How smartphones compromise our consciousness
The most tangible symbol of digitization is, obviously, smartphones. Smartphones among the other techno-social phenomena have been, probably, the best thing ever happened to the flocks of digital nomads roaming modern megalopolises.
The very availability of a portable gadget that provides us with instant access to the ocean of information can change the way we interact with the reality around us. And the “wisdom in a pocket” has changed it, actually. The hitherto silent majority of the world population has received a universal means of self-expression.
The cognitive hermeneutic keys available in smartphones allow voiceless masses to find an appropriate articulation of their aspirations in the unfolding globalized discourse. A potential opportunity of leaving a herd to start your own journey has appeared. Of course, potentiality does not always mean actuality. Any gadget is useless and any opportunity is futile if your subjectivity is fast asleep in the bosom of the infinite mental inertia of social multitudes.
Nevertheless, a personal gateway to the infinite infosphere is the magic for which the medieval Gnostics would sell their souls to Satan. But the assumption that they would be finally corrupted by the communication capabilities of smartphones makes sense. The dichotomy between knowledge and communication inherent in smartphones diffuses them badly. Knowledge is power, as we know, and smartphones could be a powerful weapon unless they simultaneously provide an ultimate self-neutralizing performance — communication.
Knowledge and communication are mutually exclusive. They both based on discourse which is nothing but the language at its core. Language can be applied to either thinking or communication. Despite a widely spread misconception, we do not think when we communicate, we just react. Communication is a reflex activity when our inbuilt speech cliches and mental patterns are activated by external stimuli. All living species on this planet are involved in communication in one or another form without having to use any language. And they never think. They merely do not need to think once they do not distinguish themselves from the external substance. They need no language once they have no self. They are objects among other objects.
Only humans have a subject dimension in their self-awareness. Language and thinking overlap in human consciousness. We introspect on the external substance with thinking. But the actual thinking is possible only when we are alone. Our consciousness as a point of non-coherence and opposition to the infinite substance around allows us to reflect the external world including all other people.
When we communicate, we exchange conventional signals using the same system of symbols that we use when we think — language. We occupy language completely during communication leaving no resources to thinking, therefore. The more we communicate, the less we think. The less we think, the more we emerge with the external substance. How odd it may sound, the ample communication dehumanizes us. Moreover, the more intensively we communicate, the more completely we dissolve in the Creation to lose our personal existence.
Smartphones offer us two different pills simultaneously: a blue pill opens the door to knowledge, a red one invites to communication. The majority always chooses the red pill once the acquisition of knowledge through thinking in solitude is not about multitudes. Their substantial inertia ignores the Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum”. Masses always remain masses, and the blue pill of knowledge disappear from their smartphones. This is why, probably, smartphones gained the status of one of the most popular mass products.
The same relates to both personal computers and the internet: having their origin in military programs they were permitted for a mass consumer market eventually. The elites know well the basic principle of dominance in the present era of knowledge: those who control the information control the world. Nevertheless, they allowed common people to get access to the huge information storage since they provided masses with an effective antidote against real knowledge at the same time.
Masses were mesmerized by the infinite communication capabilities of digital technologies. Being totally involved in hyper socialization via digital communication channels, the global plebs can no longer be a danger for elites. Despite the majority of the urban population hold the keys to information in hands, the real operational knowledge still remains within a small circle of elitists. They bet on thinking, not on communication. And namely elitist think tanks provide mass consciousness with “correct” interpretations of events. Somehow or other, they still cope up with giving some meaning to the inherently meaningless existence of continuously communicating masses.
How do elites do that? They periodically deliver injections of tiny portions of true knowledge wrapped in demagoguery via mass media. The knowledge acts as a spice for a flavorless concoction of public discourse. Masses swallow such a cocktail gladly. They suppose they get something decent, they feel a sweet aftertaste of truth. A bright sunbeam appears for a moment on a grey surface of never-ending personal problems. Nobody can catch it to analyze since the white noise of hyper-communication covers everything like an avalanche. But each time masses get another impulse to keep going around in vicious circles of their routine. And they appreciate it believing that the impulse is their own achievement.
In fact, there is nothing revolutionary new in such a practice. A monopoly on knowledge was always an inherent prerogative of a cast of priests who occupied the top of any social pyramid. Sacred mysteries of existence established a clear distinctive border between the ignoramuses and the initiated, between plebs and elites. In modernity, the priests were partially replaced by scientists. But modern scientists are never free researches who learn the secrets of the universe to benefit all mankind. They always serve the ruling class. Science is a weapon, and powers-that-be always keep soldiers capable of dealing with that weapon — the scientists on the payroll.
Our civilization is obsessed with technological advancements provided by modern sciences. The present economic leadership is based on science-intensive industries. In fact, we believe in science nowadays to a greater extent than our predecessors believed in religions. Climate change, coronaviruses, another elementary particle detected at CERN, and many other scientific topics reliably block our critical thinking: we take them for granted because scientists never lie. The world academic science is too homogeneous not to let anyone get suspicious in foul play. The untutored majority believes that namely scientific breakthroughs drive our civilization forward. This is another illustrative case when masses confuse cause and effect.
Politics and economy stay behind any scientific discovery and never vice versa. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, as they say. And elites pay. They pay for exclusive knowledge that serves their particular interests. There is nothing more naive than to believe that elites have a common agenda with the masses. Relationships between elites and plebs constitute the very dialectics of society. Scientific knowledge belongs to elites, and they share it with the masses as a residual.
An effective and cheap cancer-curing therapy has been invented long ago. It is impossible to hide information about it from the masses any longer. But what is possible to limit the access to the therapy is to make it prohibitively expensive. The high cost of the therapy would sound not too persuasive for masses if it were announced by some functionary from some healthcare department. That’s why scientists confirm it being authorized by the ruling bureaucracy. Have you ever heard about any confrontation between scientists and governments?
Smartphones appeared thanks to scientific achievements sanctioned by the ruling class. We trust smartphones automatically since our consciousness is hardly capable of recognizing anything beyond technical progress in them. Nevertheless, a strong social effect in the form of perpetuating covert slavery is available in our precious gadgets. The effect was described in detail by French existentialists (Jean Baudrillard in particular) in the 1970s. They discovered a strong coincidence between conspicuous consumption and slave mentality. Almost all consumer goods provide such an effect to some extent. However, what the French existentialists could never imagine was the totality with which the contemporary gadget addiction facilitated social stratification. Smartphones happened to be the heaviest hammer of forcible consumption that crashed the last remnant of existential independence of the silent majority.
One of the most important functions of smartphones implies a quasi-democratization of social relations. The consumerist universality inherent in smartphones eliminates the old dichotomy of confronting classes. Social stratification remains as such but conflict is unavailable any longer: now all strata use the more or less similar gadgets taking actions on the same global platforms. Instead of confrontation, we have two poles of the same modality. The lower class is mixed with a middle class through the common model of consumption. And they both are entrusted with the luxury of the upper class: everyone enjoys the same content today.
Such quasi-democratization of consumption excludes nobody from the social ladder: neither stress nor extremes are available, a formal border between classes is represented as a commitment to delusive integration of the entire social field. This is nothing but a highly effective political strategy aimed at maintaining the status quo of social stratification. An upper class (the only one authorized for and capable of making decisions) is seemingly mixed with the lower classes who are destined to the consumption of new models of smartphones as to the fate of slaves. The crowds who gather every year near Apple stores before the release of new models of iPhone confirm such an order of thing indirectly.
There is a particular sequence of features that migrate from old aristocracy to the lower classes under the impact of pseudo-democratization. Profligacy and conspicuous consumption inherited by the proletariat from the bourgeoisie became the markers of the social behavior of slaves. Purchasing expensive gadgets on credit when the price is unaffordable to be paid with own funds is a distinguishing feature of the lower classes who are forced to consume. Moreover, the very fact of purchase makes people from the lower classes get addicted to the communication capabilities of their new smartphones. This is how the mass “unhappy consciousness” is trying to counterbalance its unhappiness.
The upper class, on the other hand, is always has a choice to either purchase or not to purchase anything. At the same time, decision making, politics, manipulation with symbols and humans, and ownership of public discourse all always remain the distinguishing features of the upper class. Only the ones who actually represent the ruling circles can afford not to be always connected these days. Only true elitists may have no smartphones at all today.
Forcible consumption makes smartphones a symbol of social slavery. The more expensive your smartphone is, the clearer your place on the social ladder can be recognized. There is nothing negative in it from a social perspective. Society a priori is stratified. That’s why the “unhappy mentality” of the masses will always look for a psychological compensation in such deviant behavior as wasteful expenditure. Smartphones represent a doubled opportunity for it: a forcible consumption of devices is supplemented with an addictive consumption of content.
Smartphones appear unique among all other consumer goods. They amass a significant share of the vital energy of people from non-elite classes. The binary nature of smartphones provides a universal vicious circle combining both wasteful expenditure and conspicuous consumption.
We purchase the latest model of smartphones despite the one we already have is too far from obsolescence. Just after that, we share the fact of purchasing a new gizmo via social media. The mission is completed: we confirm our social status of a stratum with unhappy consciousness both actually and virtually.
Until then we considered smartphones as a tool of society that affects individuals. Can we find the opposite direction in the relationships between individuals and smartphones? Can smartphones enable individuals to have an impact on society?
While admittedly obvious, the answer implies no antisocial connotations. Whatever content we deliver with our smartphones via social networks, society as a form of slavery, as the Matrix keeps sucking our time, attention, and vital energy. Even if it seems so, we cannot use smartphones for a true anti-social protest. What the modern street protestors do in fact is panhandling. They beg handouts from their local powers-that-be leaving political challenges to the very Matrix beyond the agenda. No matter how many thousands of protestors armed with smartphones appear in the street. Their discourse is short-circuited with purely economic issues.
Who cares how many views on YouTube their protestant videos collect? The true elite, the ones who make real decisions never watches them. Millions of people in Venezuela, hundreds of thousands of “yellow vests” in Paris, as well as all the other contemporary street protestors share their “revolutionary” content via social media. But we do not notice any crack in the concrete bunker of society as a result. Smartphones as such can never shake their own basement — consumerism.
As long as consumers are consumers, a smartphone as the most popular consumer good will always be an integral attribute of the “consumer forces”. A smartphone as a gateway to the space of communication can be (and actually is) a means of social transformations. But the transformations imply an evolutionary process inherent in any society over its history. Even the so-called revolutions are just the stages of that evolution, in fact. Once we are talking about a consumer society (any other type of society is unavailable today), all social transformations come to only a greater mobilization of the consumer capabilities of the masses. Why?
Because the pursuit of happiness is the must-have fetishized objective of every citizen of the contemporary society. But happiness as such is no abstraction any longer, it gains a direct quantitative measurement. Happiness is overconsumption. Moreover, everyone MUST be happy. The System makes everyone aspire to happiness. Everyone must consume as much as possible. No one has the right to be unhappy. No one has a right to be passive and satisfied with what s/he already owns. And to be self-satisfied means to be antisocial, it means crime.
The System (Matrix, Society, Empire — you name it) allows people to do the following three things only: to work, consume, and obey. Consumption occupies the top of that triangle. Citizens can arrange any kind of actions of the so-called civil society, any sort of protest is permitted, anyone can publicly demand anything, but everything must happen within that triangular framework. And it happens so, in fact. Consumerism is inbuilt in the unhappy mentality so reliably that no chance for an organized political opposition to the consumer society is possible: all protests are revolving around numerous variations of consumption only. Modern people can’t arrange well-organized anti-social protests because they all belong to consumer forces who have to follow their innate “consumer code”.
The modern society with its public opinion is nothing but the masses of consumers with their perpetually unsatisfiable consumer aspirations. The situation is similar to the electoral democracy that seemingly glorifies common people just to prevent them from stepping on a political stage in an organized manner. The consumer society glorifies independent consumers (“powerful consumers”) just not to let them arrange organized actions in a social field. The society provides masses with human rights that limit anti-social activity at a personal level. Besides, any declared right for anything means that this thing is lost as a common public benefit. The thing provided with a special right becomes a product. It is consumable if it is a product, and it must be consumed by the masses to comply with the code of consumer ethics. Thus, modern society is ideal conformity in the permitted consumer models.
Figuring out whether a smartphone as a device perfectly fitting consumerism can be applied to something beyond the consumer Matrix, we should find a conceptual alternative to modern society. The only possible one seems to be a post-society (or dis-society). It belongs to a different techno-economic paradigm — postmodernity. The “post-human” rights along with “post-consumer” ethos should be defined, therefore. Such a definition should provide some sort of virtual segregation of the modern “incorrigible consumers” from the future self-satisfied post-consumers. Being supplemented with the current consumer uniformity, the present-day cultural segregation is based on such aspects of social stratification as inaccessibility of elite education, specific types of leisure, limited upward mobility, and satisfaction of curiosity (learning foreign languages, expensive tourism, etc). People seem to be stratified with a different set of opportunities in a new paradigm. Smartphones in such a paradigm should lose a significant part of their commodity value. They should turn into something heavily utilitarian like a socket wrench.
The present consumerist image of smartphones can hardly comply with what will supposedly be the attributes of dis-society. Clear definitions of those attributes cannot be given today — we are still at the initial stage of the paradigm shift. But some hypothetical sketches of them can be created following the common logic of polar oppositions and mirror symmetry. The above-mentioned cultural segregation can be replaced with virtual segregation when post-consumers stop sharing the values of the consumer society. Different standards of leisure activities, studying, and satisfaction curiosity will appear in the asocial postmodernity.
The right for a private place as the right for a private virtual space can emerge. It means the right not to let society expropriate our own time. The right for silence (a privilege of the present elites who afford to live in silent places) can be replaced by the right for the social silence that is the right not to participate in social interactions. The right for knowledge can take the form of a principle possibility to avoid any communication that affects thinking. The right to self-sustainability can be understood as the right to oppose any forcible consumption. And the right to privacy should transform a solid social identity into an unlimited multitude of “liquid” plural identities.
In a symbolic sense, all aspects of the post-social existence can be represented through various software-hardware solutions on smartphones. Smartphones as such will be changed for more utilitarian devices with a longer lifespan. They should lose the status of luxury products. Besides many redundant features should be reconsidered: multiple cameras are just a tribute to fashion aimed at nothing but forcible consumption. The same relates to the processor competition and memory race. At the same time, some new must-have features will appear in each smartphone: an inbuilt crypto wallet is one of them.
Smartphones can be one of the instruments for building an alternative model of people coexistence — dissocial swarms of post-consumer communities. In fact, any object can be used for various purposes, smartphones are no exception. Everything depends on the subjective intentions of those who use objects. A particular type of subjectivity is what determines one or another paradigm, in fact. The subjectivity of consumers is highly questionable once they share many collective identities among which a social multitude is the most inclusive. Contemporary consumers are obsessed with smartphones, but they build nothing with them. They follow the consumer code to sustain the System. This is an unconscious activity. A selfie uploaded on Instagram with a fancy triple-camera smartphone is a symbol of the present-day dis-subjective mass of consumers having unhappy consciousness.
The subjectivity of the postmodern community members is another animal. They negate the current social totality as an infinitely diverse but meaningless substance. They disrespect consumer ethos as a system of coercion. They always prefer the blue pill of knowledge over the red pill of communication. A fundamental conflict with the world of silent conformism is their permanent call to action. Minimalism and self-sustainability constitute their asocial lifestyle. A peer-to-peer crypto transaction made via the Tor browser on a smartphone with unlocked root rights is a symbol of the future hyper-subjective community members having nothing in common with those who pursue happiness through consumption.
Is changing society for dis-society worth someone’s efforts? An indirect confirmation can be found in the fact that society as a model of people’s coexistence is heavily institutionalized with ample bureaucracy. It means that the initial vital impulse of society is exhausted. Society is critically obsolete. Individual (powerful) consumerism was created in the same manner as churches and institutions are established: the imparted cult of individualism makes clear that individuality (subjectivity) disappears actually. Do we really need to perpetuate such misery?
What about smartphones in such a case? Today, smartphones in their current image reflect the actual state of consumer society: the artificially individualized mass product bearing numerous marks of conspicuous consumption. It is clear that a post-consumer who is going to enter postmodernity will be equipped with an absolutely different gadget. Which one? Only time can tell.