Smartphone resistance as media ambivalence
First Monday

Smartphone resistance as media ambivalence by Rivka Ribak and Michele Rosenthal



Abstract
In this paper, we develop the notion of media ambivalence to account for such seemingly unrelated practices as content filtering, screen-time limitation and social media rejection. We propose that as compared to resistances to dedicated communication technologies with an on/off button, resistances in a neoliberal age of ubiquitous, convergent media are temporary and local. Analyzing interviews with smartphone resisters, we discuss their critique of smartphone culture; their investment in their feature phones and their pride and unease over using them; and their sense that their resistance cannot last. Interpreting smartphone resistance as a form of media ambivalence, we suggest that in terms of scope, contemporary resistance is aimed at a single medium, platform or practice that is singled out of the convergence; that its meaning develops over time along with technological and cultural changes; and that it acquires personal, social and political significance from related uses and resistances.

Contents

Introduction
Conceptualizing media ambivalence
The study
Concluding comments

 


 

Introduction

A recent Kickstarter project presents a credit card-sized cell phone that shows the time and allows its users to make and receive calls. The “Light Phone” [1] is a standalone contraption that through call forwarding “works with” the smartphone, which can now be left behind so that it does not break or run out of battery. This deceptively simple device is reminiscent of older cell phones, those that are now subsumed under the category of “feature phones.” But why would one invest in a downgraded smartphone? The Light Phone, we will propose in this paper, is an embodiment of contemporary media ambivalence. It is sophisticated but user friendly, allowing one to both be constantly available (“never miss a call from Mom”) — and to leave the smartphone at home (“without unwanted rings, dings or pings”). In the midst of technological convergence, the Light Phone divorces the phone from the Internet, camera, and myriad other functions that the smartphone performs; as against the always-on imperative, it is “designed to be used as little as possible.” Ironically, it invites its future users to enact their resistance through engagement with, rather than rejection of the technological marketplace. The Light Phone promises to “fit invisibly” into its user’s life, exemplifying the particular, circumscribed, half-hearted resistance that this paper aims to explore.

As culture is ever more mediatized, such micro-resistances to media are increasingly common. By preferring one medium over another, by turning the phone face down in particular times and places, by delaying purchasing a telephone for your child (even when most of the kids in class own one), users express their critique and ambivalence about the mediatized nature of everyday life. These are not explicitly articulated acts of ideological resistance to media, as documented in the works of e.g., Campbell (2007), Ribak and Rosenthal (2006) or Umble (1996) on the telephone. Rather, they are negotiations with the overabundance of channels and contents, expressions of a desire to “unplug” or be present in an unmediated manner. In the current context of media convergence and ubiquity, resistance is rarely total. One can avoid the mobile phone but use a landline, as one can avoid voice conversations but text. These small-scale preferences may be temporary and local, requiring different levels of persistence and commitment. In this paper, we propose to view these discrete, seemingly unrelated practices as expressions of media ambivalence [2]. Seen from this perspective, enduring ideological resistance to a particular medium is a self-conscious form of media ambivalence that acquires its meaning through its associations with adjacent practices such as content filtering (Rosenthal and Ribak, 2015), time limitation (Gregg, 2015) or social media rejection (Neves, et al., 2015; Portwood-Stacer, 2013).

Smartphone resistance is a particularly telling case of media ambivalence. The smartphone is both a tool and a symbol of present day mediatization, dialectically refracting the utopic technological optimism that developers and advertisers promote — and dystopian worries over addiction and nomophobia, unmitigated availability, surveillance, privacy violation, distraction and interference. Smartphone resistance, then, is in dialogue with these hopes and fears, as costly as it is liberating. Furthermore, whereas non-viewing may have been a quaint and rather obscure practice in the heyday of television (Edgar, 1977; Jackson-Beeck, 1977), smartphone resistance today is socially offensive and practically less and less feasible. In studying smartphone resistance, then, we may in fact be studying late adoption. In his seminal work on the diffusion of innovation, Everett Rogers (2003) defines as “cell phone laggards” [3] people who, as late as 1998 and 2000, did not own a mobile phone. These people offered sound reasons for their non-use, referring to the complexity of the technology, its incompatibility with their values, and its relative disadvantages. Presciently, however, Rogers views these resisters as laggards [4] who would at some later point adopt the technology — thereby implying that media resistance has perhaps become a temporary condition. Riddled with contradictions, emancipating and futile, smartphone resistance is uniquely positioned to shed light on contemporary media ambivalence.

 

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Conceptualizing media ambivalence

Sally Wyatt (2003) argues that media use can only be understood in relation to non-use, pointing out that “non-use is not the only practice that needs explanation” [5]. In an attempt to complicate the non/use binary, Wyatt and her colleagues created a fourfold typology, distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary non-users, and between those who never had access and those who lost it (Wyatt, et al., 2002). Neves, et al. (2015) adopt this typology in their study of social media rejecters. Specifically, they develop the “voluntary” distinction in the typology and add to the original resisters and the rejecters surrogate users and potential converts. Neves, et al. refer to their interviewees as “non-aligned,” alluding to the political significance of SNS refusal, and specifically their need to create an alternative social alliance. However the designation of surrogate users and potential converts blurs the non-aligned nature of the resisters: surrogate users do not have an SNS account, and therefore use other people’s accounts; whereas the potential converts are “considering or reconsidering” [6] using SNSs. These distinctions add important social and temporal dimensions to the typology. Do they reject? Are they non-aligned? Wyatt (2014) suggested developing a continuum of degrees and types of involvement with technology, which may change depending on various sociological factors. We propose to think about this continuum — indeed, tapestry — in terms of media ambivalence.

Two recent works on media resisters lay the ground for the current discussion. In a study of Facebook (FB) quitters, Laura Portwood-Stacer (2013) analyzes discourse produced by and about FB abstainers. Her interviewees are by definition a minority, but Portwood-Stacer shows how both their own words, and the ways in which they are re-framed (as e.g., self-righteous elitists and technophobes) further marginalize them and, worse from her standpoint, subvert the political sentiment that initiated this evidently unpopular and ironically provocative move. Lamenting the futility of such neoliberal lifestyle tactics of resistance, Portwood-Stacer concludes that “Whatever language refusers use, they are still working against a dominant discourse that tends to pathologize technology non-adoption and obscure the political dimensions of refusal practices” [7]. Louise Woodstock outlines a profile of media resisters as people who “deeply value their friendships and care about their social and political worlds. Media resisters often embrace communication’s connotations of deep connection, the very stuff that nurtures relationships and communities, but argue that either the online ‘information age’ often takes communication back to its more unidirectional, simplistic meaning ... or that online interaction is often compromised by misunderstanding or superficiality” [8]. For Woodstock, the fact that resisters are “rare birds” (Westley and Mobius, 1960), an “endangered species” (Jackson-Beeck and Robinson, 1981) is immaterial since like other minority groups and perspectives, “they generate alternatives, they teach us about different ways of living, they remind us about the rapidity with which ways of communicating are changing and the inherent losses (as well as benefits) of those shifts” [9].

The following discussion of media ambivalence engages in three issues these works raise:

The scope of what counts as media resistance: Together, the two papers seem to mark the range of possible definitions, spanning from refusing to be a member of a social network to a sample that is purposely broad in terms of the degree, duration, content and ideology of media resistance — “people who are intentionally and significantly limiting media use” [10]. In both studies, however, resistance is clearly implicated in use — it is a focused effort targeted at a particular medium or practice, while allowing and in effect preferring others (one of Woodstock’s interviewees is “an avid blogger,” one of Portwood-Stacer’s is a Web developer). Thus, in this paper we ask what media resistance consists of and explore how it is situated in contexts of media use.

The development of resistance practices over time: Whereas Facebook refusal was a 2011 “trending topic” both literally on Twitter and more generally as a popular cultural pursuit, media resistance in Woodstock’s account seems timeless and essential, a response to media overabundance much the same way as television non-viewers have been responding to television inundation over the past decades. In this paper, we conceive of media resistance as an ongoing struggle between commercial strategies and resistance tactics, asking how long one can persist under the pressure to be available to the state and to the market, and at what price.

Lastly, the significance of media resistance: As against Portwood-Stacer’s critical analysis of neoliberal resistance and Woodstock’s celebration of the very same practices, the paper will reflect upon the value of engaging in a losing battle. We hope to show how by analyzing resistance as a case of media ambivalence — and specifically, by studying smartphone resistance as emblematic of contemporary media ambivalence — we can contribute to these discussions.

The term “ambivalence” was coined by psychoanalyst Eugen Bleuler in relation to schizophrenia, to denote the normal phenomenon whereby “pleasant and unpleasant feelings simultaneously accompany the same experience” [11]. It is hardly surprising that this modernist designation had intrigued and inspired social thinkers from Robert Merton (1976) to Zygmunt Bauman (1991), and traversed effortlessly from analytical language into common parlance. In her recent study Authentic™: The politics of ambivalence in brand culture, Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012) regards ambivalence as the hallmark of the neoliberal order. She suggests that individual consumers trust the affect offered by brand cultures even as they are aware that marketers cultivate and manipulate their trust and sense of belonging. Michael Billig and his colleagues (1988) make a similar point in relation to dilemmas. Challenging psychological constructions of dissonance as painful — a motivating force for action that will restore a presumed balance — they contend that humans “do not look forward to the end of dilemmas, and toward a pure consistency of thinking, for that would be to look forward to the end of thought” [12]. Thus both ambivalence and deliberation are theorized as pleasurable and in fact desirable; and as prevalent — “thought itself” [13] — or what Banet-Weiser (2012) and Gershon (2011) might describe as neoliberalism’s dominant structure of feeling.

In what follows we turn to smartphone resisters. By analyzing their discourse, we hope to show the ambivalence that they experience as they negotiate this and related media. Specifically, we discuss the ways in which they construct the typical user and distinguish themselves from that user; how they deliberate in their construction of their own position; and how they construct their smartphone resistance as temporary. Ambivalent, smartphone resisters seem to share Everett Rogers’ perspective as they, too, believe that their resistance will not endure; and it is not, and cannot be, total — they all use related media from cameras to tablets, as one might expect in an age of convergence, in which a medium like the smartphone is in fact media. We focus our attention on this particular, albeit transient moment of smartphone resistance rather than on these non-users’ presumed eventual surrender in order to see how they set themselves apart from what they perceive as the cultural “mainstream,” and what characterizes this media-ambivalent practice. We will then return to the issues raised through the works of Portwood-Stacer (2013) and Woodstock (2014), and examine them in light of this analysis.

 

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The study

The analysis is based on 12 interviews with people who own feature or basic cell phones [14]. Feature phones are cell phones that allow for simple Internet use, although in a somewhat cumbersome manner as they do not include touch screens or applications. Basic cell phones allow for phone calls and texting (by pressing the numeric pad for each letter). The interviewees (aged 22–36, one 56) responded to a post on Facebook that invited people that “do not have a smartphone” to contact our research assistant, or were approached through snow-balling. The interviews were conducted in the spring and fall of 2014 in a university office, a café, and about half were held in the interviewee’s apartment. They lasted between 45–90 minutes following a semi-structured protocol that was developed based on Silverstone, Hirsch and Morley’s theory of domestication (1992), referring to appropriation and ownership, objectification and use is space, incorporation into time tables and power relations, and conversion into social value. Since Silverstone, et al. studied the domestication of television, we inversed the questions to refer to the de-domestication of a mobile technology. The interviews were transcribed by the interviewer during the week that followed. Interviewee names and identifying details were changed.

1. Smartphone users

In When old technologies were new, Carolyn Marvin (1988) foregrounds the telephone as “the first electric medium to enter the home and unsettle ways of dividing the private person and family from the more public setting of the community” [15]. By contextualizing media both amongst themselves and in cultural practice, Marvin shows how technologies that are now taken for granted were met with ambivalence writ large when they were new.

The electricians who are grappling with the new technology they are installing, the new telephone owners who realize that walls no longer keep their daughter inside and her suitors out — the protagonists of Marvin’s account — seem quaint and appealing because they are facing media and situations they are unaccustomed to, but which are familiar to her current readers; and because their olden-days doubts eerily prefigure present-day concerns over new new-technology. As Marvin notes, “the ambivalence that so much characterizes contemporary regard for electronic media did not originate with twentieth century radio and television” [16]. Questions as to what new media were supposed to do, how they were expected to loosen or tighten social bonds and boundaries, and how they would arbitrate competing visions of social life have preoccupied early adopters then and now, as they have encountered unfamiliar media and reflected upon the role they would play in their lives in the future. Our interviewees, by contrast, reflect upon these same questions with the benefit of hindsight, critically observing how their friends and family members use the new-but-always-already-old (Gitelman, 2006) technology and disapproving of its impact upon social practice, interaction, and distinction.

In smartphone resisters’ discourse, smartphone owners reify their phone, they are obsessive, zombie, moonstruck. As present absentees, they challenge both norms of presence and norms of absence. On the one hand, their smartphone presence is overbearing, loud, obnoxious. Nofar offers this “True story. Someone on the bus is speaking with his friend over his mobile. Telling him he was in a hotel in Eilat. And for three days he ‘pummeled’ Orit and for three days Orit only saw the ceiling. And everyone can hear him bragging. I was unbelievably annoyed, so when I was about to get off the bus, I said to myself that I had to say something. I told him ‘listen, I am a friend of Orit’s,’ and then I got off at my stop ... He annoyed me. And what I told you is nothing compared to what he actually said on the bus” (p. 11). Dor makes a similar point: “It makes me crazy to travel on a bus or the train when someone sits next to me and speaks in the loudest voice over the phone about all kinds of subjects I personally don’t want to hear ... I would tell that person, ‘listen, I am with earphones on full-volume and can still hear you, so you ... so figure this out yourself’” (pp. 17–18). While these accounts of excessive presence are offered by way of protesting insensitive smartphone use, they can be seen as a general critique over the abuse of the public sphere and the ways in which private conversation interferes with norms of being in public.

By contrast, the critique of absence refers to practices that seem more specifically associated with smartphone use. Here, smartphone resisters highlight intimate situations which smartphone users are attending but from which they are withdrawn. Underlying these accounts is the expectation of presence and a nostalgic construction of how communication should take place (Katriel, 1999). Dor describes: “Something that really bugs me is that we go out, some friends, and then each individual, we’re sitting together and each individual, after we didn’t see each other for a week or I don’t know how long, each of us is stuck on the phone while we’re around the table, it signals a lot of alienation” (p. 11). Kourtney depicts a romantic scene: “It really annoys me that we, my boyfriend and I sometimes we go for a walk for like an hour and he has to take his phone and not only that, he also is involved in his phone about a quarter of that time. So I always tell him that (p. 16). It disturbs me most if ... if we’re supposed to be having quality time together and he ... and he is fiddling with the telephone most of the time” (p. 26).

These locations of sociality are often conjured up in turn-it-off or phone-faced-down campaigns. The campaigns, via Web sites or YouTube clips, evoke a vision of human communication that is subverted by excessive smartphone use. In “I forgot my phone” [17] writer and performer Charlene deGuzman depicts herself in various leisure peer group activities in which her partners are present absentees — from her lover in bed to her friends during a restaurant meal, and from the peaceful sunrise in nature disrupted by a chattering background figure, to the self-photographed marriage proposal she is witnessing on the beach in sundown. In “Look Up” [18] spoken word performer Gary Turk laments the romance that never materialized since the potential lovers were looking at their phones: “Be there in the moment, when she gives you the look/that you remember forever, as when love overtook,” he recommends: “Look up from your phone, shut down that display/stop watching this video, live life the real way.” It is worth pointing out that it is excessive — rather than any — use that these clips are condemning as they romanticize life lived “the real way.” Similarly, in the Undigitize.me [19] initiative, it is not smart/phone as such that is resisted, but rather invasive, offensive, intrusive use. Photos in this campaign depict Youth Seminar Group #2 Enjoying the Lawn, Petar and baby Max in bed on Sunday Morning, Caduri and Elad Playing Cards, Aya, Student, and Jonny, PR, Party Planning — all with their Phones Faced Down. In these and many other Undigitize.me photos that enact human interaction (and in those that enact other more individual daily pursuits), the phones are very much part of the scene — but they are intentionally — if momentarily — put aside, demoted, played down so as not to interfere with the more meaningful, fashionably approved, arguably wholesome pursuit which thereby becomes just that — preferable.

But Lotem questions the implied connection between smartphones and social withdrawal. He begins by highlighting a site that invites uncommon intimacy between strangers, which like others has been spoiled by the withdrawal into one’s smartphone: “There is this thing where if you take hitchhikers or something like that, and there are hitchhikers who start like ... clicking on their telephone and iPhone and all that. So for example in this situation it seems out of place because, you are taking a ride, you happen to be with someone, so like ... yes, it’s awkward, you don’t know the person and all that, but to shut yourself out with the phone is like ... Ok, I just drive and drop him where .. I don’t know, it feels like a taxi driver” (p. 33). Lotem considers how the opportunity for human connection has been transmuted into a functional transaction (and an unsatisfying one at that). But he carefully refrains from nostalgia: “If I am talking about giving a ride, I am not immediately relating it to mobile phones. Just like I wouldn’t expect that ... for example, if I give a ride to a couple of people and they’re like ... talking amongst themselves then I’m, like, again in this ‘taxi driver’ mode, just driving them from one place to the other” (p. 33).

The smartphone resisters we interviewed prefer face-to-face conversations to mediated ones; they prefer short to long telephone calls; they think smartphone users are offensive in their accentuated presence and glaring absence; but altogether they admit to committing similar transgressions on occasion, they are careful not to simplistically attribute the blame to the smartphone, and — perhaps realizing that they may be joining their fellow smartphone users in the future — they call for moderation rather than abstinence.

2. Smartphone resisters

Smartphone resisters are a statistical minority in Israel [20]. Since smartphone ownership is the norm, those outside it find themselves in constant need to explain their peculiarity to themselves and to others, and have developed elaborate accounts of their unique, distinctive position in relation to an imagined consensual mainstream. So, in describing themselves, our interviewees told us how unimportant the telephone was in their lives; and how proud they were of their unpopular choice. But their accounts were far from seamless — rather, they highlighted the dilemmatic nature (Billig, et al., 1988) of resistance to the social mainstream in contemporary consumer culture.

Our interviewees downplayed the role of the mobile phone in their lives. They distinguished landline from mobile telephony, they used both reflectively and effectively, they were aware of and concerned over radiation, and they would not interrupt face-to-face conversation because of a sudden call — unlike the people around them: “I see those people who are actually on their phones all the time. I, I am not into this, eh, I also mostly text” (Lotem, p. 4). Voice interchanges had to be factual and brief: “short conversations, ‘where are you?’ ‘what are we doing today?’ or ‘where are we going tomorrow?’ I don’t like to talk much” (Alex, p. 3). Lengthy discussions were a burden: “she likes to talk to me about everything, she likes to talk and I don’t like to talk” (Rinat, p. 5), even in romantic relationships: “the conversations with my girlfriend, I try not to have long ones over the phone because we talk frequently anyway, more than once a day; and so, they are shorter conversations” (Adir, p. 3). This attitude entailed calculated response practices: “If it is going to be a long conversation, then I prefer not to have it over the mobile ... If I see this is a long conversation, then either I try to find an alternative medium or I use the speaker, or maybe use an earphone but it is not so convenient, most of the time I don’t know where it is, so I try to shorten the conversation, it disturbs me either when I feel the phone is getting warm, or when I realize I am talking much” (Kourtney, pp. 8–9). In these accounts, then, mobile phone use is restricted to texting and short conversations. Although unavoidable, the phone is required mostly for micro-coordination (Ling, 2008) and as a tool for occasioning face-to-face encounters.

But things are more complicated than this. So for example after Adir ridicules people who keep changing telephone cases as though they were “purchasing costumes for their pet” (p. 17), he has this to say on the subject of his phone’s ring tone:

For many years I had a psychedelic track of Astral Projection. Even on my previous mobile I had a very similar ring, the same track. And then I had a sound from some Korean film with this nice, sad tune. And now I have a ring of a song that I like very much. And it’s nice to select a sound, it is a spontaneous act for me, I hear something I like. It happens once every ... it happens very rarely, I hear something I like, or I decide it is time to change the ring. And then if I hear something and I think that it is good and I like to hear it, even repeatedly, then I’ll stay with it. But I noticed in recent years that I began to consider what the ring says about you in public. If I use a Middle Eastern song, in Arabic, and suddenly in the middle of a bus ride the phone rings, then even if the song sounded nice to you, it says something about you. It shows which song you chose to hear, so eh, I filter songs according to that as well ... There are all sorts of tunes that I would use but they are eh, outside the mainstream, and a telephone accompanies you in every situation in life, not just those in which you’re with the people who are familiar with you specifically and know who you are. And you don’t want to attract unnecessary attention, and a ring draws unnecessary attention. (Adir, pp. 19–20)

The interviewees were very particular with regards to the music and tones they used both to distinguish among callers (“my mother has the same ring as my grandmother both because they call often and because I don’t have to rush and answer, I can get back to them later” Kourtney, p. 19) and to distinguish themselves from others. Even if the phone does not matter, the ring tone does: “I have a song by Oasis. I like it that in the rings, when you select a song, then usually you hear the beginning of the song, so I like it to have music without lyrics, it’s more suitable. So I had all sorts of rings, rock, like, there was a period when it was pretty scary whenever the phone rang, I had a dorm roommate and you need to hear it [to understand], I had a version of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ with drums in the beginning so she used to tell me that it was a little scary, and she was right, so you need the right combination, I can let you hear, call me” (Kourtney, p. 18). It appears then that interviewees’ mobile phones served as a crucial indicator of their musical taste, and that they used it extensively and reflexively both to signify their expertise and to relate to particular taste communities while distinguishing themselves from others.

Smartphone resisters were similarly divided between pride and embarrassment over their unusual phones. Significantly, all the interviewees responded to our call and volunteered to discuss their phone practices. Similar to Edgar’s respondents who were only too happy to elaborate on their non-TV households in 1977, our interviewees, too, took pride in their arguably non-mainstream choice of not owning a smartphone: “sometimes I feel proud of myself that I don’t, that it does not tempt me. No. I told you, [my mother] also bought one for me and I didn’t want it” (Kourtney, 28). Rinat shares this sentiment: “[other people] understand me, they say, ‘we’d wish we could do this as well.’ You need certain strength to resist the temptation; like, everyone has this option” (Rinat, p. 10). “People were frustrated, but they accepted the fact that ‘he’s without,’ that ‘you can’t be late to meet Daniel, if you are late to meet Daniel there is no way to get a hold of him and he’ll simply walk out.’ And these are things that I feel very good about” (Daniel, p. 10). Yet the sense of pride appears to be ridden with embarrassment:

Kourtney: I am not one of those people who put their mobile on the table, certainly not this one, this could be a little embarrassing.

Int: What kind of comments do you get?

Kourtney: I don’t remember the exact words, but they laugh, that this is an old phone, ‘you’re stuck,’ and things like that, and I usually explain myself. I am pretty proud of this, not really embarrassed. (p. 10)

Kourtney: I happened to work during the elections with someone that ... we had a good relationship, we would joke around and stuff. And once I took out my phone and he made a comment. And then I think he had a call, and I wanted so much to explain myself, so even though the moment had passed, I told him later that it was intentional and this is also my immediate reply: ‘it’s on purpose, this phone.’

Int: Does this create embarrassment? That you feel that you need to explain why you own this particular phone?

Kourtney: Maybe ... You are asking me now to psychoanalyze myself. I suppose, you know, a phone is a status symbol, like a certain car. We didn’t really touch on this. I remember I had this thought that if I go to a [job] interview I wouldn’t want to take the phone out [of the bag] like, you want to look good and [having the right phone] is part of it. So this is not something that is part of my everyday life. If it would have disturbed me that much then maybe I would have done something, saved up for it. Because the fact is that for trips abroad that I truly love I do spend thousands of shekels, and on [a smartphone] I don’t think I should spend thousands of shekels. So, it’s not that I can’t, it is just not a priority for me. But if you ask about embarrassment, it really depends: a person that you want to impress, then specifically in that situation. But I don’t feel, looking at myself, that I lack something or something like that.

Int: And did your boyfriend ever try to convince you?

Kourtney: No. No. He wants me to take his iPhone 3 because he thinks there is already this phone that is not in use ... But I think that he, eh, appreciates [my choice], he knows, he knows where I am coming from and he knows me. He also knows I am really like this. He knows I don’t like to talk much on the phone, he sees how often I don’t take the phone at all ... Listen, I am simply more moral! Just kidding. (p. 29—30)

Throughout the interview, Kourtney reminds herself that she ought to be proud of the very same things that make her uncomfortable — or more specifically, that she does not own a smartphone because she does not want one for all the right reasons; and not because she cannot not afford one, which in contemporary consumer culture is indeed shameful. She makes a distinction between her real psychological strong self and fleeting, external circumstances that repeatedly threaten to compromise her resolve; as well as between things that are valuable and others that are less so. In this matrix, a trip abroad is a deep, enduring, justified and justifiable endeavor; the smartphone is a fleeting craving. But it appears that the line that distinguishes pride from shame, valuable from worthless is elusive. People around her misinterpret Kourtney’s priorities and preferences such that in order to hold on to her pride she is called upon to explain that not owning a smartphone is a purposive, ideologically motivated choice. Rinat expresses this dilemmatic sentiment in a slightly different manner:

Rinat: Every time I sit in some place and someone does something [with their smartphone] and it’s cool and this and that so I’m like putting my mobile in the bag [so that others] don’t know what I have. I am pretty ashamed of it.

Int: Ashamed of your phone?

Rinat: No, not ashamed of it, but you know it is like, ‘leave it, let’s not talk about me.’ And then I would come to Alon and say, ‘I don’t want this phone, I want another phone. Let’s go to [cellular service provider] Orange.’ Then he would say, ‘Ok, but we’re going to spend hours in customer service.’ [And I say] ‘So what, I don’t care, let's go.’ We go to customer service center, we kill an hour, we leave, maybe I changed something in the contract to make it slightly cheaper and that’s it, I didn’t upgrade the phone ... It looks like you’re also trying to maintain restraint, like everybody is running forward and you are remaining behind but then the second that I will have the new phone in my hand I will be like everyone else in that second, and it feels real good to be where I am. (Rinat, p. 20, 26)

Whereas for Kourtney the dilemma is rhetorical, Rinat enacts the dilemma in her recurring visits to the telephone store: She finds the temptation to purchase a new phone irresistible, again and again she goes to the store and negotiates with the salespersons, spends there hours and returns home empty handed — thereby maintaining her unique, uncompromising feature phone old self.

3. Losing battle

Discussing “the politics of ambivalence,” Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012) highlights the constricted scope of resistance in contemporary brand culture. In her analysis, the neoliberal order has dissolved the contradiction between authenticity and market exchange value now that consumers “engage” with brands. It is here — where consumers feel authentic and commercial interests thrive — that ambivalence, or the mutuality of individual sense of self and brand drive for profit, lies. This raises doubt as to the viability of resistance. She notes: “the normativity of brand cultures more often than not reinscribes people back within neoliberal capitalist discourse rather than empower them to challenge and disrupt capitalism” [21]. In this spirit, Laura Portwood-Stacer (2013) conceives of Facebook resistance as “conspicuous non-consumption,” a performative lifestyle choice. She thus undermines its political significance: Since resisters “can afford it” and because opting out is easily framed as technophobia or “an attitude problem,” Facebook resistance is ineffectual as a form of political activism. Our interviewees seem to support this view as their reasoned, principled arguments against smartphone use give way to the admission that their smartphone resistance is, in the last instance, a matter of economics; and that, as such, it will not endure.

In the interviews, the smartphone resister is the smart consumer: “From the most rational perspective, I am now completing my commitment, and touch wood — I do not lack financial resources in a way that will not allow me to invest in an electronic device with such features” (Adir, p. 16). Rinat explains: “I am angry at the cellular companies because I worked in this field, I know how it works, they keep developing and they want to attract people ... I had a telephone and every several months I would upgrade, and then I found myself paying for four telephones at once when in fact I was using just one. So I said, ‘no more, no more! No!’” (pp. 9–10). Several interviewees felt uncomfortable over spending money on what they perceived “at the moment as a luxury” (Kourtney, p. 28): “I didn’t have enough money to buy a smartphone, and it wasn’t something I would ask from my parents, because I think this is an excessive request plus I have destructive tendencies as far as phones go. I said that even if they did buy one for me, and then I’ll have to repair it if it is stolen or something like that, then I’ll feel very bad about it because in effect it is not money that I earned” (Dor, p. 15).

Interviewees are reluctant to enter the race of ever newer models: “I would upgrade every six months to the newest iPhone — it seems a little silly, like, when is it ever going to end?” (Kourtney, p. 28) and were outraged at the prices in Israel: “Listen, I have a feature phone; its camera is ok; I make calls. So I don’t have all the applications? Alright, I won’t die from it; and if it works out and someone goes abroad and brings me a phone for a really good price — I’ll buy it! For a reasonable price, don’t get wild. I don’t think people should get wild, although I am a person who invests in technology, and I can afford it” (Rinat, p. 10). Going back and forth, Rinat is both satisfied with the phone she has and would like to upgrade it; she can afford the upgrade but refuses to spend exorbitant amounts of money on it. The implication, of course, is that once smartphones are priced more reasonably, even our interviewee will adopt it.

It is not accidental, then, that even as they described their entrenched commitment to feature phones, our interviewees made an exception to smartphone use that was required for work. Kourtney reflects: “I wish everybody didn’t have phones, really. The reason I have it is because everyone has it and, really it is an employment consideration. You don’t want to be at a disadvantage, that you won’t be reachable for interviews. When I start a new job, if they’ll need me beyond work hours, well I won’t lie. I will have a smartphone, yes? But I’ll try to minimize my use and I think it would be good if more people were like that” (p. 25).

Daniel did not go as far as a smartphone, but he too perceives the phone — and indeed being reachable — as an unavoidable requirement of the job market: “when you look for a job — you don’t have a mobile — you won’t get hired. If you are not reachable over the mobile right this minute, no one will hire you. This was mostly the reason why I would go and buy a new mobile” (p. 11). So, participation in the job market was constructed as an admissible reason for compromising one’s mobile/smartphone resistance.

On the whole, interviewees regarded their resistance as temporary: “there is reason why so many people have smartphones” (Dor, p. 10). Once they have family commitments, once their work requires it, they will surrender: “If you have a job that necessitates this, or children, or someone is in the hospital — but other than that, I can do without” (Kourtney, p. 28). Rinat would accept whatever phone her father would choose for her, and Alex similarly admits that “if I receive a smartphone for free, I won’t complain. I know I’ll get used to the touch screen. Though again, I am very pleased with this one as well” (p. 11). It seems that in future upgrades, the smartphone will be harder and harder to resist: “This one already gave me trouble and I said that if I am buying a new one, maybe I’ll look at smartphones, maybe I am missing something, all sorts of applications like Waze, and useful things like that” (Lotem, p. 11).

 

++++++++++

Concluding comments

In this paper we have argued that in contemporary convergent, ubiquitous media environment, media ambivalence is the dominant structure of feeling, and media practices are temporary, local, specific, and subject to change. In this context, smartphone resistance — like related media negotiations — is a particular expression of media ambivalence. We proposed to conceive of smartphone resistance as emblematic of contemporary media ambivalence, and outlined its distinctive features as an ambivalent practice: People who prefer to use feature phones are in a unique position to critically reflect, as non-users, upon smartphones as they become commonplace; they are experienced in justifying their non-mainstream practice even as it conflicts with particular desires and observations they express; and they acknowledge the temporary nature of their ideological position, subjecting their resolve to economic considerations. Let us return now to the issues raised through the works of Portwood-Stacer (2013) and Woodstock (2014).

The scope: Even as some of our interviewees define themselves as technophobes and many express reluctance to engage in updating their mobile phones in particular and their communication technologies more generally, they all use media — some avidly, some expertly. All of them take good care of their feature phone, all use Facebook, occasionally watch television whether on the large or on smaller screens, etc. That being so, Media Resistance, writ large, becomes an empty category. As this analysis suggests, resistance needs to be studied around well-defined uses of specific media in particular moments and situations (see also Leavitt, 2014). How many of our interviewees have used smartphones of family members and friends? How many of Portwood-Stacer’s Facebook refusers are now (or were at the time) on other social networks? According to Neves, et al. (2015), at least some. Rather than Media Resistance, then, we need to explore the complicated tapestry of ambivalence, as threads of media and uses intersect in complicated patterns of non/use.

The development: The meaning of loyalty to one’s Nokia 3100, the consequences of not purchasing a smartphone, change over time. Owning a feature phone when 30 percent of your friends had smartphones was a different experience than owning one when 90 percent of your friends have smartphones — just like not getting a smartphone when you were in high school is not the same as not having one when you are looking for or trying to keep a job. So, as Media Resistance shifts from bounded ideological communities into routine, daily practice — as it is secularized, privatized, and turned into (mild?) ambivalence (see Kline, 2000), so particular media resistances come to signify evolving positions vis-à-vis evolving constructions of the social mainstream. In this flow, Media Resistance can no longer function as a fixed identity marker; instead, it is a temporary, ever-changing array of media practices that expresses and fleetingly distinguishes one’s identity.

The significance: Both the willingness of feature phone users to describe their practice as ideologically motivated, and their readiness to relinquish this position if this were required by the market — or if they receive a smartphone as a gift — are noteworthy. Our interviewees repeatedly invoked the lifestyle they associated with smartphone ownership — being overly friendly, being offensively absent, being disturbingly accessible, and being shamelessly attentive to commercial temptation — to explain their resistance. Yet for the right price — a job, a gift — they would forsake this material token of their opposition to the mainstream and surrender to the neoliberal order.

This ambivalence may be contrasted with the commitment of voluntary simplifiers to reduced consumption (Zamwel, et al., 2014). Voluntary simplifiers give considerable weight to diverse political issues; they holistically embrace a lifestyle of reduced consumption; their activity is a future-oriented, daily, domestic, and individual endeavor of constant development and improvement; and they desire to exert influence and implement change. Zamwel, et al. regard the lifestyle of voluntary simplifiers as personalized politics, concluding that:

By means of their own consumption practices, voluntary simplifiers are willing to make themselves a personal example of how it is possible to challenge the rules of the capitalist market and consumerism ... the politicization of voluntary simplifiers’ consumption patterns stems from the fact that they constitute a continuous process of learning and action wherein they constantly improve their consumption and non-consumption practices. [22]

The uncompromising and radicalizing nature of voluntary simplifiers’ reduced consumption is quite different from the “conspicuous non-consumption” of Facebook abstainers (Portwood-Stacer, 2013). Arguably, whereas Zamwel, et al. (2014) respect the commitment of the simplifiers, Portwood-Stacer appears to echo the refusers’ critics when she undermines their practices as merely “performative” and thus ineffectual. However we would like to propose that the difference is not an artifact of the position of the researchers vis-à-vis their informants — rather, it indicates the relative positions of the informants along the tapestry of contemporary ambivalences. The notion of media ambivalence, we believe, allows us to consider distinctive expressions of non/use, non/consumption and — for example — smartphone resistance, as interrelated cultural practices. End of article

 

About the authors

Rivka Ribak is senior lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Haifa.
E-mail: rribak [at] research [dot] haifa [dot] ac [dot] il

Michele Rosenthal teaches in the Department of Communication at the University of Haifa.
E-mail: rosenthal [dot] michele [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Notes

1. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thelightphone/the-light-phone; http://www.thelightphone.com/#thoughtfullysimple.

2. This insight draws upon our broader research project, Media ambivalence and avoidance in everyday life, funded by Israel Science Foundation (Grant number 536/08) and Binational Science Foundation (Grant number 2010180, with Stewart Hoover), devoted to mapping and conceptualizing practices of media resistance and negotiation. Over the past seven years, we have conducted more than 80 interviews with families and individuals who variously define themselves as media avoiders, resisters, refusers, non-owners, non-users, etc. We would like to thank our research assistants, particularly Abigail Gelfand and Anat Leshnik for their help developing the materials in this paper. In addition, we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insights.

3. Rogers, 2003, p. 294.

4. Rogers, 2003, p. 284.

5. Wyatt, 2014, p. 4.

6. Neves, et al., 2015, p. 130.

7. Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 1,055.

8. Woodstock, 2014, p. 1,996.

9. Woodstock, 2014, p. 1,984.

10. Woodstock, 2014, p. 1,987.

11. Graubert and Miller, 1957, p. 458.

12. Billig, et al., 1988, p. 148.

13. Billig, et al., 1988, p. 17.

14. The rate of adoption of cell phones and smartphones in Israel is not significantly different from countries in the West (Cohen, et al., 2008; Our mobile planet, http://think.withgoogle.com/mobileplanet/en/).

15. Marvin, 1988, p. 6.

16. Marvin, 1988, p. 7.

17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OINa46HeWg8, uploaded August 2013, 45+ million views by December 2014.

18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY, uploaded April 2014, 48+ million views by December 2014.

19. http://undigitize.me/phone-faced-down/.

20. There are no reliable data on this issue, although it appears that smartphone ownership is larger than feature phone ownership, and not all feature phone owners are smartphone resisters. Rosenberg (2015) reports that cellular penetration rate in 2014 was 95 percent. Of these, 64 percent or 72 percent or 85 percent are smartphone owners, drawing on different surveys employing different samples and different technical definitions (p. 70). According to a Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) press release (full data are not yet available) in 2013 95 percent of the households in Israel had at least one cellular phone. CBS does not distinguish smartphones from other cellular phones (http://www1.cbs.gov.il/reader/newhodaot/hodaa_template.html?hodaa=201415290).

21. Banet-Weiser, 2012, p. 221.

22. Zamwel, et al., 2014, p. 16.

 

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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2015; accepted 22 October 2015.


Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Rivka Ribak and Michele Rosenthal.

Smartphone resistance as media ambivalence
by Rivka Ribak and Michele Rosenthal.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 11 - 2 November 2015
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6307/5136
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i11.6307





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