The comfort of a smartphone

By David Beer

Last month I made the mistake of putting my mobile phone in the washing machine. Despite being quickly retrieved, the phone died. I left it to dry out for a few days, but nothing. There was an encouraging flashing light, but this was a false dawn. Breaking your phone is probably a fairly common experience and shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but what I was surprised about was the feeling that it created. There was something disconcerting about not having my phone with me. This moment of stupidity was a moment of rupture for my normal routines. It provided me with some insight into just how much we rely on our mobile devices. This reliance is not just based on the fact that these phones allow us to keep in touch, to stay networked and to participate in the incessant din of social media. The response I had was not just about the missing functions of the phone and my sudden inability to stay networked. Rather this was about the comforting presence that these objects have in our lives.

We might go as far as to say that we develop something of an emotional attachment with our smart phones, particularly as they become embedded in our bodily routines. They provide a comforting weight in our hands, pockets and bags. We slide them out, check them, hold them, place them back. When we think about the impact of phones, we usually just think about what it is that they can do. But they also have a material presence in our lives. Our relationship with them is tactile and physical. They are not just devices or portals onto an informational world, they are also objects.

Sherry Turkle has used the phrase ‘evocative objects’ to think about the types of connections that we have with the things that we surround ourselves with. Turkle’s point is that what seem like quite mundane objects can have profound personal meanings for us – triggering memories and emotional responses. For Turkle, we should think of these types of evocative objects ‘as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations of thought’. We connect to these objects and use them to negotiate and stimulate emotional responses or to trigger thoughts and feelings. We share experiences, moments and sentiments with these objects – which, in Turkle’s edited volume, can range from a camera, to a suitcase, to a rolling pin, to a yellow raincoat. This is what the anthropologist Daniel Miller has called the ‘comfort of things’. His study of a street of 30 households revealed a deep connection that the residents had to the stuff that filled their homes, these objects were seen to have a comforting presence in their lives. We probably all have objects around with which we have a strong emotional attachment, and which are both evocative and comforting. I’m sitting writing this next to a miner’s lamp which I keep on my desk, it means nothing to anyone except me. Yet, for me, it brings both strong memories and a sense of familiarity and reassurance.

In the 1930s, Walter Benajmin wrote some brief reflections on what it was like to be reunited with his book collection – it had been in transit when he had been forced to move across Europe. Benjamin uses that experience of prizing open the packing cases to reflect on the attachment that he had with his books. His essay explores the importance of the materiality of the book collection. Benjamin’s book collector sees through the objects into their past. Part of our attachment with these objects, Benjamin’s piece suggests, comes from the shared biographies of the book and its owner – the yellowed paper, the coffee stains, the dog eared pages, the dusty cover. He suggests that what is written in the book is not necessarily the only thing that is of importance to the collector, rather it is the presence of that book in the glass case or on the shelf that matters – the cloth, cardboard, paper and binding that can be held in the hand or put on display. Benjamin’s attachment to his books is material. It is not about the function of the media, but their presence in the collector’s life.

As we live with them, we develop a kind of personal attachment with our phones. This is so familiar to us now that we might only notice it in moments of rupture –when a phone is lost. We might even go as far as to say that they are ‘evocative objects’ with which we have a visceral bodily connection. Although we move onto the next phone when the time comes for an upgrade, transferring this temporary attachment to the next phone – perhaps experiencing a brief moment of uncertainty and discomfort in these moments of change and before our new object becomes familiar. We are attached to what it is that these devices can do, facilitating our creeping connectivity, but they are also objects that are comforting and reassuring.

I’ve argued elsewhere that smart devices have a kind of comforting effect that can be linked to the broader neoliberal political agenda, making us work smarter and not harder. Again though, that piece was concerned with what these devices are seen to be capable off. The notion of smartness there was a concept that performed a particular role, both comforting us and provoking action. My experience with my broken phone suggests that they are not only reassuring us in this way, but that they are also comforting in their material presence as objects in our lives and in our hands. It is perhaps hard to separate these mobile media devices themselves from their functionality, but it does help us to notice how attached we have become to their presence. Smartphones, it seems, are comforting both in the functional role that they perform and as potentially evocative objects that are, as Turkle put it, companions to our emotional lives.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His most recent book is Punk Sociology.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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