Sociology of the Smart Phone, from Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield

June 18, 2017

Excerpts from a very long piece called Sociology of the Smart Phone, from Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield

Once each of the unremarkable acts we undertake in the course of the day—opening the front door, buying the groceries, hopping onto the bus—has been reconceived as a digital transaction, it tends to dematerialize. The separate, dedicated chunks of matter we needed to use in order to accomplish these ends, the house keys and banknotes and bus tokens, are replaced by an invisible modulation of radio waves. And as the infrastructure that receives those waves and translates them into action is built into the ordinary objects and surfaces all around us, the entire interaction tends to disappear from sight, and consequently from thought.

In short order, the smartphone supplanted the boombox, the Walkman and the transistor radio: all the portable means we used to access news and entertainment, and maybe claim a little bubble of space for ourselves in doing so. Except as ornamentation and status display, the conventional watch, too, is well on its way to extinction, as are clocks, calendars and datebooks. Tickets, farecards, boarding passes, and all the other tokens of access are similarly on the way out, as are the keys, badges and other physical means we use to gain entry to restricted spaces.

The things we used to fix cherished memory—the dogeared, well-worried-over Kodachromes of lovers, children, schoolmates and pets that once populated the world’s plastic wallet inserts—were for the most part digitized at some point along the way, and long ago migrated to the lockscreens of our phones.

Most of the artifacts we once used to convey identity are not long for this world, including among other things name cards, calling cards and business cards. Though more formal identity-authentication documents, notably driver’s licenses and passports, are among the few personal effects to have successfully resisted assimilation to the smartphone, it remains to be seen how much longer this is the case.

What else disappears from the world? Address books, Rolodexes and “little black books.” The directories, maps and guidebooks of all sorts that we used to navigate the city. Loyalty and other stored-value cards. And finally money, and everything it affords its bearer in freedom of behavior and of movement. All of these have already been transfigured into a dance of ones and zeroes, or are well on their way to such a fate. Of all the discrete artifacts identified by the Intel/Keio studies, after a single decade little more remains in our pockets and purses than the snacks, the breath mints and the lip-balm.

Even cheap phones now come with both front and rear cameras. The one facing outward is equipped with an LED flash, and is generally capable of capturing both still and full-motion imagery in high resolution; though the size of the aperture limits the optical resolution achievable, current-generation cameras can nonetheless produce images more than sufficient for any purpose short of fine art, scientific inquiry or rigorous archival practice. The user-facing camera generally isn’t as capable, but it’s good enough for video calls, and above all selfies.

Wound around these modules, or molded into the chassis itself, are the radio antennae critical to the smartphone’s basic functionality: separate ones for transmission and reception via cellular and WiFi networks, an additional Bluetooth antenna to accommodate short-range communication and coupling to accessories, and perhaps a near-field communication (NFC) antenna for payments and other ultra-short-range interactions. This last item is what accounts for the smartphone’s increasing ability to mediate everyday urban interactions; it’s what lets you tap your way onto a bus or use the phone to pay for a cup of coffee.

Finally, all of these components are arrayed on a high-density interconnect circuit board, and powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion or lithium-polymer battery capable of sustaining roughly 1,500 charging cycles. This will yield just about four years of use, given the need to charge the phone daily, though experience suggests that few of us will retain a given handset that long.

The maps we see on the screen of a smartphone help us rebalance the terms of our engagement with complex, potentially confounding spatial networks, allowing newcomers and tourists alike to negotiate the megacity with all the canniness and aplomb of a lifelong resident. By furnishing us with imagery of places we’ve never yet been, they can help to banish the fear that prevents so many of us from exploring unfamiliar paths or districts. They are the most generous sort of gift to the professional lover of cities, and still more so to everyone whose livelihood and wellbeing depends on their ability to master the urban terrain. But they also furnish us with a great deal of insight into the networked condition.

Most obviously, in using them to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

We ordinarily don’t experience that absence of control as a loss. Simultaneously intangible and too vast to really wrap our heads around, the infrastructure on which both device and navigation depend remains safely on the other side of the emotional horizon. But the same cannot be said for what it feels like to use the map, where our inability to make sense of what’s beneath our fingertips all too frequently registers as frustration, even humiliation. Here we’re forced to reckon with the fact that the conventions of interaction with the device are obscure or even inexplicable to many.


We can no longer even pretend that what we see on the screen is a shared, consistent representation of the same, relatively stable underlying reality. A map that interpellates us in this way ensures, in a strikingly literal sense, that we can only ever occupy and move through our own separate lifeworlds.

This is not the only way in which the smartphone sunders us from one another even as it connects. For in the world as we’ve made it, those who enjoy access to networked services are more capable than those without. Someone who is able to navigate the city in the way the smartphone allows them to will, by and large, enjoy more opportunities of every sort, an easier time availing themselves of the opportunities they are presented with, and more power to determine the terms of their engagement with everything around them than someone not so equipped— and not by a little way, but by a great deal.

This will be felt particularly acutely wherever the situations we confront are predicated on the assumption of universal access. If the designers (or funders) of shared space become convinced that “everyone” has a phone to guide them, we may find that other aids to wayfinding—public maps, directional signage, cues in the arrangement of the physical environment— begin to disappear from the world. Under such circumstances, the personal device is no longer an augmentation but a necessity; under such circumstances, design that prevents people from understanding and making full use of their devices is no longer simply a question of shoddy practice, but of justice.

There’s something of an ethical bind here, because if the smartphone is becoming a de facto necessity, it is at the same time impossible to use the device as intended without, in turn, surrendering data to it and the network beyond. In part, this is simply a function of the way mobile telephony works. Most of us know by now that our phones are constantly tracking our location, and in fact have to do so in order to function on the network at all: the same transaction with a cellular base station or WiFi router that establishes connectivity suffices to generate at least a low-resolution map of our whereabouts. But it is also a function of business model. Your location can be used to refine real-time traffic reports, tailor targeted advertising, or otherwise bolster the map vendor’s commercial imperatives, and this means that high-resolution tracking will invariably be enabled by default.

It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.

This is one of the costs of having a network organ, and the full-spectrum awareness it underwrites: a low-grade, persistent sense of the world and its suffering that we carry around at all times, that reaches us via texts and emails and Safety Check notices. The only way to hide from that knowledge is to decouple ourselves from the fabric of connections that gives us everything else we are. And that is something we clearly find hard to do, for practical reasons as much as psychic ones: network connectivity now underwrites the achievement of virtually every other need on the Maslovian pyramid, to the extent that refugees recently arriving from warzones have been known to ask for a smartphone before anything else, food and shelter not excluded.

We need to understand ourselves as nervous systems that are virtually continuous with the world beyond the walls, fused to it through the juncture of our smartphones. And what keeps us twitching at our screens, more even than the satisfaction of any practical need, is the continuously renewed opportunity to bathe in the primal rush of communion.

Whether consciously or otherwise, interaction designers have learned to stimulate and leverage this desire: they know full well that every time someone texts you, “likes” your photo or answers your email, it changes you materially, rewiring neurotransmitter pathways, lighting up the reward circuits of your brain, and enhancing the odds that you’ll trigger the whole cycle over again when the dopamine surge subsides in a few seconds. This clever hack exploits our most primal needs for affirmation, generally from the most venal of motivations. But it can also sensitize us to the truth of our own radical incompleteness, if we let it, teaching us that we are only ever ourselves in connection with others. And as we have never been anything but open and multiple and woven of alterity—from the DNA in our cells, to the microbes in our guts, to the self-replicating modules of language and learned ideology that constitute our very selves—in the end maybe the network we’ve wrought is only a clunky way of literalizing the connections that were always already there and waiting to be discovered.

It remains to be seen what kind of institutions and power relations we will devise as selves fully conscious of our interconnection with one another, though the horizontal turn in recent politics might furnish us with a clue. Whatever form they take, those institutions and relations will bear little resemblance to the ones that now undergird everyday experience, even those that have remained relatively stable for generations. The arrangements through which we allocate resources, transact value, seek to exert form on the material world, share our stories with one another, and organize ourselves into communities and polities will from now on draw upon a fundamentally new set of concepts and practices, and this is a horizon of possibilities that first opened up to us in equipping ourselves with the smartphone.

Sociology of the Smart PhoneFrom Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield