I got an iPhone 3Gs right before the 4 came out, and have been kicking myself for almost two years. Next month I can get a free upgrade for $100 or so to get a new iPhone 4s, which has a way better camera, better microphone, better screen resolution, and just looks a lot sexier. And the added bonus of actually being suited to work with the new iOS 5 and not crash all the time (like my current phone).
But oh, no. This is the part where public radio actually teaches me something, by which I mean laying stuff on my conscience. Just like vegetarians will talk about the hidden costs of cheap meat, or environmentalists will talk about the hidden costs of cheap fossil fuels, public radio has been all about the hidden costs of cheap electronics.
Things I learned about my smartphone from listening:
1. Where it comes from. One key ingredient in all smartphones is a mineral called coltan, which happens to be sourced from high-conflict zones. Though some are now calling on Apple to pledge to make their wares from conflict-free minerals, Apple don’t show any signs of doing so.
I first heard about this from Greg Warner’s award-wininning a portrait of coltan-mining life in the Congo. Story: Fidele Musafiri: Miner
2. How it’s made. I knew that my iPhone was made in China. I even knew that they all came from one plant in Shenzhen. And I even knew about the nets that managers had installed to keep people from killing themselves by jumping off the roof.
Mike Daisey visited the plant, called Foxconn. His narrative and revealed how surface-level even that last factoid is. Story: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory
3. Where it goes. There are lots of places you can send your old cell phone besides a landfill. Two phones ago, I had Blackberry Curve, which I sent to Cell Phones for Life, an organization that repurposes unwanted phones into emergency phones for the elderly, people with disabilities, and battered women. I felt pretty good about that.
But when my last phone (also a Blackberry Curve) had totally stopped working—as in, the scroll wheel feel out and the “send” button stopped working, I wasn’t going to burden someone in need with that. I had every intention of recycling it, I swear I did. But then a coworker sent an all-staff asking for an unwanted cell phone. I volunteered mine and, ironically, it was used as a prop for a radio story that required the sound of a cell phone getting smashed.
I have no idea what happened to that phone, but Jens Jarisch leads me to believe that it, along with a lot of the country’s “e-waste,” wound up somewhere in Africa. There, children will crack it open, extract valuable materials, and try not to get poisoned in the process. Story: Children of Sodom and Gomorrah
It’s kind of amazing how not 50 years ago you only got something new when the thing you had broke. And 50 years before that, you only got something new when the thing you had broke and you couldn’t fix it. We don’t wear things out anymore. We upgrade.
I really, really want a new iPhone. But I also want to find out how long the one I have will last.