As a kid, I’d sometimes try to imagine what life would be like without a particular sense or part of my body, like with questions from the Would You Rather? game. Would you rather be deaf or blind? Would you rather have no legs or no arms? I’d try to erase the sound of my mom’s piano playing, the sight of the ground growing smaller as I soared on the tree swing in my backyard, or the feeling of playing basketball so hard my lungs might explode, but I just couldn’t. How could life go on without these sensations that were so tied to my idea of what it meant to be alive?
I guess I’ve been feeling extra contemplative and nostalgic these days because I recently went through a pretty significant break-up…with my smartphone. My relationship with my phone was unhealthy in a lot of ways. I don’t remember exactly when I started needing to hold it during dinner or having to check Twitter before I got out of bed in the morning, but at some point I’d decided I couldn’t be without it. I’d started to notice just how often I was on my phone—and how unpleasant much of that time had become—when my daughter came along, and, just like that, time became infinitely more precious. So, I said goodbye. Now, as I reflect on the almost seven years my smartphone and I spent together, I’m starting to realize: What I had with my phone was largely physical.
Cognitive scientists have long debated whether objects in our environment can become part of us. Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argued in their 1998 paper “The Extended Mind” that when tools help us with cognitive tasks, they become part of us—augmenting and extending our minds. Today the idea that phones specifically are extensions of ourselves is receiving a lot of recent attention. In February, in Aeon, philosopher Karina Vold explored the legal implications of applying the extended mind theory to our smartphones. If the extended mind view is correct, she writes, then smartphones would merit recognition “as a part of the essential toolkit of the mind.” In a fascinating New Yorker profile this year of Clark, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote that Clark thinks “we are all cyborgs, in the most natural way. Without the stimulus of the world, an infant could not learn to hear or see, and a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life. Any human who uses language to think with has already incorporated an external device into his most intimate self, and the connections only proliferate from there.” For Clark, MacFarquhar continues, “The more devices and objects there are available to foster better ways of thinking, the happier he is.”
I agree with the theory, if not Clark’s sunny outlook on its implications. (More on that later.) However, when it comes to the most widely useful of modern-day tools—the smartphone—both of these recent articles overlook a key component of the extended self: embodiment. Our devices aren’t just extensions of our minds, they’re extensions of our bodies too.
Clark ventures into embodiment in his 2008 book, Supersizing the Mind, in which he spends half of the first chapter discussing how bodies and senses adapt to external technology. From a monkey learning to master a robotic arm to the familiar process of “body babbling,” in which infants learn, through practice, how neural commands control certain bodily movements, Clark shows that the ability to incorporate new objects into our bodies is part of how we’re designed:
Because bodily growth and change continue, it is simply good design not to permanently lock in knowledge of any particular configuration but instead to deploy plastic neural resources and an ongoing regime of monitoring and recalibration.
I experienced that recalibration when I got my first smartphone in 2011. In those first few weeks, it had a particular kind of novelty about it—merely owning it was obvious and unnatural. That solid, black iPhone 4 felt a bit unwieldy in my palm at the beginning, and pulling it out to Google something at dinner with my friends or to take a picture of something on the street was noticeable. Soon after, though, it went from being a bulky accessory to a predictable character trait, gradually and quietly gaining entry to a more intimate part of myself—a part fueled largely by instinct. When I was waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting alone at the bus stop, I reached for my phone without even thinking. That soothing scroll through Instagram or Twitter became much like a 21st century finger-tapping or knee-jiggling.
It had become, in Clark’s words, “transparent equipment.” And the physiological effects of losing that equipment were acute: my heart began to race in the Verizon store when the employee told me he was deactivating my phone, and in the following hours and days, I would frequently find myself reaching for my iPhone, the way a girl reaches for a non-existent ponytail after a drastic haircut. Of course, I would gradually begin to notice not being able to use Google Maps or post to Instagram, but the physical sense of loss was instantaneous and intense. I literally felt a part of me was missing.
My smartphone obviously helped me with a great number of cognitive tasks. It communicated with my friends. It managed my finances. It delivered work emails. It alerted me to emergencies in the area. It reminded me of appointments. It captured and stored memories. But this sudden and overwhelming awareness of its physical absence indicated that it had become just as important to my body as it had to my mind. If I’m honest, much of what I did on my phone could be characterized as mindless. I can’t count the number of times I pulled out my phone just for the feeling of unlocking the screen and swiping through applications, whether out of comfort—like a baby sucking her thumb—or boredom—like a teenager at school, tapping his fingers on a desk. In those cases, I sought not mental stimulation, but physical release.
While Clark celebrates the idea of innovative devices ushering in new possibilities for the mind, I find myself wondering what we might be giving up along the way. If personal technology is improving the world of thought, what is it doing to the world of our moving, breathing bodies? Clark may see a smartphone extending my mind, but I could feel it dulling my senses.
Without my phone, I’m more fully myself, both in mind and body. And now, more than ever, I know that looking at my phone is nothing compared to looking at my daughter while the room sways as I rock her to sleep, or how shades of indigo and orange pour in through the window and cast a dusky glow over her room, or the way her warm, milky breath escapes in tiny exhalations from her lips, or how the crickets outside sing their breathless, spring lullaby. See, once I looked up from my phone, I remembered that each experience could be a symphony for the senses, just like it had been when I was a child and, thank God, there was no such thing as smartphones.
Katie Reid is director of digital media at The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland and an MFA candidate in integrated design at University of Baltimore. Her email is [email protected].
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This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in May 2018.