iphone-atlas – mammoth http://m.ammoth.us/blog the herculez gomez of architecture blogs Fri, 14 Oct 2016 19:16:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.10 visibility http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2012/02/visibility/ Mon, 20 Feb 2012 11:00:10 +0000 http://m.ammoth.us/blog/?p=6202
[“The Digital Dump”, a graphic about e-waste from Good.is‘s “Transparency” series and Column Five Media.]

Mostly for our own purposes (keeping track of things we see), we’ve started Visibility, a tumblr collecting items related to An Atlas of iPhone Landscapes. I make no promises about how frequently it will or won’t be updated, but if you’re particularly interested in the topic, you can follow the tumblr or grab the feed.

an atlas of iphone landscapes http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2012/02/an-atlas-of-iphone-landscapes/ http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2012/02/an-atlas-of-iphone-landscapes/#comments Wed, 08 Feb 2012 01:57:20 +0000 http://m.ammoth.us/blog/?p=6109
[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.

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a preliminary atlas of gizmo landscapes http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2010/04/a-preliminary-atlas-of-gizmo-landscapes/ http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2010/04/a-preliminary-atlas-of-gizmo-landscapes/#comments Thu, 01 Apr 2010 17:00:39 +0000 http://m.ammoth.us/blog/?p=2238
[A water tank stands in Brooklyn, festooned with cellular antennas, photographed by flickr user Dreamer7112.]

From the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can, and the cordless shaver, the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and usually compact little packages, either papered with patent numbers, or bearing their inventor’s name to a grateful posterity…

True sons of Archimedes, the Americans have gone one better than the old grand-daddy of mechanics.  To move the earth he required a lever long enough and somewhere to rest it — a gizmo and an infrastructure — but the great American gizmo can get by without any infrastructure… The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention.  Its function was to bring instant order or human comfort into a situation which had previously been an undifferentiated mess…

At this point we have seen enough of the basic proposition to formulate some generalized rules for the American gizmo, and examine its consequences in design and other fields.  Like this: a characteristic class of US products — perhaps the most characteristic — is a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.  The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

– Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo”

A handful of recent posts (Life Without Buildings, Markasaurus, Robert Sumrell) have noted that the iPhone may be the single industrial product which best exemplifies both the continuance and the evolution of Banham’s notion of the peculiarly American gizmo.  Perhaps the most important piece of that evolution is the move away the independence of the gizmo, which Banham’s repeated definitions, quoted above, hammered home as one of the defining characteristics of this class of industrial products.

The iPhone, however, is not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production, as Banham acknowledges all such objects have always been, but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.  Even acknowledging this, though, and realizing that its operative value comes from its ability to tap those data ecologies and attendant socially-constituted bodies of knowledge, it is still possible to miss the landscapes that it produces. Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.

Take a single instance of iPhone use — Jimmy Stamp’s afternoon of coffee-shop sleuthing in Brooklyn, for example.  Think what a vast array of landscapes are tenuously tethered to that single moment:


First, we might consider the iPhone as a geologic extract, tracing backwards from the gizmo-in-hand to the direct effect of the gizmo on the surface of the earth, using two of the most prominent links in that chain of effect, mines and factories.


Red Dog Mine and Airport, which are located near Kotzebue in northwestern Alaska, via google maps.

Red Dog Mine, photographed by flickr user brodie lee.

The Teck smelting facility in Trail, British Columbia, via google maps.

A single iPhone is composed of 135 grams of material, including stainless steel, plastics, glass, a lithium-ion battery, and, perhaps most crucially for the tactile experience of iPhone ownership, a touch-screen display weighing in at 12.5 grams, just under one-tenth of the total weight of the device (PDF).  To capture the motion of the user’s fingers, that touchscreen employs a technology known as “Project Capacitive Touch” sensing, which registers movement and pressure with electrically-charged strips of the transparently conducting solution indium tin oxide (In2O3 and SnO2).  The key and most expensive component in that solution is the rare metal indium, which is not mined directly, but typically produced as a valuable by-product during the processing of zinc ores (though, owing to increasing demand and limited supply, it is increasingly recycled from manufactured products).

Canada is one of the world’s leading producers of indium, producing approximately fifty tonnes a year, a quantity which is exceeded only by China (330) and Japan (60).  Within Canada, the single facility producing the greatest quantity of indium is Teck Resource’s refinery in Trail, British Columbia, which processes zinc ores hauled from the Red Dog pit mine in northwestern Alaska.  Such mines and refineries, scattered across the globe in the aforementioned countries, as well as South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru, are the iPhone’s landscape of extraction.


Hon Hai’s facility is at the center of the image, bounded by waterbodies to the north and west as well as a major highway to the east, as indicated on this diagram; image via google maps.

Employees relax on a basketball court inside the compound; photograph by Jason Dean.

While Apple is notoriously secretive about the iPhone’s supply and manufacture chains, reports from both Reuters and the Wall Street Journal indicate that the iPhone is manufactured in Hon Hai Precision Industries’ enormous Shenzhen plant, the Longhua Science and Technology Park, which employs over a quarter of a million people behind its walls and security gates.  The facility’s factories, dormitories, hospital, restaurants, bank, basketball courts, executive offices, and cafes cover a square mile of terrain, at once company town and infrastructural city.


1 It is probably worth noting here that these infrastructures are no more and no less the ‘real’ landscape of the iPhone than the socially-constructed overlays of data, opinion, and anecdote which the iPhone, through these infrastructures, acts as a window onto.

Second: while the act of locating a trio of Brooklyn coffee-shops does indeed depend on the operative ability of the iPhone to tap what Life Without Buildings describes as a series of “invisible infrastructures — locative data, telecommunications networks, reviews, news, images, information” — these invisible infrastructures do not lack traceable landscape impacts1.


Google’s data center in The Dalles, Oregon, photographed by Melanie Conner for The New York Times.

Google’s first server farm, in The Dalles, Oregon, via bing maps.

Image from a video tour Google put together of its server containers, screen capture by Stephen Shankland/CNET.

It’s nearly impossible, of course, to say which servers caught those mapping requests for Cafe Pedlar, Marlow & Sons, and Blue Bottle Coffee.  But we can query representatives.

As Google is, like Apple, quite secretive about the details of the physical loci of its immaterial product, the locations of less than half of Google’s American data centers are known, with those known centers spread between California (five centers), Oregon (two), Georgia (two), Virginia (three), Washington, Illinois, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Iowa.

The first of these data centers to be constructed is in The Dalles, Oregon, and “includes three 68,680 square foot data center buildings, a 20,000 square foot administration building, a 16,000 square foot ‘transient employee dormitory’ and an 18,000 square foot facility for cooling towers”.  Like Google’s other data centers, the Dalles facility consumes enormous quantities of electricity (estimates range from 50 to 100 megawatts — somewhere between a tenth and a twentieth of the capacity of an average American coal-fired power plant), generating similarly large quantities of heat, which necessitates locating the centers by significant water sources for the chillers and water towers which cool the servers.

Inside, the data centers are filled with standard shipping containers, each container packed with over a thousand individual servers running cheap x86 processors: anonymous, modular data landscapes, the nerve centers of America’s conurbations, their standardization and dull rectilinearity indicating extreme placelessness, but contradicted by the logistical logic of water bodies, energy sources, and transmission distances which governs their placement.


A camouflaged cell array in Brooklyn, photographed by flickr user drewva.

One of Brooklyn’s most common cellular typologies, the array attached to a watertower; photographed by flickr user erikthered.

The Crown Atlantic company’s cell tower, one of the closest registered towers to the coffee shops, at center in the satellite image, via google maps.

2 However: only seven of those towers are “tall” towers, the sort which one thinks of as cell towers. The vast majority are attached to buildings, as in this instance, located near the Gowanus canal.

With the materials extracted, the object assembled, and the data collated, the final step in this abbreviated tour is the transmission of that data from the server farms to the individual gizmo, a step which is enabled by ubiquitous cell towers and antennas.  A quick query at AntennaSearch.com, a database of transmission tower and antenna permits and registrations, locates six hundred and seven antennas and seventy-nine towers within two miles of the neighborhood (Park Slope) where this particular search began2.

Again, it is nearly impossible to say which of these transmitters served as the “base station”, or central transmission point for the cell the search occurred within — all cellular coverage areas are divided into mapped cells, with the low power and range of transmission of the cellular phone allowing many phones in differentiated cells to occupy the same frequency without interference, by the extraordinary means of a legal fiction which compartmentalizes the air itself — but it is not difficult to pick out the sort of structures which might have done so: prosthetic antenna arrays, clinging to rooftops and water towers, or (much more rarely within Brooklyn) the tall and familiar standard cell tower, its silhouette looming over baseball fields.

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