Screen capture The One Device
The iPhone has been called the greatest invention of this century. Except as we learn from Brian Merchant in his new book, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, it really wasn’t a new invention at all, but a clever assembly of stuff that had been kicking around for years. Brian writes:
“There was an extraordinary cult of Jobs as seemingly the inventor of this world-transforming gizmo, when he wasn’t,” the historian David Edgerton says. “There is an irony here— in the age of information and the knowledge society, the oldest of invention myths was propagated.” He’s referring to the Edison myth, or the myth of the lone inventor—the notion that after countless hours of toiling, one man can conjure up an invention that changes the course of history.
Perhaps of greatest interest to TreeHugger readers is what actually goes into the phone. Here, Brian has been digging into the phone both figuratively and literally, even going to mines in South America. He also took a phone, pulverized it and analyzed what it is made of, consulting with mining consultant David Michaud.
Michaud crunched the numbers to generate an estimate of how much earth had to be mined to create a single iPhone. Based on data provided by mining operations around the world, he determined that approximately 34 kilograms (75 pounds) of ore would have to be mined to produce the metals that make up a 129-gram iPhone. The raw metals in the whole thing are worth about one dollar total, and 56 percent of that value is the tiny amount of gold inside. Meanwhile, 92 percent of the rock mined yields metals that make up just 5 percent of the device’s weight. It takes a lot of mining—and refining—to get small amounts of the iPhone’s rarer trace elements, in other words. A billion iPhones had been sold by 2016, which translates into 34 billion kilos (37 million tons) of mined rock. That’s a lot of moved earth—and it leaves a mark. Each ton of ore processed for metal extraction requires around three tons of water. This means that each iPhone “polluted” around 100 liters (or 26 gallons) of water, Michaud tells me. Producing 1 billion iPhones has fouled 100 billion liters (or 26 billion gallons) of water.
Which is all a very good reason to make your iPhone last as long as possible.
Brian Merchant now is an editor at Motherboard, but between August 2008 and December 2012 he wrote a total 2,993 posts for TreeHugger. You can read them all here. Yet when his publisher wrote the “about” page for the book, it noted that “His work has appeared in the Guardian, Slate, Fast Company, Discovery, GOOD, Paste, Grist, and beyond.”- Brian tells me that they “were worried ‘treehugger’ might turn off readers.”
But if you ignore the About page, it’s a fascinating book where you learn about how and why the phone got developed, and what all the components do. The iPhone and its imitators have changed the way we live and love and work, and will continue to do so as it keeps getting smarter and more powerful. I have gone on for years about how “your office is in your pants”- how everything we used to do in an office full of equipment can now be done on the phone. Brian proves it, essentially writing this book and taking all the photos on the phone. We will all be working this way soon.