What is your relationship with your mobile/smartphone like?
“If I don’t have my mobile with me, I feel as though I have lost something. I’m not OK. There’s something missing. I turn off the ring tone when I take the bus, or when I’m in the mosque. But I never turn the mobile off.” (Afghan Student, Peshawar, from Sadie Plant (2002), On the Mobile [PDF])
Our dependence on mobile phones is, for many people, very marked: they make us feel part of the ‘safe world’ through being connected to people we care about, emergency services, and increasingly through smartphone technology, to the shopping, information, banking and other services available through the internet. Their relatively speedy introduction and spread through societies globally is, for some, accompanied by slower, pervasive and unwelcome shifts in our social behaviours, our relationships with others, and even in our sense of what it means to be human. Mark Fisher writes that
“the insatiable urge to check messages, email or Facebook is a compulsion, akin to scratching an itch which gets worse the more one scratches. Like all compulsions, this behaviour feeds on dissatisfaction. If there are no messages, you feel disappointed and check again very quickly. But if there are messages you also feel disappointed: no amount of messages is ever enough.” (The Privatisation of Stress)
So, is ‘the mobile’ changing us? Rupert Jenkinson provided us at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe with some ideas we might use in thinking about the answer to this question. He began with the views of several existentialist thinkers on the nature of human communication, as a way of introducing the possibility that deep changes in how humans relate to each other are possible if the structure of how we communicate is reshaped by technology. Technology, on this view, is not a neutral ‘instrument’ that we use to fulfil pre-given goals or purposes. Instead, its use reshapes what we think our goals and purposes are, perhaps displacing some of our other purposes in the process.
Rupert noted that existentialism, beginning with Soren Kierkegaard, denies that human beings have an essence, something like a human nature, that is invariant across time and space. Rather, there is a responsibility devolving on humans to choose what and who they will become. Martin Buber introduced the idea that human relationships with the world are structured in two different ways: the relation of ‘I-It’ through which we relate to things, and the ‘I-Thou‘, through which we relate to other humans. Martin Heidegger proposed that we ‘encounter’ things as tools that are meaningful to us through the fringe of possibilities that surround them, and which set out for us what can be done with them. On the other hand, other people, Buber’s ‘Thou’ demand something from us: we stand to them in a relation of ‘solicitude’ in which our concern and care for their purposes is counterposed to our own purposes.
In deciding what to make of ourselves, ‘authentic’ human relationships are vitally important. Listening, attentiveness, respect and so on are necessary for proper communication – -recalling Aristotle’s much older definition of true friendship as a relationship in which the other person’s ends are seen as constitutive of one’s own happiness, and Immanuel Kant’s injunction never to treat others as means to ends, rather than ends in themselves. Yet the 20th century was characterised, for Heidegger and others, by the instrumentalisation of human relationships to the world and to each other. Rupert mentioned here the Marxian philosopher Jürgen Habermas‘s concept of communication, and his distinction between genuine communication (as disclosure of selves) and instrumental communication (as strategic, self interested manipulation).
Rupert suggested, drawing on George Myerson’s 2001 book Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone, that the mobile represents a thoroughgoing instrumentalisation of communication, and an implicit existentialist choice about the kinds of beings we desire to be: beings whose only concern is with satisfying their wants and preferences, rather than in discovering each other. Particularly through the ongoing integration of social media and mobile telephony, it automatises communication into a kind of stimulus-response process, without any questioning or revelatory moment of understanding being possible within this process. Further, the integration of the mobile and its supporting system of infrastructures and artefacts with communication means that money and power are ever more entwined with how we talk to each other – through online advertising, paid for services and so on. Does this mean that the space for critical thought and even philosophy itself is shrinking, along with possibilities of authentic communication?
In discussion, audience members pointed out that there were likely to be as many ‘styles’ of mobile use as there are users. Does this mean that, in fact, mobile technology is a neutral instrument, or does it constrain us to behave in particular ways and to have specific kinds of relationships with each other? Some pointed out that access to mobile internet and possession of a mobile number is increasingly necessary to access a range of services, which is definitely constraining the lives of the elderly and poor. If there is an inherent dynamic in how technology shapes us and our purposes (as has been argued by Jacques Ellul, for example), perhaps it can be resisted if we are confident in who we are and what we want to use a technology for. It might be, however, that there are significant generational differences in how technologies like mobiles are taken up and used, with younger users who have grown up with the ubiquity of mobiles seeing the kinds of communication they make possible as an intrinsic part of who they are. For such users, mobiles and the ways they allow the internet to be used enable them to explore new ways of presenting the self, creating online identities that may be entirely ‘fake’ (although it may be doubted that this is very different from the way we generally behave in ‘social space’, given the work of sociologists like Erving Goffman).
At the same time, technologies are not, arguably, independent of the social context in which they have been developed. Science and Technology Studies explores how technologies are not just collections of artefacts, but compounds – socio-technical systems – that reflect particular social priorities and are adapted to particular socio-political systems. Would mobile telephony have taken on a different form in a communist society, then?
If there is a different between instrumental and authentically human forms of communication, we might also note that, with the mobile, how it changes communication might not actually be its most significant influence on who we are. The creation of ‘distracted subjects’, individuals who are permanently distracted ‘from the moment’ (as one audience member put it), might be the biggest effect of how the mobile connects us to the rest of the world and the information that flows through this connection. Fisher’s essay quoted above points out how one is always on tenterhooks for the next status update, the next message. He goes on to observe that:
“Sherry Turkle has talked to people who are unable to resist the urge to send and receive texts on their mobile telephone, even when they are driving a car. At the risk of a laboured pun, this is a perfect example of [Freud and Lacan’s concept of the] death drive, which is defined not by the desire to die, but by being in the grip of a compulsion so powerful that it makes one indifferent to death. What’s remarkable here is the banal content of the drive. This isn’t the tragedy of something like The Red Shoes, in which the ballerina is killed by the sublime rapture of dance: these are people who are prepared to risk death so that they can open a 140 character message which they know perfectly well is likely to be inane.”