The iPhone as an Extension of Self

The iPhone is an object most of us are all familiar with, whether we own one or not. Since its release only four years ago it has generated boundless media attention and initiated endless conversations and debates.

Although it’s certainly not the first mobile phone on the market, it has revolutionised the industry and the way in which we consume technology. Never before was it so commonplace for consumers to camp outside a retail store for several days in the hope of being one of the first people to obtain the latest piece of technology at it’s very moment of release.

The iPhone is more than just a phone though, in fact it has never been marketed as a phone at all; the call functionality is given no more prominence than any other application. The iPhone has become a tool for extending our physical and intellectual capabilities as well as an object of self expression.

Extension of Our Physical and Intellectual Capabilities

The simple design that consists of a single button and screen provides the shell for a device that inherits its functionality from its ever evolving and expansive software.

By installing additional apps, we can extend our physical capabilities by transforming the phone into a multipurpose swiss army knife, the phone instantly becomes a torch, a spirit level or device for calibrating a sniper rifle.

In addition to the extension of our physical capabilities, the phone also extends our mind and intellect, providing an always on connection to an infinite stream of data on the internet.

The Always On Society

This always on culture is having a huge impact on our society. We are becoming more empowered with data and are no longer limited to the knowledge stored within our heads. We can now access anything, anytime, anywhere as well as place the burden of processing and storing information, performing calculations or making decisions into a single, multipurpose object.

Are we, therefore becoming too dependent on this object, hindering our ability to learn and making us less intelligent or are we becoming more powerful analytic thinkers?

Pre-iPhone society was educated through a model that taught from a single perspective such as a teacher or textbook. The media was also limited to few outlets and perspectives and information from these sources was generally trusted.

However, users are now so empowered, anyone can become an educator or a reporter. We can publish our own data instantaneously to blogs and social networks, for the entire world to see.

In this world of uncontrolled, almost limitless sources of information, information becomes opinion, requiring adaptive thinking to enable us to become more critical, analytic thinkers to conclude which information is valid or of value to us.

Failing to adapt may result in us becoming more gullible as the lines become increasingly more blurred.

The way in which we consume information has changed also; information has now become entertainment – we increasingly consume short bursts of hyperlinked information, forcing our mind to jump from one piece to the next – which may ultimately be detrimental to our ability to focus for extended periods of time.

Extension of Identity

Products can be more than the sum of the functions they perform

Don Norman

Don Norman states that objects provide more value than their behavioural function. His three level design model (visceral, behavioural and reflective) illustrates that an object can be defined as meeting three separate needs. At the visceral level, objects satisfy our appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. At the behavioural level, objects provide a useful function to resolve a problem.

The reflective level is about meaning; how an object makes us feel and how it reflects our self image and values.

In the complex struggle to identify ourselves, we turn to the objects we consume as a means of self expression, from the clothes we wear to the phone in our pocket.

The invention of the teenager is intimately bound up with the creation of the youth market. Eventually a new range of commodities and commercial leisure facilities are provided to absorb the surplus cash which for the first time working class youth is calculated to have at it’s disposal.

Dick Hebdige

Self expression was popularised with the introduction of the teenager to society, which spawned numerous subcultures, ideas and movements to which youth could identify themselves with; objects then became an important symbolic association to these ideas.

All purchases signify something socially, therefore they all have a fetishistic side.

Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard claims that all objects speak about their users, the owner assigns value to an object and objects also obtain value from their relationship with other objects.

The iPhone has received its value within society to become a symbol of status, prestige, good taste and utopia. It tells the story of its owner as being someone who appreciates quality, aesthetics and ease of use. It also defines consumers as being cutting edge, unique, creative individuals – an illusion which is the result of Apple’s powerful branding.

However, the iPhone offers much more reflective value than its symbolic appearance. The phone also acts as a blank canvas to be populated with personal data.

This data transforms into a social object as we compare and share music, photos and apps with friends. However, it must be questioned why we do this – is it in an attempt to introduce others to content they may also find value in, or is it a narcissistic indulgence in which we are identifying ourselves with particular values and ideas through our personal data?

Either way, the iPhone has become an important vessel for self expression – the depth of this expression may vary depending on age or culture. Some people may use the phone to define themselves, others may use it as a tool to express themselves through their personal data. Some may even, surprisingly – just use the phone for its functional value.

Closing Thoughts

The topic raises complex issues – are we putting too much reliance on technology to perform tasks for us that it is detrimental to our intellectual capabilities and are we too reliant on it to identify ourselves that we are buying into an illusion?

The possible negative effects on our intellectual capabilities may not be apparent yet, although the constant distractions as a result of being constantly connected may be detrimental to our concentration, resulting in decreased performance, or we may evolve to become more efficient at multitasking.

The belief that this object can define us, may be illusive – but if we view the iPhone as a tool for self expression, rather than a symbolic statement – then we become more empowered to express the values and ideas we possess independently of the device.