The Geopolitics of the iPhone

Five ways Apple's new gadget and its cousins are transforming global politics.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images; MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images; PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images; D Jones/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images; MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images; PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images; D Jones/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The business: Coltan — short for columbite-tantalite — is an ore that takes on heat-resistant properties when it gets refined. It’s also capable of holding a high electrical charge for a long time. Both characteristics make coltan an ideal component in circuitry design, and it’s these that make the mineral so valuable. In the iPhone and other electronic devices, coltan is used in the production of tantalum capacitors, which store charge better than normal capacitors, improving battery life.

The politics: After oil and water, coltan might soon be among the world’s most contested resources. Obscure but found in virtually every mobile phone on the planet — not to mention pretty much any other electronic device you can name — the mineral is mined largely by hand in the far eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (pdf).

Although Australia mines the most coltan by far, it’s the Congo that has borne the brunt of the electronics industry’s hunger for the material. The Congolese see almost none of the profits from the coltan trade because rebel groups backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda routinely loot the mineral to finance their own operations. High-ranking government officials from both countries were implicated in a 2001 U.N. report (pdf) on the ongoing regional turmoil that, by some estimates, has killed nearly 7 million over the last 12 years. As attention to conflict minerals expands beyond gold and diamonds, expect “blood coltan” to become a much bigger topic of discussion. For its part, Apple issues a non-denial denial when it comes to addressing coltan (pdf), saying that the company requires its suppliers to certify that the materials they use have been produced in a “socially and environmentally responsible process.” Apple adds that the supply chain is long and complicated, and that it supports efforts to map and regulate that chain.


The business: Ever track a purchase from Apple’s online store? Most likely, your iDevice’s journey began in a Chinese factory owned by Taiwanese tech company Foxconn. Foxconn works closely with Apple to assemble the iPhone, the iPad, and various Macintosh computers, and was largely unknown to the public before a string of company-related suicides in May left 10 dead at the contractor’s production facility in Shenzhen, China.

The politics: Foxconn finally agreed to raise wages 30 percent amid rising criticism over the deaths, but the iPhone maker is only a small part of a larger trend affecting the Chinese labor market. China is home to 149 million migrant laborers who put in long hours for little pay. Although such hardship has become the norm in Asia, the Foxconn suicides — along with widespread strikes last month at factories in China owned by Toyota and Honda — are drawing increasing attention from both within the country and outside it. To the surprise of many observers, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao intervened in the crisis on June 14, calling for the government to improve its treatment of migrant workers. Even more remarkable were follow-up editorials days later by state-owned media explicitly demanding wage reform. The moves left foreign observers speculating whether an emerging Chinese middle class was driving the country into a new stage of development.


The business: The iPhone produces an estimated 55 kilograms of carbon emissions (pdf) over its lifetime, according to Apple. With 8.75 million of the devices being sold every three months, that’s more than 500,000 tons of CO2 going into the air on a quarterly basis.

The politics: Cellular service companies make most of their money by hawking contracts, not handsets — which is why upgrading your phone’s hardware every two years can be so easy and cheap. But climate-change activists — and increasingly, tech companies themselves — are taking better stock of the impact of mobile technology on the environment. Last March, Apple rival Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, became one of 24 corporate members of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a collection of telecom firms expressing a commitment to green electronics. Other members include AT&T, Nokia, and Hewlett-Packard. Apple hasn’t signed onto the GeSI, but it is a member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a more expansive club that adds labor and health issues to the agenda.

Despite their apparent green credentials, however, many of these companies have little to show for it. Only Nokia and Sony Ericsson received passing grades in Greenpeace’s 2010 green electronics survey, which rates companies based on the strength of their product recycling programs and their use of toxic materials. Apple, along with LG, Motorola, and Samsung, received only middling marks. “[Apple] might be the best branded electronics company,” the report reads, “but this doesn’t absolve it of responsibility. … At the moment, the company has been very weak on its climate and emissions reductions policies.” To be fair, Apple’s rating has slowly risen since the company’s CEO, Steve Jobs, issued a rare, written statement to the public in 2007 about his environmental goals. “Whatever other improvements we need to make,” he wrote, “it is certainly clear that we have failed to communicate the things that we are doing well.” So far, Apple claims to have eliminated lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury from its products, among other toxic chemicals.


The business: As university costs continue to rise worldwide, Apple is looking to bring the lecture hall to the student. iTunes U, an online service launched by Apple in 2007 that integrates with the company’s ubiquitous music-playing software, aims to deliver educational lectures in audio and video form to the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPod. Now, anyone on the planet can theoretically get access to world-class professors.

The politics: Although it hasn’t revolutionized higher education yet, iTunes U holds great promise for remote student learning, especially in regions where access to quality education is limited. Students benefit from the service in a number of ways: Not only can they download, watch, and listen to lectures free of charge on their own schedule, from anywhere in the world, and on any Apple device, the content is provided by some academic heavy hitters. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made 2,000 of its courses available online since 2007, joining the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. Users downloaded more than a million courses from Oxford alone during the 2008-2009 academic year. Those seeking to earn a degree through a formal program can study alongside 38,000 other students at the Open University (OU), a UK-based distance-learning institution that hosts hundreds of its courses on iTunes. OU offers pay-as-you-learn financing that doesn’t tie students into forking over tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition.

Open University recently began offering free courses on iTunes aimed at teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa. The 30 lectures, which can be downloaded to the iPhone, iPod, or computer, are designed to show teachers how they can better support teachers with few material resources. OU is also working with UNICEF to provide greater educational resources to children affected by HIV/AIDS.


The business: If you thought military procurement was all about snapping up hardware like guns and tanks, think again. Increasingly, companies like Raytheon and Knight’s Armament are developing smartphone applications for the armed services. Apple and Google are marketing their respective products, too. And the Pentagon’s buying.

The politics: Normally, military innovation drives advances in the private market. Take GPS satellite navigation, for instance, or the microwave oven. In the case of smartphones, though, the tables have turned. Web-enabled phones are going to war in ever greater numbers, and the U.S. military hopes that such devices, with the help of the Internet, can provide soldiers with reams of live battlefield data. But it isn’t just their passive capabilities that the military finds attractive.

In the same way that civilian third-party apps have greatly expanded the potential of the iPhone and similar hand-helds, the Pentagon’s R&D house, DARPA, bets that a military app store can likewise reshape the way soldiers fight and interact with one another. One such app, BulletFlight, lets snipers plug in variables like windage, distance, temperature, and humidity to help them achieve the perfect shot. Another, the One Force Tracker, plots friendly positions on a map in real time, and a third, Vcommunicator, produces “spoken and written translations of Arabic, Kurdish, and two Afghan languages.” It’s no revolution in military affairs, but the smartphone revolution may still shake up war-fighting in a big way.

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