Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric worlds — John Farnsworth

Abstract: Attachment is a complex subject in the psychological literature. In this paper, affect and attachment is discussed in relation to mobile devices and new technologies. This opens up questions about how we consider attachment in relation to individuals and to collective formations, as well as by extension, how networks of attachments are organised on behalf of either citizenship or corporate interests. Drawing on recent writing about participatory datamining and surveillance technologies, the paper explores how these tensions are negotiated across different sociotechnical worlds and how this reconstructs what we understand attachment to mean in itself.


Next to me, in a café, a man is absorbed in his iPad, whilst his partner is idling flicking through the messages on her Galaxy Note. At a table nearby, another customer is trying to have a muted conversation on an iPhone while her daughter is hunched over a tiny mobile screen playing CandyCrush or Subway Surfer. I notice another table on which there’s a Windows Surface tablet propped up with the user’s keyboard crunching out Excel spreadsheets. Outside, every second pedestrian, and the occasional skateboarder, seems to sport earbuds, Bluetooth devices or massive headphones to listen to podcasts, radio or streaming music as the traffic roars by.

Attachment, where mobile devices are concerned, is not a simple issue. To what are these individuals attached? Is it the apps, the media they’re consuming, the device itself, their co-participants, or some combination of these? What, too, is their experience of attachment? In the cafe, we can assume from observation that mostly there is an absorption and contentedness; in other words, a sufficient sense of security so they can become involved in their devices.

Attachment, then, is a complex and dynamic concept. To investigate attachments also involves entering a field of sociotechnical and disciplinary tensions, each of which is highly dynamic in its own right. Technically, mobile and smart devices are still a new and rapidly developing phenomenon: tablets, for example, are still in the process of overtaking netbooks and laptops as preferred portable technologies (Takahashi 2012). The iPad is still, remarkably, less than four years old, yet it is part of a tablet and smartphone market that now takes 70% of new computer sales (MobiThinking 2014). Across devices, there is an immense array of apps, sensors, personalisation software, ringtones or wallpapers.

How, then, to consider attachment? This paper works from a central tension, extensively documented in psychological literatures, between attachment and separation (Fraley et al. 2013; Schore and Schore 2008). Separation mobilises anxiety whilst attachment promotes security—a finding true not just of human individuals but all mammals, because they possess a responsive limbic system (Bradshaw and Schore 2007). This amounts to an ongoing dynamic, a constant alternation, between trust and suspicion. I explore the dynamics of attachment below, but attachment/ separation provides a way of understanding not just how the social glue between individuals, publics and groups is maintained, but how disintegration threatens the individual when attachment is at risk. Attachment, then, may be directed to others or mediated by devices.

Where attachment and separation are mediated through devices or networks they introduce new forms of configuration and exploitation. Prior to the development of online worlds such possibilities were barely thinkable, though they have now become part of everyday life. Consequently, a complex media ecology opens up that extends right through to the posthuman (Hayles 1999; Apprich et al. 2013). On the one hand, humans and technologies are becoming increasingly integrated. On the other, attachment ties become vulnerable to exploitation through datamining technologies, particularly in relation to the large forces of state and capital interests. Taken altogether, this creates a range of interacting dialogues that moves between themes of subjectivity and attachment, the individual and the collective, the social and the sociotechnical, the citizen and the machinic.

Attachment Dynamics

What is attachment? At first blush, it appears as an unproblematic form of emotional connection. Yet, as Marenko observes, “emotions are elusive, intangible and difficult to define” (2010, 136) and the distinctions between emotion and affect further complicate the issue. Moreover, Lasén (2013) emphasises how a Western tradition constructs affect as embodied, pre-reflective and therefore authentic. Like Lasén, Pile (2010) acknowledges the complexity and ambivalence of emotive and affectual states. However, he also draws on Thrift (2004) to emphasise a key distinction between conscious, representable expressions of feelings and non-representational affect. As he puts it, non-representational theory “emphasises the importance of inexpressible affects” (Pile 2010, 7). Investigating affective flows of non-cognitive, contagious, viral communication has also been central to the affective turn in post-structural scholarship (Blackman 2007; Brennan 2004; Massumi 2002; Gregg and Seigworth 2010). Exactly how affective transmission takes place has also been studied in recent neuroscience and neuropsychoanalytic work (Dalgleish et al. 2009), and illuminates how attachment is commonly mobilised through the subtlest forms of non-verbal communication (Schore 2003).

At the level of the individual, or dyad, Guattari refers to the “remarkable” research of Daniel Stern on the “pre-verbal subjective formulations of the infant”, experiences that are “sustained in a parallel formation throughout life” (Guattari and Genosko 1996, 195). This work traces precisely how secure attachment is created: by the moment-by-moment affective interaction between mother and infant unfolding through gestures, touch, smiles, cries and echoing vocalisation. Close observation reveals how this attunement evokes a heightened synchrony between the couple (Schore 2010). Recent intensive investigation in attachment research illuminates not only how attunement creates strong attachment bonds and an experience of emotional security that persists through adulthood, but also how the ebb and flow of affect itself is effectively modulated—both within the self and between self and other (Fonagy 2010; Fraley et al. 2013; Pellis and Pellis 2009; Schore and Schore 2008). Failures of synchrony, by contrast, create anxiety and insecure attachment that, likewise, persist through life in response to early mismatches, absences or grosser violations (Van der Kolk 2005). The security of attachment ‘pulls together’ one’s sense of self; insecurity undermines and threatens it. Together, these form the framework of dynamics thatthen become reproducible in digital and online environments.

Even though individual, dyadic and micropublic interactions (including the family) are relatively bounded worlds, they don’t function in isolation. As Thrift emphasises, they are constantly shot through with other currents of collective experience. He points here to affective contagion, likening collective interaction to “schools of fish” which are “briefly stabilised by particular spaces, temporary solidifications of affective pulses” (2008, 9). This is all the more so where “devices like books, screens and the internet act as new kinds of neural pathway” (9). Because these devices transmit faces, stances and forms of discourse, they provide “myriad opportunities to forge new reflexes” (9). Attachments, through these explicit and implicit dynamics, are continuously made, unmade and remade. Some of this is accomplished, Thrift argues, by continuous patterns of imitation and behavioral copying, patterns first detailed by Gabriel Tarde (1962).

Attachment, the semiotic and contagion

Attachment can be understood in yet another way. Guattari moves beyond the purely relational and extends it to the semiotic. Drawing on his experience with patients at La Borde clinic, he points to “architectural space, economic relations, co-management by the patient and care giver of the different vectors of treatment”, “everything that can contribute to the creation of an authentic relation to the other” (Guattari 1996, 195). Objects and self become commingled in ways that echo his admiration for concepts in the field of relational psychoanalysis (for example, Kohut 1984). All of these molecular components, Guattari argues, are linked to fields of signification, to the semiotic. The semiotic enables him to detail how subjectivity is produced, and how this can be charted as cartographies, whether through social groups or media assemblages. Here, his emphasis is on how the subjectivity of “dream, delirium, creative elation, feelings of love” is produced through different, often contested, collective formations: “Whether we turn to contemporary history, to machinic semiotic production, or to social ecology or mental ecology, we find the same questioning of individuation, of a subjectivity that is only, in sum, a configuration of collective assemblages of enunciation” (Guattari 1996, 196).

Inevitably, these contagious possibilities are of particular interest to marketers and manufacturers. Within the emerging tablet market, for instance, there is intense scrutiny of how consumers become engaged to particular brands, such as Apple or Samsung, or to devices such as small or large screens and to the patterns of activity with which these become routinely associated, or to the usage of apps, from games to social media. At their extreme, these involve forms of viral contagion as new games, music, videos or software features are seized on by consumers. Music apps such as Spotify along with Facebook or other social media sites draw on this potential for contagion in distributing and promoting enthusiasms. The contagion can be intensified by devices of ‘liking’, sharing, and other forms of enrolment. These enrolments not only create continuous new, shifting publics, switching between new affections, they also re-attach consumers to the technologies that make them available.

Kullenberg and Palmås (2009) characterise these corporate activities as practices of surveillance, utilising De Landa’s notion of the panspectron (1991). Here, marketers ceaselessly attempt to manage affective, expressive and discursive flows through two processes: injection, where they offer enticing new digital objects; or containment, where they attempt to bound how objects are used. This includes proprietary software in operating systems, or consumer management via iTunes. As Kullenberg and Palmås emphasise, injection and containment are strategies linked to intensive tracking and datamining. They follow Deleuze (1995) in describing these practices in terms of deconstructing humans as decomposable “dividuals”: “we are no longer surveilled as unitary subjects, but as ‘dividuals’ whose electronic footprints can be found in a quilt of overlapping ‘data banks’” (5). Individuals become tied to particular corporate formations or, at the extreme, become subject to disintegration, atomisation or a sense of self insecurely reconfigured around shifting consumer enthusiasms. In turn, this puts acute strains on how attachments are forged or sustained.

Attachments to devices

How, then, do individuals become attached to their devices? There is no doubt they do. 88.3% of tablets are used on the road and 35% are even used in the bathroom (Staples). Jaume (2013) reports that, with phones, not only do 67% of owners check them without any prompts, but 44% now sleep with them next to their bed in case of a message. According to Hartland, “On average, Americans spend 2.7 hours per day socializing on their mobile device. That’s twice the amount of time they spend eating, and over 1/3 of the time they spend sleeping each day”. (2011) The attachment to smart devices now spans virtually every domain of life (Huffington Post 2013), and is becoming an increasingly global phenomenon (Nam 2013). Over half of Americans use phones whilst driving, a third use them during movies or dinner and a third at their child’s school function. 12% of American adults even use their smartphone while showering (Elizabeth 2013). According to Jumio (2013), 19% of Americans use their smartphones in church, whilst Podolak reports “22 percent of informants said they would be willing to go a week without seeing their significant other rather than go without their phone” (2011).

Users also report considerable anxieties around losing their phone: Fitzgerald reports “73 percent of people … would feel ‘panicked’ while another 14 percent would feel ‘desperate’” (2012). There is even a reported ‘condition’, nomophobia, for the anxiety of mobile disconnection. However, these reports, some of them generated by marketing interests, also have to be viewed as part of a complex discourse. This, to an extent, is one that constructs the very phenomena it is investigating or reporting. Ruppert (2010) and Savage (2010), for instance, demonstrate that both commercial and social scientific surveys construct publics out of the methodologies used to investigate them.

With mobile attachment, the discourse is clearly about the centrality of devices to ongoing sociality and a coherent sense of self. The same discursive issues are found in the extensive mobile devices literature (see for instance Verhoeff 2012; Lasén 2013). Vincent (2013), for example, writes of mobiles as “personalised social robots”, and how these translate into affective connections; Vincent and Fortunati (2009) explore affective computing; Beer (2012) and Turkle (2004) discuss mobile technologies as evocative objects, and the psychoanalytic implications such objects produce. Lasén (2013) writes of how emotions can be converted into things and stored, with mobile devices, as digital inscriptions. All of these are instances of human-technology interlacing.

Attachments and technologies

Within the broader media ecology literature, there are different accounts of how attachment takes place. For instance, Richardson takes a phenomenological approach, drawing on Merleau-Ponty (1962) to suggest that “the world is an agentic environment that also changes in common relation to our own flexible corporeality” (2005, 6). Here, device and person are “covalent participants” that coalesce “as various technosoma” (2005, 5), a perspective that opens up the possibilities of collective embodiments explored in the work of Tarde and later writers. De Landa (1991), for instance, draws on a version of technosoma to argue for the panspectron. Kullenberg and Palmås describe the panspectron as “a multiplicity of sensors” deployed “around all bodies” so that data can stream to computers “all the information that can be gathered”(2009, 3).

The extension of this, via Deleuze and Guattari’s control societies, is modelling and machinic-semiotic integration. Guattari (1989) describes in Schizoanalytic Cartographies how these surveillance capacities dissolve attachments, as noted earlier, and transform them into forms of affective, technosomatic integration. On this view, mobile sensing devices become not just prosthetic extensions for the individual but, conversely, intensive data monitors of the subjects who carry them. Indeed, these devices illustrate how the very struggle over the notion of the human is reshaped. In one construction, they may be RFID or nanotechnology enhancements of the self. In another, they may act as potential mechanisms of predictive control mobilised through data analytics, so that the markers of the subject can be read off and synthesised at distance (Lenoir 2011).

Most arguments of this kind offer a view of attachments as diffused and dispersed across collectives and technologies to the point where it is difficult even to identify attachment as such, so bound has it become with digital interfaces. Media ecology literature extends this position, whether it is Hayles (1999) writing on technogenesis or Stiegler’s (2012) argument that, from the beginning, the human has only ever been realized through technics, the “prosthetic supplementation of the human” (Barker 2009, 1). Petters et al. have recently explored how robots can function as attachment figures or become that unlikely prospect, “machines that love” (Petters and Walters 2010; Petters et al. 2011). If accomplished, this would seem to be the ultimate translation of attachment dynamics from humans to technologies.

Whether technologies are attached or integrated with humans, two questions are raised. First, attachment is not limited to humans but is a characteristic of many species: Lorenz’s (2002) work on animal priming and Harlow’s sometimes horrific experiments with monkeys (Karen 1998)are both instances. Attachment is not simply an outgrowth of either prosthetics, or the digital or technics. Instead, it is a long-term evolution of complex neural circuitry wired through the intricate interaction of attachment dynamics across all mammals (Pellis and Pellis 2009). Secondly, neural networking suggests how shifts between fluidity and stability of attachments take place. Schore and Schore (2008), for example, detail advances in neurobiology, showing how the relationship of synaptic connectivity in the right hemisphere is linked to the growth of attachment and affective modulation. This growth produces and stabilises what they call the intersubjective origins of the implicit self (2008, 12).

Neural circuitry raises the question, alive at least since Freud, of how affective mechanisms are activated. One key process is through association and suggestion which, in turn, trigger emotional links (Lasén 2013). Bolstad (2002), for example, describes how sustained associations are created through the process of anchoring. Anchoring is based on Pavlov’s work (2003) with stimulus and response, where unconscious responses are created and anchored to particular stimuli, just as Pavlov’s sounds once prompted his dogs to salivate. Anchoring and association are both continuous human experiences where specific sounds, tastes, smells or touch evoke memories and responses. Mobile devices, then, are potential sources of powerful anchoring and association because users load devices with exactly those memorabilia and motifs that are most evocative to them: mp3 files, photos of loved ones or significant moments, video, text, Twitter or email messages, Facebook pages, favourite games and much else. Moreover, it has not been lost on manufacturers that haptics—the weight, feel, look and, in Android devices, pulses—also contributes to sensory experience. Because these experiences are constantly repeated, they are constantly re-anchored. So, too, is the device on which they are located. Powerful associations are generated and these trigger acute anxiety when the device goes missing. Not only the device but whole clusters of anchoring are lost simultaneously.

These experiences are intensified because of the amount of personalisation devices enable. Whether this is a smartphone’s bright cover, the feel of wraparound leather stands for tablets, or the endless array of wallpapers, lockscreens, ringtones or widgets, each re-anchoring contributes to individualisation and to identification with the device. This companionship extends to nicknaming phones with individuals treating their mobiles as ‘companion objects’. Companion objects, as Persson writes, are material objects that individuals “hold dear and that are of special personal importance to them in their everyday life” (2013, 96). This companionship extends to the mobile as fashion statement, with Sugiyama (2013) detailing how individuals use their mobiles to negotiate their self, self-expression, body and meanings. He links his account to Katz’s work on the “apparatgeist” in The Machines That Become Us (2003). Here, Katz delineates how machines such as mobile devices become us, integrated with our clothing and body, and part of us: the mobile an extension of the body (Katz 2003; Katz and Aakhus 2002; Sugiyama 2009). Again, these accounts emphasise attachments as increasingly integrated sociotechnical phenomena.

Anchoring and priming through self objects

There is a further dimension to anchoring, linked to the subjective sense of self. This is anchoring to the mobile as enhancement of the phenomenon of self object constancy. This is a different, though related, understanding of attachment. Self objects, developed in the area of self psychology, are commonly understood as objects which are not experienced as separate and independent from the self. They are persons, objects or activities that ‘complete’ the self, and are common to everyday relational activity: as such, they afford a sense of ongoing self-coherence (Kohut 1984). Consequently, attachment to objects becomes crucial because, as Kohut comments, they “support the cohesion, vigor, and harmony of the adult self” (1984, 200). Parkin illustrates this with a poignant example of refugees, for whom “under the conditions of rapid and sometimes violent flight and dispersal, private mementos may take the place of interpersonal relations as a depository of sentiment and cultural knowledge” (1999, 315). Likewise, mobile devices, by mediating complex sociotechnical networks, provide an increasingly important means of potential self object presence and constancy. They are similar to Donald Winnicott’s (1953) idea of transitional objects, which perform similar functions. He points to children’s teddy bears or blankets as typical: intensely personal attachments, however stained, smelly or tattered they may be. These subjective objects carry a soothing presence because they are felt to be part of the self yet, clearly, are materially distinct from it.

Anchoring and self objects both refer to constancy and stability. The difficulty with affective associations is that, by contrast, they are dynamic, mobile and unstable. Bolstad recognises this in the four common requirements for creating powerful anchors: state-appropriate, timing, uniqueness and repeatability (2002, 46). If these aren’t present, anchors are less likely to be effective. The same dilemma appears with the social psychological process of priming. This draws on implicit memory and influences how individuals unconsciously orient towards a stimulus to which they have already had a response (Wentura and Degner 2010). Priming non-conscious expectations strengthens associations and reinforces anchoring; it also creates a form of potential suggestibility. It does so because, as neuroscience research indicates, our perceptual horizon is always being shaped by past experiences and associations (Ochsner et al. 1994). Inevitably, priming is of great interest to marketers, in both media and social media fields (Marshall 2012; Mograbi and Mograbi 2012), with branding as a key means of cueing consumer expectations. Yet, pressure within attention economies is so great that consistent cueing is constantly disrupted by competitors, making priming difficult to sustain (Davenport and Beck 2002). Nonetheless, there is a lively industry in coaching social media and other agents how to develop priming to secure attachment to consumer objects (Hotchkiss 2013).

Priming is only one strategy used by marketers to create attachments. The whole range of traditional advertising practices both in hailing and tracking consumers is brought to bear, often with only minimal translation, upon the mobile sector. This can involve keeping the message simple, even ‘boring’ because of the tiny screen real estate available, or for businesses to consider “their mobile app or mobile website a virtual ATM, not an interactive game or website” (SiteTuners 2013). This, as Evans comments, is because “onscreen time is short” (2013). The effectiveness of priming and attachment are also evident in other studies which find that average users checks their smartphone 35 times a day “for about 30 seconds each time” (Davis 2012).

Such marketing and tracking can give the impression of a monolithic industry remorselessly bent on extracting value from every consumer: a view easily linked to De Landa’s panspectron or Deleuze’s dividuals. The reality is more complex and, sometimes, more mundane. Developers and marketers report that the experience of creating any mobile technology is chaotic and unpredictable. Podolski (2011), for example, provides a chastening case study of launching an iPad app, FlickPad. As he comments, “Getting your app noticed in the iTunes App Store is a monumental task” amongst “330,000+ iPhone apps and 60,000+ iPad apps” (2011). One of many headaches was simply trying to get review coverage for his offering: “I tried all the major ones that I could think of—TUAW, MacStories, Macgasm, TiPb, 148Apps, iPhone.AppStorm, AppShopper, theAppleBits, etc. with varying levels of success” (2011). The app’s career remained highly uncertain, dependent on navigating Facebook server changes and Twitter advertising to outages or managing pricing decisions. Podolski’s story is intended as a cautionary tale, typical in a hyper-competitive mobile environment. What it illustrates is the difficulty of securing consumer attachments even to a single app amongst the churning marketplaces of platforms, whether these are Windows, Linux or Android.

In short, sustaining attachments to devices or apps in complex markets is highly uncertain. It replicates uncertainty found in other cultural and innovation markets, such as the difficulty of ensuring hits in the popular music industry (Peterson and Berger 1975). As Foster et al. (2011) found with other cultural markets, major corporations, whether these are Facebook Apple, Google, Samsung or Windows, act as key gatekeepers through their online stores, brokering access, connections and reputations. Social networks, then, suggest how the mediation of attachments applies not only to devices but also to numerous suppliers, agents and shifting publics. The oscillation of attachment and security or potential separation and anxiety is constant across all these sociotechnical networks.

Citizenship, publics and attachment

Ties to networks of others may be mediated through mobile devices. Yet, such ties produce a broader set of tensions, each invoking differential degrees of trust or suspicion. In the first instance, trust often arises in the context of citizenship, digital commons or participatory publics (Mische 2008). In the second, suspicion emanates in relation to corporate and state practices,as is commonly articulated in surveillance literatures. Each invokes quite different accounts about the formations of publics, ties and attachments (White 1992; Grabher 2006).

One example of trust and citizenship is the recent development of vernacular mapping. Gerlach draws on the collective Open-StreetMap project. He describes Open-StreetMap as

cultivating a different kind of cartographic politics that edges away from classic conceptions of counter- or indigenous cartographies, moving instead towards a sensibility understood as vernacular mappings, maps of and for the everyday, maps generated through what Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers calls an “ecology of practices”—the co-fabrication of cartographies by human and non-human assemblages, from entanglements of codes and digital spaces to heated arguments via electronic mailing lists over whose GPS trace is the most accurate. (2010, 167)

Kelley develops these ideas through the idea of the geoweb, “a convergence of geography and the interactive/ participatory/ generative Internet” (2013, 187). He observes that geoweb enables

geospatial services such as OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia, but also geosocial media participants, information, and applications that do not (as a rule) facilitate the production of conventional vector-based VGI [Volunteered Geographic Information]. Casual participants—particularly information consumers—on the geoweb are increasingly equipped to become more actively engaged in the reciprocal production of the data and information that populate geospatial portals and geosocial media applications. (187)

Kelley describes how these practices are mobilised through smartphones, creating local imagined communities and newly forged “digital landscapes of the imaginary” that not only mediate “relationships to place but also inform our socio-spatial practice” (201). Austrin and Farnsworth describe similar relationships between communities and social media and mobile technology following the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 (2013). In both cases, these sociotechnical imaginaries create distinctive and particular ties to places and persons, always mediated by digital technologies. Simultaneously, they create specific publics and counter-publics, citizen formations that remake existing discourses and practices as new digital, vernacular assemblages. In the case of the Christchurch earthquakes, these can be understood as versions of what Latour describes not as a panopticon but as oligopticons (Latour and Hermant 1998; Latour et al. 2012). These are partial, not total, views assembled by numerous parties through diverse technologies such as citizen blogs, Twitter, self-made Youtube videos or radio documentaries—an idea Latour and Hermant developed in their analysis of “Invisible Paris”. In the case of Christchurch, it encompassed mobile devices, social media, geospatial maps and the infrastructures of the technological unconscious (Austrin and Farnsworth 2013, 80).

The radical implications of these practices, just as with OpenStreetMap, undo the inherently suspicious, paranoid notion of a centralised, all-seeing authority in favour of the mobilisation of networks of citizens. In turn, this gestures to a range of political traditions, from Arendt to Foucault, where social groups regardless of state or corporate authorities mobilise in favour of preferred, emergent collective interests. Key to these activities is the making and remaking of sociotechnical ties and attachments. These ties are to places, persons and, as Gerlach emphasises, to ethics—to shared bonds of association. As Knudsen and Stage argue with contemporary online activism, they can trigger affective, contagious responses (2012).

Participatory sociotechnical networks

There are other networks of publics that operate in a different way as participatory, democratic practices. One instance is digital gambling. For example, datamining, not for corporate purposes but shared, popular, even anarchic participation, has been a long-established practice in digital gambling. One such practice has been through the development of poker bots: software that plays cheaply and relentlessly online, based on the accumulation of massive databases of played poker hands (Dance 2011). Recently, these databases have migrated to a wide range of mobile devices and online forms including Poker Office, Hand History and Poker Agent, all of which handle “session logging, player tracking, hand recording” (Poker Agent 2013). Databases aggregate digital analysis, such as the strength and weakness of poker hands, playing styles, betting practices and much else. As comments, these practices involve “observing the statistical differences between winning and losing players … seeking out players who have a losing record, avoiding winning regulars, in table selection, and in making decisions based on more informed player ‘reads’ during play”. All these practices are, implicitly, forms of sociotechnical public assembly based on shifting dynamics of trust, suspicion and competition. Their initiators attempt, at one and the same time, to outwit corporate regulation through software tools and to provide themselves with advantages against rivals through their skills in handling software.

Within gambling, the alternative use of datamining is through highly sophisticated casino surveillance. The same algorithms used by poker players can also be used to detect suspicious patterns of player activity (Ryan 2011). Caesars Entertainment, the casino corporate, utilises predictive technology to track table behaviour through video analytics of player behaviour, constantly innovating its predictive surveillance tools (Ferguson 2013). Whichever use is made of datamining technologies, in the gambling arena, all are predicated on the idea of attachments and ties: ties to the game, the scene, other players, or the cards. With gambling, of course, attachments become rigidified as addictions. Ironically, even these can also been tracked by analytics. A new technology, Sports Bettor Algorithm 1.1, is used to trace and predict problem gambling by identifying when bettors “inhibit sporadic patterns” which is often a clue to “people with problems” (Ryan 2013). Although accuracy is limited,the technology still points to the complex links between attachments, gambling publics and sociotechnical assemblages.

Remaking attachments: datamining and societies of control

Poker or OpenStreetMaps constitute public formations and collective enterprises all based around sets of overlapping ties (Mische 2008). This is the opposite pole to the idea of the atomised dividual described by Kullenberg and Palmås. For example, Kullenberg and Palmås (2009), and Palmås (2011), focus on the extraction and exploitation of value through datamining and web analytics. Datamining requires the identification of semiotic and algorithmic elements in massive online data sets, routinised to detect useful patterns of online activity. One of the largest, Google’s PageRank, employs sophisticated algorithms, currently Hummingbird (Rogers), which is similar to Facebook’s EdgeRank in exploiting the extraction of metadata (Kincaid 2010). Google’s PageRank runs every search term through complex algorithms that assess and weigh more than 200 ‘signals’, metadata and relational links. These indicators sift out what a searcher is looking for and, at the same time, improve the term’s potential commercial value.

Metadata and algorithms exploit, and construct, attachments that are far from stable. Instead, they shape how the contagious uptake of products and services might be managed by corporate interests. This is what Kullenberg and Palmås (2009) suggest. Tracking is not just dynamic but designed to assess and predict which affective or symbolic cues may trigger the widespread imitation of consumer ‘contagions’. Whilst it might be the latest iPhone or Angry Birds app, this equally describes how Wal-Mart will “continually change prices on every product, optimising it so that it is just—but only just—low enough for us to buy it” (2009, 348).

Subjectivities, on this view, are not only fluid, but shaped and anticipated through their perpetual exchanges with commodities and mobile technologies, whether these are through the design and sensory appeal of a device or the engagement with its apps and interfaces. Attachments then are intended to be both shaped and transferred to maximise market returns through the use of analytics. This is very close to Guattari’s machinic-semiotic integration. Palmås illustrates how this operates through tactics of predictive surveillance. Following Deleuze, he argues that the tracking and datamining of large corporations is an expression of the “societies of control” (2011, 339). These activities are “a means of rendering objects visible, thus generating order” with individuals “subjected to continual logging of behaviours” as they pass through “interlocking networks of monitoring” (342). Davenport and Harris (2007) illustrate this mode of individual subjection through numerous cases: the Boston Red Sox, Netflix,, CEMEX, Capital One, Harrah’s Entertainment, Procter & Gamble and Best Buy, all of which used data analytics to create successful competitive strategies. They outline how Harrah’s Entertainment used analytics to create the gaming industry’s first loyalty program and tracked, as Palmås comments, “each visitors’ personal ‘pain point’—the level of gambling losses that will send the visitor home” (2011, 348). The company forestalls this ‘pain’ by sending a “luck ambassador” who approaches the guest and offers to take them immediately to dinner (Ayres 2007, 173). Davenport (2006) describes how the Marriot hotel chain uses analytics:

It has developed systems to optimize offerings to frequent customers and assess the likelihood of those customers’ defecting to competitors … The company has even created a revenue opportunity model, which computes actual revenues as a percentage of the optimal rates that could have been charged. That figure has grown from 83% to 91% as Marriott’s revenue-management analytics has taken root throughout the enterprise.

Both cases are instances of big data that use continuous tracking and modelling to manage and shape customer attachments, maximise individual consumer investment and subjective experience in their casinos or hotels (see Davenport 2013). Collectively this is the affective, dynamic contagionology, along with the practices of injection and monitoring/ prediction, to which Kullenberg and Palmås refer.


What is at the heart of attachment? For most of us, it lies in experience: the tug or repulsion of affect, or else trust against suspicion, however strongly or weakly this is activated. Elaborated over time, these affects constitute either experiences of security, settledness, contentedness and a cohesive self; or a feeling of dissociation, detachment and, at worst, disintegration. Certainly, this is what the psychological literature documents. As Lasén puts it, “participants affect and are affected, feel in their bodies and their senses, the effects of the affective experiences they are living” (2013, 94).

Attachment, in mobile worlds, is an equally complex, ambiguous experience. On the one hand, it may be a potentially stabilizing, affective individual experience evoked by Kohut’s self objects. The illustration I gave of café inhabitants at the beginning of this essay suggests how mobile attachments are anchored by a secure setting and the shared company both online and in the physical world around them. On the other hand, recent writers argue for attachment as an endlessly fluid, collective, semiotic, destabilizing, disintegrative phenomenon, perpetually struggled over by states, corporations and counter-publics. In this scenario, mobile devices become just so many tokens, counters and strategies in the production and surveillance of subjectivity. All this is a long way from the bounded worlds of couples and connections described by Lasén (2013). Taken together, these diverse accounts chart the tensions between the different ways that collective ties are both assembled and depicted. Guattari’s (1989) version of cartographies, at the molecular level, highlights machinic-semiotic assemblages emerging through to the ceaseless struggle of subjects for enunciation, however this might be individually or collectively accomplished.

As I noted at the outset, investigating attachments involves entering a dynamic field that includes sociotechnical, affective, embodied and disciplinary tensions. Attachment, in this context, acts as a probe to investigate such tensions. Nonetheless, a significant problematic exists around what Holmes describes as the “pathic core of territorialized existence”. A pathic core, the concept drawn from Guattari (1989), is the radical or democratic potential of sociotechnical assemblages. These include oligopticons, OpenStreetMap or the open data commons (Chignard 2013). Constantly confronted by panspectric technologies, Guattari suggests how resistance may be possible in “the multiple exchanges between individual-group-machine…. These complexes offer people diverse possibilities to recompose their existential embodiment, to escape their repetitive impasses and to resingularize themselves” (1995, 7). In short, Guattari offers a therapeutic and emancipatory potential that, he argues, is still alive to confront the perpetual biomachinic surveillance that panspectric technologies pursue.

Under these conditions, attachment is constantly prone to reconfiguration and destabilisation. Little wonder then, the anxiety many users report experiencing with their mobiles, since the tensions around either dividuation or individual attachment are often played out precisely through these sociotechnical mediators. Such anxious technological attachments can be almost infinite in variety. It may be the constant interactions of purchasing or changing network plans, updating apps and operating systems, agreeing to new, half-understood policies with iTunes, PlayStore or Microsoft, negotiating new kinds of connections to VOIP services, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, or querying bulletin boards about how to get a device or feature to function. Each interaction brings its own varying degrees of indeterminacy in the shifting experience of attachment and disattachment. Attachment then becomes, paradoxically, a fluid and deferred experience in mobile worlds, whether it is to the devices, software or human connections these technologies mediate.


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John Farnsworth is associated with the Media, Film and Communications Department at the University of Otago. He is also a registered psychotherapist working in private practice. Recent papers include work on new technologies, mobile devices, short-term psychotherapy, ethnography and methodology.