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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


There is a fine line between care and surveillance

By Daniel Miller, on 31 March 2020

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

When the ASSA team returned from the field, and we came together to collectively decide our ‘findings’. The title we gave to one of these findings was There is a fine line between care and surveillance. Today, thanks to the coronavirus, this has become a global finding. But anthropology has a good deal to contribute by examining the wider context of what hasn’t changed and what has.

On the one hand, this is an issue that pertains across the whole spectrum of human experience. A working definition of God, for many religions, would be a being who sees everything and cares for everyone. In a recent blog post, Wang examines the acceptance of surveillance in China in the light of traditions of a paternalistic Emperor and now Party. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the fundamental dilemma of contemporary parenting. The blog Parenting for a Digital Future is often a discussion of this balance. The reason that was a finding in respect to our own research was that it generally also applies to care for the elderly – it referred to the problem of simultaneously respecting the autonomy and dignity of older people, while also keeping a watchful eye.

If, on the one hand, this is a reflection of an age-old and ubiquitous truism, then, on the other hand, it has been hugely re-configured as a result of the smartphone. This was the other reason the phrase worked so well as a finding from our research. Never before has it been possible to follow every individual and every interaction at this detailed level, providing the minutiae for Big Data analysis. This has been the primary mechanism by which states have tracked who precisely needs to be in isolation following possible contact with the virus. It was states such as South Korea, where collective knowledge has generally been seen as a greater good than individual privacy which went furthest in this tracking of individuals through their smartphones. Most of our current discussions regarding the possibilities of both care and surveillance are premised on everyone using smartphones.

It is important to retain this anthropological sense of the broader context in order to help us find the balance we seek. As a recent article in The Economist noted, if we don’t want to justify mass surveillance in normal times, we need to see how democratic Taiwan has actually been just as effective as the autocratic mainland Chinese government in controlling the virus, though in stark contrast to the US. But we also need to respect the way some populations do experience surveillance as care, as Xinyuan Wang notes in her blog post. The key point here is the expression ‘there is a fine line’.

We hope that one of our contributions will be publishing the details of how care for older people via smartphones seems to operate within these sensitive contradictions of autonomy as against surveillance. These findings may help us when it comes to both informing and critiquing states and policymakers as they, in turn, learn their lessons from these extraordinary times.

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