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Cell Phone Agency


Finally, one issue that can be read into so many of the questions we asked documentary participants was the question over how much agency we see cell phones having in our lives. The twinned questions “What does your phone help you to remember?” and “What does your phone help you to forget?” (PDF transcript here) asked participants to reflect upon the place of cell phones as aids in the classical canon of memory. In much the same way that some have suggested that search engines have become offloaded storehouses for memory, we wondered whether cell phones were seen as objects that helped (and hurt) our capacity for memory. While the video clip above shows that some participants suggested that cell phones can be used to remind them of events and appointments, one participant also suggested that it only helps her to remember things when she explicitly tells it to remind her. Similarly, when asked how cell phones facilitate forgetfulness, some suggested that cell phones act as a repository for information that would have been kept inside our brains. Some claimed that cell phones do the remembering for us at times, holding phone numbers, details, facts, and other kinds of information. A person-with-a-cell phone is freed up to do other kinds of thinking and can rely—hopefully—on their cell phone to function as a container for what are seen as unimportant details. Such answers suggest that cell phones have an active force in our everyday thoughts, though in many cases these are welcome roles.

Asking whether cell phones give you more or less control over your social life elicited a different set of responses, though, again, the agency we perceive cell phones to have became a central issue in participants’ responses (PDF transcript here). As seen above, opinions seemed split, as some suggested we have more control because we are able to contact people more often, with the presumed ubiquity of cell phones and their attendant wireless connections. Others felt that this state of being “always on” created situations of less control, because people-with-cell phones are always available to other people-with-cell phones. Interestingly enough, however, a number of participants also felt that cell phones generated both more and less control and saw themselves as situated in a push/pull effect of being potentially available at any time. It is certainly possible that this feeling is a reaction to sensing the thing-power of an object in our lives.

Finally, the titular question of the video, “Does your smartphone make you any smarter?”, asked participants to consider the 1:1 impact of cell phones on their intelligence (PDF transcript here). Most denied that cell phones directly and actively “make them smarter” and instead suggested that a cell phone can be used to present people as smarter or can show them as more prepared. Some thought that cell phones act as a gateway to information, but that such information could be gained through a range of potential sources (Google, encyclopedias, etc.). Interesting here is that participants separated the material object of the cell phone from the kinds of technological literacies it enables. As one participant suggested, asking whether a cell phone makes you smarter brings about questions concerning the relationship between definitions of intelligence and the power that cell phones have to influence cognitive functioning. Most seem skeptical that cell phones, specifically, can be held responsible for making us smarter, though others seem persuaded that cell phones, as a nexus for a host of other literacies, help enable distraction.