Coltan

The third and final part of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace touches on the mineral coltan and its importance to consumer electronics and east African wars. It’s worth looking at coltan in a bit more detail.

Coltan is a humble-looking mineral found all over the world, but mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of the major causes of the continuation of a war in the Congo that has lasted for more than ten years and has cost the lives of five and a half million people. We need coltan to play videogames and make calls on mobile phones.

Media invented after the industrial revolution seems to get more and more toxic: developing photographs means handling carcinogenic chemicals; film stock was once made from highly explosive nitrocellulose; CDs and DVDs won’t degrade for hundreds of years. But it’s videogames that require the most noxious chemicals and blood-soaked minerals. Game machines are tight little boxes of hazardous waste. They’re wired with the spoils of war, oppression and slavery. They’re discarded into landfills to make way for the next (micro) generation where they decay like corpses; leaking vile fluids and gases into mountains of rubbish. These zombie consoles pollute the air, soil and water as well as the people who live off rubbish sites.

We play war games on machines that fuel wars. Never mind the supposedly corrupting software – the hardware has a direct relationship to the deaths of millions. We talk of the immateriality of internet culture; all that is solid melts into air, into the cloud. But what coltan represents is the hidden material world that fuels this cloud and the enormous human suffering wrought in the process. Just as there are unseen mainframes full of personal photos, love letters and savings, so are there tiny chunks of black metallic rock being pulled out of the mud that will one day run a carefully constructed computer model of a real-looking corpse on L.A. Noire.

It’s not just games of course. Mobile phones, DVD players and computers of all types use the tantalum extracted from coltan to make capacitors. And it’s not just coltan either – consumer electronics contain other toxic chemicals and so-called ‘conflict minerals’. But videogame manufacturers do manage to stand out; the only big game company that is devoted to games alone is Nintendo and it is Nintendo that has come dead last on every one of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics that it has appeared on.

The coltan/DRC/videogames controversy peaked in 2001 with the high consumer demand for Playstation 2s. Coltan is often smuggled out of the DRC and the paper trail that leads to console manufacturers is hidden in the usual offshore shadows, so it is hard to know how much is still being mined and sold in that war torn country. The DRC has 80% of global reserves of coltan, but the records show that it is mostly obtained from elsewhere in the world – for now.

With or without Congolese coltan, game consoles remain toxic. What is it about videogames and infection? The infection of game architecture with hidden meaning; the infection of Hollywood with game-like CGI; the games that worm their way through social networking sites; the junkie compulsion to play… even the consoles themselves are poisonous. Games are alchemical in two ways: they conjure something out of nothing and they are steeped in hazardous waste from the bowels of the earth.

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