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Published: 2019-09-05

Why smartphones aren’t as green as we think

NEWS Toby Miller is a visiting professor at the Department of Culture and Media Studies, returning to Umeå for the third time. This time he talks about, among other things, what people do not know about their smartphones, a blind spot in the research he thinks has received less attention then it deserves.

Text: Hanna Kalla


Smartphones are everywhere today. “Smartphone neck”, exploding batteries and that people spend too much time staring at them are debated subjects, but Toby Miller thinks there is much missing in the discussion. After a conversation with a friend, he began to take an interest in the journey a smartphone makes from being manufactured to being disassembled. A journey that is about looking more closely at the mediums we use instead of just analysing the content of them.

– Often, new technology is seen as a miracle for improving our lives. But rather than looking at them as something magical, it is interesting to look at them both from how they are created and recycled, their path from the beginning to where they end up, according to Toby Miller.

An open approach to knowledge

He did not start out academically but worked as a journalist and speechwriter, among other things, which gave him an open mind when approaching knowledge. With this background, he then began his research career. Through his own interests, what is happening in social movements, and by finding holes in established science, he finds his research projects. He talks and writes mostly about the environment, justice, who is suffering, who is making the profit and what labour lies behind the product, in this case, the smartphone.

How technology is sometimes portrayed as something that can eradicate poverty, injustice and contribute to the environment often outshines the actual production behind it and the management of the e-waste that is created when we are finished with it.

– The exploitation of the materials that phones are made of usually happens in conflict regions. How phones are recycled on large e-waste dumps may also expose people to life-threatening risks, Toby Miller says.

Toby Miller was born in Britain and has lived in the United States for half his life, where he has studied and worked. At the moment, he is living in Colombia where he is writing several books on violence. One of these focuses on violence in Colombia and the other book is about the perception of violence in a broader sense. 

Toby Miller has written and edited over 40 books and writes regularly in science journals. How green is your smartphone is one of his latest books. It is written with Richard Maxwell. You can find a link to more information about Toby and his research here.

You can see one of the lectures that Toby Miller gave (in English) during this visit at Umeå University here.

More about Toby Miller

Toby Miller is a Distinguished Professor of the Graduate Division, University of California, Riverside; Profesor Invitado, Escuela de Comunicación Social, Universidad del Norte; and Director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries, Loughborough University London.