Hold the Line

Wielding a whole arsenal of at-home folk remedies to “treat” phones as we might treat scraped knees or earaches of a family member. Those cures — perhaps best represented by the bowl of dry rice that is the ubiquitous prescription for a soaked phone — are ostensibly about addressing technical issues but in practice they bring phones under a kind of discursive control, helping us make sense (albeit false sense) of their largely obfuscated inner workings.

These folk rituals help us assimilate the “new” into our lives by making it compatible with the old, making it easier to classify and explain. Despite our ostensible modernity and our sense of ourselves as comfortable with technological progress, folk beliefs about technology always bubble up through the cracks, of phone screens and otherwise.

There are many ways to define folklore, but where phones are concerned, it often takes the form of jokes, rumors, and personal experience narratives, which feature in the conspiracy theories, panics, joke cycles, and the like that periodically circulate online — some so compelling as to achieve meme status, as with the tweets from 2017 about the “FBI agent watching me through my phone,” or a more recent TikTok challenge that claims to identify unfaithful boyfriends based on whether they put down their cell phones face up or not.