The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The One Device

Jun 11, 2018

Last year the iPhone reached its 10th anniversary. Brian Merchant, in his 2017 book The One Device, explains the technical and intellectual details of this small popular rectangle. It contains not only a phone, but a computer connected to the Internet, a radio, a camera, and many other “apps” that consumers can buy.

While Apple and Steve Jobs presented the iPhone with a lot of hoopla, it didn’t jump ready-made out of corporate heads.

First of all, like all technology, it was built on decades of research by many scientists who made advances in many different fields. Author Merchant uses many examples: Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone in 1876. But Bell’s work was based on the work of earlier scientists, on the telegraph and on electric currents.

In the 20th century, the land lines of Bell came to be used by almost 100% of the population in richer countries. Then, 20 or so years ago, engineers began to experiment with phones not attached to land lines.

In the book, Merchant also gives a tour of the development of the personal computer. He interviews scientists and engineers. It was only 15 years ago that Apple’s computer scientists began working on shrinking the computer into a small slab that fits in a pocket.

Beyond the work of the scientists, the work to produce these “magic” devices depends very directly on the labor of millions of workers – inadequately paid labor.

Merchant traveled the globe in writing The One Device, to see what goes into making this phone. He looked in Shenzhen, China, at a FoxConn factory campus, where thousands of workers make the Apple iPhone. They work 12-hour shifts inspecting three phones every minute. Most can only tolerate this labor for a year.

Merchant calculated that the metals in a cell phone only cost about one dollar. But there is another cost for human beings: men, women and children scrabble at hard labor to find tin in Bolivia; they face armed militias and soldiers in order to mine precious metals in war-torn Africa.

Merchant points out that workers’ wages are exceedingly low, while the iPhone cost to consumers is high. And Apple racks up the big bucks in profits that keep shareholders happy.

Merchant clearly understands that technology keeps changing to whatever is the next “big” thing. But he doesn’t point out that all this scientific research and all this difficult labor profit only a few people. Steve Jobs is presented as a U.S. entrepreneurial star. He’s actually a prime example of the thievery behind capitalist exploitation.