Thursday, July 10, 2014

How well do you know your mobile phone?

I've been at a conference the last few days, mingling with my fellow academics and rubbing shoulders with the folks that write the books on so much of what we talk about in Australian communication and media studies. It's been great to get amongst it and look into new areas of comms research that intertwine with my online life - research on instagram and facebook and twitter and blogging and purely online communities...

We use so many of these things in our every day lives but very rarely ever think about them in a critical way. That was brought to the front of my consciousness again this morning with a keynote by Jason Farman who researches mobile media. Of course, this isn't a new area. Since we first wrote on stone tablets and papyrus, we've had mobile media - but there's something about the mobile phone - our mobile phone - that is different. They're an incredible tool for community building and sharing yourself with the world but they are intensely personal interfaces with those worlds. Think about whether you'd happily swap your phone with someone else - most of us would be hesitant, to say the least.

But what do we really know about these phones, these things that sit next to our bodies all day long and most likely sit next to our sleeping forms? We know their functions (or most of them), we know what they look like, we know the brand, we might know some of the specs.

One of the things Farman asks his students is to go and research their phones... really research them.

Have you ever looked at your phone as a material object made of components, components that someone put together, components that were created from various resources? It's a sobering thought, and one tied into how we consume and all manner of other tricksy human behaviours.

Materiality of mobile phones // Lilybett and Boy

I have a Samsung phone, made in either one of South Korea's multiple factories or in the super-mega factory in Vietnam (the largest mobile phone factory in the world). If it was made in South Korea, it was most likely made by a young woman, probably one straight out of high-school. According to this article by PCWorld, these women work in 'cell systems' of four, rather than traditional assembly lines.

Samsung has an okay record for environmentally conscious components. You can read their Greenpeace Guide To Greener Electronics reportcard if you're curious. All of their phones produced from 2010 onwards, for example, are free from PVC and brominated flame retardants. In other areas, yay for being open about and active towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not so yay for the Leukemia cluster in the Gi-Heung or On-Yang semiconductor plants (193 and rising). It wasn't until just last month that Samsung offered these people an apology but the fight for improved conditions and compensation is ongoing.

And what about coltan (and its derivative tantalum)? That evil stuff that is in all mobile phones and most consumer electronics that is primarily sourced from the Congo and is the primary cause of massive civil conflict and environmental strife? Well, Samsung say they're trying really hard to not use Congolese coltan. Although when you read their statement, it's a little hazy around the edges:

  • "We do not purchase coltan directly from the Congo nor from any other source in the form of raw material. A limited number of our component vendors do supply us with tantalum-based components. In the cases when Samsung does use tantal-based components, the company requires suppliers to take appropriate measures in order to avoid using tantalum sourced from the Congo region. We request that all vendors refrain from purchasing tantalum powder mined in the Congo and we regularly audit vendors to ensure compliance. Our component vendors inform us that they obtain tantalum powder from the U.S.A, Russia and Thailand, not from the Congo. We are making efforts to use substitutes for tantalum based components where possible."

There are so many bits in these phones it's hard to really get an idea of its complete story, its history. Part of that is that I think we've gotten very good at ignoring those kinds of things. That's how documentaries like Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, and The Story of Stuff are so successful - because they shock us with everyday truths we don't see. Even those who make an effort to consume ethically, to be environmentally conscious, don't always see these issues.

When you don't think about all this stuff, it's much easier to upgrade to the newer model, it's much easier to chuck out the old handset and not think about what's going to happen to its battery. That's how 426 000 phones are retired every day in the US alone. That's how there are literally billions of them in the world, more than there are television sets.

My phone's a few years old now and I've been wanting to upgrade for a while, but now I'm less keen. How often do you upgrade? Are there any Apple fans brave enough to check out their own phone's history? What facts and stats did you find out about that thing in your pocket or your bag or even in your hand right now? 


  1. WOW what an eye opener. I have never thought about my phone like that, nor have I ever thought about any of my electronics like that. Very sobering and it's time I did take a little more notice xx

    1. Bit scary, isn't it? I'm now wondering where all those phones go... how many are in bits in drawers and how many are in landfill and how many have been correctly disposed of or recycled in some way.

  2. This was interesting and makes you think. And it makes me wonder about the quality of our soil in decades to come.

  3. That was a reality check. I checked out Apple which comes in just before Samsung. However it will give me food for thought when I next upgrade from my iPhone 4s. Certainly wont be running out to replace it just for the sake of being able to tak
    e panoramic photos or other minor improvements.


Thanks for taking the time to respond to what you have read here at Lilybett and Boy. I love reading through all your comments.


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