Dude, Where’s My Phone?

So a few weeks ago I walked to a bus stop. A completely normal thing to do. But I couldn’t help but think that something was drastically wrong, like I’d forgotten to wear pants. I got on the bus when it came, and no one stared, so I must have had all the right clothes on. I sat down, wondered what the time was, and then it hit me: I’d forgotten my phone.

I probably don’t need to relay to you the heart-attack inducing panic that comes with that moment of realisation, followed by the frantic tipping out of all contents of one’s bag to ensure it wasn’t stuck somewhere – I know that most of you would have done this yourselves at least once. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel safe. I felt like I had to watch my back, and all because I didn’t have a little square of plastic and circuit boards. But what makes us treat our phones like some kind of security? If push came to shove, we couldn’t use it as a weapon or hide under it. And no one really ever died of having to entertain themselves for a little while.

I felt like I had to watch my back, and all because I didn’t have a little square of plastic and circuit boards.

I’ve just spent quite a bit of time doing media research apparently discovering how we’re not so reliant on media as we might think, but I think my feeling of nakedness and almost vulnerability pretty much proves that we’re bordering on completely reliant on media, or at least our mobile technology. Maybe this reliance is our social security in the outside world; our token of safety and acceptance when we’re outside the safe houses of our homes.

Journalist Adrian Hon has a great theory on this: mobile phones are fast becoming ‘phantom limbs’. Medically, this is what patients feel who have recently lost limbs; the brain reorganises its nerves so that we still receive signals from what used to be attached to us – and it appears that this could happen to all us avid mobile phone users. Here’s the punch line: the results of a study that asked 1000 students in 10 countries to go without mobile phones for just 24 hours found that participants suffered withdrawal symptoms similar to those felt by those suffering phantom limb syndrome. I don’t know about you, but feeling a phone vibrating in your pocket that wasn’t actually there is starting to get a little creepy, but apparently it’s happening. Am I one of the founding members of a yet another moral panic? I have no idea. But such a mental and physical connection to something that, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t worth much couldn’t be healthy.

…a study that asked 1000 students in 10 countries to go without mobile phones for just 24 hours found that participants suffered withdrawal symptoms…

But then again, speaking of health, in an emergency situation, researchers have also discovered that patients are more likely to survive if emergency services are called from a mobile phone rather than a land line. If the truth of this statistic was certain, I’ve no doubt we’d all quite happily walk around with our mobile phones glued in our pockets (oh wait, we already do). Academia is praising society for the ‘cellular Samaritan’ roles we have taken on, which we’re obviously comfortable with because of what is virtually a mobile addiction; but are we being lulled into a false sense of security?

Just the title of a 2012 study will show you what I mean: “Mobile Phones or Pepper Spray?” Is this the reason we’re so attached? As humans we seek security, and mobile phones seem to be our best perceived way to achieve this. But they’re not going to bring us any practical help in a threatening situation. Which brings me to the results of the aforementioned study: not only do people “imagine their mobile phones to be weapons of self-defence, they view mobile phones to be more effective than a more traditional weapon, like pepper spray. Mobile phones do promote personal safety and disaster relief, yet over-reliance on mobile phone use can be detrimental.” In this respect I couldn’t agree more. I’m just as guilty as the next person for thinking I’m safe with my phone, but just as our phones might be our phantom limbs, they are also phantom weapons.

And well, let’s be honest here, how many times has a mobile phone saved you from an awkward social situation? … Don’t want to look like a loner while waiting for someone? Get your phone out and blow up some pigs.

Last but not least, my final point on mobile addiction is our use of mobiles as security – the social kind. Bella Mackie responded to Google co-founder Sergey Brin on this debate in a way we can all relate to: “I don’t think we should embrace social awkwardness just yet – especially when technology enables us to escape from it.” And well, let’s be honest here, how many times has a mobile phone saved you from an awkward social situation? That person you’d rather not see? Send a suddenly urgent text message. Don’t want to look like a loner while waiting for someone? Get your phone out and blow up some pigs. Surprisingly though, research has found that only 13% of mobile users use their phones to “avoid unwanted social interactions”. It seems like this, the phenomenon of the mobile phone as a security device, is something that most of us understand and believe to be true, but also one that in social circumstances at least, seems to be hard to prove. Whether that means we try even harder to use our phones to avoid any social circumstance we don’t like to try and boost this statistic remains to be seen…

So yes, a missing mobile phone is reason enough for a full blown ‘dude, where’s my phone?!’ moment. But it seems to be for reasons we shouldn’t be particularly proud to admit. From withdrawal symptoms, to a false sense of security, to a get-out-of-jail-free card for awkward social situations, the humble mobile phone has given us a lot to answer for, and academia is having a field day pointing that out. In the words of Chris Gayomali, “Raise your hand if you’re guilty! Or, you know, just avoid direct eye contact and continue to poke down at your iPhone instead.”

 

 

 

 

References:

Cumiskey, K and Brewster, K. 2012. “Mobile Phones or Pepper Spray?” Feminist Media Studies, 12(4): 590-599.

 

 

Krystle Vichie

Krystle is a final year Business and Media and Communications student at QUT.

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