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The Fear of Being With a Smartphone

In “Civilization and its Discontents” (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Sigmund Freud presents the idea that civilization itself engenders discontent and tension within individuals as a result of the conflict between personal desires and societal expectations. He suggests that “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God,” and further observes that our focus on the perceived solutions technology provides often leads us to overlook the new challenges it brings forth.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our prevailing civic structures and prompted governments to adopt unprecedented measures. As part of these initiatives, the reliance on smartphones became not just commonplace but mandatory. Public safety apps and QR codes transformed our phones from convenient tools into virtual gatekeepers, granting or denying us access to essential activities. Fast-forwarding post-COVID era, we are using cellphones to access our bank accounts and make payments, cash being increasingly declined, we need a phone to order food and to use public transit. The handheld device has become the irreplaceable set of keys to the new normal.

Nomophobia, a recognizable psychological affliction originally described as the apprehension of missing out on something important, has evolved in meaning. Our mobile phones, once cherished for their ability to keep us connected and informed, have transformed into lifelines for maintaining personal good-standing. The "fear of being without a smartphone" now encompasses the apprehension of not being able to access vital information, navigate home safely, and maintain communications required by social contract. The pandemic has heightened our reliance on handheld devices, intensifying the urgency of nomophobia.

Freud’s analysis of civilization’s discontents takes on renewed significance as we grapple with the repercussions of this forced dependence. Our initial desire for connected devices was rooted in the promise of convenience, enhanced experiences, and having fun. Pocket computers, initially viewed as personal productivity tools, first became passages for profit-making in the name of comfort, and later, conduits for surveillance in the name of public safety. As tech corporations and governments, in tandem or apart, have tapped into the potential of our devices to process personalized data, concerns were raised regarding the socio-cultural implications of such occurrence.

Jacques Ellul’s warnings1 about the power of technology conform with the transformation of cellphones into agents of control. Our devices, once hailed as symbols of prestige and empowerment, have now framed us in a dependant. The very technologies designed to make our lives more free have led to a digital slavery. We find ourselves trapped within a system where our actions are monitored, our choices limited, and our behaviours influenced by marketers, algorithms, and policy keepers.

The confluence of Freudian insights and Ellulian warnings prompts a critical examination of the implications of our deepening counting on innovation. The pandemic served as a catalyst, accelerating the integration of smartphones into every aspect of our lives. However, as our confidence grows, so does the potential for exploitation and manipulation. The line between necessity and intrusion becomes increasingly blurred, amplifying fears about the extent to which our lives and our societies are shaped by technological developments.

The data collected to address immediate public health concerns may be retained and processed long after the outbreak subsided. The network infrastructure established during the global health crisis may be inherited by a different government or corporate body. Despite the emergence of reports indicating that governments worldwide are purporting to delete “emergency databases” and terminate COVID surveillance, a notable instance being Argentina’s claim of erasing its “Cuidar” records in March 2023, the issue extends beyond the retention or erasure of the collected dataset. The mere act of collecting it at that scale and incidence of regulated app usage becomes a precedent for future mandates, creating a cascading effect that erodes societal norms and personal freedoms. By necessity or by force — each layer of compulsory technology forms the foundation for the next one, perpetuating a cycle of dependence that diminishes personal autonomy and inhibits individuality.

Freud’s exploration of civilization’s discontents should remind us of the inherent tension between individual desires and group obligations. Our initial fascination with personal devices as tools for connection and entertainment has transformed into a complex relationship where our reliance on them is both empowering and confining. It is crucial to continuously evaluate the impact of technology on our psychological well-being and the larger collective structure. We must question the motivations behind the collection and use of personal information, critically examining the power dynamics between individuals, governments, and corporations, ensuring that public wellbeing remains the true objective rather than serving the interests of certain beneficiaries. 

Buckminster Fuller’s famous quote highlights one of his key principles: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the present model obsolete.” To bring about significant change, Fuller emphasized the importance of designing tools that addresses human needs and challenges the limitations of the present. Don Norman’s discussions on why bad technology tends to dominate our lives and his emphasis on simplicity align with Fuller’s belief in technology’s potential to solve societal problems and his comprehensive design approach. 

Norman’s ideas also resonate with Jacques Ellul’s critique of technology’s ability to overwhelm and dehumanize. In “The Design of Everyday Things,” he presents human-centered design principles that offer guidance in navigating this complex landscape. By integrating these perspectives, we can work towards creating more human-centric, empowering, and ethically grounded technological systems. New designs that will enable individuals to regain control over the volume of digital developments in their lives. Prevent the perpetuation of digital slavery and stop bad actors, whether for-profit entities or those employing public funds, from manipulating the system for their gain or out of compulsion.

We should cast off the captivating allure of convenience and efficiency that blind us to the growing risks of control and manipulation. Instead, persistently dedicate ourselves to cultivating a sense of transparency, sustainability, and an awakened awareness that safeguards our precious individuality and unwavering resilience. Only by embracing a holistic perspective can we promote a course that seeks to align technology with human needs and values, resistant to the negative social impact and risks associated with technological advancements. Let us skillfully navigate the challenges and forge a path towards a more harmonious and human-centered future where innovation becomes a loyal ally, serving our deepest interests and nurturing our growth, rather than ensnaring us within its seductive grasp.


  1. Technological Society↩︎

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