Hello Earth


December 2021

Can’t Spell iPhone Without The ”i”: We Are Our Electronics

Since the very first and very clunky cell phones arrived on the scene, they always served as status symbols. They were scarce and expensive machines that continued to reflect varying degrees of wealth and social caché (depending on the model you had, of course) even after Nokia made them more accessible.

It was the iPhone that arguably changed everything. It didn’t just take the whole industry to a new level—this new category of phone redefined what it meant to be a “smartphone”, changed our relationship with our electronics forever.

With such a seamless and ergonomic (for back then) user experience, the iPhone set the bar for all of our devices. From that point on, high tech felt more like magic than machine. It stopped being a somewhat useful social signifier, like a watch. It became something more, a part of our social fabric. Unsurprisingly, this is how tech is still sold to us today: magic devices that also magically help us bear the day-to-day drudgery of our lives.

Behind The Curtain

There’s nothing wrong with magic, except that there’s a risk of everything losing its shine when you look behind the scenes. While we’ve all been scandalized about working conditions at Foxconn and electronics mining operations, for me, nothing has been quite as hypnotic as the pictures that have come out of Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana. While it’s not exactly a household name in America, the photos and videos of the charred ground and burning piles of devices in this electronics waste dump have had significant coverage.

Part of the reason I think these images are so gripping is precisely because of the dissonance in seeing the tech that we associate with innovation, modernity and prosperity, looking like junk in an inhospitable place and burned the way people have burned their organic waste products for millennia.

An Inconvenient Truth

In the case of Ghana, we are learning that while many electronics do find their final resting place in Agbogbloshie, they actually do so after a much longer life than they would have had in their country of origin. Many of the electronics sent from developed countries are actually repaired and used for years before finally making their way to the dump. That’s a small comfort, but not much.

What does it say about us, if the high tech that we believe is good, and that is built into the very fabric of our lives, is actually hurting humanity as a whole by creating conditions for illness and disease around the world, in dumps like Agbogbloshie and elsewhere?

Seeing these images, I can’t help but see the devices that we’re currently using in a different light and to have a change in perspective. Notch vs. hole punch on my phone? Does it really matter?

Whether or not most of our electronics end up in landfills like Agbogbloshie, and whether they do so right away or after a long and useful life is beside the point. The fact that images like these are real and not fiction, is in itself significant. For me, after seeing the trick (which by the way, is on all of us, and not just the small population of people living by these dumps), it’s simply no longer possible to keep believing in the magic, to trust that all this is good and that we can keep on consuming devices as we have been indefinitely.

Because of Agbogbloshie, it’s no longer as simple as saying “Hello”, as Apple once introduced its revolutionary creation. The way we choose to purchase, use, and discard our electronics have been endowed with added meaning: Who am i?


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