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Mobile Media Origins: Rare Earth Minerals and the Ecological Impact of a Mobile Device

Sat, November 14, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Denver Sheraton, Governor's Square 17


The field of mobile internet studies has increasingly pushed for an examination of the material conditions that contextualize mobile use. In this paper, we argue that to truly understand mobile culture, researchers must understand the transnational scope of how these devices come into users’ hands in the first place and where they end up when they are discarded. Drawing from methods in actor-network theory and the work of new materialists, this paper closely analyzes the first stage of a mobile phone’s life cycle: the mining of elements from the ground that ultimately culminate into our mobile devices. By focusing specifically on the mining of coltan and rare earth elements, drawing on site visits to mining facilities in the United States and Canada, we argue that a single mobile device is the symbol of national and transnational mobility. The various stages of a cell phone’s life cycle, especially this first stage of mining for minerals, remain an unacknowledged aspect of consumer culture in developed countries. Building on the theories of Latour (2005) and Harman (2013), we argue that the “tool being” of a mobile device is one that functions through invisibility; when each stage is revealed to the next, there is a “break” in the system. As such, drawing on our case study as a springboard into broader explorations of transnational materialities of mobile media studies, this paper explores these breaks, the various modes of visibility possible, and the outcomes of such shifts in understanding in the life of mobile devices.