Here’s another excellent example of journal writing from the Exeter Geography module behind our website. At the start of the module, we ask the students to add to their phone homescreens this photo of an Apple factory worker which, it seems, was accidentally left on an iPhone bought in 2009. The person who found this and four other photos posted them online and the quest to find out who she was, why photos of her were on that phone, and what would happen to her after they went pubic went viral (as documented on our followthethings.com page). We ask our students to keep her photo on their homescreens until the end of the module, for almost 4 months. What can happen to you when she looks at you every time you look at your phone, wherever you go? Sophie Woolf explains… to the person who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’.
Foxconn Factory 5th Floor (Quality control)
Bao’an district of Shenzhen
14 January 2017
Dear iPhone Girl,
I want to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I had never seriously considered where my phone or other items have come from and who has made them. You’re not invisible, so why should the processes that connect us be so? But that’s changed for me, partly thanks to you, as you’ve been my phone background for the past three months.
Do you know you’ve had a big impact on the world? You had 18 million Google hits in the first two weeks – you’re an international celebrity (Grace, 2013: 143)! Congratulations! These unusual photos have helped recognise and assert your position in the global value chain (Cook, 2011). But all of this fame and we don’t even know your name? Or anything about the people who work alongside you.
Where I live, commodities appear as if from nowhere, with the processes of production occluded (Hauser, 2004: 300). Yet you have managed to ‘penetrate the veil of fetishisms’, reinforcing to Western consumers that these hidden connections can be seen if we look hard enough (Harvey, 1990: 423). Isn’t my culture silly to think items we buy have never been touched before and that manual labour isn’t thought of? Sometimes I think the First World believes it is more important than the Global South, yet most Western cities would be powerless without the processes that occur so far away from them (Roy, 2011: 308). Don’t you agree? Thank you for helping to humanise the connections. These photos are even more exciting to us Westerners as they are a self-projection, they do not impose our view of labourers but instead they show a real insight into your actual life (Grace, 2013: 143). They do not fit in to the vertical power relations that we’re used to, so I’d say it is more of a horizontal relationship (Roy, 2011: 315).
In all honesty, I’ve become a bit obsessed during my university term with the idea of tracing commodities. I’ve been grabbed by it. Let me explain: it’s like wearing glasses that have gone foggy, but you’re unaware, and suddenly one day you wipe them. BAM. All these connections that you’d never stopped to think about are revealed. Although Fisher (2004) explains how every commodity is touched by many, you really have to grasp this idea to fully appreciate and understand our global connections. Well, that’s what I’ve learnt anyway. Now, even when I’m falling asleep I’m considering who and how many people have touched my pillow. I think this ‘addiction’ stems from how we’ve been taught on my Material Culture module. It’s very different from the banking concept of education where us students receive, memorise and repeat information (Freire, 2005: 257). I’ve learnt to be more creative and responsive (Castree, 2005; Gough, 2004). If you want to find out more about this read Evans et al (2007), who also mention the shift of power relations away from the teacher to a more diffused learning technique. It has really driven home to me that our everyday lives are NOT inseparable from the classroom (Angus et al, 2001: 195).
I hope you don’t think I’m crazy and that this doesn’t freak you out, but I’ve become strangely attached to you. I know I haven’t met you but it feels like you’re a part of my life now. You’re on a possession that is dear to me so I guess that influenced it maybe? I use my phone throughout the day, so every day I’ve seen your face smiling at me countless times. Now this is weird too, but as you’re on my phone, and the background to messages when they pop up, I sort of feel like you’re reading them as well. That you know everything that I’ve done these past few months. Being on my phone, you’ve end up travelling everywhere with me – I’ve attached some photos, have a look! Grace (2013:142) reckons that it’s because you’re smiling that I, and others, have become attached due to the emotional relationship with the photo. It’s also been hinted that you may be smiling as your boss, Terry Gou, is getting married that day, is that true (China Post, 2008)?!
My friends see you on my phone and ask who you are. I explain. They don’t understand. This is repeated. Someone even claimed they couldn’t ‘fathom the bizarreness of putting a picture of a random factory worker’ on their phone (Cook, 2011). I get quite defensive about you, you know. Why can’t I have you as my background?? They just think it’s odd. According to them a background should have some personal connection to the owner. But it is a personal connection? Well maybe you didn’t make my phone but you might be the closest I ever get to finding out who did. You’re a reminder of the hidden connections behind all commodities. On the other hand, another person dedicated you to his home screen for a week, I wonder if they’ve kept you… I’ll try and find out for you (Cook, 2011)!
You’ve really helped spark my imagination and encouraged me to discover what other traces of labour I can find (Cook, 2014). Attempting to understand commodity geographies has been a greatly de-centring experience (Evans et al, 2007: 331). I promise you that I will try to no longer be so naïve about where my commodities have been before I have purchased them.
An enlightened Western consumer
P.S. Where are you now, eight years later? What’s your name? Whose blurred fingertip does that belong to? They remain even more anonymous than you (Perlow, 2011: 263)!
P.S. What I’ve been reading
Angus, T., Cook, I. and Evans, J. (2001) A Manifesto for Cyborg Pedagogy, International Research in Geographical & Environmental Education, 10(2): 195-201.
Castree, N. (2005) Whose Geography? Education as politics, in Castree, N., Rogers, A. and Sherman, D. (2005) Questioning Geography, Oxford: Blackwell.
China Post (2008) Tycoon Gou Gets a Better Half, Marries Girlfriend. [website] (27 July 2016) Available at: < http://www.chinapost.com.tw/print/167294.htm > (Accessed 9 December 2016).
Cook et al, I. (2014) The 13 best examples of shop-dropping… ever. [followtheblog.org] (22 March 2016) available at: < https://followtheblog.org/2013/03/22/paper-activism-in-store-in-things-on-things/ > (Accessed 9 December 2016).
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). [followthethings.com] (22 March 2016) available at: < (http://followthethings.com/iphonegirl.shtml > (Accessed 9 December 2016).
Evans, J., Cook, I. and Griffiths, H. (2007) Creativity, group pedagogy & social action: a departure from Gough, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(2): 330-345.
Fisher, T. (2004) What we touch, touches us: materials, affects and affordances, Design issues, 20(4): 20-31.
Freire, P. (2005) The banking concept of education, in Bartholomae, D. ed. (2005) Ways of reading, New York: St Martin’s Press: 255-267.
Gough, N. (2004) RhizomANTically Becoming-cyborg: performing posthuman pedagogies, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36: 253–265.
Grace, H. (2013) iPhone Girl: assembly, assemblages and affect in the life of an image, in Berry. C., Harbord, J. and Moore, R. eds. (2013) Public Space, Media Space, Basingstoke: Macmillan: 135-161.
Harvey, D. (1990) Between space and time: Reflections on the geographical imaginations, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 80(3): 418-434.
Hauser, K. (2004) A garment in the dock; or how the FBI illuminated the prehistory of a pair of denim jeans, Journal of material culture, 9(3): 293–313.
Perlow, S. (2011) On production for digital culture: iPhone Girl, electronics assembly, and the material forms of aspiration. Convergence: the international journal of research into new media technologies, 17(3): 245–269.
Roy, A. (2011) Postcolonial urbanism: speed, hysteria, mass dreams, in Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds Worlding Cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global, Oxford: Blackwell: 308-335.
Photos reproduced with kind permission from Sophie Woolf