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What is a smartphone?

DanielMiller1 June 2018

Author: Daniel Miller

Photo (CC BY) newkemall

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.

From smartphones to target phones – By Marilia Duque

LauraHaapio-Kirk26 April 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Photo (CC BY) 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.

Photo (CC BY) Pixabay

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”.

References:

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

Infrastructures of Care

LauraHaapio-Kirk19 April 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

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?

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

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.

References

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.

Looking to the Future – by Marilia Duque

LauraHaapio-Kirk3 March 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

By the year 2050, the Brazilian population over 60 years old is expected to grow from 24 million to 66 million[1]. Fortunately, my first impression of the District of Vila Mariana, in São Paulo city, where I have been conducting ethnography since January, is that there are already innumerable initiatives for the elderly, both public and private.

In addition to public health units, there is the AME-IDOSO for example, a centre dedicated exclusively to the care of people over 60, taking referrals from other health units in the city of São Paulo. It provides examinations, medical appointments and treatments, as well as activities such as dance classes. Just a few blocks away, you can find the Elderly Coexistence Centre (NCI), also subsidised by São Paulo City Hall. If you are 60+ and live in the Vila Mariana District you can join a large number of activities such as knitting and crocheting, fitness, circular dancing, senior dance, manual work, pilates, painting on canvas, chanting, memory games and rhythm dancing. I went there the week before the carnival. When I arrived, it was snack time. While one group were doing a dance class in the lounge integrated into a beautiful garden, another group were chatting and eating, all dressed up in traditional carnival ornaments. The worker told me that the menu takes into account the food restrictions and needs of the participants.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

During this first month, I have already mapped five squares in the neighbourhood, all of them with gymnastics equipment, in another São Paulo City Hall initiative for people over 60 called “Longevity Playground: Happiness is Ageless”.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

But if you keep walking you will also see many gyms offering activities for the elderly with special prices, not to mention Aqui Fitness, which has a program of physical activities developed by a geriatrician. And just a few minutes away, you can also exercise your mind and improve yourself; the Nossa Senhora da Saúde Parish offers an adult literacy course (20.4% of the population of Brazil over 60 is illiterate[2]), language classes and a Whatsapp course, especially for people over 60.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

One of my ethnographic challenges is to investigate how the ageing population in the neighbourhood perceives these initiatives. Do they really work? Do they work for everyone? Could appearances be deceptive? This is an important point because Vila Mariana District is far from being a utopia. You can choose to see just the modern buildings that are rising everywhere among the two storey houses. But you will have some difficulty ignoring the Mario Cardin Community, a favela where more than 500 families live in precarious conditions, or the homeless people living on the streets.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

But for the moment let us take this apparent wealth of amenities at face value. Actually, this raises a rather different question. Do Brazilian people have to get old before they experience something approaching the support and solidarity of an egalitarian state?

 

 

[1] http://www2.camara.leg.br/a-camara/estruturaadm/altosestudos/pdf/brasil-2050-os-desafios-de-uma-nacao-que-envelhece/view

[2] https://agenciadenoticias.ibge.gov.br/agencia-noticias/2013-agencia-de-noticias/releases/18992-pnad-continua-2016-51-da-populacao-com-25-anos-ou-mais-do-brasil-possuiam-apenas-o-ensino-fundamental-completo.html

Individualised Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 February 2018

(CC By) Laura Haapio-Kirk

Yesterday I met a woman who told me about her grandmother who lived until the age of 99 years and 11 months. She told me how she lived alone in the countryside yet was busy every day up until the end of her life. In her later years she took it upon herself to care for the mountain behind her house, focusing especially on ridding it of weeds. Her granddaughter claimed this daily (and apparently endless) work was one of the main reasons why she maintained her health up until the end. Such stories have been told repeatedly to me in the three weeks since arriving in Japan. Stories of elderly people maintaining their health by cultivating vegetables, teaching traditional arts, or indeed weeding mountains, abound.

(CC By) Laura Haapio-Kirk

From the conversations I have had, there appears to be a social expectation for an individual to maintain an active life for as long as possible and to continue to contribute to society in old age. This can also involve minimising the appearance of frailty and dependence. Another woman told me of how her grandmother, who also lives alone, makes use of a local health facility which picks her up in a minibus twice a week. However, she does not let the minibus collect her from outside her house, preferring to walk around the block so that her dependence on institutional support will not be visible to the neighbours. For this elderly woman, the fact that she lives alone and not with her family gives rise to sense of shame. She continually puts pressure on her children and grandchildren, asking when they will move closer to take care of her.

What is fascinating to me is the tension between an individual’s responsibility for self-care and the social motivations for maintaining one’s health. As Japan undergoes a shift towards a more individualised society (Allison, 2013), consequences such as loneliness and isolation are felt particularly by the elderly, especially if they are used to living in traditional multigenerational households (known as ie). However, my project focuses on the middle-aged who are caught in the middle of these tensions. They both desire the privacy and independence of living apart from parents, while wanting to fulfil their sense of filial piety. The couple with whom I am staying are both in their 60s and close to retirement. Their house is attached to that of the husband’s parents who are in their 90s and mostly independent. The elderly parents shop and cook for themselves and I have witnessed only rare interaction between the two households. The main mode of communication is an interphone system which buzzes sometimes in the evening, for example when the grandmother wants to share gifts of food she has received from the temple, or simply to let her son know that she is going to bed. While the elderly parents do not own a telephone, the interphone allows them to maintain a separation while facilitating daily communication. As monitoring and smart home technology becomes more commonplace, it will be interesting to see if this technology accelerates the trend towards an individualised society by facilitating care at a distance.

 

References

Allison, A. (2013) Precarious Japan. Duke University Press

 

‘Healthy Ireland’ by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk16 February 2018

From the Healthy Ireland website: http://www.healthyireland.ie/

Author: Pauline Garvey

 

Just last month the Irish government launched the latest national initiative to promote health and wellbeing across the country. The Healthy Ireland campaign 2018 was launched on the 6th January and aims to encourage people to ‘get active, eat well and mind their mental wellbeing’ (www.healthyIreland.ie).  Many of the planned initiatives run through local libraries and are advertised by pictures of families cycling through wooded glades or groups of friends exercising outdoors.

On the day of the launch in Dublin’s sporting venue Croke Park, Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Leo Varadkar said:

The message of the Government’s Healthy Ireland 2018 campaign is simple; I’m encouraging everyone to get involved, by making the small changes needed to improve your health and your family’s health. That could mean including a walk in your daily routine, making healthier choice at meal times or taking a break from your phone to give your mental health a boost. These positive and sustainable changes can help us all build a healthy Ireland (MerrionStreet 06/01/18).

The webpage dedicated to HealthyIreland acknowledges that social factors such as levels of education and income, or housing and work conditions may adversely affect health, and are determined by social, environmental and economic policies beyond the direct responsibility or remit of the health sector. Therefore the campaign asserts the ‘health sector alone cannot address these problems – we must collectively change our approach.’

Excessive mobile-phone use has now been added to nutrition and exercise as a health risk. And while this is interesting, it is perhaps not surprising. Frequent associations between an unhealthy attachment or addictive behaviour and mobile-phone use have been profiled in the national media recently. For example in December 2017 new research from Deloitte, found that 90% of 18-75-year-olds in Ireland now own or have access to a smartphone – putting Ireland among the top users of smartphones in Europe. By comparison 88% of people own, or have access to a smartphone in Europe. Richard Howard, head of technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte greeted this figure with some caution: “Mobile devices are a relatively new ‘addiction’ to our social fabric and they form an important part of our daily activities and interactions’ (Quann 2017).

There are lots of unknowns in smart-phone use, which is why we are currently investigating this topic, and why we try to understand the smartphone in actual life situations. For example while the Deloitte study found that half of Irish people thought they used their phone too much, 60% thought their partner used it too much! What does this tell us of the place of the phone in negotiating relationships? Are people neglecting their loved ones, forging new friendships or engaging with existing friends and family in novel ways?

Meanwhile the government’s response in the Healthy Ireland Campaign is clear:  “Take the stairs rather than the lift, Eat more fruit and veg, Take a 30-minute break from your phone”. And Varadkar describes his own practice of turning off the phone during meals – “it not only makes the meal more pleasant and your interaction with people more pleasant, it is actually good for your headspace.”  (O’Connor 07/01/18)

 

References:

HealthyIreland 2018, www.healthyireland.ie

MerrionStreet Irish Government News Service 06/01/18, available online at https://merrionstreet.ie/en/Issues/Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_launches_Healthy_Ireland_2018_campaign.html (http://www.healthyireland.ie/about/)

O’Connor, Wayne 07/01/18 ‘Healthy Ireland 2018 aims to get us all fitter and more mindful’ Irish Independent, available online at https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/healthy-ireland-2018-aims-to-get-us-all-fitter-and-more-mindful-36464484.html.

Quann, Jack 05/12/17 ‘Three million Irish people now own or have access to a smartphone’, available online at http://www.newstalk.com/Mobile-phone-habits-of-Irish-people-revealed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya

DanielMiller2 February 2018

Our team is certainly blessed, in that just as we set out on our study of midlife, a joyous and profound book is published on exactly this subject: Reflections on Midlife: A philosophical Guide by the philosopher Kieran Setiya. I can’t imagine a better treatment by a philosopher of topics ranging from whether there is a mid-life crisis, how to be reconciled to the lives we haven’t and won’t live, the fear of death, or the issues of regret, missing out and retrospection. It’s a clear read and acts a collection point for some of the `best bits’ on this topic from sources ranging from Aristotle, through Schopenhauer to Simone de Beauvoir. It is also a kind of practice guide for the actually middle-aged (such as myself) on how to live in the present, how to value activities in their own right and not just as projects, and why the path to happiness is always through others. As it happens there were also substantial sections whose aspirations I do not share, such as his concluding sections on Buddhism and mindfulness, which to me still speaks to an orientation to the self and the body. I would prefer to watch paint dry than to contemplate my own breathing, and generally I prefer a more social and ethical orientation to resolving these dilemmas.

Creative Commons Gregg Vaughn

This book takes nothing away from our task as anthropologists. Setiya’s volume is an exercise in thinking about how other people might think about midlife, and much of it is about contemplation. But as I note in my own recent book The Comfort of People, the hospice patients I worked with don’t do much of this contemplation about the meaning and purpose of life. They valorise the life they have actually lived through continuities of practice, such as watching TV and keeping up with family relationships. We have a perhaps harder task in extrapolating our insights on how people relate to midlife from our interrogation and interpretation of such embedded practices within everyday life. And in our case, we will do this comparatively, considering the difference in such practices around the world. Anthropology is not a handmaiden to philosophy – it is trying to achieve rather different goals, but I feel equally important ones. Still I suspect there are going to be quite a few of my informants to whom I might end up recommending Setiya’s book, simply for the good I think it can do in understanding one’s life and in the pleasure of just reading a well crafted book.

The Anthropology of Smartphone Apps

DanielMiller14 December 2017

The ASSA project is broad, including a focus upon middle age and a commitment to an engagement with mHealth. But at the centre of our work, connecting all the other elements, will be eleven ethnographies of smartphones. We are interested in the way that people in midlife, who may have started worrying about the loss of their capacities in life, are suddenly confronting an object, the smartphone, that seems to promise all sorts of new capacities. This represents the clearest point of continuity with our earlier Why We Post project. Indeed, in the book How the World Changed Social Media the previous team predicted that social media will shift from being a discrete category, to become assimilated within the emerging culture of smartphone Apps. We want to provide the patient scholarship of sixteen months engagement to assess this extraordinary new world.

Tinh tế Photo (Creative Commons)

Against the journalism that claims that these are either entirely positive or negative, our focus is likely to be on the integral contradictions.  Apps can appear as a shift towards still greater individualism with a focus upon monitoring the self. But Why We Post showed social media to be often a re-engagement with traditional sociality, such as constant communication with family and friends. App culture means it matters less than ever where one is actually located, and yet one of the most important genre of apps is dedicated to improving one’s locational skills and seeing the world in terms of maps. Apps provide still more immediate and comprehensive linkage to knowledge of the world, including news and yet simultaneously provide greater capacity to disengage from that world through gaming and fantasy. They can dematerialise music and books, but become our most important material possession.

The role of anthropology is to acknowledge the complexity and contradictory nature of app culture as a rejoinder to simplistic claims and simplistic moralising. But also, to show that for ordinary people, most of the time, these contradictions are not particularly problematic. They have been rapidly absorbed as part of everyday life. Understanding how people in our respective fieldsites have achieved this act of creative appropriation will help anthropology in its ultimate quest – which is to better understand the nature of humanity.