New Study Shows We Actually ‘Live’ Inside Our Smartphones, Not Our Homes


We’re all familiar with the phrase, “there’s no place like home”. Whether it was embroidered onto one of your Nanna’s cushions or you have Dorothy’s voice ingrained into your memory as she clicks her heels three times in The Wizard of Oz. In this context, we think of home as a place or a house that we grew up in or somewhere that feels comforting to us.

But according to a new study from a group of anthropologists, we now call our smartphones our home.

The researchers’ argument is that smartphones have become so fundamental to our lives, that they’re more like places we live, rather than tools of communication. I mean, they definitely have a point. 

I haven’t lost my phone many times, but when I have, there’s a horrible sense of panic that washes over me. How will I know the time? How will I get transportation? How will I find my way around? Check my emails on the go? Talk to my mum? Losing your phone feels like losing a part of yourself; the part that connects all the dots. 

Then, there are the social media profiles. Our internet selves. The person we portray on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter… and even on work chat forums, email threads and Zoom meetings. Although they’re still you, it’s a version of you that is achieved through an online profile that you create to be however you desire. Your online persona lives in your phone. Whenever you reply to a message or post a picture, you’re building upon your online presence. 

In the study that analysed how we use the devices across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, the researchers at University College London (UCL) said smartphone users are like “human snails carrying our homes in our pocket“. 

“You have one room for watching entertainment, another one for socialising with your friends, another one for organising your life,” Daniel Miller, the study’s lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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

Keeping up with worldwide news, accessing health services, discussing politics openly, keeping in touch with friends and relatives on opposite sides of the globes; smartphones have helped to create this world of opportunity that we are lucky to live in today.

Of course, there are downsides. The researchers point out that people pay so much attention to their virtual home that they can neglect their physical home as well as those around them. They’ve called this phenomena “death of proximity”, which can cause rifts in relationships and connections with the people in our lives. 

And I can relate. Sometimes, the world on my phone looks more fun, luxurious and carefree than the world I physically inhabit. I think a lot of people use their online persona or their virtual homes as a form of escapism, when they’re having a shitty day at work, or are struggling with something in their personal lives. When this happens, being your ‘preferred self’ can be a relief. 

This can be a positive thing; a momentary distraction, a way of expressing yourself that doesn’t feel as anxiety-inducing as real-life action, reflection and interaction. But it can also be a negative thing, as you may start to devalue your relationships with others, or stop appreciating the things – or the life – that you already have. 

“(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.”

The home our smartphones create for us will vary between people. No two smartphone homes are the same, just like no two newsfeeds are the same; it’s entirely dependent on the owner.

For example, for a young person who cannot afford to buy a home and is still living with their parents, 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, adding another perspective: “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 published 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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