📑 The Global Smartphone

Bookmarked The Global Smartphone – UCL Press (UCL Press)

The Global Smartphone presents a series of original perspectives deriving from this global and comparative research project. Smartphones have become as much a place within which we live as a device we use to provide ‘perpetual opportunism’, as they are always with us. The authors show how the smartphone is more than an ‘app device’ and explore differences between what people say about smartphones and how they use them.

The smartphone is unprecedented in the degree to which we can transform it. As a result, it quickly assimilates personal values. In order to comprehend it, we must take into consideration a range of national and cultural nuances, such as visual communication in China and Japan, mobile money in Cameroon and Uganda, and access to health information in Chile and Ireland – all alongside diverse trajectories of ageing in Al Quds, Brazil and Italy. Only then can we know what a smartphone is and understand its consequences for people’s lives around the world.

A team of anthropologists from UCL, led by Daniel Miller, spent a year conducting an ethnographic study in nine different countries documenting the ways in which smartphones are used by older people. In their conclusion, the team suggest that the smartphone has come to represent the place where we live:

The smartphone is best understood not just as a device through which we communicate, but also as a place within which we now live. We are always ‘at home’ in our smartphone. We have become human snails carrying our home in our pockets. The smartphone is perhaps the first object to challenge the house itself (and possibly also the workplace) in terms of the amount of time we dwell in it while awake.

They explain that this ‘Transportal Home’ is similar to the physical home, with different spaces for various activities.

We can enter through an icon into a place where we can play games or watch television. There is another icon that transports us to a site for research and study, another for listening to music and yet others for dealing with daily chores, such as shopping or banking.

They posit that the smartphone takes us beyond anthroopomorphism and human robots, to a creative and relational engagement with technology:

It is ordinary people who have turned the capacity of smartphones from being just ‘clever-smart’ into the capacity to be ‘sensitive-smart’. It is thanks to them that every smartphone is unique. The smartphone’s potential to go beyond anthropomorphism may have been created by corporations, but any subsequent humanity or inhumanity discernible within the smartphone – the primary evidence we have presented here – was created by the people you have met in this volume.

Alex Hern provides a summary of the report in The Guardian, while Glyn Moody wonders what this change means for privacy:

One privacy aspect of smartphones not discussed by Snowden when he first revealed the capabilities of Western intelligence services to use these devices for surveillance is that today a mobile phone typically has gigabytes of storage. People now routinely store thousands of photos, videos and messages, rarely throwing away anything from their past datastreams. As such, their smartphones represent a distillation of what they have said, who they have met, and what they have done, over the last few years. The more people use smartphones in their daily lives, the more complete that record becomes – and the more valuable to the authorities when searching for incriminating or just useful information about people. As a result, one of the first things the police try to do is to download the contents of a suspect’s device. Even though this is tantamount to downloading important parts of a person’s memory, there are few constraints on this extremely intrusive prying.

A part of the intent of this research is to go beyond the rhetoric where smartphones and social media has destroyed a generation. It is interesting to consider this alongside the work by Alannah and Madeline Foundation on The Digital Home. It also reminds me of danah boyd’s suggestion from a few years ago to how to be more mindful of such changes:

  1. Verbalize what you’re doing with your phone’
  2. Create a household contract

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