X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


What is a Smartphone App?

Daniel Miller20 February 2019

A major aim of our project is to provide new insights and approaches to the question what is a smartphone, see my own contribution to The Conversation, the key to this is understand it as a collection of apps. The academic community has been relatively slow to address the nature of apps, despite their evident importance. A recent book called Appified (Morris and Murray 2018) tackles the question head on with thirty chapters each dedicated to a different App. I want to briefly review here what I found to be the most important contribution of this volume. Most of the chapters are directed to whatever the author thinks is the most interesting or intriguing quality of the topic which the App addresses, what it tells us about gender, or fitness or music making or sociality. They depend upon your interest in that topic.

There are, however, two very fine chapters that singularly, and more especially in combination, progress our understanding of the nature of the App. The first is called Is It Tuesday? (Morris 2018). This App is an intentional joke, as the only thing it does is answer the question of whether today is Tuesday and how often it has been asked that question. As such it reveals the way we use humour and irony to address our perception of this new App culture, best summarised by the phrase ‘There is an App for that’. This perspective highlights the single function App. If, to the hammer, everything looks like a nail, to the App developer, everything looks like a problem that can be solved by an App. The chapter employs terms such as microfunctionality and solutionism.

The other excellent contribution addresses what may be regarded, in some ways, as the most successful App ever invented, the Chinese WeChat (Brunton 2018), in that WeChat does more and is more completely integrated into the lives of its users than any App used outside of China. The chapter shows why the very fact that it started out as a messenger App based around texting, in particular, is one of the reasons that it was able to develop this extraordinary form of incremental functionality that lies behind this success. On the basis of its underlying infrastructure the platform could then be turned into anything from a way to pay for goods, to the means to obtain an appointment with your doctor, and a host of other functions.

The real contribution of this volume is that includes both these chapters, which are more or less the exact opposite of it each other. Most of my theoretical writings are inspired by the philosopher Hegel, whose concept of the dialectic became the foundation for my understanding of the term modernity. A key feature is the simultaneous and connected rise of ever greater particularity and ever more encompassing universality. In the introduction to the book Digital Anthropology that I wrote with Heather Horst we argued that the digital world is a major step forward in this trajectory, since it creates a vast set of new particularities on the basis of them all being reducible to code. In a rather different manner, something that we might call ‘scalable functionality’, is evident as the link between advanced in both particularity and universality as explored through the analysis of these two Apps.

The approach of our project is very different, based on the holism of ethnography. We tend to see Apps always in the context of all the other Apps it is associated with on a smartphone, and the smartphone in the context of everything else that its user is and does. But having a better sense of issues such as scalable functionality is certainly helpful in this task.



Brunton, F.  (2018) ‘WeChat; Messaging Apps and New Social Currency Transaction Tools’.  pp 179-187, in Morris , J and Murray S. Eds. 2018 Appified. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Morris. J. (2018) ‘Is it Tuesday: Novelty Apps and Digital Solutionism’. pp 91-99. in Morris , J and Murray S. Eds. 2018 Appified. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



The Anthropology of Smartphone Apps

Daniel Miller14 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.

Tinh tế Photo (Creative Commons)

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.