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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The anthropology of mobile phones

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What do people carry? Through five years of research in countries across the world including China, Brazil, India and Africa, researcher Jan Chipchase has found that across all cultures and peoples, the answer is quite simple: keys, money, and a mobile phone. These three objects essentially represent tools for survival. Keys provide us with shelter and warmth, money gives us access to food and sustenance, and a mobile phone, according to Jan's research, is essential as a recovery tool. In this TED talk, Jan discusses his thoughts about what culture, design, and innovation will be like when everyone can transcend space and time in a personal and convenient manner through the use of a mobile device.

Using many examples from his research, Jan emphasizes the forgetfulness of human beings as an important part of his analysis. One example that speaks to all of us was his idea that our homes form a kind of "center of gravity" for our possessions. It's where the things that are most essential to us end up, and where we first look for them if they go missing. An example he specifically mentions is the living room table, because it is often where we drop our keys as soon as we have walked in the door. He also studies how people who are illiterate can use technology to improve their communication. Jan also uses culturally specific examples to highlight the importance and potential for mobile phones in future years in areas including banking.

What will it mean when everyone's identities are mobile? We are moving towards a global culture where our identities are not fixed, but rather have potential to transcend space and time in a personal and convenient manner through the use of a mobile phone. Historically, people's identities have been tied to norms, traditions, and mores. Anthropologists and their expertise in understanding how people make sense of the world around them, will be essential in the coming years as technology transforms how we relate to each other.

Jan concludes with four insights from his research that he believes will be important to consider as we move forward in our highly connected and rapidly changing times. First, companies and designers must embrace everyone on the planet in order to make big ideas. Second, the speed of adoption of objects and ideas will become faster when mobiles allow everyone to tap into information. Third, product designers and big companies are creating products to satisfy our basic needs, but "the street" can do it better than we can. If we're smart, we'll study behavioral patterns to generate better ideas, and design things we didn't know we wanted. Fourth, in the most anthropological sense, the conversation needs to move towards listening to people because that's where big ideas come from.

Jan Chipchase is currently the Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design, leading the firm's global research practice in both mainstream and emerging markets. Before joining Frog Design in 2010, he was the principal researcher at Nokia. Jan has written for numerous international publications including Die Zeit, The Atlantic, Fast Company, National Geographic and a monthly column for China's Economic Observer. His field-photography has also appeared in GEO magazine. His book Hidden in Plain Sight, published by Harper Business, will be released in April 2013.

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