The philosophy of phones: why it might not matter that you can't stop checking yours

A new paper on phantom phone vibration syndrome suggests that we rethink our negative approach to technology and its effects on us. 

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Use a smartphone? Then it’s pretty likely that you suffer from something called “phantom phone vibration syndrome”, which roughly translates as “thinking your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not”. It also ties into related behaviours, like repeatedly checking your phone, even when you know it hasn’t lit up. 

In fact, phantom vibrations aren't really a syndrome. Researchers use the term because they don't really know what the phantom vibrations are, or what causes them. And yet the limited research into the phenomenon shows that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of regular phone users exhibit these strange, impulsive behaviours.  

The weirdest part, though, is that most of us don’t seem to mind. In both a 2012 study of almost 300 undergraduates and a 2010 study of 169 medical professionals, only around 2 per cent found the phantom vibrations “very bothersome”.  This hasn’t stopped researchers from worrying, of course – most studies try to connect the behaviours to a change in brain function brought on by technology.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor who has written extensively on the subject, coined the term "iDisorders" to describe the ways technology may be impacting our psychological health. On phantom phone vibrations, he has this to say: “We are now so primed with anxiety…. that we misinterpret a simple signal from our neurons located below our pocket as an incoming message rather than as an itch that needs to be scratched.”

It is very tempting to charge our constant interaction with technology with a general increase in anxiety and decrease in attention spans. In the summer 2008 issue of the Atlantic, technology writer Nicholas Carr threw his hat into the ring with the headline “Is Google making us stupid?”:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

But Robert Rosenberger, a professor in the philosophy of technology, has a slightly different take. In a new paper on phantom phone vibrations,  he suggests that we view technology as an extension of our existing senses, rather than a damaging new development somehow divorced from all the other technologies – from flints to Facebook – which we've used throughout history. 

“There are ways to talk about technology without reducing everything to brain rewiring talk,” he tells me over the phone. “Yes, you’re brain’s involved, but your brain’s involved in everything. There's a weird scientific legitimacy that comes from saying it's changing your brain, as opposed to just claiming it’s changing your behaviour or society. If I'm teaching you to drive, we wouldn't talk about brains. I would just say, OK, take hold of the steering wheel. ”

To counter this type of knee-jerk thinking, his paper on phantom vibrations, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, includes a section on the philosophy of experience and phenomenology. Philosopher Martin Heidigger, for example, wrote about humans’ use of technology in the 60s, and noted that where we use technology as a tool, it simply becomes part of the user’s experience (he uses eyeglasses as an example). As Rosenberger paraphrases in his paper, “a user may remain barely aware of the device itself as it is used. Instead, it is whatever the device is being used for—whatever work is being accomplished with that device—that stands forward with significance.”

In this formulation, it’s not the, phone, glasses or book which are at the centre of our experience– it’s the communication from a friend, view of the sea, or story that our brains are really concerned with.  Rosenberger describes phones as a “mediating technology”, used to do the same old thing we always do: communicate.  

So how do phantom phone vibrations fit in? Rosenberger argues that they’re simply perceived by our brains as a “bid for attention made by another person”.  Vibrations in a pocket are easily suggested by fabric rubbing together, or a faint noise. Most of us who have experienced this have, too, thought we heard our name in a crowd, or spun round at a noise that turned out to be meaningless.

Personality seems to tie into the prevelance of the vibrations, too. Studies have found variously that those who are more neurotic are more likely to find the phantom vibrations annoying, while conscientious people tended to experience them less, and be less bothered by them. In one study, researchers tracked the phantom vibrations among medical students on different rotations, and found that students experienced more phantom vibrations during their year of internship, and far less once the internship ends.

This final piece of evidence backs up something Rosenberger put to me thus: “We could think of these phantom vibrations as a kind of bad habit – not a very bad one, as it’s not actually bothersome – which might be a more useful analogy than a rewired brain.” Yes, we check our phones a lot – but the effects can disappear quickly once the reasons for checking (emergencies while working on a hospital ward, for example) disappear.

Indeed, as communication devices become more wearable, they're likely to become even more embedded in our consciousness. Because Apple Watches, for example, don’t need to be physically taken out and looked at, the checking process is far less distracting, as this post on wearables from product designer Luke Wroblewski demonstrates.

We may be addicted to our phones, and we may check them too much – but if our technology is just an extension of ourselves, we’re only as bad as Charlie Brown, obsessively checking his postbox for Valentines, or a late commuter, straining for the sound of their bus rounding the corner. The technology and tools may change, but we're only as neurotic and anxious as we've always been. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.