IDFA Special I: Blood in the Mobile

The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is just over. In this special, I look back at some of the human rights films in which technology played a special role.

Bloody minerals

After the attention that blood diamonds received, we turn our attention to a less sparkly, but equally bloody mineral: coltan. Patrick Forestier already introduced the topic in his documentary Blood Coltan (2007). The cell phones that we carry in our pockets contain this material. Whether it is “bloody” or not, we don’t know. Director Frank Piasecki Poulsen wanted to figure this out about his own Nokia. He made Blood in the Mobile (2010), which was shown at this year’s IDFA.

What makes coltan bloody? Part of it is extracted in conditions of slavery in the mines of the Decmocratic Republic of the Congo. Passing through shady supply chains, warlords manage to bring their produce to our markets. The revenue is used to fund the civil war, which is estimated to have killed around 7 million Congolese since the late 1990s.

Discriminating the users

Technologies have politics, in many different ways. Langdon Winner famously uncovered the racism of New York bridges in his 1980 article Do Artifacts have Politics? They were made so low that buses wouldn’t fit underneath. As a result of this, poor black families were kept away from Jones beach, a white middle-class resort. In similar vein, Bruno Latour showed that some door closers can discriminate against ‘very old and very small persons’ (see his article Where are the Missing Masses?). They are too heavy for them to open. Morality is fundamentally embedded in such technologies, but in a particular way. In a sense, they select their users.

Discriminating the producers

Cell phones may also be “charged” with blood, but in a different way than the examples before. They don’t stop any user from calling. They don’t discriminate on the basis of race, age or bodily functions, at least not in the way that bridges or door closers do. In fact, one of the problems is that we can’t even know if there is blood in our mobile our not. What these technologies do, however, is to ruin the lives of miners and others in the Congo. Mobile phones don’t discriminate against users, but against producers.

It is hard to understand this problem, partly because the relation between one miner and my cell phone is less direct than the relation between a bridge and a black driver, or a door closer and an old lady. The coltan had to pass through a whole supply chain to go from a 15 year old miner’s hand into my pocket.

Reverse black-boxing

Many of the technologies we use are black-boxes. We don’t actually know how they work, or how they are made. Typically, we only figure this out when they break, and we have to re-assemble them. Talking about a simple case like an overhead project, Bruno Latour makes us understand that such an artefact is in fact the end station of a whole network of relations that had to come together for us to use it. If we want to trace this network to its roots, we have to reverse the process of black-boxing it, as Latour calls it.

The same applies to a phone. In an impressive effort, Poulsen, the director of the film, tries to trace the steps that were taken to produce his Nokia. Exposed to severe dangers, he actually gets to the source, the oppressive dark of the mines in the Congo. What he doesn’t know, however, is if this is where the coltan for his phone came from. There are also mines in Australia for instance. The steps that lead up to the (online) shop window are unknown. In vain, he besieges Nokia’s headquarters with his camera, trying to get them to disclose their supply chain on their website. You can read what they are currently doing in this area, but read it with a dose of skepticism.

Human right violations materialised

It’s incredible to realise to what an extent violations of human rights can be hard-coded into a piece of electronic equipment. Human rights are materialised this way. Cell phones are not the only example. Think of the jeans that are produced by child labour, for instance. Also the pocket that holds my phone might be compromised. This was shown very well in the documentary China Blue (Micha Peled, 2005). An underage Chinese girl slips a note into the pocket of one the pants she makes, for some Western customer to find it there. Kind of like a message in a bottle. Normally, there is no way to “transcend” the supply chain like that. If we want to stop these kinds of abuse, the relations need to be traced, the nodes of the network. Or, if one cell phone producer decided to put a bloodless phone in the market, others might follow. After all, we can also buy slave-free chocolate in Holland nowadays.