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What is a smartphone?

Daniel Miller1 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.

Infrastructures of Care

Laura Haapio-Kirk19 April 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

Someone recently told me about how he encourages his 86-year-old mother, whom he lives with, to use her home blood pressure monitor every day and record her readings in a notebook. He said that doctors had prescribed her medication to lower her blood pressure, which she did not like to take. His solution was to turn to traditional Japanese medicine which he explained is tailored to the individual’s body, rather than western medicine which relies on a universal concept of the body. He was able to track the success of this approach through the home monitoring kit, and now her blood pressure is back to normal. This story reveals how infrastructures of care are made up of various integrated systems – that blockages in the form of non-adherence may reveal alternative routes by which people navigate care and self-care.

I am part of a reading group at Osaka University hosted by Gergely Mohacsi and Atsuro Morita. A few weeks ago we discussed Morita’s recent co-edited volume called ‘Infrastructure and Social Complexity’ (Harvey, Bruun, Morita 2017). He explained that a recent focus on infrastructure in social sciences, indeed an ‘infrastrucutural turn’ in anthropology, is a result of infrastructures becoming increasingly precarious and therefore more visible. Ageing infrastructures are becoming more and more tangible as we bump up against cracks in roads and other markers of decay. Infrastructures are systems that should enable things to flow, whether that’s water, electricity, goods, or people. But what happens when people are disconnected from infrastructures, or for whatever reason the flow is blocked?

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

I began to think about how smartphones are integral to navigating many of the infrastructures that enmesh us, for example through maps that visually place you within an infrastructure of roads, or health apps that extend the infrastructure of a national health service towards more individualised care. However, as digital technology becomes more integral to health services will people with limited access (through lack of digital literacy, or affordability for example) face increased marginalisation from infrastructures of care? And how are health professionals to identify blockages in the flow of care before it’s too late for individual patients? In such cases where care is not received, it is not only the infrastructure which is revealed to be vulnerable, but individuals themselves.

A couple of days after the seminar I happened to read a newly published article titled ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ (Weiner and Will 2018) in which the authors use the concept of care infrastructure to look at the variety of people, things and spaces involved in self-monitoring using a blood pressure device. Their work reveals self-monitoring as a socio-material arrangement that expresses care for self and for others, as opposed to focusing only on the individual and the device: “Specifically, our analysis has drawn attention to the range of local actors and work involved in the practice of self-monitoring, even in the case of consumer technologies. Through this attention to work, monitoring may also come to be seen as involving not just data, but also care amongst kin, family and colleagues.” My intention for my research was always to look at smartphones as situated within wider practices and things including other technologies and people, but thinking specifically in terms of infrastructure expands my scope and gives rise to questions about how multi-layered flows are connected (or not), ranging from state level, to family based care.

References

Harvey, P., Jensen, C. B.Morita, A. (2017). Infrastructure and Social Complexity. Routledge

Weiner, K. and Will, C (2018) ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ in Sociology of Health and Illness 40: 270–282. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12590.