My smartphone, myself: digital separation anxiety in the postmodern world

Abraham Martínez González | First published: 14 October 2016, 18:25 IST
My smartphone, myself: digital separation anxiety in the postmodern world

My smartphone, myself: digital separation anxiety in the postmodern world

Abraham Martínez González, Instituto Michoacano de Ciencias de la Educación

Has this ever happened to you: you accidentally leave your cell phone at home, and it feels like your soul has stayed there with it? Your nerves crackle, you feel short of breath - in short, you panic. The specific reaction to a forgotten device depends on the individual, but in the end it's basically separation anxiety: you find yourself far from something that's really important to you.

In today's technology-driven reality, we are seeing the emergence of this new symptom - what I call "anxiety of the disconnected". It may sound trite, but the phenomenon is real enough to have been studied.

The Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica in Mexico confirmed in a 2016 study that 25% of the country's population has felt sad or anxious upon not receiving a "like" on their Facebook status, or when they lose internet connection.

In the United States, psychological studies on the relationship between internet connectivity and anxiety have shown that additional symptoms include headache, disturbances in sleep and strained vision.

Teachers see it all the time. Just recently, at the Instituto Michoacano de Ciencias de la Educación, the teachers' college where I work, one of my students started yelling, "S**t! S**t!", surprising his peers with his profane outburst. "I forgot my ..." He rifled through his backpack, taking out books, papers, emptying out everything. But to no avail: the smartphone wasn't there. I could see the anxiety on his face, as if he'd lost a piece of himself.

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What is the source of the anxious feeling? Is it really related to the forgotten object? A postmodern analysis suggests otherwise.

Here's a quick refresher on postmodernism as a concept. According to French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern world can be understand as a modern life distinguished by the losses of the "big references": myth, religion and philosophy. This represents a void experience, which we try to fill through consumerism.

That's when the disconnection happens, because buying doesn't satisfy us. But in fact the disconnection has already happened anyway: we are born disconnected, lost in the virtual reality that is our lives. Or at least that's what many people feel, including children, who now engage in less social play due to digital attachments.

For the postmodernist, then, the real cause of anxiety upon forgetting a cell phone is not the disconnection from the digital world per se, because it has never filled the void left by the loss of big references. Rather, it's that the subject is suddenly left undefended against the terrible reality of confrontation with others.

Without a screen that lets me disappear into the realm of the imaginary, I must confront the other, face to face - necessitating conversation, discussion, perhaps sometimes even a fight.

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