I think I am headed for a breakup. It may be a temporary one; maybe we just need a little space. Who knows with these things? But it’s serious – a lot of emotion is involved.
Not too long ago, I woke up and realized a terrible truth: I had feelings of affection for my smartphone. And if that sounds as though I am tiptoeing around a deeper, more revealing truth – as a guy might do when his date presses him to express how he really feels about her – then you’re right. I love my smartphone.
There. Full confession. I love it like I might another human being.
I think about him often. (Yes, it is a he. I am a hetero-textual.) I admire what he can do, I check in on him frequently, I wait for his little blurts of communication and I panic when I don’t know where he is. When I can’t find him, I send bulletin alerts across the office describing the butterflies on his sleeve and the picture of a cute, shaggy dog on his resting face. I plead for people to bring him back to me.
The movie Her, in which a man develops a relationship with an intelligent computing system, is not so far-fetched. When I realized I was smitten, I consulted experts. How common could this be? Where could this love affair lead? Is it unhealthy?
First, I read an interesting study. The LEAP Index, meaning Leveraging Emotional Attachment for Profit, ranks consumers’ attachment tobrands in 38 categories. It debuted in 2010 as a way for companies to predict purchase behaviour. That year, iPod came in first. A year later, iPod did it again. In 2012 and 2013, it was the iPhone. Ah, thank goodness, I thought. I’m not alone.
I am not naive. I understand that all advertisers want people to fall in love with brands. They want us to feel their products are indispensable to daily existence. Coke will bring happiness. KitKat chocolate bars ushers in a welcome break from work. On the dating scene, Dentyne gum is as important as a condom.
But I don’t think my love affair is so simple – and neither do a number of researchers who are thinking through this very issue. “The focus has been on what mobile media do – functionality – and we need to open up analysis to understand these devices as objects with which individuals may develop an attachment,” wrote David Beer, a sociologist at the University of York in England, in an article entitled The Comfort of Mobile: Uncovering Personal Attachments with Everyday Devices.
So I phoned him up. It was like a therapy session.
“Yes,” he said soothingly. “Others have expressed love, too. The way they talk about their devices is the same.”
Human beings have long felt attachment to objects, he told me. Favourite books, for instance, or a gift from a grandparent. Even though today’s consumerist society means objects enter and exit our lives with greater frequency – a turnstile of stuff, really – there are still certain things that we hold dear.
But he agreed this is different. “The mobile device is part of our own biography,” he intoned thoughtfully, explaining that the intimate relationship with a smartphone happens because there’s a shared history. “You take it with you on holiday. It’s always present. Part of the idea behind the comfort of objects is that you associate them with certain memories.
“These devices just become part of our daily lives,” he continued.
“They get embedded very quickly in our bodily routines. This is beyond the brand. Obviously, it’s part of it. But these objects are carried around with us all day.… You are not carrying around a can of Coke all day.”
And then there’s the physical part. “You hold it in your hands. You put it next to your face.” I didn’t dare tell him that, when I go for a power walk, I tuck my smartphone in my sports bra, next to my heart.
“And sometimes I get really angry at it,” I offered.
Beer murmured in sympathetic understanding.
I think the relationship is going to get even more co-dependent, I told him. I had read recently about the new Tile app. It works by attaching a matchbook-sized Bluetooth device onto any item you might lose, like, say, your keys. Should you lose them, your smartphone will be able to locate them for you. Is there nothing the smartphone isn’t willing to do? It aims to please you, without complaint, like a devoted husband who loves to cook you dinner while you take a bath.
I checked in with a different expert. “This is an object that speaks to deep human desires of control and connection and competency,” explained Elizabeth Gerber, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and design at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “With your smartphone at your fingertips, you can know anything, connect with anyone and accomplish many tasks. That’s very powerful.” Designers of these products are trained in sociology and psychology, she pointed out. And with “affective computing,” programmers are thinking about “how we can have our devices act more and more like humans, or friends, so we can trust them and benefit from their help.” Devices that “are good at encouragement” are being created, she said. “You have technology that is saying, ‘I’m going to come with you everywhere, keep you on track, not just to point out your error but encourage you. There are new apps for people with depression that will contact you and say, ‘I haven’t heard from you in while.’ It’s like a friend.”
I started thinking about how I feel when I have to change smartphones. I am discombobulated. I’m not sure how to make it run. It’s like having a new lover. You mean I have to push this and do that to make it happy? It takes time to adjust. “Ah, that’s something sociologists see as an important sign,” Beer had informed me. “Only when you notice there’s such a rupture in routine do you realize how ingrained something has become in your life.”
It was all getting too intense. Gerber suggested that my infatuation with my device could be disturbing my ability to focus and concentrate. She cited research by the late Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who conducted pioneering studies of how humans interact with technology. He found that our multi-tasking screen-saturated daily lives interfere with our ability to concentrate, make decisions and feel empathy.
I have had enough. My phone is starting to feel like a bad boyfriend. I think it’s time he sleeps in another room. I’m going to ignore his bleeps. I’m going to tell him that I need to hang out with other objects, like books. I will have to prove that I can live without him.
Wish me luck. It may just last a weekend.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.