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The smartphone as object

Before considering the use of the smartphone for communication, we need to acknowledge its presence as a material object.
People in Milan know the city’s reputation for fashion, style, and industry. Getting to know people here reveals how deeply they also care about their relationships, their family, and friends. They express this in a number of creative ways. Eleonora decorates her smartphone with images of her grandchildren, while Elisa connects her phone with an old-fashioned receiver, allowing her to recreate the authentic feel and comfort of talking on the phone. For this police medic in Kampala, his smartphone displays his Catholic faith. He has Jesus as his background image for protection. In Japan, I found many older people often have quite functional and simple phone covers and a notebook design.
Others like to decorate their smartphones with charms or style their phone cases to match their personal aesthetic. In Lusozi, more people have mobile phones than smartphones. They tend to top up their airtime and data on a daily basis, just when they need it. In Kyoto and Kochi, most people use smartphones. But some, especially older people, still use flip-style feature phones, known locally as garakei, which are considered easier to use, more robust, and less expensive than smartphones. All around Yaoundé, you can find airtime sellers and also downloaders, who you can pay to download music and videos onto a device. Sometimes, people require specialist software on their phones.
Laila, our researcher in Dar al-Hawa, uses an iPhone with screen reading software, because she is blind. Using an iPhone can be slow and frustrating as it has to read every bit of text out loud. But now, I would not be without it.

Before considering the use of the smartphone for communication, we need to acknowledge its presence as a material object. Its tangibility may matter more to some populations than others, as you can see in the short film above.

What this film shows is that the smartphone is an object that is seen by others and can be used by an individual in a similar manner as clothing and accessories, to express a sense of style or the values that matter to us. We also encounter the smartphone as something that incurs costs which could range from a monthly plan to the cost of the handset, or the cost of recharging or of usage (called airtime in Cameroon and Uganda).

The materiality of the smartphone also becomes apparent when one has a disability. In the video above, Laila, who is one of our researchers, reflects on her relationship to her iPhone and the Accessibility issues that she experiences as a blind person.

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An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

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