In Smartphone Cultures, editors Jane Vincent and Leslie Haddon bring together contributors to offer nuanced analysis of the role and cultures of smartphones for different groups. The high-calibre, creative research and secondary analysis found across the volume emphasise the importance of understanding user experience and the value of qualitative work and should inspire future innovative user-focused research projects and interventions, finds Matthew Hacke.

Smartphone Cultures. Jane Vincent and Leslie Haddon (eds). Routledge. 2018.

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Everyone seems to be worried about screen time. Recent research by the American National Institute of Health ominously, but inconclusively, found ‘significant differences’ in the brains of some children who use smartphones habitually. Almost apologetically, the most recent iPhone operating system tracks the time you spend on your phone. For parents meanwhile, iOS offers a screen-time monitoring system linked to their children’s devices, which provides alarming warnings of ‘above average use after bedtime’ and suchlike. The irony of adults spending excessive time using screens to curtail children’s excessive use of screens has, as of yet, gone unnoticed.

Many of the contributors to Smartphone Cultures, edited by Jane Vincent and Leslie Haddon, would see these concerns as characteristic of the incorporation of digital products into our lives. In the introduction to Smartphone Cultures, Vincent and Haddon suggest Paul Du Gay et al’s ‘Circuit of Culture’ as a useful way for understanding this process. The circuit has five intersecting points: representation, identity, regulation, consumption and production. Du Gay et al argue that all these aspects mix together to form how we understand and use a digital product. Thinking about the above ‘screen time’ example, you can see these points at play. The representation element is obvious – clear in the image of an ‘addicted’ child as media trope. But, seen as this ‘addiction’ is in no small part driven by the relentless marketing of new technology, it is essential to consider the role of consumption and production in and behind this image. In the main, the chapters in Smartphone Cultures use Du Gay’s model creatively, offering nuanced analysis of the role and ‘culture’ of smartphones in various demographic groups. However, the text is light on final conclusions that could translate these intelligent readings into interventions in ongoing debates around smartphone technology.

As an anthology work, Smartphone Cultures covers a lot of ground, featuring field research from Brazil, Europe and Africa. Several chapters offer secondary analysis of the Net Children Go Mobile project, a mixed methodology study on internet and mobile phone use amongst 9-16 year olds in Europe. The methodology is covered in depth by Giovanni Mascheroni in ‘Addiction or Emancipation?’, but he and the other contributors who use the research tend to focus on the qualitative element: a rich dataset made up of 55 focus groups and 107 interviews with children and 40 focus groups and 44 interviews with adults. The scale of this project isn’t matched elsewhere in the anthology, and the researchers who use it do well to provide precise findings from this large bed of information.

Mascheroni, for example, uses the survey to understand the extent to which children see themselves and their peers as ‘addicted’ or at risk due to excessive phone use. Here, hearsay and misinterpreted adult feedback make children key actors in embedding and expressing this cultural trope. Mascheroni presents one child concerned about ‘WhatsAppItis [ …] it is really bad for the bones in your thumbs […] you can hurt yourself very badly, when you type as hard and as long on WhatApp’ (123). The capacity for young people to absorb and distort information and regulation aimed at them is clear in the Net Children Go Mobile project. This makes it a rich source of information to underpin Smartphone Cultures.

Image Credit: (Marco Verch CC BY 2.0)

That isn’t to say, however, that the smaller-scale research projects presented in Smartphone Cultures are lacking. Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol and Andrea Rosales’s excellent chapter on the use of Whatsapp amongst older people, for example, deploys ethnographic and participatory methods which offer a vibrant picture of elderly people in Barcelona adopting smartphone technology in real time. Fernández-Ardèvol and Rosales develop rapport with their subjects effectively, unpacking curious in-group rules that have been carried over from previous communication channels such as the phone landline. This insight into the stubbornness of communication practice couldn’t have been achieved without their participatory research methodology. Such careful design is indicative of the research in Smartphone Cultures, and goes some way to developing compelling images of human lives online.

The chapters in Smartphone Cultures which drill down into the day-to-day usage of smartphones offer the most interesting insights. Many contributors employ ‘domestication analysis’ tools alongside Du Gay et al’s ‘Circuit of Culture’ to structure their arguments. Haddon defines domestication analysis in the second half of the text as that which:

enables us to understand how [people] acquired information and communication technologies, the nature of that access, their uses of the technologies, the location and timing of that use and how and why they talk about or otherwise display their devices and services (71)

Evidence which focuses on how people use technology, rather than how we expect them to utilise it, should be a given. However, this often isn’t the case, which can lead to wrongheaded interventions, both at a personal and a policy level. The contributors to Smartphone Cultures are clearly conscious of this, and use the domestication toolkit to illustrate how these discrepancies can occur. Haddon does this particularly well in ‘Domestication and Constraints on ICT Use’, which focuses on the ways in which children navigate various restrictions on their smartphone use. Here, Haddon demonstrates the extent to which parental pressures and in-school rules, alongside external concerns such as fear of theft and cost of use, are internalised by young people. By building a granular understanding of location and timings of use, Haddon convincingly argues that children learn self-regulation through exposure to a wide range of stimuli, rather than excessive, hands-on restriction in the home or in class. It’s hard not to be impressed by such analysis, and it’s easy to imagine it inspiring accountable and collaborative digital policy in the future.

Smartphone Cultures demonstrates the transformative potential of digital communications. A wide range of users and experiences are captured here, indicating the extent to which the smartphone has already redefined relationships across the globe. Sadly, Carla Barros’s chapter on ‘Collective Use of Mobile Phones in the Global South’ offers the only sustained engagement with smartphone adoption in the developing world. With the advent of companies such as MPesa, a mobile-based microfinancing and money transfer platform used by millions in Africa and Asia, emerging markets are a particular site of innovative domestication. In the future, these narratives should be covered in more depth.

It is clear from this anthology that Cultural Studies has a defining role to play in the evaluation of technological progress. The excellent field research and secondary analysis shared in Smartphone Cultures emphasise the importance of user experience and qualitative work, creating a compelling case to better understand the culture of smartphone use symbiotic to its infrastructure. In light of this, I was slightly disappointed by the book’s conclusion, which vaguely pointed towards a dynamic future of new ‘cultures’ and ‘readings’ rather than knitting the previous chapters together into a case for intervention. This was a shame, considering that there is a really extensive evidence base here, especially with regards to children’s use of digital technology. Overall, however, the high-calibre, creative research in Smartphone Cultures makes it a worthwhile read for subject matter experts in the academy and in the workplace. This text should motivate a range of innovative user-focused research projects and interventions in the future.

Matthew Hacke holds a Master’s with distinction and a First Class undergraduate degree from the University of Exeter. His interests lie in the digital humanities, and in projects relating to security studies, social inequality and war studies. Read more by Matthew Hacke.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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