an atlas of iphone landscapes – mammoth // building nothing out of something

an atlas of iphone landscapes

[MMG Century, in northwest Queensland — the world’s second-largest zinc mine, owned and operated by the Chinese metals conglomerate China MinMetal. MMG Century features prominently in the talk below.]

1 Note that if you are reading this indirectly, i.e. on Google Reader, you may not see the video below.

1. A conversation the other day reminded me that I never posted the talk I gave at Visualizar last summer. This happened, I think, both because I have a bunch of half-written posts about the other (really interesting!) content of the seminar and because I’ve had some intention of providing the text from the talk along with the video. But since I clearly am not going to get around to either of those things anytime soon, it seems like I should go ahead and post the video1.

The talk is an extension of one of my favorite posts, a preliminary atlas of gizmo landscapes, which attempted reconsider the iPhone, not as a discrete, independent hand-held device (“the phone that magically has the internet in it”, which I think is more or less how Apple wants you to think of it), but as a networked object that both produces and is produced by a wide array of distant and not-so-distant landscapes, from zinc mines to Fed-Ex distribution hubs. The talk starts off a bit slow, maybe, as I probably spent more time than most viewers will want explaining how I thought this line of research fit into the wider task of the seminar, but I still think it’s pretty interesting, especially once the tour of iPhone landscapes gets going. (Basically, if you’re bothering to read mammoth, you’ll probably enjoy the talk.)

2. Relatedly, the iPhone’s manufacturing chain — what I call the iPhone’s landscapes of manufacture and assembly in the atlas talk — has been the subject of several recent news stories.

This American Life’s excellent “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” begins with an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s one-man show about his trip to Shenzhen — which began when Daisey saw a few photos of the inside of an iPhone factory, and was shocked by the absence of robots. Once in Shenzhen, Daisey works out a plan to get inside the factory zone:

“And two days later we head out into the factory zone. As we come to each factory, Kathy briefs me on what it is they make and what it is I have said I am going to buy. The factories are all different, but really they’re more similar than different. There’s always gates and guards. When you get past those, there’s always a lawn, big and green and plush. No one walks on it. No one uses it. You go into the lobbies. The lobby is these huge empty Kubrickian spaces, totally empty except for a tiny little desk for the receptionist.

And you cross the huge, empty lobby to the tiny little desk. You introduce yourselves, and then the executives always come down in a gaggle, all together. They pick you up, and you go up together to a conference room.

After the PowerPoint, we head down to the factory floor, industrial spaces with 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 workers in a single enormous space. They can exert a kind of eerie fascination. There’s a beauty to industrialization on such a massive scale. You don’t have to deny it. There’s a wonder to seeing so much order laid out in front of you. And people are walking around, whispering statistics in your ear.

It’s easy to slip into a kind of Stalinist wet dream, but I try to subvert that by locking onto actual faces. They take me up and down the aisles. And the first thing I notice is the silence. It’s so quiet. At Foxconn you’re demerited if you ever speak on the line.

At no factory I went to did anyone ever speak on the line, but this is deeper than that. As a creature of the First World, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces, the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion.

And it is constant. They work a Chinese hour, and a Chinese hour has 60 Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has 60 Chinese seconds. It’s not like our hour. What’s our hour now, 46 minutes? You know, you have a bathroom break, and you have a smoke break. If you don’t smoke, there’s a yoga break. This doesn’t look anything like that. This looks like nothing we’ve seen in a century.”

The excerpt from Daisey’s show is followed by reporting that confirms what Daisey saw in Shenzhen. You can listen to the piece online here (there’s also a transcript, if you prefer to read), or download it from the iTunes store (ironic!) for a nominal fee.

Second, the CEO of Foxconn, Terry Gou, seems determined to correct the perception that his company dehumanizes its workers, as Business Insider reports:

“According to WantChinaTimes, Terry Gou, the head of Hon Hai (Foxconn), the largest contract manufacturer in the world, had this to say at a recent meeting with his senior managers: “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou at a recent year-end party, adding that he wants to learn from Chin Shih-chien, director of Taipei Zoo, regarding how animals should be managed.

As WantChinaTimes put it, Gou “could have chosen his words more carefully.” But Gou had indeed invited the zoo director to speak to Hon Hai’s top managers in the hope that the zoo-keeper’s advice would help them do their jobs better.”


Finally, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on “Apple, America, and a Squeezed Middle Class”, which explores Apple’s decision to relocate the bulk of its manufacturing operations from the United States to China over the past decade:

“Though components differ between versions, all iPhones contain hundreds of parts, an estimated 90 percent of which are manufactured abroad. Advanced semiconductors have come from Germany and Taiwan, memory from Korea and Japan, display panels and circuitry from Korea and Taiwan, chipsets from Europe and rare metals from Africa and Asia. And all of it is put together in China.

In its early days, Apple usually didn’t look beyond its own backyard for manufacturing solutions. A few years after Apple began building the Macintosh in 1983, for instance, Mr. Jobs bragged that it was “a machine that is made in America.” In 1990, while Mr. Jobs was running NeXT, which was eventually bought by Apple, the executive told a reporter that “I’m as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.” As late as 2002, top Apple executives occasionally drove two hours northeast of their headquarters to visit the company’s iMac plant in Elk Grove, Calif.

But by 2004, Apple had largely turned to foreign manufacturing. Guiding that decision was Apple’s operations expert, Timothy D. Cook, who replaced Mr. Jobs as chief executive last August, six weeks before Mr. Jobs’s death. Most other American electronics companies had already gone abroad, and Apple, which at the time was struggling, felt it had to grasp every advantage.

In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn’t driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.

For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.”

This is a particularly interesting supplement to the component of my talk that touches on manufacturing because while I focused on Longhua Science and Technology Park — the FoxConn factory-city in Shenzhen — and the kind of place that it is for those who live and work in it, the Times article explains that the appearance of Longhua, which I described as “the iPhone city”, required the disappearance of  another city, back in the United States. (This makes it a similarly good supplement to the This American Life piece, for the same reason.) There’s a huge set of issues tied up in the relationship between Longhua and Elk Grove, as the article indicates, from the ethics of labor conditions to the rise of logistics landscapes as the key node in global trade chains to the disappearance of the manufacturing jobs that formed the foundation of the American middle class (and corresponding “job polarization”).

(A second article in the New York Times series on the “iEconomy” is similar in theme and content to the This American Life show, looking at the “human costs to workers” of iPad manufacture.)

[A snapshot of “Laptop Computer” by user Leo on Sourcemap.]

3. Another related note: James Bridle recently posted a link on his “New Aesthetic” tumblr to the above map, which is intended to lay out the supply chain involved in the production of a typical laptop computer. (The same user who created that map, “Leo”, also has a nice map for the “material composition of a mobile phone circa 2006”.)

The site that this map is hosted on, Sourcemap, describes itself as “the crowdsourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints”, which makes it a sort of broad-based platform for the creation and distribution of exactly the kind of industrial material genealogy that I tried to perform with the iPhone in my talk. Which is to say that I think it is a fantastic idea.

4 Responses to “an atlas of iphone landscapes”

  1. […] an atlas of iphone landscapes – mammoth // building nothing out of something […]

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