Mobile Hotspots

Seventy-five elements—two thirds of the periodic table—go into the making of your smartphone. But does anyone really know where the components come from, how they’re are assembled, and what happens when we throw them away after the upgrade? While many pieces of the industry are obscured by lack of data and complex commodity chain routes, this story map will help to illuminate some of what goes into producing a piece of technology that approximately two billion people in the world own.

The supply chain starts with mining, a process that in many places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia is entangled in local conflicts and mired in controversy. Precious minerals like gold and coltan are labelled by some human rights watchdog groups as conflict minerals that are fueling violence in unstable regions. After mining comes refining and processing–countries like Malaysia, Switzerland, China, and the United States house some of the world’s largest metal refineries. After the metals are refined, they are sent to manufacturing locations in different parts of the world where the circuits, cameras, batteries, and screens are manufactured and finally assembled.

Innovation occurs in more places than just Silicon Valley. In the DRC, artisanal miners improvise complex mining systems to extract mineral ores from the earth. In Vietnam, Saigon Hi-Tech Park invests in new tech innovation. Shenzhen, the third largest city in China known for tech manufacturing, hosts family start-ups alongside massive iPhone assembly factories.

It would be impossible to show every location on the globe that has been touched by the smartphone supply chain. Despite the limitations, the purpose of this project is to begin to demystify the route of the commodity chain and inspire inquiry into the products we consume. There are inevitable questions that arise along the way: What is the environmental impact of the industry? What is the social cost? Are there human rights violations occurring and what are the steps that are being taken to prevent them? I hope that this project will provoke deeper thought and further research into these questions about a piece of technology that has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives.