Coltan, Exclusion, and the Digital Divide

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.

Now enough about the technical chemical properties, what does this have to do with technology?

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,

Africa’s Internet Usage Compared to the World

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!!

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2 Responses to Coltan, Exclusion, and the Digital Divide

  1. Great topic! I really like the way you bring the digital divide concept into questions of public accountability. I think you did a wonderful job showing how changes in technology are marketed to us on a much larger scale than we may care to think about. For example, your Coltan example illustrates how the divide impacts rural dwellers very differently in one context compared to urban dwellers in another, which, as you mention, illustrates how the Macro-level (international level) ends up being missed in descriptions of public consciousness. To take this a bit further, I would also argue that we don’t necessarily encapsulate this larger scale context when using buzz words such as ‘development’ or ‘exploitation’, which are used in the west to describe the major gaps that exist between say internet use in the Congo verses Canada. I think your example of how Coltan becomes viewed as an extension of the blood diamonds discourse, or simply one of many exploitative practices connects well with this. You mention, for example, how Canadians don’t have to think about the price that is actually paid (individual’s lives) because the price tag remains the market value of the diamonds as sold to the western buyer. This is not a true representation of the purchase price, and I would argue the same thing applies when we talk about technology and the digital divide.

    To respond to your first question, “is it up to the consumer to boycott all electronic devices?” I’d like to bring up a critique made in class regarding Ginsburg’s analysis. One of the problems with the concept of the digital divide is how it tends to ‘other’ those deemed to be on the wrong side. For instance, there is a sense that everyone should be racing to get online, or will eventually have access to technology. The question becomes ‘how can we get everyone to the same place’. And I think our policy reflects this motivation. However, as you touch on in your blog, this method of questioning does not explain the structures that work to produce the ‘other’? This connects well with Kennedy et al., where the authors analyze intellectual disabilities and the internet. Is it enough to adopt an additive model? I would say no, that if we have to ‘fit’ people in to accessing technologies it points to a larger awareness in public consciousness of a deep rooted system of inclusion/exclusion. And we potentially camouflage our own privilege in this system as we work to add the ‘other’ in. In the context of the Congo, this process might be called a “development smokescreen”. Approaching technology and access in this way doesn’t answer, for example, why mass suicides plague factories in China, or why Foxconn installed safety nets and hired counselors to prevent suicides at work. Approaching the digital divide without an analysis of how we benefit from the ‘other’ also does not begin to provide answers to why in Indonesia factory workers continue to work in violent conditions, or why some individuals who make the pieces for IPhones that are sold in Canada will probably never own an IPhone. These are all products of the capitalist system that a Canadian audience is likely to marvel at in the media, but rarely do we question how the unconscious level it manifests at has influenced the way we approach the digital divide.

    Media coverage on blood diamonds or Coltan shows that shifts in how we describe the impacts of capitalism have changed the way we talk about technology, or the digital divide. However, I think these shifts also impact the way development more generally in the African context is talked about, particularly in western media. Technology becomes a gateway into this conversation, which I think in some ways influences us to ask ‘why look at technology access when people are living without food?’ I want to challenge this question. I do think it’s important because it forces a privileged audience to think beyond their own context. However, your discussion on the Congo reminded me of Binyavanga Wainaina response on ‘How to Write about Africa’. Check out his interview on YouTube (part 1, part 2) , if interested in questions of development in the broader context I mention. I think this piece is important because it also reminds us of what is at stake when WE set the bar for the individuals that we have ‘othered’. Wainaina talks about this in the video. In response to one development project, which saw providing an entire village with food as a primary goal, Wainaina asks ‘is this the bar we should accept for ourselves?’ meaning is this enough? I don’t really have an answer to this, but I think in response to some of Ginsburg’s arguments and class critiques, Wainaina’s perspective adds new questions to a very complicated context, which the western world has called the digital divide.

  2. Ha! Nope, these will likely be my then over-ear telephones, but regarding $150, not the $350 they can be selling regarding new….

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