Apple’s iPhone—a 21st-century American icon—could not exist without the labors of Bolivian miners and Chinese factory workers. Frank Rose reviews The One Device by Brian Merchant.
The Wall Street Journal⎢Books⎢ June 30, 2017
What does a Silicon Valley artificial-intelligence pioneer have in common with Bolivian tin miners equipped with pickaxes and dynamite? With Chilean men and boys extracting lithium from underground brine pools? With Chinese workers in assembly plants that management has ringed with netting to deter suicides? With a wildly successful yet conscience-stricken videogame designer in Hanoi? As reported by Brian Merchant in The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, all these people and many more were players in the making of what may be the hottest gadget in human history.
It’s a remarkable tale, one that takes us well beyond the predictable panorama of late-night coding sessions and choreographed Apple product launches (though we see those as well). Instead, Mr. Merchant goes deep into the guts of the device that has made Apple the most valuable publicly traded company on the planet.
The author, an editor at the online publication Motherboard, is nothing if not obsessive. This is a man who really, really wanted to get inside his iPhone. Apple doesn’t make it easy—like many of the company’s devices, it is sealed shut with tamper-resistant screws—and Mr. Merchant wasn’t satisfied with spreading its innards out on a workbench in any case. He took the thing to a lab and had it pulverized to find out what it’s made of: lots of aluminum, carbon, iron and oxygen (from various oxides); some silicon, copper and cobalt; much smaller amounts of more than 20 other elements; and traces of rare-earth minerals like cerium and yttrium.
His next question, naturally, was where all this stuff comes from. The short answer: nowhere nice. Blood diamonds? Try blood cobalt, produced for the most part by child and slave labor for the benefit of Congolese warlords. Mr. Merchant resists the temptation to check out the situation firsthand, or dip his toes in the toxic lake in Inner Mongolia that is a byproduct of China’s drive for rare-earth mineral extraction. But he does head to a leading source of tin: Potosí, Bolivia, a town high in the Andes that is overshadowed by a mountain that has been mined continuously since the mid-1500s. At that time it supplied silver that helped make Spain the foremost power in Europe; now it supplies tin used to solder circuit boards. For the miners, death is everywhere: Their average life expectancy is 40 years. And for journalists? Mr. Merchant, 33, ventures into a pitch-black mineshaft with a guide, but he and a colleague freak out and start scrambling for daylight before 20 minutes have passed.
Mr. Merchant likewise loses his nerve after sneaking past the guards and into the vast factory complex in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones and other devices are assembled. He’s understandably more comfortable interviewing former Apple engineers (current employees were largely off-limits, since Apple declined to cooperate) and other tech prodigies about how, over a period of years, the device came to be devised.
To his credit, Mr. Merchant doesn’t buy the myth of Steve Jobs as the lone genius. He highlights the men who actually made it happen, often working without Jobs’s involvement or even knowledge. (And it was indeed men: There are only two women of any prominence in the story, one of them a transsexual.) What Jobs did do was to create the environment from which the iPhone emerged. He challenged his engineers relentlessly, and his suppliers as well. He was an absolute perfectionist on matters of aesthetics and design. His fury was legendary, yet somehow he inspired people to take chances rather than keep their heads down. On occasion he even allowed himself to be talked into something. But not until November 2004, when the iPod was being threatened by music-playing MP3 phones in Europe, did he agree to start building what would become the iPhone.
There are intriguing parallels with the development of the iPod music player in 2001 and the Macintosh personal computer in the early 1980s. None of Apple’s three signature products (Mac, iPod, iPhone) was exactly original, but each represented a quantum jump over existing products. And each flirted with failure at first, mainly thanks to Jobs’s penchant for closed systems. When Jobs introduced the Mac in 1984, it was incompatible with other computers and ran hardly any software; after his dismissal in 1985, Apple veered in the other direction, licensing it to clone-makers in a move that proved disastrous. The iPod struggled for years before Jobs’s executives persuaded him to make it compatible with Windows computers. The iPhone didn’t take off until he finally agreed to open its app store to outside developers—to people like Dong Nguyen, whose Flappy Bird game proved so addictive that he succumbed to guilt pangs and pulled it. Each of Apple’s three inventions became successful only after the company struck a balance between open and closed—between accommodating a wide range of people and keeping them in a carefully controlled environment.
The iPhone came out 10 years after Jobs returned to Apple. Another decade on, it has made Apple more successful than anyone could have imagined. But for Mr. Merchant, this is not a business story. His focus is on the human side of the device—on the people who overcame engineering challenges to design it, who mine the metals that go into it, who put it together at a rate of one every 60 seconds. The One Device is not without problems: Its prose is uneven, its organization highly idiosyncratic. But the story it tells is compelling, even addictive—almost as addictive as the iPhone itself. ■
Mr. Rose is the author of West of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer and, more recently, The Art of Immersion.