We live in our smartphones, anthropologists say

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 10 May 2021 15:29 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A schoolboy shows his mobile phone to a rickshaw puller takign him and other students to school on a cold winter morning in the old quarters of Delhi January 30, 2014. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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Researchers at University College London argue that smartphones have become so fundamental that they are like places people live, rather than mere tools of communication

By Umberto Bacchi

May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - According to the saying, there's no place like home. But a group of anthropologists argue that smartphones have become so fundamental to human life, they are like places people live rather than mere tools of communication.

The researchers at University College London (UCL) say smartphone users are like "human snails carrying our homes in our pocket" in a study analysing use of the devices across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.

"You have one room for watching entertainment, another one for socializing with your friends, another one for organizing your life," Daniel Miller, the study's lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"But obviously, unlike a bricks and mortar home, this is a home that you actually carry with you all day."

From staying in touch with far-flung relatives to accessing health services and discussing politics, smartphones have made a world of opportunities accessible with a few taps on the screen, the researchers said.

But there are downsides. People might pay so much attention to their virtual homes, that they neglect those around them - a phenomena the researchers called "death of proximity", which can cause frustration, disappointment and even offence.

"(At) any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we're with can just disappear, having 'gone home' to their smartphone," Miller said in a statement.

"We are learning to live with the jeopardy that even when we are physically together, we can be socially, emotionally or professionally alone."

What virtual, portable homes look like varies vastly depending on their inhabitants, said Miller.

For young people who cannot afford to buy a home and are still living with their parents for example, smartphones can be a "private home" within the domestic walls, allowing them to enjoy some privacy.

For others, the opposite might be true, as phones can reduce our prior experience of home as a refuge, the researchers said.

"Employees may now be expected to remain in contact with their work, for instance, even after leaving the workplace," they wrote in the study.

"A child bullied by other pupils at school now finds little or no respite through coming back to her or his home."

The paper, which was launched on Monday, was based on research from 11 anthropologists who spent 16 months observing and interviewing smartphone users in nine countries, including Italy, Chile and Cameroon, with a focus on older adults.

"It is only by looking at the vastly different uses and contexts that we can fully understand the consequences of smartphones for people's lives around the world," Miller said. 

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)