Coltan. It’s everywhere, in our cellphones, in our computers, in our technologies. What is it exactly, and what does it have to do with the concept of the digital divide? Let’s find out!
So you are probably wondering, what is coltan exactly? According to Wikipedia, Coltan, short form for columbite tantalite, and is a black-metallic ore that is used to extract elements of niobium and tantalum.
As I stated previously, coltan can be found in almost all technologies, including cellphones and computer/laptops. So how do they do this? They take the tantalum extracted from the coltan, which make tantalum capacitors, which is the specific item we have built into our electronic devices.
Alright, alright, so I guess you guys have a basic understanding of what coltan is and how it is used in our technologies and electronic devices, let’s relate it back to the concept of the digital divide.
As we have discussed in our class, the digital divide is an inequality between groups, individuals, and populations in regards to access, use, understanding, and knowledge of using information and communicative technologies (ICT’s.) The concept of the digital divide can be seen from the micro-level, for example by looking at how their are digital divides in rural/urban users (explored in the paper by Gilbert, Karahalios and Sandvig,) but also at a larger, macro-level, by looking at the International level. Specifically, I will be looking at the nation of Africa, particularly with the Democratic Republic of Congo because this is where the majority of coltan is mined from.
So where do I begin?! Well, the one problem I have with looking at an issue such as the digital divide is that why do we worry about who has access to technologies and the Internet, when there are those people in the world who don’t even have access to the basic needs/rights of any human (making reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) such as food, clean water and basic sanitation. So by discuss an issue of who has access or doesn’t have access to technologies seems quite trivial to larger, pressing issues to individuals in poor regions of the world.
Let’s look at the internet access between those in Canada and those living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC.) According to Internet World Stats.com,
approximately only 915,400 individuals are Internet users, compared to a population of almost 73,600,000. This means that only 1.24% of the total population of the DRC uses the Internet. Comparably, a survey conducted by Convurgency showed that nearly 80% of Canadian families had access to the Internet…there is clearly something wrong here. That’s a difference of 78.76% in Internet users between these two countries.
With that being said, how does this all tie into the discussion of the digital divide and coltan. The Westernized world has been exploiting poor, underdeveloped countries for hundreds of years for their resources, and the extraction of coltan is no different. In fact, many consider it to be the new blood diamond. For years, the Western/Europe world consumed diamonds (and some would argue it still does) without thinking of where they came from, and what priced was payed for them (beyond the stupid amount it cost/$$$ to purchase diamonds.)
I would argue that coltan is definitely the new blood diamond. Without even knowing, many consumers enter Best Buy, Walmart, or any retail store to buy a product, specifically technologies, without realizing how the product was made and who made it (sounds a little like technological deterministic if you ask me.) Consequently, we do not think about who we are harming or hurting in order to obtain our wants and needs, whether its the new I-Phone or a new mp3 player. Furthermore, without realizing it, we are consequently allowing human rights to be violated, due to the fact that most of the coltan mines are controlled by violent armed groups and the workers are seen as disposable and replaceable.
So where does that leave us? Is it up to the consumer to boycott all electronic devices? Is it up to the companies who manufacture the products to ensure basic human rights are being implemented at these mines in the Congo? Or as one student in our class said, is it the responsibility of our governments to make policy changes, as well as agreements on trades and goods and services? I will leave this question up to you guys to answer. However, I hope that this blog has opened your eyes to an ever-growing problem to those in the Congo.
I will leave you guys with a UK website called the “Ethical Consumer,” whose main goal is to promote alternative consumer organization, revealing the truth behind brand names and creating a more ethical consumer environment, REALLY REALLY INTERESTING I PROMISE!!