Physical Computing reading for Feb 1

Brian Merchant, Everything That’s Inside Your iPhone Motherboard (2017)

8 thoughts on “Physical Computing reading for Feb 1

  1. “Miners working with primitive tools in deadly environments produce the feedstock for our devices.”
    First off, it is quite interesting to see how many different elements go into the production of the iPhone, and gives me a new appreciation for its complexity. Yet the diversity of its content comes at price. This article highlights the carbon capitalism of the production of the iPhone. What I mean by this is how a first world country like the US uses a 3rd world country to do the dirty work. The miners are in constant danger for the benefit of iPhone users, which is quite awful. Are there projects to develop robots to do the work for these miners, and if so how would robots change the economy and job market of third world countries compared to first world countries? <– This article is a prime example of Carbon Capitalism

  2. Personally, I have never stopped to consider where my iPhone came from. So it was somewhat shocking to hear the article declare that “locked inside every one, alongside the fruits of unparalleled design and technological innovation, are trace amounts of human suffering.” This was not surprising because I thought it a ridiculous notion. In fact it actually makes a lot of sense. It was surprising because for perhaps the first time ever, I actually stopped to think about the fact that my phone is really just a bunch of rocks and minerals. Carefully arranged rocks? Yes. But rocks nonetheless. I think this article does an excellent job of bringing attention to this issue. It lays out all of the largely unseen costs of producing a modern smartphone, such as the human cost, environmental cost, and cultural cost. So there are problems making phones, but there are also obviously many benefits. The question becomes, is an iPhone worth the human suffering, 75 pounds of mined ore, and other costs that were required to produce it? If you answer no, shouldn’t you be compelled to get rid of your iPhone and go phone-less? Is that even possible in modern society? I think the author of the article accepts the fact that this is a moral predicament with no clear solution, at least for the time being. As he says, “it’s an uncomfortable truth, maybe, but for now, it’s a part of what makes the one device possible.” Because as this article points out (, an iPhone would cost in the $30,000 to $100,000 range if produced entirely in the United States.

  3. No wonder I can pay for the ridiculous piece of computing that is in my pocket. It would be impossible for our phones’ metals and minerals to be completely sourced from the United States. Although some of the elements used in our phone can, and in some cases are sourced from mines in the United States, the majority is outsourced to a third party company because it brings down the overall cost of the product, making the phone marketable to a larger demographic. The main problem with this business model is that it includes the “Throw Away Theory”. Which means that Apple created a business model that requires a steady stream of purchasing products and then throwing them away after the products lose their luster. That is when Apple comes out with a new product to be released to the demographic that had purchased one of their products previously. To continue this cycle, “a lot of the precious stuff is difficult to get, and mined in places with little to no regulation and dangerous, even deadly conditions”. Accompanying the problem of the Ethics model is the other problem of sustainability. The ethical issue is a big problem because, as the targeted demographic, I am responsible for these peoples lively hood but in doing that I am assigning a dollar amount to someones life. To me in a perfect world this shouldn’t be the case but it is and I don’t know how I feel about my ability to place a dollar amount on someones life.

  4. Everything That’s inside your iPhone
    “The sum of this human cost is difficult to comprehend, and there are stories like this taking place on almost every continent behind many of the dozens of elements in the iPhone.”

    A few paragraphs into the article, I was surprised by the sheer amount of raw materials required to make one iPhone, and that most of its value (“about one dollar”) comes from a tiny bit of gold, which makes the rest bulk of ore even more worthless. I started to think maybe the author wants to exploit my ignorance on raw materials processing to make his argument on the environmental impact of the electronics industry. After all, the world needs materials and energy to make the innovation that can reduce waste and improve life. As I read further I saw the connection between the extravagant amount of raw materials and the hardship of the people that have to mine them, and the parallelism that a leading company like Apple benefits from the same source as a sixteen-century colonial empire. It’s a relief to read about Apple’s recycling solution at the very end.

    What can be reused in the leftover of ore? What components of iPhone can and cannot be reused?

  5. Post V: Everything Thats Inside your iPhone
    Quote: “Locked inside every one, alongside the fruits of unparalleled design and technological innovation, are trace amounts of human suffering.”
    Comment: This article is about the components of the iPhone, primarily the precious metals, and where they are mined. It first describes the difficulty of destroying the phone, and then transitions to the metals and alloys used, and finally to the mining practices and Apples connection to them. The author highlights to difficulties faced by miners and ends the piece by saying “Locked inside every one … are trace amounts of human suffering.”
    Question: To what extent has Apple, as a company, affected the mining market worldwide?

  6. Wow, before getting to the table where the prices are broken down and you can see the total price of the device I was guessing it would be at least $20. Not only for the price that Apple sells the device, but also for the percentages that were being listed throughout the article. Seeing that the device is worth $1.03 if you only consider the price of materials is just amazing. Imagine if someone were able to buy even 2 or 3 times the materials, to leave room for error, and make the phone from scratch. Of course it isn’t as possible as it sounds, the manufacturing involved is a level in it’s own, but theoretically an iPhone costs $1.03 plus manufacturing costs to produce! Not even mentioning, or stepping back to think about, ordering materials in bulk so that the earlier steps of the process – maybe those that happen in China or other locations that are producing the raw parts – are super inexpensive. It’s an almost unknown world, the mines. I think nobody ever realizes that the devices that you are running actually operate because of these raw materials that are being harvested by the “around 15,000 miners—some of them children as young as six years old—[working] in the mines, prying tin, lead, zinc, and a little silver from its increasingly thin walls.” Everyone always talks about the child labor involved in building an iPhone and the level of human injustice that happens under Apple’s oversight – but I think getting to see the scope of it is eye opening. Beyond the privilege we hold, not having to worry about where the materials come from, there’s also safety at risk. It was jar dropping that the article pointed out that “in 2008 alone, sixty children were killed in mining accidents at Cerro Rico.” I think that even with action being taken in places like Cerro Rico or other mines that Apple lists as using, I still hold my concern for places elsewhere. Apple is in need of this tin and other raw materials, so who’s to say they won’t go to another location and set up similar processes to get a tap into the supply. I also never think it’s a good sign when a company doesn’t offer their word on the situation.

    The end of the article was interesting, seeing it all tied together. Seeing where things come from specifically broken down (and specific to Apple) was very cool to see. It’s not just an Apple problem, though – as the article hints at. My question is, if the materials are needed, what are we supposed to do? Maybe we can make some automated machines do the hazardous work for us? But even still, until that point, what can we do?

    Thinking about not paying attention to the process of how technology is made or exists reminded me of a chapter of a book from my Intro to Digital Studies course about “the cloud”. People, apart from maybe those who know what it is, rarely think of the cloud as physical computing spaces. Actual physical places on earth that leave carbon footprints and that could have negative impacts on society, just as much as their positive ones.

  7. To be honest, I have never thought about what my iPhone was made of, but I knew that it was a combination of mines and rocks. The article surprised me a lot as it provides evidence into a very flagrant reality behind the growth of a tech giant. But my surprise did not last long, as I have read similar articles before about other big companies—like Nike and Coca Cola—linked with child labor and inhumane working conditions. A part of me was trying to say that this is how big companies get resources, reduce costs of collecting materials and foster as capitalist entities; but I do not really want to accept this fact. Many people argue that capitalism includes taking advantage of good, abundant opportunities; however, accepting to do business with a company that employs children under perilous conditions should not be considered as an opportunity to reduce costs associated with material supply. I think as part of their capitalist pursuits, these giant companies will keep exploiting these kind of cheap but valuable resources as long as they exist, which is not right of course. But what I mean is, the focus should rather be on the mining companies that are letting thousands of kids work in those mines. Is there any point in trying to shock the readers with scientific numbers as in “So, according to Michaud’s calculations, producing a single iPhone requires, roughly, mining 34 kilos of ore, 100 liters of water, and 20.5 grams of cyanide.” This is apparently what Apple needs to be able to manufacture a cutting-edge phone. Apple working with a mining company with unethical labor conditions is not defendable but root of the human cost and the problem here is the mining company. I think attacking these companies rather than the big ones that are making use of them would be a more influential/focused way to start a change.

    An article to further this discussion:

  8. “The reality is that cash-poor but resource-rich countries will face an uphill struggle as long as there’s a desire for these metals—demand will continue to drive mining companies and commodities brokers to find ways to get them.”
    This article breaks down the materials that really make up an iPhone and the consequences of mining them. The issues surrounding the mining include child labor, unregulated hazardous mining sites, destruction of natural landscape, among many. Although Apple has been decently good with being transparent about where they acquire their raw materials, the environmental and human rights issues are prevalent in the industry. I wonder what kind of human rights issues the workers at the “worst place on earth” suffer besides the contaminated water source.

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