A repairman at the Shenzhen electronic bazaar treks from stall to stall, gathering inexpensive camera modules, casings, glass displays, batteries, and motherboards, and then, with only a screwdriver and his fingernails, he pieces it all together to produce a tiny talisman capable of channeling the world’s intelligence. To consumers, the iPhone can seem hermetic, consummate, all-of-a-piece—an exquisite palantír hatched from a pristine white box. Those Shenzhen repairmen, meanwhile, work with the gadget’s guts, revealing its mortality and mundanity (not to mention Apple’s infuriating profit margins). Following their activities can also explode the device’s mythologies.
Demystifying today’s magical machines, like the iPhone, is the goal of two recent books, Brian Merchant’s The One Device and Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies. Each aims to dismantle the aura and ambition undergirding such machines’ promises of constant connection and algorithmic efficiency. They start by showing how our smartphones and sensors and artificial intelligences are engineered, networked, and programmed—how they’re made, and how they work. Ultimately, though, the more difficult task is to demonstrate how these tools serve as vessels of contemporary mythology. While storing the photostreams and soundtracks of our lives, they also encapsulate all the fantasies and phantasms of the many agents who’ve contributed to their making. Even critical authors like Merchant and Greenfield can occasionally get caught up in the myths. But they also can help us think our way out of them.
This year marks the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. Merchant, an editor at Vice’s Motherboard, uses the occasion to examine how the device came into being and rose to near-ubiquity. Apple designed and marketed the iPhone to appear as if it were an in-house miracle, the brainchild of Steve Jobs, but Merchant dismantles this “divine creation” myth. He reveals the iPhone to be the product of a vast network of people and ideas and things. Inventors, factory workers, designers, miners, engineers, and child laborers all contribute to its creation.
The technologies critical to its operation did not simply spring from the heads of geniuses in Cupertino, but were the result of long processes of evolution, collaboration, and incremental developments in a variety of settings, from tiny start-ups to massive research institutions. The more we know about the complex mix of “work, inspiration, and suffering” that goes into this device, he argues, “the better we’ll understand the world that’s hooked on it.”
Merchant and Greenfield try to demonstrate how tools like smartphones and sensors serve as vessels of contemporary mythology.
To describe that complexity, Merchant takes readers on a tour of the world where the mining and inventing and suffering take place. In Chile, he and his entourage trek through the salt flats, a “barren, unearthly place” where miners harvest much of the world’s lithium, an essential ingredient in our electronics’ batteries. They descend into Bolivia’s Cerro Rico mine, which yields the tin that solders our devices together. He and his companions find that “many of the iPhone’s base elements are dug out in conditions that most iPhone users wouldn’t tolerate for even a few minutes.” Nor would they brook the long hours and draconian discipline at the Foxconn manufacturing facility in Shenzhen, which Merchant infiltrates through a bathroom.
He emphasizes his travails in gaining entry to these sites, as well as his discomfort and disorientation while there. “It feels stupid to have this fear after a brief jog into a tunnel where thousands of people work every day,” he acknowledges at Cerro Rico, but “we didn’t last half an hour down there.” And at Foxconn: “We power-walk through a factory block, then another, and another … My adrenaline is surging; I have no idea where we are going.”
Such dramatic action serves to enliven a discussion of supply chains, a subject that can be quite dry, but Merchant’s tale repeats elements of the geek-action-adventure-hagiography common to much tech journalism. While his goal is to undo the commodity fetishism that Apple cultivates around its star product, his telling—emphasizing his own methodological mettle, the object’s withdrawal from discovery, and its creators’ often obsessive (and egomaniacal) drive—at times serves to reinforce it.
Despite the lengths to which Merchant goes to organize his global tour of iPhone geology and genealogy, there’s little new material here. “Inside Foxconn” has sort of become its own esoteric genre of exposé.1 His efforts also build upon recent scholarly and creative work that aims to “make visible the invisible” networks and labor behind our digital technologies, to reveal their materialities and geographies.
For instance, Neal Stephenson, Andrew Blum, and Nicole Starosielski have traced transoceanic fiber-optic cables around the globe.2 Blum, Mél Hogan, Ingrid Burrington, and countless photographers have infiltrated data centers.3 Rob Holmes, Matthew Hockenberry, Jesse LeCavalier, Clare Lyster, and Ned Rossiter have mapped logistical networks, supply chains, and landscapes of extraction.4 The Unknown Fields design research studio will even take paying explorers on a curated, several-week-long tour of the life cycle of a technological device or manufactured commodity; they’ve been to the electronic markets and lithium mines, too.5 Filmmakers Ursula Biemann, Lucy Raven, and Steve McQueen have likewise followed the global pathways of copper and coltan and other “geological media” elements.6
The boon of reading Merchant’s book lies in the way he illuminates the connections between those subterranean sites and the above-ground factories, labs, and studios where geology is transformed—via design, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing—into gizmos. He takes us to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where Bent Stumpe and Frank Beck conceived of multi-touch technology decades before Apple purportedly “invented” it (multi-touch actually has multi-ple origin sites and stories). We meet the designers of Siri, Apple’s intelligent assistant, who drew on years of research in artificial intelligence and speech recognition, then decided to embody it in a warmly textured female voice. Merchant also acknowledges the deeper histories of fundamental technologies—transistors, gyroscopes, computer chips, and glass—that ultimately converged in the iPhone.
In what many Apple aficionados will likely regard as his greatest coup, Merchant introduces readers to several members of Apple’s top-secret Purple Project team, who for years sacrificed personal health and domestic harmony to midwife Jobs’s “revolutionary” device.” Repeatedly throughout the book we return to Cupertino to rehash their exhaustion and exuberance, their debates and divorces, their tenacity and triumphs (and Steve Jobs’s role in fomenting fear and frustration). We ultimately learn that, while most team-members relished the experience and recognize the significance of their accomplishment, they’re also deeply ambivalent about the device they created, and they recognize its ephemerality.
Merchant extends these themes of loss and limitation. As part of his global tour, he also takes us on a tramp through Ghana’s Agbogbloshie dump, a massive toxic electronics graveyard, where many such contraptions, scratched and desacralized, return to the earth whence they came. On the day of his visit, a boy was crushed by a dump truck, and the body lay there all day long. There are many deaths in Merchant’s story: miners, cell tower workers, failed start-ups, suicidal Foxconn workers, family members of work-tethered Apple employees, and even Jobs himself. It’s hard not to feel ambivalent if this is the price of revolution. A revolution for whom or what, though? While Merchant’s 14-chapter odyssey examines the revolutionary ideas and engineering that generated the iPhone, he has relatively little to say about “the world that’s hooked on it.”
That’s where urban technologist Adam Greenfield steps in. He, too, briefly catalogues the components and casualties of the smartphone. He describes the revolutionary insights and inventions that have given rise not only to the phone, but also to other “radical technologies” like the internet of things, augmented reality, digital fabrication (e.g., 3-D printing), cryptocurrency (e.g., Bitcoin) and the blockchain, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence—few of which have yet seen widespread implementation or adoption. Yet if the world were to get “hooked on” radical tech, that new “radical” world, Greenfield worries, could be quite regressive and oppressive, reinforcing existing hierarchies rather than promoting liberation.
These new technologies, their boosters argue, promise greater efficiency and equity. New manufacturing technologies promise a radical redistribution of the means of production. Blockchain-based economies promise the spread of incorruptible, distributed networks of trust. An internet of things–networked city promises perfect knowledge of its urban systems and its residents’ habits. Other monitoring technologies promise intelligent agents that can impartially predict crime, evaluate employee performance, and mete out opportunity.
This certainly isn’t my utopia. Such visions can easily be interpreted as the vagaries of a Silicon Valley boys’ club (Jasmina Tešanović, one of painfully few women referenced in either book, argues that these are the “project[s] of a technical elite that aspires to universality”). Yet Greenfield takes these scenarios seriously. He engages with them earnestly and then dismantles them, to show that “these allegedly disruptive technologies leave existing modes of domination mostly intact.” Radical technologies pose little threat to the world of exploitative supply chains, punishing labor practices, and techno-fetishist dogma that Merchant explored.
Even the autonomous, trust-based communities envisioned for the blockchain still can’t think beyond the concepts of property and ownership.
The technologies are not only reproducing existing systems of exploitation; they are psychically dominating forces as well, Greenfield argues. They shape our experience of everyday life, prompting users to internalize their values, their epistemologies, and their politics. Jobs and Apple’s exalted marketing department have, of course, constructed lifestyles and value systems around their products. Greenfield looks beyond the power of the Apple brand to examine these radical technologies as ecosystems, as materialized imaginaries and ideologies that reshape the world in their own image.
For instance, most of our interactions with our institutions—schools, banks, government agencies—are mediated through their information management systems. Our interactions with the Internal Revenue Service, the mortgage lender, and the financial aid office are structured through idiosyncratic online forms and their databases, “none of which entirely agree, all of which contain a slightly varying representation of the underlying reality.” Our smartphones, meanwhile, tailor the search results and maps they present to us based on our user histories and behaviors; each user thus sees a different map of the world, which “subtly erodes an experience of the world in common.”
Self-tracking technologies, like Fitbits and Apple Watches, entice their wearers to monitor their behaviors and optimize their performance. Corporate surveillance technologies enable employers to monitor their charges’ productivity. Workers adjust to this constant surveillance and internalize their supervisors’ expectations. These technologies condition our behaviors. In the process, they shape our ideals and sense of purpose.
Those ideals, Greenfield finds, are rarely able to get past the logics of the market or to grapple with ethical nuance. Even the autonomous, trust-based communities envisioned for the blockchain—an often-baffling technology built on a distributed, verifiable ledger of transactions, which Greenfield explains lucidly here—still can’t think beyond the concepts of property and ownership. Machine learning systems, meanwhile, tend to embed and operationalize our own, and their own, biases, and recast systemic risks as matters of individual responsibility. There’s “no ‘escape from politics’ into the comfort of governance by math,” Greenfield writes, echoing many others who’ve critiqued the rise of “algorithmic governance.”7
Our technologies can serve as cultural mirrors, reflecting back to us our ideological priorities and the ways we distribute power. Yet many of our new, radical technologies are built with impenetrable, proprietary platforms, inscrutable algorithms, and, Greenfield proposes, systems that “operate at higher orders of complexity than any [that] our organic minds can encompass.” What this means is that we sometimes can’t even evaluate what logics and values these radical systems embody, or what their “radical” politics might be.
If only we could dig into the code and root out the bias. If only we could train our machines to be more empathic and tolerant. If only it were that simple. As Greenfield observes, we “barely understand anything about [these systems]: neither how they work, nor where they come from, nor why they take the forms they do.” He quotes Tom Gruber, head of advanced development for Siri, who likewise acknowledges that, with machine learning, “no one really has any idea of what the models know or what they mean; they just perform in a way that meets the objective function of a training set.”8 Greenfield offers a manual to these often-inscrutable technologies and their uncertain futures. He closes his book with a few speculative scenarios of technologized worlds, each representing someone’s utopia and someone else’s dystopia, prompting readers to ask which they might want, or reject.
Perhaps Merchant’s and Greenfield’s books aren’t simply guides to understanding the power masked by machines. These books might also contribute to readers’ training set: our means of testing inputs and outcomes, deducing our machines’ functions and logics, assessing how agency is distributed, evaluating, as Greenfield has it, “the effect on our lives of that which cannot be understood in isolation and cannot be determined in advance.” Thus trained, perhaps we can intervene in their design.
We would also need to consider, then, the biases built into Merchant’s and Greenfield’s books, especially around gender and race. Very few women appear in these 784 pages, and most people of color serve in the background, as nameless child laborers and factory workers. When the Purple Project locked down an entire floor in one of Apple’s Cupertino buildings, they hung a “Fight Club” sign to codify the protocol. Near the end of his four-hundred-plus-page tome, Merchant notes “the immense gender disparity on the project. For a time, there were no women at all working on the design, engineering, or development process.”
A mostly white male coterie midwifed Jobs’s baby. Eventually, women accounted for 10 to 15 percent of the team, which reflected their (paltry) proportional presence in the company as a whole, yet all the patents belonged to men. Apple (and any tech company, for that matter) could also be an inhospitable environment for the few minorities on staff. “It’s hard to gauge the effect [of] any design biases exerted there,” Merchant says, but it’s not insignificant that “the design and development choices were made with men’s hands on the screen.”
The books’ paucity of women simply, and sadly, reflects women’s absence in the labs and conference rooms where such contemporary “radical technologies” were birthed and developed.9 Yet even the theoretical frameworks and historical scholarship that serve to contextualize these industry narratives are again delegated primarily to men—which is a lost opportunity, given female and feminist scholars’ and technologists’ long-standing involvement in many areas of concern central to these books. Feminists’ writing about the materiality of digital media, media infrastructures, environmentalism, collaborative design, gendered technical work, invisible labor, and care work could’ve added a valuable, and more diverse, critical dimension to Merchant’s and Greenfield’s histories and analyses. And giving these women voice would’ve helped to write them into the technological narratives from which they’ve so often been excluded.
Near the end of his book, Greenfield does draw from the work of bell hooks and Gayatri Spivak in advocating for subaltern and marginalized modes of resistance: we might resist technological domination, he suggests, by being clever, practicing concealment, or employing coded speech. He also acknowledges the work of diverse organizations like Deep Lab, the Radical Networks conference, and the critical engineering and making communities, which have some prominent females and people of color among their practitioners. Yet these voices come after three hundred pages of (almost exclusively) male inventors, visionaries, and theorists. The two books may have helped to puncture the hype behind revolutionary devices and radical technologies, but perhaps not the hagiographies. As recent Silicon Valley and Hollywood scandals demonstrate, the boys’ club, with the forgivably fallible visionary at the helm, still reigns.
- See, for instance, Pete Brook, “Inside Foxconn City: A Vast Electronics Factory Under Suicide Scrutiny,” Wired, November 19, 2010; James Fallows, “Inside Foxconn,” The Atlantic, October 18, 2012; Dawn Chmielewski, “Where Apple Products Are Born: A Rare Glimpse Inside Foxconn’s Factory Gates,” Re/code, April 6, 2015. Monologist Mike Daisey shared a lengthy Foxconn story with This American Life in 2012; that story was later retracted because of factual errors. ↩
- Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” Wired, December 1, 1996; Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (Ecco, 2012); Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Duke University Press, 2015). ↩
- Blum, Tubes; Mél Hogan, “Facebook Data Storage Centers as the Archive’s Underbelly,” Television & New Media, vol. 16, no. 1 (2015); Hogan, “Water Woes & Data Flows: The Utah Data Center,” Big Data & Society (2015); Ingrid Burrington, all stories for The Atlantic (2015–17). ↩
- Rob Holmes, “A Preliminary Atlas of Gizmo Landscapes,” mammoth, April 1, 2010; Matthew Hockenberry, Supply Studies, 2010– ; Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Clare Lyster, Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities (Birkhäuser, 2016); Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (Routledge, 2016). ↩
- See Unknown Fields Division. See also Shannon Mattern, “Cloud and Field,” Places Journal (August 2016). ↩
- See Ursula Biemann; Steve McQueen’s “Gravesend” (2007); Lucy Raven; Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). See also “Lines and Nodes: Media, Infrastructure, and Aesthetics,” Anthology Film Archives, New York, September 19–21, 2014. ↩
- See, for instance, Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker’s AI Now Initiative (https://artificialintelligencenow.com/); Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown, 2016); and Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press, 2015). ↩
- Yet researchers are developing theories about how deep neural nets work, and how their learning relates to our own. See Natalie Wolchover, “New Theory Cracks Open the Black Box of Deep Neural Networks,” Wired, October 8, 2017. ↩
- Women were routinely present in the labs of the early computer age. See, for instance, Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture, vol. 40, no. 3 (1999); Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (MIT Press, 2017). ↩