Against the Smartphone: My Review of Juan Carlos De Martin’s Latest Book (Il Manifesto, March 2, 2024)

The Italian newspaper Il Manifesto publishes a review, penned by me, of the latest book by engineer and philosopher Juan Carlos De Martin, Against the Smartphone (Contro lo Smartphone), Add Editore, 2023. Here is the English translation of the Italian original.

Juan Carlos De Martin, how to handle technological dependence

It is a concise and sharp text, “Against the Smartphone. For a More Democratic Technology” (Add publisher, 2023, pp. 200), the new book by Juan Carlos De Martin, a full professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin and co-founder of the Nexa Center for Internet & Society. Ubiquitous, the smartphone emerged first as a fashionable gadget, then as the “symbolic object of our era,” De Martin argues. In just over one hundred and fifty pages, excluding bibliography, the author manages to take the reader on a real world tour along the production chains of these “little parallelepipeds”

of plastic and silicon that have penetrated schools, home intimacy, or means of transportation. Their long supply chain ranges from the Congo lithium mines where battery lithium is mined, to Chinese factories where components are assembled, to Silicon Valley design labs where technical specifications are implemented.

Although the title may suggest an indiscriminately critical approach, “Against the Smartphone” is a deeply realistic, and minutely informed, text. Nothing to do, then, with self-help manuals such as American Catherine Price’s “Detoxifying Your Cell Phone,” or the invectives of Frenchman Eric Sadin, author of a pompous “Critique of Artificial Reason,” 2019).

De Martin’s essay is extraordinary in its ability to stay centered on its main question: how to manage, and rebalance, our relationship of dependence on this technology. The author, an engineer by training and humanist by choice, invites deep reflection on the power dynamics that structure the smartphone object, which sits at the center of the technical and economic system of modern capitalism.

A special feature of this text is its author’s compositional choice to range from one register to another. From the “proem” titled “Digital Machines Interest Me” and inspired by the work of poet and digital activist Philippe Aigrain, it moves to central chapters so thorough that they could be adopted for college courses, to the conclusion that takes the form of a political manifesto “for a technology fully under the control of the user possible.” This diversity of styles is more than just a literary device to engage the reader. It provides different keys to accompany it. After exploring the anatomy of the smartphone through its fundamental components, the book follows the flows of its raw materials, aspects of its assembly, distribution, repair and disposal. These global processes eventually bring into play the very subjectivity of end consumers. Not only their bodies, through large and small health risks, but also the fallout on human cognitive processes and finally on the quality of our information.

Who controls the smartphone? Certainly the central question of this essay cannot be answered without shedding light on the various social actors involved in the governance of this technology: the manufacturers who influence the initial choices, and who continue and exert their power of control over operating systems, app stores, the apps themselves, and users’ personal data. But while not underestimating the weight of digital monopolies and oligopolies, De Martin’s book also implicates a wide range of social and institutional actors in this governance-and explains how the balance of power of which the smartphone is the epitome can be overturned. This is the point of the “20 points that could make the smartphone more respectful, more equitable, and more faithful,” which conclude the book.

In this text, De Martin, places himself in a lively dialogue with other works by authors who have examined the complex dynamics of the digital age. The first potential interlocutor is the sociologist Jack Qiu, who has been studying Apple’s production chains for decades and who in 2016 had given “Goodbye iSlave” (2016) to the presses. It would not be surprising if the latter book ends up next to “Against the Smartphone” in online recommendations… Another interesting comparison would emerge from the work of Christian Fuchs, a researcher who has investigated the link between technologies and the new international division of labor. Not forgetting Kate Crawford, author of the recent “Neither Smart, Nor Artificial. The Dark Side of AI” (Il Mulino, 2022), which offers an in-depth analysis of the three key inputs of today’s “smart” objects: land, labor and data. Each of these authors, like De Martin, turns the rhetoric of the gadget marketers on its head, highlighting how behind the data and online content are human bodies at work, and natural resources exploited without judgement.

How, in light of the above, should the provocative title “Against the Smartphone” be interpreted? Not in the sense of an uncritical aversion. On the contrary, this essay invites reflection on the relationship between us users and ubiquitous technology. The meaning of that “against” indicates the of sharing the same reality. Like two people holding each other against each other, the smartphone and its user live a symbiosis that does not admit rejection, but at the same time does not relinquish the responsibility to denounce dysfunctions and power dynamics, inviting reflection on changing them.

Antonio A. Casilli, is a full professor of sociology at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris, and a research associate at the Nexa Center for Internet & Society.