While idly browsing through YouTube the other day, Google’s algorithms decided to recommend me a video on the new iPhone X. Before I knew it, I had watched Apple’s entire library of promotional material for the phone. With the characteristic Apple polish, the commercials were futuristic yet grounded, at once showing the phone’s cold mechanical beauty and its warm and reassuring presence in modern everyday life. The whole viewing experience was, for lack of a better word, extremely satisfying.
I was reminded of the affective experience that was researching and purchasing my first smartphone. I remember going through countless commercials and poring over numerous promotional websites, being inspired by the way the phone and its features appeared to frictionlessly meld away into lifestyles. As an excitable kid, eager to get through high school and into adult life, I was deeply impressed upon by the voiceovers and the copy as they artfully narrated vignettes of modern smartphone-enabled lifestyles.
Though my smartphone is now undoubtedly an indispensable part of my everyday life, my usage has turned out quite different from what I expected. The lived experience of smartphone usage and its effects for the user’s everyday life is much more complex than what can be captured by any copywriter. Reflecting on my everyday usage, I have come to understand it as the result of a constant exchange between stories, the designed affordances of the device and related apps, and various elements of life, circumstance and sociality.
To me, this is a much more interesting and fulfilling story to tell compared to the tropes and stories which are commonly told by the media, non-users and sometimes even users themselves. Reflecting on my own smartphone usage, however, it was clear to me that these stories do interact with how we conceive of the use of this important modern implement.
The power of such ‘stories’ or ‘tropes’ is not merely discursive. As individuals frame and understand their use through narratives, these ideas have effects for the day-to-day usage of smartphones (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). The smartphone is a powerful cultural symbol and my idealisation of it greatly informed my early usage.
Under the spell of well-produced commercials, my initial mental image of the smartphone user seemed to align very well with what Harmon and Mazmanian (2013) call the ‘multi-task master’. The phone user was supposed to be busy, but successfully, even aesthetically so, easily navigating the demands of modern life using a smartphone ‘on the go’.
With my new smartphone in hand, my usage patterns did initially seem to conform with what I expected. I downloaded popular apps and faithfully and routinely stuck to their specific uses. I made a concerted and deliberate effort to migrate large chunks of everyday life to my smartphone. And I remember spending long hours organising the on-phone calendar, testing dictionary and translation apps, and using the reminders function to keep track of homework and other tasks; all in the image of a smooth smartphone-enabled ‘everyday’.
But life got in the way. With time, keeping up my ‘diligent usage’ became increasingly tiring. In the language of actor-network theory, my usage, being motivated by a simplistic narrative, was an unsuccessful act of ‘heterogeneous engineering’ (Law 1992). I had let the phone and its prescriptions have its way with me rather than ‘making it my own’ and finding it a more suitable niche in the ‘phone-human assemblage’ I was attempting to form.
It is clear that after the initial ‘honeymoon period’ no one actually uses their digital device precisely as prescribed by its designers and copywriters. The phone, unlike the way it’s advertised, only rarely becomes a user’s ‘ultimate daily organiser’ or a perfect substitute for other ways of doing things. For the rest of us, there are some features that work well with our everyday lives, others whose intended functions would be better delegated elsewhere, and further others which are best appropriated and related to existing tools or procedures (Wang et al. 2016).
And as the utopian shine that surrounded my idea of the smartphone started wearing off, I indeed saw my usage begin to drift in unexpected directions. Living with my phone over long periods has seen me gradually whittle away at my usage into a form probably unrecognisable to a younger me enraptured by the promises of designers and engineers.
Today, a large number of my apps lie unused, some others are used in a sporadic manner, and a small number I use ‘fully’. I make full use of Citymapper (a navigation app) and find myself experiencing a new ‘tempo’ to life, able to move around the city at ease without much need to plan ahead. But at the same time, I no longer use the fidgety calendar app, substituting it for a blurry photo of my university timetable in the ‘Album’ app and a physical planner. Nor do I depend on the good-looking but clunky weather app when a quick Google search through the search bar does the same job faster.
My usage is fragmented and sporadic, but it is the long-term result of lived experience with the device and all its affordances and quirks. As it stands now, the smartphone is incorporated into other procedures of my everyday life in a much more successful act of ‘heterogeneous engineering’, one that is far removed from the ideal ‘stories’ of copywriters.
However, this is not the only story told about smartphones in contemporary culture. The opposing but no less prevalent narrative is that of the smartphone user as ‘distracted addict’ (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). Its programmatic imagery is that of the antisocial youth, hunched over their smartphone in an unhealthy fixation as the ‘real-world’ passes them by. Quite evocative and convincing!
Though it may seem contradictory, I am also guilty of buying into this just a little bit, beginning at some point after my initial fervour over the smartphone. Indeed, the two narratives can co-exist within people, leading to subjectivities that remain “conflicted and unstable, bouncing between [opposite extremes] in the micro-moments of daily life” (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013, 2). To this day, these cynical ideas continue to inform my usage in interesting and perhaps trivial ways. At home, I make an effort to not bring it to the dinner table; at night, my phone is placed out of reach.
Beyond this, the figure of the ‘distracted addict’ also frames my sense of identity, with implications for my smartphone usage, perhaps as I seek to present myself as an ‘authentic human’ (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). Reflecting on my use, I found a peculiar pattern to how I replied to messages: upon receiving a message, I would often immediately look at it but not reply, deferring the task to later in the day. This occurs regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, and it is despite the fact that I wouldn’t be wasting any more time if I did reply. But, as long as it’s not urgent, and especially if the sender is an acquaintance, this is what I do.
Though it may now just be a routine action, I remember how this began with a cognitive justification. With the figure of the ‘distracted addict’ in mind, by not replying immediately, my intention was to give the impression that my smartphone usage was instrumental, for its convenience, rather than because of some ‘addiction’. Through these small but consistent acts of ‘conspicuous non-consumption’, I seemed to be consciously strengthening my claim to a desirable identity and self-presentation (Neves et al. 2015, 119).
In this same move, however, I am also fighting against the prescriptions of my phone. The phone and its social networking apps are designed, indeed inscribed, with system designers’ normative belief that social interaction should be instantaneous: the phone’s notification light flashes incessantly and the app lets the sender know whether I have ‘seen’ the message. But I am able to successfully fight this: I flip my phone over to hide the annoying light, and I artfully read the message without letting the sender know that I’ve ‘seen’ it, circumventing the suggestions and intentions of the software (Latour 2005).
My usage, though it meets some resistance, allows me to manage relationships with acquaintances while simultaneously conducting a kind of ‘impression micro-management’. Though my experience is admittedly trivial, it does demonstrate how our everyday use of technologies can be coloured by a range of factors and narratives. Technologies, such as the smartphone, are not just tools, but are also an important site for the negotiation of identity (Neves et al. 2015).
The trope of the ‘digital addict’, too, is overstated. The prevalence of smartphones does not deterministically lead to detrimental effects for social interaction. Indeed, the trope may simply reflect a nostalgia for “a slower and more traditional life” and forms of sociality (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013, 6). Fears about smartphones should be tempered by the idea that “when we see individuals sitting alone, we should not assume they are isolated or lonely: with internet access and mobile phones they have community immediately at their fingertips” (Rainie & Wellman 2012, 146).
This is especially relevant when considering the anti-social effects of temporal constraints on young people. Though the popular imagination associates youth with substantial leisure time, the reality is that young adults are burdened more than ever before by precarious employment and fragmented university timetables (Woodman 2012). As Woodman (2012) shows, the difficulty of scheduling time together with friends appears to be a common experience.
In this context, mobile technologies provide new and important ways for social interaction to occur. That the ‘digital addict’ narrative doesn’t seem to recognise this, however, is perhaps due to the diverse ways in which this phone-mediated sociality manifests (Rainie & Wellman 2012). Reflecting on my usage, I realise that the form of digital sociality can take a number of different forms, and is the result of complex interactions between the affordances of smartphones, the prescriptions of particular apps and existing social norms. Regardless of the form it takes however, given the difficulties of organising time together with friends, my smartphone has become an indispensable tool for everyday social interaction.
In my case, a group of very close friends and I keep a ‘group chat’ through Facebook Messenger. It is something that acts as a space for socialisation and partially makes up for the difficulty of organising shared leisure time together. The mobility and constant connectivity of our smartphones allows the chat to be an accompaniment to our everyday lives. It is always buzzing with idle chatter, jokes and stories, through which I can experience an “ambient virtual co-presence” with friends (Lee 2013, 271). Checking in once in a while, or even just hearing the notification sound ring and my phone vibrate is an enjoyable and reassuring experience. Though these interactions may be unconventional in the traditional sense, this “ambient virtual co-presence” is indispensable to maintaining a continued sense of group membership (Lee 2013, 271). Here, my smartphone has become not so much an instrumental tool for communication—the trivial and phatic nature of our conversations preclude that idea—but an integral part of my sociality and experience of everyday life.
However, time physically co-present with friends is still highly valued by young adults, myself included (Woodman 2012). Even here though, the new forms of social interaction and patterns of usage that have sprung up around the mechanical affordances of smartphones can help to facilitate organising shared leisure time with friends.
Back to my group of close friends and I, given differential schedules, the ‘group chat’ has also become an indispensable way of organising ‘gatherings’. Slotted in between more trivial conversations, members can often be seen to tentatively propose to ‘do something’ or ask: ‘is anyone around?’, leaving invitations open to comment and response. Usually one or a few of us would be free and willing to meet, and a gathering is successfully organised.
Reflecting on this, it is clear that the instantaneousness of communication through smartphones and the asynchronous nature of the ‘group chat’ are both very important for this to be successful. The immediacy of smartphone communication allows us to organise more spontaneous meet-ups and thereby better navigate fragmented schedules and fickle motivation. At the same time, by nature of the ‘group chat’ being a communal space and interpretable as asynchronous, the invitation is also more voluntary and much less confrontational compared to a personal message or a call, giving people the room to privately weigh up uses of time and negotiate conflicting commitments.
Here, our usage of smartphones and apps are a decentralised way of negotiating schedules, motivation and other contingencies while thoughtfully maintaining group relations. It is a creative appropriation of the technical affordances of smartphones for specific social needs: something that could only come about as smartphone-mediated communications are practiced over time.
Of course, these usages of the smartphone cannot single-handedly transform one’s level of control over temporal schedules. Indeed, the frustration of ‘making plans in the group chat’ (i.e. coordinating schedules) has been enshrined as a meme, that great contemporary cultural barometer. Nevertheless, though this example is specific to my usage, and though forms of digital sociality may be hard to recognise and hence easily disparaged, the everyday use of smartphones is undoubtedly an important enabler of social lives.
The smartphone has become a fundamental part of our everyday lives. It is precisely this status that has led countless to theorise about its use. Designers, copywriters and the media have all formulated and told their own deterministic stories about the place of smartphones in our lives. However, though ‘stories’ do capture our usage to an extent, it is clear that none of these stories are as nuanced as the ones that can be told by the user with a lived experience of its use (Latour 2005). Here, I have reflected on the unique relationship between my phone and I and considered how it has interacted with and enabled my life and sociality in various ways. Though not much of it is as compelling or ‘well-produced’ as an Apple ad, it is definitely the more fulfilling and interesting story to tell.
Harmon, E. and Mazmanian, M., 2013, April. Stories of the Smartphone in everyday discourse: conflict, tension & instability. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1051-1060). ACM.
Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press.
Law, J., 1992. Notes on the theory of the actor-network: Ordering, strategy, and heterogeneity. Systemic practice and action research, 5(4), pp.379-393.
Lee, D.H., 2013. Smartphones, mobile social space, and new sociality in Korea. Mobile Media & Communication, 1(3), pp.269-284.
Neves, B.B., de Matos, J.M., Rente, R. and Martins, S.L., 2015. The ‘Non-aligned’ Young People’s Narratives of Rejection of Social Networking Sites. Young, 23(2), pp.116-135.
Rainie, L. and Wellman, B., 2012. Networked: The new social operating system. MIT Press.
Wang, D., Xiang, Z. and Fesenmaier, D.R., 2016. Smartphone use in everyday life and travel. Journal of Travel Research, 55(1), pp.52-63.
Woodman, D., 2012. Life out of synch: How new patterns of further education and the rise of precarious employment are reshaping young people’s relationships. Sociology, 46(6), pp.1074-1090.