Introduction to How Green is Your Smartphone? Polity Press, 2020 (http://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509534715)
The Economist newspaper identified 2019 as “peak smartphone.” The “most successful consumer product in history” had reached four billion out of the world’s five and half billion adults. Over 95 percent of Americans owned a cellphone, and smartphones comprised 77 percent of that total. The highest concentration was among educated 19 to 49-year-old city dwellers (Pew Research Center, 2018). South Korea topped the world’s list with 94 percent smartphone ownership, and the trend was similar throughout developed economies, with Japan, Germany, Italy, France, and the UK slowly catching up to US levels (Poushter, Bishop, and Chwe, 2018).
Umberto Eco reimagines David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965) for our own times, recalling: “the tragedy of Zhivago, who after years sees Lara from the tram (remember the final scene of the film?), doesn’t manage to get off in time, and dies. Had they both had a mobile phone, would we have had a happy ending?” (2014, p. viii). The smartphone is a reassuring talisman: we may find ourselves one day on unfamiliar terrain, but can find our way out through its mapping functions. We may wander into a “dodgy” part of town, but can rely on it to communicate our whereabouts to loved ones or the state apparatus (Morley, 2017).
The companies concerned revel in cellphone saturation of the world’s ears, eyes, and fingers. Apple says “We believe everyone should be able to do what they love with iPhone” (https://www.apple.com/iphone-xr/only-iphone/). Samsung invites customers to “meet our latest and greatest innovation”—its Galaxy S10 (https://www.samsung.com/us/mobile/galaxy-s10/). Google boasts that the Pixel 3 is “Everything you wish your phone could do” (https://store.google.com/us/product/pixel_3?hl=en-US).
That all sounds rather grand—stylish new phones that give us what we want. Trust Apple, trust Samsung, trust Google. But a 2019 report on the Mobile World Congress announced in a letter to “Dear Visionaries” that the industry was “suffering from a combination of split personality disorder and ADHD” (ABI Research for Visionaries/MWC 19 Barcelona, 2019). That diagnosis derived from the differing interests of two fractions of capital—phone manufacturers versus carriers. And there was no room in this world of visionaries for either party to consider whether their phones were green.
Because the diffusion of these devices has been more rapid than their innovation, sales finally began to diminish in 2018: there is a dwindling number of first-time customers left to corral. But even though improvements have become ever more marginal, the industry can count on 2.8 billion people replacing their phones every two years (‘The Maturing,’ 2019). Meanwhile, the consumer market is slowly becoming less significant than demand from military, medical, meat, and manufacturing segments of the economy (ABI Research for Visionaries/MWC 19 Barcelona, 2019).
Meanwhile, digital utopians continue to fete the phone’s popularity, reach, and effects. According to Bell Labs, “more than 5 zettabytes of data … pass through the network every year. That is the equivalent of everyone in the world tweeting non-stop for more than 100 years” (http://www.alcatel-lucent.com/bell-labs/GWATT). For Edgar Morin, the instantaneity of phone communication means that our “world is made more and more whole” (1999). In similar vein, Ulrich Beck says the cellphone has altered “sociological categories of time, space, place, proximity and distance” as it “makes those who are absent present, always and everywhere” (2002: 31). It is said that one day the smartphone may even provide material clues to the way we lived:
The phone has much in common with the portable artifacts of a more traditional archaeology, like flint hand-axes or pottery vessels. … an object scaled to fit the human world. … shaped to fit the hand and fingers, and has action capabilities … orientated towards other parts of the body (Edgeworth 2010: 143)
But there’s another side to this seeming cornucopia. The World Privacy Forum proposes that we inhabit a One-Way Mirror Society, where power accretes to corporations through the supposedly even-handed tool of interactivity (Dixon, 2010). The once true-believer editors of Wired magazine see the internet undone by the corporatization of knowledge and the sealed-set model of phone applications (Anderson and Wolff, 2010). Dan Schiller describes the displacement and deracination of modern life as a blend of individuation with mobility. He argues that political-economic arrangements mean that mobile telephony has emerged in a form befitting divided societies (2007).
And while the gap in mobile-phone ownership between rich and poor has narrowed in the US, nearly 30 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 don’t own a smartphone, and over 40 percent of such households lack broadband, a desktop, or a laptop. About 26 percent of low-income Americans with smartphones but no home broadband depend on cellular services for network connectivity. That number has doubled since 2013 (Anderson and Kumar, 2019).
Globally, the smartphone gap between rich and poor regions is shrinking, though inequalities in access and service standards remain (Silver and Johnson, 2018). The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reports that “[a]lmost the whole world population now lives within range of a mobile-cellular network signal,” and more than half are on-line (2018, p. 2). The ITU notes (and promotes) the growing importance of mobile cellular telecommunications for economic growth in Africa, the Arab States, Asia, and Latin America (2018, p. 4).
But by its own reckoning, there is immense variation within the Global South in smartphone ownership, access to mobile networks, and, perhaps most importantly, affordable, fast, and reliable connections (2018, pp. 104-06 and 125-30; Álvarez, 2014; Bianchi, 2015). In addition, much of the Global South has a very significant gender gap in access to smartphones (Bhandari, 2019).
Ignoring these obdurate limitations, the ITU, the telecommunications industry, and electronics manufacturers insist that mobile cellular communication will inexorably and beneficially expand from the wealthy countries where they are headquartered. The industry’s hype has an imperiousness ring: we are heading inexorably toward the next stage of technological and human progress and pleasure. Mobile communication will be foundational.
In the face of such breathless predictions, we should keep in mind that the idea of technological progress has only been around since the 19th century, when it was deployed as propaganda “to deny the legitimacy and rationality” of organized opposition to industrial machinery (Noble, 1995). The Luddites, famous for sometimes destroying machines they feared would ruin their livelihoods and the quality of their craft, “did not believe in technological progress, nor could they have; the alien idea was invented after them, to try to prevent their recurrence” (Noble, 1995, p. 2).
They weren’t opposed to new technology per se, only to boosters’ obliviousness to its undemocratic designs and socially-destructive deployment. We adhere to that critique in our examination of the smartphone as an emblem of technological progress. The world has been subject to the incessant promotion of smartphone innovations for over a decade. Such rhetoric ignores the central topics of this book: environmental harm, labor exploitation, and the connivance of industry with anti-science propaganda.
It’s ironic that The Economist used an adjective generally applied to the “terror” of running out of petroleum—“peak oil”—to describe super-saturation of the world cellphone market. For both industries have played malevolent roles in our planetary crisis. And both relate to the concept ‘green’ in our title.
“Green” can signify displeasure, even disgust. For example, “he turned green” or “it’s indefensible to have green lawns in LA.” But the meaning of the term is more complex than that. It is simultaneously serene, beneficial, disturbing, corrupted, radical, and conservative: green consumption, green certification, new (green) deal, and greenwashing.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the word “pollution” was in vogue to explain environmental hazards. Both a ubiquitous and a local sign, it seemed to be everywhere, yet isolable. The problems it described occurred when particular waterways, neighborhoods, or fields suffered negative externalities from mining, farming, and manufacturing. The issue was how to restore these places to their prior state: pristine, unspoiled, enduring. Pollution was about corporate malfeasance, governmental neglect, and public ignorance, and how to remedy their malign impact. It could be cleaned up if governments compelled companies to do so—and would soon be over, once those involved understood the problem.
But when greenhouse gases, environmental racism, global warming, occupational health, and environmental imperialism appeared on the agenda, pollution reached beyond national boundaries and became ontological, threatening the very Earth that gives and sustains life, and doing so in demographically unequal ways.
A word was found to describe the values and forms of life that encompassed a planetary consciousness to counter this disaster, as per the utopias of world government that had animated transnational imaginations for decades: “green” emerged to displace the more negative and limited term “pollution,” signifying both new possibilities and a greater and more global sense of urgency. Its purview expanded from waterways and work places to populations and the planet.
This beguilingly simple syntagm, “green,” was quickly transformed into a complex polysemic mélange. Today, it can refer to local, devolved, non-corporate empowerment, or international consciousness and institutional action. The term is invoked by both conservatives, who emphasize maintaining the world for future generations, and radicals, who stress anti-capitalist, post-colonial, feminist perspectives.
“Green” may highlight the disadvantages of technology, as a primary cause of environmental difficulties, or hail such innovations as future saviors, via devices and processes yet to be invented that will alleviate global warming. It can favor state and international regulation, or be skeptical of public policy. It may encourage individual consumer responsibility, or question localism by contrast with collective action. It can reflect left-right axes of politics, or argue that they should be transcended, because neither statism nor individualism can fix the dangers we confront.
This massive, conflictual expansion in meaning has generated a wide array of instrumental uses. So green environments are promoted as exercise incentives (Gladwell et al., 2013), encouragements for consumers to use quick-response codes (Atkinson, 2013), ways of studying whether plants communicate through music (Gagliano, 2012), attempts to push criminology towards interrogating planetary harm (Lynch et al., 2013), gimmicks for recruiting desirable employees (Renwick et al., 2012), and techniques for increasing labor productivity (Woo et al., 2013).
In accord with this expansion, Green political parties now address labor conditions, immigration policies, human rights, industrial growth, and climate science (Miller, 2015). That does not mean the origins of the term are lost—simply that the material state of play has required this semantic expansion due to an accretion of meaning over time and space, as the state of our crisis becomes clearer, both to science and to activism. In short, “green” has come to stand for the good life—not merely our own, but that of our fellow animals and our collective descendants yet to be born. It stands for a new solidarity that takes off from climate science to seek a better, more secure future that transcends the usual homilies and shibboleths of individual agency or investor returns.
Climate science leaves little doubt that humans have made the Earth an inhospitable place for life to flourish. The latest, and most urgent, report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have about twelve years to make radical changes to our carbon-emitting ways, or disaster awaits (Watts, 2018). The US National Climate Assessment, a project of thirteen Federal departments and agencies, reports that the country faces imminent risks from rising sea levels, wildfires, drought, floods, atmospheric warming, and a weakening of its ecosystems’ ability to absorb carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases (U. S. Global Change Research Program, 2018). Ninety-seven percent of scientists say humans are responsible for global warming and we must radically change our behavior to save the planet’s biosphere, ecosystems, and inhabitants. There is a disturbing gap between these urgent warnings from climate scientists and public awareness of the ecological crisis. Equally alarming is the fact that recent surveys show the US population believes only 49 percent of scientists subscribe to the reality of climate change, with over a quarter erroneously discerning “a lot of disagreement” among them (Marlon et al., 2018).
Public uncertainty is a powerful inhibitor of political action and contributes to acceptance of atmospheric warming. But there is hope. Americans are increasingly concerned by global warming, even if most do not understand its causes. Perhaps this anxiety is inevitable as we experience increasingly extreme weather systems, destructive “natural” events, and ecosystem losses associated with climate change (Schwartz, 2019).
There is also a spirited and growing green youth movement around the world protesting political inaction over the eco-crisis. Young activists are standing up to billionaires and Jurassic politicians, telling them to their faces to cut the bullshit and act on the science (Wearden and Carrington, 2019). A generation born in an era of peak disaster from global warming will not tolerate the craven politics of world leaders beholden to barons of industry and finance, fossil-fuel giants, and technology moguls. Tens of thousands of Western European school pupils went on strike in the winter of 2019 with the slogans #FridaysForFuture and “There’s no Planet B” (‘Children’s Climate,’ 2019). Hence also women deciding to #BirthStrike because they feel unable to guarantee climate security to future generations (Doherty, 2019), and the efforts of Extinction Rebellion (https://rebellion.earth). Their task is huge—UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that the political will to combat climate change is “fading” (quoted in ‘Political Will,’ 2019). Public support for action to stem our eco-crisis remains a work in progress, building slowly as people come to grasp the urgency of a planetary problem. But there are signs of a new citizenry ready to act on their environmental commitments. Nature and the British Medical Journal alike drew inspiration from #FridaysForFuture (Fisher, 2019; Stott et al., 2019).
How Green Is Your Smartphone? is informed by the logic and research of climate and environmental science and political-economic and ethnographic social science, the ethical and political commitments of environmental movements, and young activists’ zero tolerance for the status quo as they seek new economic arrangements and green environments for work, rest, and play.
We’ve been teaching about these issues in several countries for over a decade, and have not always found it easy to narrow the gap between scientific and public knowledge, especially when questioning cellphones. They have become part of people’s very senses of self. Hence a polemical volume that takes a side in this elemental struggle, at the same time as it strives to communicate the current state of academic agreement and disagreement, alongside the work of governments, activists, and the media.
Of course, many people don’t think about the fate of the Earth. We didn’t write this book for them. They might pick it up just the same: like most people, they own a cellphone. Those who do so will discover that a crucial, pocket-sized part of their electronic lives is connected to a whole world in need of help.
For we hope that this wee polemic will show that even the smallest changes to how we think about our digital world can contribute to a new understanding of the good life—one that prioritizes the biosphere, ecology, and a balance between human existence and the Earth’s life-support systems.
We remain some distance from that goal. In the early 21st century, the good life continues to be defined by material growth based on consumerism. The smartphone stands out in that seductive laissez-faire fable as a symbol of progress and plenitude. By contrast, this book examines the material reality and social impact of digital technologies, with a particular focus on environmental risks linked to cellphones and similar devices.
We’re not interested in shaming users, or returning society to a time prior to mobile communication. We want to explain the environmental risks associated with these devices in a social context, and how they can be reduced. Our aim is to delineate a role for the smartphone in a greener communications system. Understanding the material characteristics of smartphones helps us identify guidelines to make them greener on personal and planetary scales.
The chapters that follow urge readers to:
- Outsmart your smartphone
- Acknowledge that the greenest smartphone is the one you already own; and
- Call bullshit on anti-science propaganda
Outsmart Your Smartphone
Mobile cellular communication relies on network connections. Radiofrequency radiation bounces back and forth from our phones to cell towers and wireless transmitters. Exposure to this radiation has been linked to potential health risks, including cancer. We can reduce such possibilities, even without clear guidance from the industry or its regulators.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which certifies cellphone safety in the US, says “no scientific evidence currently establishes a definite link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses” (Federal Communications Commission, 2018). If this is true, why does it issue guidelines that limit public exposure to radiofrequency radiation? Cellular telephones must not surpass radiation levels of 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg), which is an average of energy absorbed by 1 gram of tissue according to the US testing standard (Federal Communications Commission, n. d.). This is known as the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR).
Be aware that the manufacturers themselves decide the safe distance between phone and human tissue to meet the SAR guidelines; the government does not handle this for us. Apple says you’re safe in exceeding 1.6 W/kg of exposure if you hold a phone 5 centimeters from your head; Samsung says 15 centimeters is safe; other manufacturers recommend 10 centimeters. It’s up to them. That’s a problem for cellphone users, and another good reason we need to outsmart our phones.
SAR levels matter. Most people hold phones against their heads and bodies. Studies of exposure to radiofrequency radiation at zero distance show SAR levels twice as high as the regulatory limit, and in some tests, three to four times higher. In 2017, France’s Agence nationale des fréquences (ANFR) [National Frequency Agency] found that most “phones exceed government radiation limits when tested the way they are used, next to the body” (Environmental Health Trust, 2018b). The ANFR’s study has been likened to “dieselgate,” the revelation that Volkswagen lied for years about emissions from its diesel-engine cars, which the company had rigged to emit atypically-low levels in controlled conditions. “Phonegate,” as some have called it, sheds a critical light on the mendacity of the telecommunications industry.
If SAR is so important a guideline for the safe use of a cellphone, why don’t most of us know about it?
You might be surprised to learn that your phone includes instructions about SAR levels; you just haven’t been told where to find them. In the US, the FCC requires phone manufacturers to inform consumers if their products meet regulatory guidelines for exposure levels. They comply, but in a sneaky way. Most phones have a legal notice about “RF exposure” buried in their settings. It takes five steps to find them on a typical iPhone, or you can review them on Apple’s website (https://www.apple.com/legal/rfexposure/). Other manufacturers make it equally hard, or more difficult, to locate instructions for safe use; it’s as if they designed a feature to make smartphones stupid about this topic. Compare that to health warnings on cigarette packets, with their alarming words and graphic images.
A study conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found that 81 percent of Canadians did not know their government’s guidelines on cellphone use, or that phones themselves explained how to lessen radiation exposure (Mission Research, 2017; The Secret, 2017). We assume the lack of public knowledge elsewhere is similar.
If the industry is required to tell us about possible health risks, but effectively conceals that information, we must ask: What else is it hiding? One way to answer that question is to review legislation around the world that compels phone manufacturers to put explicit health warnings on their packaging. France and Israel have passed such laws. But where other countries have tried, the telecommunications industry has lobbied to oppose explicit labelling. In the US and Canada, bills were proposed then shot down under pressure from industry groups (Environmental Health Trust, 2018a).
That leads us to a third point about personal health. A chorus of concerns has arisen around cellphone addiction. These have largely centered on children and families, with corresponding remedies that are highly individual. We review those anxieties and public concerns that smartphone distraction has become a key factor in traffic injuries and deaths. Finally, we examine the possible diseases caused by exposure to radiation.
For now, it’s important to stress that many scientific studies suggest there may be a causal link between cellphone radiofrequency radiation and a number of illnesses, including cancer. The results are not definitive. But based on the scientific knowledge we have examined, precaution is prescribed. Please be careful not to store or use your phone next to your body. Rely on wired ear phones, text, or speaker phones when possible. Outsmart your smartphone.
In general, we hope that an abiding legacy of green politics and theory will be the development and installation of the precautionary principle (https://www.sehn.org/precautionary-principle-understanding-science-in-regulation) into everyday life and policymaking. That principle is opposed to conventional cost-benefit analysis, which looks at the pluses and minuses of consumer satisfaction versus safety. Instead, it places the burden of proof onto proponents of industrial processes to show they are environmentally safe, the idea being to avoid harm rather than deal with risks once they are already in motion: prevention, not cure.
The Greenest Smartphone is the One You Already Own
Retaining the smartphone you already own is your greenest option. First, we point to hazards faced by extractive and factory workers who make these devices for us. Their workplace pressures intensify each time consumers order the latest model smartphone. By keeping smartphones for as long as possible, users can de-pressurize the labor process.
Second, we look at smartphones among an array of digital screen technologies that use sizeable amounts of energy and natural resources, both in their production, through the emission of greenhouse gases and hazardous pollutants, and in their useful lifetimes, because of their need for often coal-fired power to recharge and connect to network systems and data services.
If we combine emissions from manufacturing and the electricity that powers network and data-storage facilities, smartphones and other so-called terminal platforms produce about 1.4 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint. Most of that happens during manufacturing; over the useful lifetime of a phone, relatively few greenhouse-gas emissions are produced (Malmodin and Lundén, 2018, pp. 28-29). Extending that life by keeping them longer makes them greener.
Otherwise they become poisonous waste. According to the United Nations University (UNU), “Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use” (http://www.step-initiative.org/). When we throw smartphones away or “recycle” them, they frequently end up as toxic e-waste, the fastest-growing element in global waste streams: about 46 to 50 million metric tons, and growing by three to four percent annually. Cellphones alone comprise approximately 10 percent of those figures (Baldé et al., 2018, pp. 39-40). The average period people in the global North keep their phones is less than two years. This is out of habit, not loss of functionality. Retaining them for as long as possible can lighten the flow of e-waste to an already overburdened system.
Calling Bullshit on Anti-Science Propaganda
Like the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, telecommunications firms have no compunction about using public relations to “war-game science” via campaigns that spread doubt and confusion about ecological problems, from climate change to radiofrequency radiation. The trick involves discrediting researchers who report evidence of harm while backing scholarship that reports reassuring findings. That scam worked for tobacco corporations for decades, with disastrous results for public health.
But by the time we get to Chapter 3, we’ll be smarter than our phones. We’ll have figured out how to make them greener, and be ready to take on industry scoundrels and gullible journalists. With the air cleared of polluting propaganda, our brief conclusion can offer ideas about what should happen next.
We take these matters very seriously, not only because we are concerned consumers of this technology, but because we have been unknowing stakeholders in its development. Click wheels, multi-touch screens, global-positioning systems, lithium-ion batteries, signal compression, hyper-text markup language, liquid-crystal displays, and a number of other innovations were the result of government funding from publicly-funded entities such as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the US Department of Energy, the CIA, the National Science Foundation, the US Navy, the US Army Research Office, the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Defense—and research universities (Mazzucato, 2015). We paid taxes that made smartphones and their immediate predecessors possible—that’s right, taxes—and private corporations profited.
So it’s important to acknowledge that we have a responsibility to encourage smartphone owners such as ourselves to go beyond an appreciation of these devices’ utility and understand our relation to the harm they cause. As well as holding onto our phones for as long as possible, we should endeavor to keep up with the related science and knowledge on technology’s social impact, from media effects to corporate swindles.
We researched and wrote much of this book on mobile devices—that’s the paradox of a project that aims to make smartphones greener from within as well as beyond the boundaries of their guileful promises. Our hope is that How Green Is Your Smartphone? will enable readers who don’t have the time to dive into the relevant studies to contribute to public knowledge and debate about these gadgets. It’s urgently needed.
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