I was on an anti-technology soapbox for a while. But I realized something today, and I’ve since been bubbling with a new appreciation for my generation’s enthusiastic use of hip and with-it tech: Having a smartphone is like being in love.
We are reassured by the physical presence of our beloved, by the fact that we can reach out and touch her. So we are reassured by the solid weight of an iPhone on our thigh — we reach down and touch our phone, just to know that it is still there.
We sleep with our phones, as with our spouse. Both are usually the first and last things we see during the day — a final check before we sleep, a morning glance in case anyone texted during the night. The phone does improve on the spouse in this — it can be silenced through the night and wake us up on time in the morning.
To be with the beloved is to enter into a world of spacetime in which the “outside world” melts away. Lovers seem to establish the entirety of the world — we are surprised to find that others are watching. This is the origin of PDA, the feeling that love exonerates us from the “real world” and establishes a private one that no one else can see — so why not make out at Wal-Mart? But PDA with smartphones is even better. No matter the outside situation, we may pause to enter into brief communion with our phones, letting the “real world” dissolve, even as we stand in its midst. Stop Texting and Driving campaigns will have no more effect than Stop Kissing at the Movies campaigns: The world of texting is a secret garden, an affair of person and phone, enclosed against the world of driving, walking, ordering food, and eating dinner, so that we are surprised to look up from our phones and find another world there, a world apart from the I-Thou intimacy of the iPhone 5.
I react to the beloved bodily, with dopamine and seratonin surges. So I react to my phone bodily, responding to each text with a delightful squirt of dopamine.
To own and operate a smartphone is to enter into a unique mode of being, being-in-relation-to-a-smartphone, and this mode of being is not limited to the physical presence of the smartphone. We feel its presence even when it is not in our pocket. If we leave it at home, it haunts our thoughts as the collector of possible texts, emails, and Facebook notifications. Our thighs buzz with phantom-vibrations, and our ears ring with phantom-alerts. Even without the physical presence of the phone, we are in relation to the phone — we miss, expect, and crave our smartphones in our very bodies. In the same way, being in love is not limited to the physical presence of the beloved. We love her and feel her immense value whether she is absent or present, dead or alive. Love inaugurates a mode in which we are always, in the very constitution of our person, with the beloved. The phone, like the beloved, gradually becomes intertwined with us, a partner that cannot be removed or made distant without worry and pain.
There is a way, however, in which the smartphone is clearly superior to the beloved: Love has us touching, worrying over, sleeping and intertwining with a particular person. The smartphone is the possibility of being directed to any person, at any time, and anywhere. Our heart thrills at every text alert, quite before we know who its from, and we’ll enter into the “other world” of the smartphone, whoever may be on the other end. The smartphone, then, is the sacramental symbol of the possibility of being loved in general. It’s a perfect way to communicate with others whom we wish to be, not themselves, but an instance of general connection and communication — a replaceable, non-unique fulfillment of our general need for love. How neat is that?
So enough with the reactionary rejection of new media and communication technology! It’s just a new thing to love, slowly making the world a more loving place. What do you love about your smartphone?