The phenomenon of phantom vibration is recent enough to have escaped the notice of most dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster. The only major dictionary currently espousing an authoritative definition is the Australian English dictionary Macquarie, which chose the term as its Word of the Year for 2012. Macquarie defines it as: “noun a syndrome characterized by constant anxiety in relation to one’s mobile phone and an obsessional conviction that the phone has vibrated in response to an incoming call when in fact it hasn’t.” This definition, however, by limiting the source to “an incoming call” and ignoring the vast realm of text messages, tweets, emails, and a host of other insinuating social and personal signals manifested through vibration, is not sufficiently contemporary for our purposes. Furthermore, while phantom vibration can be an expression of “constant anxiety” and “obsessional conviction” it is just as often a simple psychosomatic reflex, a symptom of heavy reliance upon technology. And finally, as members of the scientific community have pointed out, the phenomenon is not actually a “syndrome, as the experience of mobile phone phantom vibrations does not (at present) signify a disease or disorder” (Rothberg et al., 2010). Thus, with no adequate definition from a respected source, we set out to define the term through cultural and sociological lenses.
The first appearance of phantom vibration was in 1996 in Scott Adams’s Dilbert. The comic strip features a psychologist diagnosing Dilbert with “phantom-pager syndrome” and adding, rather matter-of-factly, that there is no treatment. The term did not appear anywhere else for quite some time (perhaps owing to the pager’s contemporaneous decline), but about a decade later phantom vibration began to crop up in a variety of news sources and blog discussion groups alongside terms like “hypovibrochondria” and “ringxiety.” The phenomenon is usually cited as a portent of post-human technological doom or just another example of an “always on” society. Unfortunately, there have been remarkably few attempts to analyze phantom vibration outside its specific technological parameters, and even fewer to analyze it in an objective sociological or biological manner.
Michelle Drouin, Daren H. Kaiser, and Daniel A. Miller conducted a respected scientific study of phantom vibration in 2012. The study sought to examine the psychological and behavioral effects of phantom vibrations on young adults. Drouin et al. focused upon a potential relationship between the strength of a subject’s emotional response to a text message (measured in the “text message dependency” or TMD scale developed by Igarashi, Motoyashi, Takai, and Yoshida in 2008) and the frequency and “bothersomeness” of phantom vibrations for that same subject. About two hundred undergraduate students were surveyed, and nearly ninety percent were found to have experienced phantom vibrations on a regular basis. The study examined a number of variables and personality distinctions among the participants, and the most interesting conclusion of Drouin et al. is the fact that less than ten percent of the young adults who experienced phantom vibrations found them bothersome. Only users with a high TMD rating (which, significantly, has been found to correlate to extraversion and/or neuroticism) described negative reactions to phantom vibrations.
Unfortunately, just as Macquarie limits its definition of phantom vibration syndrome to “an incoming call,” Drouin et al. limits their sources of vibration to text messages. As smartphones continue to take over the cellphone market, an increasing share of phone vibrations are coming from third-party applications such as Facebook or Snapchat. Apple was the first to introduce these “push notifications” in 2009, and at the 2012 Worldwide Apple Developers Conference, the company announced that they send over 7 billion notifications daily. By ignoring push notifications, Drouin et al. do not only leave out this significant number of vibrations, but they also ignore the large portion of these that are nonsocial. Most are simple reminders like “do laundry” or “call the plumber,” but many smartphone users (especially teenagers and younger adolescents) have notifications enabled for a variety of involved videogames that run night and day. And while many of these games have social, competitive aspects, their notifications are not like a Facebook message or an Instagram “like.” They are not communications from another human being; they come from the game itself, just as reminders come from the user. They represent a certain type of intrapersonal communication, mediated through the smartphone.
In regard to the general indifference toward phantom vibrations, Drouin et al. conclude, “Presumably, if individuals considered these imagined vibrations ‘pathological tactile hallucinations,’ they would feel bothered that they had them. Instead, it is likely that individuals consider these phantom vibrations a normal part of the human-mobile phone interactive experience.”
“The human-mobile phone interactive experience” certainly seems to suggest a relationship beyond mere social communication, which means that perhaps Drouin et al. were aware of the narrow scope of their project. The more important word here, however, is “normal.” To what extent can we even define contemporary media relationships as normal or abnormal? Does the human-mobile relationship fit within the same parameters of normalcy as, say, the human-television relationship or the human-writing relationship? Is phantom vibration a modern phenomenon specific to cellular phones—a harbinger, as the news sources tell us, of unprecedented mechanization and media control—or is it simply another manifestation in a long-held pattern of media interaction?
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan contends that auto-amputation of the senses is the inevitable result of any new form of media. We “extend” ourselves through media—visual sense through television, auditory sense through radio—and in doing so, we close off or subdue the unused senses. And while McLuhan was writing over forty years ago, he posits an uncannily accurate prediction of phantom vibrations when he says “it could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.” The audile-tactile hallucination of phantom vibration does seem to be a direct result of an over-stimulated central nervous system. However, one might wonder whether any senses are closed off by these new media. It is easy to see how when one watches television for an extended period of time the rest of the world might take on a darker cast, but it is difficult to compare a relatively focused medium like radio or television to the ubiquitous influence of the cell phone.
To answer the question of extension and amputation we might look to an experiment conducted in early 2011 by Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom carried out an fMRI study that sought to answer the question of whether or not iPhones are truly addictive. He tested men and women similar to those in Drouin et al.’s study (i.e. adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five), and measured their neurological responses to separate audio and video recordings of mobile phone vibration. Lindstrom’s study had two important conclusions: 1) regardless of whether or not the recording was audio or visual, it activated both the visual and audile cortices of the subjects’ brains; and 2) the recordings produced a high level of activity in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion.
Lindstrom’s first conclusion provides an interesting perspective on McLuhan’s theory of auto-amputation. Is the dual audile-visual response to a single somatic trigger an example of heightened senses, and thus a contradiction of auto-amputation; or would McLuhan argue that extrasensory attention paid to a vibrating phone results in a deadening of other sensory phenomena? It is difficult to place phantom vibration in McLuhan’s complex schema. Rather, instead of extension and amputation, it might be useful to consider the technological determinism espoused by Friedrich Kittler in Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. Kittler argues that rather than “extending” man, media simply change and adapt him to the current technology. Thus, phantom vibrations would not be a result of man reaching out and overextending himself, but just one of the ways in which we have adapted to a smartphone existence.
Lindstrom’s second conclusion is even more ambiguous. On the one hand, the iPhone’s capacity to evoke feelings of love and compassion could be related to the device’s inherent social use. Similar to the way in which one becomes attached to a certain bench or coffee shop, the iPhone could develop a metonymical relationship to its user’s friends, family, and loved ones, generating the same fondness and feelings of connectivity that the user associates with those important people in their life. Or perhaps the device culls affection as part of Kittler’s adaptive process, and the human-iPhone relationship is like the parent-child relationship, in which affection is a necessary biological and evolutionary component. There is interesting evidence for this in a 2006 New York Times article on “phantom ringing,” which explains that the human ear gives unequal weight to sounds in the range of 1,000 to 6,000 hertz—the precise range of a baby’s cry—and that the typical ringtone falls exactly within this range. Finally, there is the possibility that our compassionate feelings toward the iPhone are expressions of a deep, unconscious narcissism. This would be directly in line with McLuhan’s theory of extension, which he explains through the myth of Narcissus. The key point for both McLuhan and iPhones is the fact that Narcissus does not recognize his own image in the pool: he is not aware that it is himself with whom he falls in love. Likewise, while iPhone users may be cognizant, to some degree, of how the device contains their life, it is not a fact that they are ever forced to confront. There is no “mirror-stage” of the iPhone, despite however many “selfies” one might take. Thus, a user is able to feel compassion toward the device and not feel as uncomfortable as they might if they felt the same way toward their reflection in a mirror or pool of water.
This theory of narcissism is perhaps the most important concept for phantom vibrations, and it relates directly to Drouin et al.’s idea of “normal” experience. The first reason why Drouin et al.’s subjects did not feel bothered by phantom vibration is likely because they knew it to be a widely experienced phenomenon. After all, the first impulse when experiencing some out of the ordinary is to confirm that it is not, in fact, out of the ordinary. Hence Dilbert on the psychologist’s couch, being reassured that his hallucination has a verifiable name. However, the second reason why phantom vibrations were not bothersome may paradoxically be the mobile phone’s elicitation of compassion and love. If the “human-mobile” relationship is a narcissistic one, it relies upon one’s belief that their phone is in some way uniquely his or her own. We tend to view another person’s phone as unaccountably alien—we often handle them as we would another person’s car or bathroom. However, we are also aware of the mobile phone’s utter homology. The phone thus maintains a delicate balance between the universal and the personal, which is precisely what allows audile-tactile hallucinations to seem “normal.” It is similar to how McLuhan describes extension and auto-amputation as a kind of “equilibrium” that we mediate through different forms, dulling the awareness of some senses while heightening others. And it is only when this equilibrium is threatened that we begin to question and fear the human-mobile relationship. In Christopher Baker’s 2011 sculpture titled “Human Phantom Vibration Syndrome,” a vast mound of cellphones vibrate in disturbing cacophony. A singular, quotidian sound is made eerie by the addition of hundreds more. Likewise, in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is devastated when he learns that his beloved operating system (Scarlett Johansen) is the same the world over. To be unbothered by phantom vibrations, we must remain willfully ignorant of the implied psychological and sociological ramifications; we must turn a blind eye, as it were, to the smartphone itself. And whether or not this is a “bad” thing, as the news tells us, remains yet to be seen.
— Andrew Hungate
Baker, Christopher. “HPVS (Human Phantom Vibration Syndrome).” Vimeo. 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
Drouin, Michelle, Daren H. Kaiser, and Daniel A. Miller. “Phantom Vibrations Among Undergraduates: Prevalence and Associated Psychological Characteristics.” Computers in Human Behavior 28.4 (2012): 1490-496. Web of Science. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Goodman, Brenda. “I Hear Ringing and There’s No One There. I Wonder Why.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 May 2006. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
Igarashi, Tasuku, Tadahiro Motoyoshi, Jiro Takai, and Toshikazu Yoshida. “No Mobile, No Life: Self-Perception and Text-Message Dependency Among Japanese High School Students.” Computers in Human Behavior 24.5 (2008): 2311-324. Web of Science. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.
Lindstrom, Martin. “You Love Your IPhone. Literally.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1964. Print.
“Phantom Vibration Syndrome.” Macquarie Dictionary. Macquarie Dictionary, 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
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