Why are we in a relationship with our smartphones?

Is it time to rethink our relationship with our gadgets? Justin Thomas asks

Many of us are overly attached to our gadgets. Photo Illustration by Philip Cheung / The National
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Reem affectionately moves her fingers over her new smartphone to feel the smooth contours. Not just its shape, but she is also enchanted by its functionality. The device oozes a kind of elegance and simplicity that makes even complex tasks seem easy. Reem is inseparable from her device. She sleeps in its reassuring glow and wakes up to the gentle chimes of its alarm clock.

Reem is not alone in having a strong relationship with a technological device. Many of us are overly attached to our gadgets. With modern devices offering a compelling blend of brain (read artificial intelligence) and beauty, it’s easy to understand why some of us become passionate about them. But where do we draw the line between passion and obsession?

Obsession is intrusive, repetitive thoughts, overly focused on a person, object or situation. Typically, our obsessions are accompanied by compulsions – that is actions we feel compelled to perform. For example, if I’m plagued by the thought of having germs on my hands, then I will frequently reach for the hand sanitiser.

Compulsive behaviours generally serve to silence our obsessive thoughts, albeit temporarily. Consider the vibrating smartphone with its provocative digital wink: “You have a message”.

Some people feel the compulsion to check, no matter where they are or who they are with. This is where passion crosses the line into obsession. This is the point where the behaviour starts to take a toll on our relationships, workplace performance and even physical health.

One idea about how our obsessive relationship with smartphones gets started is based on a psychological concept known as “transfer of affect”, whereby our feelings (affect) about one thing are transferred to a previously neutral object – in this case the phone.

For instance, reading a sweet email from an old friend, or viewing beautiful images of a forthcoming holiday destination are likely to make us feel good. The positive feelings aroused by such content can spill over to closely associated objects. One obvious beneficiary is the device upon which the content is viewed. The gadget, by association, becomes both a reminder and a harbinger of pleasure. Of course, sometimes we receive sad or annoying information too, and many devices will have their lives cut short by enraged owners who throw them against the wall.

But would anyone ever throw a 24-carat gold, diamond encrusted smartphone like that? It is possible. But the fact that we use such precious materials in our devices indicates a transition in our relationship with them. Once upon a time, such obsession with communication gadgets was restricted to the geeks, who were typically portrayed as socially awkward and sartorially challenged individuals.

However, in recent years, even ordinary as well as fashionable people become obsessed with gadgets. Function is important, but the appearance is even more critical. Digital devices must now be beautiful and glamorous. Fortunately or unfortunately, our fascination for particular forms or appearances and our perceptions of beauty keep changing. German art historian Wilhelm Worringer said that the objects we consider beautiful are those that reflect values that are lacking in our societies.

Perhaps because of this reason some simple and popular smartphones that are durable appear to be so appealing to us.

As long as we can be moved by the form of beautiful objects there will never be a gadget to end all gadgets. Even if functional innovation hits the wall for a while, our obsession and appetite for new devices will continue.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas