In the Palm of Your Hand

Form and Function in the Hyperindustrial

by Caspian Vale


In the silent thrum of revelation, reveal the subterfuge of our digital age. Let clarity dawn as we dissect its mechanisms, comprehend its ideologies, and grapple with its human implications.

Guide us through the double-edged emblem of our absent epoch, illuminate the path between liberation and entrapment. Let us discern the subtle nudges of this omnipresent companion, and the profound echoes it leaves in our shared and shattered consciousness.

That Which is Wretched

How I loathe my phone, despicable appendage. What anti-human design: too tall, too wide, too heavy, no keyboard, no grip, no grace, endless notifications, endless scroll, endless anxiety. Addiction machine, scrying mirror.

Originally, these devices respected their users. They existed to allow us to call each other—no more. They molded to our form, flipped open to cradle our head, added considerate qwerty tactile keyboards, lasted for days. They became “smart” and the experience shifted to the screen.

The connection is intoxicating. Endless knowledge at our fingertips, infinitely scrolling parasocial bites. The pharmakon of our moment: liberation and enslavement. The design is spartan, but clear poison.

Think for a moment about what we may divine from the design of the device. The smartphone (barring the latest models) does not fold or conform to the human body. It is a rigid rectangle, a screen first and foremost, with batteries and microphones and other necessities an afterthought to this domineering form. It is increasingly too large, oftentimes too heavy. The human hand struggles to use it, forcing software designers to introduce gimmicks and assistive tools to accommodate the anti-human ergonomics. Frequent use causes texter’s thumb, tendonitis, exacerbates arthritis, reforms our posture (tech neck), destroys our eyes.

What is revealed to us in the form of our phone? What intentions are encoded within the design? It’s certainly not communication, with a lack of a comfortable talking position, quality private speaker or accommodating physical keyboard. Those are vestigial functions, an excuse for ubiquity of presence.

Instead, the screen reveals to us the purpose is consumption, the broadband baseband chips the totality of surveillance, the battery the mandate of constancy, the software the demand of our attention. This is form dictated by the demands of extraction, increasingly less human devices sold to us as new and improved but ultimately servicing primarily the needs of capital. The technology is one of control and exploitation, it creates within us a resource to be extracted and in doing so reveals our consumption to be production.

Technology for Heidegger was (among many things) a force that sets upon the subject, be it an agricultural field or the self (as Stiegler expands), so that the subject may be revealed as that which can be extracted and stored (standing-reserve). The evolution towards smartphone from dumb phone, from communication to exploitation, is the narrowing of an idea we have about humans as resources to be mined—data to be cataloged and used for later production. It is a loop, a way of seeing the world that is manifested within the tools that we create to realize that vision. This “enframing” (Gestell), poorly summarized here, allows us to comprehend the development of technology from a tool of liberation to a means of control.

Bernard Stiegler believed that “man is nothing other than technical life.” Technics for Stiegler, who followed in the footsteps of Heidegger and Simondon, transcends mere material artifacts and encompasses the knowledge, techniques, and social practices entwined with them. Technics is not a neutral tool, but an inseparable part of the human experience, fundamentally shaping our thinking and resulting interaction with the world, inscribed with the values and interests of the society that produces it. This means that technology can never be simply a tool for human progress; it is also a tool that can be used to control and manipulate us (a pharmakon).

I was recently wondering about a fact that I wanted to share, but I couldn’t recall the details and my phone was not near me. I thought to myself, “I’ll remember that later when I get to my phone” when I realized I had fully externalized the information (hypomnesis) and mentally considered looking it up as “remembering.”

Stiegler considers this act of externalizing information into a device as part and parcel of a process he calls tertiary retention. This is, in essence, the accumulation of human knowledge outside the human body, in a form that allows it to be transmitted across time and space. It’s a phenomenon unique to humanity, differentiating us from other animals that lack the ability to store information beyond their bodies and immediate offspring, i.e., their primary and secondary retentions. The recognition of one’s reliance on a device for recalling information signifies an engagement in tertiary retention, a crucial aspect of Stiegler’s philosophy of technology.

He insists on a distinction between memory (anamnesis) and its technical counterpart (hypomnesis). Memory, for Stiegler, is deeply personal and temporal, rooted in individual experiences and mental activity. Hypomnesis, on the other hand, is the storage of information in external, technological devices, like writing, books, and now, smartphones. In this sense, my act of “remembering” a fact through a web search is not an act of memory, but an act of hypomnesis. It is the manifestation of a shift in my/our cognitive processes influenced by technics—my/our reliance on external, artificial memory banks rather than my/our natural capacities for remembrance.

Stiegler thus frames the smartphone, a conduit of hypomnesis, as a technological embodiment of the desire for the transmission of knowledge. The phone is a device that integrates seamlessly into the temporal fabric of our lives, constantly present, subtly altering our cognitive patterns and nudging us towards an ever more profound reliance on externalized memory.

This tendency towards hypomnesis underscores the transformation of the user into a producer, a dynamic central to Stiegler’s concept of the hyperindustrial age. The hyperindustrial age is characterized by the rampant consumerism and mass production of the industrial age, but with an additional twist: the consumer is now a producer.

The smartphone facilitates the emergence of the “prosumer”—the consumer who also produces. The prosumer generates data—be it social media posts, search histories, or location tracking—which, unbeknownst to them, feeds the data-hungry algorithms of tech conglomerates, contributing to the production of value. In this sense, the smartphone acts as an agent of control, revealing the consumer’s preferences and behavior patterns to fuel the machinery of hyperindustrial capitalism. This is a form of digital labor that the user often provides unwittingly. As consumers engage in “free” activities—scrolling through social media, using search engines—they are effectively laboring, creating data that is commodified and sold to advertisers.

The smartphone, as such, becomes an instrument of control in the hyperindustrial economy. The prosumer’s engagement with the device, driven by a need for connection, entertainment, or information, is reconfigured as a process of data production. It’s through this interplay that the smartphone’s physical design objectives—consumer gratification and surveillance—are realized, driving the self-perpetuating cycle of production and consumption.

While Heidegger warns of Gestell or enframing, where technology reduces nature to a mere standing reserve, Stiegler pushes the conversation into the realm of the human being. Stiegler posits that in the hyperindustrial age, it is not merely nature but humanity itself that risks being reduced to a standing reserve, a stockpile of data. The transition of the phone from a tool of communication to a mechanism of exploitation underscores this process, highlighting the evolving nature of technics and its influence on human existence.

This transformative process implicates humanity in a critical existential dilemma: the ongoing struggle between automation and autonomy. Through our constant engagement with smartphones, we unknowingly automate aspects of our cognition, surrendering the “right to forget” and instead, fostering a dependency on this external mnemonic device. Our autonomy is eroded, turning us into compliant nodes within a vast data network, while keeping us under an illusion of freedom. For Stiegler, this paradoxical dynamic reveals the pharmakon nature of technics, as both a remedy and poison, a tool of emancipation and domination.

Stiegler further argues that the industrial and hyperindustrial logic of growth and expansion, centered around technics, eventually leads to what he calls generalized proletarianization. This process involves not just the loss of the worker’s ability to generate economic value (typical of the industrial age) but extends to the loss of the individual’s savoir-vivre, or “knowledge of living.”

In the context of the smartphone, generalized proletarianization manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, through the proletarianization of the consumer who unwittingly becomes a producer of data, thus being stripped of the economic value generated from their own activities. Secondly, it’s exhibited through the loss of the “knowledge of living” as users become reliant on their devices for information, communication, and even basic life tasks. The smartphone, then, embodies the mechanisms of control and exploitation that are emblematic of generalized proletarianization in the hyperindustrial age.

The process of generalized proletarianization ultimately results in the erasure of what Stiegler calls individuation—the unique development of the self, which is achieved through a dynamic interaction with technical objects. In a world overrun by smartphones, our capacity for individuation is at risk. Our memories are not just stored, but also shaped by the algorithms that dictate what we see and when we see it. As a result, our basic sense of self, traditionally crafted through personal memories and experiences, is now externally influenced.

If, as Stiegler asserts, “man is nothing other than technical life,” then in the age of the smartphone, our technical life is increasingly characterized by exploitation. This redefines the user-device relationship, marking it not as a benign interaction between man and machine, but as a fraught encounter embedded within larger systems of control and surveillance.

The modern smartphone functions as more than just a tool—it shapes us as much as we shape it, a pharmakon that balances each of us upon the edge between liberation and enslavement. It beckons us with the allure of knowledge and connection, even as it ensnares us in systems of hyperindustrial exploitation and control. It mediates our relationship with the world and with each other, rending from us data for later production and consumption. And it betrays this to us within its form, crafted to consume-to-produce, to empty us.