Much of what we use our cell phones for has very little to do with making a phone call. In fact, one could argue that the calling feature of our phones is becoming largely irrelevant. Our cell phones are more likely to be used to access the Internet, send a text message, or take a picture. Our cell phones have also become memory devices. Most of us have taken a picture of something we want to remember, a trivial thing perhaps like the name of a book we want to later buy. The picture is a mental note, except that it is not in the brain. We set alarms to remind us of meetings, we’ve long since stopped remembering phone numbers, we text directions to ourselves, we send ourselves text messages with reminders, we record the baby’s first words, and the list goes on. Our cell phones have become an integral part of our memory, to lose them is to find ourselves in a state of partial amnesia.
In a 2007 study, 180 students at London South Bank University between the ages of 19 and 41 were asked to express in one word how they felt when they were without their cell phones. The responses, reported by Anna Reading in “Memobilia: The Mobile Phone and the Emergence of Wearable Memories,” included: uncomfortable, isolated, lost, lonely, disconnected, unsafe, insecure, unguarded, naked, and without time. This language suggested to Reading that cell phones more or less functioned as an extension of the self and their absence was experienced as the “loss of part of the ‘me’ or part of themselves.”
This, however, was only one side of the story. Other respondents also used the words free, more private, and peaceful. This suggested that cell phones also had the effect of generating a panoptic claustrophobia, or a sense of being always available/never alone. Taken as a whole the study suggests a rather ambivalent relationship with the access and availability cell phones enable.
As the title of her article implies, however, Reading’s focus is on the cell phone as a memory device, and one that is wearable, portable, and social. The cell phone wearability renders it an extension of the self carried unobtrusively on the body. Its portability constitutes almost any environment as field of memories waiting to be captured. Finally, its sociability (my word for her “meme-like qualities,” essentially its connectivity) allows for the instant publication of memories to selected others or more indiscriminate audience via the Internet, particularly social media sites.
This last quality, sociability, blurs the traditional boundary between private and public memory and creates what Jose van Dijk has termed “mediated memory.” Mediated memory is simultaneously individual and collective. Every image or video captured say, or every note taken, is ready to be publicized or shared. We can’t really imagine the sensibility that lead to Roland Barthes’ refusal to include a picture of his mother as a young girl in his book about photography, Camera Lucida.
The second quality, portability, has the interesting effect of making memory something hunted and taken, so to speak, rather than something that is spontaneously generated. This same move, however, creates a certain detachment from immediate (unmediated) experience and, one could argue, a certain artificiality as well. This is not much different than the effect of the camera, especially the digital camera. We can all remember being on vacation and thinking everything we saw needed to be captured with a photograph, so much so that we didn’t experience the vacation so much as we documented it. In such case my memories are not of time past, but very narrowly of the images I captured. We don’t always carry a digital camera, however; we always have our cell phones.
Cell phones are by now more or less a taken for granted feature of contemporary life. They’ve almost blended into the unnoticed and unremarkable background of experience. It is from this position of ubiquity and transparency that any technology is most likely to have a significant effect on the shape of daily life and our own experience of reality.
Reading’s article can be found in Save As… Digital Memories.