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What is a smartphone?

DanielMiller1 June 2018

Author: Daniel Miller

Photo (CC BY) newkemall

I have spent the last two months in my Irish fieldsite trying to answer a simple question: what is a smartphone? Actually, it’s a fiendishly difficult question. Several older people started our discussion by insisting that the only things they use their phones for are voice calls and texting. Once we looked at the phone in more detail, it turned out that just the most common functions include WhatsApp, maps, voice calls, camera, alarm/time, Facebook, text messages, calendar, weather and news. Once we add a variety of more specialist apps such as sports, music, airlines, banks etc. we easily reach the most typical result which would be that an individual uses between twenty-five and thirty different functions of their smartphone.

In the newspapers, the personalisation of the smartphone is understood as the advances in algorithms and artificial intelligence, which allow smartphones to learn from people and predict their behaviour. But, just as in our previous Why We Post project, for the ethnographer, these corporate developments pale into insignificance compared to the personalisation represented by the diversity of usage that will arise from the way an individual configures this multitude of apps.

Indeed, it may be the personality of the user that comes across most. A man expresses a particular version of masculinity in demonstrating how all his usage is based on need and pragmatism. He mentions more than once how, now his daughter is no longer in Australia, he will never use Skype again. By contrast, a woman, aged 69, has every last detail of her life, from the steps involved in paying each particular type of bill, to the slide decks from workshops she has attended, all carefully classified in nested hierarchies of icons on her iPhone. About the only thing she doesn’t like is the clumsy and intrusive Siri. In both cases the smartphone effectively expresses their personality. Sometimes a particular activity dominates an individual’s phone life; a phone where everything is geared to a retirement spent playing and teaching the banjo, or a phone that contains seven apps all associated with sailing.  It’s not that a woman is addicted to her phone, or even to YouTube per. se., it’s just that she can’t stop spending two hours a day following US politics on YouTube. More commonly the phone will revolve around three or four key activities and concerns such as a combination of family, sports, holidays, and photography.

Working with people in their 60s and 70s, I come to appreciate that they are not elderly, but that much of their life may be devoted to caring for an elderly parent in their 90s. For some of these people everything about the phone is connected with this responsibility of care, whether mobilising family care through WhatsApp, showing pictures of great grandchildren through Facebook, using maps to get to a hospital appointment, employing phone and text to negotiate with the local council and never turning the phone off, because you never know…

An equally important component of what makes the phone is people’s lack of knowledge. An older person is told to download an app, but she has never heard of Google Play and so attempts this action using an icon labelled ‘Downloads’. A man won’t buy a new Samsung Galaxy because it doesn’t have an inbuilt radio and he doesn’t know he can download radio as an app. Many users do not know the distinction between Wi-Fi and data that they have to pay for, so they won’t watch video while on Wi-Fi because they think it will cost them. Many can’t understand that a phone which ‘doesn’t work’, is not a broken phone, rather they just need to go about something in a different way. This is because the smartphone has so little in common with traditions of machines and tools. There is no manual they can actually use. Trying to work out precisely why one 80-year-old finds every little step impossible and another seems entirely comfortable in using these phones may give us many clues as to what, in effect, a smartphone is.

In the newspapers the smartphone appears as the constant development of new capacities – articles about the latest thing you can do with your smartphone are commonplace. For the ethnographer the smartphone is the myriad constellation of new actualities – we strive for an appreciation of what ordinary people create with or cannot understand about these devices.

The Blow-in Community

DanielMiller4 April 2018

Sneem, Kerry, photo by Bill Barber

Most people one meets in this small Irish town describe themselves as blow-ins, meaning they were born in some other part of Ireland. That’s hardly surprising since given the huge expansion of housing estates since the 1970s it is demographically true. More interesting is their dedicated participation in the vast number of community and volunteer groups that can be found here. Many of these organisations were founded by people born here, but it is the blow-ins who have sustained and expanded them and seem quite passionate about their contribution to the subsequent sense of vibrant community.

There is an important lesson here for anthropology. We have tended to see authenticity through ideals of tradition and continuity relating authenticity also to actual origin. But in most places this ideal of community is a modern invention and antidote to the fragmentation of the forces that we call modernity. The original population had less need for such an explicit ideal of community. As one such person noted – when he was young his large family was sufficient for his social interactions. The Catholic Church was and still is often the primary vehicle for a sense of wider socialising. While identity with this pleasant town was simply a given by birth. The same person noted that he would always say he was coming into the town, while blow-ins might say they were coming into the village.

By contrast, the vast majority of blow-ins initially encountered this town through tourism and viewed it as a rural seaside idyll, very likely often the place they wish they had been born into. Once they have settled, and in many cases retired, community and identification develop through their active and creative labour. This is an opportunity to help create the idealised community that they have imagined themselves moving into. Some of them would like to call the centre a village while those born here are clear that it is a town. It is the blow-ins that need fascinating and anecdotal history, prizes from being a tidy or age-friendly town, books, chess, bowls, theatre, creative writing, painting, music, sports, film and many other clubs. In this they are joined by the original inhabitants who gratefully accept this support and appreciation, while remaining quite aware as to who is or is not a blow-in, for example, who has rights to be buried in the original cemetery.

 

‘Healthy Ireland’ by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk16 February 2018

From the Healthy Ireland website: http://www.healthyireland.ie/

Author: Pauline Garvey

 

Just last month the Irish government launched the latest national initiative to promote health and wellbeing across the country. The Healthy Ireland campaign 2018 was launched on the 6th January and aims to encourage people to ‘get active, eat well and mind their mental wellbeing’ (www.healthyIreland.ie).  Many of the planned initiatives run through local libraries and are advertised by pictures of families cycling through wooded glades or groups of friends exercising outdoors.

On the day of the launch in Dublin’s sporting venue Croke Park, Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Leo Varadkar said:

The message of the Government’s Healthy Ireland 2018 campaign is simple; I’m encouraging everyone to get involved, by making the small changes needed to improve your health and your family’s health. That could mean including a walk in your daily routine, making healthier choice at meal times or taking a break from your phone to give your mental health a boost. These positive and sustainable changes can help us all build a healthy Ireland (MerrionStreet 06/01/18).

The webpage dedicated to HealthyIreland acknowledges that social factors such as levels of education and income, or housing and work conditions may adversely affect health, and are determined by social, environmental and economic policies beyond the direct responsibility or remit of the health sector. Therefore the campaign asserts the ‘health sector alone cannot address these problems – we must collectively change our approach.’

Excessive mobile-phone use has now been added to nutrition and exercise as a health risk. And while this is interesting, it is perhaps not surprising. Frequent associations between an unhealthy attachment or addictive behaviour and mobile-phone use have been profiled in the national media recently. For example in December 2017 new research from Deloitte, found that 90% of 18-75-year-olds in Ireland now own or have access to a smartphone – putting Ireland among the top users of smartphones in Europe. By comparison 88% of people own, or have access to a smartphone in Europe. Richard Howard, head of technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte greeted this figure with some caution: “Mobile devices are a relatively new ‘addiction’ to our social fabric and they form an important part of our daily activities and interactions’ (Quann 2017).

There are lots of unknowns in smart-phone use, which is why we are currently investigating this topic, and why we try to understand the smartphone in actual life situations. For example while the Deloitte study found that half of Irish people thought they used their phone too much, 60% thought their partner used it too much! What does this tell us of the place of the phone in negotiating relationships? Are people neglecting their loved ones, forging new friendships or engaging with existing friends and family in novel ways?

Meanwhile the government’s response in the Healthy Ireland Campaign is clear:  “Take the stairs rather than the lift, Eat more fruit and veg, Take a 30-minute break from your phone”. And Varadkar describes his own practice of turning off the phone during meals – “it not only makes the meal more pleasant and your interaction with people more pleasant, it is actually good for your headspace.”  (O’Connor 07/01/18)

 

References:

HealthyIreland 2018, www.healthyireland.ie

MerrionStreet Irish Government News Service 06/01/18, available online at https://merrionstreet.ie/en/Issues/Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_launches_Healthy_Ireland_2018_campaign.html (http://www.healthyireland.ie/about/)

O’Connor, Wayne 07/01/18 ‘Healthy Ireland 2018 aims to get us all fitter and more mindful’ Irish Independent, available online at https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/healthy-ireland-2018-aims-to-get-us-all-fitter-and-more-mindful-36464484.html.

Quann, Jack 05/12/17 ‘Three million Irish people now own or have access to a smartphone’, available online at http://www.newstalk.com/Mobile-phone-habits-of-Irish-people-revealed