The Tragic Irony of Technology


“Sanity often consists of knowing what not to think about.”  K.W. Jeter

The exponential growth of cellphone use and especially of smartphone use in the last several years has made an obscure mineral called coltan one of the most valuable substances on earth.  Coltan’s heat resistance coupled with its ability to hold an electric charge for a long time, make it an ideal component for electronics, and it consequently is used in almost all cellphones and many computers.  Unfortunately, much of the world’s coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is hand mined by people who see almost none of the profit.  The profit is split between mining corporations and para-military groups.

The irony I refer to in the title is that I know about this moral scandal, and am therefore enabled to be outraged, only because I possess the very coltan infested technology that makes me an accessory to oppression.  I am made aware of oppression only by my participation in it.  This points to the paradoxical ability of technology to connect us, making the whole world and all its problems available to my every click and tap (of the mouse), while simultaneously causing widespread isolation, oppression and–in a word–dis-connectedness.  All this reminds me of Tony’s exquisite definition of original sin:

“…that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.”  

Technology has become an integral part of our society.  It obviously has the ability to help us make real and lasting connections with real people.  A perfect example of this are the friends that I have made through this blog, most of whom I have never had any face-to-face interaction with.  It is the very same technology that makes me aware  and connects me to suffering people in the Congo.  My knowledge makes me responsible to them, they have become my neighbors, and yet the  very tool that allows me to connect with them as neighbors is partly responsible for their suffering.  Oh Lord, how do we break free from the bondage that seperates us from each other and from You?


Part of a (Long) Series of (Short) Posts about Science and Technology

The Tragic Irony of Technology  Coltan, cellphones and being connected

Singularity, Progress, and Darwinian Common Sense Artificial Intelligence and Sciencism

Middleduction A post that would have made a nice introduction (coming soon)

Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel?  (coming soon)

Creating the Problem in order to Fix It (coming soon)

More on Sciencism (coming soon)

Kierkegaardian Dread (coming soon)



  1. A thought provoking post, the sort I would rather not read sometimes but also the sort I/we need to read. First thought is that the Desert Fathers in their search for solitude where they sought only to be alone with God has an alluring attraction, to free ones self of such trappings as you discuss therefore of the associated guilt, but, then I realise there is no escaping such responsibility for whenever one seeks to draw closer to God we cannot help but be encapsulated by his love for all in his creation.


    1. “Is it possible to imagine a person capable of choice, of choosing oppressive violence, who is in fact only victim and never oppressor? If so, such would be the one victim whose judgement might be more than a reversal of roles: such a person could never merely assume the place of the condemner over against myself as the new victim. And so there would be the possibility of a transformed rather than an inverted relationship.

      The ‘pure victim’ alone can be the merciful, the vindicating judge. What Christian preaching asserts is that conversion, return to the victim in hope, is possible because Jesus embodies the condition of a pure victim. Judgement here is also mercy and hope because of the quality of this particular victim. The New Testament writers often show a great interest in Jesus’ attitude at his trial: there is no sense in which Jesus uses counter-violence of a verbal or any other variety. ‘When he suffered, he did not threaten’ (1 Pet. 2.23). And this fairly naive point is elaborated in the Fourth Gospel into an extraordinarily sophisticated reconstruction of the whole concept of ‘judgement.’ The tradition made it clear that Jesus offered no ‘violence’ to any who turned to him in hope: he accepts, he does not condemn, resist or exclude.

      His life is defined as embodying an unconditional and universal acceptance, untrammelled by social, ritual or racial exclusiveness…Jesus is judge because he is victim; and that very fact means that he is a judge who will not condemn.” – +Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel p.8-9

      That whole first chapter, I think, would have a lot of things to say about the pressing issue you raised. Seriously, if I was asked what one +Williams book someone should read, it would be that book without hesitation.


  2. I see you cite one principle for recognizing this mining of coltan as “oppression”, viz. the fact that those who do most of the labor “see almost none of the profit.” If this is a sufficient condition for something to qualify as oppression then very few jobs world wide are not ‘oppressive.’

    My garbage man sees almost none of the profit of the Waste Management Corporation for which he is employed. Am I therefore oppressing him when I place my garbage on the curb?

    Oh the tragic irony of my garbage man…


    1. Is this your normal habit, Eleanore, to troll a blog and only give snarky swipes when your conservative-economic sensibilities are annoyed? I imagine that what James was saying is a shorthand for “these workers risk safety and health (as miners), work long laborious hours, and make (maybe) a bare subsistance wage with no benefits, job security, or opportunity for advancement.” And yes, if they or your garbage man are treated like this, then they are being ‘oppressed.’


    2. In case you’re still subscribed to this thread, Eleanore – since I can’t contact you in another format, it’s bugged me how rude I was to you here. Please accept my apologies and feel encouraged to comment when it suits you.


  3. Tony, yes, I’ve been meaning to get Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel for a while now. I have a such a back long of books to buy, I need to start grad school so I can drop a couple thousand in student loan money in order to buy them all (don’t tell my wife I said that).


    What I was reticent to say in the post was that coltan is one of the major contributing factors to a conflict in the Congo that has caused nearly 6 million deaths. Not only is the control over the mineral itself part of the conflict, but the mineral is being stolen and sold by paramilitary groups to fund their operations which include atrocities of all kinds. You see, I’ve been accused of being a downer for filling paragraph after paragraph with depressing detail, so I thought I’d skip much of that, let the reader do their own research, and focus on the little conundrum that I describe. Cheers.


  4. My personal irony steams from one of ignorance. The fact that, because of this technology, I hold enormous portions of the entire world’s compilation of information in the palm of my hand, that even more of that knowledge is only a click away, and the first time I’ve ever heard of the mineral ‘coltan’ was less than 10 minutes ago. Shame or embarrassment replaces the word bliss when it comes to gross ignorance in a world such as ours. You want to know about oppression, lawlessness, greed, and atrocity? There’s an app for that………


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