Have Digital Devices Become Modern Fetishes?

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 12:00am
Have Digital Devices Become Modern Fetishes?

Human beings are wired for connection. A commentary on how parallels exist between the “new” seeking in our digital worlds and the ancient seeking via fetish of the Bakongo people of the Congo.

Commentary by:
Rory Johnson,  guest contributor for Sightings
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Credit: Ed Yourdon License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In the first season Revolution, a television series about a post-apocalyptic Earth where electrical devices cannot function, Maggie Foster (played by Anna Lise Philips) carries a defunct cell phone in hopes that one day the power will return and she will be able see the photos stored within of her lost children. The cell phone becomes her fetish, dark and inactive, yet charged with emotion, memory, and anticipation.

Maggie’s anxiety mirrors the feelings reported by subjects in The International Center for Media and the Public Agenda’s 2010 study A Day Without Media. The study asked 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park to spend 24 hours media free — no phones, no Internet, no television.

The study found that “the portability of all that media stuff … changed students’ relationship not just to news and information, but to family and friends — it … caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions.” Students reported being surprised by how much they felt “cut off from [the] instantaneous flow of information.”

We live in a world of information, deluged daily by bits of information vying for our attention. Seemingly insignificant trivia when combined with a chime, song clip, or photo become urgently vital. Normal practices of communication like mail and conversation, once digitized, become tokens — small discrete objects to be collected, archived, manipulated, and displayed.

Like B.F. Skinner’s pigeon, we tap and gesture incessantly trying desperately to stay “connected”; our sense of seeking, designed by eons of evolution, efficiently exploited by the gamification of communication.

Since human beings seem to be “wired” for “connection,” it is not surprising that parallels exist between the “new” seeking via cellphone and the ancient seeking via fetish of the traditional Bakongo people of the Congo.

In the Bakongo’s religious system, the fetish, called nkisi or minkisi in the plural, is a vessel containing items collectively called bilongo. Bilongo are bits of glass, pieces of bone or shell, scraps of cloth, plants, seeds, or whatever may invoke metaphor or similitude between the powers of the ancestor-spirits and the items within the container.

The nkisi is a collection of potencies “animated by [the] powers represented metaphorically and metonymically by the bilongo,” serving as a bridge between this world and the next, providing a place for the spirits to reside and aperture through which their power is focused.

Like the minkisi, today’s smartphones focus the instantaneous flow of information and house the array of metaphorical processes called applications or apps. They provide a place where we can access the other world, the virtual world, housed in servers, collected by and mined by institutions, and hypostasized as the “cloud.” Our modern day fetishes channel the flow of information buffering our access and helping us manage the excess.

However, more than managing the overwhelming stream of information smartphones also change the grammar of our associations. If duration and presence are the touchstones for the intensity of our intimate relations then the world of app-mediated communication offers frequency and immediacy in its place.

The grammar of association, the rules by which we come to “know” someone, are subtly shifting. We now live in a world where there are entire categories of intimate associations with whom we text, tweet, like, and email before we call or meet face to face. In fact, we may have friends and associates who are dear to us who we may never meet face to face and yet they feel as close to us as persons we see daily.

Our digital devices, be they cell phones, tablets, watches or Google Glass fix an axis between worlds. They organize and mediate the array of memories — photos, songs, logs, texts, emails, voice messages, geo-location data, or searches — that are stored in servers around the world.

This new prosthetic memory, just recently accessible to the masses, is a reality separate from our own with its own laws and properties. Our phones function very much like the Bakongo fetish, storing and harnessing the array of powers necessary to make the other world real and our prosthetic memories manifest.

However, also like the fetish, it obscures the reality of an ever-diminishing space of authenticity and privacy, masking surveillance with utility, and anxiety with ecstasy. As the saying goes: “know magic; shun magic.”

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Rory Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University. His work focuses on the intersection of religion, aesthetics, technology, and economy.

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1Reflection

Can I get a shout-out for being the model in Ed Yourdon's photo? I'll have you know I was writing a very important email for The Nature Conservancy at the time the pic was taken! ... Or maybe just texting lol
Follow me on twitter: @Eco_Em

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