iPhone 4: Capitalism, inbuilt obsolescence and `blood' phones

The high demand for coltan is helping fuel the bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo as rival armies fight over reserves.

By Stuart Munckton

August 1, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- “Yes, the notable features with iPhone 4 — both the device and the iOS4 — are mostly tweaks”, said a June 22 review on the popular site BoingBoing.net. “But what tweaks they are.”

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit I have no idea what “iOS4” means. But my eye was caught by the admission that the iPhone 4, launched in Australia on July 29, was almost the same as the iPhone 3.

Corporations use “inbuilt obsolescence” as part of artificially creating markets. This means the products they sell are deliberately made to break down — so we have to keep buying more.

In the case of products tied to ongoing innovations, the trick has a variation. Makers will hold back innovations in order to release, a short while later, a new version of the same product with a few extra features.

The trick is to convince us the old version is now worthless because the new one has a couple more bells and, sometimes, a new whistle.

What are the tweaks that make this iPhone 4, which sells for up to $1000, such a great investment just one year after the release of version number three?

BoingBoing.net gushed: “The squared-off, thinner, steel-and-glass form is more masculine, more substantial. Like a really hot designer watch. There are bevels and grooves and linear details that didn’t exist before.”

Before I looked it up, I wasn’t even sure what a bevel was. I am still unsure what it has to do with a phone call.

Boingboing.net added: “The display is a huge leap forward. It’s really crisp, and hues are more true.”

Now even I know what a hue is, I am not that thick.

But I can’t be that smart either, because I never even realised the tricky devils were being untrue. All this time, hues have been cheating me and I was too stupid to notice.

The reviewer explained: “Side by side, the 3GS display and the iPhone 4 display show that the earlier device gives off warmer hues...”

That must be a bad thing because the reviewer went on: “The iPhone 4 seems more true to life.” I reread that sentence many times and finally concluded it made some existential argument about the meaning of life, as it relates to “smart phones”, that went over my head.

But there’s more: “On iPhone 4, whites are whiter, blacks are blacker, and the fonts really pop.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t recall the last time I looked at a font and thought “if only it popped more”.

Surely I can’t be the only person to read this stuff and think: “For christ sake! It’s a phone! It’s meant to make and take phone calls, not score an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art!”

And the great irony is, as a phone, it doesn’t even work very well.

Apple has been forced to concede the iPhone 4 has serious reception problems. The June 25 Sydney Morning Herald said if you hold the phone in your left hand, the reception cuts out.

I don’t what the technical term for the problem is, but it seems the antenna’s fucked. That, at least, is a problem I can relate to.

Apple has been forced to offer a free “bumper” case that helps fix the problem to all Australian consumers who buy the product before September 30. After that, you’ll have to fork out for your own.

Truer hues or not, if you hold an iPhone 4 in the wrong hand, you’re screwed.

I may be biased as the whole concept of “smart phones” is foreign to me. My attitude to mobiles is they need to do three things: Make phone calls, take phone calls and let you play Snake.

But I can see why people get excited by phones that take photos, search the web, access hundreds of strange things called “apps”, let you read books that might be out on loan at the library, and give you the ability to shoot and edit films of high-enough quality to win an award at Cannes.

But, as cool as that sounds, it doesn’t explain what is driving the ceaseless array of new products pumped out by Apple and its competitors.

Drive to expand

This has to do with capitalism’s endless drive to expand. The creation of more and more slightly different pieces of technology that will be redundant next year is part of the same underlying crisis of capitalism that led to the 2008 financial meltdown.

Each sector of capital needs to constantly grow — or fall victim to competitors. The problem is there is a limit to how much markets can expand. There are only so many people in the world with only so much cash.

One solution since the 1970s has been for capital to increasingly shift investment from the “real economy” (in which actual products are made) into financial speculation.

Divorced from the real economy, this created a bubble whose bursting was as inevitable as next year’s release of an iPhone 5 featuring even truer hues and better bevels.

The race to sell us ever more gadgets offering things we previously had no idea we wanted is another part of the same problem: how to generate more profits when there is a finite amount of things people can afford to buy.

This is where capitalism comes up against its own contradictions.

To compete, each capitalist needs to minimise costs and maximise profits. This means each capitalist has an interest in trying to drive down the wages of their workforce.

Of course, the modern, enlightened, employer does not, as a general rule, seek anything so draconian as an outright wage cut. The trick is to ensure wage rises fall short of price rises.

By failing to keep up with inflation, workers’ wages fall in real terms — even if incomes rise on paper.

In the United States, the world’s richest nation, real wages have not risen since the early 1970s.

This may be good for capitalists on an individual level, but it threatens profits overall. Most consumers are also workers. Keeping wages downs means they can afford to buy less.

One way around that is to ensure access to cheap credit — allowing ordinary people to spend beyond their means. As the ’08 financial crash showed, this can only work for so long.

Yet capitalists have no choice but to keep trying to expand. With competition for consumers’ finite spending cash increasing, ever-new gadgets are thrown at us that make our old gadgets outdated.

`Blood phones'

Such gadgets are assembled in factories in China and other “developing” countries under conditions of super-exploitation that would make the owner of an Industrial Revolution-era workhouse blush.

Foxconn has installed nets to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths at its factory buildings.

The May 27 Telegraph.co.uk reported on a factory in Longhua, China that makes products for Apple. Conditions were so horrific, 16 workers had killed themselves since the start of the year.

Nets have been erected around the Longhua factory buildings to stop workers jumping to their deaths.

Worse, a key mineral used to produce many consumer goods, including mobile phones, is the highly valuable coltan. The high demand for coltan is helping fuel the bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo as rival armies fight over reserves.

A 2008 International Rescue Committee report estimated more than 45,000 people were killed every month in the ongoing conflict, the January 23, 2008 British Guardian said.

Half of the those killed were children. The death toll was put at 5.4 million people since 1998.

The concept of blood diamonds, whereby the sale of the gem helps fund ongoing slaughter, is well known. By the same logic, our mobiles are blood phones.

None of the breathless reviews of Apple gadgets make any mention of this ugly reality — that would be too true to life.

Worse still is that such ridiculous over-consumption, with the ceaseless production of ever more gadgets to be replaced as soon as possible, is threatening to kill the planet.

That’s as true as any hue — even if it comes with a free bumper case.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper. Stuart Munckton is an editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]


Not to sound dismal but. The place your talking about where 16 people committed suicide. The suicide rate there falls below the average rate for a population of that size. So its really not a story at all actually.

Otherwise I agree, its pretty absurd the drive to newer and better phones. But you may also be an older person who doesn't really like computers or using the internet that much. The phones really are starting to do pretty amazing things. If you go to a store and you want to get more information on a product, you can do it right there. If you want to get navigational direction to anyplace in the world, no problem. If you want to keep track of dates, email, social websites, blogs, news, etc. Right there.

I'd say phones have more room to grow with respect to innovation, although in terms of power and screen size they've topped out, picked all of the low hanging fruit so to say. So since the powerhouse market has tapped out, I expect companies to innovate in other areas, environmental choices, efficiency, cost reduction through better designed products, more unique software features. These things aren't bad.

But honestly if this wasn't happening, there would in fact be no jobs for many people. You could have one robot factory that builds a simple phone, and the entire world could use that phone, make phone calls, receive phone calls, play snake. That would certainty solve the labor problem.

Just to be clear, you do understand that where these suicides have taken place is not the city the factory is in, but the Foxconn factory itself.. right?

I'm not at all trying to be sarcastic - it's a legitimate question. I only ask because it seems to me that if sixteen people in the same working environment off themselves, it seems less likely to have to do with population density and more to do with the environment itself.

Surely 16 people from the same work environment has signifigance as a story of importance. Even one suicide is a story of crucial signifigance. In fact it is more signifigant then the flashy functioning phone gadget. Apple are not in fact an environmentally friendly product. The planned obsolescence causes major illegal dumping of tonnes of apple product waste to poorer countrys. So much inhumane practice for a designer product/status symbol appealing to the image conscious.


Your logic/examples have a lot of holes. The previous commenter already pointed out that the suicide rate at that factory complex was actually lower than among the general population.

Also, I disagree with the idea that there is some giant conspiracy to add new features slowly to our devices. That's called 'the slow, steady march of technological development', not 'planned obsolescence.' The implication is that the iphone could be a whole lot better than the version they released, but they are intentionally holding off on features to milk the money out of people incrementally. Do you think they could make a 3D, virtual-reality, flying phone or something, but are just trying to eek out a few bucks before they introduce that tech? To the contrary: there is an innovation war going on between smartphone providers to release phones featuring cutting-edge technology at as cheap a price-point as possible. Just think, nothing like the iPhone even existed 3 years ago, and now they can do pretty much anything under the sun. Whether this is a good thing (I don't know, they arguably enrich our lives and capacities, but our planet is indeed dying) is another question.

I liked the middle section, 'Drive to Expand,' though. It provided a believable narrative on capitalism, in my mind.

This may be true of some manufacturers (I can't think of many) but it's certainly not true of Apple. The original iPhone shipped with a crappy camera and no 3G. Its competitors at the time were all including 3G, 5MP cameras and GPS; either Apple were being out-innovated by everyone in the market, or they designed the iPhone to be "just good enough" so that the iPhone 3G, which was released a year later, would appear to be a big step up. Notably they still didn't improve the camera (don't make it TOO good or no-one will buy the 3GS); the 3GS shipped with a much better camera with better software control. Notably still no multitasking or video chat though. You would have to wait another year, for the iPhone 4, before you got either.

In comparison, the Nokia N95 (released *three months* before the original iPhone) had 3G, 5MP camera, a multitasking OS, video calls, assisted GPS with navigation, digital compass etc. etc. etc. I find it hard to believe that Apple were sitting there in awe of Nokia's achievement, wondering how on earth they managed to package such wonderous technology into a phone. I find it much easier to believe that Apple Marketing told their engineers that the long term strategy was for incremental updates, so don't make the first one too good or BoingBoing will have nothing to get excited about later on.

I think the copy & paste functionality is a great example of the topic at hand. I haven't cracked open the OS source, but I can't imagine there being more than 20-30 lines of code that handle this functionality and there is absolutely, no way it took the development team two generations to come up with a working solution.

hmm except copy & paste wasn't something that was only possible with new phones but rather something that was also available to the older phones. As such its not an example of built in obscelence as once Apple released it you could put it on your two year old first gen iPhone.

planned obsolescence is indeed a reality. i am a former industrial design major, and on of the things you learn about is how to make things good enough to win consumer confidence, but not soo good that it is 1) more expensive to make 2) wont break down in so far a distant time as to also eat into profits

the term itself is decades old, as this first became a problem in post-ww2 america, where the productive capacity to meet everyone's needs was there, but the population still had a depression-era mind set of scrimp and save, and buy only what will last. consumption could not keep up with production, and manufacturers had been making the durable goods people wanted.

if you've never heard an old timer bemoan how toasters or cars back in the day were sturdier, lasted longer, were easier to fix, then you really should talk to them about it.

Anonymous 1 says I "may also be an older person who doesn't really like computers or using the internet much”. As it happens, I am in my early 30s and I do like and spend much time on the internet. Computers — those devil beasts that choose to deny me access to the internet for seemingly random reasons on a regular basis — are another story.

As I said, I also see the appeal of smart phones. The problem is not the concept but the reality of mass production of endless new consumer goods within the current social system.

I am not sure what to make of the comment on jobs. God knows what anyone did for a job before iPhones were invented. It isn't like in, say, the 1960s, there was full employment despite iPhones being decades away from invention or anything...

I also don't see any conspiracy in the way new innovations are added to consumer goods. I think the sysstem tends to function, by its own logic, according to what will allow individual corporations to continue selling their products. In the case of smart phones, the competition involved in these relatively new products may work in the way Anonymous 2 says in order, to fight for a consolidated share of a relatively new market.

But the one thing that must be taken up strongly is the comments about the Longhua Foxconn factory in China that produces goods for Apple (and a number of other US companies).

Whether or not it is true that the suicide rate is higher in the factory than elsewhere (and I'd be interested in comparison to what and what the source is), it is a bit beside the point.

Here is a test: have a look around your workplace. Are there nets to stop employees jumping to their death?

If not, you might want to ask what the difference is between your workplace and the Foxconn one.

But it is not just suicide killing the workers at the mega-factory. In May, a worker dies from exhaustion after working 34 hours straight. Literally worked to death. http://safetyatworkblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/foxconn-worker-dies-of…

The details of extreme exploitation and abuses at this factory are well documented. here is an account by a reporter who worked undercover for a month.


“For 28 days, he experienced dreadful conditions that the factory’s 400,000 employees endure, churning out iPods, iPads and iPhones for Apple nonstop.

"There’s no doubt about it. The Foxconn suicides were caused by job stress...

“During his 28 days of investigation, Liu Zhi Yi was shocked to discover how the factory workers live in a sort of indentured servitude. They work all day long, stopping only to quickly eat or to sleep.

“They repeat the same routine again and again except on public holidays. Liu’s was surmised that for many workers, the only escape from this cycle was to end their life ...

“Foxconn workers only smile on the 10th of every month. That’s the day when they get their salaries ... about $156 a month." The minimuam wage doesn't cover basic living costs, various reports say, and this drives workers into overtime.

“Liu had his most interesting chats with other workers during meals. Some told him that they envied workers who are sick. They get leave approvals and can get some rest.

“They also discussed about accidents in the factory: One worker got his finger cut-off during production. A few workers think that the machines are cursed. They believe it’s dangerous for them to use the machines.

“Another worker spoke about one of the favourite activities in the factory lines: He likes to drop stuff on the floor. Why? Workers spend achingly long hours standing up, so they feel that squatting down to grab a fallen object is the most restful moment of their working day.”

Quibbling of where the highest suicide rate is is beside the point. The places where iPhones (and other consumer goods sold in the west) are produced are highly exploitative sweatshops that are hell for their workers.


I worked for a few months in a kitchen where I wasn't allotted any breaks into my schedule. I would take breaks nevertheless (like one 5 minute cigarette break in a 8 hour shift) but it wasn't enough for even a person in their early 20's like myself. I too found that bending down to pick up things was a treat for my legs and endurance. I didn't return to work for this company. The last job I had also required such extreme dedication and I had to quit it because I refuse to support slave labor conditions. This is taking place in the US because evidently there are people who comply with it instead of quitting.


Stuart points to a lot in this post which is true - including a culture of techy fashion, where having something state-of-the-art becomes a reason to shell out money for new devices all the time. Also the appalling conditions of Third World workers used to provide "affordable" first world tech.

However, the article overlooks how significance of Telco innovation in the last 20 years, especially in cell phones, and the changes that has meant across the world - espcially in Asia. Stuart may not see any use for his phone other than making and taking call and playing snake, but that's because he surfs the web on high speed broadband, and most likely owns a home PC. In countries like India; Indonesia and South Africa, cell phones have become the cheapest and easiest way to access the internet, with penetration far outstripping the distribution of PCs. Text messaging and phone internet have enabled communication between people who had no access otherwise, and have done far more to bridge the digital divide than any other innovation.

Smartphone penetration in SouthAsia was measured at 40% about a year ago - with Vietnam the lowest country measured with 22% of the population owning one. ADSL/Cable internet penetration in the same region is around 5%.

That's not to say that all the changes with technology have been good - in either the first world or the third world. Most people face a bleeding of work into home life, and a gradual erasing of private space, as well as the chance to sustain friendships and family relationships over much vaster distances. But the trend towards faster internet; better screens; and phones as relatively cheap mini-computers is far more significant than simply a new way to make devices obsolescent.


It's a funny thing the world has going on. The large profitable and smart companies take advantage of the underprivileged and illiterates to put them in slave labor.All the while when we look up to companies like Apple here in the USA some people are suffering. Ignorance is bliss...