Connection Issues

In his 2017 book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, Byung-Chul Han examines the challenges of working in a global economy. Concerned about employee burnout, Han writes,

Even though we are now free from the machines that enslaved and exploited people during the industrial age, digital apparatuses are installing new constraints, new slavery. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. (34)

According to Han, “a fatal compulsion to work everywhere” leaves employees stressed out and sleep-deprived. During the industrial age, workers suffered untold hardships, Han says, but at least they could clock out and leave the factory behind for the night. Today, turned into mini international business machines, many workers drag the factory home with them on phones, tablets and laptops.

The amount of information—be it personal, social or work-related—stored on our “digital apparatuses,” as Han calls them, boggles the mind. Jean Baudrillard called people’s compulsion to collect and catalogue every last piece of data “obscene.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Baudrillard writes in his 1987 book The Ecstasy of Communication that “today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression” (26-27).

Today every event, every interaction, every idea, every word must mean something unequivocally. Earth and all its satellites must speak. We can’t go off the grid of “forced signification.” No one has the right to remain silent. We must answer every email and text, share our thoughts on social media, express ourselves on blogs. Non-tweeters risk ex-communication.

Seventy-five years before the release of the first iPhone, Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran just wanted to be left alone. Writing was anti-social media for Cioran, who proclaims in his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair in full pessimist mode:

As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything? (43-44)

I admire Cioran’s defiant spirit, but short of committing suicide, no one can resign from humanity. We can quit a corporate job, but we can’t quit seeking the company of others.

There has to be a middle ground between being hyper-connected—to our families, colleagues, (Facebook) friends, Instagram followers—and being totally isolated, as Cioran might have envisioned it. Anyone who finds this middle ground might, with the right connections, sell millions of self-help books and never need a “real job” again.


I, Phone (Part Two)

Everyone requires a cell phone now; to debate this point is akin to doubting gravity or arguing that time moves in reverse. My iPhone distinguishes me from all non-iPhone users. It expresses me. It’s an extension of my being, a form of identification on my person at all times.

The iPhone as fashion statement. The lucky hipster at the front of the Best Buy line shouting, “I have the latest model.” He’s bought a device for communicating, but he’s actually consuming Communication. He has messages to get across, but it’s not their content that matters: he has to send and share and speak because everybody’s doing it. Everybody has a voice. Who cares what you say as long as you say it.

But with everybody talking at the same time my voice sounds like a whisper into a jet engine. Our world of hyper-communication is built on harmony and dissonance. Our bodies are overloaded, our minds frazzled: hyper-communicating leaves us vulnerable to nonsense, noise and nuisance.

We get away from the Conversation by conversing with our mobile devices. The iPhone user talks to his iPhone as it talks to him. He is mesmerized by all the bells and whistles and in touching/tapping/scrolling leaves the moment. The very thing that connects him to others allows him to disconnect temporarily; it’s a coping mechanism, survival mode. A pocket of air on a sinking ship.

It’s family dinner. Father playing Angry Birds. Mom amused by Grumpy Cat. Children tuning out with Spotify playlists.

Being in touch all day makes us want to lose touch. My iPhone brings the world to me one minute and takes me out of it the next. It speaks volumes about me without conveying my disgust at feeling forced to communicate all the time, even when there’s nothing left to say.

I, Phone (Part One)

Professor Martin Irvine, founding director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, has an interesting way of looking at the iPhone. In a presentation called “Deblackboxing Technology: Mediology and Actor Network Theory,” located on his website, Irvine opens our eyes to the inner workings of the iPhone.

We look at a device like the iPhone as a series of inputs and outputs. We turn it on and expect the device to work. This assumption, according to Irvine, is a function of the blackbox quality of the iPhone. Apple sells us a device that appears simple or user-friendly without revealing the secret worlds behind its interface.

According to Irvine, if we take apart or “deblackbox” it, we find that the iPhone is “a system of prior technology functions and social mediation deployed through the logic of combinatorial hybridity and hypermediation.”

Inside the iPhone exist the following technologies: mobile telephony (radio frequencies); computer chip makers; data transmission that includes Internet connections through telecom providers and ISPs; transaction systems and banking networks; digital voice, image and sound codecs; and GPS, to name a few (Irvine, “Deblackboxing Technology,” slide 36).

All of these processes are dependent upon or are the result of “institutions/regulatory regimes/patents/licenses” that originate within “business/economic ecosystems/manufacturers” and are shaped by (and in turn shape) “demographics/markets/social and cultural practices” (Irvine, slide 36).

So what, the average user says, I like my iPhone because it just works. I am free to use my mobile device as I choose.

Not so fast, says Irvine.

“We say the user ‘plays music on the iPhone’—but the user has no agency or experience apart from the system operations, software prompts, and a complex background system of other agencies and mediations…” (Irvine, slide 43).

I use my iPhone as I see fit but its operation far exceeds my comprehension; its inner workings determine my experience. Mobile devices, many believe, make life easier, but in many ways we’re simply blind to the fact that hidden worlds are operating before and over us—worlds far too complex to put a finger on.

And so we worship the iPhone for all that we see it doing and all that it conceals from us. Arthur C. Clarke was on to something when he wrote in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That we convince ourselves we’re in charge of our gadgets is the real trick.