A Sociology of the Smartphone

The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.

For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.

They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.

For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand.

There are few better guides to the pre-smartphone everyday than a well-documented body of ethnographic research carried out circa 2005, by researchers working for Keio University and Intel Corporation’s People and Practices group. Undertaken in London, Tokyo and Los Angeles, the study aimed to identify broad patterns in the things people carried in their wallets, pockets and purses on a daily basis. It found a striking degree of consistency in what Londoners, Angelenos and Tokyoites thought of as being necessary to the successful negotiation of the day’s challenges:

Pictures, firstly, and similar mementoes of family, friends and loved ones. Icons, charms and other totems of religious or spiritual significance. Snacks. Personal hygiene items, breath mints, chewing gum—things, in other words, that we might use to manage the bodily dimensions of the presentation of self. Things we used to gain access of one sort or another: keys, identity cards, farecards and transit passes. Generally, a mobile phone, which at the time the research was conducted was just that, something used for voice communication and perhaps text messaging. And invariably, money in one or more of its various forms.


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