As posted on The One Device by Brian Merchant review – the secret history and moral cost of the iPhone
In most areas of my life I behave well enough, but put a smartphone in my hand and I become your typical glazed-eyed imbecile, poking, swiping and typing in a sweaty frenzy. For better or worse, smartphones tap into something base in us. Most adults use their phones in the way that babies treat their pacifiers. Break one, and we turn into those australopithecines at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, smashing our fists into the dirt in frustrated rage; take them away, and we become Gollum without his ring.
Thanks to their ability to hijack our most primal desires for connection, distraction and validation, smartphones have become some of the bestselling devices of all time. Apple have sold more than a billion iPhones since its launch in 2007. By one estimate, we spend an average of almost five hours a day staring at their little screens. The real figure is probably higher: a team of British psychologists found that people tend to underestimate the time spent on their phones by about half, whole hours just evaporating in the fog.
All of this suggests that our relationship to our phones might not be sufficiently intellectualised, which is why Brian Merchant’s book comes as a relief. Like the best historians, Merchant, an American journalist and editor of Vice Media’s technology blog, Motherboard, unpacks the history of the iPhone in a way that makes it seem both inevitable in its outline and surprising in its details. From the outset, he emphasises that the iPhone isn’t really a breakthrough invention in its own right. It’s more a collection of previous developments, brought together in a handy package, or what one of the experts quoted in his book calls a “confluence technology”. It wasn’t the work of a single heroic genius, but rather the product of a long collaboration between designers and engineers, some working for Apple, and many more scattered across the worlds of scientific research and industrial design.
Some of the best sections in The One Device involve Merchant going out to recover some of these forgotten pioneers. Ironies abound. The lithium batteries powering iPhones were developed by scientists working for Exxon during the 1970s oil crisis – their work was abandoned when gas prices began sinking again. Wayne Westerman, a brilliant young electrical engineer, created the multitouch system now used on every iPhone ginterface as a way to alleviate his carpal tunnel syndrome. But he had to shut down his company, and discontinue the production of its popular ergonomic keyboards, when it was acquired by Apple. Gorilla glass – the stuff that makes iPhone screens “shatterproof” – was developed by a group of engineers at Corning Glass in the early 60s, who created it by tempering panes of glass in baths of potassium salts. The problem was, they couldn’t come up with a use for their super-strong glass. They considered windshields, but found that they were so tough that people shattered, instead of the glass, so the whole thing was put under wraps until Steve Jobs came calling.
Steve Jobs unveils the Apple iPhone in 2007. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Getty
That moment, captured by Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs, gives a flavour of the man. Jobs began the meeting by doubting whether their glass was good enough for the iPhone, “and began explaining to the CEO of the nation’s top glass company [Corning’s Wendell Weeks] how glass was made. ‘Can you shut up,’ Weeks interrupted him, ‘and let me teach you some science?’”
Jobs comes off as impatient, domineering, petty, ruthless, clueless, megalomaniacal and frequently wrong
This time, Jobs relented. But most of the time, his word was law. Many of his subordinates tried to dress and look and talk like him. They lived in constant fear of his disapproval. Most of the early work on the iPhone was hidden from him, to keep him from killing the project in the crib.
The early development of the phone was accomplished through silence, cunning and (corporate) exile. Once Jobs was on board, though, the project became truly secret. Apple fetishises secrecy in most of its projects, but the lengths it went to in order to keep the phone secret were remarkable. Merchant describes suppliers who were given specs for dummy projects and engineers working behind locked metal doors. Apart from the keyboard, hardly any component of the iPhone was user-tested. When engineers from other departments had to be brought in to debug some aspect of the phone, they weren’t allowed to see the screens, and when the prototypes had to be moved around the company they were draped in black cloth, like penitent saints.
Through it all, Jobs prodded, nitpicked and menaced while making sure no one got wind of what his teams were up to. One of the unexpected things about One Device is the remarkably negative picture it paints of the fabled chief executive. Even though he is largely confined to the margins of this story, Jobs comes across as impatient, domineering, petty, ruthless, clueless, megalomaniacal and frequently wrong, except for the few occasions when he was absolutely right.
Illuminating perspectives … the iPhone 4. Photograph: Alamy
One Apple executive estimates that Jobs’s penchant for secrecy may have been worth a few hundred million dollars in marketing, on top of the tens of billions made in iPhone sales alone. But what, apart from making a fortune, did they accomplish? When Jobs announced the device, he called it “a revolutionary product”, one of those that comes along and “changes everything”. In many ways he was right. Merchant describes it as an agent of “civilisation-scale transformation”, the first universally desired, portable technology since clothes. But by the end of the book he backs away from this a bit. A welcome note of humility comes from an engineer who helped build the software: he points out that devices tend only to dazzle in their moment: “My wife is a painter. She does oil painting. When she does something, it’s there forever. Technology – in 20 years, who’s going to care about an iPhone?”
In sections scattered throughout the book, Merchant tries to wrestle with the moral price of a single iPhone. To this end, he embarks on a worldwide quest in pursuit of the supply chain, from the Bolivian mines that provide the phone’s tin to the Chinese factory city in Shenzhen where the phones are assembled to the Kenyan dumps where dead ones fetch up. Little of what he finds is heartening. Treatment of workers at assembly company Foxconn since the much-publicised wave of suicides in 2010 has improved but conditions are still poor. The phones’ cobalt and tungsten come mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where profits from mining long have sustained the operations of violent rebel armies. The Bolivian mines where the phones’ tin and silver are extracted are the stuff of Dickens, 14,000ft above sea level. Apple’s code of conduct states that suppliers must provide safe working conditions and treat workers with dignity and respect.
What should we do with this information? The very complexity of a device such as the iPhone makes it difficult to conduct the sort of moral calculus which can be applied to simpler commodities such as diamonds or gold. A wide-ranging history like Merchant’s is the start of an answer. But to get a real reckoning of human cost versus price, we might need to turn to moral philosophers. Years ago, Peter Singer famously asked whether the life of a child was worth less than the price of a pair of shoes. So is an iPhone worth it?
• The One Device is published by Bantam. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.