Conflict Minerals

Smartphones need special technology to keep the devices cool during long hours of use. A rare earth mineral, coltan, was used in many earlier cellular devices. This substance can be found in abundance in war-torn areas like the Congo and neighboring African countries. The dramatic work of Lynn Nottage greatly informs this section.

The culture of Apple and the sensationalism surrounding the iPhone brand calls into question the binaries produced from a sense of having and not having. Examining these binaries could look towards a Marxist critique examining the relationships between producer and consumer and the labor value represented by the object.  This evokes that masking of how and by whom an object came to be under a social value of the object in question: people want the iPhone, but, oftentimes, they don’t know how or by whom the iPhone was made.  Part of this snapshot of history the iPhone 4s offers is a look at the structural issues inherent in the high demand for smartphone technology.  Art and culture have begun responding to the economic and social ramifications of the technology.

“Ruined” by Lynn Nottage, a play about the violent situation in the Congo, partially brought upon by the mining of a rare-earth mineral, Coltan discusses issues that are precipitate to an increased demand for mobile technology.  Coltan is refined into a powder and used in cellphone technology to keep devices from getting too hot.

Image by Dizolele. Coltan Mining.

Coltan is a key ingredient in the fabrication of iPhone circuit boards.

Nottage’s work connects the sexual violence perpetrated against women in the Congo as a precipitate of these internal social and political conflicts, which arose in part, to the rising demand for cellphones to be manufactured and sold in the western world.

The aim of a material culture analysis of any object should illuminate revelations about the culture that produced said object. The culture of American iPhone users is but only one aspect of the greater picture, as iPhone labor is outsourced, therefore globalizing the artifact.  In order to get a clearer picture, it is important to examine the world of those involved in the manufacturing process as well as that of the end users. The situation of the laborers creating Apple products has been something under scrutiny in recent years.  At the Chinese plant, Foxconn, journalists have exposed sweatshop conditions.  An outbreak of suicides in the Foxconn plant, which produces some of Apple’s products, deepens the concern over the human cost of manufacturing luxury items. These disturbing facts have a contradictory and interrupting effect when taken into view along with the aesthetics of the brand: a paradox between a projected image and a gritty reality.


From Daily Mail. Workers’ quarters at Foxconn.

From China Divide.  Workers at the Foxconn Plant where Apple products are made.

Juxtaposing the images of violence to the images of sensational consumerism raise an eyebrow to the notions of ethical consumption.  How can today’s modern consumer , whose identity to some degree, has been acculturated into the use of these kinds of technology, move forward and make decisions about their own consumption– by understanding that purchasing any object supports and reinforces the existing relationships being negotiated among: the planet’s resources, the laborer who helped to produce the goods, the facility which produces the object, the parent company, the industry that transports the goods, and the retailers who sell the objects.  Even if one does not agree with a Marxist critique of capitalist consumption, it is possible to take into consideration that, working within the system, one can make an informed effort to purchase ethically sourced objects with an understanding that many of the structural issues that underlie the situation will only change at a glacial pace.

Staring at the muted lines of aluminum, glass and hard plastic, one begins to drift.  So much progress, theory, branding, marketing, research, blood, coal, steam, man hours, industrial processes, fire, iron, despair, hope, innovation, and synergy all play into the formation of something that tries so hard to be invisible.  The fact of life for many Americans in 2014 is that smartphone technology is second nature.  Most people would never consider giving up the convenience of the mobile phone.  Many of our jobs require them.  Family life evolves and we need these objects to navigate many aspects of relationship.  Our relationship with technology, however, is worthy of consideration:  how many hours per day, per week is enough?  The beauty and simplicity of the minimalist design obfuscates the reality behind the iPhone.

The culture that produced the iPhone reveals some of the paradoxes of the human experience: luxury juxtaposed next to poverty.  Wealthy Americans sleep in cardboard boxes, by choice, camped out to buy the latest iteration of a new product– poor, disenfranchised people in America and abroad sleep on the ground or on a cold hard floor out of necessity, and maybe never get enough capital to afford a smartphone.  The paradox of alienation- a product designed to make life easier and relationships more accessible leads many users to a lonely place.  The price tag of $0 for the free upgrade on a cell contract with a major provider doesn’t reflect the human and environmental cost of production of the object.

Consider the COLD faces of couples dining, absorbed by artificial light.