Interview with Daniel Miller, professor of anthropology at University College London. His earlier work was on material culture and consumption. Since 2000 he has been researching and developing programmes in Digital Anthropology. He is author/editor of 41 books. He previously directed the Why We Post project on the use and consequence of social media. Today he directs the ASSA project, which looks at the anthropology of the smartphone in the context of ageing and health. Both projects are based at UCL and funded by the ERC.
How do you evaluate the current push to ‘live’ our personal lives with and through digital technologies?
There is nothing new about sharing our personal lives. What is new is the increasing value placed on individual privacy. In a recent book The Qualified Self by Lee Humphreys she shows how in Victorian times the personal diary was often a means of telling family and wider audiences about the day to day trivia of one’s life. In our Why We Post project, we found that large segments of the global population, for example people living in rural China and countries in South Asia were not brought up with the same expectations of personal privacy people living in England or Japan might have. The fact that they constantly share their private life with wider audiences on social media is continuous with the historical traditions of families and community in these regions. My first book on social media, called Tales from Facebook, showed how Facebook was quickly localised in Trinidad to reflect historical traditions of gossip and revelation that were seen as defining Trinidadian culture.
The anthropological argument for the continued importance of cultural heterogeneity has been somewhat vindicated over the last few months. While any country might now deploy contract tracing apps, how each community navigates the fine line between care and surveillance is a moral, not a technological problem. In South Korea, where digital privacy laws have been loosened, it seems obvious that infringements on privacy are regarded trivial compared to lowering fatalities. For other communities, such as many US Republicans, nothing should encroach on the sanctity of individual privacy.
Each population has its own perspective. In studying social media as used by informants in an English village, I observed that people posted enough private information to make it seem that they were being friendly to more distant relatives or less close friends. But I found that really, they hoped that this online sharing would be enough to stop such people actually getting in touch for conversations or meetings, which would have been much more intimate. So to understand the long term trends it is the assumptions about privacy that we need to expose.
What did/do your research projects reveal about different ‘speeds’ of digitalisation and social and cultural differences across the Globe?
We can make some generalisations about smartphones. In the ASSA project we call the smartphone our Transportal Home because it has become as much a place we live within as a device we communicate from. We show evidence for what we call Perpetual Opportunism. We find that everywhere the visual, pictures of facial expressions or stickers, joins the textual and oral as a form of conversation. These are all general trends.
We should not, however, over generalise digitalisation. China advanced rapidly to digitise monetary transactions, while in Japan, historically seen as a high-tech country, they prefer to use cash. But Japan advanced in digitalising technologies of care, such as robots, in advance of China. One of the major factors is of course, affordability. Our current Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project found much slower uptake of smartphones in a low-income area of Kampala, Uganda, we found there is much slower uptake of smartphones than in an affluent middle-class town in Ireland, At the same time, the Ugandan population may find ingenious and creative ways to cut costs, such as downloading music from USB sticks or Bluetooth. Bluetooth.
There are regional differences that have nothing to do with income. Older people in China embrace smartphones rapidly as good citizens with a duty to help modernise the country, while older people elsewhere tend to be conservative and see smartphones as addictive or corrupting the young. Low income Brazilians post images that show their aspirations not the reality of their lives, while low income Chileans feel they can only post the truth since everyone knows how they really live. English women who become mothers disappear from their own Facebook profile and use the infant’s image in their place, while Trinidadians on becoming a mother post glamorous images to show they are not just mothers. One advantage of social media is that it makes such regional differences visually clear and evident for researchers. There is no overall pace of digitialisation, rather this brings out the different priorities of diverse populations.