The Anthropology of Smartphone Apps
By Daniel Miller, on 14 December 2017
The ASSA project is broad, including a focus upon middle age and a commitment to an engagement with mHealth. But at the centre of our work, connecting all the other elements, will be eleven ethnographies of smartphones. We are interested in the way that people in midlife, who may have started worrying about the loss of their capacities in life, are suddenly confronting an object, the smartphone, that seems to promise all sorts of new capacities. This represents the clearest point of continuity with our earlier Why We Post project. Indeed, in the book How the World Changed Social Media the previous team predicted that social media will shift from being a discrete category, to become assimilated within the emerging culture of smartphone Apps. We want to provide the patient scholarship of sixteen months engagement to assess this extraordinary new world.
Against the journalism that claims that these are either entirely positive or negative, our focus is likely to be on the integral contradictions. Apps can appear as a shift towards still greater individualism with a focus upon monitoring the self. But Why We Post showed social media to be often a re-engagement with traditional sociality, such as constant communication with family and friends. App culture means it matters less than ever where one is actually located, and yet one of the most important genre of apps is dedicated to improving one’s locational skills and seeing the world in terms of maps. Apps provide still more immediate and comprehensive linkage to knowledge of the world, including news and yet simultaneously provide greater capacity to disengage from that world through gaming and fantasy. They can dematerialise music and books, but become our most important material possession.
The role of anthropology is to acknowledge the complexity and contradictory nature of app culture as a rejoinder to simplistic claims and simplistic moralising. But also, to show that for ordinary people, most of the time, these contradictions are not particularly problematic. They have been rapidly absorbed as part of everyday life. Understanding how people in our respective fieldsites have achieved this act of creative appropriation will help anthropology in its ultimate quest – which is to better understand the nature of humanity.