By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 14 June 2018
Author: Pauline Garvey.
Recognising that over the next 30 years the number of people in Ireland over the age of 55 will double and the number over 80 will quadruple, there are lots of initiatives dedicated to positive and active ageing in the capital city. In 2013 the Irish Department of Health published the National Positive Ageing Strategy which set out a ‘vision for an age-friendly society through the achievement of four national goals (participation, health, security and research)’. Dublin City Council claims the city was the first capital in the world to adopt a city-wide approach to becoming age-friendly. In order to do this the Dublin City Age Friendly Programme 2014-2019 tackles nine key areas that may negatively impact on older individuals. Under a series of headings it commits to providing alternatives to sheltered housing (Home and Community); supporting older people’s engagement with social and community life in which they live (Social Economic and Political Life); helping people volunteer or work in their locality (Learn, Develop and Work); providing facilities to engage in sports and activities (Healthy and Active Living). It also aspires to make the public sphere more manageable for older people such as providing adequate seating and level footpaths (Outdoor Space and Buildings); ensuring that public transport is adequate for journeys that older people are taking and the pedestrian crossings are timed at the correct speed (Transport, Safety) and finally ensuring access to information, both online and off-line for older individuals (Information).
Over the course of my research I will look at some of these initiatives more closely, but for now I’m interested in exploring how people access information. It is here that the digital divide can be most striking: when smart and competent people find themselves grappling with digital technologies such as simple commands on smartphones and computers. For an ever-growing number of activities such as booking a flight or reserving a table at a restaurant one is required to do it online. One organisation that is working to combat digital exclusion is Age Action and I was interested to note that one route to signing up for computing courses is by filling out an online form!. What at first glance looks like a contradiction is in fact something quite different. The Age Action website is directed to friends and relatives because feeling excluded from digital media impacts whole families and networks of friends rather than solitary individuals. One’s place in a social network is continually reiterated through simple messaging such as checking in with kin or organising meet-ups, allowing people to demonstrate care as well as receive it. Of course the question remains, what about the people who need help getting started but have no one who will intervene of their behalf? For these, the digital divide remains an insurmountable barrier.
By Alfonso Otaegui, on 11 June 2018
Conducting an urban ethnography in Santiago, Chile, has so far involved looking for opportunities in which to meet people who would agree to share their experiences on ageing and on the role of the smartphone in their everyday lives. As the coordinator of this project, Daniel Miller, once said, ‘Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering […], which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something’. I started, then, to volunteer as a teacher assistant at a cultural center for the elderly, helping out in two workshops on the usage of smartphones. This experience has been as rewarding as it is interesting. In four weekly meetings the students are taught the basics of smartphone usage: general settings (connecting to Wi-Fi networks, setting screen brightness, etc.), using the camera, WhatsApp and Google Maps. These very enthusiastic and engaged students do not represent the whole spectrum of relationships that the elderly have with the digital world. In a recent study in the UK by the Centre for Aging Better and the Good Things Foundation on the usage of internet by people aged between 55 and 93, the researchers aimed at including three key groups: resistant non-users (people who do not use the internet and do not intend to do so), lapsed users (former users of the internet who had stopped going online) and current users (experienced users and also beginners). If we used the same categories in my field site, we could say that the students of the workshop would be in the third group.
Even though I am working with a limited sample of people and am in the early stages of fieldwork, it is remarkable how ethnography has already allowed me to perceive the complexity of the practices surrounding the smartphone and to question several taken for granted assumptions on the life experiences of the elderly. One of the first things to notice here is the lack of homogeneity in the expectations of usage of smartphone: one lady wants to take HDR pictures to post later on Instagram, a man wants an app to scan QR codes he comes across in flyers, others want to use an app to measure glucose levels. In the same vein difficulties are also diverse: some might find it difficult to understand the difference between (paid) mobile data and (free) WiFi, or to understand the notion of ‘the cloud’, some others might have trouble with the touch interface. This diversity in the usage of the smartphone echoes the general diversity in the experience of ageing. As the psychologist specialized in pyschogerontology, Daniel Thumala, points out: ‘no hay una vejez, hay ‘vejeces’’ (2017). The contrast between the singular and the plural applied to ‘vejez’ (‘old age’) could be translated as ‘there is not one [standard] experience of ageing, there are [several] experiences of ageing”. Several factors play a role in every particular experience of ageing: family (as child and as parent), education, work, eating habits, exercise, toxic habits, etc. (Villalobos 2017). In the same way, several factors play a role in the adoption and usage of smartphones by the elderly: the usage of previous technologies (e.g. familiarity with a keyboard, or with playback icons), family support (e.g. tech assistance provided by grandchildren), education, fine motor skills and general expectations on the usage of the device (e.g. to gain independence, to stay in contact with family, to track bodily functions, etc.).
It will be interesting to go beyond the context of the workshop and to learn how the smartphone is integrated in the diverse experiences of everyday life of these engaged students. Media reports on the smartphone usually focus on the capacities it might bring to the user. If we take that perspective for a moment, even though it is by no means the only possible one, we could ask ourselves in what measure, if at all, the smartphone might be helpful for the elderly to gain higher autonomy. According to Thumala (2017) –and this goes against ageist preconceptions on the dependency of elderly people–, 76% of elderly people in Chile are autonomous. It would be interesting to see if the smartphone plays any role at all in this autonomy.
Miller, Daniel (@DannyAnth). “Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering (I am pretty good at making tea), which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something.” 19 April 2018, 12:18 a.m. Tweet.
Richardson, James. 2018. I Am Connected: new approaches to supporting people in later life online. Centre for Ageing Better and the Good Things Foundation. [free download at https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/research-publications/i-am-connected-new-approaches-supporting-people-later-life-online]
Thumala, Daniela. 2017. Imágenes sociales del envejecimiento. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile
Villalobos C., Alicia. 2017. Conceptos básicos acerca del autocuidado. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile.
By Daniel Miller, on 1 June 2018
Author: Daniel Miller
I have spent the last two months in my Irish fieldsite trying to answer a simple question: what is a smartphone? Actually, it’s a fiendishly difficult question. Several older people started our discussion by insisting that the only things they use their phones for are voice calls and texting. Once we looked at the phone in more detail, it turned out that just the most common functions include WhatsApp, maps, voice calls, camera, alarm/time, Facebook, text messages, calendar, weather and news. Once we add a variety of more specialist apps such as sports, music, airlines, banks etc. we easily reach the most typical result which would be that an individual uses between twenty-five and thirty different functions of their smartphone.
In the newspapers, the personalisation of the smartphone is understood as the advances in algorithms and artificial intelligence, which allow smartphones to learn from people and predict their behaviour. But, just as in our previous Why We Post project, for the ethnographer, these corporate developments pale into insignificance compared to the personalisation represented by the diversity of usage that will arise from the way an individual configures this multitude of apps.
Indeed, it may be the personality of the user that comes across most. A man expresses a particular version of masculinity in demonstrating how all his usage is based on need and pragmatism. He mentions more than once how, now his daughter is no longer in Australia, he will never use Skype again. By contrast, a woman, aged 69, has every last detail of her life, from the steps involved in paying each particular type of bill, to the slide decks from workshops she has attended, all carefully classified in nested hierarchies of icons on her iPhone. About the only thing she doesn’t like is the clumsy and intrusive Siri. In both cases the smartphone effectively expresses their personality. Sometimes a particular activity dominates an individual’s phone life; a phone where everything is geared to a retirement spent playing and teaching the banjo, or a phone that contains seven apps all associated with sailing. It’s not that a woman is addicted to her phone, or even to YouTube per. se., it’s just that she can’t stop spending two hours a day following US politics on YouTube. More commonly the phone will revolve around three or four key activities and concerns such as a combination of family, sports, holidays, and photography.
Working with people in their 60s and 70s, I come to appreciate that they are not elderly, but that much of their life may be devoted to caring for an elderly parent in their 90s. For some of these people everything about the phone is connected with this responsibility of care, whether mobilising family care through WhatsApp, showing pictures of great grandchildren through Facebook, using maps to get to a hospital appointment, employing phone and text to negotiate with the local council and never turning the phone off, because you never know…
An equally important component of what makes the phone is people’s lack of knowledge. An older person is told to download an app, but she has never heard of Google Play and so attempts this action using an icon labelled ‘Downloads’. A man won’t buy a new Samsung Galaxy because it doesn’t have an inbuilt radio and he doesn’t know he can download radio as an app. Many users do not know the distinction between Wi-Fi and data that they have to pay for, so they won’t watch video while on Wi-Fi because they think it will cost them. Many can’t understand that a phone which ‘doesn’t work’, is not a broken phone, rather they just need to go about something in a different way. This is because the smartphone has so little in common with traditions of machines and tools. There is no manual they can actually use. Trying to work out precisely why one 80-year-old finds every little step impossible and another seems entirely comfortable in using these phones may give us many clues as to what, in effect, a smartphone is.
In the newspapers the smartphone appears as the constant development of new capacities – articles about the latest thing you can do with your smartphone are commonplace. For the ethnographer the smartphone is the myriad constellation of new actualities – we strive for an appreciation of what ordinary people create with or cannot understand about these devices.
By Shireen Walton, on 28 May 2018
Author: Charlotte Hawkins
In many ways, mobile phones have allowed people in Africa to overcome the limits of state bureaucracy (de Bruijn and van Dijk, 2012: 12). To further credit the versatile potential of mobile communication, and the need for it, these limits have recently started closing in on mobile phone use in Uganda with two particularly contentious issues. Firstly, an embargo has been issued on SIM card registration to ensure the validity of existing data following a spate of unresolved kidnappings. Secondly, President Museveni has proposed a tax on social media use in order to address the deficit. WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Viber are all targets for the proposed daily fee of 100ush for all simcards using such “over the top” platforms. According to the President, social media is used only for ‘olugambo’ or ‘gossip’. He has exempted internet use for educational purposes, as “[i]t is like going to the library using the encyclopedia or referring to the dictionary. These must remain free”.
During fieldwork in the Ugandan context of intrinsic kinship (Whyte & Whyte, 2004: 77) and “scattered families”, I have observed many instances in which social media is used for more than ‘olugambo’, which itself is more than fruitless. As Tanja Ahlin notes in her study of migrant families’ care of elders through ICTs, phone practices are “not only about communication, just as remittances are not only about sending money” (2017). This frames an overarching question for my on-going research in Uganda; what are “over the top” platforms used for other than gossip? Many people have shown me how WhatsApp groups are used to circulate information –
I’m told that even the news of this proposed taxation reached 15,000 people in 10 minutes; “if anything seems to be relevant and effecting the lives of people directly, the messages tend to go very fast”.
WhatsApp groups also appear to be commonly used to share information about health. As one interviewee told me, he is part of a group with friends who are Doctors and teachers, “any information one of them gets, I get it here”. Or another, who recently found out the nutritional content of beetroot and bananas through his WhatsApp group and has started eating more of them. Or the hospital staff, who have a forum on WhatsApp for sharing information about patients and medical supplies, supporting health workers to do their jobs efficiently. As one message about the benefits of lemon peel circulated on WhatsApp recently stated, “thank goodness for Social Media…Pls forward to lots of friends”.
 https://www.independent.co.ug/mtn-stops-sale-of-new-sim-cards/, accessed 03.04.18
- Ahlin, T., 2017. Only Near Is Dear? Doing Elderly Care with Everyday ICTs in Indian Transnational Families: Elderly Care with ICTs in Indian Families. Med. Anthropol. Q. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12404
- de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R., 2012. Introduction, in: de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R. (Eds.), The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- Whyte, S.R., Whyte, M.A., 2004. Children’s Children: Time and Relatedness in Eastern Uganda. Afr. J. Int. Afr. Inst. 74, 76–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3556745
By Shireen Walton, on 23 May 2018
Author: Maya de Vries
As the days go by, I am starting to become more familiar with my field site of Dar al Hawa in East Jerusalem. Recently, I joined the Elderly’s Club in the village community center.
The club was opened in 1985, before the foundation of the community center. A group of 50-60 year olds meet here twice a week – on Sundays and Thursdays at 10am, for 2-3 hours of various activities – including lectures concerning culture, health, welfare, nutrition and religion. One of the most popular activities they have is a regular sports lesson for adults, usually while sitting on a chair.
Most of the elderly people who come to the club were born and raised in Dar al Hawa. It is their hometown, in which they feel most comfortable and safe. In many cases, the houses people live in are the same in which they grew up, or moved into when they got married. This is especially the case for women, many of whom live close to their children’s families. So why should they join this club, rather than remaining within the comfort and safety of their own home and families?
The act of leaving the security of an elder’s home is not simple, since it usually takes quite a lot of physical effort. Those who live nearby can easily walk, but others who live in more distant streets use a special transport system organized by the community center. Their presence is also depended on the weather; if it is too cold it is most likely that less people will show up. Some will call their friends to see if they are coming or not, but most of them will provide updates on their actions through the WhatsApp group of “the elderly club”, administrated by the club instructor.
One reason this club is succeeding in retaining its members is that it has tried not to impose rules on its participants. This is important in respecting the seniority of older people. As such, each person can come and go as she/he wishes; they just need to be friendly to each other and quiet during a lecture or class. Being quiet does not always come easily however, as they seem to enjoy their conversations.
The majority of the people who attend the club are women. In the exercise class, the women sit on sofas close to the wall, while the men sit at the front table. Over time, individual women will develop particular roles. One woman serves water, making sure no one will be thirsty. There is also the ‘joker’, who keeps everyone laughing during an activity, another walks in and out of the room as she takes various phones calls.
Mobile phones frequently go off during lectures, meetings and films, even during a religion lesson given by the local Imam. When asked who carries a mobile phone, everyone raised their hand. All but two were Smartphones. The most popular apps are WhatsApp Messenger and Imo – these two apps make it easier and cheaper for people here to speak with relatives and friends in Jordan, Kuwait and America. At first glance, it seems that despite their age, they handle their device quite well.
On closer inspection, however, the problems become more apparent. It is often hard for individuals to hear the ringtones, or to make the swiping action needed to unlock and open their phones. Many of these people may not be aware of the presence of apps already on their phone, which could potentially help them with health issues such as exercising, Most of the people I speak with here do not know they can download an app for the local health clinics that can assist them in setting doctor appointments, renew subscriptions, and so on.
Notably, every person I talked with about his or her smartphones told me that they are getting help and instructions from their grandchildren – they teach them how write, how to upload a post, how to call and even how to post on Facebook. In this manner, smartphones, from isolating people, may help to bring family members closer together, and to bridge a kind of digital divide that exists between the generations. At the same time, the interruptions created by phone calls cuts through the flow of the group’s activity, undermining its unity; – it literally pulls out the elderly from the room.
In short, both the club and the smartphone work here at the intersection of individualism and sociality. The club is a social forum that helps counter isolation, but works by respecting the individual. The phone is strongly associated with the individual, who may not be aware of many of its possibilities, but it has become a major link to the wider collective. These two aspects appear to work in tandem. Hence, a person who lacks the support of their family or community is also unlikely to learn to use their phone.
By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 May 2018
Author: Xinyuan Wang
Early last month, I asked a group of young professionals a question: where can I get to know retired people in Shanghai? “You must visit the People’s Park!” one claimed. “Yes, in the People’s park you will meet the typical Chinese parents who force their children to get married!” one added. “My mum kept arranging blind dates for me, I feel like crying” another one complained. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told the People’s Park is the place where retired Chinese parents would gather and arrange blind dates for their adult children.
I visited the People’s Park the following Sunday. It is a sanctuary with trees, ponds and winding brick paths in the very heart of the city center. In a corner of the park there is a crowded and bustling ‘marriage bazaar’ taking place. Parents in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s gather there to find life partners for their children (fig. 1).
Personal profiles of singles dangle from strings, lie on floor, are held aloft by parents, and most of them are clipped atop open umbrellas (fig. 2). Lining the brick pathways are more than six-hundred open umbrellas.
The personal profiles displayed here are extraordinarily plain – essentially non-visual – pictures and colours are scarce. On a plain A4 size sheet of white paper, a list of personal details, including age, height, household registration area, job, annual income, property ownership, situation of parents (job, health status) are stated outright. The real name and contact details of the person in question are absent, only the mobile number of the person’s parent is provided – to ensure that the parents are the ‘gatekeepers’.
I wondered why these parents don’t go for online dating websites. As far as I observed, it is not because they are unfamiliar with the digital – quite the opposite, all of them have a smartphone in their hands. It is probably because such non-digital meeting is actually more efficient than the online dating. “Here is more reliable, dating websites are for young kids for fun.” one lady in her late 50s said. In the park, parents can immediately arrange a quick face-to-face meeting with the parent(s) of candidates. The parents chat with each other and if they get along with each other and believe their children match, they’ll then arrange a blind date for their children. It’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.
Furthermore, the marriage bazaar developed organically over more than a decade in Shanghai. Retired people were meeting at the park to practice dancing, play chess and cards. As a social hub for retired people, the matchmaking arose naturally as one of the most important and popular topics at this corner. The social function of the marriage bazaar cannot be underestimated: to arrange blind dates in a way is an excuse for a massive congregation of middle-aged people who share similar values.
Chinese young professionals may dislike the way their parents are getting involved in their personal issues, but as a researcher, I am obliged to empathetically engage with both sides, and to understand why this new phenomenon has arisen.
By Shireen Walton, on 14 May 2018
Author: Patrick Awondo
Last week, I was sitting in a kind of popular restaurant here in Yaoundé, known as a “tourne-dos”. The expression means “showing your back”, which describes the particular way people sit in street restaurants near the road, not wanting to be recognized by passers by.
I took my place in one such “tourne-dos” and was preparing to order my food, when I noticed that the two men sat next to me were both holding two phones. Actually, this is not uncommon in Yaoundé, and elsewhere in Cameroon. Although the 19 millions Cameroonians who have a mobile phone tend to have just one phone, a significant number of people own two or three smartphones, and use them simultaneously. In fact, so significant is this phenomenon of multiple phone ownership, that one of my Cameroonian friends living in France, prior to the start of my fieldwork, advised that I should focus on this prominent issue in my research.
Tracing the best network
Indeed, people I have had discussions with – whether young or old, rich or poor – often highlight the fact that they keep two or more phones. Their respective explanations all make sense.
The most widely cited reason for having more than one phone is the variability of access and cost amongst the many different mobile phone operators in the country. Even in cities these differences still hold true. In Yaoundé, some areas are less covered by llrtain networks, while others have good quality almost everywhere, with accurate services. Two weeks ago, one of my informants told me that the habit of having many cell phones is a practical answer to the weakness of mobile networks companies:
“you see in some neighborhoods you merely find the two mains companies Orange and MTN. You are then obliged to have a third one, which could be Nextel or even Camtel. Some of my friends have two or three simcards. They think this is a good solution”.
Having multiple phones (and sim cards) therefore appears to be something that helps people stay connected everywhere in the city and across the country. Another informant explained how he has created his own hierarchy of mobile phone companies:
“you need to choose the best one to be reachable everywhere. People have their own preferences, depending on who they call and where those people are located. Sometimes you have to call your parents who are in the village far from Yaoundé. There is no MTN or Orange network, but only Nextel or Camtel – you need to have one of those if you want to talk to your people. You have to get a Camtel or Nextel sim and buy a cell phone dedicated to this only.”
Along the necessity of having multiple networks for comprehensive access, there are also other reasons. People mention, for instance, certain economic and strategic arguments.
Coping with the cost of mobile phone services
Some of my informants have stated that having multiple phones and sims is a way of managing the cost of mobile phone services. In Yaoundé, as elsewhere in the country, there are four main mobile operators; the French Orange, the South African MTN, the Korean Nextel and the Cameroonian Camtel. Although there is a regulatory Agency for Telecommunication (ART), the cost of mobile services can vary from one to another operator depending on the city and the kind of call one is making (whether local, international, internet). On October 26th, the ART published an article on its blog entitled “The comparative tariffs for mobile and fixed-line operators in the third quarter of 2016”. The publication illustrates how the cost of international calls can differ greatly among the respective networks:
Camtel CTPhone 70F / Min (7h-20h) and 35F / min (20h-7h) 85F / min N / A
MTN 1.02F / sec 1.5F / sec 3.54F / sec and 5.1F / sec
Nextel 0.9F / sec 1.1F / sec 3F / sec
Orange 1.02F / sec 1.02F / sec 5.1F / sec
In addition to issues of connectivity and cost, for some other of my informants in Yaoundé, having one or more cell phones is a way of following social trends, and participating in contemporary social life. Owning two or more smartphones also signifies that one has money and deserves a kind of respect. Sometimes, people dedicate one smartphone for Internet use only, while keeping others only for calls.
In sum, there are many arguments for explaining why people here have multiple phones – some reasons are practical, some seem to be more symbolic /aesthetic, as well as professional. Such explanations go a long way in explaining the exceptional boom of the mobile phone industry in Yaoundé.
By Shireen Walton, on 4 May 2018
Conversations between people meeting for the first time are often marked by the question “where are you from?”. In some cases, this may be the natural utterance of, say, a curious neighbour, while in other contexts the question may be positioned and/or received as a significant political issue. Here in Milan, questions of roots and routes (Clifford 1997) have characterised many of my daily conversations with people. On the one hand this is perhaps not surprising, since I have chosen to conduct research within a ‘superdiverse’ (Vertovec 2007) neighbourhood, where identities blur, bend, and bounce in a myriad of compelling ways. In another sense, this can also be put down to my own presence here: the ethnographer with a not-so clear nationality, with a first name that sounds foreign for some, but familiar to others. This predicament of being myself una straniera (a foreigner) is proving a socially rich point of contact and connection with all kinds of people in this part of the city, particularly within the different activities I am involved in as a ‘participant-observer’, such as attending and assisting in Italian language classes for foreigners. But there is a deeper, historical facet to questions of origins in northern Italy that is a core facet of my ethnographic research.
Many people here in Milan can be regarded in one way or another as a migrant – including Italians from the south of the country, many of whom came during the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s. In his film Rocco and His Brothers (1960),
Luchino Visconti, a pioneer of the socially conscious Italian Neorealist cinema of the post-war period, shows how migrants and their families from the south faced significant social challenges in adjusting to the different experience and pace of urban, industrial life in the north – alongside the pain and nostalgia of missing or losing one’s home.
Throughout the course of the film, the Parondi family, recently moved to Milan, struggle between their traditional values – of family duty and honour – and the more individualistic society creating its vision of a modern lifestyle in the big city (Bondanella 2001: 196-199). Ultimately, the family unravels at the seams, highlighting, among other issues, the difficulties of integration.
In reality, over time, the majority of internal Italian migrants settled, secured jobs, got married, and begot future generations. Today, these are the elderly Italians that I meet, and who live side-by-side with newer generations of foreign migrants, who have themselves come to Milan in recent decades seeking work, following their families, and pursing economic stability.
In several instances in everyday life, such as at the local Friday market, all of these peoples can be seen sharing economic and social space, while in the political sphere, questions of identity continue to divide groups and foster allegiances.
This history of various mobilities has been described to me here as follows: “there is no Milanese – we are all foreigners!” Or, a similar sentiment put in the reverse sense, “no one is a foreigner” (see image below).
These expressions appear to emphasise the community’s general attitude of respect for the co-existence of many cultural and ethnic groups here. Their term ‘Milanese’ however is clearly not the same reference point as it is, say, for the wealthier, noble families who have been part of the city’s political and cultural life for centuries – including the family of Luchino Visconti. So while the framework of my study might have been positioned to compare the experiences of Italians with migrants, in effect I am unearthing the deeper historical issues of rupture and rearranged family structures, as well as the wider interplay between mobile phones and mobility, that affect all of these populations. The task, therefore, is to explore and illustrate precisely how these processes have as much to do with the different historical experiences of the various Italian populations, as they do between Italian and foreign others.
Bondanella, P. (2001). Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, 3rd edition, Bloomsbury.
Clifford, J. (1997). Roots: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Harvard Universtiy Press.
Vertovec, S. (2007). ‘Superdiversity and its Implications’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 6: New Directions in the Anthropology of Migration and Multiculturalism.
By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 26 April 2018
Author: Marilia Duque
Helen, a 67-year-old woman, was frustrated when she couldn’t show me all the pictures of her grandchildren that she keeps on her smartphone. “I came here with nothing. It is not safe”, she said. We were talking at a large square where people come to walk and exercise every day. Curiously, the place is also one of the 200 points with free WI-FI provided by the City Hall in São Paulo. Like Helen, many people who I’ve been talking to mentioned that they don’t feel comfortable using their smartphones in public spaces. Most of them agreed it is not safe to make and receive calls or to text on the streets. And they have good reason to be scared.
The number of robberies involving mobile phones represented 65.1 % of all robberies registered by the police in São Paulo in February of this year (percentage over total robberies involving documents, money, and mobile phones). According to the journal “O Estado de S. Paulo”, half of the streets of São Paulo had at least one mobile phone robbery reported from 2016 to 2017. I talked to 60 people in my fieldsite during this month and the numbers are also impressive. More than half of the informants had a smartphone stolen at least once or have someone in their family who experienced this. Because of that, people are creating different strategies to protect themselves and their smartphones in public spaces. For example, Lucy (65) said she would never answer a call on the street: “I just let it ring”. Lilly (67) makes some exceptions: “I take a quick look inside my bag. If it is one of my children who is calling I just go inside one of the stores on the street, so I can answer the call”. Jonas (56) doesn’t have children but accepts emergency calls only after he gets inside some safe space, like a coffee shop or mall. I have found more people who choose to leave their smartphones at home as a strategy to avoid violence: “I won’t risk my life”, one of the informants told me.
People who have never had a mobile phone stolen or who don’t have a relative who did, feel lucky or blessed. Some of them also believe they haven’t been stolen because their devices are too old (they don’t have a smartphone), like one of my informants said: “Nobody wants that. They would probably say to me to throw it away as garbage”. That is not the case of Marcus (60). He already has a smartphone, a two-year-old one. But when I asked him when he was planning to buy a new one, he answered: “The next time someone steals mine”.
When I started my fieldwork, I thought the cost of service and the high rate of illiteracy (24% of the population older than 60 years) could be the two main barriers for the development of m-health initiatives for elderly people in Brazil. But security has became one of the key issue I will need to be aware of from now on. The strategy to leave the smartphone at home, for example, can invalidate two potential functionalities m-health apps can provide. The first is reminding elderly people to take their medicines correctly. According to Silva, (Schimidt and Silva, 2012), 40% to 75% of old people don’t take medicines at the right time or in the right dosage. The second is to contact relatives in case of a fall: one functionality provided by the apps Elderly Help or Mobil-SOS Be Safe, for example (Souza and Silva, 2016). All these advantages can be lost if elderly people just don’t feel safe enough to take their smartphones wherever they go. As one of my informants told me “if you have white hair, you are already a target”.
Silva, R; Schimidt, O.; Silva, S. (2012). Polifarmácia em Geriatria. Revista AMRIGS 56 (2): p. 164-174.
Souza, C.; Silva, M. (2016). Aplicativos para smartphones e sua colaboração na capacidade funcional de idosos. Revista Saúde Digital, Tecnologia e Educação 1 (1): p. 06-19
By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 19 April 2018
Someone recently told me about how he encourages his 86-year-old mother, whom he lives with, to use her home blood pressure monitor every day and record her readings in a notebook. He said that doctors had prescribed her medication to lower her blood pressure, which she did not like to take. His solution was to turn to traditional Japanese medicine which he explained is tailored to the individual’s body, rather than western medicine which relies on a universal concept of the body. He was able to track the success of this approach through the home monitoring kit, and now her blood pressure is back to normal. This story reveals how infrastructures of care are made up of various integrated systems – that blockages in the form of non-adherence may reveal alternative routes by which people navigate care and self-care.
I am part of a reading group at Osaka University hosted by Gergely Mohacsi and Atsuro Morita. A few weeks ago we discussed Morita’s recent co-edited volume called ‘Infrastructure and Social Complexity’ (Harvey, Bruun, Morita 2017). He explained that a recent focus on infrastructure in social sciences, indeed an ‘infrastrucutural turn’ in anthropology, is a result of infrastructures becoming increasingly precarious and therefore more visible. Ageing infrastructures are becoming more and more tangible as we bump up against cracks in roads and other markers of decay. Infrastructures are systems that should enable things to flow, whether that’s water, electricity, goods, or people. But what happens when people are disconnected from infrastructures, or for whatever reason the flow is blocked?
I began to think about how smartphones are integral to navigating many of the infrastructures that enmesh us, for example through maps that visually place you within an infrastructure of roads, or health apps that extend the infrastructure of a national health service towards more individualised care. However, as digital technology becomes more integral to health services will people with limited access (through lack of digital literacy, or affordability for example) face increased marginalisation from infrastructures of care? And how are health professionals to identify blockages in the flow of care before it’s too late for individual patients? In such cases where care is not received, it is not only the infrastructure which is revealed to be vulnerable, but individuals themselves.
A couple of days after the seminar I happened to read a newly published article titled ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ (Weiner and Will 2018) in which the authors use the concept of care infrastructure to look at the variety of people, things and spaces involved in self-monitoring using a blood pressure device. Their work reveals self-monitoring as a socio-material arrangement that expresses care for self and for others, as opposed to focusing only on the individual and the device: “Specifically, our analysis has drawn attention to the range of local actors and work involved in the practice of self-monitoring, even in the case of consumer technologies. Through this attention to work, monitoring may also come to be seen as involving not just data, but also care amongst kin, family and colleagues.” My intention for my research was always to look at smartphones as situated within wider practices and things including other technologies and people, but thinking specifically in terms of infrastructure expands my scope and gives rise to questions about how multi-layered flows are connected (or not), ranging from state level, to family based care.
Harvey, P., Jensen, C. B., Morita, A. (2017). Infrastructure and Social Complexity. Routledge
Weiner, K. and Will, C (2018) ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ in Sociology of Health and Illness 40: 270–282. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12590.