The Ideology of the Smartphone

Here is a short excerpt from the second chapter of the book I’m working on.  To set it up briefly, I’m trying to write something somewhat in the form of Cicero’s Obligations: a message to my grown children, letting them know what I’ve spent my life learning.  But unlike Cicero, I also want to suggest that they NOT live their life as I did, that they begin from where it took me my whole life to get, and do things differently.  For this reason, the book is addressed to an imagined reader (my daughters after they graduate from college), but meant to be of use to others in a similar situation.  The “narrator” then is a sort of persona, although not terribly unlike me he is meant to be a bit more level-headed and reflective than I usually am in real life.

If you happen to be reading, please do let me know your thoughts on this—it is something I am quite concerned about making clear to my own children, as well as to others.

Here is the excerpt:

I have so far emphasized how important ideology is, all the positive things it does for us.  But it is important to remember that there can be “bad” ideologies as well, and they are often difficult to become cognizant of because they seem so necessary, natural, and even harmless.  A bad ideology is one that alienates us even as it promises us enormous benefits.

So I will offer an example of an ideological practice that you engage in so often now that you probably have come to conceive of it as something completely outside of ideology, as a space in which you step outside of ideology, outside of the practices which reproduce our relations of production. The practice, that is, in which most people think they are set free from such concerns and enter into a realm of limitless information and freedom from all material constraints.  Of course, I’m talking about your smartphone.  I can see you roll your eyes.  You want to put the book down now.  You’ve heard my jeremiads about cellphones all your life.  But keep in mind that this is the kind of resistance we feel about considering anything that is really a part of our ideology—we aren’t bothered, or bored, by a critique of someone else’s ideology.  Only if the critique threatens to weaken our strongest attachments do we begin to feel that “boredom” that is the strongest psychological defense against new ideas that might force us to change.  Your phone is one of the most important ideological practices of global capitalism, and it wouldn’t work if you weren’t so powerfully attached to it.

A half a century ago, the closest thing we had to serving this function was television.  From the moment it started, we had a love-hate relationship with the TV.  We complained constantly about how it was ruining the minds of the young, making us all sex-crazed and violent.  But we paid good money to have the best and newest one in our house, arranged our houses around television screens, gave up clubs like Kiwanis and social activities like bowling leagues to devote time to evening programs. Eventually, we were even willing to pay sums as much as half our monthly rents to get cable, so we could have more channels, more “choices,” and fewer interruptions of our viewing.  Television told us what to think, and how to live.  It was itself a profitable commodity, but it’s main function was to advertise other commodities.  And it did so much more.  It trained us to stay at home with just our immediate family, fighting over control of the remote.  It taught us that we had choices, we could be a liberal watching PBS or a conservative watching CBS…but that there was a limited range of what choices existed.  We could watch All In the Family and The Jeffersons if we were democrats, or Bonanza and The Waltons if we were republicans, but that defined the spectrum of political possibilities in the world.  Television did its job well, teaching us what to want, but also shaping how we lived, how we organized our living space, and who we associated with.  

The most important thing I learned from reading Raymond Williams’s pioneering book Television is that what we complain most about is usually exactly what a new technology is meant to do. We were distressed about sex and violence on TV, Williams explains, but in fact our concern was a mere smokescreen.  As he puts it, “we assumed that violent behavior is unacceptable…but it must be immediately evident,  if we look at real societies, that this is not the case”(125).  Television is meant to encourage violence and hyper-sexuality.  Another way to see what television was meant to do is to look at the laments now, in the “post-television” age, about what we have lost.  We read essays in newspapers and magazines lamenting the fact that there is no longer a shared culture—that with the advent of streaming and the explosion of new content, there are no “water-cooler shows” that we all watch and discuss the next day.  This production of a relatively uniform populace, with a limited range of preferences and tastes, was what television did to enable the capitalist social relations of the late-twentieth century, when the most important task was convincing everyone to buy the same things, and to sacrifice their life at tedious jobs for the reward of commodities and the entertainment of Gilligan’s Island.

What if we apply the same critical approach to the smartphone?  

Raymond Williams’s analysis of television was powerful and influential, I would argue, because of an important insight into how we think about new technology.  Most people who were worrying over television labored under the assumption that our society went along just fine, and then out of the blue this accidental technological advance dropped into our midst and altered everything.  What Williams explains is that television wasn’t a a fortuitous arrival—many people, and many corporations, spent decades and millions in producing it.  Television was the result of a long effort to find something that would do exactly what television did. Not because it was a “need,” perhaps, but because it was understood to be a good way to accomplish certain ideological tasks.  That is, American capitalism would have continued without is. Could even have found other ways to withstand the threat of communism following the great depression.  But television was beneficial to those goals, and turned out to be the way we did advance capitalism and withstand the threat of socialist ideologies.  If all your entertainments are thoroughly commercialized—that is, if the only way a form of dramatic arts gets to the public is if it sells the most laundry soap or instant coffee—then surely our aesthetics, which is where we produce most of our ideology, will be capitalist to the very core.  (Don’t worry too much right now about this claim that aesthetics works to “produce” ideologies—we’ll cover that in a later chapter as well.)

Well, the same is clearly true of smartphones.  It was a long and expensive process to produce a form of communication perfectly suited to produce the kind of subject needed for the new world order of global capitalism.  Think about all the things a smartphone can do:

  • Nobody engages with others in person anymore.  Participation in social and political organizations, already weakened by TV, declined drastically once again with the advent of the smartphone.  When in public, almost nobody looks up from their phone even long enough to acknowledge another person’s presence.  Ellen DeGeneres jokes that when at home with her girlfriend the two of them lie on different sofas sending “memes” back and forth instead of interacting in with one another directly. We all laugh at this, but it is a sad reality. Watch two young people on a date, sitting across the table at a restaurant looking at their phones.  
  • Nobody even talks anymore—it is a rare and odd occasion when someone uses their phone to speak!  Phones are for texting only, a very limited, and for someone looking from the outside bizarrely inefficient, way to get things done.  Instead of a two-minute conversation to arrange a meeting, people send unclear texts back and forth for ten or fifteen minutes, exasperated by one another’s inability to understand what each wants to do.  But we avoid things like tone of voice, and so can substitute silly little pictures we call “emoticons” for things like emotional connection and shared intentions.
  • Everyone has an individual “feed” which is suited to their own beliefs and interests. This ensures that we are never exposed to any facts or arguments that might weaken our commitment to what we already believe, or lead us to question our assumptions about the world.  More importantly, this serves as a practice to actually make “true” the postmodern belief that there are no truths, only subjective beliefs.  We are sure, now, that nobody can ever be persuaded by mere concrete factual evidence and cogent logical arguments—our “beliefs” arise from deep within, and are impervious to change by any amount of experience or thought.  
  • The phone insures that we don’t need to really investigate any topic deeply and thoroughly.  Most people are sure that anything they need to know they can find out from “Google” quickly, with a short and easy explanation. Anything more complex than this, that might require putting down the phone and reading a book, isn’t important enough to attend to.  (I hope you can put your phone down long enough to read this book—I promise to make the rest of the chapters shorter than this one, so you won’t have to be away from your feed for more than half an hour at a shot.  Unfortunately, ideology just is one of those concepts you can never get a clear idea of without some sustained attention and effort).
  • Smartphones supply us with constant stimulation, always promising that the next text or the next notification in your feed will provide some momentary pleasure.  The pleasure here is always passive, of the kind that the investor gets when he watches his stocks rise while he does nothing.  What this offers is effortless and spontaneous validation and entertainment.  The result is that we become someone who has trouble with finding enjoyment in something that we initiate, that requires effort, and that is done without an audience who can rate, like or comment on it.  We become the kind of passive stimulus-response machines, never acting without an external prompt and always needing an instant reward, that late capitalist social relations needs us to be.  
  • Worst of all, keeping “connected” with dozens of people by text is powerfully isolating, leading to a general sense of meaninglessness, loneliness, depression and anxiety.  Young people today are on psychiatric medications, or dying of drug overdoses and suicide, at rates never seen before.  When we “stay connected” with people, what we know are only what I call their “Christmas-Letter Personas,” the image they want to project to the world, of happiness and success.  Of course, some people may want to project a different, less cheerful image, but that doesn’t change the fact that on social media we only know of another person what they are think they have to be like to be popular. We don’t know their concerns about mortality, their existential crises, their puzzling over the meaning of life, or even their day-to-day struggles to get everything done.  And we are left isolated, and unable to find any meaningful projects to engage in that will fulfill us.  

So what does all this do, as an ideological practice, to help reproduce our existing relations of production?  It may be obvious, but I’ll spell it out anyway.

What global capitalism needs is fractured, isolated subjects, easily manipulated and easily controlled, unable to think clearly about how the world really works.  This way they cannot organize protests as their standard of living declines. They cannot even become aware of the fact that they need to go into enormous debts to get multiple college and graduate degrees to work at jobs where they will have longer hours to earn less (in terms of real spending power) than their grandparents did with a high school diploma and a forty-hour week.  They can’t figure out why they are so anxious and depressed, so they can be made dependent on addictive mind-altering mediations which make enormous profits for international corporations.  At the simplest level, they can be made to pay thousands of dollars a year for their all-important phone connections, and then thousands more for apps and subscriptions to multiple streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.  Their greatest desire is get the newest technology, and they work to pay for it. The smartphone is a brilliant way to transfer enormous amounts of wealth from the general public to the wealthiest 2%, without the messy need to do things like manufacture cars or refrigerators—durable goods with practical uses that were the main source of wealth in industrial capitalism.  (We will discuss what exactly this “transfer of wealth” really means in a later chapter, too.  What it means is one of the things people need to be kept ignorant of to keep our current relations of production rolling along.)

The important point to take away from this is that smartphones are an ideological practice. They produce a kind of person who is willing to keep on doing exactly what they need to do in order to continue reproducing our current way of life.  If we keep in mind that this is a way of life that requires that most human beings on the planet live lives of misery and deprivation so that a few can live in affluence, and if we keep in mind that this is a way of life that is on the way to destroying most life on the planet, we might question whether this is a good ideology or a bad one.  We might, then, put down our phones…and find ourselves interacting with other humans in person, no longer in need of antidepressants or anxiolytics, and able to begin to change the world.  

We might, that is, begin to change the ideological practices we engage in.

That’s an excerpt from near the end of the second chapter, which attempts to explain the concept of ideology.  Of course, I’m looking at this from the outside, as someone who doesn’t own a cellphone.  But I suspect that may be the only way this can be done.  Those using the phones often seem unable to see the forest for the trees—focusing on the “usefulness” of that last text or how informative the last notification was, and so unable to see the overall effects of the practice they are engaged in.

My hope is that this is a new enough phenomenon that it shouldn’t be impossible to see it as optional.  My students are horrified when I say I don’t have a smartphone.  They are sure that it is essential.  “What would happen if your at breaks down?” they ask me.  Well, some of us are old enough to remember that we managed such little crises all the time without cellphones, and could easily do it again if we chose.  “How do you stay in touch with people?” they ask. Again, I’m hoping many of us are old enough to remember when we sat with a friend and had a real conversation about important things, no phone required.  We know that for most of human history jobs got done just fine without anyone being available 24 hours a day by text message.  Whatever the crisis you spend an hour texting about in the evening, it can usually wait until morning—and even with the intrusive texts, it almost always has to wait anyway.

But as I’ve said, after having a cellphone for a year (before there were smartphones) I decided it was more of a burden than a help, and I got rid of it.  So maybe I’m missing something crucial to the smartphone ideology here?  

Leave a comment

11 Comments

  1. I’ve been waiting for this point since you hinted at it, and I’m certainly not disappointed!

    There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t want to rant, but I’ll quickly jot down what my first thoughts were, and what stood out to me, upon reading this.

    #1: The first thing that struck me was how “tired” and “cliche” some of these criticisms come off as (i.e. “nobody talks to each other anymore”; “people only care about likes and clicks; etc.). I think that the fact that these critiques elicit automatic eye-rolls is precisely what is so scary about the current state of the world. I have yet to hear a single intelligible response to these complaints other than “you sound like an old out-of-touch baby boomer! haha!”. Such responses scare me, and to notice that I have to fight against having such a reaction myself is all the more terrifying. This seems to be the case with a lot of “cliches”, and I’ve been thinking about wiriting something about the ideological function of the culture of “cliche-izing” certain ideas and critiques, if you will.

    Anyway, I think that the way you present it—framing the criticism within the context of ideology, rather than simply saying how degenerate technology makes us—will be extremely helpful to stave off such reactions, at least for the few people who are genuinely willing to consider re-thinking their own practices.

    #2: I think it’s important to acknowledge that smartphones are extremely useful in many ways. But—and this is crucial—the ways in which they are “useful” are precisely the ways in which they are problematic. Yes, they are “useful” in the sense that they help with work, productivity, (seeming) self-esteem inflation, etc. What needs to be understood is that those measures themselves, while definitely “real”, are neither natural nor morally neutral. I think this is the problem your criticism will run up against. People will rightly retort that smartphones are very useful. What they will fail to realize is that the structures which they are useful in maintaining are the real problems and sources of suffering. It’s difficult for people to think in a larger context, beyond the immediate practice which is being critiqued. But I imagine the rest of your book is partially an attempt to spell out that larger context, to make people understand the nature of ideology and subject formation.

    #3:

    When we “stay connected” with people, what we know are only what I call their “Christmas-Letter Personas,” the image they want to project to the world, of happiness and success. Of course, some people may want to project a different, less cheerful image, but that doesn’t change the fact that on social media we only know of another person what they are think they have to be like to be popular. We don’t know their concerns about mortality, their existential crises, their puzzling over the meaning of life, or even their day-to-day struggles to get everything done.

    There’s certainly truth to this. I’m very young, and I see this all the time. But it’s even more subtle than that. You often will see young people on social media venting about their existential crises and their “day-to-day struggles to get everything done”. The issue is precisely that those crises and struggles, through social media, are made into personal, atomistic, issues, rather than social ones. So, on each of these posts, instead of seeing comments discussing how our current social formations and institutions are responsible for these ills, you’ll see comments that reinforce the conception of these ills as isolated, individual problems, and which attempt to reassure or give confidence to the person expressing their complaints. That is, people will write things like “you can do it!” or “I believe in you!” or “I’m so sorry this is happening to you!” (of course, usually not verbatim, but essentially some such platitudes). They will never propose that we examine what the collective root of the person’s problems are.

    This is great stuff. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this as I think more about it. But for now I’ll leave it at that. I own a smartphone myself, and have been seriously considering getting rid of it, as I would wager that it is one of the biggest anchors that keeps me attatched to the dominant ideology (save for, perhaps, money itself). I think this should help me be more “mindful”, in the sense of becoming more uncomfortable rather than comfortable, in my smartphone use. It’s been getting increasingly difficult to participate in so many other practices: watching movies, shows, listening to music I used to enjoy, etc. You’re absolutely correct that smartphones are particularly sinister, because of how subtle and hidden its ideological roots are.

  2. Really great piece, Tom. The key sentence for me, is: “What global capitalism needs is fractured, isolated subjects, easily manipulated and easily controlled, unable to think clearly about how the world really works.” My first move in evaluating an idea or practice is to consider whether it ultimately assumes or argues for individualization and thus, what I believe necessarily follows from this, depoliticization. Are you familiar with Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive? She argues in that book that our compulsion to communicate via texting, for instance, is yet another means of capital’s capturing our drive. As you describe it, this capture leads to a thorough individuation, which is observable, ironically, in deepening loneliness and isolation, and in the decay of fulfilling communication. That is in part because of the clipped, banal, empty nature of “communication” that ensues from, say, texting and most online activity. It’s also because the political or ideological recedes farther and farther into the background, ultimately becoming invisible; such that individualization appears natural and inevitable and collective action impractical. 

    The inevitable question, of course, arises again. It arises out of the state of affairs that you present, epitomized by your students’ incredulity that you can function without a smartphone: what sorts of collective action might be undertaken to prevent this capture? You say, “My hope is that this is a new enough phenomenon that it shouldn’t be impossible to see it as optional.” I agree. I believe that much of what appears inevitable can be made to be seen as contingent. And yet, my students, like my daughters and their friends, were born with this technology, and thus do see it as a natural, or at least necessary, feature of the world. So, how do we posit a counterposition that is not yet more individualization–Look, I don’t use a smartphone, and you don’t have to either? I think we’re in agreement that critique, education, and personal example are the places to start. 

  3. Thanks for this response. These are great points. I’ll need to try to incorporate them in my revision.

    I kind of want this to be a short “example” of a bad kind of ideology, not a full analysis of the smartphone, but still I need it to be complete enough to make the point and be somewhat convincing. I do wish somebody would do an analysis of smartphones as thorough and smart as Raymond Williams’s book on television—it would probalby be the most radical thing someone could write today. But it won’t be me.

    A quick response to some of your points.

    #1) yes, cliched surely. And I may need to emphasize this even more: the point is that the cliche tells us something, as Williams points about about the cliches we heard about televions. The point is that not interacting with others, like “too much sex on tv,” isn’t a minor side effec that old squares make too much of. It is exactly what the phone is meant to do! It’s been so successful that nobody anymore can see it as other than a tired old complaint of those who are out of touch—because nobody can remember ever actually interacting with other people. They don’t even know what they’ve missed. When I was a kid, I would have said the same thing about old folks who said there was too much sex on television—but now I’ve read Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” andI see the kernel of truth there: creating people who can’t even imagine a joke that is about anything other than sex is the whole goal here. Otherwise, humor can sometimes be quite subversive.

    #2). Yes, “useful” is the problem. We can work from home, and so always be “at work” wherever we are, whether we’re being paid or not. So useful. But again, the point is what kind of subject does this produce? One who takes it as a given that he must always be available, must never stop working, must not expect compensation for his time, etc.

    #3). This is a crucial point. I glossed over it, but I definitely need to expand on this. Sure, sometimes people post their “crises” on social media. But it’s always a performance, meant to make them seem more desirable to some imagined audience. Before social media, nobody broadcast their “crises”, and nobody thought their crisis would make them more appealing—that’s why we only shared them with close friends! This is a fundamental difference (everything as performance) that needs to be spelled out.

    In all of these cases, the point I’m after is: what kind of person does the use of a smartphone make us into? Is that kind of person one we want to be? Does it make us miserable? Does it make others miserable? All of this feedback helps, I think, to make this point more explicit.

    The ultimate point I want to get to in this book is asking a) what kind of practices would make everyone’s lives better? and b) how do we successfully commit to such practices. It’s a long way to go…

  4. Patricia

     /  January 27, 2019

    I like the tone of the excerpt very much, and I do think it’s quite accessible to the average reader. I do think that an important dimension to the smartphone that you might mention is that it is mostly a visual medium in which many apps have little, if any, language to accompany a visual, mostly a photograph (witness the most recent “standofff” between a native American and a young white man that made national headlines). Snapchat is visual, twitter has a limited word count and FaceBook is mostly visual, though you can get articles from newspapers and other media outlets. Those tend to be not the original print versions (as I understand it), but essays produced for the online outlet. I agree with Failed Buddhist that some of this social media can be useful in a way, but I also agree that it constructs the subject in exactly the way you describe, and there are many problems with this taken in the aggregate. One of the those problems is that because the smartphone is primarily visual, or auditory (I use my smartphone to listen to music in my car or at the gym but I also know people who listen to audible or podcasts), it is not primarily concerned with language. And as you’ve been discussing Brandom in previous posts, it seems an important point. There is certainly a way to “read” and discern information and pleasure from the pictures, photographs, memes, music, podcasts we encounter on our smartphones, but we are prevented from thinking about them, because to “think” you must have language that can be put into use, and the less we use language, the less we can understand how it can be used (don’t know if that makes sense). Even when I read an article from The Jacobin or The Guardian on my smartphone, I often don’t have much time to think about it, or certainly not talk with others about them because I’m in my own echo-chamber. I tend to skim the articles I have access to (and I’m sure younger people have this tendency to a greater extent–I think there’s been studies done on reading on devices somewhere….), because I know there’s always another post, or another article or something else that I have to check on my device–be it email, or a text. It’s not like picking up a magazine or newspaper and reading the articles in a sustained and concentrated way. It is a different experience and it’s meant to be. So, on the whole, while we’re getting “more” information, keeping in touch, etc, we’re also losing something; maybe it’s actual face-to-face connections, but it’s also a tolerance, ability, for sustained thinking. I know your point is not “the smartphone is evil,” but rather that it creates certain kind of subjectivity. And I think you’ve given us a way to think about that–like Williams with TV all those years ago.

  5. Glenn,
    Yes, what kind of collective action—and how do we direct that “drive” toward it. Unlike Dean, I believe the practice creates, rather than captures, the “drive.” But still, that’s the big question for this project I’m working on—what might it look like, and how can we be motivate to enact it?

    As for the cellphone problem, surely just me, and only me of all the people I know, not having a cellphone is not something that woudl ever inspire or motivate change. But what might is engagin in practices where smartphones are not in use. When I was in London, I passed a pub with a sign outside that said “No Mobiles Allowed! Talk to Each Other!” That’s the kind of place I’d like to go to.

    But more seriously, one thing I do is ban the use of phones and even laptops in my class. I’ll put students in groups, with a print copy of an essay and a notebook, and have them collectively write a response without using the internet, just speaking to one another. It’s astounding how difficult it is for them to speak to someone, how uncomfortable it makes them compared to the same task when I first started teaching. But learning to do something without a phone, learning that without a phone they can actually understand what an essay says, is one small practice. What else might we do without phones? I don’t know, myself—I do everything without a phone. But maybe others can make suggestions, once they begin to see how crippling their phone use is.

  6. Patricia,

    Yes, this is a point I was a but unsure of, not using a phone myself. I did mention that the phone produces people unlikely to investigate any topic deeply, but the “visual” nature of phone communication is probably crucial as well. If it is only in langauge that we become subjects with some kind of agency, some ability to gain control over our world, then certainly if we reduce our minds to non-linguistic semiotics we are going to have limited agency. This is a point I may even need to develop at greater length in the book—in the chapter devoted to the funciton of langauge.

  7. James

     /  January 27, 2019

    Thanks for sharing this bit of critique, and I think the smartphone is an excellent object to use to start a conversation about ideology. The degree to which it is integral to any and all aspects of subjectivity in this post-modern/late-capitalist/neo-liberal moment make it so. It is for precisely these reasons, however, that I think you will have a particularly tricky time using the smartphone to convey what you’d like to say without being misconstrued as a repressive Luddite, with emphasis, of course, on repressive.

    I think you need to emphasize and better argue for the degree to which the smartphone, like the television, is designed and managed BY institutions that would like to produce (and Glenn is spot on for picking this line out) “fractured, isolated subjects, easily manipulated and easily controlled,” institutions that claim at the same time that they are actually doing humanity a service. But can that be authoritatively claimed? The “progressive” response to this obviously is: The problem isn’t that the smartphone conveys media to subvert our capacity to attend and be present in particular ways that might better allow us to engage positively in the face of our age of mass extinction. The problem is THE MEDIA ITSELF that is being conveyed.

    How can you foreground the degree to which smartphone subjectivity is a hegemonic tool for reproducing a subject that cannot see beyond this deluded response? And how can you connect our suffering to this? To me, the point seems to be that, by being made into “isolated, fractured subjects,” we become sensorially desiccated and have a more challenging time staying present when being confronted with difference (which often entails sitting with is generally experienced as “emotional discomfort”). The way I like to see it is that dopamine-based smartphone subjectivity is equivalent to the person who puts ranch dressing on everything they eat. We have to eat, but when eating merely becomes an exercise in avoiding difference, we’re adding to our suffering by circumscribing the possibilities of the present and future, undermining a potential moment for a productive encounter. Encountering difference takes energy, so let’s just diminish the degree to which our bodies need to confront difference. And the capitalist marketplace is precisely the tool by which we find the commodities which allow as to avoid difference (and also the machine by which those who use difference itself as a commodity find the difference they need to curate their aesthetic “non-conforming self”).

    The critique of “smartphone subjectivity” is necessary and important. I agree that the way in which our devices currently facilitate a particular kind of engagement with the world tends to intensify the kind of isolated subjectivity that had already began accelerating in the 60s and 70s. If you’re going to draw in pleasure and smartphone usage, I wonder if you need to also point to psychoanalytic theory. Bob Fink gestures at this kind of critique in “Repeating Ourselves” (UCPress, 2005). For me, he persuasively argues that the rise of dance music and musical minimalism were deeply connected to changes in mass media advertising dissemination.

  8. James,
    I always get the Luddite criticism—although none of my students would know that term. I might try to point out the irony of this, I suppose. People who accuse me of being “against technology” don’t know how to use email, or search a database. I spend too much time explaining to my “technologically sophisticated” students how to upload their assignments to the course website, or how to send a pdf to the printer. They are incapable of doing anything with modern technology beyond tapping at apps. So this argument doesn’t really convince me. I used to write software to do tests of cognitive functions on a computer, and most young people would have no idea how to code at all, but they say I’m ignorant of technology because I’ve never used Snapchat. This is almost funny, but mostly sad.

    My point is that in fact it is NOT the media being conveyed, but the practice of using the smarphone, that is the problem. Using the smartphone, like any other practice we engage in from wearing pants to driving cars, transforms the kind of subject we are and how we can engage with the world around us. The things one looks at in a smartphone feed would never be appealing or persauasive delivered in any other format. To some extent, in this case, the medium really is the message.

  9. One other concern I have is about the idea that corporations are knowingly conspiring to destroy the minds of the public. The fact that huge sums of money and enormous effort were put into developing cellphones and smartphones seems to be dangerosusly close to sugggesting a conspiracy theory of ideology. So I’ll need to avoid that, somehow. The point is that smartphones were successful because they happened to produce the kind of subject global capitalism needs; however, the motivation for producing them was probably something more like “how can we make more profit from people’s need and desire to communicate.” The construction of “smartphone subjectivity” was probably seen to be a positive thing, and it’s negative consequences unnoticed even by those it benefited. There is clearly intentionality in the production of cellphones, but I don’t want to suggest evil corporate conspiracies. Corporations aren’t that smart. They have one intention: making profits. It shoudln’t come as a surprise when practices that are profitable also happen to produce the kinds of subjects corporations happened to need.

    This is part of the biggest problem I’m trying to raise. If what succeeds most almost always turns out to be what will help reproduce capitalist social relations best, then how can we be successful in producing practice that exactly don’t reproduce this? I have a few suggestions…but no definite answers to that one.

  10. Long time reader, first time poster here 🙂

    I’m struggling to articulate my own thoughts on this Tom. I’m kind of like an addict who knows the drugs are killing him but I can’t figure out how to live without them. To be clear, I agree with you regarding the type of subject these new media shape us into. As an individual, I feel pretty powerless to do anything about it. I’m probably going to keep using my phone, and keep scrolling my feed. Even though these technologies tend to isolate and alienate us, I fear that disconnecting would isolate me even further. I’m 25 years old. All of my friends communicate via text, Instagram, Facebook, mediated through smartphones. In my experience, people will not try very hard to accommodate their ‘luddite’ friends (not that ‘luddite’ should be an epithet, from a Marxist perspective). I experienced this during the peak of fakebook’s popularity. I was avowedly anti-facebook. When people asked, I told them I was concerned about privacy, concerned about being molded into a type of person I didn’t want to be. My moral stance did not help me get invited to many parties, however. In an imperial metropolis like the one I reside in, I don’t speak to my neighbors. The people I see on the street and the bus don’t look at me or talk to me- they look and talk to their phones. Of course, I do the same. I wish it were different. I feel nostalgic for the era of Kiwanis clubs and bowling clubs that predate me by decades, and I dream of a future where we can live and work in more communal ways.

    I recently, reluctantly installed Instagram at the late age of 24. My friends almost sadistically greeted the development: “oooooh Mr. anti-social media finally gave in huh? You’re trapped here with us now”. It has actually helped me to keep up precious friendships and social support that I have trouble finding elsewhere.

    It’s like a drug, a modern opiate of the masses. I know it’s bad for me, but I’m not strong enough to do without it. Not coincidentally, I also self-medicate for anxiety. Not pharmaceuticals, but a niche drug called Kratom that has opiate-like effects. It’s true that young people are taking prodigious amounts of drugs and consuming prodigious amounts of media. Can you blame us though? It’s hard out here.

    One of the best writers on these matters I’ve found is Nathan Jurgenson. Here’s a great piece he wrote about the ‘digital detox’ trend: https://thenewinquiry.com/the-disconnectionists/

    Not that I lump you, Tom, into the ‘mindful’ phone use camp whom Nathan criticizes, – I know your work better than that. I would invite you to consider that in joining the ‘put down the smartphones, kids’ camp you are making odd bedfellows with some of your enemies!

    On the tangentially related topic of the anxiolytics, I’ve been reading ‘Psychiatric Hegemony’ by BMZ Cohen, an excellent Marxist critique of the current mental-health superstructure. It’s quite good and if it hasn’t yet come across the radar of any readers here I highly recommend it.

  11. Christopher,

    The problem you raise is one I deal with all the time. Obviously, I’m not a luddite—this is a blog, after all. There is no way to avoid using this technology. So I am not suggesting we should all throw away our phones (although I don’t have one myself).

    What I’m trying to point out is that it is the practices in which we use these phones that are producing a kind of subject nobody ought to want to be. And like you, they see no option.

    My suggestion is not to drop the phone (many people need them for work, etc.) but to ADD something else. Add other practice that might produce a different kind of subject. Your own account of life sounds familiar: we need the phone to be connected, even though the kind of “connected” we are is more isolating than being alone; and the world is so hard we can’t possibly survive it without drugs! This is the terrible state we’ve gotten into with the practices we engage in. I think it is possible to begin to participate in other kinds of practices that make us less miserable and give us more agency. Try reading a book, with your phone off, for a couple hours a day. Or having a conversation with someone with the phone turned off. YOu can always turn it back on afterwards, and the feed and all your texts will be waiting for you.

    Jurgenson’s essay is an interesting example of the poor thinking that prevents solving this problem. Nobody but a total idiot would think that before the smart phone there were no capitalist subjects. Nobody but an idiot thinks there is any such thing as an “authentic self” outside of cultural practices. So to set the issue up in that way, as if we choose between the glorious freedom of the phone and the internet and the tyrannical and oppressive reactionaries asking us to give them up, is, well, just idiotic itself.

    The reason I mention television is that it had already produced a certain kind of capitalist subject. And so had Kiwanis clubs and bowling leagues. The struggle, then and now, is to try to decide what kind of subject you want to be, and participate in practices that will produce that subject. You may have to get new friends, for instance, if you want to be the kind of subject that resists capitalism effectively. And you will have to stop getting information from a feed, because nothign on your feed will help you to see the problem of society clearly. Sure, it wont’ be easy or fun. But it is a mistake to think that the alternative to this fractured, isolated, drugged subject is an “authentic self.” It is just a differently constructed subject. The point is to decide what you want to do, not to feel you have to decide what will make global captialism most bearable.

    I see this with so many people. Terror that dropping Instagram will socially isolate them, even as their furious and constant messaging leaves them feeling so desperately devoid of purpose or connection they need medication to survive the day. As a recovering alcoholic, I can attest that this problem existed long before phones, just in different kinds of practices. Not needing alcohol required that I regain some sense of agency, and stop trying to be a good captialist subject.

    I know that isn’t comforting news to most people.

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