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Transcript of Your Phone
The average Canadian cell phone bill is $67 per month, or $909 per year including HST. Try and calculate how much you've spent on your cell phone bills since you first had a phone you paid for yourself.
In 2012, 1.6 billion cell phones were shipped to stores worldwide; of these, 700 million were smartphones.
The average American buys a new phone every 12-22 months; it's easy to see how phones have become such a major economic driver. But why do people buy new phones so frequently?
"Planned obsolescence" at Apple: when the iPhone 5S and 5C came out, a new operating system (iOS7) was released to users that drained the iPhone 4's battery and made it run slowly, so Apple planned for its customers to have to buy its latest product.
The global mobile telecom industry had
1 trillion dollars in revenue in 2008; that's
twice the size of both the global advertising
and computer software industries.
Only one fifth of new phone purchases are because of a mechanical problem (the battery no longer holds a charge).
Cell phones have a shorter lifespan than
any other consumer electronic product --
half that of computers.
In 2005, 500 shipping containers of old cell phones arrived in Lagos, Nigeria every month. This is just an example -- a decade later, there are even more cell phones being thrown out and shipped to ports in the developing world so that the third world can deal with this e-waste.
A cell phone contains over 200
chemical compounds -- enough to
classify it as hazardous waste.
Mining the gold required to make one cell phone's circuit board creates over 220 pounds of waste.
Mining tantalum, needed to build capacitors, supported the Congo's civil war in the 1990s in much the same way blood diamonds fund warfare. Now, miners there kill endangered gorillas for their most reliable food source because mining companies don't provide their workers with sufficient food while they're in remote areas.
Perceived obsolescence: 16 new styles of cell phone come out every month in the USA. In 2012, there were 470 different models on sale. Why? Companies continually generate new styles of phone as if they were fashions rather than telecom tools. Fashions go out of style quickly when the next trend appears on the horizon, so this encourages people to "perceive" their phones as "old" and "needing" replacement.
In countries like Ghana, India and China, mostly women and children collect old phones' circuit boards and burn them to separate the gold, copper and silver. This involves stirring the boards in a pot, literally cooking them and inhaling the resulting toxic fumes.
Children are often given the job of smashing old phones with hammers and mallets to extract the cadmium; flecks of the toxic substance cover their skin. Most cell phones are deliberately designed to make disassembly difficult.
In 2010, over 17,000 US federal prison inmates were put to work dismantling toxic electronics. We can see how the world's most vulnerable, disempowered people are tasked with this dangerous work, and for less than a dollar an hour.
In 2013, cell phone sales in India grew by 229%.
Public Health and Safety...
On a positive note, cell phone videos of police and transit drivers has led to greater accountability. Recent videos taken of police officers "subduing" and consequently killing mentally ill people have stirred up enough public outcry that the issue has been taken up by the police. Videos of TTC drivers breaking the rules while on the job have also led to greater accountability and safety.
Here at home, mercury, lead, nickel, fire retardants, and cadmium have been absorbed into soil and waterways, turning up in fish and livestock.
Unfortunately, there might be a bigger downside to cell phones when it comes to public safety: a 2003 study estimated that every year in the US, distracted driving accounts for 2600 car accidents leading to death, and 330,000 accidents leading to injuries.
In Canada, fatal collisions due to distracted driving increased by 17% from 2006 to 2010.
In Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, distracted driving is the #1 cause of car accident fatalities. In Ontario, it accounts for 30% of highway accidents.
On another note: in January 2014, news broke about 40 underage girls in Halifax selling sex online and using their phones to communicate with Johns. CBC news learned from police that underage prostitution is a growing problem -- phones create greater sexual access.
With new facial recognition technology: an app can identify a person's name, age, home address, etc. just by taking their picture. The possible consequences are worrying, particularly for women.
Consumerism / Materialism...
One of the key functions of materialism and consumerism is to blur the line between "need" and "want," which is one of the ways we convince ourselves to get new phones so frequently.
Social Health and Well-Being....
Loneliness in American adults over age 45 has increased by 15% from 2002-2012. 20% of Americans are lonely.
Health risks of loneliness: obesity, depression, dementia, hormonal imbalances, memory loss, higher levels of epinephrine, and narcissism.
In "New Economy" hype, we give technology pride of place without asking if it's a good idea. If it's available, we are compelled to use it.
Increasing numbers of studies all find that more screen time = more lonely, and less screen time = less lonely.
A recent study found that less face-to-face interaction leads to decreased cardiovascular health (reduced "vagal tone"). Brain plasticity research tells us that we can lose the capacity to make face-to-face connections (use it or lose it).
What's the dominant culture's narrative about your phone?
Democracy and Human Rights....
Our online activity, particularly the roaming WiFi kind that happens on our phones, has raised really important issues of democracy, labour rights, and the right to privacy.
There are, however, examples of cell phones strengthening democracy and human rights. Take, for instance, the role of the phone and Twitter
in the "Arab Spring," particularly in the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square.
Around the world: phones used to set off bombs and link terrorist networks.
So, consider all the angles:
public health and safety;
and consumerism and materialism.
Moreover: consider personal responsibility.
How do you participate in these implications?
Advertisements typically rely on representations of connection and personal relationships, as if he phone were a major influence on how "in touch" we are with the people we love.
But these advertisements trip over the contradictions of such an argument. Notice, for instance, how the woman is listening to her device, which interferes with the idea that she is really connecting with the man.
We see the same contradiction in this advertisement, where the couple seems to be love and connected, except for the fact that they're looking at different devices rather than engaging with each other.
Sometimes the ads include people who mirror each other, either in pose or appearance.
The suggestion seems to be that phones connect us to people who are just like us, but again, this is awkward: what happens to society if people only talk to others who are "like them?"
The following ad represents the phone as literally framing the mother's relationship with her son -- it enables her to "capture" moments and hang onto them forever.
But when parents view their children through lenses and screens all the time, are they actually experiencing moments or are they distracted by the process of using the device?
Is it in focus? Am I holding it steady enough? Whoops, that went out of the frame for a second.... I'm going to run out of battery power any minute -- should I stop this now and try and get another video later?
In fact, a recent study has found that the constant recording of events with our devices has affected our memories: we are less likely to remember details when we take a picture or video of something.
Ads often depict phones as key to business success...
...and phones as unfailing, dependable support, as if each phone is part of a team of people working for the subscriber.
Some ads try to rewrite history by suggesting that people without phones are lost to "chaos."
Oh, those poor primitive people who have to write on their own bodies to remember things!
This is, of course, a very problematic idea: twenty years ago, before we all had devices, was our world in chaos? (I mean, aside from the '90s Seattle grunge scene, of course....) Are people without phones trapped in chaotic lives?
Perhaps most interesting is the way advertisements try to insert phones in larger, more important cultural texts.
This print ad, for example, is part of a campaign that featured a series of short cinematic clips (TV ads) where Leonardo DiCaprio tries to find a mysterious woman.
The phone, positioned as part of the dramatic plot, tries to absorb some of the celebrity and drama associated with DiCaprio and his films.
We see the same thing in the following ad, which features guitar legend Eric Clapton...
Notice how the phone itself has been designed to look like a Fender guitar -- a key part of American music culture.
Through advertisements like these, phones are placed alongside cultural icons, as if they, too, were culturally significant.
One of the more brash examples of this is an ad that takes a crucial historical moment -- women's empowerment during WWII -- and appropriates it to sell phones.
This is Rosie the Riveter...
...who was part of a campaign to encourage women to become factory workers to supply war munitions and take on the jobs men had left behind when they became soldiers.
And this is an ad for Nokia...
So, the dominant message we get is that this strategy -- to elevate phones in importance by picturing them as part of important cultural / social practices or moments -- is acceptable.
Another campaign positioned phones in the context of 200+ year old cultural icons.
The message here is that the hands, made to look like Buckingham Palace guards and the Eiffel Tower, hold the phone, and therefore by holding this phone, it's like you have the world in your hands. Again, this is problematic since, while it's possible to use your phone to talk to people all over the world, not many of us do. And even if we do, it's unlikely to replicate the experience of actually traveling the world.
Government is another dominant institution; what does it have to say about cell phones?
This is a picture from the 2013 speech from the throne, written by Stephen Harper's conservative federal government...
The speech was peculiar because it focused in such detail on the telecom industry, even going so far as to pledge that the feds would reduce roaming charges, unbundle TV channels, and improve highspeed broadband in rural Canada.
The government felt that this part of the speech was so important that they spent $9 million of taxpayers' money to advertise it.
When a government chooses this kind of focus and spends that much money convincing people it's important, it's definitely sending the signal that it feels roaming charges and the telecom experience in general are really important for our country...
...even though 1 out of 5 Canadian children lives in poverty. I wonder what that $9 million could have done for them?
Okay, now let's try and look at cell phones from a range of perspectives, or fields of knowledge, to gain some critical insight and try and discern as much truth as we can.
What we pay in cell phone chargers is a big part of the economy, but should it be? Do all of us really need our mobile phones? Is it worth the money we spend?
Bottom line: cell phones have become a massive part of the global economy, due in large part to a consumption cycle (i.e. buy new on an almost yearly basis).
Despite all this, cell phone ads continually depict the device as part of nature -- pure, clean, green....
A stranger could take a picture of someone on the street, get their personal info, and be waiting for them at home.
In another scenario, thieves could work together so that one, having sent a target's personal info to the other, could follow the target to verify that no one's on their way home, allowing the partner to steal as much as possible.
Consumerism is the impulse to consume -- to keep spending and spending.
Materialism is to invest emotional importance in material things. We do this when we buy a certain product because we believe it will make us more popular, more accepted...we believe it will make us happier. This is also why we relate to, and purchase, certain brands -- we believe that they represent who we are, or who we want to be.
Matt Damon, for instance, is often seen in Boston Red Sox apparel.
On another note, the possession of a cell phone can make you a target for more and more advertisements, as they pop up on your phone's screen.
Consider, for example, how much technological paraphernalia is in classrooms right now. Some classes have been moved entirely online, existing only through tech devices.
But studies have always shown, and continue to show, that the single greatest determinant of student success is a good teacher.
Furthermore, as more students bring more devices to class, are they missing out on the chance to learn about collaborating with other people?
Are they spending enough time learning how to work in groups and interact positively with others?
Or are they spending more time on their phones and less listening to the course content?
In the end, we have to wonder whether phones and other tech devices are actually improving the well- being of students, or are distracting them from their education.
But what about the well-being of people in general, and not just students? What happens to us when we spend increasing amounts of time on our devices?
But do we really need that new feature?
More eyeballs on more targeted ads means more circulation of consumerist / materialist messages, all of which boil down to one idea: if you want to be happy, you need to buy something.
New marketing applications can send your phone ads for products in stores as you're walking by those very same stores.
Read about this fascinating topic by Googling the article: type in the title, "Your Phone vs. Your Heart."
As with any other product for sale, phones are often advertised by sexualizing women, sometimes to confusing effect: is the viewer supposed to understand that using the phone is the same as using a woman?
One idea that frequently repeated is that the phone is like an attractive woman.
Notice in this ad, for example, how the woman's legs are pictured to reflect the size and shape of the phone.
A similar thing is going on in this ad:
In the next ad, the images that decorate the phone also decorate the model, as if they were one and the same.
One of the most direct ways of sexualizing a woman is to cut off her head; once a woman is faceless, it's easier to think of her as a body, first and foremost.
Research tells us that the more media images children are exposed to, the more they take on and internalize (i.e. believe) what those images depict. Put simply: more phones in more hands means that there are more media images circulating, often in the hands of children.
Every time we go online, we leave a trail of "data exhaust" that can be packaged and sold to corporations looking for consumer information. Gary Kovacs discusses this in his TED talk, "Tracking the Trackers."
Whenever we contribute online content (i.e. by posting a restaurant review, updating our Facebook status, etc.) we are working for free, while websites get the ad revenue created by the traffic our contributions create.
Moreover, telecom companies hand over the records of our online activity to the federal government if they're asked to.
In April 2014, it was finally made public that federal government agencies made nearly 1.2 million requests to telecom and social media companies for Canadian user data in 2011 alone. Almost every single request was met with cooperation.
Phones can also record video where traditional video cameras and film crews can't because of war and hostility; it's easier to smuggle a phone in and get controversial footage of what's happening in the world.
For instance, when the Syrian government denied that it was using chemical weapons, there was footage of scores of dead children to expose the government's lie.
But the third world has also suffered a massive environmental costs when it comes to the disposal of e-waste, and the workers who make and dispose of, or recycle, phones are severely underpaid and their health is at risk.
Understanding the effect of cell phones within a globalized framework is complicated. Mobiles have brought greater communication to isolated, rural parts of the world to help advance communities' cooperation and knowledge. They've helped developing countries leap forward in areas like banking and voting and agriculture
Typically, the rhetoric (i.e. the story told) about globalization relies on the idea of improved connections across the world -- improved mobility, greater opportunities, etc. However, too often the reality of globalization is that giant corporations get even more power, because the developing world is used to make more money for them.
I'm 38 years old. If I'd gotten a cell phone when I was 18, and my monthly bill was $60, after 20 years I would have spend $14,400 on my phone. Now, my husband and I have been married for 17 years. If we both had cell phones (we don't) and spent $120 per month on them, over the course of our marriage we would have spent $24,480. Just on cell phone bills.
Of course, everyone needs some kind of phone, and if your cell phone replaces your land line, this can make economic sense. And there can be very good reasons for having a mobile. But my bet is that many, many people are paying a lot of money for a phone they don't actually need, and it's costing them advancement in other areas, like being able to pay off debt sooner and decreasing interest charges.
Despite this, car companies are pushing ahead with integrating devices and WiFi in their cars.
Why? Perhaps he thinks it conveys the sense that he's still a down-to-earth person linked closely to his hometown. Perhaps he wants people to know that he loves baseball, which is a classic, slow-paced sport, and that he identifies with the underdog (the Red Sox's bad luck is legendary).
Essentially, this has created "digital feudalism," where we labor for long hours and no pay, and giant corporations and telecom companies reap the profits.