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iPhones, William James, and the Recovery of Union

June 25, 2010

Science may give consistent descriptions of the actual world, such as the things we observe as ‘facts’ or ‘states of affairs,’ but philosophy has the power to understand the virtual world. This is not the world as it is, but the world beyond any scientific observation or experience: the very possibility of life.

~Claire Colebrook: writing on Gilles Deleuze

New concepts of communication can help us understand and develop social systems as self-organizing and self-producing networks, and we need a deeper
understanding of the ethics and aesthetics foundational to the existence of these new systems.

~Soren Brier, Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough!

In 1906 William James expressed concern that during the prior century and a half the growing specter of science, while successfully enlarging mankind’s experience of the material world, had also led to the increasing marginalization mankind itself. The mystery of the human experience had been eradicated in the flames of a scientific revolution that now demanded an empirical explanation for all facets of lived experience. “The romantic spontaneity and courage are gone,” James wrote, going on to declare that “the vision is materialistic and depressing” (p. 493).

The polemic James advanced—and he certainly was not the first to advance it–has ebbed and flowed for throughout the life our American project. Even recently—on June 7, 2010 to be exact—an event occurred which, over time, could serve to test the meddle of James’ stance. On that day Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Computer, unveiled the latest addition to the company’s long line of innovative products, the iPhone 4. While greeted with general enthusiasm, the excitement surrounding this rollout did not come close to the fervor typically seen when Jobs unveils a major new product line, like the original iPhone, or more recently, the iPad.  While the more controlled pitch of the public’s response to this newest piece of technology is understandable, it is also somewhat ironic given the unprecedented potential for social transformation that may be seen as a result of one of the iPhone 4’s new features. As I see it, the addition of a forward-facing camera signals a profound reconsideration for the how each one of us will relate to technology, relate to one another, and conceptualize our very selves.

Big claims to be sure, but if I am right, this newest feature will also call us to examine and, just perhaps, reconceptualize fundamental questions of ontology that have occupied philosophers and critical thinkers throughout the past 100 years—if not longer. And while William James, if he were around, might not agree, I will suggest that the final end of this particular stage in our technological development could very well be a more vibrant and engaged articulation of the human being as agent of social engagement—not unlike the kind of future hoped for by James’ contemporary John Dewey. Yes, the world will indeed be more complex, but if we think about some key arguments once raised by James and contemporaries like Dewey, we actually find a rationale that supports the otherwise naïve idealism that augurs for the good things to come.

Like many who saw Job’s recent presentation (or, like me, watched it on YouTube the following day), at the time the announcement of the forward facing camera generated little more than mild anticipation. My thought at the time was that it was a fun addition to an already-interesting product. However, over the next several days the broader implications began to sink in. Like most cell phones in use today, iPhones already have still cameras on the back side of the device, facing away from the user. This current configuration allows the user to easily take still photographs of things the user is observing. But the forward-facing camera is a video camera. This means that the operator will be able to capture video images of themselves as they look into the device; or, more importantly, allow two or more users to stream live video back and forth as they speak to one another. The significance of this is monumental and–given Apple’s position in the marketplace as a reliable innovator of technologies that shift the public’s relationship to culture and media—cannot be easily dismissed.

The introduction of a forward-facing video also signals, not surprisingly, an intention that streaming video will soon become the given standard for tele-communication. This means that within five to ten years, when we engage with another person electronically we will, in most cases, be engaging with them in a more immediate and intimate way than we have known heretofore. The ability to gaze into another’s eyes while holding a conversation creates a far greater sense of mutuality while altering the very nature of the shared experience and shared space. As facial gestures and subtle expression become part of the general lexicon of tele-communication, even the most casual conversations will become infused with an unprecedented level of nuance and ambiguity. In effect, a whole new language of communication will emerge and with that emergence will come a new understanding of the world and its inhabitants.

While today’s technologies were unimaginable in James’ day, James (1906) understood the intrinsic impulse to experience engagement with the world in the fullest way possible—and then define the world according to the nature of that engagement. “We measure the total character of the universe as we feel it” (p. 302) he wrote. For James, feeling become the decisive—yet clearly subjective—arbiter of what it means to be human being in this vast universe. But human feeling can only respond to a particular experience as channeled through a particular medium. We should not forget the stories of new movie-goers running out of movie theaters in the early 1900s, panicked when they thought that the cinemagraphic image of an oncoming locomotive elicited a the belief that they were in danger of being plowed down. This example, while clearly extreme, points to the substantive shift in the individuals feeling-sense when an advancement in technology allowed for a more immediate experience of that which had previously only been experienced indirectly. While the public response to visual telecommunication will likely not be as dramatic as that early movie-goers, we should not underestimate the innovation’s impact on the individual’s feeling-sense of the communication experience. Phone calls will soon allow for a far greater immersion into the felt-experience of not only one-to-one engagement, but engagement with groups as well. In short, one’s felt sense of the world will change and with it—as James has argued—will our perception of the universe and what it means to be in it.

While the implications these shifts are difficult to predict, it is clear that as communication technology changes in a way that allows greater personal intimacy, it will begin to allow for a more immediate experience of spacial intimacy as well. While, again, the contours are difficult to imagine, there is strong reason to believe that a more intimate experience of non-proximate spaces awaits which can signal a realignment in how we define ourselves both in relation to physical space and apart from it. John Dewey thought a great deal about similar issues in his own day. Dewey, one of James’ contemporaries, (1934) argued that technology and the growing capitalistic thrust of industrialized society was generating an irreparable cleave between the individual and how identity was experienced within the social milieu. As the growing capitalist divide resulted in more restricted access to artistic creations and other sense-making mediators, the individual’s relationship with the environment became more detached and alienated. Dewey, highly skeptical of this trend, argued that such detachment led to a fundamental loss of selfhood. He reasoned that “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it” (p. 13). Dewey’s point was that as humans became more and more detached from the full experience of their spheres of engagement, critical opportunities for growth are missed; human flourishing is subverted and we fail to experience the challenges and  richness that create the kind of development essential for overcoming the complex and ambiguous issues which confound our higher ideals.

I do not believe that video telephony can magically re-instate the full and organic kind of immediacy that Dewey (1934) so lamented. However, I do believe that a more intimate, and engaged standard for daily communications holds the promise of re-orchestrating many of the rigid hierarchical and bureaucratic structures that have typically used techniques of depersonalization in order to self-legitimate. In one sense, such re-orchestration could generate opportunities for the emergence of new, more expansive forms, that in turn allow for a more collaborative social experience. This is more akin to what Dewey himself envisioned when he suggested that “if life continues and if in continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher-powered and more significant life” (p. 14). Cheryl Chaffin recently echoed this same sentiment when she observed that “An exchange between moments of difficulty and moments of insight and equilibrium pulses in the human relationship with the environment.”

We live in a time where kneejerk cynicism remains pervasive and generally considered pragmatically rational while optimism, similarly unsupported, is thought to be naïve. I am optimistic for what lies ahead: the potential for men and women—if afforded meaningful opportunities to engage consistently and with emotional authenticity to spur one another on toward increasingly sophisticated and useful stages of cognitive and moral development. I also believe we are at a turning point where we need technology to achieve these higher levels of collective realization; but to avoid falling victim to the same charges of unfettered naiveté that have been heaped upon others I have turned to the sentiments advanced by several early-twentieth century pragmatist philosophers who saw the importance of grounding a refined intellect a in clear-eyed engagement with one’s felt experience. James (1906/1996) and Dewey (1934) saw feeling as a gateway to a more fully-realized expression of human thinking and consciousness. Anna Julia Cooper (1892/1988) echoed this also when she declared that “men need to be anchored to what they feel to be eternal verities…nothing else at any time can propel men into those sublime efforts of altruism which constitute the moral heroes of humanity” (p. 297, italics in original).

The upcoming introduction of a forward-facing phone signals not only a new era in telecommunication, but also a new developmental opportunity for mankind. As we—quite literally—look to one another to solve both the small inconsistencies as well as the more deeply-rooted discords that make up the rhythm and texture of our lives, we will be presented with subtle openings through which we can move toward the “recovery of union” (p. 15) that Dewey once hoped for.




Brier, S. (2008). Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough!. Toronto studies in semiotics and communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Colebrook, C. (2006). Gilles Deleuze. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, A. J. (1892/1988). A voice from the south. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Perigee Books.

James, W. (1906/1996). The present dilemma in philosophy. In B. Kuklick (Ed.), Writings: 1902-1910 (pp 487-504). New York: Literary Classics of the United States.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2010 9:08 am

    Hi, David,

    Well done! Here’s to technology and “recovery of union”.

  2. June 26, 2010 12:34 am

    Congrats on your first post and thanks for the philosophically grounded outlook, David. Any technology that helps people connect better does , as you say, “impact on the individual’s feeling-sense of the communication experience”.

    The two channels we use in face-to-face communication are sound and sight. That is all it takes to do everyday life tasks and business. With today’s technology these travel at sufficient fidelity and acceptable cost. Additional channels, like smell and touch, might add realism and intimacy, but are optional, not required to get things done at speed or to learn how to harness the performance aspects of emerging collective intelligence.

    If you use Skype video you may be aware of its impact on communication and the socially polite protocol to initiate the connection. With people you do not know so well, it is chat first, if OK, switch to phone, and likewise get permission to connect by video.

    When I introduced video conferencing to the company in 1992, what is now called telepresence soon became the method of choice when we felt the need to overcome the limitations of fax and phone, later e-mail, especially among the executives. At which rate this transfers to mobile devices remains to be seen.

  3. June 27, 2010 6:35 am

    Wonderful to make a connection with you today. So far, I like the range of your thinking and will keep an eye on your work.

  4. June 29, 2010 8:41 am

    Elle (@ozarkherbs – and thanks for the kind comment!), thanks for directing me to this piece from Mashable that discusses new things coming in mobile communication. I found the work by Omnivision particularly cool for upcoming camera quality.

  5. August 7, 2010 1:18 am

    Like any tool–it is the “intent” of the user that ultimately decides.

    I may sound like Candide mocking Leibnitz but I do believe we live in the “best of all possible times.”

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Hoping Optimism Wins,
    Dagny Sertl

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