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Conclusions to the course

In this step, we conclude the course by summarising the main points made in the three weeks.
Interior of a church with a painting of the Christ, surrounded by people aiming their smartphones at the image. These are Peruvian migrants honoring in Chile the Lord of Miracles, the most revered Peruvian religious icon.
© Alfonso Otaegui

As we pointed out at the beginning of the course, the smartphone spends much of the time right in front of your nose. So it does seem important that we take some time to really look at it. Our main hope is that having taken this course you will see things in your smartphone that perhaps hadn’t been evident before, or were there but you hadn’t really acknowledged them.

It is quite likely that the main contribution during this third week has come not from our research, but from your participation. We have provided several opportunities for you to make your own suggestions as to how one might use smartphones and other digital technologies to improve people’s health and welfare. The idea that you, the students of the course, may have more to offer than us the researchers, follows closely from one of the final arguments of this week – what we called ‘smart-from-below’. As in the parallel field of citizen science, ‘smart-from-below’ challenges the traditional hierarchies of research itself. It emerges from our respect for the creativity and ingenuity of people such as yourselves as the new ‘inventors’ and ‘innovators’.

The justification for this shift in perspective takes us all the way back to the consideration of the smartphone in Week 1. ‘Smart-from-below’ is not just a change in perspective and ethos, it also comes as recognition and acknowledgement that each adult with their smartphone possesses an extraordinary technology that represents a genuine increase in their capacity. This is not so much the capacity of individuals – rather, as this course has shown, it is all about the capacity of populations who have already come up with a vast array of new ways of using these devices. Over the three weeks of the course, you have seen that the adaption of smartphones to enable people in their everyday life turns out to be closely aligned to each specific cultural context. What Japanese people do with smartphones may be very different from what Palestinians, Brazilians, Italians, or Peruvians living in Chile do with theirs.

The hands of a woman are seen holding her smartphone as she takes a photo of something in the distance while she is on a boat, the blue sea can be seen around the boat

Women in Sao Paulo, Brazil, looking down at their phones and celebrating during a festival or holiday, their faces blurred for anonymity

Many of you may come from countries and contexts that were not included in this study, so you will have your own valuable additional observations to make, partly as an individual, but perhaps even more as someone who reflects on the practices of the people around them, as may have done when you undertook the practical work at the end of each week. You may also have disagreements with our observations or ideas for how to refine them. Based on the practical exercises, you may also have discovered something unexpected about the people around you.

We hope that reflecting on how people use smartphones in your own social context and region and contrasting this with what you have learnt during this course will also give you some sense of what it means to think like an anthropologist. Hopefully, this experience and knowledge will also be a positive legacy of this course and one that you can then apply to other topics in the future.

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An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

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