Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita links smartphone addiction and gaming addiction in his 2014 article “We Love Screens, Not Glass,” theatlantic.com (March 12, 2014). There he argues screen technology has now evolved to reach a new pinnacle of addictive delight in the digital age because our screens make it possible for us to live in a dual role: as both spectator and star.
This dual spectator/star role in social media on a 4-inch screen, de Zengotita writes, is seen
in the special intensity, the devotional glow you see on the face of a stranger in some random public place, leaning over her handheld device, utterly absorbed, scrolling through her options or matching twitter-wits on a trending topic, feeling the swell of attention rising around her as she rides an energy wave of commentary, across the country, around the world — it’s like the touch of a cosmic force, thanks to the smallest and most potent of all personal screens, the one on her smartphone.
Sum it up this way: that screen is the one she can take pictures through as well as watch pictures on; hence, that special intensity. It testifies to the power of that dual aspect of display, a reciprocal intimacy no engagement with any other medium, let alone reality, can match.
Actually only gaming comes close, a place where the roles of spectator/star immediately merge in realtime:
Here is the essence of it in the case of the video game. A seasoned gamer has mastered the console. He isn’t conscious of his physical situation. He presses the buttons to turn and shoot and jump without thinking about them. He becomes the agent on the screen. There is no gap between his dirty little 14-year-old thumb and his avatar’s massive biceps as it wields that enormous gatling gun against the zombie horde. He is the “first person shooter.”
As a first person shooter, you get to perform and you get to watch at the same time. The powers and pleasures of two kinds of centrality — spectator and star — have merged. An untapped possibility for synaptic closure has been realized and an historically unprecedented form of human gratification attained. No wonder those games are addictive.
This same addictive quality lures us back to our smartphones, yet in a slightly offset way, leading us to engage in a dance between these roles as spectator and star. On your phone
you also engage with yourself, with your world, on this new plane of being where agent and observer are fused. But the smartphone ups the ante. It introduces just enough distance, just enough lag time, between you and your doings on the screen to allow for an endless cascade of tiny moments of arrival, of recognition. Each prompt, each response, intercedes between you and the representations of yourself and your world that you are both producing and contemplating. . . .
Now you get to dance with yourself, with extensions of yourself, and be yourself too. Watch closely the next time you see someone doting over that precious device. It is as if a defunct genetic program for primate grooming behavior has been hijacked and all that fingertip care is being lavished now on the body of a mini-me — my most faithful companion, my abiding reflection, my self, my other.