X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Beyond anthropomorphism – pet dogs and the philosophy of smartphones

By Daniel Miller, on 18 December 2020

One of the main theoretical ideas explored in our forthcoming book The Global Smartphone (out on the 6th of May, 2021) concerns the concept of ‘Beyond Anthropomorphism’. To be anthropomorphic normally implies a machine such as a robot that looks increasingly like a person. The smartphone is beyond anthropomorphic, first because this issue is not one of appearance. Rather, its intimacy with human beings comes by inveigling its way into the very heart of our social relationships and as an extension of our individual personality.

I have previously suggested that the best analogy today for the smartphone would be with the figure of the ‘daemon’  in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. The ‘daemon’ is an animal and this suggests that perhaps by considering our relationship to animals we might better appreciate these possibilities. I am currently writing up ethnographic work from my Irish fieldsite of Cuan, concerning people’s relationship to their pet dogs. In this case, what is meant by anthropomorphism is that the sensibilities that are extended to dogs are growing ever closer to those that we extend to people.

There were many examples of these trends. The first is the way dogsitting has become more like babysitting. It used to be that families went on holidays and took their dogs to kennels. But the dog may have become so fully integrated into family life that the absence of the family is now much more traumatic. People in Cuan prefer to try to leave the dog either with a regular friend or relative or with a dogsitter, that is again regularly used, so that the dog has an independent relationship with the person they are staying with and the experience is much less traumatic.

A second example would be with the rise of environmentalism and the green movement. This has several parallels with the treatment of dogs. For many people, the high-status dog is no longer a pure breed, but rather what is called a ‘rescue dog,’ perhaps one that has been left when the previous owner has died or the children rejected their Christmas present. Many people in Cuan now actively seek out such ‘recycled’ dogs in preference.  A further development is that those who oppose bio-medical health interventions have similar views when it comes to their dogs, so that we see a rise in the use of acupuncture and other complementary therapies both in relation to the dogs’ physical and mental health.

A third example is one that relates perhaps to the context of Ireland, where funerals are such a major part of sociality. It seems that even people who have great difficulty affording veterinary bills will pay the extra 200 euros to have their dogs cremated and keep the ashes. Finally, there is also the rise of concern for mental wellbeing and recognising conditions such as depression in dogs. Occasionally, this may extend to prescribing antidepressants, but mostly, it is about mental stimulation for the dog, which is done primarily through giving it tasks.

There are two current trends in philosophy that seem to speak to a trajectory of Beyond Anthropomorphism. One is called Post-Humanism (e.g. Braidotti 2013) and the other Object-Orientated Ontologies, which was introduced in the work of Graham Harman.  There has certainly been discussion as to whether treating dogs as part of kinship implies a shift beyond the anthropocentrism of seeing humans as the measure of all things and thereby evidence for post-humanism. Most discussions (e.g. Charles 2016, Haraway 2016) suggest otherwise. The examples described above are better seen as anthropomorphism, that is projecting human qualities onto dogs.

When it comes to smartphones, however, the case seems much stronger. In many ways, the emphasis in journalistic discussion is on how human beings have changed as a result of the smartphone, rather than projecting human idioms onto them. I don’t however, feel that either the approach from Post-Humanism or that of Object-Orientated Ontologies capture the nature of this relationship. Our book The Global Smartphone is really about the extraordinary dynamic through which we constantly transform smartphones in use as they simultaneously change our capacities. There is an older tradition within material culture studies (see Miller 2005) that refused to reduce objects to social relations but emphasised instead their mutual constitution and thereby seems like a firmer base for creating a philosophy of the smartphone.

Braidotti, R. 2013 The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Charles, N. 2016 Post-Human Families? Dog-Human Relations in the Domestic Sphere. Sociological Research Online 21 (3) 2016

Haraway. D. 2016 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, people and significant otherness 91-198 in Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press.

Miller, D. 2005 Introduction Ed. Materiality. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press