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I Am iPhone: How Our Tech Endangers Our Relationships

March 17th, 2017 | 6 min read

By Brian Mesimer

We’re pleased to publish this guest post from Brian Mesimer.

Certain family therapy theorists maintain that when you are working with a couple, there are always three people in the room to consider: the man, the woman, and the relationship itself. The more I have begun to work with couples, the more I’ve realized that this maxim is actually a half-truth. There are three people in the room, but far too often the third ‘person’ is one partner’s smartphone.

Although I am a fledgling therapist, it has been remarkable to me that every case of married infidelity I have seen has involved some form of indiscretion committed on a phone. I have even spent whole (paid!) sessions helping couples learn how to manage their phones. Called “remote infidelity,” this new kind of cheating is wildly popular and, according to some polls, is on the rise.1 The list of offenses I have seen run the gamut from straight up pornography usage to phone sex or text message flirting.  The discovery of such sins by the offended party is often traumatic and shrouded in deceit and confusion.  Although much remote infidelity never actually leads to physical infidelity, the damage that it tends to do is comparable. 

Much has already been made of the ‘why’ regarding remote infidelity:  in a post-industrial generation marred by institutional breakdown, Internet accessible phones offer quick and effortless ways of building connection with others. What I find equally fascinating, however, is how the offending partner ever expected to get away with it. Although the answer I think is primeval, the route to get there involves a brief philosophical detour.

We cannot begin to understand how the iPhone affects our marriages until we first understand how the iPhone affects our minds. Dru Johnson’s most recent publication makes a great deal of  how our knowledge is embodied.2 Following Andy Clark, Johnson claims that man’s use of tools always involves a union of man and machine, called “cyborgic extension.” For example, when a woman uses a hammer, her mind begins to treat the hammer as part of herself. Since the instrument does not actually become a part of her, however, Clark terms this as “nonpenetrative cyborgic extension.”  

Applying this schema to computer technology is not so straightforward, since our minds are not observably physical. Does our Android phone ‘penetrate’ our minds? Is there an intellectual union of mind and machine? Certainly we hold our phones in our hands, and in doing so we give power to our hands that they did not have before:  the ability to shine light, play music, and send information a thousand miles.  

Given Johnson’s insistence on embodied learning, I doubt that he would claim that an actual union between mind and machine is achieved without the physical union. This is in part due to the fact that he believes that even our thoughts and propositions are, being produced in our bodies, embodied. This accords with the longstanding Christian insistence that man is simultaneously both embodied and spiritual. For the purposes at hand, I would argue that, whether or not this mental union is achieved, the main problem with iPhones is that they lie in leading us to believe that an actual mental union is achieved without the physical union. The gospel of the smartphone is that the immaterial is all that is real. And if this is true, then human existence, as long as it remains connected to the immaterial, is limitless.  

This is why we are inundated with stories of celebrities who get into trouble because of offensive social media posts. Just think about the all too frequent political sexting scandals or the Hollywood nude picture leaks. These images would have been “safe” were they transferred from one mind to another like an upload into the “cloud.” In situations like these, the offender is lured into thinking that the Internet has become one with their mind while forgetting that their internal world is being mediated to others via a physical object . As one psychologist puts it, remote infidelity “feels as if it is going on just between you and the other party…but one does it on a device…with the illusion, it sometimes seems, of being invisible.”3 Forgetting that the web is real, the cheater leaves behind the physical limits of Earth. Call it Gnosticism, call it Docetism, it’s actually just a lie that goes back to the Garden.

When the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, he propagated two major lies.4 The first was that man will not die, and the second was that man would be enlightened by taking the fruit. Both lies encourage the woman to see her humanity as being unbounded by physical limits and as being accessible to everlasting life and infinite knowledge. The smartphone offers us the same deal. United to it, we come to believe that we can cyborgically extend our minds and lives through access to boundless knowledge in the palm of our hands. What else should I conclude from the fact that I can get live weather updates for Budapest instantly in South Carolina?

Interestingly, the temptation to cheat is predicated upon the same two lies. Those who cheat think that they will not be caught, and they do so in order to gain a kind of God-like enlightenment. The smartphone simply allows the cheater to become more proficient in so doing. In tasting the cyborgic union of the Apple, man reaches the pinnacle of autonomy. It is as if Eve’s arms were extended so that she and Adam needn’t even walk over to the tree in the first place.  

Yet those who fall into this particular trap, as many of us will, forget one metaphysical truth: In this world, the immaterial is always connected with the material. Our smartphones and the Internet are physical things, and while instant messages are seemingly incorporeal, they are actually real in that they are joined to and exist within physical things. They are created and bounded and are therefore disallow the human mind from infinite extension. And as physical things, they encapsulate our thoughts in a real medium, thereby ensuring we can be caught in our sin. In this sense, our phones are metaphysically no different than a hammer, with the key exception being that we can now play Mario on our phones. Whatever kind of union occurs between man and phone, it is one really between a spiritual being and a material object. The Internet is at least partly physical, and yet we act as if it is not. How interesting that in a time where strict materialism reigns we have created a society of closeted Cartesians!

So what is to be done about such things? We must all become realists to a certain degree. Paul warns us not to take members of Christ and join them with a prostitute, for in so doing a real union is created between member and prostitute (I Cor 6). The warning is easy to understand when we speak of prostitution, but more difficult to understand when we speak of technology. Yet the principle is roughly the same: A deceptive form of union occurs when we take our phones too seriously. This is why it feels like death to put down our smartphones—a part of us is actually dying. Although I struggle with this implication, perhaps Christians can form a prophetic witness to the reality of the material by plucking out our smartphones entirely.  

It is significant that such a suggestion usually shocks us. A few years ago when it was reported that cell phones were linked to cancer, there was a maddening rush to trash them. For once, the physicality of our phones became so real to us that we briefly acknowledged that invisible world could cross our arbitrarily imposed boundaries and exert effects on the visible world. The country breathed a collective sigh of relief when we realized that such evidence was disputable, but that may have only served to further blind us to how smartphones continue to have tangible effects on our lives. If your phone contributed to a disease, wouldn’t you get rid of it? Likewise, if your phone was destroying your relationships, wouldn’t you get rid of it? Such is the logic of Jesus. Plucking out our phones obviously won’t prevent infidelity, but it will make it more difficult, and in disabling us it can enable us to see reality a bit more clearly.

Brian Mesimer is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Columbia International University, and currently studies theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.  His interests include practical theology, current events, and the relationship between psychology and theology.  He and his wife live in Columbia, SC, where he works as a counselor.