Monograph: The Digitizing Family

Book CoverFrom the Publisher: At once a digital ethnography of smartphones and a classically conceived village-based ethnography, this book relocates the study of digital technologies to rural Melanesia, with a focus on the Lau of Malaita, Soloman Islands. In this ‘technography’, Geoffrey Hobbis studies the materiality and functional attributes of smartphones and their object biographies—modes of acquisition, maintenance, uses, limitations and the problems specific to this region in adopting and adapting smartphones in everyday life. As he examines the various uses of smartphones, as both telephone and multimedia device, Hobbis also explores the social and cultural transformations, the hopes and uncertainties, with which they are associated. Ultimately, in bringing together a study of digital technologies with classical anthropological theory, The Digitizing Family develops a theory of smartphones as kinship technologies and supercompositional objects.

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Endorsements (alphabetically organized)

“Hobbis offers readers the first comprehensive ethnographic account of how a globalized digital artifact—the smartphone—has become embedded in the everyday life of rural Melanesians, even when people lack financial means to make frequent calls and the infrastructural capacity to go online. His insightful discussion of smartphones as versatile tools for making and unmaking kinship and personhood registers the profound moral ambivalence surrounding these devices. The Digitizing Family is a well composed snapshot of a fast-evolving technological system that blends digital anthropology and  material culture studies in thought-provoking ways.”

Robert J. Foster, Professor of Anthropology, Professor of Visual & Cultural Studies, Richard L. Turner Professor of Humanities, Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester and Co-Editor of The Moral Economy of Mobile Phones: Pacific Islands Perspectives (2018).

“The Digitizing Family is the first ethnography of life with smartphones in rural Solomon Islands. Bringing into dialogue different theoretical and linguistic traditions of the study of digital media and technologies, Hobbis creatively integrates classic anthropological studies of Melanesian self and personhood with the latest scholarship in digital anthropology. Illustrating both the ordinary and extraordinary use of the smartphone in the rural Pacific, Hobbis presents both a surprising account of everyday smartphone usage outside of the West, and highlights the continued importance of long-term fieldwork and anthropological analysis for the study of new communication technologies.”

Heather A. Horst, Professor and Director of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, Australia

“The rather astonishingly rapid spread of mobile phones and related technology to all parts of the globe since the millenium presents anthropologists with a unique challenge. Such technology infuses many aspects of people’s lives and has ramifications throughout entire social systems. The way it affects and is affected by varying cultural regimes provides a great opportunity for producing controlled comparisons, which are the hallmark of anthropology’s finest accomplishments. However, it will take an array of detailed ethnographies, such as that provided by Geoffrey Hobbis, to get the job done. In this superb, comprehensive account of the ramifications of cellphone use in a village in the Solomon Islands, Hobbis has set a high standard indeed; his work serves as a model for how anthropologists should approach the issues involved at local levels anywhere in the world.”

Alan Howard, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

“By coming to grips with digital technology in a Melanesian community, Geoffrey Hobbis tackles key interrogations of Technologie Culturelle, the one strain of material culture studies that does not push the physical dimension of objects under the carpet. His meticulous and vivid “technography” documents and analyses how high-tech devices mingle with old as well as new aspects of a fast-changing village way of life. The Digitizing Family gives a neat and vivid description of the compelling attraction of small and secret screens that are both a means to soften the numerous straightjackets invented by the local church and elders, and a necessity to sneak inside the outside and far away urban life.”

Pierre Lemonnier, Honorary Director of Research at CNRS-CREDO (Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l Oceanie, Aix-Marseille-Universite, France) and author of Mundane Objects: Materiality and Non-verbal Communication.

“‘Digitizing Family’ makes fascinating reading—and a significant contribution to media anthropology. Hobbis shows that smartphones have offered major benefits in the Solomon Islands despite many barriers faced by users. Nevertheless, rural people’s smartphone use builds on their symbolic practices in unexpected ways, eluding any generalizations about the developmental role of mobile technology. Hobbis gives a nuanced description of how smartphone movie watching has emerged as a particularly transformative activity for families. As elsewhere, a close relationship has evolved between the body and mobile phone, but, in the case of Solomon Islands, this closeness enables contagious magic, sending ancestral spirits through smartphones to inflict harm on others. Theoretically, the book bridges digital anthropology with technology studies, analyzing the complexity of smartphones’ compositional elements.”

Sirpa Tenhunen, Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki and author of A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India.