It’s not strictly a single word, but phantom vibration syndrome has taken out Macquarie Dictionary’s 2012 Word of the Year.

The winner of the people’s choice award this year is first world problem, which is a sort of meta-commentary affixed to a complaint, often one’s own, when the complaint is something that is indicative of the sufferer being an affluent member of the first world, who therefore hasn’t got much to really complain about in the scheme of things. Conveniently, phantom vibration serves as an apt example of a first world problem.

Phantom vibration syndrome, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the sensation you feel on the skin of your thigh (or wherever you normally keep your phone) that it is vibrating, causing you to grab for it in the anticipation of a phone call or text – or I suppose these days, an email, tweet, retweet or a message saying you’ve been outbid on that vinyl record player you were hoping to win on Ebay – when in fact the phone is completely stoic, as none of the above have happened.

Being a long-term sufferer of phantom vibration myself, this year’s choice resonates with me. It’s symptomatic of the perpetual connectivity that characterises our lives these days; the fact that we are seldom, if ever, offline. We tend to have one smartphone, usually an iPhone or Android, in our pocket most of the time, that we use for both business and personal use. We receive our work emails on it, and we have one or two twitter accounts running pretty much all the time ready to notify us when some random celebrity inexplicably messages you directly to let you know that someone has been posting images of you.

In googling for some fodder for this morning’s post, I came across an article about a year ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, reporting on a study of phantom vibration. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney suggested that it may actually not be so phantom after all, but could be the sensation interpreted by the nerves on the skin caused by a very small discharge of electricity given off by the phone when it connects to a new tower. This effect is apparently known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Another effect of the burst of electrical activity is the audible pipping if a phone is placed next to a speaker.

Whether or not there’s any validity in that, I also think that phantom vibration is indeed real, as I have experienced it even when there was no phone in my pocket. My personal belief is that the nerves in the patch of skin closest to where my phone sits in my pocket have been closely associated with phone activity, after years of keeping my phone in pretty much exactly the same spot. My brain receives a signal of any kind from the nerves in the patch of skin, and thinks that it must be my phone. As a result, whatever the cause of the sensation, it feels distinctly like phone vibration. Even slight rubbing of, say, a chair arm, can feel like vibration to me, to the point where I try to reproduce the effect – unsuccessfully, as I’m aware the second time around of what’s causing the sensation.

The fact that I’m rambling on about my own phantom vibration syndrome is probably indicative of the fact that I think it’s a worthy choice for Word of the Year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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