Life Purpose in the Age of the Smartphone: Reflections from Comparative Anthropology


  • Laila Abed Rabho Associate FellowThe Harry S. Truman Research Institutefor The Advancement of PeaceThe Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Maya de Vries Department of Communications Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Daniel Miller Department of Anthropology UCL



Ageing, Smartphone, Religion, Life purpose, Explicit


In this paper, we investigate whether there exists in different societies something analogous to the idea of ‘life purpose.’ Drawing on examples from across the entire range of ASSA project field sites, the paper is organised as a spectrum, starting from the case of Japan where ikigai is the most explicit example of having a life purpose and is a commonly used expression. We then argue that, in some regions, such as Palestine, the idea of life purpose is entirely subsumed within religion. This is followed by several cases where social reproduction seems to dominate life purpose, often based on securing the success of future generations. We then turn to more implicit examples of life purpose, starting with Xinyuan Wang’s study of the relationship between the Cultural Revolution and the smartphone revolution in Shanghai. We then examine the case of Ireland where life purpose is extrapolated from a more general expansive cosmology. We end the paper with the possibility that some people in England may see an advantage in not having any sense of life purpose. In the conclusion, we argue that, just as we now recognise that social cohesion does not require the moral guidance of religion, so too is there no need to have a category of life purpose. But, either implicitly or explicitly, most cultures do have a variety of ideals that we might equate with life purpose.


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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Aging