iPhone Ergo Sum

As many obsess over George’s first day at school wondering if Kate will be able to join the young prince, others are thinking about their own child’s needs as they have spent the last week running about town buying school supplies as closeout sales abound in the American heartland.  There is a disconnect between the mediatized woes of the elite class and the very grim reality on the ground for so many.  Yet, despite it all, the media keeps feeding us stories that resemble more People magazine than a news source.

In trying to follow the news of the bizarre paradoxes of wealth and desperation, I could do very little this past week because all media and news was unreachable to me.  I am referring to my week without access to the Internet whereby my every effort to gain access to the Internet to conduct research for stories I was writing utterly failed.  The local Internet service where I live was down for the week and when I tried to use my iPhone as a hotspot, my service on that SIM card was also out of service for several days. I could not get work completed which entirely hinged upon the Internet and I spent more time on the phone dealing with ISPs than I care to remember. This wasn’t my first time for such a communications fiasco to occur.  And although I hope it is my last, I’m not holding my breath.

The last time I found myself in that “what if you were cut off from the Internet?” scenario was in 2010 when working out of IDP camps and the UN’s Minustah in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The Internet is how I was able to research information, contact people, and stay in touch with loved ones and colleagues. 

And then it happened to me…

Spring 2010

I had a virtual crash of sorts on Monday–and this event forced me to wonder how much the technological and the somatic might be related both in my own life and a larger cultural nexus of information, desire and notions of self-fulfillment.  After my internet service had been disrupted by the charmingly unreliable Voilà (but their operators are so polite) since Saturday night, I spent many hours with these people on the phone from Sunday morning through Sunday afternoon and again on Monday morning.  At a certain moment, I doubted the problem might be my mobile phone carrier and I thought it may just be my beloved iPhone.  Indeed, this new addition to my family has had me telling students recently that indeed, I would reconsider my impending marriage to my iMac and instead elope with my one true love, my iPhone.  Hence I wondered: had my iPhone betrayed me and dumped me for a netherworld?

In my attempt to supersede Voilà’s lengthy response from technical support, I went online and found the new hack upgrade for what is called in the hacker’s universe my “jail-broken iPhone.” I found this new software, prodigiously called Spirit–and yes, I did the unthinkable, unconscionable act and I clicked and downloaded.  And, no, I did not do have that knee-jerk pause before clicking the installation icon, nor did my brain preview what horror was soon to befall me and merrily I proceeded to click again and installed Spirit onto my already “jail-broken iPhone.” The result of this act of freakish wanton certainty that nothing could possibly harm my iPhone resulted in my newly pronounced fiancé frozen, lifeless, in a coma.  What had I done to my betrothed? Nothing I tried would make it breathe again–I had delivered the poisonous apple for which there was no magical solution, no soft kiss delivered by a prince or princess, no secret potion brewed off in the mountain caves of an outcast sorceress, no elusive spell to make my iPod awaken.  It is simply gone (for now).

After contacting the person who sold my beloved iPhone to me, Xin Hu, I found out that I should not have upgraded since Spirit was a jailbreak (and I had already jail-broken my phone) and that an unlock for Spirit would not be out for a few more week.  In short, I would have to wait for the unlock for Spirit in several weeks’ time.  I am still attempting to recuperate this iPhone as an iPod Touch until the unlock is released and this ordeal is causing me to become more a computer geek than I had ever hoped never to be.  Finally, after trying various Windows platforms which have compatibility issues in recognizing the proper version of iTunes, I found someone with a Macintosh and was able to perform the necessary repairs to render my iPhone, for the next few weeks, an iPod with at least the capacity for Skype and WordPress.  My iPhone is now transvestite and none the happier for this course of life and I am slightly restored to the fact that I can now return (in the re-editing of this piece, Friday morning), to my picture-taking and video-making.

However, my reaction to this lack of iPhone was not pleasant and I have pondered this over the past few days.  I think the best term to describe my reaction to the reality of my iPhone’s coma would more accurately be called a “meltdown”.  Embarrassingly, I became emotional to a startlingly degree–after all, this was just a phone with a software problem whose resolution was a few weeks away.  Nonetheless, I could not resolve being without this instrument for several weeks and I panicked: I wondered how I would function for I could no longer write my articles without being on a borrowed or rented computer which is a near impossibility here given my work schedule, I could not check my emails when I fancied, and worse, I could no longer take any photos whenever I found something that I fancied taking photos of.  None of this is tragic, none of this is really even urgent.  So, why on earth would this drive me to the brink of tears? Why on earth would such a small tool wield so much control over my life? Or more directly, why would I let such a tool have so much importance to me? Perhaps you can relate when x material died–your juicer, your razor, your car, your winter boots–and you too have found yourself in this space of “But what shall I do now?”

These are questions that are as much of the personal order as they are of the cultural.  Clearly, I had no problem not writing on this device before I purchased it, nor did I miss taking photos or video at any given moment, when before I would simply live with the fact that my computer or camera were in my home and I walked past something I thought might be worth capturing.  What is it about this delicious compact nature of the iPhone which has applications for most everything (even a flashlight which I must use to descend these very dangerous stairs near my house each night) and which has the “power” to leave a grown adult on the board of tears when its software goes on vacation? As much as I love writing every day, I also love yoga, cooking, long baths, gardening; yet, while I can live without most of these events on a daily basis, the coma of my iPhone brought out the beast within.  Certainly I am very conscious of the various addictions “out there”: to the Internet, television, cocaine and, well in Western culture, it seems we have the ability to turn anything into an addiction.  Yet, I did not have withdrawal symptoms for my inability to take baths or the absence of a kitchen where I live–I do not get the shakes or the “I have to write an article now, God damn it!” bitchitude when before functioning with my computer.  But when my iPhone went away on Monday afternoon, I just became sad, angry (that I uploaded the wrong software on my hacked iPhone), and then I felt slightly out of control over my life.

I don’t know if this emotional reaction was a reflection of my wish to have control over not only what I do, but moreso to control what I should not have done, but I strongly suspect that I was annoyed with myself for not having done (ie.  not having read up on this new hack-ware, not having done my normal posting on blogs and boards to ensure it was a stable version and suitable to my already hacked iPhone, not having thought more, and not having stopped myself from that final click).  For the following twenty-four hours I manifested a will, of sorts, to control time, to control the past and it exited me through my being quite distraught.  How often we see the past in slow motion and wish to ourselves, as if watching a bad horror movie for whom the wrong choices we foresee for the badly-scripted actors are so easy to discern.  And with a similar attitude that I maintained while watching the babysitter pick up the phone in When a Stranger Calls wishing she simply would not, I would run through my mind that precise moment when I iSlaughtered my iPhone repeating to myself, “What on earth was I thinking?”

Logically, I know this not to be the case: it is a truism that we cannot control everything in life.  There are simply things that we do not and cannot control regardless of the multiple pop-psychologies out there that portend a fascistic will to self-manifestation with theories that the self can control all life.  Such philosophies are often banalizations of transcendental or Sufi philosophies, with the metaphoric notion of selfhood and corporeality being effaced by new-ageisms that forget that indeed death is part of life and that self-will does not control or influence all exterior forces.  Certainly we can influence the price of certain commodities, we can often influence that we are given a raise or not, and yes, using a seatbelt can statistically influence our chances of survival in a head-on collision.  But, I am at a loss for words when confronted by the arrogance of anyone who claims we control everything–sickness, death, loss of love.  These are things that simply “just happen” and as much as we can eat properly, exercise, show love to our fellow humans and not smoke, none of these actions are guarantees of anything.  Life happens, and thank goodness we do not control it all.  Yet there I was overwhelmed with emotion before a lifeless iPhone, unable to fathom how I got from January’s posture of “I’ll never own an iPhone” to this, my pitiful posture of dependence on this instrument I had so grown to love.

Let’s chalk it up to emotions, a transference of emotions onto a machine: it felt for a moment as if I didn’t exist because I could not produce my articles, I could not make my films and shoot my pictures, I could not even look at special photos from time to time which force me to remember that I have a past, that I am loved.  It was as if the coma of my iPhone implicated me in a free-floating loss of self, an amputation of some part of me and that for however long, I would have to be in that search of myself, albeit my new self, sans iPhone.  How was I to reinterpret myself to myself in this endless act of self-recognition that to varying degrees most every human today surrenders, in part, through technology.  Where had I lost my personal time within that time lost on the recovery mode screen of my iPhone? It was as if both my iPhone and myself were stuck in recovery mode together.

We are technological beings (whether or not we admit to this is another story).  We use technology in just about everything–from the grinding of grains into flours, purification process of water, our sewage systems, glasses, contact lenses, artificial hips and amalgams in our teeth.  We are products of technology and we generally live quite seamlessly with these material realities.  Yet, the invention of the video game has had psychologists popping up all over television for the past twenty-five years as they are interviewed as to the links between aggressive behavior in teenagers, the Columbine shootings, and the various forms of social and psychological alienation imposed by such gadgets.  Internet dating is another monster of addiction therapy that is coming to the fore in serious discussions of sociability as a friend recounts to me her law partner who had missed so many days in court for her Internet dating addiction, that she was arrested and eventually disbarred.  And the “sex addiction” could not be more painfully ironized through the actor of David Duchovny who plays an alleged “sex addict”/womanizer in Californication who last year went into rehab in his real-life for sex addiction.  Is this art imitating life, life imitating art, or art imitating life imitating pathology? It would seem that we are a culture where addiction, even obsession, would seem to be our “normal” and where trite notions of “the normal” seem mostly to exist in Hollywood cinema.  Or do I exaggerate? Ultimately, I do wonder if in the West we have not created a culture of addiction which attempts to look at symptoms (ie.  sex, the video games, the Internet, my iPhone), rather than look at how these tools or acts might just be part of a healthy process of possession that we have long avoided due to our, preoccupation with “loftier” tasks such as industrialization, wars, political malfeasance, and reality television.

Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous is a controversial film for its examination of the Hauka, a religious movement which emerged in the early 20th century during the French colonization much of Central and Western Africa, originating in Niger.  This movement was characterized by rituals of transe in which the colonized subject would become possessed, his eyes would roll back into his head, his mouth would foam, subjects would engage in forbidden acts (ie.  consuming the flesh of a dog), and the body would contort, jerk and even assume the role of the French colonizers.  This film was for many years the subject of debate, but it seems that much of the debate was based on misinterpretation of Rouch’s experiment being one of experimental spectatorship and of the obliquely worded opening titles from “the Producer” of this film to forewarn the viewer of the “violence and cruelty” therein which show how “some Africans represent our western civilization”).  Certainly the experimentation of Rouch’s project is interceded by the narrative which warns of “cultural shock”, meanwhile any alarum regarding the “western civilization” of French colonization was discretely absent from these titles.  And herein, Rouch proceedes, with his non-synchronous sound film which narrates the events of a Hauka transe by leaving interpretation to the viewer of Rouch’s images, to the auditor of his words, forcing the spectator into the transe of these actors.  Originally considered a racist depiction of Africans, Les Maîtres Fous is now considered to be one of the best depictions of French colonialism on film as this narrative brings together the processes of colonialism, decolonization and transe through these Sonhay actors.  The spectator is forced to see interpretations of an off-camera violence, through this on-camera ritual in reaction to the cruel realities of French colonialism not present on the screen.  The transe for the Hauka was a means of dealing with the colonial powers and oppression.  Transe has always been a necessary practice for individual ethnopsychoanalysis which, as crazy and obsessive as it might look, allows the subject to continue her life and to incorporate her subjectivity within a certain community.

I query if the use of my iPhone might not be an instrument/act of trance, a cycle of release for me from my exterior world as this gadget allows me to express myself through my intellectual efforts of words, to maintain contact (albeit superficially, via email) with friends and colleagues and it affords me the ability to capture a moment I deem interesting, personal, or anything in between these two valences for more artistic productions.  For many people the iPhone enables the subject to be able to do so much within a light, tiny framework which is portable and negligible.  It is undeniable that I felt, for a moment, all powerful when I realized I did not need my iMac at my side constantly.  And because of the excellence of this device, I must confess to having felt a momentary twinge of superiority, simply because this little gadget does almost as much as my much larger and heavier laptop.  So somehow this superior function and form of the iPhone I translated to my own self, my own body.  It is as if I have entered the anti-phallic stage of history where bigger is definitely not better; in fact, bigger just makes you feel more immobile.  Perhaps most of all what I love about my iPhone is that it is so small that it feels magically invisible when you do not want it, and then it is there within a flick of the wrist.  The magic and sorcery of many trance ceremonies might actually not be more complicated than this fetichism of time and being.  We usurp a temporal narrative within our physical space of life, our existence, and from within our bodies we make emerge narratives, ideas, dialogues, recipes, yoga chants, and so forth.  Our being is wrapped up in our conception of ourselves in this momentary intersection of our reality with an other.  And so our postmodern totem is no longer twenty feet tall, but is instead pocket-sized.

Tuesday night I treated myself to a Thai dinner after spending months here eating every other day, for what would translates to $1.50 per day.  And of course after the most expensive Thai food I have ever had in my life, I got violently ill afterwards.  I was out of sorts on Wednesday and returned to earth Thursday, reborn, refreshed…nonetheless, without my beloved iPhone.  Since this revitalization I have been wondering if my illness might have been the somatic reaction to the psychological trauma of my iPhone coma, or rather if I brought on my illness through psychosomatic manifestations? As much as I wish to doubt this being the case, I cannot say for certain this is not.  I think those of us who depend on technology to produce our thoughts, in many respects, are part of these mechanisms.  Not having a computer or an iPhone is like the painter without her paints or the cook without his knives.  And I do know people in both professions who need to practice these arts on a daily basis.  Yet the technology-pathology in which much of our culture is invested poses certain limits to the notions of use versus abuse, utilization versus addiction.  And certain measures of the self are necessarily caught up in the exteriorization of productions, for these words might just be that which I find weave myself and without such a machine to aid in this creation, I simply do not exist.  Existence in a very Cartesian methodology of course.  And this machine allows me to escape the every day as I toil over words and produce elusive thoughts–words which no longer embody “the real” and on paper–and string them throughout this virtual world where meaning is hopefully inflected, frozen, and undone all at once.  There is a paradox in that despite my having the most “normal” and banal of contraptions for 2010 purchased in New York City, I am somehow able to express my difference as a human.  Through such a normative medium (according to some), I am undoing any normalization of myself, escaping all conformity and creating something that is both outside of yet akin to myself.  There is a trap within such technology as the age old dichotomy of nature/machine no longer exists and we are held hostage to the temporality of our existence through a device is both outside and a part of us.

In Being and Time, Heidegger develops his “existential analytic” of these very two concepts, Being and Time, wherein he argues that in order to represent experience, it is most important to find the being for whom such representations of experience might matter.  Hence his Dasein (literally “being there”), which references being for whom such being is crucial, for whom being is a question.  For Heidegger, Dasein is that which is thrown into the many possibilities of life and for which one seeks the responsibility for one’s own existence (hence his notions of resoluteness and authenticity), such that one seeks the escape of the vulgar through authentic time.

Perhaps there is a vulgarity in the iPhone or the fact that I am even writing about my strange relationship to this piece of technology post-vomitorium of Wednesday.  Yet, I cannot escape the reality that while I write this, the lifeless body of my iPhone rests “happily” asleep and in another dimension in its transvestite life as an iPod.  Or in a parallel universe, perhaps I ought to have married my iPhone while it was still alive? Perhaps this level of technological “understanding” will be the spring for future declarations of love and creation where the Dasein of the iPhone is a phenomenological experience of intentionality and of where the self as perception and the self as construction are merged through this intermediary that is neither human nor beast, neither mother nor priest.  Before I bought the iPhone, I was not at all interested in having a little device that had the potential (as I had witnessed with friends) to become an addiction, if not an obsession.  And now having this instrument, I realize that this glean in their eyes was neither addiction nor obsession–it was pure contentment in an object.

And on goes the story of our culture which warns of such proximities or “repeated uses.” While I am mindful of this relationship that our culture maintains between use and abuse–albeit a constantly changing and contradictory shift between these two distinctions–I cannot help but find what is troubling is not the occasional case of addiction, but rather our societal preoccupation with the good use of technology.  I have gained a deep appreciation of this tool in its support of the WordPress app for this blog, Skype for my rare moments to call friends, and for checking email.  I have likewise gained enormous pleasure out of new applications in all their use or frivolity.  Surprisingly, I have used my iPhone far less while in Haiti than my normal quotidian use of my computer back home.  Nonetheless, my iPhone has become this object through which many of my thoughts and visions are recorded and it is current my vehicle for sharing my being with others for whom (my) being or narrative matters.  I do not pretend to be wholly united with this piece of machinery; conversely, I cannot attest to being independent from it either.  There is a point in which our reliance on technology is simply, for lack of a better word, “natural.”

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com