Smart Takes

The global landscape of the iPhone

The global landscape of the iPhone

Posting in Technology

Self-described "unlicensed architect" Rob Holmes examines the global atlas of the iPhone and the physical landscapes it constructs.

We’ve all heard it before: nowadays people are increasingly dependent upon technologies with unknown origins and construction. I mean, if your [car / computer / internet] broke, would you know how to fix it?

The argument is made so frequently it’s easy to laugh off at this point. But self-described “unlicensed architect” and Mammoth blogger Rob Holmes thinks it’s a far bigger problem. In a talk he gave last year, entitled “An Atlas of iPhone Landscapes” and (finally!) uploaded to his blog this week, he explains why it’s so important that we know where our technologies come from:

“Before a democratic society can make sensible collective decisions about its future, it must first have accurate descriptions of its present,” he says in the talk.

To do his part, Holmes has undertaken a massive research project to catalogue the global landscapes created by the iPhone. He’s not trying to pick apart the Apple tech in particular, but rather use it as a “particularly representative lens” of how immaterial technology physically shapes the planet.

And in doing so, he goes back 2 billion years to the Proterozoic era, when zinc deposits were laid down that now are mined for the iPhone’s indium touchscreen. He takes us to Chinese mines and factories, recent New York Times fodder, Google server farms in Oregon, and cell towers in Spain. And he does it all using satellite photos to drive home the message.

The value of something like an atlas of iPhone landscapes is in its specificity (not mines, but this mine) and also in the substantiation (this site exists in the same way this street exists)… It’s one thing to read about productive and operative infrastructures, but another to see the landscapes that constitute these chains. The former is interesting, but the latter is visceral.

In some ways, Holmes’s talk is a series of tangents: in trying to tell the simple story of how an iPhone reaches its new owner, he also delves into satellite mapping of the planet, geologic timescales, big data, and the physical infrastructure behind immaterial networks.

He’s written on the topic before, but I do highly recommend listening to and watching the talk today over Sunday brunch.

Photo: Google Maps/Rob Holmes

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure