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Cell Phone Hybrids


It was definitely tempting for students in Language, Technology, and Culture to ask questions concerning how we act, think, and engage the world in concert with cell phones. Students worked with readings from Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles that introduced concepts of posthuman identity. Specifically, students read Haraway’s (1991) “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” from Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, and Hayles’s (1999) “The Materiality of Informatics” chapter in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Different than the actor–network theory, thing theory, and new materialist work referenced above, Haraway’s and Hayles’ scholarship helped introduce post-Cartesian thinking and the concept that human bodies and identities can be indistinguishable from the material and technological conditions that support cognition and bodily practices.

This context helped set up questions like “Have you ever intentionally spent a day away from your phone?” and “How do you feel when you forget your phone?” as students attempted to help documentary participants reflect on how much time they spent with their phone by their side (PDF transcript here). Not surprisingly, as seen in the above video, most expressed that they never leave their phone, or that they feel unease or nervousness when they realize it is not easily accessible. Included in these responses is an expression of what it feels like to be a human-with-a-cell phone, as this hybrid actant can connect in ways that might make a human-without-a-cell phone less confident or assured. Others expressed opposite sentiments, explaining that when they do not have their phone with them, they are able to engage a different identity—one that can put aside the obligations often conveyed to them through their phone. At times, people may not want to be incorporated with their phones and could seek time away from these networks and actants.

Students also chose to ask the very direct question: “Are you a cyborg?”, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, elicited both simple affirmative and negative responses (PDF transcript here). Though not much additional discussion is provided in the section of video shown here, both the students who agreed that they were cyborgs and those that denied the representation were likely weighing the question against their personal definition of the term, as one participant suggests. It is worth noting that individuals feel the myriad relations with cell phones in different ways and thing-powers may not be as strong in all groupings of humans and nonhumans—or people and cell phones.