CITIES, poetics of life

On iPhones and belonging

I never quite realised that getting an iPhone would mean not so much getting a new phone, as getting an entire new life; the normal-phoned Jana has sort of handed the torched to iPhoned Jana – an entirely new person who sends emails from cafes, tweets overheard oddities, and can find out that elusive address whilst on her way (the previous strategy involved calling friends with smart phones). The new Jana is self-sufficient to an unprecedented degree. A kind of cyborg, really, in the most literal sense. I have weather reports, stock markets and international contacts at my fingertips. But that’s not all.

After ten years of having the oldest possible phones, I am suddenly up with the trends. I can participate in collective behavioural fads – play those games that people (in the sense of ‘society’) play. Then also: people (in the sense of ‘society’) make software (‘apps’) for people like me. Whatever service I have thought of so far (lyrics to songs, wardrobe organisers, on-the-go radio), it all exists. I say ‘uhm’, and they give it to me. Someone anticipates my needs.

This is actually quite interesting, because it’s very unusual for me. And it’s unusual, I think, because I’m so used to being a minority. And being a minority, I realise, it’s an experience largely defined by the frustration of seeing your needs not being taken into account. Or met, but that comes without saying. And, since even before being an immigrant of non-English-speaking background (an outsider’s outsider) in Australia, I was already female, poor and left-handed, I think being a minority really shaped my rapport with the world.

I can be literal and explain, since it so far may sound like whining. Left-handedness is pretty straight-forward: whenever an item has been designed with a modicum of thought (as opposed to just put out there, like a pole or a pinboard, exempli gratia), chances are it is not suited for a left-handed person. Typical and well-known examples: can openers, knives, male clothing (female clothing buttons up left-hand-friendly by a historical accident: it is not meant to be self-buttoned at all, but done by a maid), computer mice. Lesser-known examples: pasta makers, coffee machines, cars in most countries, entire writing systems (try doing Japanese caligraphy with a left hand!), most instruments (even supposedly balanced ones, like piano, are more difficult), every set of knitting instructions in the world. Being left-handed means constantly translating activities into something you can do.

But then take poverty – poverty not in its absolute, global sense, but in the relative sense of earning significantly less than the median income. This is poverty that registers in one’s experience as a feeling (of being poor), and that is by definition a state of minority (being relatively poor means deviating from the average, defined by the majority). In one’s experience, being poor registers as the perpetual state of not having access to the solution which has been provided to your problem, because you can’t afford it. It means not being able to get somewhere, because the only means of transport is too expensive. It means forgoing medical treatments, because you can’t afford them. It means having to do things the long way, because the short way isn’t your short way.

And then being a woman – this is a whole other story, involving, for example, the medical treatment of childbirth, maternity leave provisions, and is a long and tiresome story that plenty of literature has covered already. But there it is again – everyone’s short way isn’t your short way. This notion of the problem being one of provision, but also navigation, was repeated very nicely early this year in an interview German Labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave in regards to the need to have business quotas for women:

I understand the position of young woman [sic] who say that we don’t need quotas. Many of these women have had the experience that they have no trouble in school, at the university and early in their careers. They haven’t yet learned that there are two career paths: the one for men with well-marked streets; and the one for women on unpaved roads that not even the navigation device knows. Most of the women who’ve made it into top management positions say that although they also used to be against quotas themselves, they now believe that women can’t get by without them. I was the same. I used to sing the praises of the right to choose. But I’ve now learned that you sometimes need a law as a catalyst for change. For decades, there was absolutely no change in the number of men taking paternity leave. But within two years of making men eligible to receive state funds while taking paternity leave, the figure has increased six fold.

Navigation, of course, is very easy with a smart phone. But my accidental discovery here is that one kind of empowerment negates another kind of disempowerment. Having an iPhone (which puts me, simply, into the category of ‘majority consumer’, as opposed to a sub-culture, a minority lifestyle which favours old phones) mitigates against being left-handed. Having money mitigates against being a woman. And so on.

To return to the notion of people (in the sense of ‘society’): what’s interesting is that, although one principle of exclusion (of me, from society) may be as functioning as ever, I can beat it with another principle that I do conform to. Hell, it even makes it much sweeter: I’m enjoying my iPhone like the world will end when I stop. But, of course, this is exactly the same principle that drives the poor to side with white supremacism, drives men to dispute women’s rights to things, and even, I would cautiously suggest, drives women to excel at school and then go into humanities. I reckon one gets just as great a sense of belonging to people (in the sense of ‘society’) from being one among a million players of Angry Birds, as one gets from making Shakespeare in-jokes. In a certain sense, both are diametrically opposed to hysteria.

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One thought on “On iPhones and belonging

  1. Chiara C. says:

    As a late iPhone (well, iPod Touch) owner myself, I remember my first few weeks as a brand new techie with fondness, the sense of possibility and discovery were exhilarating. Now back in Rome and I feel like an outsider again. Belonging and connectedness only work when there’s free wi-fi and in Rome, apparently, that’s too much to ask for.

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