Human-Phone Assemblage: A Study of Human-Mobile Phone Intimacy


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Linda Chiu-han Lai (Supervisor)
Award date7 Jun 2022


The aim of this thesis, which is situated at the intersection of Critical Theory, media studies, and cultural studies, is to elucidate the entanglement of human-mobile phone intimacy centered on smartphone cultures and practices from the 2000s and even earlier. Human-mobile phone intimacy includes the intimate feelings and sensibilities associated with corporeal, psychological, and emotional proximity to mobile media. Foregrounding the complexity of human-mobile phone intimacy, this thesis explores the possibility of the coalescing of humans and mobile phones in a social, cultural, technological, and affective entanglement.

In this study, I call for the problematization of human-mobile phone intimacy. Mobile phones, rebranded as smartphones, are the iconic industrial technology of the twentieth-first century. The primary concern here is to scrutinize the power and control embedded in human-mobile phone intimacy. Mobile phones serve as important repositories for users’ data and, therefore, potential points of control over them. As a piece of industrial technology within the neoliberal capitalist system, smartphones often treat their human users as data sources. Furthermore, smartphones deconstruct psychological power. This loss occurs when users pay insufficient attention to the complex socio-cultural entanglement regarding mobile-mediated intimacy. Users feel proximity to mobile communication and interaction despite their alienation from the coded, programmable network on which digital mobile devices and related technologies depend.

My research draws mainly on queer and feminist scholarship in media and cultural studies that regards the human-mobile phone assemblage as an ongoing process of performativity. In this thesis, I frequently cite Barad (2012), who has argued that “all bodies, not merely human bodies, come to matter through the world’s performativity—its iterative intra-activity,” the latter notion differing from the everyday notion of “interaction . . . which presumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata” (32). The intra-actions of agential bodies give forms, tones, textures, and voice to the abstract meanings of the body, technology, space, and time. On this basis, I argue that humans can become themselves through their everyday entanglement with mobile phones. Functioning as a technology of intimacy to record, retrieve, and share users’ minds, thoughts, and memories, the phones support everyday practices that alter ways of perceiving, understanding, and performing the body, mind, space, play, labor, and so on.

Each chapter focuses on one of the ways in which mobile phone practices are becoming integrated into the everyday assemblage of a new materialist performativity. In Chapter 1, I establish the approach to the status quo intimacy of mobile-mediated practices and extend it to the exploration of the possibility of the human-mobile phone assemblage that I explore in the subsequent chapters. In Chapter 2, I begin by problematizing the growing intimacy between faces and smartphones with cameras that has been associated with the emergence of smart photography as facial recognition—technology that is combined on smart devices with imaging, information, and biotechnologies (Kember 2014, 182–183). I suggest in Chapter 2 possible scenarios for cultivating a better understanding of the intimacy between faces and smartphones with cameras involving the critical intervention of smart photography as facial recognition.

In Chapter 3, I explore the intimate ways in which the human body-emotion, by connecting to smartphones, maps out space. This chapter attends to the coupling of feelings and walking practices through mobile technologies. I demonstrate how affective walking with digital mobile locative media brings bodies and emotions together and can support the human-mobile technology assemblage as well as give meaning to space. In Chapter 4, I problematize the growing intimacy between users as players and smartphones as game consoles and develop the concept of “boring play” in an effort to subvert the notion of playful intimacy that is often associated with mobile gaming. Boring play is a specific mode of play that, as the designation suggests, channels feelings of boredom into a new form of playfulness. In this chapter, I demonstrate the potential of some mobile games as forms of boring play through which a body performs boring time as playful time in a fusion of humanity and technology.

In Chapter 5, I explore the question of intimacy between work and mobile technologies. To do so, I consider how cultural workers involved in Korean queer/feminist independent publishing collaborated, interacted, and communicated through their smartphones and mobile communication programs such as KakaoTalk and mobile social media apps. In this chapter, I demonstrate that mobile-mediated labor and mobile-mediated intimacy have shaped the local queer/feminist spacetime in which human and nonhuman agential bodies become intertwined with emotions, capital, mobility, and labor.

In Chapter 6, the conclusion of this thesis, I consider ways of reenacting intimacy in the human-mobile phone assemblage. In this chapter, I address the vital role of mobile phones in the ongoing process of spacetimemattering, in which bodies and minds have agency and perform from a new materialist perspective. By my interpretation, mobile phone practices have taken shape in step with the local practices embedded in specific social-historical contexts and, in the process, forged their everydayness. During this ongoing everyday entanglement, I conclude, both humans and mobile phones act as agential bodies, the intra-actions among which comprise the open dynamics of the human-mobile phone assemblage.