January 2019

Cellphone Confidential

Tails of the Dark Side, Our Love Affair with Our Devices

By Jaq Greenspon

I don’t know about you, but I keep my mobile phone in my front pocket. This way I don’t accidently sit on it. And this way, when it buzzes, telling me there’s something I need to pay attention to, I can feel it. Except lately, I’ve been feeling that buzz even when the phone hasn’t received any messages. Hell, I’ve felt that buzz even when I didn’t have my phone in my pocket. Turns out, it was a fauxcellarm brought on by ringxiety. Yeah, that’s right. I suffer from Phantom Vibration Syndrome.

It’s a real thing. Sure, it was first recorded in a Dilbert comic strip way back in 1996 (and then was in reference to a beeper) but still real. The first academic study was done on the phenomenon back in 2007 and in 2012, Phantom Vibration Syndrome was chosen as the Macquarie Dictionary of Australia’s word (phrase?) of the year. And I’m not the only one! Could be as many as 89% of cell phone users experience this weird phenomenon.

But why does this happen? Is it like people who have lost limbs but still feel them, as if the absence of a part of ourselves is cause enough to make us wish, consciously or unconsciously, so hard to be whole again that our brains invent tactile sensations to remind us of what we’ve lost? Have we gotten to the point that our connection to technology is an appendage needed to maintain our sense of self?


Back in 2013, Spike Jonze gave us Her, a film where a guy literally falls in love with his smart device. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix discovers a sentient intelligence inside his computer who fulfills his every emotional need. Turns out he’s not alone. That same emotional attachment hits a high percentage of the film’s population, breaking up marriages and causing people to re-evaluate their lives.

Now, we’re not there…yet…but this idea of having a relationship with your connection to the world is an interesting one to ponder. To begin with, why are we so down on people burying their heads in their screens? What’s wrong with keeping up with family and friends (and relative strangers) by reading and commenting on their online posts while, at the same time, trying to pass along our own information to that same group? Isn’t that the social contract, the most basic concept of what a conversation is or should be?

We’re constantly besieged with images of people using social media in what someone deems an “inappropriate” place or time. Who hasn’t seen the image circulated of the group of school age-kids ignoring a nearby Rembrandt and instead being immersed in some presumably vacuous conversation on their hand-held devices? Or the group of commuters on a train, ignoring their fellow passengers in favor of some level of Candy Crush? How many times have we walked into an establishment only to be met by a hand-written sign explaining limited or no Wi-Fi and admonishing us the reason for this lack of a modern amenity is so we’ll “talk to each other”, or to “prevent zombification”, or some other nonsense?

Each of those examples is easily countered. The kids at the museum were on a school trip and using a museum sponsored app to learn more about the nearby art as part of an assignment. The commuters on the train weren’t talking to their fellow passengers the same way commuters 100 years ago hid behind a newspaper, and what if you need to get hold of someone meeting you in the establishment or, as I have witnessed, needed the internet to check in with kids at home.

Are we really so addicted to our devices that we have to have our connections publicly shamed and socially monitored?


In a 2017 U.K. study, it was determined that Facebook is the most frequently used social media site, averaging just under 12 sessions a day. People are logging in and checking it. A lot. And according to the research, the number of users grows as the day continues. Once you get off work, the chances of you seeing what’s happening in your social circle increases dramatically. Time which used to be reserved for friends and family is now being spent online.

Part of this could be attributed to a Fear of Missing Out. FoMO (how it’s referred to in psychiatric circles) is, according to a 2013 paper, “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent [and is] characterized by a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Comedian Denis Leary joked that after seeing Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV in 1963, we were all afraid to turn off our televisions in case we missed something. And that was when we only had three national networks and international was almost unheard of. Today, we have friends all over the planet. I’m writing this article sitting in a café in Lithuania and it’ll be read by friends in China, Australia, and Brazil as well as Las Vegas, all of whom are living exciting lives and doing interesting things at all hours of my local time. And I don’t want to miss any of it.

A 2016 Forbes article quotes a Harris Poll in which it was determined that a full 60% of Americans wish their family members would “unplug from technology” more frequently. At the same time, a 2017 Rewire article quotes an IDC report that 8 of 10 people will wake up in the morning and immediately check their phones. The need to catch up with what’s been happening is strong and compelling. And yes, possibly addictive.

The explains that “Technology is designed to utilize the basic human need to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others,” which they then tie in immediately to the FoMO phenomenon. But they back this up by explaining that social media is designed to feed those needs in a variety of ways, including “‘scarcity’ (a snap or status is only temporarily available, encouraging you to get online quickly); ‘social proof’ (20,000 users retweeted an article so you should go online and read it); ‘personalization’ (your news feed is designed to filter and display news based on your interest); and ‘reciprocity’ (invite more friends to get extra points, and once your friends are part of the network it becomes much more difficult for you or them to leave).” These tie in nicely with what Kevin Kelly, the founder and former editor of Wired, lists as “generatives,” things which can define uniqueness in digital products.

Either way, the idea is the same – you’re getting something from the social networks you can’t get anywhere else. But is that an addiction?

Certainly, the devices are helpful. We have access to the complete sum of human knowledge sitting in our pockets which means we can find out anything at any time. The Guinness Book of World Records, originally supplied by the beer company to help settle bar bets, is no longer needed. A 30-second search and you know the answer to any trivia question and 60-seconds can get you access to university level research on any topic. But if you can’t focus on where you’re driving or walking because of that access, that could signify a problem.

We can have video chats with friends and family half a world away, but if we do this at the expense of the people half a room away, are we gaining anything? Kids being raised in this environment are going to grow up understanding screens better than their grandparents ever could. They’re able to multi-task with amazing efficiency but is that at the cost of interpersonal relationships?

Clinical psychologist Stephanie Marcy, Ph.D., was quoted in a 2017 LA Parent article that she’s “seeing these adolescent tantrums, where they run out of battery or the Wi-Fi shuts down and it’s like World War III has occurred.” Marcy continues to describe the cycle wherein the less children are interacting socially, the more they feel cut off, which leads them to feel worse about themselves and that leads to more isolation and depression. And it’s not just kids. In July of 2015, a patron of the Broadway show Hand to God climbed onto the set before the show started to plug his cell phone into the (fake) wall outlet.

There’s an old adage in horsemanship, an admonishment to ward against the idea that the man is not riding the horse, but the horse is riding the man. Or maybe it’s the concept of the tail wagging the dog? In other words, it’s not about the technology itself, but instead it’s all about how we use it. It’s about not letting that little device in our pockets control us, but instead, having a healthy relationship with our phones and, by extension, ourselves and our loved ones.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I just felt my pocket vibrate.

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