A theory of a theory of the smartphone
By Daniel Miller, on 19 November 2019
Currently I am involved in writing the final chapter of our collectively authored book called The Global Smartphone. This chapter proposes a series of theories of the smartphone, which is more or less the same as saying we are trying to answer the most basic question – what is a smartphone? The more we have studied the smartphone, the more we are convinced that there are unprecedented capabilities and consequences that require theory. We have to consider its intimacy, including its ability to learn about us and the degree to which we are able to reconfigure it. We also need to encompass its reach. Being a phone for voice calls is now such a small element of what a smartphone is today, that the very name phone may be misleading. What about everything else it has become? The theories proposed range from the way smartphones transform our sense of home to the nature of opportunism, all considered in relation to our 8 different fieldsites.
The problem in calling a chapter ‘A theory of the smartphone’ is that it suggests that we know what we mean by theory and that this is something that will positively contribute to our understanding and explanation of the smartphone. Yet it is not at all clear that theory is anything so positive. Theory in anthropology is clearly nothing like a theorem in science; mostly it is a meta-level of generalisation and abstraction, visualisation, comparison and conceptualisation. After surveying the results of 8 ethnographies on the use of smartphones, theory is helpful in understanding and explaining the results.
So theory is often essential, and there is plenty of good anthropological theorising around, but today theory in much of social science seems to be developing as a kind of fetish. Students or writers of journal papers are told they don’t have enough theory, as though having this thing theory is always beneficial and necessary and exists as a requisite quantity. In practice, some academics may then resort to relating their work to various established ‘theories’, most of which were originally devised with completely different aims in mind. They will feel they are expected to make reference to terms such as actor-network theory, the Anthropocene, ontology, or to the right theorists such as Foucault or Bourdieu or Butler.
When theory is used in this way, instead of enhancing anthropology the result is more like a betrayal. We have worked hard to develop local nuance, empathetic involvement with our research participants and insisted upon respecting their particular usage and perspective. Yet as soon as we are writing the theory section, there is a temptation to ditch all that sensitivity because when it comes to theory the claims are usually universalistic and without reference to any particular population. Despite the claim that anthropologists today care about decolonising the discipline, this use of theory tends to affirm imperial assertions of their superior understanding of the world. It is tempting to suggest that the primary purpose of this kind of fetishised theory has become (as one of those same theorists Bourdieu once suggested) the creation of fashionable and obfuscating jargon, which acts to create metropolitan elites who can consider themselves intellectuals precisely because most people have no idea what they are talking about. Theory may be one of the primary means by which the university works as a system for perpetuating class differences based on claims to esoteric knowledge.
Yet our book desperately needs theory, otherwise it is just the aggregate of parochial ethnographic studies. Local immersion is necessary, but at some point does need transcending if it is to make wider claims as to what smartphones are and help to explain the results.
Theory is also needed to encompass anything unprecedented about smartphones that was not captured by prior concepts. Smartphones really matter today, which means that it is necessary to make an academic contribution to the understanding of them. But how can we create such theory while simultaneously remaining critically self-conscious about all the pitfalls that come with the way theory may become a fetish?
This final chapter will be quite long, but that is partly because the theoretical contribution is spelled out in clear colloquial English that as many readers as possible can engage with. This means they can choose to disagree with it if they are not convinced by the evidence. Secondly, in order to retain the links to the 8 different fieldsites, generalisability and abstraction are balanced with specificity and example.
Most of the theory that emerges from analytical work in widely comparing and generalising the evidence of smartphone use and consequence can then be used to understand and explain this evidence. It is not comprised primarily of discussions of established theory, though precedents and relevant arguments are acknowledged. To conclude, before constructing a theory of the smartphone, we perhaps need to reflect for a while on a theory of theory, as a means to (if you will excuse one jargon term), de-fetishize theory itself.