A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi

I have argued elsewhere about the resources for a critique of mobile learning and its relationship to notions of capital and what Hardt and Negri have termed Empire. I have just submitted a draft book chapter on this issue, in which I quote several passages from Peter Eichstaedt’s work on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This work highlights the issues of labour rights, resource accumulation, geographical dispossession and supply-chains that underpin the means of production and distribution of mobile technologies. Notably this focuses upon the production and distribution of coltan and tin, although it also connects to conflicts over other resources. An analysis of this work might be tied into the human and labour rights of those engaged both in mining the resources that enable technologies to scale efficiently and in the assembly of those products.

These abuses are connected through webs of transnational global finance, mining corporations and media firms to the educational practices that are increasingly common in the global North, and which underpin the active re-production of the imperatives of capital. Ware has argued that:

Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country. The Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels have primary control over the ore and are reaping huge profits which maintain and finance the protracted war. It is estimated that the Rwandan army made $20 million per month mining coltan in 2000. As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.

Eichstaedt writes that despite the relatively small role that tin and coltan from the DRC play in the global market for rare earth metals, the revenues flowing from the control of mines in the east of the country is hugely significant in terms of local geo-politics. He notes

That significance can be counted in the millions of dollars and the millions of lives lost or damaged over the past sixty-five years in the worst human death toll since World War II.

Global Witness argued that

In their broader struggle to seize economic political and military power, all the main warring parties have carried out the most horrific human rights abuses, including widespread killings of unarmed civilians, rape, torture and looting, recruitment of child soldiers to fight in their ranks, and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The lure of eastern Congo’s mineral riches is one of the factors spurring them on. By the time these minerals reach their ultimate destinations – the international markets in Europe, Asia, North America and elsewhere – their origin, and the suffering caused by this trade, has long been forgotten.

In terms of the global supply of rare earth metals like coltan, a small amount comes from the DRC, which means that for transnational corporations, invoking due diligence policies for these mines is not worth the cost. Thus, there is little incentive for those corporations to invest in tracking systems or in maintaining the mines, and their withdrawal means that miners will be left without incomes or placed at the mercy of militias and less scrupulous governments. At issue then is the extent to which educators who are framing a demand for [mobile] learning are implicated, through their relationships as consumers or promoters of the hardware of multinational companies that may source conflict minerals.

For Eichstaedt it is here that the personal becomes political and might underpin action.

We all use and depend on all sorts of high-tech devices in our daily lives… We are all linked on our shrinking planet… Forming personal and lasting bonds with people is the most effective and powerful way to effect change… Feet on the ground, followed by time, toughness, and commitment to change is needed. Nothing less. 

Educators are nodes in networks of power that form circuits for accumulation and profit and the re-production of the structures and agency of capital. These structures cover all of human life, though marketing, game-play, work, privatisation of public assets, data mining, advertising, the constant renewal and upgrades of mobile technologies and so on. It is these networks that then underpin ‘immaterial labour’, through the commodification of our desire for play or for the latest cheap, powerful, miniaturised device.

Thus, for instance, the ‘Raspberry Pi‘ is connected to the desire to engage young people in programming through affordable, flexible, mobile devices that reveal the inner workings of the machine as it relates to programming. Yet, there has been little discussion of the component parts that make up the machinery, and how they are sourced. The machine uses a broadcom corporation bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip). According to a company engagement report made by the Triodos ethical bank in 2011, broadcom was uneligible for ethical investment during that financial year because of their performance regarding conflict minerals, co-operation with repressive regimes and on human rights.

Recently, the <nettime> email list has focused a little on “Conflict minerals and radical impotence”. The original posting is here. The attempt to create a discussion on the ethics of the production practices on the Raspberry Pi site is here. It includes a site moderator declaring:

I will be keeping an eye on it [this discussion] and if it degenerates into outraged moral pouting, then closed it will be.  Oh btw, isn’t Ethics in Howondaland?

The originator of the discussion thread then posted a response that he received from Raspberry Pi, which can be read here. The manufacturers dismissed the issue because “it’s almost impossible to avoid conflict minerals, [and that’s why we ignore them]”. There are three issues that emerge here. Firstly, why do manufacturers ignore ethical or moral positions? Secondly, why do they seek to dismiss those who raise legitimate questions about the production practices that underpin those technologies? Thirdly, how are we as educators or users of technology in the Global North culpable in not asking questions or lobbying or refusing?

It isn’t especially difficult to ask questions, and the Enough project provides company rankings based on surveys of the 21 largest electronics companies to determine what progress they are making toward conflict-free supply chains and a conflict-free mining sector in the DRC. In the case of the Raspberry Pi, I recognise the desire to engage children in the process of making things and in understanding the craft of work with software or hardware, in all its forms. However, I am unnerved by the refrains of radical impotence that emerge when we [refuse to] discuss our [ethical/moral/humane] use of technologies, just as I am unsure about our engagement in defence-driven education projects, or our uncritical promotion of cyber security challenges. Each of these initiatives connects to wider spaces or networks or hegemonies that link education to issues of ethics or morality or humanity.

As one <nettime> contributor argued:

We used to evaluate our electronic devices on criteria such as price, computational power or interface design. Some of the more politically-inclined users prefer devices that support open source operating systems rather proprietary ones. But, given the state of the world, we should also consider ecological and social impacts of a company’s practices as important criteria.

Some, like the ETICA project, have made a start.

Some, like MastersDegree.net, have started to map out how our tech addiction hurts people.

We might continue to ask, what is to be done?


3 Responses to A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi

  1. Pingback: A note on technologies for control, systemic violence and the miltarisation of higher education | Richard Hall's Space

  2. Pingback: Cheap computers and conflict minerals | Small-scale Agriculture and Mobile Technologies

  3. Pingback: Educational technology, academic labour and a pedagogy for class struggle | Richard Hall's Space

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