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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


A Walk for Humanity

By Marilia Duque E S, on 30 April 2021

Mike out for a walk in São Paulo

São Paulo is a city where work organises time and sociability. We are known as people who are always in a hurry and the city is a place where asking “How are you?” is usually met with people discussing what they are currently doing in their work and career. All of this has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions that were put in place to contain it, which have changed how people work and live. It doesn’t matter if these restrictions have been ineffective, a consequence of the political disputes in the country and the irresponsible actions taken by the federal government. Covid-19 was viewed as a ‘little flu’ when it first broke out[1], opportunities to buy vaccines were neglected[2] and the country now lives in a state of having to choose between saving jobs (‘the economy must come first’)[3] and saving lives, as Brazilians have not had the opportunity to benefit from a national plan that guarantees both. The result is that the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in 2021 alone has already surpassed the total amount of deaths between March and December 2020. A special commission was created to investigate the actions taken by the executive power under the Bolsonaro leadership[4].

This post is not about the macroeconomic or political perspective of this crisis. It is about the micro-perspective of everyday life during the pandemic in a middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo where I live. It is also written from the privileged perspective of someone who can afford to work from home. It is about my observations of how people’s behaviour has changed when it comes to time and openness in my local area. Between May to July 2020, the number of divorces in Brazil increased by 54%[5]. I am among those counted in this percentage. Living alone with my 17-year-old son, far from our relatives and isolated from our friends, we decided we should have a dog. And so Mike came into our lives. My son says that Mike is his ‘antidepressant’. What I found out is that he is not alone.

I take Mike for a walk twice a day and I try to combine these walks with quick stops in the local supermarket when I have to buy food or any other supplies. Similarly to me, walking the dog has become an opportunity for many of my neighbours to meet and talk to other people face to face. In the past, when two dogs inevitably stopped to smell each other, their owners were more likely to pull their leash and move on. This has changed. With the excuse that the dogs are ‘getting to know’ each other, owners now allow themselves to stop and talk.

That was how I got to know a young couple who moved to São Paulo one month before the pandemic started. He told me about his challenges as a teacher who had to learn how to teach online overnight. He also told me about how his wife ended up working in a hospital, even though she is trained as a dentist. Another older woman told me the history of her dog, a pet that originally belonged to her daughter, and how she had to take over the dog when her daughter got married. She is now thankful that she has her dog for company. Another man I spoke to found out that I was named after a small city in Brazil that is close to the city he was born in. Since then, every time we meet, even though his dog doesn’t like mine that much, he tells me about the particularities of his city and how he ended up in São Paulo.

These conversations are not restricted to dog owners. Each dog can become an opportunity for someone to stop and talk while petting the dog. Sometimes, they just really want to talk, like the woman I met who took her smartphone out to show me her daughter’s dog and talk about her family. At the time, I thought about warning her that it was not safe to take her smartphone out on the street and show it to someone she had never seen before, but I couldn’t ruin her happiness with security issues. So, I let her talk and show me some pictures and videos.

However, sometimes, people really just want to pet the dog, they want to give and to receive some affection. My son is responsible for taking Mike for a walk early in the morning before he starts his online classes at school. He has had to start waking up 10 minutes earlier so he could allow for people who want to stop and show their affection for Mike on his way. One woman explained this phenomenon to me: ‘It is dog therapy’, she said. She then explained in detail the hygiene-related habits she has adopted since her mother, who has an underlying condition, moved to her house at the beginning of the pandemic. Her dog is also great company for her mother, so she does everything she can to minimise the risks of COVID-19 transmission.

We both agreed that people are feeling lonely and the dogs provide time to pause and reflect, reminding us that among everything else, there is love and humanity. The conversation also reminded me of a young man I had met the day before. While he was on his knees petting Mike, he told me he was alone and that he was considering getting a dog. He was interested to know whether a dog like Mike could live well in a very small flat.

Like in the US[6] or Australia[7], the desire for some company has resulted in a wave of pet adoptions at the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil. One year after the ‘pandemic puppies’, as the phenomenon was known worldwide, a report conducted by dog-sitter provider Rover.com among Americans[8] showed that those who had welcomed a ‘pandemic pet’ did it for emotional support and happiness (41%) or because they needed something positive in their life (39%). 93% said it improved their mental and or physical wellbeing. The report also showed that 54% of owners adjusted their budgets or reduced expenses in order to keep their pets and 90% are still completely happy with the decision they made almost a year ago[9].

The reality in Brazil is quite different. In 2020, 13.4 million Brazilians were unemployed[10]. In comparison to 2019, informal work has decreased by 2.4%, while formal work in the private sector has gone down by 7.8%. Self-employment has gone down by 6.2% and the number of people who stopped looking for a job has gone up by 16.1%. The negative economic outlook and its impact on people’s household budgets is associated with a 70% increase in cases of pet abandonment during the pandemic in the country[11]. Some people had to leave their own houses to live with a relative and couldn’t take their pets with them[12]. In addition to this, there are two other factors that have contributed to pet abandonment during the pandemic in Brazil.

In the beginning, there was misinformation and misguided fears with regards to pets infecting humans[13], which were also reported in China by TIME magazine[14]. Now, as the pandemic remains out of control in Brazil, having reached 390.000 deaths[15] while I was writing this text, the many cases of pets being abandoned also reflect the sad fatality of many owners’ deaths[16]. Other than the economic crisis affecting the country, but often working in combination with it, that is the main reason that people are increasingly deciding to leave behind the pets of their relatives who passed away[17].

Just when I was just struggling to find a way to end this text on a hopeful note, I realise it is time for me to take Mike for a walk. I will enjoy every encounter he brings my way. I will keep listening to what people have to say. I will let them pet my dog for as long as they want. It’s true that, like everybody else, I don’t have the power to change the ‘macro’ reality of the situation, but I can contribute to my ‘micro’ reality. I can turn every walk into a walk for humanity.



[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/23/americas/brazil-coronavirus-hospitals-intl/index.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/18/world/americas/brazil-covid-variants-vaccinations.html

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41581-020-0327-0

[4] https://www.canalmeio.com.br/edicoes/2021/04/26/covid-19-matou-mais-em-4-meses-que-em-2020-inteiro/

[5] Between May and July 2020, the number of divorces in Brazil went from 4.641 to 7.213: https://epoca.globo.com/brasil/divorcios-crescem-54-no-brasil-apos-queda-abrupta-no-inicio-da-pandemia-24635513

[6] Dog adoptions and sales in US: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/12/adoptions-dogs-coronavirus/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/16/dog-gone-eescue-pet-shelters-emptied-by-surge-in-demand-during-pandemic

[8] https://people.com/pets/pet-adoption-statistic-year-into-coronavirus-pandemic/

[9] https://www.rover.com/blog/pandemic-pet-adoption-boom/?irgwc=1&utm_term=10078&utm_source=impact&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=384088798&utm_content=2JSQAdWFyxyLR970JSywsQuwUkB0a%3AQn7zsuTA0

[10] https://economia.uol.com.br/empregos-e-carreiras/noticias/redacao/2021/02/26/desemprego—pnad-continua—dezembro-2020.htm

[11] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2021/02/apos-onda-de-adocoes-abandono-de-animais-domesticos-dispara-70-na-pandemia.shtml

[12] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

[13] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

[14] https://time.com/5793363/china-coronavirus-covid19-abandoned-pets-wuhan/

[15] https://especiais.g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/estados-brasil-mortes-casos-media-movel/

[16] Economic constrains and owner’s death or hospitalization also reflect in pet abandonment in UK: https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/charity-warns-thousands-dogs-risk-18666922

[17] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

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