Are smartphones redefining our sense of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’?

Nowadays, we travel farther and wider. Yet, we are more connected than ever. Mobile devices connected to the Internet have given us a tool wherein communication transcends borders and physical boundaries. Does living in a network society alter our perception of ‘home’ and redefine our sense of ‘belonging’?

Featured image: Thanks to Tim Gouw

What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and experiencing one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

The Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless devices make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss army knife of sociality. It carried my physically scattered social networks intact.  As heavenly as it might sound, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner conflict.

I was between worlds, because my best friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was or in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance, while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library during my student days in Maastricht, one of my best friends attended pub quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us ventured alone, yet Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Networked intimacy: technology could be altering our sense of ‘home’

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy.

The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba, who was studying with me in Maastricht, told me: “I moved from my hometown in Germany and I went to Botswana, I went to Luxembourg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, I also felt my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings when these are not possible. My Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness.

This becomes noticeable in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

Belonging: No longer tied to a physical space, but to an emotional connection

The sense of visual immediacy experienced online creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Even when people are physically distant, social networks act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived.

At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This year’s theme is ‘Connection’.  Join us this November 16 to share some of our main speakers’ ideas worth spreading and commit to action for a more equitable world.

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;