My most common day-to-day interactions with magnets are incredibly intimate. The pixels on the anodyne surface of the smartphone in my palm don’t burrow into my consciousness as intensely as do the sounds pumped by small, powerful magnets through speakers and earbuds, or the haptic buzz of “vibrate mode” produced by the tiny, magnetic motor deep inside. Magnets allow smartphones to whisper in your ear, to leap into life with manic energy at a call or a push notification.
Magnets inside most of today’s consumer electronics are a blend of neodymium, iron, boron, and a tiny bit of dysprosium (sometimes called “NdFeB magnets”).
It would be easier to tell a story where a phone’s delicate whispers and magnetic whirrs are part of a big complicated history of war and colonialism and resource anxiety and death because that story appears to have answers. The media and advocacy narratives of conflict minerals and environmental destruction of rare earth element mining have primed readers to expect something sinister and uncouth beneath the surface of consumer electronics. “We have powerful magnets in phones today because a lot of people died in a town you’ve never heard of in the Congo in 1978”–sounds about right, you cynically reply. The debut of GPS on the public stage was as an instrument of precision bombing during the first Gulf War; the origins of the Internet are intertwined with Cold War paranoia and planning for nuclear collapse; cell phones are full of other people’s blood.
I worry that leaning so hard on these familiar narratives also gives them power. It makes that cascade of cruelty seem inevitable, simply How Things Are Done rather than choices that were made. While the invisible hand of the market, the steamrolling inertia of colonial powers, or the march of technological progress can feel about as difficult to thwart or circumvent as the pull of neodymium magnets, I am wary of treating them like unbreakable laws of the universe.