What’s inside your smartphone?

Let me begin by saying that, although I do not own a smartphone or any kind of cellphone, I do own an iPad, and I know it contains many of the same components as an iPhone.  Let me say also that I am not attacking Apple Computer in particular; the article to which I’m linking depicts an iPhone and focuses on details of that particular product, but other brands of smartphone contain these same things, and other companies may be even less responsible in obtaining them.  I have preferred Apple products to other computers ever since I first started using computers in 1977, and I love my iPad, but there are some important facts we high-tech users all need to face.

The Scary Truth About Your iPhone is an interactive graphic in which you can click on app icons to read about the ingredients and labor practices that make an iPhone.  Follow up by reading this article about gold mining in Congo.  Look at the pictures.  Did you know that right now, here in the fabulous world of 2012 when an encyclopedia and telephone and typewriter and camera and calculator and jukebox and newspaper and worldwide shopping catalog all can be packed into a sleek little pocket-sized device, right now on this same planet there are people who spend their days pounding rocks with an iron bar, mixing the dust with water and mercury, and heating it in a pot over a fire to refine gold?  That’s where gold comes from: Poor people working hard with no protection from toxic fumes to eke out tiny amounts of precious metal they can sell to buy food.  Smartphones also contain rare earth elements, whose mining produces radioactive waste that is rarely handled responsibly.

So, does that mean we shouldn’t have smartphones or computers? Well, sadly, refusing to buy the products of this corrupt industry would have just one main effect: It would make life even harder for the incredibly impoverished Africans who dig up minerals (not just gold, but many of the rare elements used in high-tech devices are found mostly in Africa) to sell to unscrupulous corporations in places where there are few other ways to earn money.  Their problem is not that we are using resources from their country but that their country is run in an absolutely horrible, exploitative, chaotic way that causes the majority of the population to suffer.  It’s a big problem with no easy solution.

What can we do?

We can think about it and care about it and pray about it.  We can remember, when we use our high-tech devices, how very lucky we are.  When we think about buying the latest and greatest new gadget, we can think of Sakura Lisi, a baby who died of malaria because her government and the mining corporations making billions in her country couldn’t be bothered with the most basic public health efforts, and we can consider sending that money to a charity that provides health care in Congo while we run our old gadget into the ground.  (It is possible to replace the battery and make other repairs to a smartphone or tablet!  Check iFixit for advice.)  When the gadget is finally undeniably worn out, we can recycle it so that every possible bit of those precious materials will be used to the fullest, so that those people’s suffering will be as worthwhile as it can be.  We can look for every opportunity to be better people and encourage others to be better people so that we gradually work toward a world in which nobody will feel able to treat anybody so badly.

I need this kind of wake-up call as much as anyone.  You might think, reading this Handbook, that your author is such an enlightened and conscious shopper that I would never make a purchase without considering all its environmental and ethical implications.  But the fact is that, the night after I bought my iPad, I suddenly looked at its impossible slimness and speed and screen resolution and said, “Wait a minute!  What is this made of?!  Is it…manatee brains?!”  I realized that in my process of deciding to buy an iPad, I had never for one moment thought about where it was made, by whom, out of what.  Searching through the packaging, I found a line of fine print that gave the depressing, predictable answer to the first question: Made In China.  That somewhat answers the second question: It was made by Chinese factory workers, who don’t have it so bad as the Congolese miners, but odds are their jobs are less pleasant than mine.  But that third question, while somewhat answered by my computer-geek life-partner, was not really well answered until I read the articles linked above.  My iPad does not contain manatee brains, and I’m pretty sure now that it does not contain any biological components from any species.  (That “retina” display is poorly named!)  It does, however, contain materials obtained and processed through the suffering of many people.

With great computing power comes great responsibility.  Let’s just remember that as we go forward in this amazing future.

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8 thoughts on “What’s inside your smartphone?

        • I’m not an electrical engineer, but my understanding from what I’ve read is that these rare materials are used for some of the functions of smartphones and PCs that older technologies don’t have. You’re right though that there’s probably some overlap: The same kind of rechargeable batteries may be used in newer laptops, the same kind of vibrator may be used in non-smart cellphones and pagers, tin solder definitely is used in the circuit-boards of many devices, and the pollution from the manufacture and disposal of all these things is a concern.

          So my point is broader than just smartphones. The reason the headline is about smartphones is that they are the specific focus of the interesting article I wanted to link to (because I just read it, although the magazine is two years old…it had gotten lost in my “things to read” pile!).

  1. Abby and I got an iPad 2 when it came out, and we plan to use it into the ground, as we do with all our electronic devices (I only got a new smartphone when my old “dumbphone” died after five years of use). The ethical conundrums have been widely covered in the media for some time, not only of smartphones but (as has already been mentioned) even basic “necessities” of modern American living. There is no way to completely opt out without, say, going Amish. That said, I feel that the best we can do is make real productive use (not just frivolous) of what we are lucky to be able to obtain, whether it’s food or tools (and I think of computing devices as extremely valuable tools).

    By the way, here’s an article that I just saw today that you might like to read: http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/374860/can-you-buy-technology-with-a-clean-conscience

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