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Experiences of ageing: as diverse as the experiences of using a smartphone

AlfonsoOtaegui11 June 2018

Photo (CC BY) Garry Knight

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.

 

References

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.

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

Yaoundé’s obsession with sport and health – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk27 March 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Every day at 6 a.m. thousands of citizens invade the street of Yaoundé. As well as work, many are there for sporting activities such as running. They make evident the hundreds of formal and informal associations devoted to sports, and health.

This Saturday morning, as usual, retiree Samuel (58) is here with his wife (55) and his grandson (6). Samuel is the co-founder of a sport group called “club santé famille” (“family health club”). Starting in 2015 with 3 members, they now number more than 70. Each member pays a small participation fee for basic equipment (small carpets, tracksuit), and a coach who directs the two-hour session. These sessions are mainly held on weekends and include dance aerobic activities, running walking and also just relaxing. There are three main categories of such groups:

  • Sports groups based on ethnic and friendship networks
  • Sport and culture groups that include other self-help activities such as (informal banking, cultural activities)
  • Professional sport groups.

(CC – BY) Patrick Awondo

Sport and health in an unequal city

Yaoundé is a city of enclaves and inequality, which is reflected in these weekend sports. In my three main fieldsites, Mvog-Ada, Quartier Fouda and Mfandena, the distribution of sports infrastructures illustrate the gap between the citizens’ commitment to sport and the lack of public facilities to support those efforts. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, promote sport as a condition of a healthy life, as against smoking and drinking. Despite which there is a lack of public infrastructure to support sports initiatives. In Mvog-Ada there is basically no place for running or even walking on the narrow streets. Sports groups have to cross the city to find a stadium or free space for running such as the University of Yaoundé 1 campus,  and the Omnisport stadium which is being prepared for the 2019 African football nations cup.

Gender

One striking feature in Yaoundé is womens’ commitment to sports. While a decade ago an informant noted that women rarely participated in sport, today they dominate. As one of my informants (a 45-year-old teacher), underlined, you would rarely find women involved in those groups. Nowadays, the groups are dominated by women. In the “famille santé club” among the 70 registered members, 55 are women.

 

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

 

The boom of Smartphones and social media in Cameroon – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 January 2018

According to a French media study published in March 2017, smartphone usage has experienced a marked increase in Cameroon and other African countries in 2016. Quoting from the study, Médiamétrie notes: “in Cameroon, the number of homes with smartphones has increased by 43% to 72.2% just in the second half of 2016” [1]. This gives Cameroon, a central African country of 23 million inhabitants, one of the highest rates of smartphone use in Africa. Médiamétrie, also measured the performance of social networks in Cameroon for the first time in 2016. The results show that 68.2% of individuals aged 15 and over are registered on a social network, including 75.3% among those aged 15-24. Facebook is the most popular network followed by Google+, Instagram and Twitter. Though the survey was limited to the four main cities and may not reflect rural usage.

Another study suggests that in 2016 Cameroon reached internet penetration rate of 21%, a rise in one year from 11% [2]. These results are intriguing but leave open the question as to how the daily life of Cameroonians has been impacted by smartphones and social media. For example, how do smartphones and social media reframe social interactions among families and groups? Another important question concerns differences in the age-related usage of smartphone and social media in this country of a predominantly young population (45% of people are less than 15 years old). How do smartphones, social media, and health apps change the experience of ageing?


These questions are central to my research which aims to understand the way smartphones are changing the experience of mid-life and to consider the implications for mHealth in Cameroon. Working in Yaoundé for the coming 16 months, I will investigate the changing meaning of age and the impact of app culture especially for 40-70 year olds who are often ignored in studies of smartphone use. Studying such a group in a predominantly youthful place will no doubt be challenging, but offers an opportunity to better inform mHealth design from an under-represented perspective.

– Patrick Awondo

[1] http://www.mediametrie.fr/television/communiques/l-audience-de-la-television-de-la-radio-et-l-usage-des-reseaux-sociaux-au-cameroun.php?id=1694

[2] Jumia, GSMA Mobile Report We are Social, 2017