How to de-Cyborg your Phone

An old friend of mine, Mike Hales, introduced me (this was back in the early 1990s) to the concepts of “tool”, “prosthesis” and “cyborg” in relation to handheld technologies, such as mobile phones. I think the concepts, taken together, are now really of their time, especially if you are uneasy with the feeling that your phone is increasingly becoming a fused extension of your hand.

If you like that prospect, read no further.

In researching this little article, I looked at a lot of pictures of “craft” working, going back right into the Middle Ages, the time of guilds, of apprentices, and to times when most of our useful artefacts were made by craftsfolk.  A lot of paintings show the craftsman (or woman) sat at their work bench or table, very much leaning forward, over their work.

There’s a sense of control, but also of separation between crafts person, tool, and a feeling of separation, especially at the start and the end of the work. That separateness has a vital quality to it. Apprentices were taught the importance of what I’ll call “placement”.

Here I am referring to the importance of placement of each tool – set deliberately in its proper place, picked up and held properly, with awareness, attention and consciousness. At the end of the work, tools were cleaned and “placed” back in their rightful places, on shelves, on hooks, in cupboards etc. The images really do show that separation, a detachment of tool user and tool maker. (Visual examples here, here, here,  here, and here.)

Separation brought a necessary detachment that impacted on the skill of the tool user, the crafts person. At some point in the process of working, many craftsmen would experience “oneness” with the tool, they went into “the zone” and felt the tool as an extension of their arm or hand – it became more of a “prosthetic” thing. At the end of the work, putting the tools away, sitting back, cleaning up, and specifically, placing the tool back in its proper place, re-established the separation, so that the tool user could depart from the process, and get out of the “prosthetic zone” (the oneness with the thing) in the same state they had arrived, detached from the tool. They came “back to themselves”.

It’s a bit of a simplistic and romantic notion, but it does point to the importance of separation before and after going into the “prosthetic zone”. Some crafts folk I have spoken to say that the ‘before and after’ separation from the tool has a tangible impact on their quality of the work when “in the zone”, as well as on the quality of their family and social life as well! You’ve probably felt the lingering after-feel of a hat worn too long on your head, or of the images of a computer screen or game still echoing in your head before going to sleep, after too many hours of use. Detachment from too much attachment brings us back to ourselves, we literally “re-cover” ourselves in our original skin.

The notion of “cyborg” occurs when the tool itself becomes so attached to a limb, that we don’t only direct our skill and energy through it and start to feel it part of us in one direction, outward from ourselves into the thing being worked on, but it also provides feedback and input, through our nervous system to our brain , impacting on our sensory experience of the world. The “cyborg” is a two-way prosthetic device. It is a part of us and actually influences us actively. I’m holding a mobile phone and it vibrates, telling me I have a text. When the phone, held in hand, or almost fused to our thigh in our pocket vibrates, it is essentially we who vibrate. I’ve even heard the semi serious comment from someone when they received a text: “Excuse me, I’m vibrating!”

Technologies are now developing so fast that we are already piloting chips that will be inserted under the skin, and wires stimulating parts of our bodies. The futurists point out that brain implants are only just around the corner.

So, we have tool, we have prosthesis, and we have cyborg.

I believe that mobile phones are usually tools, often prosthetic devices, and that smartphones are rapidly showing signs of developing into cyborg extensions and parts of our limb and nervous systems. The more habitual the phone use, the less separation there is, and the more we hold these devices fairly permanently in our hands of close to our bodies, the less the chosen detachment there is, the closer to making us cyborgs they become. As phones stay right next to our heads beside the bed, in our pockets, vibrating against our legs, acting (with built-in cameras) as extensions to our eyes and our ears, we lose a necessary separation that toolmakers see and saw as essential to their work, their sense of freedom, and as part of healthy living.

Now, let’s go back to the idea of “placement”. Here is an approach that can help us to recover just a little (or perhaps a lot) of our selves, through re-establishing separation and detachment, in relation to our use of mobile phones.

If your phone is sitting there on the table in front of you, and it rings or vibrates – if you pull it towards you, without moving, then you are behaving as if the phone is part of your hand, an extension of your arm. You reach your arm forward and pull it towards you, you yourself hardly moving from your comfy position. Here separation is minimal, even non-existent, and you are really just pulling an extension of your hand towards you – your phone.

Try this instead: when the phone rings or vibrates, do what the craftsperson used to do at the start of his or her work. Sit up, sit forward, reach forward so you are leaning over your phone and THEN pick it up and use it. Here you lean OVER your phone, in a gesture of taking hold of it, of showing a clear detachment and separation between YOU, the phone user and the tool – the PHONE. Try it. It creates a real re-establishment of you and it. You become tool user again, more yourself, and the phone becomes a tool, not a prosthesis. Of course afer a while, you may well go into the “zone” where the phone is just part of your hand again.

Now, at the end of the call or the texting, clearly and deliberately look at the device, registering it in your mind as a tool, then deliberately and consciously place it back on the table, taking your hand away from it with attention, before sitting back.

Try this a few times and be sure not to make it an unconscious habit. It really does re-establish you as the tool user and the phone as the tool used. It can even make you much more conscious about whether you need to answer the call, or reply to the text there and then. It makes you less reactive – more proactive and in control. I’d even suggest it can improve the quality of your call, or your texting.

If the phone is constantly in your pocket, when it vibrates or rings, take it out quite deliberately and place it in front of you BEFORE putting it to your ear or looking at it. Create a clear (it can take just moments) physical gesture of separation between you and the tool. Similarly, when you put it away, look at it first, and then put it back into your pocket – register it  in your mind as a thing, as your phone, BEFORE you put it away. Even better, keep it in your bag so you have to always take it out and put it back. Create a clearly chosen place for it.

Placement reasserts who is master who is tool. It creates tool user and tool. It reduces the prosthetic feel of the device and recovers a bit of consciousness and, I would suggest, healthy separation. It will keep you a bit more awake and aware in a world heading towards us become more and more cyborg-like. Are you ready for that world?


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on July 3, 2011, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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