Is the Phone the Greatest Transitional Object of Modern Times?

A transitional object is Linus’s blanket, it is Bilbo’s ring, it is you and your phone. The term was coined by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1951. For a child the transitional object is a toy, blanket or teddy bear. It emboldens the toddler to explore away from mum to territories such as the laundry and beyond.

Keep in mind the developmental context, parents have a finely tuned perception of their babies needs. To the infant it seems that all they need to do is to think of food and it appears. Parental telekinesis is every infant’s first great achievement. Then they start to realise that they are not an appendage of their own mother. After these early conceptual hurdles it is time for the toddler to go exploring, preferably with a transitional object to keep them company.

So with your transitional object, you can take on the world. Without it, you need your mum. If we are honest with ourselves, we all need a mum no matter what object we are holding. That said, researchers of these intrepid toddlers did find a clear distinct change in behaviour when the transitional object was in possession. To the child the object has the power to protect them across the barren wasteland of the hallway between the living room and the mysterious foreign land of the laundry.

Who hasn’t blundered off into the unknown with their smartphone like in the brilliantly titled TV series Stupid Man, Smart Phone? I resent my phone’s instructions when I know where I’m going, but if I’m lost the phone is there for me. (Hopefully I’m in an area with good reception and Mick from Wolf Creek is not outside my car window with a torch under his chin…) Sure, a few people got badly lost when Apple’s first dodgy attempt at maps was launched and others murdered when lured by Pokémon Go to Guatemalan back streets. This just proves the status of the phone as the ultimate transitional object. We are encouraged, as we grip our phones, to traverse new locations. It’s sometimes misleading, but it mostly guides us to our destinations rather than to our deaths.

My kids have expressed that a phone would make them feel safer when they are without a parent. The older one just got her mum’s old phone and the younger one is amongst the remaining dedicated 11 million still playing Pokemon Go. My son is again asking to go for a walk as the new Gen 2 characters are at large, and this is from a fairly home-centric kid. I’ll happily go on these Pokémon pilgrimages although we have a deal: we must go to an art gallery on the way back, which he tolerates surprisingly well.

This is not all about kids and toddlers. Smartphones also make adults feel safe and brands are tapping into this. Mapping and way-finding is becoming a great way to let people know you are a forward thinking brand. Companies such as Brandculture and Here are building great way-finding apps and I can imagine many large retailers will be conjuring up ways to lead us to bargains we did not know we needed and get pedometer based credits on our loyalty cards. Gameified shopping is surely just around the corner.

Where else can these transitional objects take us? The virtual world is a likely destination if we are to believe the excited middle-aged men one meets at media conferences. What I find interesting is that if it wasn’t for cheaper, smaller phone technology and Google Cardboard, VR would have stayed in the domain of the ultra-nerd, as it did for fifteen years. Now middle aged demi-nerds can bash together a semi-engaging outing into VR without 50k of hardware. The mighty phone again stakes its claim as the transitional object of our age.

Somehow these bewitching devices take us to all sorts of places, physically and mentally. It will be interesting when they get to know us even better. Customisation of feeds and content happened more quickly than we expected but what will happen when our devices can read emotions and the nuances in our voice? I’m sure much like our teddies, we will follow our phones into new emotional territory. Like Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s elegant but uneventful film Her, we may say too much. Already some people have trodden too far from dodgy map directions or sought out the right Pokémon in the wrong street. Let’s hope troubled teens or the mentally fragile do not get mislead by artificially intelligent phones of the future.

I hope for the opposite. As others do. Mental Health apps and virtual health is a growing market in the UK and US. Meditation apps, wellness apps and smart watches are ordering us to move more. Technology is now telling us to use less technology which I guess is a step away from our smartphone addiction. Unless it’s technology’s way of distracting us while it builds Skynet to rule over us, but I suspect technology will always lack the hutzpa to dominate the world.

In the meantime, I suggest occasionally looking up at the trees. Not to check for Skynet battlecraft driven by a rogue super phone, but just because trees are beautiful and your neck may be need a counter flex from looking at your mobile device. I wonder whether Winnicott ever hypothesised that the teddy bear ‘addiction’ would carryover through technology into adulthood. Perhaps we do need to listen to our transitional objects to help us brave the real world, and much like toddlers – eventually wean ourselves off them.


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