Response 1 – Congo Coltan War PSA (2.2)

by Amanda Wall

Keeley Peden’s PSA demands a response. Explicitly, we are accused: “Is your iPod worth it?”  (No, no, of course not.) Implicitly, though, we are challened: Now what are you going to do about it?  The challenge haunts me.  After viewing the PSA for the first time, I don’t know how torespond, and weeks later, I still don’t. This “response” to the video, then, is a narrative of how I did respond, and of how hard it is to do so.

I do the first thing any non-expert, web-dependent American would do.  I Google coltan and read the Wikipedia article (“This article has been nominated to be checked for its neutrality”).  I peruse graphs showing how much coltan comes from Australia, Brazil, Canada, the DRC, and the rest of Africa.  I read that that it goes into tantalum capacitors, whatever those are. But what can I do as the greedy/excited/materialst consumer Peden suggests that I am?  How much coltan is in my house?

I have a Skype conversation with a friend, Andrew Murphy. It’s interesting that Andrew–an electrical engineer who designs circuit boards and orders parts like capacitors on a weekly basis–has never heard of coltan. The difference between the raw material and the commerical product is vast, even at the stage of tiny computer parts.  In that Peden cites in her video, we’re told that “Ore originating in the Congo often passes through at least 10 hands before it winds up in a cell phone or a VCR.”

Apparently, there are tantalum capacitors, and thus coltan, in almost every electonic I own. How do I know it was responsibly sourced? Is it possible to trace the origins of a tantalum capacitor, say one of the ones in my ASUS laptop? After surfing the ASUS website for the unhelpful for my computer model, I stumble onto a “Corporate Social Responsibility” section.On a page entitled “Conflict Minteral Sources Investigation,” ASUS tell us they are “committed” to an ethical supply chain. They have all their suppliers sign a piece of paper saying that they don’t get materials from war-torn countries, no siree. I am skeptical.

How hard would it be for me to find out for myself, anyhow?  I ask another tech-savvy friend, this one a systems administrator. “How do I find out where the raw materials in a capacitor came from?”

I decide to try it anyway. I will just open up my computer and look at the numbers on the capacitors themselves.  I am already waving a screwdriver and peering hopefully at the bottom of my laptop when my friend the systems admin says, “Stop.Now. What are you doing?” I explain. He sighs in the long-suffering manner of tech support professionals: “You can’t just flip open a panel and find a capacitor.You’d have to take your laptop apart. And then you’d ask me to put it back together.”

In other words, I am not meant to see those capacitors: neither parts nor supply chains are made to be transparent.  And I am back in the position of having to trust ASUS’s word that (the majority of) their suppliers (probably) don’t use DRC-sourced coltan (to their knowledge). Is there anyway to know for sure?If I was proficient enough to take apart my computer, would I be any closer to knowing where its parts come from?

I am fed up at this point. I do some more experimenting, asking my engineer friend for a capacitor to see if searching for the numbers inscribed on it reveals its origins.It doesn’t.  In fact, I can’t even conclusively determine who sold or manufactured it.  I wonder whether I am too mired in the details, not seeing the forest for the trees. Is this the right way to respond to Peden’s PSA?

I come across a 2006 memo describing how an electronics supplier AVX is changing the numbering on their capacitors so that products are easier to trace. I read a 2008 article on supply chain ethics, in which researcher Michale Levin asserts that the majority of businesses surveyed plan to extend ethics compliance to the rest of their supply chain. It’s hard to tell whether these are attempts to protect the coporate brand or true signs of change. Probably both.

I still don’t know how to respond to Peden’s challenge. Afterall, the same technology that enables me to research and respond to this crisis is the technology implicated by her video. Perhaps the strength of the PSA is exactly in its demand that we respond: respond in any way possible to bridge the gap between the brightly lit birthday partys and the bloody mines.The only danger is in getting frustrated, like I did, and giving up.