Smartphone: intimate, incidental, and indispensible

FaceTime on the 76 bus to Kings Cross

Personal mobile devices provide immediate location independent access to information, and are used as powerful creative tools by arts and design students at Central Saint Martins. The relationships that they have with their smartphones are evolving and multifaceted, yet at the same time students often perceive this mobile device as a mundane object, failing to acknowledge the many roles it plays in their lives. Smartphones are central to the ways in which many students are navigating their daily experience, eg waking up to the Marimba ringtone, international video-conferencing on the bus, and using any number of mobile apps to consider physical space. The smartphone appears to be an endlessly pliable technology that has glided into, and altered, our social and cultural processes.

In a previous post I have highlighted ways in which students use their smartphones as part of their College learning life*, framing these relationships as extensions of the design studio and the library. As part of the study at CSM examining the integration of personal technologies, social practice, place and presence, different lenses are being used to approach ways of thinking about mobile devices. As such this article will briefly explore associations with mobile technologies using ‘display’ as a theme.

We now have a wireless skin overlaid on the practices of our lives, so that we are in ourselves and in our networks at the same time. We never quit the networks and they never quit us.

Manuel Castells, 2008:448

We select the technology to enslave our freedom because we are free to do so.


boundary marker


We can frame the display, as in the exhibition, of personal smartphones as:

Adornment   individuals often personalise the material casing of their devices, or hang charms from them. Smartphones are used as an accessory, as a fashion item, a ritualistic emblem, an habitual handheld artefact akin to a sketchbook or purse.

Identity   a tribal signifier displayed for acceptance, group affiliations, peer approval or as a form of professional currency. In addition, Sherry Turkle speaks of ‘a sense of self extended in a communications artifact.’

Invitation   the visible presence of an unlit screen suggests that the student invites interruption, or has set up a situation that affords, expects and accepts disruption.

Expression   if the phone is visible but not in use it could be seen as expressing a form of user anticipation, expectancy, uncertainty or availability. When actively engaged with the smartphone its display may be interpreted as communicating the connectedness and sociability of the user, or the user’s professional/creative significance and identity.

Disguise   despite the visibility of the object its use at any one time remains largely hidden. As such the display of a smartphone may deliberately disguise its function.

Extension   the smartphone as an extension of our bodies, eg as a prosthetic altering our body schema. 

Co-presence  offering an expanded and interconnected sense of physical, virtual and hybrid space.

Boundary marker    the physical placement of a mobile phone on a table alongside other material objects, such as a take-away coffee cup, notepad, pencils and so forth, provides a personal territorial demarcation.  In addition, when actively engaged with a smartphone, the user may be seen to be privileging the interaction with the object thus creating another form of personal spatial and intellectual boundary.

The above categories are not intended to be viewed as exhaustive, but they do indicate some of the ways in which the display and exhibition of our personal devices can usefully be framed, and also illustrate the chaotic or fuzzy ways in which these technologies might be perceived.


cast aside

Through our state of continuous partial attention our smartphones can capture our gaze, or provide a site of anticipation, inviting the presence of the ‘other’.  We may choose to focus on our smartphone, or tune in to something else entirely, thus momentarily cognitively or physically casting aside these often intimate and indispensible devices. Whilst the design of smartphones and their burgeoning functionality appears entirely rational, our actual relationships with these devices are highly complex, and often enigmatic.


*   The ways in which the students use their phones are rich and varied; creating, collating, communicating, collaborating, storing, recording, browsing, researching, reflecting, sharing, documenting, publishing, planning, interacting, networking, as well as navigating physical locations.


Linda Stone ‘live node on the network’