Brian Merchant’s controversial and very thought-provoking new book THE ONE DEVICE: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE iPHONE has appeared just in time to help us commemorate the tenth anniversary of the device Merchant describes as “the foundational instrument of modern life.”
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his assessment, you have to agree that the smartphone world the iPhone helped create has redefined who we are in the span of ten short years.
Next week, I plan to ask my history students to reflect on how the iPhone (and indeed all smartphones) connects us to the very convoluted history of human development. For instance, this one device can be used to organize an entire course with topics that range from communications and art to photography and language. Along the way, we learn about how technology has shaped human culture, why we are social animals, and how we are driven by creativity and curiosity. What we hold in our hands is nothing less than an entire course in human history. We most certainly should add the smartphone to the ever-growing list of innovations that have served as pivotal moments–a list that includes the mouldboard plow, the printing press, double-entry bookkeeping, and the camera. Each of these inventions altered the way we see and understand the world around us. And now the smartphone that is best represented by the iPhone puts all of these inventions, and countless more, into one small package. As Merchant observes, the “iPhone intertwines a phenomenal number of prior inventions and insights, some that stretch back into antiquity. It may, in fact, be our most potent symbol of just how deeply interconnected the engines that drive modern technological advancement have become.”
At the heart of Merchant’s book is his destruction of the “lone inventor” myth. Although Steve Jobs will perhaps be remembered as the face of Apple for a very long time, his involvement in creating the iPhone was in fact very minimal. The creation of this one device spans several decades and represents the work of countless (and often nameless) individuals who work in subterranean mines, in rather bizarre factories in various parts of the world, in laboratories, in government agencies, in educational institutions, and in their own homes to create the components and the code that make everything work. As Merchant states, “My goal is that by the end of this book, you’ll glance into the black mirror of your iPhone and see, not the face of Jobs, but a group picture of its myriad creators–and have a more nuanced, true, and, I think, compelling portrait of the one device that pulled us all into its future. . . the one device is the work of countless inventors and factory workers, miners and recyclers, brilliant thinkers and child laborers, and revolutionary designers and cunning engineers. Of long-evolving technologies, or collaborative, incremental work, of fledgling startups and massive public-research institutions.”
Until I read Merchant’s book I had never given much thought to the human costs of producing an iPhone. For instance, we learn that a “billion iPhones had been sold by 2016, which translates into 34 billion kilos (37 million tons) of mined rock [and that] producing a single iPhone requires mining 34 kilos of ore, 100 liters of water, and 20.5 grams of cyanide, per industry average.” And for the Apple teams that developed the iPhone from a technical standpoint, the project took its toll in terms of failed marriages and neglected children. A particularly interesting, and rather scary, chapter recounts Merchant’s risky journey to the very bowels of Foxconn City, the enormous Chinese manufacturing facility that is responsible for final assembly of the iPhone. In a section that reminds us of something out of Upton Sinclair’s novel, THE JUNGLE (or, perhaps more appropriately, Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner”) Merchant, after making analogies between Foxconn and Henry Ford’s fabled River Rouge automobile plant, describes how the slaughterhouse was an early model for the most efficient way to build an assembly line. Today, instead of sausages, Foxconn is turning out shiny iPhones for human consumption. The human costs in either scenario are very high and, sadly, hidden from the typical iPhone user’s view.
This book has given me a much different and much-needed perspective on what it means to use my iPhone every day. And it has reinforced my conviction that we live our lives in the shadow of what Sherry Turkle calls “evocative objects”–those products, created with our own hands and heads, that eventually come to rule us with their beguiling and life-changing appeal.
As you contemplate the many ways your own chosen one device has redefined the meaning of your life, I will bid you a fond farewell until next week.