When did mobile phones go from being symbols of status and power to being “emasculating”? Probably around the time they became easier to access than toilets are.
Sergey Brin, of course, would likely say that emasculation arrived with the touchscreen smartphone—when using a mobile phone became a matter of “standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass” while looking down, instead of flexing one’s bicep to bark orders into a massive handset while staring straight ahead (or glaring at a subordinate). Real men don’t “stand around”; real men do stuff! Real men punch buttons with authority, and take decisive action! PJ Rey (@pjrey) and I may have argued that we express agency through our smartphones, but “rubbing”? Touching? That’s, like, girl stuff. Eeeeeeew.
Tongue-in-cheek riff aside, there’s more to Brin’s smartphone insecurity than may be apparent on the (glassy) surface. Brin sees his smartphone as “emasculating” not just because he has to stand still and touch it, and not just because “even girls” could use it, but also because his smartphone no longer signifies him as a member of the power elite. Conceptualizations of masculinity are inextricable from conceptualizations of power, and Brin’s privileged status comes to him from social class and professional identity as much as from gender. Cell phones were symbols of masculine power when only wealthy businessmen had them, but now that literally billions of people own them, the cell phone’s ability to signify status has given three beeps and vanished like a dropped call.
Think back (if you’re old enough) to when very few people had cell phones, back when they were huge and expensive. When you picture someone using one of those cumbersome early cell phones, whom do you picture? Is it a white guy in a suit, maybe wearing a Rolex and 1980s sunglasses? Yeah, I thought so. When they first came out, cell phones—like pretty much every brand new, expensive technology—were status markers. A cell phone said, “I am wealthy, I am powerful, and I am so important that people must be able to reach me even when I am away from my home or office.”
Cell phones got smaller of course, and less expensive, and more common. Elites were saved, however, by the arrival of the touchscreen smartphone. Though not as pricey as the first cellular phones, the first iPhones were still expensive and hard to get; even with a $499 price point and a mandatory two-year contract with AT&T, people stood in line at Apple stores for hours to get their hands on one. The iPhone became an instant status symbol in 2007—but fast-forward to 2013, and what now? There’s roughly a zillion different touchscreen smartphone models on the market. The iPhone itself is available on all four major US carriers (without unlocking); from three feet away, a brand new $849 iPhone 5 is pretty much indistinguishable from a used $90 iPhone 4. Once an exciting status symbol, even the touchscreen smartphone has become plebeian and mundane.
Here’s a thing that happens: elites (and people in general) like status symbols, but when status symbols become too easy to obtain and thus lose their status-signifying power, elites begin to dislike those things—and to look for new status symbols to replace them. The indie music joke is that “nothing is any good if other people like it”; the Status Symbol Corollary is that nothing is any good if (the wrong kinds of) other people have it. Take Facebook, for example: When you had to be at an elite school to join Facebook, a Facebook profile was a status symbol; once the proles (and their mothers!) joined Facebook, not being on Facebook became the status marker. Before Facebook, it was MySpace: as danah boyd (@zephoria) has shown [pdf], white middle- and upper-class kids left in droves once their working class and non-white peers had a significant presence on MySpace. I’ve argued that something similar started to happen with Twitter, too, when the early adopter elite clamored to fork over $50 to join App.net. And now, something similar is set to happen with smartphones: Google Glass is the new iPhone.
I thought about titling this post, “Google Glass: The Beginning of White Flight from Smartphones,” but instead I’m going to propose a new term, status flight, to describe what happens when elites abandon a status symbol that’s lost its signifying power after becoming too quotidian and ubiquitous. This isn’t to say there aren’t some real “white flight”-type elements here; accessing the Internet via mobile phone is more common for Black and Latina/o users than for white users, for instance, and it’s no coincidence that the first Glass-related Tumblr I saw was White Men Wearing Google Glass. (There’s now a Black Men Wearing Google Glass Tumblr too, though as I write this, it features only one picture of one man; White Men Wearing Google Glass presently has 27 pictures, though Sergey Brin appears more than once.) At the same time, I worry about extending boyd’s “white flight” metaphor too far; I also want to capture the simultaneous race, gender, and class dynamics that feed into this phenomenon. While class dynamics are a part of what boyd describes in her paper, this seemed to be lost on some readers of my App.net piece—so though I’m ambivalent about using a new term, I thought I’d test this one out. Status flight therefore describes when people of higher status (in this case, privileged white technophile men) dissociate themselves from something that has become too closely associated with people of lower status (in this case, pretty much everyone else).
There are plenty of people out there, I’m sure, who will see the digirati’s enthusiasm for Google Glass as plain old Brand New Gadget Fetishization, nothing more. But technology isn’t neutral, and neither is its fetishization; Google Glass is no exception. One of the first issues raised in response to Google Glass was (unsurprisingly) that of privacy, for users and non-users alike—and it’s the privacy risks to people other than the Glass user that are particularly telling. It’s even harder to tell if someone is taking a picture of you with Google Glass, for instance, than it is to tell if someone is taking a picture of you with a smartphone; Google Glass also has “the ability to record video of the people, places, and events around you, at all times.” While some have argued that this push further toward a surveillance state will actually be empowering, the facts are that increased visibility can be disempowering for marginalized groups, especially when that visibility is on dominant groups’ terms. As I’ve explained before, this is something Google consistently fails to understand.
That Brin has gendered Glass as “male” is neither a surprise nor a coincidence. Consider that interest in Google Glass is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from men; consider that the victims of “creepshots” or “revenge porn” are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) women. Consider the expanded affordances for surreptitious documentation that Google Glass provides. Now (re)consider Google Glass as the device that restores the smartphone user’s diminished masculine power…and just sit with that for a minute. Whether it’s the medical gaze, the masculine gaze, or the panoptic gaze, the gaze is synonymous with power—and he who has Google Glass need never look away.
Obviously there are and will be women Glass users, and obviously lots of men will own Glass without using the device to do anything degrading to women; I should hope all of that would go without saying. But while I’ve been trying to avoid using “creepy” as shorthand for “technology + power + WTF,” I’m sorry: When Brin says smartphones are “emasculating,” and that Google Glass is the answer, the gendered dimensions of status flight to Google Glass do strike me as seriously and significantly creepy.
EDIT (4 May 2013): I need to clarify here that I am introducing “status flight” as a new term, not as a new concept; it is hardly a new concept! A large number of sociologists, cultural theorists, & others have done important work in this area, and my intention is certainly not to overwrite or to supplant any of that (or to claim that work as my own). Rather, my goal here is to see if and how using a new term to talk about these issues might affect the conversations that follow.
(16 May 2013): I removed a link from the body of this post after several people alerted me to the fact that the site hosting the essay I’d linked also featured highly objectionable content. Since a link is arguably promotion, I do not want to promote the views the rest of that site was expressing.
Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) tweets regularly from her touchscreen smartphone, but it doesn’t make her feel like any less of a man.