How to Look at Smartphones


© Copyright 2018 Tony Carlucci, Ryerson University

How to Look at Smartphones

Beyond Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter.

Holding Cellphone Taking Picture of Tree
“Picture Camera Iphone Tree”. StockSnap. Pixabay. CC0.


Cold, silicone, steel.


Smartphones are highly technical mosaics of microscopic circuitry. In their elemental forms what we see is not what we “get”.


Smartphones are often viewed as devices of liberation, pleasure, comfort and connection. But why? We must look past the shimmering black mirrors that rest so comfortably in our palms and make visible their hidden secrets.

When we look at the smartphone with our uncritical eye we may see the following. A rectangular shape about the size of a smartphone. In a variety of colours. Made of either steel, plastic and/or a combination of both. Upon closer examination (with a mini tape measure) we can discern that our mobile friend is 7.9mm thick, 69.6mm wide and 142.4mm tall (Keach).  But that is hardly the end of the tale.


Your average smartphone is made up of 7* major parts. Camera, Sensors, Memory Storage Microchips, Modems, SoC’s (System-on-a-chip), batteries and displays (Fossbytes).


Deeper down the rabbit hole





Image Processor

Sensors include



Digital Compass’s

Ambient Light Sensors

Proximity Sensors

Modems include

Microscopic semi-conductor materials


Memory Storage Microchips

Microscopic semi-conductor materials



Microscopic semi-conductor materials








Silicon Dioxide



LCD/OLED (Liquid Crystal Display/Organic Light-Emitting Diode)

Silicon Dioxide



Liquid Crystal


The list of components and their subsequent raw materials are expansive. So expansive in fact, that they span the globe. Being swiped from western fingers to eastern landfills.



Using a framework of the subject and subjected, we must ask ourselves who is the subject and who is the subjected.


Subject: _____ Subjected: ______


In one critical examination we can understand the subjected to be ourselves, the users. Through a more critical examination we can imagine the subjected to be those who have been subject to raw material exploitation.

Our understanding of the subject/subjected very much depends on where we choose to look.

Let’s take Cobalt, the raw material in our smartphone lithium-ion batteries. In a recent study published by Amnesty International, Cobalt mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo is estimated to account for half of the global supply chain (Chan).  Amnesty International notes the severe implications in the DRC, “perilous conditions under which children – some as young as seven years old – and adults are working to extract cobalt from the mines” (Chan). Children work very long hours in cobalt mines, often with no equipment and are forced to carry loads of ore between 20-40kg. Additionally, the exposure of cobalt ore is highly toxic and can cause “respiratory sensitization, asthma, shortness of breath, and decreased pulmonary function” (Chan).

An appalling mental image even without technological context.

Put in context perspective, smartphone sales totaled nearly 1.5 billion units in 2016 (Chokkattu) and 7 billion smartphones have been produced since 2007 (Jardim).


Red. Cobalt. Steel


Beyond Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter. Beyond shimmering black mirros and 7.9mm steel. Beyond liberation and pleasure.


Your smartphone battery.

Children at work in a mine in Kamatanda, in the Katanga region of DR Congo, on July 9, 2010
Children at work in a mine in Kamatanda, in the Katanga region of DR Congo, on July 9, 2010. Gwenn Dubourthoumieu. AFP. July 9, 2010. /en/20160119-amnesty-cobalt-mined-dr-congo-children-could-be-smartphone




Works Cited

AlarsonSTEM. “Gorilla Glass”. Sourcemap. July 28, 2014.

Chan, Cherie. “Amnesty International reports on child labor behind smartphone batteries”. Deutsche Welle. January 19,2016.

Chokkattu, Julian. “Nearly 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2016, a 5 percent increase from 2015”. Android Army. Digital Trends. February 15, 2017.

Dubourthoumieu, Gwenn. “Children at work in a mine in Kamatanda, in the Katanga region of DR Congo, on July 9, 2010”. AFP. July 9, 2010. Photograph. /en/20160119-amnesty-cobalt-mined-dr-congo-children-could-be-smartphone.

Deanaaulisio. “LCD Module”. Sourcemap. January 27, 2011.

Fossbytes. “What’s Inside My Smartphone? – An In-Depth Look At Different Components Of A Smartphone”. Fossbytes.  June 24, 2017.

Jardim, Elizabeth. “Here’s What 7 Billion Smartphones in 10 Years Looks Like”. Greenpeace. EcoWatch. March 1, 2017.

Keach, Sean. “Samsung Galaxy S8 vs Galaxy S7: Should you upgrade?”. Trusted Reviews. January 21, 2018.

Lpage. “Cell Phone Gorilla Glass”. Sourcemap. February 19, 2015.

Stocknap. “Picture Camera Iphone Tree”. Pixabay. Photograph. CC0.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.