John Thackara | Essays

Blood Minerals and Cellphones

Blood Minerals and Cellphones
Stills from the film La Puce à l’Oreille (The Chip In The Ear)

“Increasing pressure on electronics companies to ensure that their products do not contain illicit minerals from the killing fields in eastern Congo is beginning to have a significant impact. With bills on conflict minerals moving through Congress, the electronics industry has spent about $2 million per month lobbying Senate offices to relax the legislation”

The legislation in question was The Dodd-Frank Act, and it was signed into law on July 21, 2010. It included a little known ‘Section 1502′ that adds additional reporting requirements for companies’ SEC filings on the sources of certain ‘conflict minerals’.

That lobbying campaign from 2009 puts last week’s row about the This American Life, and its decision to withdraw the damning Apple episode, into a longer term context. Although its producer admitted that parts of then epsiode were ‘fabricated’, and said the show ‘should never have been put on air’, the upsurge in media interest shows no signs of abating. The blood minerals story is not going to go away.

This week, for example, a ninety minute French documentary La Puce à l’Oreille (The Chip In The Ear) will be aired in France. It joins a sequence of films that expose the social and environmental back-story of electronic products. The price we pay for the five billion cellphones already made, and for the opportunity to change them every 18 months – the French average – is a war that has taken more than five million lives and continues to cause appalling social and environmental destruction. The French film features one reporter filming from the mines of Congo; a second visits a factory in Shenzhen, in China, where workers produce a new phone every 20 seconds; a third report from near Delhi appears to show children involved in the recycling of millions of discarded mobile phones that arrive in containers from the west.

La Puce à l’Oreille follows the last year’s Danish production Blood In The Mobile. Film maker Frank Poulsen used a Nokia-made device in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; from there he reported on the bloodiest conflict since World War II. Poulsen’s one-guy-and-a-Nokia film was not without its critics: There’s an intelligent studio discussion with a trailer here.

These two cellphone documentaries follow the remarkable worldwide coverage achieved by The Lightbulb Conspiracy: Cosima Dannoritzer’s film about the untold story of planned obsolescence. The film explains how leading manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs – and later, manufacturers of electronic products – conspired to engineer short life expectancy into their products and thereby ensure continuous long-term profit for themselves.

The advocacy group Enough argues that the most effective way to clean things up in the blood minerals trade is to ensure transparency in the consumer electronics supply chain. The electronics industry protests (and this was part of their costly lobbying effort) that this is hard to implement. Their argument is technically correct. For example, when the consulting firm KPMG recently assisted a U.S.-based global manufacturer to institute an ‘auditable’ supply chain – in response to the Dodd-Frank measure – they discovered that the firm had more than 3,000 suppliers. For his part Tim Cook, Apple’s Chief Executive, has defended the company’s oversight of its facilities. Cook told investors last month that the company has opened its factories to outside inspectors for the first time and began reporting some results of its factory audits more regularly. The electronics industry has responded further to growing concern by launching the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) to address the need for a credible sourcing system. Another initiative, the Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) assessment program, launched in 2011, has published a list of conflict-free smelters for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.

Improving conditions in factories, or making raw materials traceable, are net positive steps. But they are also tiny ones in the context of the monster footprint and embodied energy of digital technology in the global system as a whole. Can anything meaningful be done? Of course the challenge is a hard one, but there is a counter-argument: If the industry can deliver millions of flawless, high-tech products from such a complex ecology of suppliers, then it can surely clean up its resource flows, too.

Free The Phone

The one change likely to dampen demand for blood minerals would be collapse in the profitability of the electronics industry itself. It is not inconceivable that the combined impact of rising energy costs, and the ongoing financial crisis, would bring that about more effectively than rising guilt among consumers (such as the writer of this text). But if connectivity and access to the internet are a basic human right – which is a strong argument – what would happen then?

There are a few small but fascinating signs that the elements of an alternative telecommunications infrastructure could be brewing. In Brazil, for example, a Brazilian network called MetaReciclagem is dedicated to “the deconstruction of information technologies”. A network of labs and studios is buzzing with talk of low tech experimentation, free (livre) and open source multimedia software, open licensing, experimental laboratories and online collaboration. This ecology includes a de-centralized research organisation called DesCentro and Bricolabs, an international network of experimental labs.

Another decentralised innovation effort, the Bricophone project is a “low-cost Open-Source DIY mesh-network independant wireless communication system for smart communities”. In in terms of its infrastructures, size, use of privacy and politics, the bricophone movement serves different goals and is positioned as an alternative to the global cellular phones economy. A comparable project, Openmoko, which is dedicated to delivering mobile phones with an open source (rather than free) software stack, has developed as a gathering of people with the shared goal of “Free The Phone”.

A US-based project with links to MIT, FabFi, is another open-source system. Communities can build a FabFi node out of approximately $60 worth of everyday items such as boards, wires, plastic tubs, and cans.These common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics are sufficient to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of up to several miles.

Yes, of course, these are tiny developments. But we also know from systems thinking that small disruptions can have massive repercussions if-and-when the bigger system is poised for transformation.

Resources and Further Reading

Raise Hope For Congo
From Mine to Mobile Phone: The Conflict Minerals Supply Chain
London Mining Network
Embodied Energy of Digital Technology
Earth Calling: The Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Telecommunications Industry Forum for the Future, November 2006
iPhone 4 Supply Chain
Enough Project
Global Witness
Friends of the Congo
Conflict Minerals
E-waste in West Africa

Comments [1]

From Bangalore, India's Most Connected city

Shades of Victor Papanek's juice-can radio receiver, John!
User-based open source projects are encouraging, but will hardly bridge the social/economic gap to make connectivity a "basic human right." You've been out in the country recently, haven't you? India's updating to HD delivery of television in only 4 markets: Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkotta, and Chennai. I was on the beach in Alleppey, Kerala and had no connection.

And I share your angst about conflict minerals. The destruction in the Great Lakes area of Africa has not only claimed lives in Congo, but could be said to include traumas in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. Yet, I don't see many people interested in commenting about this. Is it possible we're suffering generational guilt (since we're of the same gen)? Young people, those weaned from mother's milk by cell phone technology, don't seem to really give a shit.

Finally, Mike Daisey may be a schmoo for putting his "art" on a program like This American Life (don't know what this makes Ira Glass), but the repercussions may actually have been worth the trauma. Dodd-Frank indeed!

Don't forget to read that Arundhati Roy piece I sent you. It puts alot of this in perspective.

david stairs

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