The unpredictable Frankenphones of Shenzen, China

Unlike the people of Shenzen, China, you probably own a device from one of two smartphone brands and you haven’t even asked yourself why.

Knotty Objects, the first MIT Media Lab Summit devoted to design, will gather designers, scientists, engineers, makers, writers, curators, and scholars around the discussion of four complex and omnipresent objects, along with the rich stories they can tell: brick, bitcoin, steak, and phone.

To introduce each subject, MIT Media Labs worked with the mssngpeces production company and some of the summit's tech and design experts to create playful, informative videos that raise some thought-provoking questions such as “who are designers really catering to when they think up new mobile phones?”

This short film Phone, curated by Bunnie Huang and Kevin Slavin, examines the mobile and how it currently lies at the foundation of 21st century human (and non-human) communication. Our current status quo dictates that we own a smartphone made by one of two companies, but in Shenzhen, China (the industrial megacity that produces many of the world’s most popular smartphones) no such monopoly exists. The people who are making our phones don't even buy those phones. 

A toy car turns over to reveal an LCD screen, as does a pack of Marlboro’s; some mobiles created by the makers in Shenzhen host four sim card ports – allowing the user to pick and choose their network carrier, and other phones are designed large enough to function as a power bank for other devices. The mobile phone hacks in this short film recall Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Dave Hakkens and his Phoneblocks – a mobile built on the model of Lego building blocks.

Other short films in this series include Brick, curated by Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits, and David Benjamin, principal of The Living. The other short, Steak contemplates the possibility of in vitro meat and is curated by Design Indaba 2014 speaker Daisy Ginsberg and artist-philosopher Koert van Mensvoort.