Display and Distraction?
“25 years of Independence” reads the blue banner in Republic Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan, New Year’s Eve 2017. Photo by author.
By Thomas J. Misa
New Year’s 2017 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it was the greatest display of fireworks imaginable. Everyone in the city seemed to be on the immense Republic Square filled with government buildings and ringed by broad terraces. The Town Hall was radiant. The crowd strolled and mingled, watching the show and listening to blaring music. Near to midnight Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s Soviet-era leader and president since independence in 1991, delivered a short patriotic address over the loudspeakers. It was a scene designed to inspire optimism in the future and trust in the state. The warm feelings didn’t last long.
Ever since December 2020, when I finished the third edition of Leonardo to the Internet, I’ve been watching news headlines. You don’t usually see history of technology on the front pages and of course history cannot predict the future, but sometimes it gets eerily close. Display and distraction, much in evidence in Almaty that night, was certainly a strategy used centuries earlier by Italian Renaissance courts to buttress their political power. Such power is fragile. Street riots in Kazakhstan during early January 2022, triggered by rising automobile fuel prices, torched the once-radiant Town Hall. The unrest led to two technology surprises: spikes and slumps in the world markets for uranium and cryptocurrencies. How did that happen?
In 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in northeast Kazakhstan, and across the next 40 years hundreds of tests at Semipalatinsk exposed an estimated 1.5 million people to both acute and chronic doses of radiation. Variable winds over the Semipalatinsk Test Site, nearly the size of New Jersey, sent radioactive fallout from some open-air tests over to Russia but most fallout stayed in Kazakhstan. The Soviets began uranium mining in other parts of the country in the 1950s and expanded operations in the 1970s. Today Kazakhstan is the world’s largest source of uranium, according to the World Nuclear Association, shipping 43 percent of the global supply in 2019. The January unrest consequently shook the global price of uranium, leading to a one-week price increase of 24 percent.
It turns out that week’s cryptocurrency slump also had an essential link to Kazakhstan. We need additional history. Internet restrictions, including filtering, censorship, and shutdowns have become an item in the playbook of authoritarian states, such as China and Russia. Kazakhstan throttled or shut down social media during national political protests in 2018, 2019, and 2021. The country has just five connections to the global internet and so it was easy on 4-5 January 2022 to direct these providers to shut down the country’s internet. External news about politics ended, but so too did the functioning of cell phones, credit cards, ATMs, and even many TVs. Since three-quarters of citizens have internet access, by far the highest in central Asia, the pinch was widely felt. The government briefly switched on the internet during speeches by Nazarbayev’s successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, embroiled in a fight to retain his power, including an unusual request for Russian military assistance.
You might think this week-long internet shutdown could not have measurable global repercussions. But it roiled the global markets for cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. Kazakhstan recently became the world’s second largest “miner” of cryptocurrency, involving huge computers and massive electricity supplies. During the middle of 2021, China effectively banned all forms of cryptocurrency and so many of its crypto-miners moved shop to Kazakhstan. Its national share of global cryptocurrency mining muscle, or hash rate, fully doubled to 18 percent. When this impressive share was taken down during the January internet blackout, it caused quite a stir. The Guardian noted: “Within the hours of the outage, Bitcoin’s computational power sank,” while Forbes commented “a full 12% of Bitcoin's worldwide computational power had vanished [with] sharp declines for a number of producers with operations in Kazakhstan.”
I continue to scan the headlines, thinking about the promise and perils of writing history that informs the present moment. My aim with Leonardo to the Internet is a long history with a tight focus on technologies that led to changes in society, politics, and culture. A new chapter in the third edition examines the global battle for democratic and authoritarian internets, including the internet shutdown in Egypt during the “Arab Spring” protests. Perhaps the fourth edition will add Kazakhstan to the somber lessons of history.
 Wudan Yan, “The nuclear sins of the Soviet Union live on in Kazakhstan,” Nature (3 April 2019) at www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01034-8
 See www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/kazakhstan.aspx
 “Kazakhstan internet shutdown deals blow to global bitcoin mining operation,” Guardian (6 January 2022) at www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/06/kazakhstan-bitcoin-internet-shutdown; “Kazakhstan internet shutdown sheds light on a big Bitcoin mining mystery,” Forbes (5 January 2022) at fortune.com/2022/01/05/kazakhstan-internet-bitcoin-mining-mystery-crypto/