It's Got a Hold on You

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 27 May 2005

The mobile phones in our hands may have a more totemic role in our lives than we suspect.

There’s something magical about the objects we use every day. No, not that plastic pen, but the one over there in the holder on your desk, the Mont Blanc. Or the wallet in your pocket, actually a bit too worn out, but a gift from your daughter. Or the portable clock radio you saved when going through your dad’s stuff after he died.

Willie Nelson has his favorite guitar, so beat up it has holes in the front. Jack Nicklaus had his favorite putter, not that its exact weight and dimensions couldn’t be reproduced. Philip K. Dick had a favorite typewriter, on which he wrote nearly all his stories.

We form emotional, almost spiritual attachments to the objects in our lives. Occultists would tell us that, through projection, we have “charged up” these things with psychic energy, and this is what gives them their power. The rabbit’s foot or rosary beads don’t come off the shelf at the trinkets shop with any special power, but the continued association of those objects with one’s prayers or desires, the way one touches them as a constant reminder of his or her intentions, generates an energy of expectation all its own.

Does the same thing happen between people and their cell phones? And if it does, is this level of object infatuation a good thing for the industry, or an obstacle to selling more phones?

Clearly, now that mobile phones have been incorporated into the most personal moments and pockets in our lives, they have become our intimate partners. They hold the photos of our families, the ringtones sampled from our favorite songs, and the wallpaper that mirrors our aesthetic. Whether or not we put a Hello Kitty sticker on our clamshells, our handsets take on totemic value both as reflections of who we are, and expressions of what we are striving yet to be.

Beyond that, like the conch shells held up to the ear that seemed to tell our ancestors their history and futures, cell phones are handheld objects that often hold news of our fate, from the voicemails of potential sex partners to the SMS stock quotes of our latest investments. So many of our hopes and fears are broadcast to us through (or is it from?) the six-ounce rectangle in our breast pocket. On an anthropological level, we humans can’t help but relate to their immense power with a bit of fear, reverence and mystery.

Maybe this explains why people in China have been lining up to get their mobile phones blessed by Buddhist monks. According to Intel ethnographer Genevieve Bell, who observed the phenomenon, it is the size and physicality of cell phones, like the weight of a pocket Bible or the portability of rosary beads, that makes us feel comfortable investing them with spiritual value. Bell feels that these blessings could be a way to “neutralize and naturalize the technology.”

But elsewhere in China, for a superstitious man who bid 9 million yuan ($1.1 million) for a lucky cell phone number, the spiritual (and financial) significance is far from neutral. Apparently the number - 135 8585 8585 - which has a similar pronunciation in Chinese to “let me be rich be rich be rich be rich”. So, unlike a number that’s a birthdate or simply easy to remember, it’s as if each time this guy’s number is dialed, a mantra is repeated, and a spell is being cast on his behalf.

This seems more advanced than simply “naturalizing” technology, as Bell suggests. It’s the wholesale appropriation of technology for spiritual and magical purposes. Moreover, here in societies already inundated with wireless technologies, this sort of spiritual repurposing has become ubiquitous.

In most cases, the phone itself is transparent, and the application or content takes on spiritual dimensions. Stephen Goddard, co-editor of, has been tracking products targeting the “born-again buck.” Apart from conventional religious paraphernalia, the devoted can purchase popular hymns as ringtones and phone cover crucifixes with holographic images of Jesus, or sign up for daily SMS messages from the Pope.

Meanwhile, Muslims can use the Ilkone i-800 mobile phone to access an Islamic calendar, a Mecca direction-finder, a searchable version of the Koran, prayer times, alarms and an authentic Azaan (call to prayer) voice. And New Agers can register through The Mobile Deepak Chopra website to sign receive “enlightening quotes, inspirational images, success tips and a weekly message from Deepak himself, combined in a mobile application that inspires, motivates and provides understanding of the Laws in a simple, easy-to-use format.”

My guess is that users’ desire to relate to their handheld wireless technology in spiritual and magical ways will only increase. But this may happen in different ways in different places. Cultures where this technology is new, such as those visited by Bell, relate to the phone object in a magical way, but are just beginning to develop a spiritual sensibility about the software and applications they use. Cultures where phones are already integrated into the fabric of life, however, already use a wide array of spiritual applications, but are just beginning to develop a sense of totemic connection to the cell phones, themselves. Of course, the more valuable people perceive their individual cell phones ot be, the less likely they may be to trade up for new ones. Still, for savvy manufacturers and operators, there’s still plenty of room to build on these growing trends.

For instance take a culture where hi-tech and hi-totem already coexist, like Taiwan, where in an effort to differentiate its brand, manufacturer Okwap released a divinely blessed limited-edition cellphone. In addition to being blessed in her temple, the phones have wallpapers, ringtones and holograms all based on Matsu, the popular Chinese goddess of the sea.

Although I usually come down hard against such tactics as exploitative or degrading of people’s beliefs, I’m finding it hard to feel too terrible about gods, goddesses and other mystical traditions being incorporated into phones as a form of brand differentiation. In a sense, integrating them all with each other only underscores what a central role traditions, technologies and target marketing now play in our lives, and forces us to make a more conscious choice about what we believe in, and why.