Me and my iPhone: the metaphysics of gadgets

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It wasn’t until half an hour later, as my husband and I were drinking chianti at the Macaroni Grill, that I could identify the source of my lingering anxiety–they had taken my iPhone away.  It’s true, they had given me a new one in return.  And because everything important about my iPhone is stored in other locations–my laptop, the mysteriously located iCloud–it would soon enough be just like my old iPhone.

But physically, it was not my old iPhone.  Not the phone I had carried around in my purse or pocket for the last seven months. Not the phone I had dropped repeatedly and prayed it would still work when I picked it up.  Not the phone that, yes, I have to confess, has gradually come to sit somewhere close to me almost wherever I go throughout my day, like a small, cold, yet, faithful pet.

If my iPhone is nothing more than the data inside that can be easily transferred into a completely different physical shell, what does that say about the world?

This is the question that occurred to me somewhere around my second glass of chianti, because I am a person prone to spend entirely too much time thinking about things like the metaphysical implications of the iPhone.

My husband and I made the smartphone leap just back in April, at which point I wrote a very thoughtful post about how we would be judicious in our use of technology.  But iPhones are kind of like a puppy, in that they keep looking up at you with those big, cute, puppy dog eyes, begging you to play with them.  And let’s face it, they’re infinitely more useful than a puppy.  They can fetch you the paper, of course, but they can also tell you when and where you need to be, help you win arguments with your husband about the nature of genetic inheritance, tune your guitar, store all the little ideas you have for stories or blog posts during the day, and allow you to tell everyone where you are and exactly what you’re doing at any given moment of the day.  Whether that last use is a good thing is a whole other question.

Sometimes iPhones do pee on the carpet, technologically speaking.  My iPhone acted up within just a couple of weeks of getting it.  And then most recently, the new iOS update made it impossible for me to turn my wi-fi on.  Which did not prevent me from using the phone, but made it impossible to backup to the magic iCloud, which I have come to understand, is a very bad thing.

I know that not being able to back up to the iCloud is a very bad thing because in an attempt to “fix” my iPhone, I did a restore while hooked up to iTunes, and all the indispensable apps I had downloaded disappeared.  This meant at least one idea for a song I had recorded was gone, as well as all the guitar chords for countless songs I had favorited.  There was much bitterness, until more tech-savvy members of my family explained to me that it was all still there, in the cloud.

Where is the iCloud?  What is the iCloud?  I have no idea, and I don’t much care.  Sure enough, it brought me back my song fragment and my chord charts.  It even remembered in my NFL app that the Bengals were my favorite team.  That I don’t understand the iCloud nor care to, and yet am so very dependent upon it, is, I believe, the first step that leads directly to the rise of the Cylons or whatever particular sci-fi scenario you prefer where the machines rule the world.  Remember when it all goes down that it started with the iCloud.

iOS wi-fi
Yes, this is exactly the button that would not turn on

The essence of my iPhone, then, is not in the slim, rectangular device I hold in my hands.  Its essence lives somewhere else, and is almost instantaneously transportable into a new physical form. Ruel, my incredibly helpful and chipper Apple specialist at the Apple store, was so calm in assuring me that everything that my iPhone had been before, it would be again.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that Ruel was probably a bit puzzled at my need for reassurance that there would really be no difference between my old iPhone and my new iPhone.  I didn’t truly believe it until I got it home, hooked it up to iTunes and began re-downloading all my old apps.

And now, sitting happily in the same case, my new iPhone is my old iPhone.  Only with functioning wi-fi (for now).

Could we someday create a pet iCloud, where the essential data that makes my cat, well, my cat, could be uploaded and saved.  When my cat’s current body goes wonky–say, peeing in inappropriate locations–I could upload all her cat-ness into the petCloud, and then download it into a new body.  But would she be the same cat without the sagging gut that swings back and forth beneath her everywhere she goes?

I’m happy to have a fully functioning iPhone again (for now).  Sitting in the restaurant with the still empty shell of my phone that had not yet been restored, everywhere around me I saw people communing with their devices. They were often doing more communing with their devices than they were with each other, something which in the past, I would have been quick to condemn.  But last night, I just felt left out and sad, missing my iPhone.

And now it’s back, but not really.  I cannot quite convince myself it is the same thing.  Perhaps it is my obsession with places, but I am not so ready to give up on the importance of the physical. I am not so ready to believe that even a gadget like my iPhone is ultimately reducible to a data stream.

The Maori of New Zealand have a concept called Hau–the spirit of goods–an idea that appears in various forms among people all over the world.  The Hau is the idea that there can be “a kind of palpable, yet intangible presence in things.”  If you want to think of it this way, it’s as if a little bit of the soul of the person who owns the thing becomes mixed in with the thing: “Souls are mixed with things; things are mixed with Souls.”  This is certainly something I believe about physical places.  Why would it not be true for a physical object which I kept so close to me for so many months?

Almost everything about our modern lives discourages us from placing any kind of special meaning into objects. Many of our things are disposable and replaceable.  Use it today, throw it away tomorrow and get a new one. And yet, there are still some physical objects we cling to. My mother’s wedding ring. A colander that came from my grandmother. A stuffed animal rescued from childhood.

It may very well seem crazy, but I can’t help but wonder where my old iPhone is now.  And if it is, somehow, missing me.

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