The cell phone: mirror of our societies

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In a few years, the cell phone will have conquered spaces and minds like no other modern object has done before. The one who tries to lift the consensual veil, built by the telecommunication industry and advertising, which now covers his mass consumption, is most often seen as an annoying being preventing the simple and good-natured enjoyment of the consumer. However, the existence of the object is only made possible by the exploitation of man and nature drowned in the illusion that it serves our interest and our freedom.

The unprecedented « success » of this commodity, the cell phone, has made it a paradigmatic object of mass consumption, and explains why it condenses its essential characteristics. First of all, by its birth. Enthroned in the social space as an object of luxury, consequently to a deployment all support of the advertising propaganda, it was at first accessible only to a privileged minority. The latter, assimilated to what Thorstein Veblen called the leisure class, which « defines the rules of honorability » and « favors the practice of conspicuous consumption », served at first as a transmission belt of the first desires for the object.

Before being able to afford a cell phone, it was therefore necessary, in order for it to become an object of mass consumption, for the greatest number of individuals to desire it. By mimicry, the majority wants what initially only a wealthy minority can afford, making the object a symbol of relative « pecuniary power ». Once the feeling of lack and the desire to possess have been generated, the « social body » is therefore ready to buy. It goes without saying that the possibilities of profit for a few dismiss from the outset any debate on its possible harmfulness: faced with the prospects of enrichment, the precautionary principle has no place.

This inauguration of the « popular » era of the new merchandise is accompanied by a spatial colonization and a programmed death of the previous uses that contained the risk of hindering its propagation. Private communication, from a station that is no longer fixed but attached to a person and his or her spatial position, develops all the better as it kills off the old structures — the « public booth » and, progressively, the home telephone — to, later, make them completely obsolete, at the same time as the commercial conditions of its propagation are created posing the requirements of its exclusive use — exorbitant tariffs to call from a fixed line to a cell phone and vice versa. The principle of « one object for each » is not very much in line with the principle of « one object for many »: privatization logically accompanies the end of sharing. Yet, as we move towards this reality and sink into it, we are constantly being touted for the new sharing potential created.

In this sense, inevitably, the cell phone generates « new » communications, but new not in the sense of a relational enrichment, but especially because another time and another place give rise in themselves to other opportunities to communicate. At this level, it is no longer the need that calls for the object, but the existence of the object that gives rise to the need. From then on, everything changes, the real shaping itself on our new practices which in return are shaped by the real. We don’t even dare to imagine how we used to live without cell phones, preferring to blame it on « progress » and « inevitability », expressly forgetting that we are part of this inevitability. When we ask young people between 12 and 20 years old to imagine a world without cell phones, most of them answer (1): « impossible », « complicated », « no way », « not conceivable », « I don’t dare imagine », etc. Many others respond to the question with a simple « no », sometimes followed by an exclamation point, as if our question is perceived as an aggression and must be defended. It is thus the very imaginative capacities that are affected by the use and the importance given to the object. And this is not nothing: it means obviously that the eventuality of the end of its use would be fought in the first place by… those who buy and use it, in any case: whether its harmfulness is demonstrated in a certain and scientific way, or whether it is repeated incessantly that our mobile communications kill Africa. And it is therefore no less than the opposition between humans and the destruction of nature that this new technology, like others, creates and encourages.

The students questioned about the hypothesis of a world without mobile phones also recurrently make the cell phone a synonym for communication, often associating it with security: « people would not be able to communicate », « a world without communication and without me », « a world without security ». The object is set up as a model of « progress », instituting a before and after, the after being always better than the before, and its hypothetical disappearance feeding the imagination — this time possible! — of the unthinkable « return »: « imagine a world without light », « the Middle Ages will appear again ». Others are humorous but say the same thing: « imagine a Belgium without fries », « imagine a world without clothes ».

While some are lucid, most often there is a form of addiction that affects almost all respondents. Because even among the less fond of the object, the consumerist and mimetic pressure associated with the spatial colonization and the commercial organization of its use makes it, almost, an object « to have ». Out of 215 young people interviewed, only one does not have a cell phone (When asked to imagine a world without mobile phones, he replied: « I imagine it… »). Remember this ad: « If you don’t have an iphone, well… you don’t have an I‑phone ». That is to say that it is your responsibility not to have it but that someone else will make the opposite choice and that you will have to assume, in front of the others, not to have it.

However, we should not minimize the fundamental aspect of the cell phone in its fantastic commercial conquest and analyze it in the same way as we could do for other objects of capitalism. Its essential characteristic: the fact of no longer being attached to a place but to a person and to his mobility, has indeed unprecedented resonances on our subjectivity and our relationships to others, to space and to time. As the object merges with the individual, it becomes a technological prosthesis, turning its owner into a kind of telephone exchange that makes permanent interpersonal communication possible, increasing the possibilities of « connections » in an incalculable way. But while the object is supposed to create new connective possibilities, it reveals itself above all to awaken a fundamental fantasy of the human being: the gift of ubiquity. Ubiquity which, in religious language means: « attribute of gods, present everywhere at the same time », that is to say in everyday language the « possibility of being present in several places at once(2) », and is synonymous with « omnipresence ». The favorite slogan of a telephone operator: « always connected », embedded in everyone’s mind, is itself strangely similar to « omnipresence ». The effects on reality are visible: the « always connected » subject is no longer really situable in a precise place and physically surrounded, near or far, by certain people. It is physically there, but in a perpetual situation of possibility of connection with another place and other people. The fact that the first question during a call between « mobiles » is « where are you », is in this respect not insignificant. This possibility, known to us and to others, kills the present and drastically reduces the possibilities of real communication: observe carefully the people around you in a train or any other public place. Draw conclusions.


It is therefore not surprising that when asked « Do you ever not have a mobile phone with you? If so, how do you feel?« we get this kind of answer: « I get depressed », « I feel stressed », « I am afraid of missing a call », « a kind of lack in the pocket », « I feel trapped if I have a problem », « I feel bad, I am very bored », « I feel naked », « I panic », « without protection », « this has never happened to me », « I feel like I’ve lost something », « I don’t feel well, I’m sweating », « I feel lonely », « a big emptiness », « impossible », « I feel a sense of emptiness », « it seems like I’m cut off from life », etc.

In the history of mass consumption objects, we are certainly in front of something unprecedented. The impression of lack, of emptiness caused by the absence of the object, the fact that one considers it as part of oneself, of being naked when one does not have it, makes of the object a symbolic technical prosthesis, that is to say according to the very definition of the term an « apparatus, device serving to replace a member, an organ by an apparatus », substituting in this case the free and socially controlled communication. The cell phone becomes a permanent cuddly toy, a transitional object that symbolically recreates the distance with the other, while killing the recognition and management of our fundamental solitude. At this point, as Herbert Marcuse said, « instinctual satisfaction in the system of unfreedom helps the system to perpetuate itself(3) ». The fact that individuals recognize themselves in their goods makes the very notion of alienation inadequate: control is in their very desires.

These ingredients described above, favorable to a perfect addiction, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to question the real utility of mobile communications, and the fact that they are often only a substitute in the immediacy of communications that, before, were done otherwise. It is that these communications, in themselves and in an almost systematic way, bring nothing, or rarely, to a relational enrichment or to a simplification of the contact. Some fundamental aspects of these « new » communications support this thesis:

- Our person now associated with technological communication, we feel the need to share directly emotions, information, pleasures, experiences, that we could have shared in the presence of the person or via a fixed device. Any delayed communication is made almost impossible;

- the new object makes the necessity of justification « compulsory » (« where were you, I couldn’t reach you »), knowing that the caller and the called have the implicit respective knowledge of their connective possibility — that is, they know that the other must have his mobile phone on »;

- This knowledge of the connective availability of the other therefore presupposes — and often requires — his permanent connectivity, which will often turn into calculated anticipation. That is, knowing that the other is connected, or presuming that he « must » be, we will adapt our behaviors according to this knowledge. This possibility will inscribe in the real the possibility of « perpetual modification », the time and place of a planned meeting, for example, having multiple potentialities of modification before the concrete meeting. Therefore, for some people, fixing a place and time for a meeting is impossible without each of the protagonists having a cell phone.

As this object and its functionalities depend on the telecommunication industry whose goal is to increase its profits, this communication is now in the commercial domain. As soon as a teenager thinks that communication is impossible without a cell phone, the industry has succeeded: it has commodified communication. It has created the conditions for heteronomy.

Mobile communication is therefore a product that must be sold to the individual. Each call is profitable, but the object itself continuously « reinvented » in its design and its associated features — gps, internet, camera, music … — perpetuates the need for its continuous renewal, and our dependence. It plays on the fashion effect in a perfect way because it is, unlike a landline phone — like clothing or a car — an object that you can take everywhere with you, making it a superior model in the range of objects that bring the possibilities of conspicuous consumption to a peak.

For those who remain doubtful about the above statements, let us recall that these arguments are completely superfluous to reach the conviction of the imperative need to annihilate this « gadget of mass destruction » that is the cell phone. It would be egocentric and reductive to refer only to the subjective and interpersonal ills of this practice. To mention only a few of the causes: at the beginning of the chain, the need for rare minerals extracted in Africa, including Coltan, pushes children into the mines and destroys the fauna and flora of the prospected regions; the electronic chips of our mobile phones are incredibly energy and water intensive, while requiring the use of numerous chemical compounds; the disappearance of bees, whose experience described below would justify a moratorium on the sale and use of cell phones: « place four swarms of bees eight hundred meters from their respective hives. Expose two of the four hives to the emissions from a cordless phone, leave the other two alone. Observe the bees. Results obtained by the team of professors Stever and Kuhn, from the German University of Koblenz-Landau: the first two swarms find their communicating hive very badly, if at all, while the other two do very well (4).

This denial of the effects induced by our practices is not surprising, however, as François Partant has already pointed out: « We do not know that by consuming we influence — and especially in what direction — the fate of these peoples. There is a complete break between the act and the awareness of the results of the act(5). This principle of mass consumption promoted by advertisers and their acolytes is that of orgasmic consumption. The decontextualized enjoyment.

Besides that the deployment of this new technology in the space makes its non-use difficult and stigmatizing, making of the need an « obliged need », the only aspect of its production, inhuman, explains therefore that it is a false need, that is to say a need that « particular social interests impose to the individual: the needs that justify a hard work, the aggressiveness, the misery, the injustice. Their satisfaction could be a source of comfort for the individual, but such happiness should not be protected if it prevents the individual from perceiving the general malaise and seizing opportunities to remove it. The result is euphoria in misfortune (6).


The question of the usefulness of disseminating the information contained in this article arises, however, because the generalization of the object of consumption intrinsically contains the conditions for protest inhibition. Shaping space, uses, habits and practices, the tool gradually creates, and perhaps definitively, the dependence it needs to perpetuate itself, and knowledge of the mechanisms of alienation is insufficient to provide the conditions for its weaning. « The achievements of progress defy their ideological questioning as well as their justification (7) ».

We are too little aware of the major changes that the cell phone has brought about in our societies, because its capacity to spread is matched only by its capacity to have created consensus and conformism on its use. While we fight to denounce what everywhere alienates Man and deprives him of his capacity of thought, a single object will have succeeded in a few years what no totalitarian and coercive power could do. It goes without saying that its denunciation will be part of our « unlearning » tools.

Notes et références
  1. Cette enquête – de huit questions, sur laquelle nous reviendrons dans un prochain Kairos – a été réalisée par l’auteur auprès de 215 étudiants de l’enseignement secondaire, âgés de 12 à 20 ans.
  2. Le Petit Robert.
  3. Marcuse, H., L’homme unidimensionnel, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1968, p.8
  4. Étude citée dans Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre, « Le téléphone portable, gadget de destruction massive », Éditions L’Echappée, Montreuil, 2008.
  5. Partant, F., La ligne d’horizon, essai sur l’après-développement, La découverte, 2007, p.20.
  6. Marcuse, H., Ibid, p.33.
  7. Idem, p.3.
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