When My Phone Dies, I Might Not Shed a Tear

We love our objects like friends, which is going to make for a rather depressing future.

Jul 18 2014, 7:10pm

A couple weeks ago, at one of those corporate rooftop events that you occasionally find yourself guzzling gin at, I pulled my phone out to show some dumb thing, and a few shards of glass fell out into my hand, as is wont to happen when you've been nursing a shattered screen for a month or two.

"Why don't you just get a new phone?" my soon-to-be-lost new acquaintance asked, faintly appalled that someone would limp around with a phone clearly held together by little more than a sticky screen protector.

Well, money's one good answer, but you can't say that, not when Wolfgang Puck is catering. But the other answer is perhaps more embarrassing, and I'm not sure why: I like this phone, and rather than toss it in a drawer, I want to hang onto it until it dies.

If you're one of those sociopaths who doesn't anthropomorphize at least some of the objects around you, well, I dunno, maybe you should go click on some other offering from the spectacular internet website you're reading.

But for the rest of us normal folk, the fact that we occasionally grow fond of our squawking, needy gadgets is fascinating, largely because that ecosystem is only growing. Futurama already covered what it means to fall in love with a robot, but what happens when you're mildly attached to a dozen digital devices you've randomly accumulated over the years?

Finally, the child they never had. Image: Shutterstock

I can't remember the last time I actually turned my phone off, and for the 17 hours a day it's not in airplane mode, it's probably in my hand or in my face, compulsively staring at Twitter (oh hell), Gmail (fuck), or some analytics thing (fuck2).

Don't roll your eyes, 'cause you're guilty too: We've all seen the regular stream of surveys finding that, say, most Americans would rather go a day without coffee or liquor than their phone, or that old standby that some 33 percent of Americans would rather have their phones than sex. It wouldn't be completely insane to conclude that phones are destroying America, and yet we still find an emotional attachment to them.

Or sometimes it's to others' phones. An ex-girlfriend used to have a rather healthy dislike for the various phones in my life, to the point that in the occasional (and sadly enough, considering the accusation to come, levelheaded) spat, she'd suggest that I preferred my phone's company to hers. 

Absurd as that is in the abstract—we are talking about inanimate objects, right?—it's not hard to understand, especially when my phone suffers more of my attention and thoughts than any human person. I tried sticking my phone in the fruit bowl whenever I'd come home; I won't lie, I was convinced I saw a smile of glee flit across her face when I poured water out of a Note 2 that'd been caught in a sudden camping-related thunderstorm. It's all completely bonkers, but it's also true: I won't deny feeling pangs of jealously when she'd get particularly engrossed in her iPhone.

It's also science. Our anthropomorphization of objects, our willingness to connect to devices, has been well-studied for years, probably because there's a vast landscape of manufacturers and brands interested in such research. For example, one interesting 2013 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (what else did you expect?) found that when users viewed objects as "alive," they were less likely to replace them.

And here's where a curious implication comes in: You'd think that, if you were a maker of objects, you'd be stoked to know that your customers are somehow emotionally involved in your products. But the flip side is clear: If I love my Nexus 5 so much—despite an average battery, fairly shit camera, and a screen that's made me bleed a nonzero number of times—that I won't replace it, those are lost revenues.

It's not so bad falling in love with an object if it helps cure your gnarly heartburn.

There's another element as well, highlighted in the 2010 Ph.D. dissertation of Jesse Chandler, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan. In a variety of experiments, Chandler found that "once consumers enter into a relationship with an object, the emotional quality of their experience with the object may resemble the emotional quality of their experience with other people," as we'd expect.

But he also found the "first evidence that anthropomorphism can decouple product quality and replacement intentions." In other words, if someone thinks of one phone as a person, even in a subconscious, emotional sense, they'll be less likely to replace it with a higher-quality device, which is "consistent with the conjecture that consumers may hesitate to replace anthropomorphized possessions just because they get unreliable, much as they hesitate to replace close friends just because they get old and cranky."

So while thinking of your phone as a person can have dire consequences, including death, in rare circumstances, the real ramifications are more subtle. Tens of billions of devices are coming to the Internet of Things, and while a whole lot of those will be faceless sensors and such, a whole lot more are going to be objects that we spend a lot more time thinking about than we do now.

Designers know that both anthropomorphization and gamification help increase our engagement with their devices, which means your microwave will one day text you a "Great job!" message for leading that week's neighborhood-wide vegetable-cooking leaderboard. Right now, I'd have trouble thinking of a single appliance I could give a shit about. But when my fridge tells me to enjoy the beer I just pulled out? Well, damn, now we're talking friendship.

Multiply that across your whole house, or your whole world, and add in further research linking anthropomorphization of objects with hoarding tendencies, and you've got one rather odd portrait of the future: A future in which we're surrounded by a vibrant, encouraging, friendly swarm of digital detritus that we're unwilling to get rid of, and whose actual, productive qualities we care less about than their ability to make us feel loved, or at least paid attention to.

I think it just winked at me! Image: Nest

Think humans aren't so easily manipulated? Hate to say it, but we are. We're already seeing this in the social media era: Because some emotions are more viral than others, our perception of our interactions with human friends is already skewed as compared to real life. Despite that, our emotional states are still sensitive to perturbations in those self-imposed filter bubbles, and we're just talking about text on a screen!

If and when my main camera, which has been around the world with me, dies or explodes or whatever, I'll have trouble not giving it a prized resting place somewhere on a bookshelf, where it will live for eternity as soul-sucking kipple. When my phone finally dies, I probably won't shed a tear, but the fact that I haven't replaced it yet—despite it objectively being embarrassing to own at this point—is as good of evidence as any that our devices can be hard to let go of.

Now, if the future held Rosie the Robot, that wouldn't be so bad. Who wouldn't care for, and possibly make irrational monetary decisions to repair, a robot maid? But instead we've got DJ Roomba, thermostats designed to look like human eyeballs, and, soon, scores of other bits and baubles all designed to play on our willingness to find a friend in with anything vaguely resembling human traits. It sounds like one hell of a depressing future to me, but at least I'll have my blender's shoulder to cry on.