Are electronic emotions taking over from “real” emotions as users increasingly engage more with their phones than with fellow human beings, albeit as a conduit to them? Carried around at all times, frequently consulted, and fraught with separation anxiety at being apart from them, phones are the new security blankets. As time goes by, they grow to become the repositories of memory, good and bad, and the archive of a life. Texts or songs never deleted can throw up painful reminders, or bittersweet echoes. Unlike any other media that ever existed, phones have evolved into companions, diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums. They represent a “mini-me”, being lifelines, domesticated, pets, nothing less than social robots.
Emoticons, the symbols depicting the range of human feelings in the large range from happy to sad, increasingly demonstrate our state of mind. Is this diminishing the human experience to a raft of infantile yellow blobs? The machine, the phone, has no emotions, it is merely a piece of equipment, but users invest it with supernatural powers by transferring their most profound hopes and dreams into its inner workings. Rather than being an emotional prop, per se, it stimulates emotions, and becomes part of the human emotional apparatus. Why else would the phone get flung across a room after an argument?
Fitting neatly into the hand, non-judgemental, ever-present, ever-receptive, the phone is an ally in a hostile world. It will only ever deliver what is programmed into it, and yet there is a devious covenant in that the phone and the user are complicit in presenting a united front. It can be anything, to anybody, yet it is made unique, personalised with a ringtone, and with a raft of applications, and a number, that denotes the epitome of individuality. Freed from the box, it soon transforms into an accomplice, an extension of personality and an absolute necessity.
A senior researcher in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics, Jane Vincent, says that we increasingly live our lives through and by, phones. She notes that they are not “of the moment.” Unlike previous means, like a landline call, or even a note tossed across the desks in a classroom, modern phones are compendiums. A quick scroll in search of something else can reveal a picture, a video, a voicemail, with the capacity to unlock huge emotion.
The old static landline could not perform this role. It was merely a tool of communication. It could not deter the user from having to talk to people it did not want to, under the cover of text. It did not travel, day by day, close to its user, sleep with it at night. It did not document every hiatus, every heartbreak, every hardship. At best, it took an answering machine message.
Electronic emotions are those that are discovered, lived or relived, through the use of machines. The fact that the mobile phone is held in the hand is a powerful trigger to unleash these emotions.
Vincent has worked with the bereaved and seen how often the phone can be a doorway to the past. In work with children, she has observed how boredom can lead to an exploration that also unlocks emotions and memories. She does not see this as a harmful consequence, rather, as a phenomenon that rewrites how people inter-relate.
By very dint of the fact that phones are so personal, the impact of bullying, for example, can be amplified by coming through on such a device that has so many other special meanings attached to it. Vincent has found that “the sense that it’s with us at all times” tends to mean that “we feel more strongly about a communication coming through on it.”
Her conclusion, that bad news can “contaminate” the phone, is a corollary to the notion of the phone as a friend. She says our close affinity is leading to a “human social robot.” Whether this is making us more or less sociable is debatable.
Some relationships are enriched by the possibilities of expression afforded by text not talk. How people use the device to mediate their relationships is endlessly diverse, and yet, in the end, it still boils down to a one-to-one and unique conversation. In some cases, the excitement will quickly dwindle because it has all been said by text, in others, the impetus will continue to build. Thankfully, human variety still exceeds the exigencies of the medium.
As Thoreau is said to have observed, when told the brilliant new invention of the telegraph was being installed between Texas and Maine, “But what if Maine and Texas have nothing valuable to say to each other?”
Last year, a short film on YouTube “I forgot my phone” gave many viewers food for thought as it outlined a day in the lives of smart phone addicts, so glued to their screens that they ignored everything, and more importantly, everyone, else around them. Experiencing life through filming it, rather than living it, was a theme of the video, and a pervading sense of loneliness permeated the busy little clip. It began, and ended, as all lives must, alone.
Vincent’s research suggests that increasingly phones are akin to childhood teddy bears. They are turned to them for comfort, for solace, to share joy, to revisit happy memories. They become a part of existence, contain personalised (edited) biography, are personal social robots, or “co-construction of functional machine and intimate emotional experience.” How futuristic does that sound? And yet, it is almost everyone’s everyday reality. It may be shocking to consider that most intense relationships are with phones, yet, how many can deny it?
By Kate Henderson