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Bulletproofing Our Phones

April 18, 2012

Last night, I stumbled across this specially designed, bulletproof iPhone case. This is the kind of ridiculous tech news that elicits laughter, and the reporter’s sarcastic tone reflect this. However,  I viewed this story differently. Isn’t a bulletproof iPhone case inevitable? It offers indestructible protection for something that we have come to value almost as much as our own lives. Why is that?

Us At Our Fingertips

There is no question that smartphones are one of the most amazing technological innovations of the past decade. They offer amazing computing power at an unprecedentedly small scale. You can now carry the Internet around in your pocket. As one former Nokia employee put it: “A smartphone today would have been the most powerful computer in the world in 1985.” The newest smartphones have 1 GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, 3.5 inch “retina display” screens, touchscreen capability, 8 megapixel cameras, 3G and 4G network capability, and on and on. These are top of the line computers that just happen to fit in your pocket.

Us at our fingertips.

Such awesome computing power gives us unparalleled access to the world of information. Smartphones become our portals to the wider world. We now have access to our social networks, Skype, Wikipedia, and every country on planet earth in a single device. It’s not wonder that smartphone users get the itch – that insatiable desire to constantly check their phone. Everything they could possibly want is just a touch away.

Yet the smartphone is more than just a portal; it is also a storage center for our memories. Today’s smartphones hold our records, our personal data, our photos, and our financial information. In sum, smartphones contain our identities. That it even contains our most personal memories, in the form of texts, photos, and notes should give us pause. In the name of convenience, we store our most personal information on a device that we always carry with us, a device more commonly left behind on taxi cabs than other personal item.

If it wasn’t already clear, the smartphone is the device through which we now view the world. This becomes literally true when we think of the wild popularity of Instagram and the ubiquity of Facebook photos. Our interactions with the world around us and with each other now depend on the smartphone as mediator. By acting as an extension of our identities, the smartphone puts us at our fingertips.

Bulletproofing Our Smartphones

What then could be scarier than losing a smartphone? You may laugh at the bulletproof iPhone case, but its construction and sale speaks to a very real fear among smartphone users. Entire industries have sprung up around protecting smartphones. There are waterproofing devices, hard shells to protect them from falls, and special screen protectors. People fear losing or destroying their smart phones and will do anything to protect them. The bulletproof case is merely a symptom of this attitude.

Liz Lemon: Demonstrating the power of smartphones over our identities.

Part of what makes a smartphone so valuable is that is holds our identity. I’m reminded of an older episode of the NBC comedy show 30 Rock in which Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, leaves her iPhone on a New York City taxi cab. The cab driver discovers a scandalous personal photo on the phone and holds it hostage for $2000. That Liz goes through the efforts she does to retrieve it (even considering paying the ransom) speaks volumes about the place that smartphones now have in our lives. We fear the repercussions of losing or breaking our own identity, not merely because getting it back is a massive headache, but because it puts our own personal identity at risk.

More worryingly, in our protection and obsession with our smartphones, I see us gradually fetishisizing our material possessions. We want new skins, new layers of protection, new upgrades for our phones. I wonder if such fetishisizing is a natural evolution in our relationship to technology or if it represents a devolution into vulgar materialism.

This increasing fetishisization demonstrates just how clever an invention the smartphone is. Because it combines so much power and functionality into one device, it does not easily become obsolete. Its storage capacity allows it to record our most personal data, trapping our identity in its memory and thus demanding our care and protection. It forms a part of our identity, both virtual and real, and makes itself an indispensable part of our lives. We can no longer imagine life without a smartphone.

Taking Back Control

Smartphones are not evil. They are powerful computers that fit in the palm of your hand and put you at your fingertips. In a word, they are tools. Tools that you control. You choose how and when to use your smartphone. If you can learn to simplify your use of the smartphone, perhaps you can also learn to just let it go.

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