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The Cell is the Phone – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies

It was in 1983, a year before the age immortalized in authoritarian auspiciousness by George Orwell, that a judge in New Mexico began the program of monitoring people’s movements with the help of mobile technology. Since then tracking people with ever-present technology (with court authorization) has become a fairly unremarkable aspect of the United State’s criminal justice system. Ankle monitors provide the authorities with consistent information about the location of those fitted with such devices, keeping the authorities appraised as to whether or not the person being monitored is straying from the confines in which they are meant to stay. The continuing usage of ankle monitors is a testament to their perceived usefulness, as well as proof of the value that is seen in being able to track people’s movements.

While such monitoring may have been novel in 1983, in recent years such ankle monitors seem almost repetitive. Why mandate a person wear a tracking device on their ankle when most people are only too happy – indeed they are paying for the privilege – of having an equally sophisticated tracking device in their pocket? Or, to rephrase the question: who needs ankle monitors, when people have smart phones?

1. One Device to Rule them All

Most humans prefer not to lug heavy machinery with them wherever they go. To do so would be troublesome, inconvenient, tiring, and require a substantial shift towards the navigation of space in the course of a regular day. This is not to say, in the past, that some people might not have wanted to have their technological tools with them, but doing so would have proved problematic. The early computers occupied entire rooms, early personal computers still took up quite a lot of space (especially when paired with weighty monitors), and early laptops weighed heavily upon a person’s lap (not to mention their backpack).

For technology, specifically digital technology, to take on a truly omnipresent role in society it was essential for such devices to shrink to a size where carrying them ceased to be a burden. While laptop computers were early entries into this shrinking effort, their size was still too large for constant use. The laptop, after all, could not easily fit into a person’s pocket; and it was hardly an ideal device for a person to quickly pull out in order to check e-mail before returning it to the pocket from whence it came. Rather, the devices that allowed for the easy entrance of technology (and the Internet) into the standard flow of every day activity are best encapsulated in the varying devices that are called “smart phones.”

The strength of the smart phone as the emissary of “always connected existence” was abetted by the variety of smart phones (which includes a range in prices) that makes it so these devices could make significant headway across socio-economic divisions. Furthermore the size of the devices encourages users to always keep their smart phones with them, and the relatively long battery life allows users to keep their phones on.

While smart phones represent impressive improvements upon the basic capabilities of earlier cellular telephones, the increased functionality of smart phones pushes them several steps away from the technical space of “phones.” Certainly, smart phones are still able to make and receive phone calls; however, they increasingly act as pocket sized tablet computers, used as much – if not more – for Internet access and the use of a variety of mobile applications (“apps”) as they are for actually making phone calls. The link to the phone systems of old remains less in the actual usage of the devices and more in the way that smart phone users access the Internet through the mobile broadband networks created and still controlled by telecom companies (such as Verizon, AT&T, etc…). It is upon the infrastructure of the phone system that smart phones can be used for purposes quite distinct from actually having a voice-to-voice communication with another human being.

Older cellular phones provided few services in comparison to smart phones, this is not to say that cellular phones (sometimes called “feature phones) could only make calls, but one was not likely to watch movies, play complicated games, read the news, or explore the Internet on such devices. Indeed, the basic cellular phone may have become a device that people grew accustomed to always having with them, always having on for that matter, but its use was always hampered by its limited functions – a basic cellular phone was hardly a replacement for a computer. Though “phone” remained part of its name, the smart phone represented (and represents) a wholly different device, one which can claim to be the only device a person may need. Beyond a phone, the smart phone is also a media player, personal assistant, GPS, e-reader, camera (still and video), and platform for running a wide variety of applications. A user of an older cellular phone generally found themselves still in need of other devices, but the smart phone user is better able to see in their smart phone everything they need and thus are able to come to rely upon it to a far greater degree – after all, it does far more for them.

And amidst all of this it is also worth noting that the smart phone is a truly fantastic device through which the actions of an individual can be monitored by a range of groups from the telecoms (Verizon, AT&T) to the device makers (Apple, Google) to the application creator (Facebook) to the government that asks for the data gathered by these other groups. Smart phones may have dropped the term “cellular” in their terminology, and the wisdom of the shift away from such language is important. After all, as people become increasingly chained to a device and as a device increasingly acts as an constantly watching warden, it is wise not to remind people too forcibly that not all cells have metal bars.

2. One device to Find them All

Smart phones continuously transmit information: from metadata about phone calls made, to the content of e-mails, to information about websites visited, to location data. As a person walks though the world their smart phone continually connects – or tries to connect – to cell phone towers and as a result a detailed picture of where a person is (in physical space) begins to emerge. This information is useful for the purposes of GPS applications, or other applications that have a lot to do with where a person happens to be, but it also can provide quite a bit of other information regarding a person’s location. For example, stores can use the information harnessed from the wi-fi antennas in their stores to know how customers are moving through a store – what products they are stopping in front of, for how long, as well as being able to detect who simply walks by the store and whether they paused in front of the store.

To know where a person is at all times (or to know where a person was) is a powerful piece of information, and one that has very obvious implications for a person’s privacy. While it may be that transmitting this location information is key for the smart phone’s ability to provide certain services (like GPS) this also effectively ensures that the smart phone is always keeping tabs on a person’s location. When this location information is combined with other information about a person’s activities a very rich – though not necessarily in a good way – image of a person’s life emerges. From visits to a doctor’s office, to attendance at a protest rally, to proof that when you “called in sick” you actually went to the beach, location data created by the phone is all there waiting to be used. “Created” is here used quite intentionally, as it takes the introduction of a device like a smart phone into a person’s daily life for this immense data stream to begin. While closed circuit surveillance cameras may pick up many movements they cannot compare to the smart phones ability to consistently track.

The loss of privacy and disappearance of anonymous movement effectively put a person under constant watch; and while there are some tools that can be used (“tracking” settings can be turned off, “airplane mode” can be engaged) there is also recent reporting that some groups (the NSA) are able to track a phone even when a smart phone is turned off.  While the hope that such information would be considered private is simultaneously a false comfort (private information that is passed on to a large telecom ceases to truly be your private property) and a matter of legal skepticism as some recent court rulings have found that such location data is not protected by the fourth amendment.

Thus the smart phone has the built in capacity to act as a more efficient tracker of a person’s daily activity than a highly trained secret police officer, after all, few people (if any) would willingly be followed by a police and corporate spy at all times. But with a smart phone, people pay for the privilege of being constantly tracked. The location of a person’s cell is therefore always knowable, even if it is a cell that moves around.

3. One device to Bring them All  

The history of technology is a wasteland of broken machines filled with mountains of plastic and metal from the devices that did not catch on, or that enjoyed only a brief surge of popularity. In 2013 it would be difficult to claim that smart phones have not been highly successful and popular devices. A success that is largely attributable to smart phones being the right device for the right moment. As people became ever more entangled and intertwined with the Internet and as ever more of their possessions became digital (mp3s, streaming video, e-books, etc…) people were confronted by an overwhelming glut of digital information, and it was further complicated by the demand upon people to have multiple devices to access this excess. From the perspective of “how many things can I fit in my pockets” smart phones were an obvious improvement over needing to have an mp3 player and a cellular phone and an e-reader and other devices. The smart phone emerged as the solution to a problem that had been created by its less technologically complex cousins. In some respects, the situation was foretold by Lewis Mumford in his book Technics and Civilization thusly:

“The difficulties of transport and communication before 1850 automatically acted as a selective screen, which permitted no more stimuli to reach a person than he could handle…Nowadays this screen has vanished: the remote is as close as the near: the ephemeral is as emphatic as the durable. While the tempo of the day has been quickened by instantaneous communication the rhythm of the day has been broken: the radio, the telephone, the daily newspaper clamor for attention, and amid the host of the stimuli to which people are subjected, it becomes more and more difficult to absorb and cope with any one part of the environment to say nothing of dealing with it as a whole.” (Mumford, 272)

It is important to note that the above lines were first published in 1934, many years before the first personal computer, let alone the first smart phone. Yet Mumford’s words resonate with the situation in which the contemporary individual (in 2013) finds themselves assaulted by a constant influx of information made all the more perilous by the fact that it now assaults a person at all moments; yet the smart phone in some ways promises to help people navigate this informational inundation by providing them with an easy tool through which to make sense of all of this information. Yet, if the problem is all of the informational content of our technological society one would be justified in being suspicious as to what extent another piece of technology is going to act as a solution.

The smart phone provides an individual with a tool by which they may always remain “on” and by which they may always remain engaged. If much of a person’s personal life is going on in a stream of Tweets, Facebook updates, images uploaded to Instagram, videos put on YouTube, interactions on dating apps, and so forth than a smart phone ensures that a person will be able to keep up with this stream of activity at all times. In Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed  he presents the tale of  young woman who is out for the evening but who is obsessively checking her smart phone to make sure that she is at “the” event, and once she eventually gets to “the” party she proceeds to use her phone to take pictures and tweet about it (Rushkoff, 42/43). Though Rushkoff’s tale is anecdotal it nevertheless captures the way in which many people are bound to their smart phone and through it are bound to the Internet, regardless of what is happening around them.

If we are prisoners (aware or unaware) in a technological society than smart phones are sophisticated shackles that keep us simultaneously manacled by technological society and also act as the best way for us to interact with and make sense of that technological society. While it may be the case that the Internet, and by extension the technologies used to access the Internet, provide people with powerful tools to shape the world, it is nevertheless worth recalling – in the words of Max Horkheimer (in Eclipse of Reason) that:

“the more devices we invent for dominating nature, the more must we serve them if we are to survive.” (Horkheimer, 66)

So even as we navigate the Internet, it in turn is navigating us; and as we invent fanciful new toys to help us exert control over the forces we have unleashed so do we become ever more reliant upon those devices. This notion of reliance is key in any attempt to critically contemplate smart phones, as it is the growing reliance upon these devices that makes the shackle tighter, while encouraging us to see the shackle as a pretty bracelet. The smart phone takes on a significance beyond what would be linked simply to a basic device, it becomes an example of what Erich Fromm called (in The Fear of Freedom) the “magic helper” something for which the:

“essential quality is to represent a  certain function, namely to protect, help, and develop the individual, to be with him and never leave him alone.” (Fromm, 149)

As the ever-present “magic helper” the smart phone takes on the form of the essential ally that shall not forsake the user. While it is true that Fromm was discussing the “magic helper” in a way that could be applied to other people (largely in the context of an authoritarian state), it seems to remain an apt analogy when technology becomes a totalizing and omnipresent force. Fromm expands on the notion of the magic helper, and people’s need for it thusly:

“The intensity of the relatedness to the magic helper is in reverse proportion to the ability to express spontaneously one’s own intellectual, emotional, and sensuous potentialities. In other words, one hopes to get everything one expects from life, from the magic helper, instead of by one’s own actions. The more this is the case, the more is the centre of life shifted form one’s own person to the magic helper and [its] personifications. The question is then no longer how to live oneself, but how to manipulate [it] in order not to lose [it] and how to make [it] do what one wants, even to make [it] responsible for what one is responsible oneself.” (Fromm, 151)

The smart phone thus acts as a device that further alienates us from control of our own lives whilst simultaneously promising to – at last – give us the necessary tools to actually be in control of our lives. The shackle ceases to resemble a shackle, or an ankle monitor for that matter, and becomes Fromm’s “magic helper.” It takes on the characteristics of the tool that will “protect help, and develop” as well as “never leave.” And by making us ever more reliant upon it and by increasingly forcing individual actions to be taken through it the result is to further build up our reliance in what appears to us to be a symbiotic relationship, but in which the technology is truly a parasite gorging itself upon our informational bloodstream.

The prison cell becomes the microscopic cell, and the bars disappear from before our eyes until they are coded in our DNA. And as the smart phone is placed on the bedside table it serves as a comfort and a threat that it will “never leave” us “alone.”

4. And in the Darkness…Bind them

As technological society ceases to be at all-distinct from society proper, the Internet (and access to it) become key features in our daily lives. This presence is only amplified and reinforced through the usage of devices that strengthen technologies hold upon us. To participate in the contemporary world increasingly means to participate in a technological world and for such participation to be mediated by technology. Thus smart phones appear as one of the key devices by which we can seamlessly integrate our lives with the technological reality that increasingly defines our lives; however, in so doing we bind ourselves ever more to technology. The smart phone begins to resemble a cell insofar as we are ever trapped within the confines that it constructs around us, and as we become legally and financially bound to the data picture that is emitted by these devices we find that the bars are closing in upon us. The best cell is always the one that a person walks into willingly, and the securest shackles are always the ones that a person does not see as chains. While it is true that the smart phone can be seen by some as a “magic helper” an essential ally in navigating the torrent of information that pounds upon us, it is wise to recall Lewis Mumford’s words on this matter of technological solutions (from In the Name of Sanity):

“Let no one imagine that there is a mechanical cure for this mechanical disease…The introduction of these ingenious mechanical facilities has about the same effect that results from the widening of a crowded traffic artery in a city: it actually increases the amount of traffic the avenue will have to bear and in the long run aggravates the very condition it set out to cure. No: the fact is that here, as in so many other departments, there is no purely mechanical solution for the problem of quantification: the answer must in fact be framed in qualitative terms, not by inventing a new machine, but by transforming the purposes and values of the human agent who uses it.” (Mumford, 50/51)

It is naïve to suggest that smart phones do not provide some useful new capabilities to those who own and use them, but a comfortable cell with invisible bars remains a cell nevertheless. As concern increases regarding surveillance and privacy it is worth remembering that the massive amounts of data that are being spied upon have burst through the informational floodgates thanks to devices such as smart phones. The informational, social, economic, and political challenges of a technological society are vast and complicated but it is worth contemplating whether the devices that promise to help us navigate all of this information actually pull us into this technological trap.

If most people find the idea of having to wear an ankle monitor problematic, they should at least be aware that their smart phone is much the same thing…only with better marketing.

On Similar Topics

The Panoptic Con – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (1)

The Triumph of Technique

Paranoia is Not a Tactic

How to Not heed a Warning

“More than machinery, we need humanity”

If the NSA is the Fever, is the Internet the Disease?

Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics, 2001

Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. Continuum, 2004.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed. Soft Skull Press, 2010

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

18 comments on “The Cell is the Phone – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies

  1. T E Stazyk
    August 5, 2013

    Yes, marketing. If there was ever a case of supply generating demand it’s smartphones and apps. And the Tolkien quotes are particularly apt.

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