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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/pedr-v602


AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Smartphones and the Fine Line between Care and Surveillance


digital and virtual anthropology



Two recent developments have made the fine line between care and surveillance central not only to anthropology but to politics and popular morality: the rise of smartphones and the response to Covid-19. The balance between care and surveillance has always been a condition of human experience. A working definition of God, for many religions, would be a being who sees everything and cares for everyone. Today, parents may regard monitoring children’s smartphones use as care, while the children may regard this as surveillance. The ways in which this fine line manifests in relation to the smartphone in different cultural settings is one of several key offerings of a current anthropological project called The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA). Based on 10 simultaneous 16-month ethnographies, the project examined the way smartphones are used by older people. In many regions studied, an immediate response to frailty is to create a message group to coordinate care among relatives and friends. At the same time, older people have asserted their agency with a variety of discourses and digital practices that revolve around avoiding being a burden on others. Ethnographies in Kampala, Yaoundé and Japan document the use of smartphones to support older people while respecting their autonomy. The ethnographies also present how smartphones can facilitate older people as agents of care, alongside familial negotiations such as mother-daughter relationships in Milan. These domestic examples are now a microcosm for an unprecedented global development in both surveillance and care in response to Covid-19. Smartphone-based apps are being considered around the world for track and trace operations in the bid to suppress Covid-19. Problematising such developments are books such as Surveillance Capitalism and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which already exposed the capacities of smartphones to allow states and companies access to personal data. Combined with Big Data and AI, this seems to betoken a scenario of Big Brother-style total control. Yet a failure to use such smartphone apps is simultaneously now evidence for whether or not the state actually cares enough about its citizens to employ the requisite technology. The ethnographies discussed in this roundtable address these issues around surveillance technology in response to the pandemic in Brazil, China and Ireland. Anthropology is the ideal discipline to explore these issues because we are used to understanding the relationship between the microcosm - in this case, the fine line between domestic care and domestic surveillance, and the macrocosm • the fine line between care and surveillance exemplified by smartphone apps involved in the response to Covid-19 at a national and a global level. The aim of this roundtable is to exploit the discursive format to develop a comparative anthropology that can contribute towards broad anthropological insights through the application of specific ethnographic findings, in this case regarding digital responses to Covid-19.


Transcript English (automatic)

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