-- By MortonBast - 04 Nov 2016

My phones

I got my first cell phone in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I don’t remember how I contacted my mother that morning, but somehow I did, and when she arrived to pick me up, she led me out of the brick fortress of Hunter College High School into the smoke-tasting air and told me that the first thing we were doing once stores reopened was buy me a cell phone. She never wanted to be unable to contact me in an emergency again.

And she wasn’t. I got a phone, and then another, and another. Every two years like clockwork, my battery started to fail and I reluctantly accepted the free upgrade that it coincidentally happened to be time for. I really never wanted a smartphone, or the mindless enslavement to responsiveness they seemed to engender, but eventually I got one, because my last flip-phone’s battery gave out too. I thought hard about paying actual money for a new battery instead, but gave in to the forward march of technology. I got a shiny new Samsung, feeling like I’d sold my soul for the price of a battery.

And I can’t stand the thing. The more useful its features purport to be, the angrier they make me. The Swype technology that suggests what words I want is always wrong. The MTA BusTime? app that supposedly tells me when the bus is coming induces false hope and sends me flying into a Monday morning rage. The symbol that means it is finding my location shows up all the time for seemingly no reason. It runs my life, and badly.

Why carry one?

Given that my “smartphone” (hereinafter “personal tracking device") is both a powerful system of surveillance and a source of endless frustration, why do I continue to carry it around? I have been reflecting on the question since it was posed at the beginning of the semester, and I find that my answer stems from two powerful illusions that it creates: social connection and security. While I am not immune to more superficial draws like convenience and sexiness, the far stronger links that chain me to my personal tracking device come from the impression that carrying one makes me less lonely and less scared.


In early 2012, I was a brand new editorial intern at TED Conferences and a still brand new owner of a personal tracking device. At TED2012, I heard Sherry Turkle’s TEDTalk “Connected, but alone?” and felt like an alarm bell was going off in my head. Turkle explained how attempts at constant connection deplete the capacity for solitude, resulting in a far worse sense of isolation. I understood instantly that this was true and terrible, but felt powerless to escape it on my own – if everyone I knew had divvied up their attention into bits, who was left to connect with in a whole, full way? Enter the false flattery of the market for eyeballs. Into this vacuum of true interpersonal connection sweeps a new kind of advertising that can smell your desperation to be understood. My personal tracking device is abuzz with notifications that range from the fully personal (“I love you”) to the fully impersonal (“Check out our new product”) and blur together as a constant stream of attention. When an algorithm that has been dutifully tracking my behavior knows what I would like for my birthday better than my boyfriend does, then who is the human and who is the computer? Thank goodness Big Brother is watching, or no one would be.


From the moment my mother walked me home across a traumatized island and vowed to put me in constant contact, being trackable was equated to being safe. In 2001 it was only my mother who requested to know where I was at all times, but then GPS creeped its way into everyone’s lives and now I can turn off “location services” but “E911 location” cannot be turned off. At 12, I had just learned to navigate New York City on my own, but if the phone I was handed then had had GPS I wonder if I would have learned at all. Last weekend I visited a friend in Baltimore, and when my bus from New York dropped me off on a random street corner, my hand went straight to my pocket. Any fear that taking out my phone in an unfamiliar environment would get it stolen was far outweighed by the general fear of not knowing where I was or where I was going. I could have planned a route in advance, but I didn’t, because I had Google Maps and Uber. My personal tracking device could be trusted to take care of me.


Even as I cling to my personal tracking device, I lash out against its authority like a petulant teenager. I make stupid gestures designed to assert control existentially, because I have no idea how to assert control technologically. I pick the ugliest font, just to be contrarian. I take my birthday off of Facebook, to see who knows anyway. I put some googly eyeballs on my phone case to call attention to the agency of the object within (see photo below). And somehow these useless acts give me the illusion of control, and allow me to continue as is.

If I am only for myself, what am I?

So far, nothing has made the difference. But I suspect the framework of collective responsibility is the most powerful chance to change that. To reflect not only on “Why do you carry that?” but also on “Would you let your children carry that?” results in a different calculus altogether. Accountability to others not only induces massive guilt, but also addresses those deeper needs for social connection and security, because taking care of other people is a significant form of both. I don’t know how yet, but it feels like the right direction.

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So you need to arrange not to feel insecure while doing your computing more securely on something that is not a phone, and carrying a phone that isn't doing any significant computing and doesn't contain GPS for tracking you. Both are eminently possible. A small adjustment in your own relationship to the technology, so that you don't have to keep selling your soul for the price of a battery, and you will be ready to address the question this draft most urgently raises: how to prevent people from acquiring learned helplessness? Your sense of the ineffectiveness of helpless resentment can then be replaced by the two needful remedies: personal effectiveness, and harnessing thought to interfere with the transmission of learned helplessness to others.

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