Isabel Mager on identifying the human body behind the making of high-tech gadgets

What human narrative exists beneath our shiny 21st-century products?

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Isabel Mager is an investigative designer based in the Netherlands. The Design Academy Eindhoven graduate is drawn to the transparency of organised systems of life, shedding light on the people who drive seemingly lifeless processes behind closed doors.

She presents a project called 5000times, a critical exploration of the way Apple iPhones are created on factory lines. Mager puts forth a disparate overlay of footage, both of which are meant to give account as to how these devices are created. The foremost showreel displays a streamlined and polished “making of” sequence produced by the Apple company in which machinery alone is working on the smartphone. The background footage is of an ABC News report that ventured inside a Foxconn assembly company that produces gadgets for a number of brands including Apple, revealing the surprising amount of people whose hands are integral to the production of these devices.

“What we see here is quite a big contrast,” says Mager, “In the front we see this individualised, stylised, clean device… There is only machinery interacting with the device along its making, while this is actually not at all the case in the video that we see at the back. We see the density and amount of people that are essential, or at least participating, in the making of these products.”

Mager questions the value of having a human body work on the assembly of our much loved smartphones and computers as opposed to total automation of the process, as so many brands tend to propagate the latter notion of their own practices. To better understand the systems that technology companies deploy in the making of their gadgets (and to better estimate how much human intervention normally takes place in it), Mager decided to dismantle a laptop physically to look for signs of human craftsmanship in the way it was produced.

“I wanted to know what the essential thing is that we still need a human to do as an assembly employee,” says the designer, “I deconstructed a laptop to see if it would tell me something about what is happening in the factory where it was put together – and I found tapes!”

The designer describes her discovery of Kapton tapes inside the computer that had obviously been applied by hand. She had identified the role of at least one person on the factory line whose job it is to secure the different chipsets inside the machine with durable, heat-resistant adhesive tape. After collecting a number of similar examples, Mager compiled a comprehensive list of repetitive tasks performed by one human in the production of a smartphone during a single day. It reveals an astounding amount of repeated gestures made by hand – hence 5000times.

“What you see are numbers that indicate how many times a person would take the device, perform the task and then put it back along the assembly line,” she says, “These numbers show us the repetitive, enduring and quite absurd nature of the human work that stands behind these smart, high-tech devices.”

To give such unimaginable numbers a more lifelike character, Mager created a compelling animation of hand gestures performing each task in apparent perpetuity. Moreover, she sat down and compiled stacks of soldering metal, foils and tape to represent the manual work that is performed in these conditions during one day. Mager’s collected data and visual representations open up discourse regarding harsh work environments, the militarised nature of some factory lines, human privilege and the problems of automated production.

“I always cite here an American designer who’s working in China. He said that the human is the most adaptable machine”, concludes Mager, “If you have a group of 100 people, you can tell them each week to do something else. If you have 100 robots, you have to update the technology, reprogram the software, add sensors, extend the arm and then test all of it before installing it. Such a time-consuming and expensive solution simply doesn’t fit into the logic of a fast, high-tech market.”

Watch the Interview with Isabel Mager