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If Gollum had an iPhone

March 3, 2012

Part One. Precious Objects

I’ve been interested recently in the ‘preciousness’ of certain digital technology.  It’s a word I’ve heard used a few times to describe a new phone, or an iPad, or a Macbook.  Precious.  It’s a strange word to use when talking about technology.  My precious.  It’s a word which describes a child. Or a family heirloom.  But a throwaway piece of technology like a phone?  Really?


A couple of weeks ago, I observed a group of 25 or so people each opening up a new box of a tablet computer.  They were going to be using the tablet, but it didn’t belong to them.  I was fascinated to see how they went about opening it.

First.  Pick up the box and look at it from all angles.  This is partly to get a feel for the thing, partly to determine the best method for opening.

Second. Take the lid off.  This stage may involve removing sellotape or other seals.  Use scissors or a knife or fingernails, according to personal preference.

Third.  Remove object from box.  Now you have it in your hands.  But this isn’t the final stage.

Fourth.  Peel away the plastic film covering the screen.  Now it’s yours.

It’s the fourth stage which fascinates me.  There is something indescribably satisfying about peeling that plastic film away and revealing the object; naked, bright and shiny.  It’s like popping bubble wrap.  There is something tactile about it which is just really satisfying.  The comments on this blog post really highlight how much peeling the plastic away really means to people.

But there’s also something more to it.  It’s the sense of ownership which goes along with peeling away that plastic.  In the group of 25 people opening up the tablets, this presented a problem.  They were the first people to use the tablets.  The plastic film was still covering the screen.  But people were very hesitant.  These tablets didn’t belong to them.  They looked around, unsure, wondering if they were really allowed to remove the plastic.  There was a definite recognition that this physical action was meaningful.  Once you peel away that plastic, your fate is somehow tied up with the object.  And that’s what was troubling: how can you ‘give life’ to an object by peeling away its plastic, when you know you won’t be around to look after it?

Maybe that’s why people feel that their new phone is ‘precious’.  Because it is part of them somehow.  This reminds me of Donna Haraway and Harry Potter.  Feel free to make your own judgement on that.  Haraway, because it speaks of a disruption of the distinction between human and technology, between nature and culture; a confusion over what is us and what is not us.  Harry Potter, because a Horcrux seems to be a useful allegory for a person’s precious phone.

“If my phone died, part of me would die with it”.

Is that a crazy thing to say?  I don’t think so.  I’m sure plenty of people feel that way.  But could I also say “If I died, my phone would die with me”?  Perhaps.  It’s quite a personal thing, a phone.  It’s a database of you.  Not ‘you’ in a complete sense.  But it’s definitely a record of part of your existence.

Part Two. Precious Memories

Evernote Hello is an app which really taps into this idea. “Remembering people is hard. Evernote Hello makes it easy by creating a rich, browsable history of individuals, encounters and shared experiences.”  If you take this to its extreme, then it would really be a record of your existence.  How precious would that be?  It’s a tough question to answer.  The memories and experiences, they are definitely precious.  But the object which contains a digital inscription of those memories?  Is that precious in and of itself?

No.  Not for me.  The digital inscriptions aren’t precious.  The memories are precious, yes.  But what’s contained in your Evernote Hello account is not the memories themselves.  The digital record of an encounter can at best be a mnemonic.  A reminder.  A catalyst to spark a memory which exists in your mind.  The memory is never ‘contracted out’ to an external holder.  A reminder of the memory could be.  But not the memory itself.  And this idea is nothing new:

[Socrates:] For this invention [i.e. writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Plato, Phaedrus, p.275

Now, this quote can lead us into all sorts of traps.  Federica Frabetti’s article in CultureMachine vol.12 guides us through them.  It’s where I nicked the Plato quote from, too.  (You didn’t really think I was that clever did you?)

I think a phone can be precious.  And I think it can be part of who you are.  But only in the sense that if you use a phone, part of what makes you ‘you’ is the way that you use your phone.  In other words, it’s not the phone that is meaningful; it’s your relationship to the phone that is meaningful.  And that relationship doesn’t exist in the phone.  It’s not part of the materiality of the object.  It’s not even part of the apparently immaterial digital memory of the phone.  It’s part of you.

If you lose your phone, you don’t lose the precious memories that it contains.  You lose the reminders of those memories that you have chosen to store in a digital format.  And if you lose the ‘storage’ of your memories, it doesn’t make any difference anyway.  They were never ‘stored’ because they were never permanent or stable or unchanging anyway.  Each time you look at an old picture, or read an Evernote Hello note, it is you in your current state of mind that generates the memory.  And it will be different every time.  And maybe that’s what makes it so precious.

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