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<nettime> Index of an Unreal World
McKenzie Wark on Thu, 23 Aug 2001 11:38:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Index of an Unreal World

Index to an Unreal World / 22nd August, 2001
R is for Resource

There’s a little bit of the Congo in all of our lives. In this world, as 
everyone knows, everything is connected to everything else. Pop the cover 
off your cellphone or laptop and you are looking at stuff that has come from 
all over the world, processed and manufactured and assembled into a 
functioning machine.

In the guts of your machine you may be able to spot some capacitors. These 
probably contain tantalum, a marvellous conductor of electricity, also very 
good with heat. These were probably made by Kemet or Cabot, the two largest 
tantalum capacitor companies. They were quite possibly made with tantalum 
dug out of the ground in the Congo, where there’s plenty of coltan, from 
which tantalum is refined. Your participation in the cyberhype age comes to 
you in part through the efforts of Congolese miners slopping mud into 
plastic tubs.

In this world, where everything is connected to everything else, it is also 
quite possible for a New York Times journalist to travel to the Congo to 
find out what its like to mine coltan. Blaine Harden recounts epic 
adventures on the back of a Yamaha trail bike, jolting over potholes and 
dodging armed bandits, to get to an illegal mine camp in the Okapi Faunal 

There Harden meets Mama Doudou, entrepreneur, who appears as a sort of 
Mother Courage of the Congo. She bakes bread for the miners and sells it at 
inflated prices. She has a perfect little business selling both prostitution 
and the drugs to cure the resultant venereal diseases.

In this connected world, vectors of communication and transport link this 
obscure jungle clearing to us, and create this marvellous opportunity for 
Mama Doudou to participate in the commodity economy. But the Okapi Faunal 
Reserve is also home to monkeys, elephants and the okapi, a rare relative of 
the giraffe. Thousands of Mbuti, or pygmies, also live there. Their 
livelihood is compromised by the coltan miners, who, as Harden helpfully 
phrases it, dig "SUV-sized holes" in the mud, out of which they can extract 
about a kilo of coltan a day.

A kilo of coltan was worth $80 during the technology boom. There was a world 
shortage, which delayed the release of the Sony Playstation and many other 
rollouts. Since the collapse of the tech boom, Coltan prices are down to $8 
a kilo. The same vector which linked the Congo to the tech boom also links 
it to the crash.

While the competition is tough, the Congo is arguably the region in which 
colonial exploitation has done the most harm and conferred the least 
benefits. As Conrad depicts it in Heart of Darkness, colonial Congo was a 
maladministered mess. When the United States took an interest in the place 
in the 60s, it cared only for three things: cobalt, copper and communism. 
The Congo’s first democratic leader Patrice Lumumba was ousted in a CIA 
sponsored coup that brought to power the notorious Mobutu Sese Seku. With 
the collapse of the Mobutu regime, there is civil war, and little else.

One of the things keeping the civil war going is the coltan. Rival armies 
covet territories from which to extort money from the mining. This is one of 
the reasons the ‘overdeveloped world’ is getting a little queasy about 
buying Congolese coltan. Coltan both fuels the war, and accelerates the 
destruction of wildlife habitats.

Everything is connected to everything else. And so corporations with 
precious brands to protect don’t want protest movements sullying their 
reputations by calling attention to all the gorillas coltan kills, or the 
guerrillas it feeds. The Belgian airline Sabena no longer flies coltan from 
the Congo. Nokia and Motorola require suppliers to use coltan from 
elsewhere. Which is good news for the Australian company Sons of Gwalia, 
which now provides half of world supply. The destruction of Australian 
habitats seems somehow less picturesque. No gorillas or giraffes are 

Even at $8 a kilo, coltan is still one of the few sources of income for many 
Congolese. This is a country where people live on 20 cents a day. It’s 
possible that the only thing worse for the Congo than coltan mining is this 
de facto embargo on coltan mining. Either way, its not much of a choice.

The vector that connects the Congo to your laptop is also the vector that 
connects information about the Congo to your laptop. One thing that goes 
unmentioned in Harden’s otherwise admirable reportage is that other export 
from parts of the world like the Congo – stories about the misery and 
suffering that journalists produce for our contemplation. Everything is 
connected to everything else. Everything is a resource for commodification. 
Suffering is also a resource, to journalists, as the raw material for our 

This connectedness is what is distinctive to these vectoral times. 
Communication makes anything and everything into a potential resource. The 
world appears, in Heidegger’s phrase, as a ‘standing reserve’, as if it 
existed for us to plunder or picture. The problem for a place like the Congo 
is that only two kinds of resource really have enough value to be worth the 
world’s interest. One is minerals, the other is wildlife. The Congolese 
themselves are 20 cents a day.

What the vector of communication makes possible is the attachment of 
resources any and everywhere to a global pattern of calculation of their 
price. What it blocks is the possibility of any other kind of value. Unless 
the Congolese finds the political will defy the partnership of local and 
global expropriators, and rebuilt a society in which to benefit collectively 
from their resources, they will continue to suffer the most brutal forms of 
low-rent exploitation and expropriation.

The alternative is to see business go elsewhere as corporations protect 
their brands from any association with dirty business. While that may 
satisfy the moral needs of activist-consumers in the overdeveloped world, it 
doesn’t do anything for people like Mama Doudou. It doesn’t rebuild 
Congolese society, and it doesn’t necessarily do anything to protect  
gorillas. In merely makes the Congo a resource of another kind, for moral 

In this vectoral world, where everything is connected to everything else, 
its not a question of just saying ‘no’ to the use of this or that resource. 
One then merely chooses another resource. It’s a question of questioning the 
appropriation of the world as a whole in the form of a resource, including 
its use as a resource for entertainment or moral improvement. It’s not 
enough to say no to ‘globalisation’, for that is merely another kind of 
globalisation, with a moral, rather than a commerical self interest at its 


Blaine Harden, ‘The Dirt in the New Machine’, New York Times Magazine, 12th 
August, 2001, pp34-39


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