Coming Soon: A Natural History of the Cell Phone

An upcoming Natural History Museum exhibit will look at the cultural and ecological effects of mobile phones

A new exhibition will examine the ecological and cultural ramifications of cell phones.
A new exhibition will examine the ecological and cultural ramifications of cell phones. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sascha Pohflepp

As you sit down to read this blog post, there’s likely a cell phone in your pocket, on your desk or in your bag. Within the past hour—if not the past few minutes—you’ve probably used it to call someone, send a text or check email. This device probably also functions as your alarm clock, your calendar and even your camera. Suffice to say, cell phones are an irreplaceable part of our modern lives.

But how often do we stop to consider what’s inside them?

This question is at the heart of a new exhibition and research project in the early stage of development by Joshua Bell, an anthropologist and curator of globalization at the Natural History Museum, along with Joel Kuipers, an anthropologist at George Washington University. “The working title of the exhibition, which I hope will stick, is ‘A Natural History of the Mobile Phone,’” Bell says. “We want to get people to realize that this is not just a manmade object, but something that connects different people and different places around the world.”

Bell and Kuipers plan to explore the intersection of mobile phones and globalization via a pair of different approaches: the ecological impacts of phone production, and the cultural variability with which phones are used around the world.

Mobile phones are constructed using hundreds of different chemicals and elements, and each of these relies on a complex commodity chain with impacts around the world. Bell points out that the plastic in his phone originated from a petroleum product which was likely shipped to China for manufacturing, while the lithium battery includes ions mined in the salt flats of Bolivia and the capacitors include the element tantalum, which is produced in Congo and has been linked to local conflicts.

“If you think about anything you consume, all of its components come from somewhere else,” says Bell. “Your phone is not just connecting you to your parents or children that you talk to on it, but also to Chinese workers in an electronics factory, who are maybe being paid substandard wages, and electronic waste dumps, like in Ghana.” These connections have human and ecological consequences, and since the average American now buys a new phone every two years, the impacts can be steep.

The exhibition, Bell says, will also look at the cultural dimensions of cell phone use in different countries and in different communities. Bell and his research assistants plan to conduct research and interviews on cell phone use among four groups in the DC area: El Salvadoran communities in Mt. Pleasant (a neighborhood in Northwest Washington), Vietnamese communities in Falls Church, Virginia, an African immigrant group in Maryland and George Washington University students.

“Phones allow us to engage in amazing cultural innovation,” he says. “Everything from simply being able to talk to each other and video chat to new innovations in texting language.” The research team plans to track the diversity of these sorts of innovations across the different groups.

The project is still in its initial phases, so it will be some time before we see an exhibition on the Mall, but Bell already has in mind the effect he hopes the show will have on visitors. ”I would love for people to walk away from the exhibit realizing what is in a mobile phone, what it helps us to do, and the cultural variability of its use,” he says. “Cell phones are not the only objects that create global interconnections, but they are some of the most visible.”

Political Ecologies of the Cell Phone is an interdisciplinary project and a collaboration between GWU and the Smithsonian that explores the connections between the intimate and global connections made through cell-phones. Field research in the DC metro area is just beginning and workshops are planned for the Fall.

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