Object Relations

Dec 15, 2019

Have you ever tried to repair your own mobile phone? Why not?

With this document I intend to lay the basis for further inquiries regarding my master thesis as well as the development of a use case. I started out with the premise that a respectful and caring relationship to our companion objects can help lifting the ecological burden on the planet as well as the socio-economic exploitation of a precarious workforce. That said, I have the hypothesis that there is a time of care for things, between receipt and the loss of it. This care is driven by the fear of loss as well as an affection for the object in question.

The use case I want to look at specifically is the commonly used mobile phone. Its smartness doesn’t play much of a role, since I want to concentrate on the material manifestation of this everyday object. The difference in used raw material for either variant is miniscule. In its physical form, dumb and smart phones do not differ much.

There are estimated 6 billion active mobile users worldwide. 1.5 billion mobile phones were sold in 2018. Theses phones are obviously not only integral to people’s lives but also have an undeniable impact on the planet as well as the exploited workforce in terms of extraction of raw materials, production and recycling. Fairphone as well as others well researched the impact the production and recycling of mobile phones have on the ecology. Most waste is generated at the level of extraction of raw materials as well as production of the actual device. That means, that the “most sustainable phone is the one you already own” (Fairphone, 2019). No new device, even the ones from Fairphone, are more sustainable, then keeping an existing device for as long as possible.

Design has an important role to play regarding the mobile phone as a commodity fetish. Early phones where highly eclectic devices. Since all phones basically drew from the same set of functionalities – that is phoning, texting, agenda and the occasionally game – style was important as a differentiating factor. These phones from the zero years came in all kinds of shapes and colors and often with the possibility to attach customized items directly to the phone. In a second wave, phone companies tried to attract new customers with highly specialized functionalities, like Nokia’s N-Gage, a phone concepted as a gaming device. The third and current wave, began with the advent of Apple’s iPhone. Initially heralded a milestone of industrial design, it quickly became the quasi standard of how a smartphone has to look like. The focus is on the screen, in which all of the phone’s importance lie. Today’s smartphones are impersonal at best, trying hard not to be in the way of screen interaction. These phones are deliberately designed this way, to make them easily replaceable.

What eventually happened is, that capitalist logic removed all friction in producing and removing mobile phones from our life and externalize the damage done to the less fortunate. What I want to formulate is a practice of care for mobile phones that counteracts the logic of capitalism. Following the collective Precarias a la Deriva, as well as other feminist activists and scholars, the usage of the term care in the context of acting against capitalism is not without problems. Care work is and was done mainly by women and without financial benefits to the care-worker. This has to be considered.

It is not uncommon, that craftspeople get into affectionate bonding with the tools of their trade as well as the things they produce. Such relationships are not limited to craftspeople, but can also be transmitted on a societal level through culture, as practices like the broken needle festival Hari-Kuyō in Japan show. Also, there always have been practices of care by the underprivileged for their belongings, out of sheer necessity.

I’m generally interested in caring and respectful relationships with the objects that we surround ourselves in everyday life. But, practices and the knowledge of care are highly situated, which means there isn’t simply a universal theory to apply. Care practices draw from diverse influences in feminist and intersectional activism and theory. To develop a practice of care means to reference these works and take them seriously. A practice of care needs to be developed and grown within its applied context.

But before we can get into that we must ask, what is the relationship to our mobile phones? This is a necessary first step for a deeper understanding of our relationship to this modern companion objects. It is also a necessary first step for discovering possible entry points for care practices. Relationship in this context means the thinking about, feeling about and interaction with mobile phones.

Und jetzt?


The approach I’m tracing in this document is partially rooted in my own experience.

My mother studied ceramics and she had her workshop in our home. I grew up with her lived experience as a craftsperson and through her practice she thought me the beauty of everyday objects. I learned how they should be treated with respect and even affection.

Two other cornerstones of my life dealt with electronic waste.

I worked in e-waste recycling for quite a while, through a program in social support. I was in a different headspace back then and the activity was very welcomed by me. The physical labor, involving a lot of axe work, is arduous. The main goal of e-waste recycling is, to separate the valuable part from the unimportant ones. During that time, I got to know a lot of devices from the inside. It made me acutely aware of materiality of electronic devices as well as the processes involved in taking them apart.

Last but not least, was I welcomed into a research project that dealt with electronic waste on a global scale, aptly named Times of Waste. We used a “follow-the-thing” approach to trace a smartphone’s becoming, starting from the extraction of raw materials, until its demise, the recycling part. What struck me most, during the research project, was the incredible entangled mess, that makes up a smartphone. The distributed global mesh of extraction, production, use and recycling is simply wondrous and almost beyond believe, that something like this can come into existence and maintain its presence.


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Fairphone. “The Most Sustainable Phone Is the One You Already Own,” May 20, 2019. https://www.fairphone.com/en/2019/05/20/the-most-sustainable-phone-is-the-one-you-already-own/.

Wilson, Mark, and Mark Wilson. “Smartphones Are Killing The Planet Faster Than Anyone Expected.” Fast Company, March 27, 2018. https://www.fastcompany.com/90165365/smartphones-are-wrecking-the-planet-faster-than-anyone-expected.

Fairphone. “Zooming in on 10 Materials and Their Supply Chains,” May 4, 2017. https://www.fairphone.com/en/2017/05/04/zooming-in-10-materials-and-their-supply-chains/.