When I set off on a long cycle ride last week, my aim was to find new innovations. So much for plans.
After cycling around 200 km, mostly in the rain, I slipped and fell. I ended up in hospital. Luckily, no bones were broken. Within two hours, I was ready to get on the road again. Leaving the hospital to take a taxi back to my hotel, I lost my phone. And that was that; I had to end the trip. Why?
Without my phone, I was unable to communicate; I couldn’t pay for anything; I couldn’t navigate the route; I couldn’t check into hotels; I couldn’t register where I was through my QR code (a Covid requirement in Korea). In other words, an accident didn’t stop my bike trip; my phone did.
With huge thanks to Chulwon and Wonjeong for driving me back to Seoul, I had a new phone and sim card the next day. While I was without my phone, I couldn’t help but wonder: how much of how I define myself is tied up in my phone? The more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking that the phone is more than just a nice-to-have.
So...what is a phone?
A functional extension?
Let’s say smartphones are simply functional, a way to carry out what we would otherwise do less efficiently without them: waking up, finding our way when we are lost; remembering what we are doing, photographing moments. At what point is the phone more than just a function? Could you do your job without a smartphone? I certainly couldn’t.
In South Korea, which has the highest penetration rate of smartphones worldwide, almost all relationships are conducted through smartphones. From scheduling through sharing where you are, without a smartphone, life would be very, very challenging.
Equally for money, when I sold my last bicycle on Karrot Market- the leading second-hand app in South Korea- I was paid by phone. Without my phone, I couldn’t have sold my bicycle.
An anthropomorphic extension?
For a lot of people, smartphones are also part of expressing their personality.
Take the most recent foldable phone from Samsung:
This phone is water resistant and has a foldable screen. It is a kind of fashion statement for those who own one. I bought one and for me, there is no doubt it was partly about communicating how much I want to understand the latest technologies.
The phone I bought, the Galaxy z-fold 3, is also technologically transformative. Ever wondered what it would be like to write something on a screen then have it automatically converted into a digital format? Well, I am writing this newsletter with a pen on a phone that has used AI to convert it into an e-mail. This phone has already rendered my iPad redundant, and it fits in my pocket.
An ontological extension?
Beyond the functional and how we present ourselves, ever wondered about the bigger implications of our phones? There’s a brilliant research article on this subject by Chang Sup Park and Barbara K. Kaye. In it, they include this quote:
"Every day I am immersed in my smartphone…Occasionally, I feel my smartphone is the world I live in now." (Male, 29-year-old, salesperson)
The research looks at the idea that smartphones not only allow us to do more, or to make statements about who we are, they change who we are. They represent the environment we feel safe in, at ease in and most able to be ourselves in.
These kind of philosophical questions will become practical in the not too distant future. In the same way I’ve looked at brain-computer interaction developments, it’s very imaginable that phones could be implanted in our bodies, physically becoming part of who we are. Much as the titanium screws used to fix my bones are already a part of who I am.
In short, practically, as much as philosophically, smartphones could be synonymous with who we are.
Let’s make these choices rather than having them made for us
Smartphones are already more ‘smart’ than ‘phones’. They already affect almost every aspect of our lives. The rate of technological change means their influence is growing all the time. It might feel odd to say that our phone is part of our identity, but we must engage with these questions so that they aren’t decided for us.
I don’t have the answers and I can certainly say that accepting that without my phone I had to stop my trip was difficult. But on balance, smartphones and devices like them empower me to become the person I want to be. Can I therefore accept that my phone is now part of how I define myself? Yes.
Thanks as ever for reading and, if you like what you see, please consider sharing!