“And now the Ring had drawn him here. He will never be rid of his need for it. He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself.” In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Grey psychologically diagnoses the character Gollum as a creature under the influence of an object that is not just something he loves or craves. The Ring is a part of Gollum; in a sense, it is Gollum.
In writing The Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien created a character that exemplifies what happens when your everyday hobbit regards a man-made object as a deity. The Ring influences and changes Gollum, transforming a happily normal river hobbit named Sméagol to a “small, limy creature”—a self-loathing, syntax-challenged “it” with a split personality, who refers to itself in the third person plural. But the Ring’s influence is not simply negative: it also gives Gollum a life span centuries longer than a normal hobbit’s, as well as super strength. What does the Ring mean to Gollum? It is him, but it is also his friend, his obsession, his god, his master, his raison d’être, and his nemesis.
Sound familiar? Like the power of the Ring over Gollum, the grip our phones have on us is “soft but horribly strong.” Our fight-or-flight response activates at even a hint of a stranger’s grazing our gleaming handhelds—not to mention the once reasonable, now excruciating question, “could I borrow your phone?” A cross between a new erogenous zone, an extension of our id, a soul mate, and a transitional object for adults—a blanky or binky that allows us to feel the comfort of a mother’s breast in our discomfiting world—the phone is not just a phone. It is not even a phone. It is the Ring. And we are inseparable from it.
At one recent point in human history, the telephone existed to allow people to communicate at great distances. It sat in homes the way a dishwater does: ignored unless in use. It wasn’t a “personal device,” because the idea of a tool being worshipped was ridiculous. Tools, be they hammer or blenders or Morse code machines, were at one time unlovable and impersonal. Then, like any other species directly dependent on humans for survival, some of them evolved, becoming ever more cute and cunning and pleasing. Like dogs, phones got smart, and comet ob e and do and mean so much more than the machine dream dup by Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone because both his mother and his wife were deaf and he wanted to unlock his communication with them, to connect through hearing and responding to the human voice. To be sure, a profound connection, something beyond love and human speech, has taken place in the phone’s rise to power. But this connection is not as dreamed, between humans. This connection is decidedly human-to-machine, and that’s what makes it both so fabulous and so terrifying.
If aliens came to Earth and observed humans, they would have no choice but to believe that we have coupled with an inorganic species. From the moment we wake to the time we go to bed, the majority of our attention—not to mention our tender caresses—is for our phones. A true pocket Venus, the phone beguiles us with its willingness to simply hang out and do awesome things together. You can look at the stars—get the Star Walk 2 app, and it will show you all of them. You can find your favorite song. You can look at endless images of the actor Tom Hardy. It buys you a new coat. It orders you food. If you’re sad, it plays funny videos to cheer you up. It does these things both for you and with you, like the most sensitive and intuitive partner you could possibly imagine. And while it is true that the phone connects you to other actual humans to love and mate with, it clearly represents the triumph of the medium over the message. Friends, lovers, and sexy texts may come and go, but the phone is forever. And this rather explains why the idea of “borrowing” someone else’s phone is so distasteful—do you borrow someone else’s boyfriend? If so, how’s that working out?
This is not simply a delusional, one-sided love affair with an emotionally unavailable robot. In a filmed interview, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison marveled at the phone’s anthropophilic qualities: “You watch the way the phone has evolved over the last 100 years...It’s like the phone wants to mate with us. The phone wants to get off with us, and it’s getting sexier all the time.” While humans design and build phones, it is phones who have us in their thrall, tenderly holding all our secrets and private thoughts in their gigabytes. If kink relationships supposedly test the boundaries of trust, our phone romances are all about carte blanche to access our most private, vulnerable selves: our bank account information, our desperate 3 a.m. texts, our nude pics. And like a sweet, sexy submissive, it does whatever we want it to—until the roles reverse. The phone is, in BDSM terms, a true “switch.”
What happens when our self-created technology becomes not just good, but too good? Who are humans when they come to depend on the tools they create not just intellectually, but emotionally—when these tools are given the power of gods? Over time, Sméagol evolved from an upright hobbit into the Ring-addicted Gollum, a stooped and shriveled creature that resembled, from a distance, “a tailless black squirrel.” Our own hunched posture—literally called “text neck”—might be the harbinger of this inevitable evolution (and not even Facetune can solve that issue). Or maybe not. There is another petite, syntax-addled critter from the realm of iconic fantasy fiction with a logic that pushes against the attachment that defines our smart phone relationships/addictions: Yoda. Possessed of the power of the Force, which is available to all and does not charge a monthly fee, Yoda has strength beyond his size and his 900 years. But Yoda is a happy Jedi with friends and a life, not a miserable Gollum. Instead of finding a fickle and addicting power in external objects, Yoda summons the Force, and advises the opposite tactic to Gollum’s clutching: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” That includes your phone.