What's Inside a Tesla Battery, Sociologically?

05/06/2015 06:51 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

There is more to battery design than energy storage capacity.


Last week, Elon Musk entered the stage with a powerful marketing message: to end the world's dependency on fossil fuels, all we need is two billion Tesla POWERWALL batteries. It is easy to accept this message at face value without understanding its underlying sociology. But there is more to battery design than energy storage capacity.

Like all markets, battery markets have also been tailored to serve particular ideological energy needs as what sociologist Michel Foucault calls "technologies of power" - devices through which ideological energies can be sustained - and means through which particular types of idealized subjects are created and legitimated. Here are four examples of the role batteries have played sociologically.

The AFA Battery - Technology of Endurance


Günther and Herbert Quandt discussing AFA batteries with Hitler (1938)

During the Nazi era, batteries were first and foremost technologies of endurance. Few knew how to expropriate this symbolic linkage more effectively than Nazi industrialist and owner of the AFA battery factories Günther Quandt. In the early years of the Third Reich, Quandt had established profitable ties with the Nazi party that, in turn, saw more in Quandt's batteries than mere technological advantage. Like an iconic AFA battery that allows German submarines to survive quietly underwater for days, the Nazi propaganda broadcasted, Germans should wait patiently for the final victory.

This ideological framing came at a high price to human lives and the planet. As early as 1938, Jewish forced laborers were used to produce batteries for German war machinery including the submarines and, towards the end of the war, the V2 rocket under lethal conditions. Thousands of workers died and the soil and ground water in Hagen, the first modern battery production town in Germany, is contaminated with lead and other chemicals to this day.

The VARTA Battery - Technology of Recovery


Varta Road Atlas (1951)

After the war, Quandt discovered that energy was no longer about endurance but about recovery. Whereas the AFA battery's job had been to remind Germans of their duty during the total war, the job of the VARTA battery -- the battery brand to which Quandt shifted his post-war attention -- was to make them forget it. VARTA operated in service of creating a forward-looking and hard-working German citizenry that desired economic growth and regeneration.

Like the VARTA car battery that recharges while driving, Germans should engage in automotive tourism to distract themselves and to look forward to their prosperous future rather than remember their horrible past. The VARTA hotel guide, originally published in 1957 as a marketing tool to convey that message, still exists today.

The DURACELL Battery - Technology of Performance

Duracell Commercial (circa 1980)

DURACELL is my generation's battery. Once again, battery marketing emerged from but also reinforced a particular type of historically idealized subjectivity. This time, the marketing emphasis shifted from recovery to better energy management and performance improvement. The new focus was not only high-performance energy but also on the high-performance individual, someone who "keeps on running" in service of competitive growth, like a DURACELL bunny.

The TESLA Battery - Technology of Independence


If one follows this analytical tact, in last week's announcement, Musk's true innovation may be to have moved battery meanings to a new sociological level: from performance to total autonomy. The intention behind Tesla's POWERWALL may not only be to escape the fossil fuel era but to also reframe traditional energy governance as a historical fossil that stands in the way of clean energy.

Looking for support rather than actively generating one's own energy through one's own power plant - that's an illustration of the old grid. Conversely, the "smart grid" of the future emphasizes self-responsibility and reframes any and all energy shortage as one's personal inability to harvest what's "naturally available." In this sense, POWERWALL may not be an icon of technological progress. It may signal a new level of social disintegration and heightened economic inequality.