Tactile Media Lament Part 2: Kindle Fire: The Temperature at Which Books Burn

Just in time for the holidays Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, apparently not content with their multibillion dollar dominance of book sale monoculture, nor with the recent collapse of Borders Books & Music, are giving their e-readers the nook and the Kindle a facelift, adding color graphics, touch screens, the ability to stream movies, facebook (verb), play games and more.

Kindle and nook are both a few years old, predating the iPad.  Once matte grayish affairs meant for reading alone, they are now joining their glamorous iPad cousin in the push for a multimedia tableted society, in which one tool replaces notebooks, pens, paperbacks, mp3 players and hand-held video players.  They do seem a little bit bulky to replace digital cameras – I mean you have to leave something for your phone to do.

I know that one of the treasured freedoms of our country is that everyone with money or credit has the right to demand as many digital devices as they can keep up with.  But the tableting of America seems a little like overkill, even for the personal electronics pushermen.  When is enough going to be enough?

In the face of all these social media-enabling media platforms, the question remains whether we are actually more social people in the 21st Century.  Twitter, in its brevity and immediacy, has become the de facto place for breaking news.  But anyone who has taken urban public transportation lately can be made to reflect on the the tension whereby gentrification has put many people in the most “diverse” environs of their lives, only to see them retreat into mobile digital devices that enable us to remain cloistered, even in public places.

(It is rumored that during the next Republican Presidential Debate, the candidates will not only answer questions FROM Twitter, they will answer the questions ON Twitter itself.  [The site’s 140-character limit is not predicted to change the content of the debate substantially.])

In these digital pages I have decried the rise of mp3 culture and its sacrificial victims: album art, local CD/record stores, the excitement you feel when you hear your favorite song on the radio and the Columbia House Music Club.  I was admittedly acting the part of a Luddite.  Since that time I have impulse bought more than three albums with the instant gratification of iTunes, and I have spent endless minutes pouring over the PDFs of album art lovingly on the screen of my MacBook Pro.

But this time I have to put my foot down again.  Did anyone mind using books?  Oh, but this will be saving so much paper!  I guess so, but ways of recycling paper have been pretty well established, and I still have no real idea how electronics get recycled, except that it’s dangerous, expensive and involves open fires without facial protection in China.  And will countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia will generate enough coltan and lithium to keep up with our exponential handheld device demands?

I’m not saying that tablets aren’t valuable in some applications.  A recent 60 Minutes episode showed the effectiveness of using iPads to teach autistic children, and filmmaker Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again) invented a camera lens that allows you to view over 300 degrees of a filming area on your tablet for a truly immersive documentary experience.  But I bristle that we’re being peer pressured to rush out and buy yet another digital device that will put another nail in the coffin of face to face culture and all of its unsung benefits.  Enjoy the convenience of poring through the sociology section of your nook color tablet; you probably won’t have an impromptu conversation with someone also looking to learn more about humans.

There are so many books already printed that we have been meaning to read.  And we spend so much time already looking at screens that it’s probably better to give them a rest every once in a while.

 

What’s Your Coltan Footprint?

We hear all about our “Carbon Footprint” – a person’s total greenhouse gas emissions, determined by things like the amount of petroleum we use through car and airplane trips, and the distance our food travels to arrive on our supermarket shelves. But there’s another footprint that we in the Global North would do well to examine: our Coltan Footprint.

Coltan is the colloquial name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore found in deposits all over the world. Twenty-five percent of the world’s coltan supply is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From coltan is extracted the elements niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is a major component used to create consumer electronic devices, such as cell phones, computers and DVD players.

Profits from coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been one major funding source of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region, according to the Danish organization DanChurchAid, in their report “Is There Blood on Your Mobile Phone?”:

Much of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is done by children, and by hand, under extremely dangerous conditions, as this video from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting shows.

As the number and type of consumer electronics grow exponentially, there is a direct impact on the situation on the ground. For example, as documented by the website Toward Freedom, the year 2000 saw the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, as well as increased sales of cell phones, DVD players and other portable electronic devices. The increased demand for tantalum caused the price to jump from $49/pound to $275/pound and this led to a rapid acceleration of mining in the coltan-rich regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That this boom coincided with the Second Congo War (1998 – 2003) in which over 5 million civilians were killed indicates the extent to which armed conflicts in the African continent are fueled by the desire for control of resources.

To find your coltan footprint, add up:

1) The number of cell phones, laptop computers, gaming systems, DVD players you have owned in the past 10 years.

Mine is about 8.

If yours is above 0, you are part of creating demand for this mineral and should think about your responsibility for the nature of the resource wars still tearing apart the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So, dang. What to do?

The point is that it’s not just carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses that we have to reconsider, but all of our globalized consumption habits.

Consider this scene:

An H.G. Wells-style time traveler from 1850 visits a busy 2009 street corner the middle of New York City at 5:45pm on a Thursday. What the traveler will no doubt notice is streams of people walking down the street, chattering happily into small plastic devices. As one woman passes the traveler, a snippet of her conversation is heard:

“I love you” she tells the plastic device.

The time traveler may conclude that in this future, it is small, shiny, plastic robots that are the object of a good deal of our emotional attention.

When our jobs and personal lives in the U.S. are more and more knitted to electronic devices and equipment, can we imagine breaking free? Sidling up to that grungy phone booth with a roll of quarters in the pocket in our handbag designed for a mobile phone? Banging out letters to our friends on a typewriter, as opposed to clicking up an instant message?

Can we go back and create a different future?