Your Phone Doesn’t Need You (And Probably Doesn’t Like You)
Photo credit: Apple
With every new upgrade, with every new app, we rely on our phones more than ever before. Although I refrain from using the word “addiction,” as it seems inaccurate considering the conditions of those experiencing physical chemical addiction, we are clearly dependent on our phones. Pathetically dependent. I have seen responsible adults catch five-minute Uber rides because they literally don’t know how to walk home. Our phones give us directions, transfers and deposits money via mobile banking, helps us order McDonald’s for home delivery, researches how to properly change a flat tire, and lets us freely talk (or type) trash on Twitter. Yet this relationship with our phone is a relationship of one-way dependency: while we may report feeling “naked” without our phones, our phones don’t need or want us in the same way. That is, if we are to view the arrangement with our phones as an intimate interpersonal relationship, it’s a bad romance. We are losing our personal autonomy by depositing it into 128GB of storage, a space that is big enough to store our entire digital selves.
Recently, this relationship with our phones was put on display in “Up Late,” the latest iPhone XR ad promoting “The longest battery life in an iPhone ever.” As Julie Andrews’ “Stay Awake” plays eerily in the background, the camera switches between three separate scenes of people “losing power” while their phones “stay awake”: A woman falling asleep on the couch with her phone in hand, a parking attendant snoozing while his carefully propped up iPhone streams a soccer match, and a man nodding off as he sits at the foot of the bed and stares at his baby monitor. In my view, this ad is frightening not because it promotes iPhone “addiction” (as other articles have pointed out), but because it also illuminates in blue light the reality of our dependent relationship.
As shown by the woman sleeping on the couch as her phone waits expectantly in her hand, our phones are often the last thing we see before we fall asleep, and the first thing we look at when we wake up. We touch them more than we touch any other person. We make them recognize the contours of our faces, every line of our fingerprints. If our phones had a body of flesh and blood rather than glass and metal, one might make the mistake of saying that we have fallen in love. Yet it is worth asking whether or not the young woman in the ad has a grip on her phone or the inverse.
Meanwhile, the parking attendant asleep on the job brings to mind a societal inability to perform tasks without the constant companionship of our phones. Even if they are not necessary to complete a task such as walking the dog or running a short errand, our phones, or other similar sized screens, functions as an ever present “friend” that offers entertainment and background noise. Even gas stations have mini-monitors to keep us “busy” and connected during the supposedly lonely minute of pumping gas. Given our easy access to screens, doing nothing has become strenuous. Silences are longer, harder, and more boring when we know we could be listening to a true crime podcast. “Up Late” brings light to the reality that something must be always powered on…even if we “have lost power.”
For us digital natives, those who have never known a time without cell phones, it is important to remember that it wasn’t always like this.
Arguably, the beginning of our modern romance with the cellphone can be traced back to 1983 with the release of the first commercially available cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x. This unnecessarily long named phone is the epitome of what millennials would refer to as the “brick phone”. The DynaTac required a 10 hour charge for only an hour of battery life, had no voicemail capabilities, was extremely expensive and thus was a relatively exclusive means of communication. Technological advances allowed for the production of smaller, more efficient phones that are more accessible and affordable. Eventually the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 transformed cell phones into multimedia devices that routinely fulfill our needs. Because of their ability to replace cameras, desktop computers, and other forms of technology, cell phones have become as necessary and common as shoes. “You don’t really need to have either, but modern life would be drastically different without them.”
However, as “Up Late” illustrates, the relationship that has been established between us and our devices is not a codependent relationship. Imagine that your phone is a person with whom you have an established relationship with. Through what lenses should we contextualize these relationships?
In the first lens, we have one thumb in our mouth, one thumb swiping through unsuitable suitors. Our fine motor skills are limited to texting, tapping, and scrolling. We are infants, about 1-5 months old, in the middle of the normal symbiotic stage. It is at this age where, according to Mahler’s separation-individuation theory of child development, where an infant begins to understand its caregiver as a vessel to fulfill needs. Infants are fed, cared for, and exposed to positive stimuli such as smiling and cuddling. The most important function of the caregiver is to adapt to their child’s needs and to be always available. In this scenario, our phones function as the caregivers and we are the babies bawling when the WiFi goes down. Our cell phones have evolved from things that pretentious people carry in their cars to an entity ready and waiting to give us everything we want and need. When we are hungry, our phones give us directions to a sandwich shop with stellar Yelp reviews (or we can stay at home and just wait for the Postmates delivery to arrive). If we are bored, we have the world at our fingers. You can listen to Ira Glass whisper about an unappreciated American on This American Life, you can watch a human being eat an 18-inch burrito in under two minutes, you can play Candy Crush. The most important thing our phone can do is to be available, to have a long battery life, to always be “on.”
In the second lens our phones function as a significant other in an unhealthy intimate relationship where we need our partner more than they need us. It is having a partner whom we cry for when they leave but who isn’t perturbed by your absence. It is having a partner who provides emotional support, entertainment, organization, and mediates all communication with the outside world. While you bring relatively little to the table as a run of the mill consumer, you cannot (or do not want to) survive without your partner, the phone. While Siri does not feel distressed by our absence, we are powerless with an uncharged phone.
I am not the only one who has thought to look at our dependence on, and intimacy with, our devices and technology. This type of relationship can be best seen in Spike Jonze’s melancholy sci-fi drama, Her (2013). Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, begins a romantic relationship with his new operating system, Samantha (essentially the hyper intelligent version of Siri voiced by Scarlett Johanansen), following a recent divorce. Along with organizing emails, editing his letters at work, and offering general life advice, Samantha is able to provide emotional support. Theodore depends on her in both the professional and private realms of his life. However, he eventually discovers that not only does Samantha communicate with thousands of other people, she has also fallen in love with hundreds. While he (and 8,316 others) needs her, she is not individually attached in the same way. As Samantha tells Theodore upon his discovery of her digital infidelity, “I’m yours and I’m not yours.” Our phones are uniquely individualized necessary accessories... yet they don’t belong to us.
The panic that Theodore experiences as Samantha is unresponsive during a system update, is a depiction of his dependence. He runs wildly through a plaza, continually tapping an unresponsive screen and eventually trips and falls in the midst of his frenzy. We run our dead phones to an outlet like an ambulance runs a dying body to the hospital.
For me, the most frightening part of “Up Late” is the notion of “losing power.” While our phones stay charged and brightly lit, we are seemingly dull and unilluminated. Power, if seen through the lens of a relationship, refers more to autonomy and independence, rather than the ability to stay awake. As the man watching his baby falls asleep, the message that “you’ll lose power before it will” is not just about addiction to our devices—it is about losing our independence. We lose power when our phone grows into an appendage rather than an accessory.
We should be in a constant state of reevaluating the relationship we have with our phones. As our phones become more capable, we become more dependent on them. It is true that our phones allow us to stay connected and let us do more. In 2019, bathroom breaks can be more productive than ever before. But at what cost? So that we rely on our devices to fulfill every short-term need? So that we can fall in love with a metal body that lacks any real intimacy?
Maybe the next time our phones run out of power we should let them stay “dead” so that we can stay on and active. Although we have chosen to participate in a society where owning a phone is mandatory, remember that it is possible to function without them.
About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.