth is finite, imposing limits to growth. In contrast, global capitalism—expertly surfed by the new inhabitants of Silicon Beach—refuses to acknowledge any such limits. Capital, like sand, is value in motion; but unlike the flows of sediment, its movement “is not only self-reproducing (cyclical) but also self-expanding.” (Karl Marx via David Harvey) Listening to David Harvey lectures on headphones as I watch the sun dip below the pier, I realize that the churning in my stomach I’ve described as rotational was actually moving in a spiral. Harvey uses a diagram of the hydrological cycle to illustrate how the movement of capital differs from that of a self-reproducing ecological system. For our purposes, though, he might just as easily be comparing capital flows to a diagram of sediment circulation:

To begin with, [capitalism] is not a cycle. Marx makes it very clear that this is not a cycle we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a spiral. And a spiral is a completely different system. It must constantly grow and build…for the production of surplus value, i.e., profit. There must be more value at the end of the day than there was at the beginning of the day. The system has to expand—if it doesn’t, capitalism would stop functioning. “Spiraling out of control” is slang for what Hegel called a “bad infinity,” one that will always lead to trouble.” (Harvey)

In this way, the Silicon Beachgazer who looks out his window and sees a “free” marketplace is missing a large part of the picture. An unregulated capitalist economy is not a stable system, rather, it is always turning toward crisis. And insofar as economic forces can be understood as regenerative at all, the ecological analogy should not be particularly comforting. Scientists have long studied the ecosystemic functions of phenomena we call natural disasters. In the long-term, disturbances like storms and hurricanes promote diversity and species mobility, contribute to global heat dispersion and replenish barrier islands, even when they are immediately costly, violent, and brutal for those who live through them. Perhaps in this sense ecological systems are more useful as a warning than a model: the wider the dam, the thinner the beach; the larger the resort, the greater the storm damage; the stronger the market swell, the harder the crash.

Beaches have entered a long, deep recession.  And when the government trucks in sand to rescue beachfront mansions, we have a word for this: bailout. Without addressing the root causes of crisis, this strategy provides a quick fix,  garnering a false sense of security, and promoting irresponsible speculation. Just like the big bank bailouts of 2008, these tactics are Sisyphean,  and they further inflate the “bubble” that led to crisis in the first place. Additionally, because the “state-finance nexus” (as Harvey refers to this activity of artificially propping up capitalism) is debt-financed—”it is creating value in advance of value.” Debt and financialization are some of the key inputs that have kept the spiral of capital moving through the last half-century. Using a familiar phrase for environmentalists and climate activists, Harvey describes the expansion of debt as “mortgaging the future for the present.”

There are meaningful ways for humans to support long-term coastal stabilization, but only if we are willing to adopt a posture contrary to the desires of capital: the role of state intervention should be to restrict, rather than promote, growth. Imposing “setbacks” (minimum distance from shore) on new construction, helping to manage “retreat” for existing architecture and populations, dismantling shoreline armaments and dams, abandoning artificial beach management programs: these are methods that can curb high-risk development and allow the ecotone to stabilize on its own.

The state-funded seawall is the quintessential neoliberal partnership. Justified by the rhetoric of municipal security, this concrete infrastructure offers protection for real estate development, allowing local politicians to cash-in on promises of “economic growth” in their jurisdiction. And yet, in the face of climate change, sea-level rise and aggravated storm seasons, these fortifications are—almost by-definition—provisional. As John Gillis explains, “Miami Beach is investing $400 million in building seawalls, elevating streets, and installing pumps to combat an anticipated increase in flooding caused by the rising ocean. Around the world, coastal cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, and Bangkok, Thailand, are spending billions on giant seawalls and other protective measures.” Coastal armaments encourage ever more expensive development at the water’s edge, which in turn requires larger government relief when disaster inevitably strikes. Gillis illustrates this false sense of security with a tragic anecdote:

In Japan, though 65% of its vulnerable coasts are seawalled or otherwise protected, nothing could stop the great tsunami of March 11, 2011. At Taro, people standing atop the town’s monster seawall felt they were safe, but all were washed away.

A feedback loop emerges: government-guaranteed property insurance leads to irresponsible real estate growth, and justifies massive storm barrier projects that exacerbate ecological havoc. And all of this concrete and glass—all of this dredging, pumping and filling—rests upon one sinking conundrum: around the world, we are running out of sand.

NOURISHMENT is a process in which sand is driven, pumped or sprayed onto an eroding beach, usually to suit aesthetic or recreational desires and protect nearby property from storm surges. While the term seems to imply health or remediation of some kind, studies have shown the process to have adverse impacts on existing plant and animal life — tearing up and burying habitat, and increasing turbidity in the water that blocks light to underwater plants and suffocates fish…  But the word “nourishment” also betrays the limitations of this practice, especially for any human that is accustomed to nourishing themselves 3 times a day. Insofar as beach filling can be understood as productive at all—for instance, in the case of sea turtles whose nesting habits are negatively impacted by sand loss—the act of “nourishing” is, at best, a temporary solution. A friend who grew up in South Florida describes the dredging ship as a consistent part of the horizon, making its way down the coast filling one beach after another. When it gets to the end of the Strategic Beach Management Plan, it simply starts over again.


I type “empire” and “sand” into a search engine because there’s an idiom or a quote on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember. The results don’t lead me to a specific conclusion, but rather, yield a tangle of books and articles and pithy quotes connecting these two words. The phrase “empire of sand” seems to connote precarity, ephemerality and folly. And yet, in a sense, all empires have been built on sand, or its accomplice, the sea. Because empire is an expression of power over space—a violent, coercive expansion—the most important imperial prerequisite is mobility. The British, Dutch, and Spanish are classic examples of “thalassocracies,” deriving power from the technological advantages of masterful transit by sea. The Romans and Nazis consolidated imperial ambitions through road-building; while contemporary powers (the United States, China, Russia) might be understood as an aggregate of sea and land—or, for our purposes, sea and sand.

the artist’s silicon crystal memento swings from her rearview mirror

In recent decades, most of the world has undergone a process of urbanization. According to a UN report, “In 1950, only 30% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a proportion that grew to 55% by 2018.”  Vince Beiser documents what this means in material terms:

To build these cities of concrete, asphalt, and glass, humans are pulling sand out of the ground in exponentially increasing amounts. The overwhelming bulk of it goes to make concrete, by far the world’s most important building material. In a typical year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world uses enough concrete to build a wall 88 feet high and 88 feet wide right around the equator. (Vince Beiser, ibid)

And yet, it’s important to qualify Beiser’s use of the word “humans” in the statement above (as he does elsewhere in the book). Just as we’ve witnessed the grossly uneven consumption of fossil fuels in different parts of the world, so too is the consumption of building materials astoundingly concentrated in areas of rapid city growth. In fact, this consumption is so tightly correlated to market forces that David Harvey can draw a direct line between historical economic crises and the palliative curing of sand into concrete:

China got out of depression by spreading [concrete] everywhere. Actually, this is not the first time this has happened: this is what the US did with the Interstate Highway System, this is what Hausman did in Paris after the crash of 1848, he built the boulevards. But that was small potatoes compared to what Robert Moses did to New York, and that was even smaller potatoes compared to what the Chinese are doing now. This is what I mean by the spiral, the bad infinity.” (David Harvey, ibid)

In 2003, David Owen wrote in the New Yorker that “New York City adds concrete to itself at the rate of approximately one Hoover Dam every eighteen months.” His description of life in this sealed and hardened landscape is evocative for any city-dweller:

The tight spacing left little room for yards or gardens or parks, and, as new buildings rose and multiplied, the sky withdrew. Pavement smothered earth. Soaring rooftops defined a sort of alternate topography, while foundations, sewers, and tunnels gnawed the landscape from below. . .  New York became an island of concrete.” (David Owen, Concrete Jungle)

As Harvey reminds us, it’s important to understand that all parts of the spiral are speeding up—and that they must continue to speed up for the system to survive. Vince Beiser helps to put this acceleration in concrete terms:

China alone used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States used in the entire twentieth century… China is on a city-building spree that beggars anything the world has ever seen. There are more than 220 Chinese cities with over a million inhabitants; the entire continent of Europe has only 35… In the last decade alone, China has built 1.3 million miles of paved road, tripling its network. It is now the world’s leading asphalt consumer. The Chinese expressway system is now longer than the US interstate system, and in some places makes it look downright puny. There’s a stretch of highway linking Beijing with Hong Kong that is a full 50 lanes wide. (ibid)

All of these statistics, however, do not function to disprove the “empire of sand” as a precarious, ephemeral superstructure. Rather, empires (like capitalism) are synonymous with rapid growth and insatiable expansion, often in denial of their own structural vulnerability. Concrete, after all, is only a simulation of stone. It is very strong and durable under compression but will fall apart easily under tensile stress. While there are concrete structures from Roman antiquity that have lasted thousands of years, unfortunately this will not be the case for modern concrete construction. In order to achieve the incredible versatility of concrete building today, the formula used by the Romans has to be reinforced with steel rebar.  This provides tensile strength that unreinforced concrete otherwise lacks, but also a critical weakness. In a 2016 article, Guy Keulemans explains:

When embedded in concrete, steel is hidden but secretly active… Moisture entering through thousands of tiny cracks creates an electrochemical reaction. One end of the rebar becomes an anode and the other a cathode, forming a “battery” that powers the transformation of iron into rust. Rust can expand the rebar up to four times its size, enlarging cracks and forcing the concrete to fracture apart in a process called spalling, or “concrete cancer.”

The Pantheon still stands as the world’s largest and oldest unreinforced concrete dome, relying on its compressive design to stay in the air. But Ancient Roman structures like this were never built to scrape the sky or suspend cars over water for miles on end. Unfortunately, the majority of today’s reinforced concrete structures will need repair within just 50-100 years. In America, analysts and politicians have been ringing alarms for decades about the imminent failure of bridges, roads, and other infrastructure in desperate need of maintenance or replacement. As all empires of the past, this one, too, will crumble.

Time is money, and measured in sand. Like many limited resources on this planet, sand is being removed from ecosystems (for construction, oil drilling, land-building, and even specialized functions like silicon chips) much faster than it can be replenished. Recycling concrete is possible but has so far been deemed cost-prohibitive, at least as long as there’s still access to cheaper sand reserves. On a geologic timescale, everything solid will eventually weather or erode: how long until all of this returns to sand?

Editor’s Note:

The Erosion of Silicon Beach is an ongoing creative research project by Nina Sarnelle, presented for SEQUENCING in two parts. Stay tuned for Part II in Fall 2021—concerning artificial islands, sand mafias, and Venice Beach before and after Snapchat—as well as an online talk with a special guest TBA!


Nina Sarnelle is an artist and musician living on stolen Tongva/Kizh/Chumash land that is often referred to as Los Angeles. She earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012. A founding member of artist collectives the Institute for New Feeling and dadpranks, her work includes intimate participatory performances, large public events, music composition, video and sculpture.

Her work has been shown at the New Museum (NY), Whitechapel Gallery (London), Hammer Museum (LA), Getty Center (LA), Ballroom Marfa (TX), MoMA (NY), Istanbul Modern (Turkey), Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (Berlin), NADA (Miami), Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology (Lisbon), Fundacion PROA (Buenos Aires), Black Cube (Denver), Southern Exposure (San Francisco), Recess (NY), Akademie Schloss Solitude (Germany), Jardin Essential (Brussels), UNSW Galleries (Sydney), Project 88 (Mumbai), Kevin Space (Vienna), Villa Croce Contemporary Art Museum (Genova), Center for Contemporary Arts (Santa Fe), Mwoods (Beijing), MoCA Cleveland, Human Resources (LA), Borscht Festival (Miami), SPACES (Cleveland), Threewalls (Chicago), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh), and featured in Frieze, Art in America, Vogue Italy, Huffington Post, SFMoMA, Creators Project, FlashArt, and Hyperallergic.