Hold the Line

On the emergence of a folklore of screens

Seven years before Nikola Tesla imagined (in a 1926 interview with Collier’s) a future in which wireless connection would allow us to “see and hear one another as though we were face to face” with “instruments … [that] fit in our vest pockets,” the British cartoonist W.K. Haselden published his own prophetic comic in the Daily Mirror. It depicts a harried gentleman disturbed at the most inopportune moments by his “pocket telephone,” which rings while he is at a concert with a date, while he is being handed a crying baby, and while he is escorting his bride down the aisle. Whereas Tesla focused on the potential for heightened — or, literally, extended — human connection, Haselden illustrates a world where pocket telephones, “the latest modern horror,” alienate us from our immediate embodied circumstances and disrupt precious moments of domestic intimacy. 

Such concerns about the sanctity and intactness of the domestic sphere abound in early discourse about the telephone. In newspaper articles of the 1870s and ’80s, featuring such optimistic titles as “The New Terror” and “An Electrical Outrage,” commentators speculated that homes with telephones would soon become sites of “enormous danger,” their residents “bared to the least vibrations of the roaring world.” In one such article, the author imagines a mother with a baby in her arms sustaining “fatal injuries” after hearing a violent political polemic over the phone. In the March 2, 1887, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, an article describes — and, I think, parodies — a mother who is afraid to call a home where someone has scarlet fever, as she is “sure that there would be great danger of infection over the wire.” 

Through these rituals, our phones cease to be distant, technical objects

Of course, such fears did not halt the spread of telephone wires across the country. Nor did variations on these concerns ultimately prevent the adoption of cell phones. But since their widespread adoption, cell phones have taken on a different relation to the domestic: not as an infiltrator of, but a participant in, that intimacy. They mediate many of our closest relationships — and are themselves our most constant companions. After all, many of us spend all our waking hours with a phone within reach, and even sleep with them beside our pillows. We continually reaffirm the mutualism between human and machine by allowing our phones to track our steps, sleep cycle, menstruation, heart rate, and more, permitting them ever more insight into our bodies.

But we presume a kind of insight into their bodies as well, wielding a whole arsenal of at-home folk remedies to “treat” phones as we might treat scraped knees or earaches of a family member. Those cures — perhaps best represented by the bowl of dry rice that is the ubiquitous prescription for a soaked phone — are ostensibly about addressing technical issues but in practice they bring phones under a kind of discursive control, helping us make sense (albeit false sense) of their largely obfuscated inner workings. Through these rituals, our phones cease to be distant, technical objects and come to feel as familiar and intuitive as our own bodies. 

In a 1987 paper, Carol Cohn famously showed how nuclear engineers used domesticating language to treat nuclear warheads as infants or pets: “Pat it,” she writes, “and its lethality disappears.” The canon of folklore and folk rituals surrounding phones reflect a similar tension — that of danger encroaching on the domestic sphere — followed by a similar urge to self-soothe, which is done by taking deliberate steps to integrate the danger into the domestic sphere. On the one hand, there are countless examples of folklore about the existential “threats” posed by phones, from practical warnings against keeping them too close to your head at night to elaborate stories of haunted phones transmitting texts and phone calls from the Other Side. On the other hand, there are folk rituals that make even our most extreme concerns manageable, claiming that our phones are actually so straightforward that they can be cured with extraordinarily modest means: rice, toothpaste, baking soda. How could something so simple haunt or hurt you?

These folk rituals help us assimilate the “new” into our lives by making it compatible with the old, making it easier to classify and explain. Despite our ostensible modernity and our sense of ourselves as comfortable with technological progress, folk beliefs about technology always bubble up through the cracks, of phone screens and otherwise.

The development of communication technology is widely figured as a kind of inevitable narrative of progress, arcing ever toward sleeker, smaller, smoother, more streamlined, more user-friendly. The world heralded by the cell phone is one where information, capital, and content flow freely. The current moves 24/7, and one can join in anywhere. But this was not inevitable; rather, that vision was prioritized over other alternatives by the military and emergency services that developed radiotelephony — the midcentury predecessor to cellular technology — as well as early adopters of the “car phone.” In his autobiography, Martin Cooper, the inventor of the first mobile phone as we know it, explained that “it took a team of skilled and energetic people to build that phone and make it work. And thousands more executives, engineers, and marketers to create today’s trillion-dollar industry.” 

Folk rituals cure our phones with modest means: rice, toothpaste, baking soda. How could something so simple haunt or hurt you?

But for most phone users, the efforts of those thousands are invisible, taken for granted. When a gadget functions as expected, one needn’t actively think about why it works, what it means for it to “work,” or what particular uses for the device have or haven’t become naturalized over the course of its development. Sociologist Bruno Latour has pointed out this paradox: “The more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.”

But when that success sputters — when devices act up or break down — folklore may take over, giving narrative and ritual form to widely shared misconceptions and concerns about technology. The lack of practical knowledge about how phones actually work opens a liminal space characterized by — to use folklorist Tok Thompson’s definition from Posthuman Folklore — “new categorizations” and “new ontologies,” new ways of understanding what phones are, how they work, and why. Technical ignorance forces us to fill knowledge gaps with material that already exists in our cultural inventories. These inventories may well include practical knowledge about how other devices work, but they are just as likely to have been shaped by pop culture as popular science. 

There are many ways to define folklore, but where phones are concerned, it often takes the form of jokes, rumors, and personal experience narratives, which feature in the conspiracy theories, panics, joke cycles, and the like that periodically circulate online — some so compelling as to achieve meme status, as with the tweets from 2017 about the “FBI agent watching me through my phone,” or a more recent TikTok challenge that claims to identify unfaithful boyfriends based on whether they put down their cell phones face up or not. 

Folklore serves many affective purposes: Among other things, it helps us cope with and occasionally criticize the world around us. Simon Bronner notes in The Meaning of Folklore that we often call upon or produce folk material to “symbolize, and thereby control, anxiety or ambiguity.” Meanwhile, another folklorist, Alan Dundes, describes folklore as a “socially sanctioned outlet” through which to express all kinds of controversial, complex, tricky, and taboo thoughts. Amid a climate of presumed surveillance, folklore allows us to communicate without necessarily saying what we mean, expressing concerns without necessarily sounding paranoid, attracting suspicion, or inviting retribution.

Hence, it should come as no surprise that in social media feeds and in places like Reddit, WikiHow, and Quora, phone users continue to question to what extent the device tucked into their pocket or bra will burn them, give them cancer, make them infertile, track their movements, hemorrhage their data, eavesdrop on their conversations, tether them to the dead, blow up the gas pump, blow up their head, cause them to spontaneously combust, trick them into incest or infidelity, and any number of other things. In some cases, these curiosities and concerns may be allegorical or metaphorical, pointing toward larger or more nebulous anxieties: Are the experiences and relationships we mediate through our phones “real” in the same way that offline experiences are real? Do we control these devices, or do they control us? What else might be lurking inside of Pandora’s Box?

When we manage technical difficulties at home, we can distance ourselves from our growing dependence

Given the sheer amount of capital that has been poured into shaping and managing our relationships with communication technology, to read hauntedness, monstrousness, malfeasance, volatility, and danger into phones is a kind of inadvertent political statement — a refutation of the advertising that emphasizes ease, convenience, and a kind of moral obligation to strive after ever more advanced technologies. If, as Leah Lowthorp notes in an essay about the joke #CRISPRfacts hashtag, the folklore of science and technology offers “a glimpse into how the wider public is dealing with … complex scientific developments,” then the fears expressed about phones demonstrate lingering skepticism about cellular devices — even if most of us are nonetheless resigned to buying the next model.

Folklore isn’t just a medium for people to articulate their uncertainties or criticism about technology. It is also a mode through which we answer our own questions and produce our own meaning. Rituals can allow us to assert control and ownership over things that don’t quite feel like “ours” yet — whether that is an apartment we rent or a new phase of life we have just entered. Many vernacular and ritual treatments of phones are about control — reclaiming a gatekept technology, resisting how it has reshaped our lives, retrofitting it to better serve our particular needs. Common repair rituals allow users to reject the foreign expertise of tech companies (which may not serve our interests first) and the alienation that comes with sending intimate devices off for repairs. When we succeed in managing our technical difficulties at home, we can further distance ourselves from the unyielding fact of our growing dependence on tech companies for the devices that now make daily life seem possible.

But folklore about devices is about care as well as control. Unlike other technologies — microwaves, dishwashers, cars, even laptops, each with a relatively straightforward function — the phone’s rapid, ongoing evolution causes it to continuously evade stable categorization: It is a communications technology, a camera, a computer, a compass, a television, a radio, a watch, a thermometer, a pedometer, a weathervane, a map, a toy — and with interlocutors like Siri, something more even than that. It is certainly more than a mere tool. And that ontological nebulousness resonates with us at least as much as our lack of understanding confounds us: the multifunctionality of the phone resembles the multivalence of organic life forms.

“Our mental processes,” Thompson writes, are “increasingly enmeshed with the digital realm,” a merger that inevitably “changes our view of ourselves, our very nature.” It is easy enough to say that phones act as extensions of our body — they are, after all, designed to — but does that resonate with us in an affective, rather than merely symbolic, sense? At-home fixes for phones may be about more than asserting our autonomy in a rational way. I know I recall well the sick feeling in my stomach the last time I watched my phone go tumbling down the stairs, the queasy reluctance with which I retrieved its shattered pieces. Seeing into the guts of my phone left me in the throes of something like Kristevan abjection, reminded of the sad fact of my own materiality.

We reject a phone’s assertion of thingness with a personal vehemence, as though objecting to the notion that we are things

In “Thing Theory,” Bill Brown writes, “we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us … when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.” Such, he contends, are moments in which objects “assert themselves as things.” Many objects, when they assert themselves this way, prompt us to make counter-assertions: for instance, that they are trash. We quickly discard broken toys. But when phones assert themselves as things, the stakes are different: We reject their assertion of thingness with a kind of personal vehemence, as though objecting to the notion that we are things. How could something so close to us — something we rely on so heavily in everyday life — be alive one second and trash the next? What does that say about us?

So we turn on our devices the same canon of possibly spurious home remedies we turn on ourselves — rituals of care whose actual cogency, coherence, and effectiveness may be irrelevant. The meaning is embedded in the energy expended, the concentration required to complete the ritual successfully. By rejecting the thingness of cell phones, we reject the culture of disposability encouraged by their corporate makers. And at the same time we also acknowledge our strange, chimeric entanglement with these elusive devices. 

Acts of care for our cell phones certainly do not do much to disempower the tech companies that shape our world, but even such small gestures of tenderness may enable us to imagine past the fatalism that dominates so much discourse about how we relate to our devices — and how, eventually, they may relate to us. In imagining cell phones to be vulnerable in the same way human bodies are, we displace back onto them some of the vulnerabilities they create in us: exposure to surveillance, data exfiltration, misinformation, potential physical side effects (ranging from radiation exposure to Carpal tunnel), and more. And when we care for our phones, we imagine relationships with these devices that defy planned obsolescence, that reject the inevitability of disposability. Instead, we practice a kind of symbiosis in which our phones are more than mere tools, and we are more than simply “users.”

And even when our phones are finally, irrevocably “dead” — for that is how we describe it — many of us weirdly refuse to discard them, instead keeping their lifeless bodies in a spare bedroom drawer. On TikTok, there are videos set to a backing track that is just the word Apple repeated, as dead phones are stacked 10, 12, 14 high. My three are in my childhood bedroom right now; I can picture well their final resting place.

There is one WikiHow article I have practically memorized, just in case: It instructs readers to submerge a wet phone for 48 to 72 hours in four cups of rice — specifically instant rice, because white and brown are less absorbent — and plan to “rotate the phone to a different position every hour until you go to sleep.” If I were to drop my phone in water right now, I would follow these steps to the letter — not because I think an hourly rotation makes much of a difference, but because I would want to feel that I had done everything I could.

Lauren Fadiman is a folklorist and writer living in Brooklyn.