Tantalus in the Digital Age: Coltan Ore, Temporal Dispossession, and “Movement” in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

by James Smith


This article concerns the paradoxical value potentials of coltan and coltan mining in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, focusing on the actions and statements of diggers, traders, and state and military authorities in and around mining enclaves. Coltan ore is essential for Digital Age technology, and the struggle for it and other minerals is partly responsible for the historical and ongoing violent conflict in the region. However, a great deal of bottom-up social collaboration occurs around these minerals, and many Eastern Congolese argue that controlling and improving their relationship to them is essential for achieving incremental progress over time. I approach coltan's relationship to violence, autochthony, temporality, and political order by focusing on how it has become, for many, iconic of the elemental power of Congolese earth—a potential that foreigners need and try to capture. I convey the experience of temporal dispossession, epitomized in the life story of a child soldier, as context for understanding why some have projected the desire for progressive temporality, epistemological transparency, and social connectivity onto digital minerals and what the consequences of the symbolic struggle over coltan have been, as different groups try to access its social and temporal potentials for diverse ends.