Why don't we have nicknames for our smartphones? It used to be pretty common for people to have nicknames for the objects they kept close, whether cars or musical instruments or computers. I called my first laptop "Mini," short for Minerva. It was gray, and it seemed wise. It had a floppy disk drive and no connection to the internet. By the time I finally gave up using it, the keys were worn smooth and the entire hard drive was smaller than the software I'd need to connect it to a printer. I still call it "Mini" in my mind.
But I've never heard of anyone with a nickname for a smartphone.
Isn't that strange? I gaze at my phone, carry it, clean it, talk to it — but I don't even remember how many actual physical smartphones I've owned. I know at least twice, maybe three times, I've taken my phone for a repair and come home with a new one instead of having the old phone's button replaced. I wasn't sad to walk away from the old phone. I didn't say "there were a lot of memories on there — that's where I got the call saying my nephew was born." I just walked out of the store clicking the new phone with its working button. Everything I think of as "my phone" is on the new one: photos, voicemails, my address saved as "home" in the GPS app.
That's not how it works with a house or a car or a pair of jeans or nearly any other kind of object. Almost anything else we hold and gaze at and clean and care for — usually we still feel connected to those things even after we stop using them. I might feel like my new house is "home" after a few days or weeks, but it's never going to be the place I came back to with my husband after our wedding.
A new car will never be the one I drove to Ithaca. The longer I own my car, the more it seems like that particular one is connected to me, the one I've searched for in parking lots and dumped food wrappers in — the one I have scrupulously cleaned all my food wrappers out of, vowed to change my ways and then dumped food wrappers into again.
The feeling that my memories reside in old objects is the feeling that my using those things put a bit of my soul in them, made them particular rather than general examples of their categories. For most people this is sort of a metaphor or a superstition rather than a profound belief that our souls are preserved in the objects we've used. Still, it's something we all understand. Saying "I'm not parting with it, that was my grandmother's desk" doesn't require elaboration.
Did our intimacy with our cell phones explode this metaphor? The amount of time or attention most of us spend on our smartphones dwarfs the intimacy of any other object, even our houses and clothing. The fact that our phones are special to us and hold a lot of memories and experiences is so literal it would be absurd to say in conversation. The desk I inherited from my grandmother reminds me of her, but my smartphone has actual photos of her. Driving by my old house, I remember the day I brought my baby home from the hospital, but my smartphone has a video of it happening. I might pat the dashboard of my car and say something encouraging when I pull out of a snow bank, but when I talk to my phone, it replies using my name.
Whatever relationship I have with my other objects is practically imaginary compared with how overt my relationship is with my phone — but everything that I think of as "my phone" is its programming and data. That relationship overpowers the slight little spark of affection I might have had for the physical phone itself.
Does the literal relationship with my phone harm my metaphorical relationship with other things? It seems like a long time since I did actually pat the dashboard of my car. Maybe that's just me. It seems like a long time since I've heard anyone call a car by a nickname — maybe my friends are just getting older and less fanciful. It's been a long time since I read a new essay about a writer's favorite pen or typewriter like the ones I read as a teenager — no one seems to get sentimental about a particular model of MacBook now that everything we think of as "my computer" is shuffled onto the next machine when the old one breaks down. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that my dear old laptop Mini didn't have a connection to the internet, and neither did the generations of flip phones and flat Nokias that people get sentimental about.
More broadly, young adults don't want to take on family heirlooms the way previous generations did, which suggests many people have a weakened feeling that a set of dishes is important because grandpa ate off of them. (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Boston Globe, Business Insider, et al. reported on this.) There's also the maxim of trendy minimalism — you can always buy another food dehydrator or ice axe or whatever if you need one. That's only true if your sentimental attachment to your particular belongings is fairly weak.
It's remarkable how many ways the meaning of objects can dwindle. When I was a child, a person who lived in a house with a lot of books seemed like someone with great curiosity and worldliness. Someone who had gone to the right places to find all those books and cared about the knowledge inside them was rare and special to me. I can't think of any possession a person could have now that would make them seem sophisticated the way books did then. All you have to do to collect books — or nearly anything — is type the words and credit card numbers into your phone. A person of great curiosity now could be a person with many browser tabs open at once. It's not just the physical smartphones that matter to us less, almost every kind of meaning in objects has been disrupted.
Even though I barely notice the difference between an old phone and a new one, there are people to whom it matters very much whether I have had two phones or six since 2012: people who design, manufacture and sell smartphones, and people whose future is tied up with the future of a planet that can be depleted or poisoned by all the discarded empties.