“The hand-held’s tale” by Joyce E Chaplin

article published at aeon

“Whatever the finer social distinctions in pre-industrial societies, the main one divided those who worked with their hands from those who did not – ever. Anything hand-held made the bearer’s status clear. Egyptian rulers went into the afterlife clutching the flail and sceptre they had borne in real life. Sceptres and orbs would continue to represent earthly rule. Swords advertised military might. Books stood for the word of God and the ability to interpret it. Keys represented access to real or unearthly realms. These were things worth holding precisely because they symbolised freedom from quotidian effort, to which the vast majority were consigned. And yet the hand-held device is now the great equaliser. The squillionaire clutches the iPhone 6, but so might the underpaid worker who assembled it in semi-gulag conditions somewhere. The development of the hand-held’s marvellously tiny technology is interesting, of course. But our shared willingness to fill our hands openly and daily with these devices is the more important historical transformation.

These days, technology tends to mean high-tech, specifically electronic gadgets. In fact, technology is anything that humans have crafted to maintain or enhance life, from the plow to the selfie stick. The device on which you’re reading this essay is technology, but so is whatever you’re wearing.

For most of history, human labour was a technology substitute, with humans the instruments of other humans, their hands not really their own. (…)

This status difference – working with one’s hands versus not – governed Western culture into the 20th century. If the society allowed it, anyone who could afford to do so owned slaves or kept servants to hand them things rather than pick them up themselves, let alone carry them – or (almost unthinkable) actually use them. (…)

(…) It didn’t help that science and technology were not things that respectable people did. Because they were in fact pursued by the low-born – however clever they were, however arcane their knowledge – those skills were associated with hand-held drudgery. (…)

After all, if you have to carry its dead weight around, maybe you are your device’s servant. Among the interesting details that emerged during the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of email was that she and her husband, the former President Bill Clinton, communicated via their assistants’ personal devices.(…)

(…) Knowingly or not, Clinton and Obama are reaffirming a prejudice, one even more ancient than Shalmaneser, against the powerful carrying their own stuff. Squillionaires, take note. This could be an alternative to the current arms race of acquiring ever‑smaller gadgetry. Moore’s law predicts that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double roughly every two years, but it’s not clear that the necessary technical shrinkage can continue indefinitely. What good is carrying a status symbol if it’s so small no one can see it?

Moore’s law might not hold up, but Chaplin’s Law will. So which of the now barely portable devices will soon become hand‑held? Or maybe the covetable devices of the future will resemble jewellery or étui, made of ebony and platinum, pearls and sharkskin? Or maybe – global employment rates depending – personal minions will become standard issue for the Shalmanesers of these latter days? Yet again, the powerful would never hold anything useful. No, they have people to do that for them.”  read full article