Research Master Media Studies
June 2, 2016
Phantom vibrations: isolated result of learned bodily habits or part of a larger pattern?
In recent popular literature, there has been quite some attention for what is called the Phantom Vibration Syndrome (PVS). As The Independent observes, nine out of ten suffer from phantom vibrations: when a user mistakenly perceive its smartphone to vibrate in his or her pocket (Henderson). When this happens, you check your phone for an incoming message or call, when in fact, no such thing occurred. Most of the popular literature, such as The Independent (Henderson), or the BBC refer to a study of Dr. Robert Rosenberger of the Georgia University of Technology. Therefore, this article will also be the starting point of this essay on the influence of phantom vibration syndrome on our senses.
In this review of the literature, I will first address the empirical research that has been conducted on PVS. In a psychology study among 290 undergraduates, Michelle Drouin, Daren Kaiser, and Daniel Miller found that 89% of the respondents had experienced phantom vibrations, and 40% had experienced them last week (1493). However, only a minority of the students claimed that they found these phantom vibrations bothersome. In another study, among 169 hospital workers, Michael Rothberg and others found that 69% of the respondents had experienced these phantom vibrations (c6914). Of course, the size of these samples is quite small, but the percentages do give an indication about the appearance of this syndrome among smartphone users.
Next to empirical studies, theoretical accounts on PVS are still scarce. One such account, is made by Robert Rosenberger, who adopts a phenomenological approach to make sense of PVS. Rosenberger suggests that “the experience of a phantom vibration is due to a user’s learned habitual inclination to perceive meaning in the sensation of phone vibration” (128). Habitual inclination, in this case, refers to the Heideggerian notion of the experience of familiar technologies. For example, when wearing glasses, one is not aware of the glasses themselves. For instance, when a wall is viewed through a pair of glasses, it seems even closer than the glasses which are in fact right next to one’s eyes (Heidegger 141). The familiarity of the glasses makes the one who wears them forget about them. According to Rosenberger, the same could be said for smartphones in our pockets. We are used to having smartphones in our pockets and the way they vibrate when a message or notification pops up. Therefore, when we feel a vibration – also in the event of a small muscle spasm – we assume (through habitual inclination) that it is the phone. With his phenomenological account, Rosenberger disputes the idea that PVS could be “one effect of a larger pattern of relationships with technology that extends beyond our experience with phones” (130). Instead, he sees phantom vibrations as “an isolated result of the way individual users relate to the particular technology of the mobile phone” (ibid.).
This brief phenomenological account on PVS offered by Rosenberger seems like a quick fix for a problem that deserves more thorough academic scrutiny, especially in the realm of our relationships with smartphone technology. In a psychological study, Larry Rosen interprets PVS differently than 2 Rosenberger: “We are now so primed with anxiety about our electronic world (and particularly that which involves communicating such as text messages and social media) that we misinterpret a simple signal from our neurons located below our pocket as an incoming message rather than an itch that needs to be scratched.” Rosen, like Rosenberg, also views the vibration as a misinterpretation of the neurons, but his statement differs where it comes to the cause of this misinterpretation. Anxiety about our electronic world or what happens on social media is at the root of this temporary misconception. This approach helps us to put PVS into a larger context. Namely, our relationships with technologies in the context of Late Capitalism, where smartphone technologies gain increasing control of our senses through demand of constant attention. The vibration as discussed above can be seen as our body being tethered to our smartphone. In this context, the following question arises: to what extent is the phantom vibration syndrome invading our domain of the senses?
In what follows, I will position PVS in the context of Late Capitalism where attention demanding devices take control of our senses, by drawing on the work of three theorists in the field of media studies. Firstly, the context where I want to place PVS in, will be established by invoking Jonathan Crary’s book 24:7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). Secondly, Susan Buck-Morss’s “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” (1992) will provide us with a historical lineage of the shifting function of stimulation from the interbellum period to modernity and our contemporary age. Thirdly, Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together (2012) will contribute to the idea of anxiety about our electronic world put forward by Larry Rosen earlier on.
Waking yourself up to check for messages
Modern Art and Theory Professor Jonathan Crary argues in his book 24:7 that we have arrived in a stage of Late Capitalism where sleep is the last un infiltrated aspect of life by global markets. Although 24/7 markets and the global infrastructure to support it for continuous work and consumption have been around for some time, there is now a human subject in the making that can effectively inhabit such a world: a sleepless being (Crary 3-4). A sleepless being would be able to work and consume without pause. Therefore, in Late Capitalism, the “huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism” (Crary 10). Indeed, over the course of the past century, the average time a North-American sleeps has decreased from 10 (at the beginning of the century) to 6,5 hours now (Crary 11). In capitalist markets, the never ending quest for efficiency and acceleration, for instance, resulted in letting factory workers work in shifts, making sure that production would never be halted. In this light, it is only natural that the ideal worker/consumer would sleep as little as possible in order to have more time to perform and consume: “within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers” (Crary 14).
These developments the 24/7 economy show that the demand for constant attention is one of the key characteristics in the global capitalist system of our time. Smartphones are the fundamental devices that seek to fulfill this prophecy of an always-on-consumer/worker. Indeed, in recent research it has been shown “that the number of people who wake themselves up once or more at night to check their messages or data is growing exponentially” (Crary 13). Smartphones demand constant attention, and not even sleep can stand in its way as a concatenated period of rest. This is what the social-political theorist Teresa Brennan coins as ‘bioderegulation,’ the deregulation of biology: it “erodes the internal constraints protecting the body at the same time as deregulation in the legal sense steals human time in the name of market freedom” (19). It boils down to this: in a free market situation all (natural) barriers will be broke down in order to maximize a workers performance. For instance, in the contemporary job market, as a laborer you are expected to take the extra mile, even if its outside of office hours without being payed (Brennan 20). This is a form of exploitation (a theft of free time) and in extreme measures a destruction of the body. When thinking about people waking themselves up to check their messages in the middle of the night, it is not so hard to understand what is meant by a deregulation of one’s body (biology). It is my conception that phantom vibrations are also a form of bioderegulation. Smartphones that account for them are always demanding attention with the latest updates in our social (or professional) networks. The tight grip which these devices have on their users deregulates the body. Smartphone users in this sense play the role of the always-on-consumer perfectly, so eager (or anxious) to interact with the device at any time, even when it is not calling on its user.
Watching our own destruction with enjoyment
I have illustrated by placing PVS in the context of constant attention demanding devices in Late Capitalism, that phantom vibrations hint to the deregulation of our bodies. The deregulation takes place in the senses, who are deluded in the event of a phantom vibration. This deregulation of the senses is by no means a new phenomenon. I will draw on the work of the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss to sketch a historical picture about the changing nature of bioderegulation of stimulation of the senses. In the process, I will describe the shifting function of stimulation (of the senses) from modernity and to our contemporary age.
Buck-Morss’s article is a reconsideration of a famous essay on the production of art by the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, in his essay from 1936, responded to cultural, products of Fascism in a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany. By means of aestheticization, the German population would accept propaganda messages from the Nazi’s. A good example is the film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) from Leni Riefenstahl, which celebrated the immense army and the power of the German army in the overture towards World War II. In such cultural products, there is an aestheticization of politics, and it can only result in one thing according to Benjamin: war (Buck-Morss 3). Sensory alienation lies at the heart of the aestheticization of politics, because otherwise a population would revolt against these form of politics (Buck-Morss 4). The task Benjamin has in mind for art, is to “undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium to restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation, and to do this, not by avoiding the new technologies, but by passing through them” (Buck Morss 5, italics in original). To sum up, art should make people aware of the message it holds, instead of aestheticize and therefore obscure this message. An example of such an art form is the theater play of Berthold Brecht, where a distance would be created between the audience and the story. This could be done by addressing the audience directly, or a dry, unemotional acting style, which would keep the audience out of the delusion an aestheticized play would generate. This is what the restoration of instinctual power of the human bodily senses means.
This brings me to the first stage in the function of stimulation: an attack on the senses. For Benjamin, living in modernity was like a battlefield experience of shock in World War I. In World War I a great number of soldiers would return from the trenches with shell shock, a trauma disorder which made soldiers quiver and panicky (even after the war) as a result of exposure to bombardments and warfare. This experience has become the norm in modern life for Benjamin: “Perceptions that once occasioned conscious reflection are now the source of shock-impulses that consciousness must parry. In industrial production no less than modern warfare, in street crowds and erotic encounters, in amusement parks and gambling casinos, shock is the very essence of modern experience” (Buck-Morss 16). Life in modernity, with all its thrills is an attack on the senses.
As a response to this attack, the synaesthetic system (sense-perceptions combined with internal images and anticipation), parries this attack of technological stimuli. The system reverses its role: Its “goal is to numb the organism, to deaden the senses, to repress memory: the cognitive system of synaesthetics has become, rather, one of anaesthetics” (Buck-Morss 18, italics in original). ‘Being cheated out of experience’ has become the general state, reality is blocked out as a result and the human organism’s power to respond politically is destroyed, even when self-preservation is at stake (ibid.). This is the second stage in the shifting function of stimulation: exposure. The attack on the senses makes our synaesthetic system deaden the senses, leaving the human organism exposed, powerless against destruction.
When we think from this perspective about phantom vibrations, one could argue that such vibrations are an example of a collapse in the synaesthetic system, a failure in protecting us from perceptual shock. In this case, the attack on the senses does not come from amusement parks or casinos like in the thirties, but from the smartphone device, eagerly hold close to the body. The experience of shock is felt quite literally in the event of a phantom vibration. In this light, PVS could be seen as a the shell shock of our time. Not only are these phantom vibrations an indicator of the attack on our senses, they also show how our senses are deadened and the organism numbed in modern life. The collapse in our synaesthetic system accounts for a short moment of hallucination in which our sense are deluded into thinking that we have received a new message or notification.
For some, this metaphor of a collapse in the synaesthetic system might seem too far-fetched, because as empirical research has shown, most people do not experience phantom vibrations as bothersome. However, this is exactly one of the problems in modern society which Benjamin points out: because of the alienation of our senses through aestheticization, humanity can view its own destruction with enjoyment (Buck-Morss 37). Aesthetics like the beautification of war and mechanical power account for an anaesthetization of reception, preparing in the case of Nazi Germany the population for unquestioning sacrifice and ultimately, destruction, murder, and death (Buck-Morss 38). The disinterest from smartphone users in the phantom vibrations because they do not find them bothersome, resonates with this earlier aestheticization that Benjamin referred to. The aestheticization of technology in the form of the smartphone, serves the purpose of anaesthetization of reception, because we view the destruction of our bodily senses – which are misled by phantom vibrations – with enjoyment.
However, the anaesthetization of reception by the smartphone does not cover the whole story. A third shift in the function of stimulation has occurred with the advent of smartphones and PVS is its illustration: invitation. There is not only an attack on the senses by the stimuli from the smartphone in the form of vibrations and sounds of incoming messages and notifications. The senses are also stimulated by the invitation of the electronic worlds for which the smartphone serves as gateway. We constantly want to know what happens in our social and professional networks. We do not want to miss out on the things that happen there, whatever the cost. This is why an increasing number of people wake themselves up to check their phones for notifications and new data. Stimulation in the form of invitation refers to the feelings of anxiety that we experience when we are not connected to our social worlds through our phones which is rightly identified here above.
Being tethered to your phone
The feeling of anxiety when we are not connected to our online social worlds, is something that many smartphone users experience on a daily basis. In her book Alone Together, social scientist Sherry Turkle explores the paradox social media present us with: on the one hand we are connected with our social networks more than ever, while at the same time we seem more alone and our face-to-face social skills seem in decline.
In her discussion of the always-on-mentality of smartphone users, Turkle finds that the Internet is always “on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it” (154). For her research, Turkle used qualitative methods such as interviews to learn about people’s relationships to their smartphones and social networks. In a talk with a colleague it was made clear that on the Net you can always find someone: “I never want to be far from my BlackBerry, … that is where my games are. That is where my sites are. Without it, I’m too anxious” (cited in Turkle 157). A twenty-six year old lawyer tells Turkle that she does not even need her phone to vibrate or to make a sound to know that she has had a message or notification: “Even if my phone is in my purse . . . I see it, I sense it. . . . I always know what is happening on my phone” (161). These types of statements make one think about the anxiety that is present because of the prevalence of smartphones in our age. As a sixteen year old girl explains: “Facebook has taken over my life … I find myself looking at random people’s photos, or going to random things. Then I realize after that it was a waste of time” (cited in Turkle 242). Another teenager puts it as follows: “I can always be with my friends. Not having your phone is a high level of stress” (ibid.).
Many smartphone users – and especially young ones – are tethered to their phones. They are always connected, but it comes at a cost: “Anxiety is part of the new connectivity. Yet, it is often the missing term when we talk about the revolution in mobile communications. Our habitual narratives about technology begin with respectful disparagement of what came before and move on to idealize the new” (Turkle 242). Turkle is critical of the way new technologies present themselves as the ideal devices for keeping up with our social networks. Indeed, these connecting devices can make us feel safer, because there are always with us, also in case of an emergency: “the cell phone as amulet becomes emblematic of safety” (Turkle 248). Without their phone, people feel naked. This is the paradox: without their phones smartphone users are anxious, while at the same time, these devices help create anxieties of their own.
These anxieties can take multiple forms. As Turkle has shown, it can be about safety, in the sense that in the event of an emergency you can use your phone to contact emergency services or your parents. However, another type of anxiety relates closer to phantom vibrations. The example of this anxiety is given by an interviewee of Turkle, the teenager Julia:
Julia’s phone is always with her. If she is in class and a text arrives, Julia asks to go to the bathroom to check it out. The texts come in all day, with at least one vibration every five minutes. Knowing she has a message makes her ‘antsy.’ She starts to worry. She needs to read the message. Julia tells me that when she goes to the bathroom to check her texts, they are often from people just saying hello. She says, ‘This makes me feel foolish for having been so scared.’ (245)
Julia is clearly afraid of missing out on what happens in her social networks. When she feels her phone vibrate, she must know what the text or notification is about. She cannot stop thinking about it and even needs to go to the bathroom to check her phone. This phenomenon is called the ‘fear of missing out’ (FoMO) in recent psychology studies.
Fear of Missing Out as the producer of phantom vibrations
In one of the first empirical studies on FoMO, psychologists Andrew K. Przybylski, Kou Murayama, Cody R. DeHaan, Valerie Gladwell researched, amongst other factors, the link between FoMO and social media engagement. They found that people with high a degree of FoMO tended to use Facebook more often, also immediately after waking, before going to sleep, during meals and even while driving motor vehicles (Przybylski et al. 1847). Also in the classrooms, students were found to have a hard time to focus, much like the teenager Julia who gets ‘antsy’ in class when she receives a text: “FoMO is associated with higher levels of behavioral engagement with social media, possibly to the detriment of learning outcomes and driver safety” (ibid.).
These findings were supported by a study among 296 undergraduates by Dorit Alt, who looked specifically at the relation between social media engagement, FoMO, and academic motivation. She found that students with lower academic motivation where more likely to have a high degree of FoMO, which resulted in higher social media engagement (Alt 116). It was not found, whether higher or lower levels of academic interest had a direct effect on social media engagement. In this case, FoMO seemed to be the mediating factor of between motivation deficits and increased social media use. Thus, these empirical findings establish the connection between FoMO and social media engagement.
When we think of this high levels of social media engagement in connection with FoMO, phantom vibrations could very well be linked to this phenomenon. Just like Rosen argued, we are so anxious to know what is happening in our online social worlds about our social worlds that we mistake a slight muscle spasm for an incoming call, text, or notification. It is my conception that FoMO, is indeed at the heart of PVS.
Phantom vibrations: cold turkey symptoms of anxiety about our social worlds
Thus, FoMO can account for a bodily sensation in the form of a phantom vibration. We experience our phones to vibrate when they are not, because we want them to vibrate (signal what is happening in our social networks) all the time. In this sense, PVS hints at compulsive behavior, or in other words, at a smartphone addiction. When we take it that high degrees of FoMO is correlated with high levels of social media engagement, the step to a conceptualization of compulsive behavior is all but far-fetched. In their article, Yu-Kang Lee, Chun-Tuan Chang, You Lin, and Zhao-Hong Cheng, study the causes of compulsive smartphone behavior and the stress they generate for their users.
They found multiple factors. Firstly, the influence of locus of control. The locus of control refers to an individual’s perception about the cause of events in his/her life. An internal locus signifies a trust one’s own power to influence life events, while an external locus refers to the belief that external forces (such as fate, luck and other people) are of influence. In their study it was found that an external locus of control lead to more compulsive smartphone usage (Lee et al. 374). Secondly, a higher level of social interaction anxiety also lead to more compulsive usage of smartphones. In this case, anxiety does not refer to the fear of not knowing what is happening in our online social worlds, but to the fear of face-to-face interactions. This empirical result resonates with the ideas of Turkle, who recognizes that online conversations are far more comfortable than face-to-face interaction, because they are pauseable and relatively anonymous compared to offline encounters where people reveal themselves to one another (2). Thirdly, Lee et al. identify the need for touch as a factor that contributes to compulsive behavior when using smartphones (375). And lastly, a high level of materialism – a person’s beliefs about the importance of material possessions – induced compulsive smartphone behavior.
This compulsive behavior when it comes to smartphone usage, could very well be linked to the sensation of phantom vibrations. Next to a result of FoMO I see phantom vibrations as cold turkey symptoms following compulsive usage. When we think of the ubiquitousness of smartphones in our present age and the time we spent on them, the comparison with a drug addiction and cold turkey symptoms of not using the phone could prove a useful metaphor.
From ‘being cheated out of experience’ to ‘being anxious about not experiencing’ as the general state
I started out this essay by reviewing the current literature about the phantom vibration syndrome, which is at the moment still scarce, and mainly present in psychological fields. In empirical studies it was found that between that about nine out of ten people have experienced phantom vibrations, the perception that they received a message or notification while this was not the case. In addition, about forty percent of the respondents in the empirical study of Drouin et al. said that they had experienced phantom vibrations in the last week.
Current theoretical account on PVS also used the empirical studies as I have mentioned before as a starting point. Robert Rosenberger supplements the empirical literature with a phenomenological theorization in which he finds that the experience of phantom vibrations are due to a user’s habitual inclination to perceive meaning in the sensation of phone vibration. A small muscle spasm, for instance, or if a smartphone moves around in our pocket, is picked up as an incoming call or text. Thus, Rosenberger views phantom vibrations as an isolated result of the way users relate to the vibration technology of a smartphone. I have argued that this answer seems like a quick fix for a phenomenon that deserves more in depth critical scrutiny. Along these lines, I agree with Larry Rosen, who claims that PVS is triggered by the fact that we are primed with anxiety about our online social worlds.
I have started out my conceptualization of PVS by placing it in the context of constant demand for attention by smartphone technologies in Late Capitalism by drawing on the work of Jonathan Crary. Crary argues that there is at the moment a human subject in the making who is fit to work and consume without pause: a sleepless being. Sleep is one of the greatest affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism because no value can be extracted from it. Smartphone devices are key in the formation of the always-on-economy: recent research shows that an increasing amount of people wake themselves up in the middle of the night to check their messages. This is what Teresa Brennan coins as ‘bioderegulation,’ our bodies become deregulated by the constant demand for attention. I believe PVS to be part of this larger pattern of how we relate to technologies such as the smartphone, as a vivid illustration of bioderegulation.
This bioderegulation is not a new phenomenon, I have sketched a historical background to discuss sense perception in the event of phantom vibration by invoking Susan Buck-Morss’s reconsideration of Walter Benjamin’s Artwork essay. In the process, I defined the changing function of stimulation of the senses from modernity to our contemporary age. In the first stage, the function of stimulation is an attack on the senses. Like the experience of shock on a World War I battlefield, life in modernity, with all its thrills in the form of casino’s, amusement parks and street crowds, is like an attack on the senses. In the second stage, the synaesthetic system (sense-perceptions combined with internal images and anticipation), parries this attack of technological stimuli. The senses are deadened, the cognitive system becomes one of anaesthetics. ‘Being cheated out of experience’ becomes the general state. The attack on the senses makes our synaesthetic system deaden the senses, leaving the human organism exposed, powerless against destruction. In our present age however, there is a third shift in the function of stimulation: invitation. In the contemporary situation of Late Capitalism, our senses are constantly invited by our social worlds, mediated through our smartphones. This causes a feeling of anxiety, when we are not connected to these worlds.
I have put this feeling of anxiety in theoretical perspective by drawing on the work of Sherry Turkle, who did qualitative research into the relationship between humans and their electronic devices in the form of interviews. From the interviews it becomes clear that the respondents feel high amounts of stress when their phones are not with them. There is a sense of comfort when using the phone. The type of communication the smartphone fosters – pauseable, indirect – is often preferred above face-to-face encounters in which we are vulnerable. However, it is not just comfort, as Turkle rightfully argues, we are tethered to our smartphones. Without our phone we feel naked. Yet, when our phones are with us, we feel even more anxious, because we are constantly invited through our senses to check the phone for updates. This presents us with a paradox. Without our phones we feel naked and incomplete. While at the same time, with our phones we constantly feel anxious about the status updates in our social worlds.
To give an understanding of this anxiety, to grasp what produces the anxiety, I have addressed accounts on ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO). From empirical studies we can learn that smartphone users with high levels of social media engagement are also susceptible to FoMO. In the context of constant invitation of the senses by smartphone devices, I believe that this psychological phenomenon is at the heart of phantom vibrations. In the contemporary age, ‘being cheated out of experience’ – as Walter Benjamin observed about modernity – is not the general state, but ‘being anxious about not experiencing’ has taken its place.
In the last paragraph of my essay I have tied the theory of anxiety back to empirical studies, by invoking the article by Lee et al. about compulsive smartphone usage. In my conception, FoMO leads to addictive smartphone behavior. I have argued that phantom vibrations resemble cold turkey symptoms. When one is not using the phone, anxiety about our social worlds produce a shock, mirroring trembling junkies who have been excluded from a shot for too long.
Henceforth, it is my recommendation for empirical studies, to investigate the relation between the Fear of Missing Out and Phantom Vibration Syndrome, to support what I have theorized here. I believe that also in psychological accounts, such a link can be established. However, theoretical accounts such as these have to accompany them. Even if it would be hard to find an empirical connection between the two psychological disorders, this does not mean it is not present. Like Walter Benjamin said: in Late Capitalism it is possible for the consumer to watch its own destruction with enjoyment. In our present day, the smartphone is so ubiquitous, even to the extent that we experience shocks through constant invitation. Also this form of destruction is experienced with enjoyment, through the use of the aestheticized medium we all use: that little thing which is always buzzing in our pockets, even when it is not.
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Henderson, Emma. “Phantom vibration syndrome: Up to 90 per cent of people suffer phenomenon while mobile phone is in pocket.” The Independent. Ed. Doug Willis. 2016. Independent Digital News & Media. 2 June 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/phantom-vibration-syndrome-up-to-90-per-cent-of-people-suffer-phenomenon-while-mobile-phone-is-in-a6804631.html>