What our phones are doing to us

By: Jason Moriber
Smithsonian Cultural Anthropologist Joshua Bell discusses the real and the ephemeral ways mobile is making an impact on people, places and things

The vision for this series is to surface and share insights of thought-leaders and trailblazers who live at the cutting edge of technology. While the opinions featured may not necessarily represent those of Verizon and its employees, we still believe that we can each learn from experiences and opinions of others, which is why we’ve chosen to feature them here. This dialogue is how we take the first steps towards making innovations that matter.

It hit me when Joshua Bell, the Smithsonian Museum’s Curator of Globalization, walked me through a large, heavy wooden door at the end of a long and somewhat shadowy hallway lined with ceiling-high file cabinets. It was a pang of a childhood memory, a feeling of wonderful surprise. As I exited the door, I was looking down on the elephant in the foyer of the grand entranceway of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Numerous people stood around it, taking pictures if its monumental scale, taking selfies. I was giddy that I now knew where this unspecific door led, a door that I had walked by numerous times during visits to the museum. I turned to look behind me…a creaky hallway with academic offices and cabinets filled with artifacts. All of the hallways behind these nondescript doors at the Smithsonian were lined with cabinets filled with artifacts. The museum is a collection, truly.

Joshua Bell is a cultural anthropologist, a person trained and paid to deeply understand the world around us in order to re-present the world back to us in ways we can insightfully grasp and ideally can then take action. As the Curator of Globalization his task is not modest, though his manner and demeanor is. He invited me to speak with him from his office at the Smithsonian. His office has the academic feel of a college classroom with walls that are lined with books on industrial grey metal shelves. A professorially busy desk resides in one corner on the left, a set of chairs and a coffee table in the opposite corner closer to the books on the right. I am immediately drawn to the books. Anthropology, art history, sociology, economics, I blurt out, “What a great office!” Joshua’s office is a ‘real’ office, meaning, it’s not a workstation…it’s a place of ones own to do the important work of their life.

I turn and sit with him at the two chairs near the books. “This is my social area,” he says smiling, rocking gently in his chair, “I’m fortunate to have this office.”

“Its an inspirational space,” I reply, gazing across from where we’re sitting at shelves of posters and more artifacts.

I learned about Joshua serendipitously as he is working on an exhibition about the global impact of the mobile phone. After searching online with a handful of keywords including “the future of mobile,” there he was. We were chatting for about ten minutes, discussing the parameters of what I was seeking, and Joshua started to roll out one insight after another, so I quickly turned on my recorder to capture our conversation…

Jason: We were just speaking about your vision for the future of mobile…

Joshua: As a cultural anthropologist I’m really interested in how people interact with objects and use it to situate themselves in space in time, construct identities, solve mysteries, and interact with the wider world. It may be a roundabout way of answering your question of, “what is the future of mobile,” but for me, one of the questions of mobile for me, and my colleagues Joel Kuipers and Alex Dent at George Washington University that I have been collaborating with for about 4 years, ethnographically, is about what cell phones are doing to us as humans? As people who move through time and space, how does this technology impact our sense of self? Our sense of others? Our sense of culture if you will? Physically, health, et cetera.

One of the key things about “the future of mobile” is that there are two narratives. One narrative is very dystopian, society is breaking down…we’re becoming more individualistic. We’re alone in a crowd and our phones are turning us in on ourselves. The flip side is that the phone is liberating us and is allowing for new political, social formations. I think I fall on… depends on the latest news… but I think I fall on the middle of this spectrum of ideas. And I do, because for me, when technology initially comes out it becomes a straightjacket in a sense. It conditions us to be a certain way through its design and capabilities. Cultural anthropology teaches us that though it does impact us, our culture is also our viewpoint, a system of beliefs and dispositions; actually affect how we use these things. There is no universal reaction to mobile phones. That opens up to really interesting questions about the extent of cultural impact and what could it do into the future.

The question we are still wrestling with is whether it’s the device itself or what the device does. And I have a feeling it’s what the device does and the kind of world of big data that these cell phones connect us to.

When I think about the future of mobile phones, I think about how the future is going to be a diverse one. And within a certain set of parameters, allow us to call each other from anywhere. But as smartphones, it condenses a whole range of activities that used to be dispersed throughout our technological realm. So it’s a powerful device, and what we found with our preliminary work with teenagers in Washington DC, is that it is an intensely personal one. So people view these things as highly important and essential to them.

Now the question we are still wrestling with is whether it’s the device itself or what the device does. And I have a feeling it’s what the device does and the kind of world of big data that these cell phones connect us to. I say this as the device though a singular object, for many people is something that they are constantly upgrading such that individual phones don’t matter as much as having access to what the phone can do. One of the things that we are testing and working through is to what extent people see cell phones as a kind of prosthesis. An extra part of us. And more and more I think they are. Personally, I can forget my wallet, but if I forget my phone, then I go back to get it. And for me, it’s becoming harder and harder to remember what it was like without a phone. How I coordinated things, or recording micro-interactions, or coordinating with my wife about our children, all examples within a wider set.

The future of the phone itself

The future of the phone has to do with scale and speed. What we will find is that these things will be faster and have greater capacity. Just the other day I saw Sony is creating a contact lenses that can record things. These will make Google Glasses look like a model T to our current cars. A large clunky thing we will laugh about. I think mobile devices are going to be wearable and this is where my interest in science fiction comes out, but I think it is more than likely that they could very well be implantable. In this sense they will literally become a part of you. That will be a fuller realization of what Donna Haraway talks about in terms of us being cyborgs. She would argue that we already are cyborgs, in terms of our computers, and other devices. So I think the cell phone will become smaller and faster and implantable. The question is so if that is the case, what will it do to us? And this is where the thought experiment and speculation arises and if you look towards current trends and issues, there are some interesting possibilities and speculations.

Where I work in Papua New Guinea, the people there have a much more fluid sense of self. They have this perspective of humans being cyborgs… In the anthropological literature … we refer to this as partible personhood or someone being a “dividual” … people see themselves as being part of other people and other people are a part of them.

We already live within in a data rich world through our phones and Internet. So if the Internet of Things is realizing we will become part of that in much more serious ways. That will raise questions of whether or not the government will use these for good or evil and that I’m not sure of. Culturally, I think that’s where interesting things will happen. Where I work in Papua New Guinea, the Purari Delta, the people there have a much more fluid sense of personhood. They have this perspective of humans being cyborgs. And by that I mean that you’re made of very different substances that are literally and metaphorically coming from other people. In the anthropological literature, emerging from the work of Marilyn Strathern, we refer to this as partible personhood or someone being a “dividual.” What this means is that people see themselves as being part of other people and that other people are a part of them. This partibility comes through gift-giving and other ritual interactions and cultural understandings of procreation. This view tends to be, but not exclusively, in societies in Melanesian communities (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) where people see each other often. But now, these people move around, they live in cities, they live internationally - these cultural perspectives of personhood are still there but they are now intermixed with our Western notions of individuality.

So in for the people from the Purari Delta, and Papua New Guinea more widely, with this worldview - these devices become portals that open us up in interesting ways. They become another way in which one’s person can be affected, such as having one’s voice stolen. In many senses, what we in the West are experiencing with these devices in terms of our anxieties, about data breaches - our anxieties about identity theft whether through Facebook or Instant Messenger, or our online banking. That sort of worries of others impacting us through our devices is similar to Papua New Guineans who have always thought deeply about their social relationships. That is this worry of external forces affecting you, is something people deal with often, particularly as manifested in worries of sorcery. So for example when becoming ill, people will wonder - why am I sick? Is it because I didn’t do this transaction or exchange correctly and upset my kin or ancestors? The state of one’s social relations are the lens through which illness and misfortune are interpreted. is what being partible entails. Now obviously this is an analogy, but I think it is important to consider this more open view of personhood when thinking about mobile phones.

There is a parallel here with our increased worries of our security breaches, and of our reputations. Which suggests that there is a merging of ourselves with our data. To some extent, Americans are their credit scores or at least this is how companies and financial institutions quantify us. There’s this merging of financial big data and the individual. The same issue comes up in terms of our social media selves, and the ways our images circulate now through our own doing and that of others. Just think of all the concern about our children’s and our own social media history. The concern about this being that youthful indiscretions will come back to haunt us when we apply for jobs or run for political office. These images are part of us, and their circulation has very definite impacts.

So cell phones, if implantable will raise questions of “do you want your whole life recorded? Do you want to be always connected?” I think some amazing things can happen through that connection, but then also bad things. So if we think of contemporary narratives of how we are disconnected, these are balanced out by the fact that people are talking around the world in new ways through these devices. Our sense of community is differentiated, it’s expanded. I don’t buy the argument that the Internet is shallow or that social media breeds a lack of depth. 

(As Joshua continued, I kept thinking on his point about the people of Papua New Guinea and their concept of self, of always being part of each other, that ‘myself’ is really made up of so much more of my environment, and my community, than I might realize.)

The ephemerality and necessity of mobile

Teenagers here in the US are very connected through Snapchat, which is an interesting ephemeral means of communication. This harkens back to how you and I grew up with the phone call, which wasn’t recorded, or through direct face-to-face communication. The similarities between these different forms of communication are their temporal nature. It’s interesting how Snapchat echoes an earlier form of communication but with a spin being mostly through still or moving images. Now we know that Snapchat does record things, so the ephemerality is somewhat misleading, but at least there is the illusion of that. In the future, I think there will be lots of trends that will emerge where that ephemerality will be key. People will probably work against having these devices implanted in them and there may be a huge segment of the population who will reject these devices. But this said, now it’s becoming more and more that you need a smart phone in the working world. So the question for the future is “what levels of access will people have? What inequalities? What new demands? If we have our devices on us all the time, will employers use them to track our health and productivity levels?” I’d like to think that we won’t go towards an Orwell’s vision of Big Brother from 1984. But I do wonder what will happen.

Mobile will allow people to continue with their diversity.

The flip side is that maybe through interconnectedness, there will be peace, and people will solve problems faster. I’m not sure. While there will be a lot of challenges, I don’t think mobile technology will culturally flatten or homogenize us. Mobile technology will allow people to continue with their diversity, and allow us to continue to create new forms of identity. I think a lot about this last issue for our project on teenagers in Washington, DC and the exhibit we hope to do here at the National Museum of Natural History…that while smart phone technology is pretty much the same around the world people treat and understand their devices differently. They bejewel them like in South Korea or Japan, and they personalize them in different ways through cases in the US or Africa. So I think there are interesting contemporary examples of certain identities or cultural trends being exemplified and amplified by mobile phones. In the future, I see this continuing to happen. Mobile technology, and the phone, will continue to be another domain through which cultural values, aesthetics and worldviews will be worked through. It will be really interesting to see what happens.

Implantable or modified phones

But in thinking about the future of mobile technology, the issue as I see it is two-fold. One is if these things become small enough, diverse enough, implantable enough, where will the innovation lie? Will it just be driven by be large corporations? I would hope not because across the US and the world, the DIY movement; and the work of repair and the hackathons that you see are fascinating. Right now there is a large segment of people who want to see how these devices work. This is something that my colleague Joel Kuipers and our team of researchers (Amanda Kemble, Briel Kobak and Jacqueline Hazen) spent a year studying here in Washington, DC through our ethnography of third party repair technicians. These individuals – technicians, enthusiasts, hackers - are vested in taking mobile devices apart to either repair them or to altering them. In the process they are innovating. In West Africa for example, people have modified phones so that they have dual SIM cards. These alterations speak to the human capacity to always innovate regardless of the resources or technology they have. That ability to continually tinker is something that I have hope for our collective future. The underlying question in all this work though is about resources. Do we, or will we, have the resources to sustain this electronic profusion? I think we will in that industry will have to become more sustainable. Or, ways will be found to use less materials through making smaller devices. That will be interesting to see.

Jason: One person I talked to, Ting Kelly, who’s working with bio-hacking companies…she believes that soon these things will lay thinly on your skin. Her vision is that it will make us healthier.

Joshua: It could very well. When I interviewed Marty Cooper, the inventor of cell phones at Motorola, he said the point of engineering “is to design and make these things that are second nature so that you won’t notice it.”  And the reason my colleagues and I are focusing on breakdown and repair; is because in the moment of breakage, you see what was previously unnoticeable. You see these devices, and then all your pre-conceptions of how these devices worked, of what it allows you to do, bubbles up. Right now, it’s not even been 10 years since the smart phone arrived. Next year, it will be. We still are in this period where we’re working out as a society…what is the etiquette with these things? How do we appropriately use them? But there will be a time, maybe 15-20 years from now, where people won’t even think about life without touch screens.

Thinking about Ting Kelly who you mentioned…making the technology totally transparent; adhere to you, to your clothing, will be a step forward in that direction. Looking at what Corning has done and is doing with glass, phones will be using fewer materials. It will help us transform a different gap. How can one use resources, or reuse them, and make them repairable. When I asked Marty Cooper what he thought the future of phones will be, he said, “There will be no repair, these things will be disposable.” I think he meant that mobile phones will be made with materials where dispensing of it, will have minimum impact or that they will be completely recyclable. And that will be a nice thing to have. But now at least, the extent to which these devices connect us in all the unseen ways to the hands that make these electronic devices and the places that these materials come from… For a lot of Americans, that is a largely unknown thing. Only until there is an incident somewhere in the world along the supply chain do people think about what is in their phone or who is involved in making them.

As an anthropologist, I’m interested in not only how do these devices affect us, but how these devices connect us globally in lots of interesting ways. I mean this not only in terms of communication but also through resource extraction, manufacture and cycles of repair and e-waste. More awareness about these connections will actually help all the people involved in the making and use of these devices. This is one outcome I hope the public will have coming to our planned exhibit – a new understanding of how their device connects them to the world in multiple ways: materially, socially, ecologically and economically. In terms of healthier, yeah I hope mobile phones of the future could do this. That’s a very hopeful utopian view on it. And yeah I would want that.

Jason: Going back to your earlier point…does the phone impact the culture or does culture impact the phone?

Insect Collection, Smithsonian Institute

Mobile phones are extensions of ourselves; social media overlaps us with others

Joshua: Culture always puts a layer on how we understand the technology. In my fieldwork, people in the Purari Delta name things. They name shotguns, canoes and outboard motors. People in the neighboring group, in the Orokolo also name their tractors. When I asked people why they name them, one man in Luku village told me that if he names his tractor with an ancestral name, it will actually listen to him. For them naming things activate the object such that it becomes a vessel for ancestral power and is animated. In the Purari Delta, one family I know named a shotgun after one of their dead forefathers, and in doing that they felt that his spirit coalesced in the gun and they believed that if they treated the gun well and showed respect by oiling it that it would shoot farther, and it would pull the game to them. Naming the shotgun put them more in touch with their material objects. Now I never heard of people doing that with their cell phones, but one of the astounding things about culture is that it gives people a template or set of tools to tackle things. So designers will create things thinking that cell phones have certain parameters and should be engaged with in a particular way, and while design will certainly define some parameters of use, how the technology is understood will always depend on the culture in which it is used. Because cell phones are so new, what’s fascinating is how this cultural understanding is emerging. Ethnography on the cross-cultural understandings of this technology is exciting because phones are still so new.

Jason: Our phones are becoming part of ourselves?

Joshua: Yes, our phones have become an extension of ourselves  An interesting aspect of a cell phone is social media. While some draw a line between the virtual and physical world, cell phones expand oneself in various ways. It is through this that our sense of self becomes more similar to Papua New Guineans – we become more defined by the visible metrics of social media. Through social media we now overlap with people. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, enables one to have new and different dialogues with others resulting in new understandings about oneself. With all these different choices of media, this is where our media ideologies emerge – that is we begin to see what our media preferences are. For example, we could have had this interview over the phone but this was not an option we discussed. Meeting in person was a choice that you made and it speaks about your media ideology. And I’m the same way. If I have a colleague in the museum I could email, call them or walk up and see them. If I have the time, I try to walk up to them because that is a lot more meaningful to me.

Back to my study with teenagers, they have much more choices with how to communicate. Their parents also have much more choices. So if dinner’s ready do you physically call them with one’s voice or do you text them to let them know? So the potential for cell phones is actually really interesting. What our devices tend to do, is to allow us to do what we’ve already done (talk), but the to do so with new possibilities such as through texts, images and videos. I can now Facetime my parents at the dinner table or when I was in Japan last year I Facetimed with my family. The struggle that humans have always had is how to communicate with each other. Most of us at some point in our lives or daily communication wonder: Am I intelligible to the other person? That’s why my colleagues and I are interested in the breakdown and repair. In our social life we’re always repairing things. There’s always that gap between us and others. That’s where asking for clarification is interesting. What the cell phone does is magnifying our capability and our reach of communication. Doing so, it raises the stakes of those breakdowns. Mis-sent text, email, or humor that don’t translate. That’s really interesting. The cell phone amplifies our ongoing human anxiety about being social with one another. Is that working? Are we being understood? Are we on common ground? Et cetera. What’s exciting is that the mobile phone allows us to communicate in old and new ways, but there’s room for more mistranslation and working through that.

Jason: In Africa, they are using phones for more than we might be here in the states. They were so “far behind” in wifi innovation that they innovated a mobile solution. Is that like how it’s going to be in the future, even here in the states, innovations leapfrogging each other?

Joshua: I think it could be. If you look at where we are compared to Europe and Africa, we’re behind. Even repair work, individuals in Africa are constantly innovating these products. That’s the future. That’s the way we get out of the dystopian view of what these devices will do to us. We need to look at the innovation, in Africa, for the potential future. But there’s not a lot for regulation or certain societal issues in place so people are actually freer to work on these devices.  I think within the US there are a lot of constraints in some ways, particularly due to copyright laws. In Africa, mobile money is one of those fantastic things that addresses a certain lack of infrastructure. To generalize, what’s happening here are innovations around engineering and corporations thinking about new ways of refining their devices and apps. In Africa, again to generalize, there is more innovation at a local level. Going forward, one would hope that the DIY movement will continue to gain favor in the US so that people will continue to tinker. If we want to become semi-autonomous with these devices, we have to know how these devices work. In the event that they break down, we can start fixing them. It also means we can help make them better.

Jason: Is there a key insight on culture and mobile you want to make sure I capture from this conversation?

Joshua: In the wake of the Orlando shootings, it was astounding to see the outpouring of emotion and solidarity from around the world, online, in social media. That’s actually fascinating and that gives me hope that social media can also help to promote the solidarity. Here we see people using mobile phones to connect to each other in meaningful ways. It is in such moments that we all begin to realize we live on a planet of finite resources, and that despite cultural difference we are a part of something bigger. The issue then is that we need to work collectively to figure out what the future will hold. The hope that I have for mobile technology is that it will help us all to make this vision of the world. So if you think of the famous photograph “Earthrise” taken from the moon, during the Apollo 8 mission…that image of the earth really worked to galvanize the environmental movement.  That image helped us all see where we live in a new way. So the question is, how can mobile technology do that? Maybe it is through connecting with each other through new, exciting and meaningful ways. Maybe if we all recognize our cyborg selves, we’ll actually realize that we are actually connected to each other through our technology and the labor, resources and ideas they bundle. And yes relations can be difficult, tricky, sticky, and messy, but they are important.So my hope is that mobile technology will led to a new understanding of community and us all better understand how we are connected to one another.

Joshua walked me out of the Smithsonian, down more hallways lined with cabinets. We entered one area, more like a room, filled with newer metal cabinets. These cabinets had 8x10 images affixed to each narrow side. I walked closer to get a closer look…bugs. These cabinets held thousands and thousands of different types of insect specimens.

“Bugs?” I asked.

“This is a natural history museum.” Joshua replied.

“What a fun place to work.”

“It really is,” Joshua agreed, “It’s an amazing place.”

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation