Why does the iPhone matter to us?

My initial impressions of Bernard Stiegler were far from positive, largely ensuing from the sheer incomprehensibility of his writing. However this essay by Mark Featherstone (HT Emma Head) has reminded me why I bought Stiegler’s books in the first place after a few people explained the themes he addresses in his work. Featherstone is concerned with Stiegler’s work as a resource to help illuminate a way out of our being “lost in a hyper-functional technological world” in which “the masturbatory logic that supports, for example, the Apple universe” leads me to “become my own other”. His point here concerns the deliberate eroticisation of these products, coupled with the designed inevitability of their obsolesce. The iPhone, so sleek and seductive, encourages us to invest ourselves in it while the commercial system upon which we depend to attain it strenuously works to preclude the sustainability of that investment:

The effect of this reliance is that we escape our lack through the object. Of course, the additional problem of the technological object today is that, unlike the transitional object — such as the ageing teddy or the old blanket, which grow with us — the evolution of the modern technological object is organised around planned obsolescence. Where we are meant to outgrow the transitional object, the technological gadget outgrows us. It moves on — the iPhone 3 becomes the 3G, the 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 5C. As Steve Jobs famously said before the unveiling of Apple’s latest gadget, “one more thing.” Following the logic of Marxist commodity fetishism, there is always “one more thing . . .” that indicates to us that we always lack.


His argument makes me think back to an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern earlier in the summer. It involved a dark room, into which people entered and were assailed by fleeting apparitions projected onto the walls. But the contents of the exhibition itself were largely irrelevant. What struck me was how utterly the efficacy of it depended upon the jarring impact of entering a pitch black space and how manifestly this failed because the majority of those entering the room immediately reached for a smart phone to pierce the darkness, in many cases subsequently clutching it protectively even after they had ceased to depend upon the reassurance of its light to acclimatise themselves to the installation. My initial reaction to this was irritation, followed by curiosity and then paroxysms of reflexive doubt when I realised that the immediate expression of my internal realisation (“isn’t it weird and interesting that people do this with their iPhones?”) was to reach for my own iPhone and open Twitter.

To a cynic this might sound like an awfully long winded way of saying that our consumer objects bring us comfort. I think there’s more to it though. Featherstone’s point in contrasting ‘my smartphone’ to a transitional object is that we come to outgrow the latter. It serves to facilitate a transition from the unmediated dependency of early natality through to our individuation within a network of relations in which we gradually come to negotiate this need without ever entirely overcoming it: it’s the consistency of this dependency throughout the life course, depending on others throughout even if dependency on a particular other is fleeting, which is repudiated within the culture of late capitalism. Others recognise us in a way that disowns our dependency, with ‘co-dependency’ widely seen as pathological, in turn encouraging us to disown it in others. Where dependency is acknowledged it is sequestered in specialised institutions, constituting a way in which modernity itself mitigates against our learning to live with dependency. If it is acknowledged, it is framed as something which is overcome through childhood and which cannot be overcome in old age. This confusion becomes particularly pronounced if we consider that one way of reading the findings of the emerging adulthood literature is that the extent of dependency in late adolescence is expanding rather than shrinking, at least in the industrial west.

Against this background the iPhone becomes a strangely overloaded object. As the people in the Tate modern installation showed, it is literally a torch we can use to pierce the darkness. It allows us to absent ourselves from social situations, escaping from others and their recalcitrant disinclination to cater to the dispositions we are often only dimly aware we posses. It leaves the knowledge system at our fingers, in the process allowing us to evade the limitations of our capacity to remember and our willingness to even try. It is our entire network, all those we know and all those we might wish to know, compressed into the palm of our hands. The latent capacity of the object is bewildering and overwhelming: in allowing us to say whatever we want to whomever we want to, it obscures the question of why we would want to do these things. Stripped of the horizons imposed by scarcity, we struggle to orientate ourselves to the endless possibilities it affords. The iPhone comes to represent everything we could do and could be but are not. It helps us repudiate our dependency (“I don’t need them, there’s no end to the things I could do”) without making us independent – in fact it undermines this because the simultaneous expansion of possibility and contraction of grounds upon which to choose can easily engender compulsivity (i.e. never exhausting the novelty in my hand and having no grounds upon which to choose between novelties leads to mindless repetition and inertia).

In this sense, we can see the iPhone as an object both reassuring and destabilising. It induces a sense of autonomy but at a cost of undercutting our capacity to sustain meaningful commitments in a life structured around its omnipresence. It helps us symbolically overcome our dependence but detracts from our capacity to meaningfully enter into new relations with all the capacity for dependency they herald: why commit to these people when I can so easily meet those people? What I’m trying to get at is the relationship between a technological artefact like the iPhone and our capacity to live with what Ian Craib calls ‘disappointment’:

Why disappointment? In common usage, and in the dictionary, we talk about disappointment as what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise. One of the difficulties of living in our world is that it is perhaps increasingly less clear exactly what we might expect or hope for or desire. In fact, these words mean different things. The most basic is desire: it carries connotations of needing urgently, yearning, to the point almost of trying to will something into existence. Sometimes we desire something so completely that we revert to our infant selves and scream, metaphorically or in reality, in the hope that our desire may be realised – just as, if we were lucky, the milk used to appear in response to our screams from the cot.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 3

In fact I’d go as far as to venture that the iPhone is the most potent artefact ever constructed for escaping disappointment. Our desire to get out of the mess of life finds expression in this shiny implement for which we pay so much and from which we expect so much. It serves this practical function (distraction, connection, escape) but it also comes to represent our capacity to float free of others, wriggling free of the bonds of dependency in which we are all irrevocably entwined. However it is a fleeting object, soon to be obsolete, offering a chimerical sense of autonomy generative more of compulsion than purposiveness.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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