Mal du Materiel: High Technology and its Shadow

The shadow of Human Nature is cast by its materiality, a materiality which now, as in antiquity, must be won by mechanical processes. These processes have been shrunk and disappeared into the hardware, but they still cast a shadow, which follows us around, calling us to seek out and explore their human industrial legacy. Here we may see the merciless Bataille-ian economy of excess of which we are an infinitesimal part, and address, with Flusser and Crichton, the justification for techno-ethics.

How can we create a digital Utopia based on hardware made under unfair conditions? Bernard Stiegler claims that our age is not properly called post.modern, or post-industrial, but rather hyper-industrial and hyper-modern, all our advanced knowledge still relies on hardware which functions fundamentally mechanically. . Its shadow reminds us that knowledge has its excess, unknown, incomplete, unspeakable, opaque, taboo. This paper will address the apparent incompatibility between faith in science as the guiding light of humanity, and the intractable problem of the persistence of unfair and unjust material human conditions under which the instruments predicating such a scientific Utopia would emerge.


Can we see in the predilections of our hardware the concretion of certain social priorities?

Can such social priorities be said to invoke ethical models?

And if both of these questions can be taken, can we then infer that ethical values are inscribed in our hardware?

If the response to the last question is positive, as I would like to argue, we have a situation where the highly miniaturized, multiplied automated processes of the hardware that make today’s industrial reality run are perpetuating certain overarching ethical values, and that these values deserve our acknowledgement and analysis.

The materiality of our contemporary environment is the product of large, to varying degrees global processes involving the collaboration of myriad people; excavating, smelting, soldering, thinking, planning, moving the materials around until they have settled in the forms we can observe here today. Whatever moves upon the surface is the result of this massive human interaction.

The production of the contemporary surface is always a project which requires collusion, as Bruno Latour put it “An object cannot come into existence if the ranges of interests around the project do not intersect.”(1) these overlapping ranges of interests constitute society. Latour was speaking of the realisation of complex projects like the VAL suburban rail system in Lille but it can be applied to the spontaneous collaboration between myriad disparate companies comprehended in any contemporary technical product.

There is a sociology, and an anthropology of the technological present. Furthermore I claim the physical reality of contemporary objects are materially inscribed with the social processes by which they were generated. Therefore there is an archaeology or an anarcheology of the contemporary surface which reveals social networks and their mores, what Pierre Lemonnier calls “Material Culture”.

The human technological product is the site of a battle for ideological hegemony, and claims of its neutrality are politically spurious. We could, from today, have a very different world of technical effects and objects, engendering different world-views and sociabilities, if, or course, the “ranges of interests” of enough people involved would intersect to support enough divergent projects.

Instead, we today live in a symbiosis of liberationist techno-optimism and conservative techno-pragmatism. Take for example the utopian rhetoric surrounding mobile technologies. The shadow cast by the gleaming LED faces of digital images are in the short- or narrow-sighted design errors which have caused the deaths of (according to the US Congress)(2)(3) over six million people.

A holocaust broke out in the late nineties when engineers at Apple, Nokia, and other electronics manufacturers determined to use tantalum in their circuit boards. Tantalum’s unique heat-resistant and high-conducting properties allowed the next generation smartphones, games and laptops to be designed thinner and lighter. Nobody asked where these materials would come from. Wars broke out for control of mines in DRC and Zambia, and millions were killed. This was patently a design decision which went wrong. Is the design neutral? As neutral as slaughter.

In 2002 the European community decided to ban the use of lead in solder. The project was called ROHS, it came into full effect in 2006. Other, safer alternatives to poisonous lead, such as tin, were available, which would protect tens of thousands of electronics assemblers around the world. No-one asked about where the tin would come from.

World-wide transition to non-lead solder for electronics meant that massive and inexpensive new sources of tin would suddenly have to be found(4). Suddenly a civil war sprung up in eastern Congo over cassiterite (tine ore) mines(5), hundreds of thousands were raped and murdered as militias, and sections of national armies, often supported by multinational mining corporations battled for control of the mines. There will be no Nürnberg for the inadvertent bureaucratic criminals, who simply though ignorance generated mass slaughter.

Since the earliest days of our 200-year industrial revolution, and before, back through to our philosophical ancestors in the greeks and Egyptians, we can observe tolerance for collateral damage, human exploitation, slavery, indentured labour, excused by progressive rhetoric. We need to see that cruelty as part of the pedigree of our technological and scientific accomplishments.

We cannot plan, or even conceive of a technical utopia, a ‘better world thought technology’ when this would have to be predicated on hardware created under unacceptable conditions. Or we can, but it is pure vanity. I disparage the cultural pedigree of this vanity. I deny the neutrality of hardware as I assert its persistence as a record, an archive of the social conditions of its emergence. As Garcia & Sandler concluded in their article about whether human technological enhancement could help resolve social justice problems “We must fix social injustice, the technologies will not do it for us”.(6)


Project: iMine



1. Latour, Bruno, “Ethnography of a “High-Tech” Case”, in Lemonnier, Pierre, ed. Technological Choices, p.391

2. 3.5 million people died between 1998-2001 according to U.S. House Sub- Committee on International Operations and Human Rights, “Congressional Testimony of Les Roberts, Director of Health Policy at the International Rescue Committee,” 107th Cong., 2nd sess., 7 May 2001, 2.

3. By 2009, over 6 million are said to have died directly due to the conflict minerals trade: as recorded in U.S. House of Representatives Bill bill H. R. 4128 To improve transparency and reduce trade in conflict minerals, and for other purposes. 111th CONGRESS, 1st Session, November 19, 2009


5. CONNECTING COMPONENTS, DIVIDING COMMUNITIES Tin Production for Consumer Electronics in the DR Congo and Indonesia FinnWatch / FANC December 2007

6. Garcia, T & Sandler, R. Enhancing Justice, in Nanoethics (2008) 2, 286, Springer, Dodrecht, 2008

8 thoughts on “Mal du Materiel: High Technology and its Shadow

  1. Thanks – this made for really great reading. I appreciate this is a figure that is regularly brought up and contains its own problems but I was wondering how (or rather if) these techno-ethics potentially connect to Haraway’s comments on the figure of the cyborg, which has revolutionary potential in spite of being the illegitimate offspring of that which we might hope to set it against:
    ‘The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world….The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy…The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.’ (Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto, 1991)
    Hardware does perhaps not have the same ‘illegitimate’ status but I think that its shadowy, ‘barely there’ existence (insomuch that we would like to forget the mechanical) may lend some interesting parallels.

    • thank you marie, I am grappling with the cyborg/post-humanist position. I see its advantages as a method for establishing the legitimacy of transgressive identities, or even as a kind of irreverent orthodoxy. I am wondering how the recent Congolese tradition of Sape fits into this discussion They are certainly transforming their identity through the technology of clothing, but the most powerful luxury brands seem to be acquiring most of the agency generated in the practice.

      As I read it, in the CM there is this painful oscillation between the need or desire for (political, but also other) ‘unity’ and the rejection of any legitimacy (or use) of a unified identity.
      I empathize with this despairing hope, but beyond the flield indentites, or underlying it, I think Haraway’s socialist aspirations needs an even heartier critique of fundamental economic conditions…

      Just as the German holocaust, the conflict minerals holocaust in Kivu/Congo/ has economic (and more than the notionally formative “patriarchal-colonial”) roots and motivations. It is not an amorphous inarticulable blob of unavoidable occurrences. It is made of sequences and strategies. It can be understood, the attempt to do so is a question of responsibility, against the “banality of evil”.

      • The tensions between affinity and identity politics is something which i’m currently trying to grapple with – to what extent can differences be catered for within political assemblages? Sape seems like incredibly complicated territory – the dichotomisation of violence and morality/work/elegance in the comments by Hector Sabate at first glance struck me as provocative. I also wondered how the politics of Sape compared to the politics of the Indian vogue fashion shoot mentioned here. I think this is very different in terms of motive, audience, and so on but I am also struck a little by the concern felt when the world’s poor fail to stick to their role and identity as the world’s poor. (I should definitely write as a disclaimer – I think this issue is much more complicated than that and I think the charges of colonialism and exploitation in this article are more than fair).

        As an aside, I revisited the portraits of Pieter Hugo the other day and was reminded of his exhibition, ‘Permanent Error’, which seems to correspond a great deal with your comments and the persistent materiality of the seemingly immaterial.

  2. Baruch,
    Very thought-provoking. I wonder what your position is regarding software.

    Also, I am interested in the notion of materiality you are operating with. While reading your paper, Foucault’s reconceptualization of materiality (the materiality “constitutive of the statement itself”) in The Archaeology of Knowledge came to mind. What about the dangers of materiality in that (Foucauldian) sense?

    • thank you very much ioana for the Foucault reference. Foucault is explicitly concerned with the materiality of a verbal statement, though what he says about it is also true for my critique of the materiality of the digital surface “It is constitutive of the statement itself: a statement must have a substance, a support, a place, and a date.”p.113 I also question with Foucault the notion of material repeatability. I maintain that each mass-produced product has its own original pedigree in the time and place, etc. “order of the institution” p.115 where it emerged, and this is indelibly inscribed in the world. This is fundamental for any argument of responsibility (ihere I am reading Arendt on responsibility).

      Regarding software, I have to admit, I emphasize the predicative role of hardware. The ‘Entstehen’ (coming to be/emergence) of hardware has much more archaeologically accessible politics, and , since software cannot exist without it, any theme I would hope to elaborate about software, to my mind, ought to be founded on an adequate analysis of the material apparatus which is to generate it.

  3. The theme in this paper is very interesting and often forgotten in new media discourses. I agree that we need to think these matters more closely. In addition I really like the iMine application and using games for political/ethical purposes. I was wondering the role of (new) materialism in this discussion. Is the potentiality of tin, tungsten & tantalum reduced to social processes that make use of them? Can we think of these materials outside their uses?

    • thank you tero, admittedly I am interested in the classical political dimension of the materials. I would maintain that the materials without uses have no meaning for us, especially no social or political meaning. Meaning begins when they are imagined, invoked, expected, implied, hoped for, and subsequently detected, unearthed and really explodes when they are finally exploited.

      I am interested in all the discrete and intricately interplaying human acts involved in the material emergence of these fields of meanings. My notion of ‘new materialism’ searches for the vital narrative content we need to apprehend our contemporary condition in the material surfaces which surround us: in the historical materiality of the hardware. (a faltering FB group:

  4. Slaboj Zizek, in a very recent lecture makes a remark along similar lines of the one I am trying to make here. Starting from the Hegelian notion of totality in which apparent oppositions and incongruities actually complete the totality (in this case the totalitarianism of capitalism) you will have to wade through a some egregiously capitalist advertisement to watch the video here, a nice case in point. The totality argument starts at around 20:30 and goes to Congo around 24:30….