Professor Martin Irvine, founding director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, has an interesting way of looking at the iPhone. In a presentation called “Deblackboxing Technology: Mediology and Actor Network Theory,” located on his website, Irvine opens our eyes to the inner workings of the iPhone.
We look at a device like the iPhone as a series of inputs and outputs. We turn it on and expect the device to work. This assumption, according to Irvine, is a function of the blackbox quality of the iPhone. Apple sells us a device that appears simple or user-friendly without revealing the secret worlds behind its interface.
According to Irvine, if we take apart or “deblackbox” it, we find that the iPhone is “a system of prior technology functions and social mediation deployed through the logic of combinatorial hybridity and hypermediation.”
Inside the iPhone exist the following technologies: mobile telephony (radio frequencies); computer chip makers; data transmission that includes Internet connections through telecom providers and ISPs; transaction systems and banking networks; digital voice, image and sound codecs; and GPS, to name a few (Irvine, “Deblackboxing Technology,” slide 36).
All of these processes are dependent upon or are the result of “institutions/regulatory regimes/patents/licenses” that originate within “business/economic ecosystems/manufacturers” and are shaped by (and in turn shape) “demographics/markets/social and cultural practices” (Irvine, slide 36).
So what, the average user says, I like my iPhone because it just works. I am free to use my mobile device as I choose.
Not so fast, says Irvine.
“We say the user ‘plays music on the iPhone’—but the user has no agency or experience apart from the system operations, software prompts, and a complex background system of other agencies and mediations…” (Irvine, slide 43).
I use my iPhone as I see fit but its operation far exceeds my comprehension; its inner workings determine my experience. Mobile devices, many believe, make life easier, but in many ways we’re simply blind to the fact that hidden worlds are operating before and over us—worlds far too complex to put a finger on.
And so we worship the iPhone for all that we see it doing and all that it conceals from us. Arthur C. Clarke was on to something when he wrote in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That we convince ourselves we’re in charge of our gadgets is the real trick.