The other morning I woke up from a vivid but fragmentary nightmare which faded out of reach almost immediately, as dreams are wont to do. I tried to recover it so that I could set it down in words, but in vain, and so gave up on the effort; until now, when its implications have returned to me with renewed force.
In the dream I had awakened, like Gregor in Kafka’s haunting story, The Metamorphosis, to find my human body hardened into, or possibly, cocooned in, a non-human shell. But exactly a century after the publication of Kafka’s story, the horror was taking a new form. My non-human carapace was not the exoskeleton of an insect, but the casing of a so-called smartphone.
It had only been a month since my simple cell (mobile) phone had finally conked out and, after years of resistance, I had finally capitulated and joined the ranks of smartphone users. The brilliant simplicity of the iPhone’s user interface allowed me to slip into it as if I had been doing it all my life, and almost immediately, it seemed, it had become part of me. It was almost unbelievably seductive: I kept it on my bedside table to charge overnight, used it as an alarm clock, checked the weather on it, downloaded a meditation app (which told me how many other people were meditating at the same time, and where), consulted it last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I could now receive email messages in the car on my commute to and from work, perform Internet searches by speaking to a compliant servant, and have a remarkably human-sounding voice (male, English accent) direct me to my destination. Although I had long resisted getting a Global Positioning System (GPS)—or satellite navigation system, satnav—on what I had insisted were principled grounds (see TMA 232, Before Interstates, Before Automobiles), here I was happily slotting myself into a global surveillance network.
It happens that I am currently teaching George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in class yesterday, when someone commented on Orwell’s prophetic technology of surveillance, I told the story of my Kafkaesque—or in this case, Orwellian—nightmare. The students laughed, I like to think a little uneasily, given their far greater and longer-standing reliance on smartphones, but I suspect they were giggling indulgently, but a little patronizingly, at this quaint old professor who was spooked by a near-universally adopted technology that was second-nature to them.
Just yesterday I also learned that Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on U.S. National Security Agency surveillance, has now charged that the iPhone has secret software installed that can be activated to spy on people. He himself uses a simple cell phone. I told the class about this, and said that I wished I could give up my iPhone, but was now locked into a two-year contract. Again they laughed, and I hoped that it was in appreciation of the irony of our collective dependence on this technology despite its almost-total destruction of our privacy, perhaps even the very concept of privacy.
I searched the Internet in vain for a visual representation of my nightmare, a smartphone encasing and interlocking its systems with those of a human being. Although I found many illustrations of human dependence on this new technology, they all involved its functions becoming extensions of a human being, like a robotic limb. The one that best captured for me the horror of the metamorphosis that accompanies this dependence, was the above image illustrating a 2010 article suggesting that the secretion of a cell phone on one’s person at all times turns one into a “cell-phone zombie,” obsessively attached to “my Precious,” like Gollum in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. “My Precious” is not merely an inanimate possession, but an evil power that subtly worms its way into oneself so that eventually it has taken possession completely.
In Tolkien’s vision the old Sméagol was still there somewhere, and could be appealed to and eventually recovered, albeit at the cost of his own life. For me, the most disturbing aspect of Orwell’s dystopian vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four was that ultimately there was no escape from the all-pervasive power of Big Brother, no hope for resistance. And that is why my dream was more haunting than any of the images I could find on the Internet, in which humans or humanoids were increasingly incorporating features of smartphone technology. The worst part of my nightmare was not that the smartphone was becoming part of me but that, as its hard cover closed over me and its wireless hard-wiring integrated all my corporeal and cognitive systems, I was inexorably becoming part of it.