Wayfinding with my iPhone: An autoethnographic account of technological companionship and its affects


I had to get a new iPhone for this project. She is the latest model – an iPhone 6 Plus. She is sleek, shiny and large in my hand. But instead of feeling excited by having the latest model phone at my fingertips, I actually felt guilty when I used her for the first time. I felt like I was betraying my own personal, smaller iPhone 5, with her own numerous display scratches and slightly glitchy software.

I had often been frustrated by my annoyingly dated iPhone 5, but in the shadow of this new 6 heavyweight, I looked upon her with a mix of pity and affection. Sure, she had led me astray a few times before, but it wasn’t entirely her fault, and she had done nothing to warrant total abandonment.

There is no shortage of anecdotal and academic evidence that relationships between technology, space and the self are intensifying (Lomas, 2015; Thomas and Revoir, 2010; Reuver et al., 2016; Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas, 2016). In part, this intensification comes from a technological era marked by the characteristics of “diversification, multiplication and proliferation” of digital spatial information technologies (Leszczynski, 2014, Amid the myriad uses for such technologies, location-aware technologies such as GPS and smartphone devices, and their accompanying software, are viewed as integral parts of everyday navigational practices, or ‘wayfinding’.

Today, nearly 3 billion mobile and tablet applications (apps) utilise some form of GPS-derived positioning information (Milner, 2016). The personalisation, portability and popularity of these types of handheld devices has meant that everyday wayfinding can be performed with near-instant access to various forms of cartographic or place-based information (Leszczynski, 2014).

But amid these intensifying relationships, how might contemporary wayfinding technologies be challenging longstanding assumptions about relations between technological artefacts, space and the self? Research on contemporary wayfinding technologies and their mediation of space has thus far clustered around two central poles. The first are studies largely from the disciplines of information and communication technologies that examine the design of locative devices for users, analysing them using axes of efficiency and reliability (see examples Garnett and Stewart, 2015; Xiao and Zhang, 2002).

The second are studies at the intersection of cartography, geography and psychology, which seek to understand the influence these modern wayfinding technologies are having on spatial cognition. Many of these studies are critical of technological wayfinding devices, suggesting that they are diminishing people’s navigational skills (Ricker et al., 2015) and potentially leading them into dangerous situations (Leshed et al., 2008). Such accounts have also gained significant traction in the media, with ‘death by GPS’ (Milner, 2016) stories focusing on the most extreme cases of GPS malfunction and human (mis)trust of technology (Iceland Magazine, 2016; Dorian and Reilly, 2013; Cockle, 2011).

Each of these areas falls into the trap of framing these technologies as ‘black boxes’ defined in terms of the inputs and outputs they provide their users. As such, relationships between technology, space, and the self are (largely) viewed as rational, and the type of spatial knowledge produced is presented as objective. Such assumptions are problematic in two ways.

Firstly, they assume that devices provide users with objective cartographic information, and that secondly, users interpret this information to perform their mobilities in a way that will most efficiently manoeuvre them between locations. This view gives little recognition to the multiple, embodied and messy ways that people ‘do’ the act of wayfinding (Ingold, 2000). This paper looks beyond these rational conceptions of technology, space and self, and uses autoethnography to illustrate: firstly, how emotional, intimate or haptic connections between technologies, space and self might be made, and secondly, that individuals make multiple and messy connections when wayfinding with technology.

To address these questions, this paper focuses on the ways that individuals perceive and perform their wayfinding devices as travel companions. The word companion, from the Old French compagnon, means “fellow, mate, or friend” (Vocabulary.com 2018). Drawing on Donna Haraway’s cyborg figuration, this paper argues that relations of companionship are one example of how humans and technological lives are becoming increasingly intertwined. This paper unpacks how relations of companionship take form by drawing on an autoethnographic account of my own wayfinding using an iPhone 6 Plus.

The paper makes three contributions to our understanding of how contemporary wayfinding technologies and practices are remaking relationships between emotions, space and society. Firstly, it ‘opens the black box’ regarding what wayfinding technologies can do, how they are used, and what sorts of mobile experiences they produce.

Secondly, the paper explores how specific relations of companionship are brought into focus by individuals during wayfinding through the lens of the cyborg figuration. Thirdly, the stories of this paper reveal the multiple sources of knowledge that people draw upon to interpret space and perform their everyday wayfinding. The paper uses my autoethnographic accounts to highlight how connections (and disconnections) between myself, and my device, are made in emotional, intimate and haptic ways. Acknowledging the importance of emotion in how we perform wayfinding has implications for what it means to be mobile in the digital age.

‘Opening the black box’: human/technology hybridities

Engaging with dispersed mobile practices, such as navigating routes, listening to music, and monitoring performance, are critical to the ways satisfaction circulates in our affective mobile performances (Cass and Faulconbridge, 2017). Technology has become a central mode through which practices of satisfaction and comfort take form (Cass and Faulconbridge, 2017), by extending the capacities of our mobile performances and increasingly allowing people to ‘problem solve’ whilst on the move.

In turn, technological devices have become valued as critical travel tools. But thinking through the ways smartphone devices might be positioned as travel companions calls for a deeper engagement with the ways that devices cross the boundaries of being viewed as discrete objects or tools and come to be thought of as relational counterparts. Many contemporary studies exploring human/technology relations have drawn on Donna Haraway’s cyborg figuration as a means of articulating the transgressing of boundaries between human animal, organism/machine and physical/non-physical (Wilson, 2009); a relational ontology where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred: mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms.” (Haraway, 1991).

What resonates most from Haraway’s figuration for this paper, is the importance of co-evolution across human/technology hybrid lives. Haraway suggests that humans and technologies participate in the shared experience of co-evolution as a companion species (Lupton, 2017). Human and machine entities are therefore “linked by relationships of association, connection and companionship” in which “both subjects and objects shape reality in a ‘dance of encounters.’” (Duarte and Park, 2014, 260). The remainder of this paper looks to how treating devices as companions aligns with Haraway’s cyborg figuration.

How are iPhone products designed as companions?

There are design qualities to iPhone devices which evoke Haraway’s cyborg metaphor/hybridity in very deliberate and specific ways; ways which are somewhat unique to Apple branded products. Perhaps the defining feature of the iPhone compared to other smartphone brands, for many people, is the level of personalisation possible. This is true not only of the iPhone’s basic system settings (including classic examples of personalisation of wallpaper, ringtone etc) but also the types of information users can access or manipulate through software apps.

As of June 2016, iPhone users could choose between some 2 million different apps to download (Costello, 2017), allowing them to tailor their iPhone usage. According to Hjorth (2012) the iPhone is a particularly successful example of the ‘commercialisation of personalisation’. Apple does not just encourage users to personalise their iPhones.

Many of the technological features they have created also encourage users to personify their iPhones. The inclusion of human-like features such as the personal assistant ‘Siri’, who is able to respond to voice cues to perform tasks, does some of the legwork in creating affective and emotional connections that position the device as a companion. Direct references to the way Siri will co-evolve as a companion alongside her user are even embedded into the marketing strategy for iPhone products.

For example “Siri can even anticipate what you might need to help you breeze through your day” (Apple, 2018, emphasis added). Moreover, many of the software apps available to users through the app store evoke a very literal sense of companionship by describing themselves as “an essential companion” (Apple App Store, 2017) for a variety of tasks. Examples include: shopping (Shoptopia: Your Shopping Companion, WineCompanion), audio or music (Audio Companion, DancePal; Ultimate Irish Dance Music Companion), fitness (Fitness Buddy, Virtual Trainer Pro) and travel (Companion: Mobile Personal Safety, PackPoint Packing List Travel Companion).

According to Jane Vincent (2015), the flexibility and adaptability of modern mobile systems in responding to user needs fosters familiarity between the user and their device, affirming the role of the phone as a companion.

Building connections: companionship through sensory engagement

iPhones engage our senses in ways that influence our embodied perception of space, place, and (tele)presence (Richardson, 2012). Richardson (2012) suggests that this: “coupling of tools and bodies is effectively articulated by the term intercorporeality, which describes the irreducible relation between technologies, embodiment, knowledge and perception.” (Richardson, 2012, 135) Richardson’s (2012) construction of intercorporeality resonates nicely with Haraway’s broader cyborg configuration in blurring the lines between human and machine.

Relations of companionship between users and their iPhones are one way cyborg ontologies are performed. Companionship is embodied in the sensory engagements required in using mobile devices which rely heavily on the sensory registers of talk, touch and sight to engage their users. Traditionally, talk was realised through the communicate functions of the phone, as users were able to speak to distant others. With the addition of Siri and voice recognition users also talk to the device itself.

The voice command is displayed as text on the screen and Siri responds, both in text, and with a cool, comforting female voice. As such there is a heightened semantic quality to interacting with an iPhone device that affirms its role as a companion with whom reciprocal communication is possible. Touch is also an important sensory experience with the introduction of touchscreen capabilities. The iPhone is specifically created for use with the finger or fingers for multi-touch sensing, and because the screen is a capacitive touchscreen, it depends on electrical conductivity that can only be provided by bare skin.

The iPhone screen can track the movement of five fingers simultaneously; this means users must directly touch the screen through a variety of tapping, pushing, pulling, swiping, and pinching motions in order to engage with the phone and perform tasks. Richardson (2012) states: “thus, there is a certain haptic intimacy that renders the iPhone an object of tactile and kinaesthetic familiarity, a sensory knowing-ness of the fingers that correlates with what appears on the small screen.” (Richardson, 2012, 144). The haptic intimacy afforded by touching one’s device performs relations of familiarity and companionship.

Sadat, Hossain and Mahmud (2014) found that the amount of pressure applied on the screen “varies with the user’s emotion and substantially it increases when he [sic] is in excited or angry mood” (p2), illustrating how the micro-percepts of touch become overlayed with emotion. The wearability of modern devices evokes the cyborg metaphor even further by blurring the physical boundaries between user and device. Fitness armbands quite literally connect the device to one’s body. Headphones deliver critical audio straight into ears. Apple Watches extend device companionship without the necessity of touching the physical phone handset. These devices are ‘lively technologies’: “inhabiting and accompanying us in our physical spaces and residing on or with […] our bodies.” (Lupton, 2017, 1602).

Building connections: companionship through emotions and affects

Clearly then, particular software and hardware features of iPhones serve to position them as companions and guide their users towards performances of companionship. But how do these perceptions and performances evolve into relations of deep companionship? What intimate emotions come forward in these moments? And what are the affective implications of co-evolving alongside devices as companions? There is a particular set of emotions associated with having an intimate companion: safety, comfort, trust, reassurance, and support.

This is reflected by (Vincent, 2015, 105), who writes that for individuals: “the constant always on connectivity afforded by these devices is enabling a communicable stream of consciousness and emotions that are intertwined between the mobile phone, and their emotional self”. Li et al. (2009) explore the idea of technology ‘trust’, suggesting that 3 We are sensitive to the fact that the relations between emotions and affects can be theorised in many different ways, and articulating these relations remains a complex task.

In this paper we have adopted Pile’s (2010) approach which sees emotions as being characterised by individual, readily identifiable feelings and affects as the intangible, inexpressible yet inarguably real ways emotions are externalised by bodies (human and non-human) and press upon the world. the perceived trustworthiness of technology has a significant influence on user behaviour. Their empirical investigations revealed that users often personified their devices as a ‘virtual advisor’ and measured their emotions towards technology using inter-personal attributes such as ‘honesty’, treating them as social actors subject to social rules.

Sadat, Hossain and Mahmud (2014) examines human affection for smartphones, suggesting that user’s behaviour towards their smartphones is moderated by voice and body language to communicate emotions such as joy, anger, pleasantness, dominance and so on. These studies are indicative of a new wave of consumer-based research into emotionbased or emotion-aware interface systems (example see Biundo et al. (2016) regarding ‘affective computing’). The implications of personifying mobile devices as a silent ‘friend’ or ‘companion’ and prescribing them with human emotions and characteristics, is that users relate to them in intimate ways, inviting them into one’s social circle.

According to -Wegner and Ward, 2013,: “inviting the iPhone’s Siri into one’s social group changes everything. Our work suggests that we treat the Internet much like we would a human transactive memory partner. We off-load memories to “the cloud” just as readily as we would to a family member, friend or lover”. Feelings of ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’ towards technological devices therefore become bound up in our expectations of not only ourselves, but what our personified devices can offer us as companions.

Technologies define our capabilities, both expanding and restricting us (Spinney, 2007, 29), and having affects for our expectations of certainty, security and comfort in our performances. Spinney (2007) argues there is a broader ‘dance of encounter’ (Duarte and Park, 2014) between the user and device here that cannot necessarily be captured by emotions alone. Here, we refer to relational sensations and affects which emerge in moments of encounter between both human and non-human affective bodies (Pile, 2010).

According to Pile (2010), affect becomes salient in these encounters with significant shifts to a body’s capacity to be affected, or shifts in intensity. This is particularly useful for thinking about how humans and devices coevolve as companions, as particular moments of encounter bring relations of companionship into sharp focus.

At other times, these affective relations remain hidden from view as they traverse the human/technology hybrid subject. Pile’s (2010) insights are useful in exploring how or why particular affects linger, carried with bodies long after a mobile journey is completed. As such, the fieldwork stories in this paper attune themselves to moments of encounter where companionship appeared to flourish and evolve, but also to wane or dissipate. Technical objects influence our capabilities in even more unconscious ways during this ‘dance of encounter’.

Ash (2013, 2015) suggests that technical objects relate to each other, and human beings, outside of human consciousness or intentionality. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of the iPhone 4. When held with a particular grip, the hand of the user can interfere with the strength of the signal the iPhone receives.

This slows down the availability of information for the user, leaving them with a particular experience of time and space. The perturbations of the iPhone in this scenario have created an ambiguous situation in which the human being assessing the information is left with more than one possible outcome (Ash, 2013). For this paper, our analysis focuses on the emotions described in my field diary, interpreted as the emotions, emotional feeling (affects), and moods (Tait, 2016) of the ongoing relationship between myself and my iPhone 6 Plus drawing on Haraway’s cyborg figuration.

Ash’s (2013) insights helped draw out how my experiences of time and space were coloured by the process of learning to use my new iPhone 6, and the strained relations of companionship I felt with her. Therefore using this view of affect is an appropriate way for this paper to come to grips with the complex relations between the technical objects, emotions and performances of wayfinding. It is also a useful theoretical lens for exploring the dynamism of technical objects more broadly, and the ways the life cycles of technical objects become deeply entangled with human ones.

Wayfinding with my iPhone

My autoethnography involved the use of a new iPhone 6 Plus and a series of apps designed to facilitate various forms of navigation. I integrated the use of the phone and apps into my everyday mobilities across a six month period from October 2016 to March 2017. I used the phone and apps on roughly 6–8 journeys per week during this time, for a total of approximately 168 journeys.

During this time I kept a multimedia diary to record by observations, which included my own written reflections, as well as device screenshots, and audio clips. For this paper I focus my analysis around three short excerpts from my field diaries which illustrate moments of encounter where feelings of companionship and intimacy between myself and my device came forward.

Like the excerpt used to open this paper, my empirical sections personify my device(s) and describe them in emotional and intimate ways. At times, I make comparisons between my new project iPhone 6 Plus, named 6, and my own older device – referred to as 5 throughout the work. Using auto-ethnography as the dominant methodology has had important implications for my fieldwork. Firstly, adopting a narrative approach allowed greater scope for drawing out and communicating the intimate personal emotions, affects and embodied practices involved in everyday wayfinding.

As such, the contributions of this paper are grounded in my subjective experiences, reinforcing the notion that wayfinding with technical objects is not a rational, nor objective experience. Indeed, this is one of the key benefits of using auto-ethnography as a methodology, as it “radically foregrounds the emotions and experiences of the researcher as a way to acknowledge the inevitably subjective nature of knowledge, and in order to use subjectivity deliberately as an epistemological resource.” (Butz and Besio, 2009, 1662). Secondly, using autoethnography holds potential for giving (some) voice to the objects themselves.

This is particularly important in the context of my paper where the iPhone itself became personified as a key companion in my mobile performances. This follows from the work of Haldrup (2017) who uses autoethnography to “direct attention to itspotentials for exploring our emotional and sensuous relations with the mutable objects themselves and the affects and effects they generate.” Autoethnography allowed my reflections to focus intensely on the small, yet significant moments of encounter with my device, foregrounded against the broader technological assemblage (Wilmott, 2016).

Looking beyond my human/technology subject

My autoethnographic experiences have focused on three types of learning between myself and my device: frustratingly learning to move together, humorously learning my routine, and seamlessly learning to trust. It was in reflecting on these learnings that my experiences came to resonate with Haraway’s work, particularly for the ways my new device and I shared in the experience of co-evolving as travel companions.

The cumulative impact of the stories I have included in this paper read as a linear narrative – a slow transition from distant strangers to companions. Where my stories have been useful in illustrating these aspects of human/technology companionship however, they are of course, inherently selective and partial. My moving body was particularly attuned to seeing these moments of companionship with my new device, largely due to the fact I had received a new iPhone specifically for this project – an occurrence which is not necessarily typical of our everyday interactions with technology. If I had not been able to make these comparisons with my own older phone, these moments of learning and companionship might not have emerged so significantly in this paper.

Given that I used my new iPhone 6 on some 168 autoethnographic journeys, there are multiple other stories which could be told. Schwartz and Halegoua (2015) remind me that my experimentations with autoethnography are but one lens through which subjective and socially constructed digital realities take form. Furthermore, focusing intensely on these moments of encounter belies the realities, temporalities, and complexities of navigating using technology.

There is a much larger assemblage of human/technology relations that coalesce in moments of wayfinding encounter (Schwartz and Halegoua, 2015). On the one hand the value in autoethnography is bringing these moments forward. On the other hand, this also blinds me to other potential narratives, particularly those in which users do not feel companionship towards their devices, or in fact may only peripherally engage with such technologies. For example Willmott’s (2016) ethnographic accounts of participants using technology to wayfind in Sydney and Hong Kong illustrate that big data can inevitably come undone, and narratives which imply technological omniscience in our everyday lives can be problematic.

Author: Ainsley Hughes, Kathleen Mee


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