In one’s hand: an extension of self and society

by Mike Duggan

The materiality of things, both physically and symbolically, alongside our fetishisation of things is clear to see in our relationships with personal technologies. Simple observations of people waiting; on train platforms, for the bus or at the bar with a device of one kind or another in hand, are examples of which we are all well accustomed. In contemporary society the objectification and, crucially, the personalisation of digital technologies – smartphones in particular – is perhaps the latest, and most obvious, iteration of our fascination with technical objects. Observations in public space(s) are now seldom described without a narrative portraying the varying degrees with which people engage with the screens of their personal devices. People are touching, tapping, typing, swiping, clicking and stroking their screens all around us. Such instances are described to us by others and observed for ourselves each and every time we walk out into the street.

We have become both familiar and used to this, as well as fond and disparaging of these motions. There are for instance, countless narratives that reiterate the absent presence of smartphone users, most of which explicitly characterise the non-humanness of these interactions. In addition there exists an overflowing vat of positivity and marketing jargon around the benefits of using our smart mobiles, most of which we are weary of. And yet we persist, both in our telling of these tales and indeed in our use of these technical things. Why? One way of looking at it is that they can be fascinating, interesting, pleasing, practical, comforting, convenient and reflective of whom we think we are or would like to be, as well as plainly annoying, disruptive, trivial, faceless, isolating, exclusionary and symbolic of ubiquitous conformity. 

The screens of these devices, and the capabilities of the devices themselves are undoubtedly alluring. They often hold our gazes for longer than we would like, and sometimes for not long enough. Such devices are much liked by their users; loved even. The result being that we increasingly have quite personal relationships with these devices, or at least with what they can do or how they can be used. Engaging with them can mean interacting socially, culturally, economically and politically with a society at large, or simply with close friends and family. Indeed, engagements can also produce long periods of detrimental or even desirable periods of isolation. Moreover playing with them in our hands can indulge a nervous moment or satisfy that slight and yet still seductive sensory stimulus created by the tactility of smooth surfaces. Smartphones tend to play on our social as well as our tactile and embodied desires and discomforts.

Whilst the objectification and fetishisation of technical matter is nothing particularly new – we have long sought personal relationships with both analogue and digital technical objects in an effort to make the seemingly banal and lifeless a part of us; a curated reflection of us –  the spectacle of the smartphone in use appears a significant shift in the way these relationships have previously been manifested in public. The relationships we have with other technologies are apparently hidden far from view, perhaps only really taking effect in the privacy of our minds. We do not, it appears, offer similar demonstrations of affection to the other personal technologies intertwined with our lives, and yet we do remain affectionate towards other things.

Many may attribute this cultural, and it must be said visual, shift to the rise of Apple and particularly the personal devices created under the supervision of the late Steve Jobs. Such devices, beginning with the iMac (1998) and then later the iPod (2001) and most recently and most successfully the iPhone (2007) have transformed the ways in which people have engaged with digital technologies on a personal as well as cultural scale. Following the success of Sony’s Walkman, Apple and perhaps most notably Jobs, pushed forward the idea that people could have and would want a personal relationship with digital technologies in similar ways to that which they had with analogue technologies. The evocable “i” that precedes Apple’s product ranges is most telling. As is the sheer diversity of the accessory’s market that has spawned from it. 

In the same way that people objectify and fetishise fashionable clothing, home ware, mechanical apparatus, and children’s toys, people now objectify and fetishise the smartphones in their pockets. The difference being that now such dedications to things are glaringly obvious. Nevertheless, much like other technical objects, smartphones are now extensions of the self and therefore reflections of the self, both to oneself and to others. 

However, is it really the case that our use of these complex boxes of digital components and accompanying software’s has revealed new ways of interacting with technical artifacts, or even new ways of being? Perhaps it is simply that these interactions appear to us, initially so alien, as epochal changes in how we have pored over technical things for centuries? There is much rhetoric over a smartphone revolution and yet the social and embodied processes produced by our personal interactions with technical things is hardly exclusive to the smartphone. It is perhaps the sudden shifts in what we see on the street that has prompted this reaction, for take-up in technology is rarely so swift.  

Let’s take the analogue watch as an example. The watch is bound up in the minute social processes of identity as well as in the broader ideals of the social, economic and political systems that help produce the world for its wearer. Furthermore, wearing and working the watch is something of a sensory and embodied experience. The turning of the wrist, its captivating face, the reassuring sound of time, the occasional sharp niggle felt as a link catches on a hair all come together to produce the intimate relationship one may have with their device. A watch and its bearer – a technical object and its user – are committed to the dynamic relationship produced by the workings of society and an object’s sensory affects.

Whilst the smartphone is undoubtedly kitted out with more functionality, encased in an aesthetic that appeals to many more people than a single watch design does – no doubt down to the excessive promotional push of their makers – the basic concept remains remarkably similar. The smartphone is similarly involved in the minute processes of social and personal identity curation as well as the broader socio-political and economic systems that govern our time. It is a device that reflects the identity of its user whilst also being a complex computer whose use and affects are molded by the society in which it is connected. In use it is bound up in the very being of one’s lifeworld. It has become an extension of oneself. It is both physically and metaphorically a tool to hand. Indeed, using a smartphone has become constitutive of the phenomenological experience for many.

According to British anthropologist Tim Ingold, objects in what he calls life’s ‘meshwork’ are things – meaningful, symbolic and valuable coming-togethers of matter(s) and practice that emerge along lines which are susceptible to the entanglements of life’s complexities. Ingold’s work suggestthat objects are always things in our life-world, no matter how technically complex, for all of life is a series of emerging entanglements woven with the lines of things. Whether things are breathing bodies, organic structures or technical apparatus is irrelevant. Each works with, through or against the other in an emerging meshwork otherwise known as a life, or more objectively as an always-emerging process. Smartphones are hardly exempt from this understanding of technics and being. The phone itself lays down a line and becomes part of life’s meshwork, entangled with the lines of our own lives as well as those of other beings and matter.

Nonetheless, and in response to our current smartphone saturated situation, perhaps it’s best to ask what is new about our apparent fascination with these screening things? Do such engagements reveal novel insights into how we want to be in the world, or do they highlight just how alluring technical objects with highly dynamic functionality can be in establishing our place in the world? Alternatively is our fascination revealing of a society increasingly tailored towards a mode of production committed to ‘always-on’, isolating and attention seeking production and consumption practices? Most likelyis that the allure of our pocket-sized screens is revealing novel insights into all of the above and more. It is the latest iteration of a popular technology – perhaps the most popular of our time – that pushes our understanding of what it means to be human.

A smartphone is sold, and brought, on the promise of its functionality as well as its desirable and socially affective aesthetic. Design teams – spearheaded by the likes of Apple, Samsung and HTC – have undoubtedly created personal devices that deliver in spades on all fronts. And yet there is no true telling in how these, or indeed any technologies are folded into the social, political, economic and embodied dynamism of one’s life-world, especially from the position of the observer. Certainly such complexity, design and marketing have done more to entice current consumers than the analogue watches on offer, but that is not to say that with the first editions of the wrist watch – alongside a relative understanding of the market and marketing forces at the time – similar desires were not evoked amongst those that knew about and had access to said devices. 

If the prescribed mundanities of everyday life continue to be passed off onto these devices, alongside the desire for the latest technical thing, the allure of the smartphone and the resulting fascination isn’t likely to evaporate anytime soon, despite the encroaching ‘wearables’ revolution. More likely such allure and use will seep into the background of everyday life, similarly to the personal technologies of ages gone by. The watch, trainers, notebooks and pens have all successfully filtered into the background of everyday life. These technologies remain relevant as they continue to co-constitute our identities, produce and reflect our society. There is no reason to think that smartphones will not follow suit. At such a point perhaps the touching, tapping, typing, swiping, clicking and stroking of smartphones will go unnoticed, or at least unquestioned. 

Smartphones are fast becoming the central hub to which many of our everyday practices are directed through. Many of the mundane workings of everyday life are increasingly dealt with, processed and spat out again by these devices. If we are continually chasing to keep up, or to put it another way, periodically seduced by the social and sensuous lifestyles sold to us by personalised technologies, we are likely to continue to rely on these devices. Moreover as smartphones continue to play a major role in social and economic complexities of daily life we become inclined to blindly otp-in or agree with the terms and conditions all too often accepted without question. The alternative can be exclusionary. The result observationally obvious. 

The question is whether one must be wary of their decision to be included, for the smartphone lugs with it the kinds of baggage that other technologies do not. The baggage of ‘big data’ for instance, with all its pockets omitting privacy concerns, rights to be forgotten and digital wastage are important considerations to examine in one’s use. As are one’s decision to ignore or accept the entanglements and inequalities of a smartphone’s manufacture and distribution. The line laid by a smartphone is entangled in a dynamic mesh of lines of which we do not always know the origins or trajectories of. Whereas our engagements with analogue watches remain largely known, our interactions with smartphones appear endlessly open and accessible in the cloud, to those we do not know and perhaps should not trust so forthrightly.

Mike Duggan is a Cultural Geographer interested in how digital technologies have become entangled everyday experiences of place. He is a PhD candidate within the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group at Royal Holloway University of London. His PhD is in collaboration with Ordnance Survey and the EPSRC.


Categories: Digital Sociology

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2 replies »

  1. I wonder if the digital watch has changed perceptions of time – now a series of instants with no past or future to see?

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