TikTok’s Greatest Asset Isn’t Its Algorithm—It’s Your Phone

Escaping the platform’s addictive grasp means first overhauling our relationship to our devices.

TikTok’s ascent to becoming the most popular site on the internet has sparked endless discussions about its stickiness—as if it were capable of hacking our normal cognitive pathways and transmitting messages straight into our brains. For the most part, critical analysis attributed the platform’s effectiveness to its seemingly all-powerful algorithm. Technology critics like Eleanor Cummins and Rob Horning, for example, unpacked the ways users saw the algorithm as a tool for self-discovery—how it seemed to be “showing you who you’ve always been,” ensuring an endorsement of content it delivered. Others have dissected the cultural appeal of the algorithm, claiming that it fills a void in contemporary spiritual life by positioning itself as a data-backed deity that reads our swipes and likes much like the ancient oracles did our palms and stars. Taken as a whole, these analyses see misplaced faith in the algorithm as the primary culprit behind our particular vulnerabilities to TikTok.

The overriding focus on the algorithm—and the content it delivers—has caused us to overlook a central part of TikTok’s operating logic: the phone. A failure to fully explore the role of this device in TikTok’s powers of transmission has resulted in a limited appreciation of how the platform works; after all, it’s not simply content, but rather medium and context that inform how we receive information through a given channel.

Take, for example, the transition from the cinema to TV that occurred in the mid-20th century and enabled moving images to enter our homes. Once constrained to the theater, this content began to live alongside us—we watched it as we got ready in the mornings, ate dinner, hosted guests, spent time with family. Theorists like Marshall McLuhan noticed that as moving pictures were taken out of the dark, anonymous communes of the theater and placed within our domestic spaces, the foundational mechanics of how we received, processed, and related to them changed. As newly engrained features of our dwellings—which Heidegger recognizes as deeply intertwined with our sense of being in the world—they took on a familiar casualness. Viewers increasingly developed “parasocial” relationships with the people they saw through these screens, as Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl note in the foundational paper in which they coin the term. Home audiences grew to see these mass media personas as confidants and friends, giving broadcasters the means to manipulate audiences at a more personal level.

Just as our relationship with media shifted when it entered our homes, it has continued shifting as it invades our smartphones. These devices, which are tightly integrated into the ways that we think and process information, have allowed TikTok to position itself as an extension of our minds. If we want to extricate ourselves from the app’s grasp, we must first understand how the mind works in the age of the technologized self.

Once, platforms sought to be device-agnostic, universal purveyors of content that would be accessible to anyone who might want it. As Kyle Chayka notes, this allowed companies to promise users that they could use any device to transcend particularities like nationality, identity, or class and “follow anything or anyone” they wanted when on the site. Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible” is in many ways emblematic of this logic. Discussions have rarely focused on the specifics of our encounter with these platforms—the instruments used, context, or materiality.

With TikTok, however, transcendence is exchanged for immanence within the app. Where Google wants to give you access to the world, TikTok promises to reveal your deepest desires. Youtube and Instagram’s interfaces are hyper-mediated control panels (with screens within screens and links exploding outwards) that let you traverse the seas of content, while TikTok’s is a full-screen diary of your unmediated inner self.

An essential but often overlooked aspect of this effect is the “extremely individualized” connections we have with our smartphones, which Zane Burton characterizes as a dominant feature of these devices. Unlike Youtube, which is watched across a range of machines (phones, TVs, laptops, desktops) it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to watch TikTok on another device. Of course, individual videos from TikTok can be reposted on other platforms and viewed on laptops, but the experience of being on TikTok—of engaging with its distinctive, never-ending, personalized montage—remains almost exclusively tied to a mobile format. The central architecture of this experience (from swipe to vertical video to full-screen display) is built around our familiarity with the parameters of the phone.

Rather than see specificity and device limitations as an inconvenient hurdle to omnipresence, TikTok embeds itself within them—taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology limits how people engage with content and leaning into these constraints (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). This narrow focus enables a “flow state” to open up between the platform and spectator, as attention is entirely channeled to the content at hand. The immediacy created by this user-platform flow allows TikTok to forgo the reflective processing associated with active viewership. The distance necessary for critical intervention and interpretation is trampled under the continual stream of curated short-form video and the addictively mindless infinite scroll. When presented in this nonstop succession, the video (a high-bandwidth medium that combines text, visuals, music, and movement) is amplified, saturating the viewer with a deluge of information. There is no time to think about what you just saw because as soon as the clip ends, you’re on to the next one. The spectator is rendered a consummate consumer, rather than a viewer tasked with engaging and unpacking the content they’re seeing—on TikTok, Chayka writes, “you don’t have to think, only react,” as the platform has already done the hard work of analysis and selection. As critics writing on algorithmic identity first noted, when everything is running smoothly, the user feels completely synchronous with the platform.

Moreover, our intimate relationships with our smartphones pave the way for the personalized experience characteristic of the platform. As John Durham Peters tells us, media infrastructures succeed based on what remains “off the radar, below notice, or off stage.” By coming to us via these devices—which we carry everywhere and use to keep in touch with loved ones, remember birthdays, store photos and memories—TikTok hides its externality, the fact that it doesn’t truly know or think for us. One way to observe the impact of our phones is to employ the anthropological practice of “breaching,” or intentionally breaking a norm to bring what is hidden out into the open. TikTok did this to itself when it tried to expand to TVs, causing one writer to ask “is this still TikTok?” and conclude that “much of what makes the app unexpected and fun is lost” when it’s not on our phones.

“Extended mind” theory, first introduced by academic philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark in a paper by the same name, deals with the bounds of cognition, the question of “where the mind [stops] and the rest of the world [begins].” They propose a number of thought experiments to show that the “skin and skull” are, upon closer examination, a poor boundary for the mind. Imagine a sci-fi reality in which a person has a neural chip that enables them to do advanced multiplication. They argue that this would uncontroversially be part of the person’s “mind,” even though it isn’t made of organic material. But what if that chip were implanted outside the skull? Aside from the boundary of the skull, this seems functionally identical to the last scenario. Now, what if the device were a calculator the person carried at all times?

For Clark and Chalmers, these three cases are identical in all the ways that matter, indicating that the mind is not narrowly bound to our bodies, but rather distributed across a broader system. What matters is that we rely on these external tools in the way we rely on our brain; if those objects are similarly accessible, endorsed, and integrated into cognition, we should simply consider them part of the mind. As with our actual thoughts and memories, they don’t need to always be right or available (we’ve all experienced incorrect memories or things we can’t quite remember) as long as they reach an equally functional standard. It’s this integration into a thinking system—a relationship they call “coupling”—that makes something part of our cognitive lives.

We don’t have to imagine a distant future with neural implants to witness the porosity between mind and world. Think of the person who does their best thinking when they’re writing or the child who counts on their fingers. More profoundly, consider the centrality of language on the structure of the mind. External processes and objects have, from the start, been worked into the way we think. In her recent book on the subject, Annie Murphy Paul asks us to think of our minds not just as muscles or computers, but as “magpies, fashioning their finished products from the materials around them, weaving the bits and pieces they find into their trains of thought.” Culture, tools, and environment serve not just as aids, but as architecture, seeping their way into consciousness at its foundations and defying Descartes’ presumption that they might be separated.

This theory gives us a framework to better understand our peculiar relationship to our phones. For many of us, myself included, a phone meets all of the criteria Clark and Chalmers lay out. It is “central to [my] actions in all sorts of contexts, in the way that an ordinary memory is central in an ordinary life.” The device is on me at all times, and I rely on it to navigate the world like I would any other sense—when it unexpectedly dies, I feel as if I have lost access to a part of myself. As technology theorist Anne Balsamo writes, “I incorporate [my phone] as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being … I become the cyborg I always wanted to be.” Though this attitude is often chided as a childish overattachmentto our toys, the extended mind thesis reveals that this coupling relationship is actually grounded in the mechanics of cognition. It’s not just that our phones feel close to us—they are a part of us.

Seen in this light, TikTok’s ability to build its transmission model around our relationship to our phones represents a tremendous shift. If TV brought media into people’s homes, TikTok dares to bring it directly into our minds. The immediate, passive reception we experience on the platform relies heavily on the context of the phone, just as the familiar reception of television relies on the context of the home. We could read the significance of this shift much the way some theorists have viewed the transition from vocal to silent reading—a practice that enabled media to form a more intimate relationship with the reader’s subjective experience of mind as “the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge,” as Alberto Manguel writes in A History of Reading. The phone has allowed TikTok to form a deeply intimate relationship with the user’s cognition, to position itself within the borders of the extended self.

Detaching ourselves from the dense web of self we share with TikTok and ejecting the app back into the outside world is therefore not quite as simple as dispelling our faith in the algorithm. To close the vulnerabilities opened up by the increasing incorporation of our devices into cognition, we must find a new way of relating to them. Though it may be tempting to opt for a clean break, it’s clear that this would be a gross “overcorrection,” as Erica Berry analogously argues in a piece opposing the wholesale ban of phones in schools—we’re too far gone to turn back, and these devices remain essential to navigating modern life. Rather, we should work to develop a new relationship to our devices grounded in sustainable caution, trading in our cyborgian aspirations for something new.

Writing In the Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway—the doyenne of cyborg theory—consciously distances herself from the figure that was central to her thinking in the 1980s. She writes that “by the end of the millennium, cyborgs could no longer do the work of a proper herding dog to gather up the threads needed for critical inquiry.” Instead, she positions the companion species as a way we might explore the messy contradictions of the modern age, enabling us to confront the tensions that arise from the fact that while we are constituted by our relationships to other beings, the inner lives of those we depend on remain largely inaccessible to us; we are defined by what we cannot know. In her manifesto, Haraway notes that although companion species like dogs evolved with humans—at the level of culture and biology— this co-constitution does not result in convergence. What enables a productive relationship is not some “fuzzy and touchy-feely” notion of sameness or affection, but rather a “multiform,” “unfinished,” active way of relating that respects the unknowability at the heart of the other. Her inquiry into the overlaps and distances that compose us—those paradoxes of self and other—proves instructive in imagining how we might overcome the dependencies and vulnerabilities that arise from our devices.

While most critics are quick to remind us that we should recognize our own unknowability to these devices—the fact that no program can truly capture and model us since the idea of the “real you” is a myth—they often fail to acknowledge that the converse is also true. In an era of black-box algorithms and corporate surveillance, these devices are in many ways unknowable to us. They don’t so much mimic the rational mind—fixed, filled with beliefs we input, transparent—as they do the subconscious, filled with hidden motivations and changing algorithms that remain out of access. In short, they contain inner lives that we can only catch glimmers of. In Haraway’s vein, I’d argue that cooperating with this digital companion first requires us to recognize its opacity. Though imagining our devices as some unknowable other may begin to take on the tone of new-age animism, it’s reflected in the work of writers like Kate Darling, who’ve argued that thinking of robots as animals might enable a more productive relationship with them.

TikTok may excel in its ability to leverage our relationship with these devices as cognitive prostheses, but it certainly isn’t the only one to do so—nor will it be the last. The move toward materiality and immediacy can be seen throughout the tech world in existing giants like Instagram—which has sought to replicate TikTok through features like Reels—and emergent categories like wearables that aim to technologize our bodies for profit. Haraway and Darling’s work reveals that in responding to this shift, we should strive less for the singularity and more for a multiplicity, coexisting with technology but never becoming wholly subsumed by it. As cyborgs, we remain vulnerable to the machinations of companies seeking to take advantage of our dependencies; as shepherds, we might stand a better shot at managing the flock.

All Rights Reserved for Leo Kim 

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