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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Blame the phone..! UI design and elderly smartphone users.

AlfonsoOtaegui12 August 2018

Photo (CC BY) J Stimp.

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, a first step in my ethnography of the experience of ageing and the use of smartphones involved volunteering at a cultural center in the working-class neighborhood where I am living in Santiago de Chile. For a couple of months, I have been a teacher’s assistant in two workshops on the usage of smartphones aimed at elderly people. In these workshops lasting for four weeks, enthusiastic grey-haired students learn the basics of smartphones settings (unblocking the phone, connecting to Wi-Fi, turning on and off the GPS, flight mode and the like), how to use the Camera app, Whatsapp and Google Maps.

In addition, for a couple of weeks, I have been giving a complementary workshop by myself, for those who have already finished the main workshop. This complementary workshop focuses on repetition and exercising: students have the opportunity to practice in more extended periods of time what they have learnt in the first workshop, and to go step-by-step over and over again. This complementary workshop has given me the opportunity to be in more frequent contact with the students, and to become more familiar with their struggles and their success in mastering this nowadays pervasive new device. Many of the difficulties I noticed have been also spotted by my colleague Marilia Pereira in her field site in Brazil.

One of the most common feelings expressed by the students at the beginning is frustration: the phone doesn’t do what the teacher has just shown, the screen goes off all of a sudden, or cryptic warnings pop up, among other things. In my short experience so far, the most common —yet invisible— difficulty lies in the touch interface. Many elderly students find it difficult to distinguish between a ‘tap’ and a ‘long press’, and they tend to do a ‘long press’ when a ‘tap’ is required. I believe it is related to the lack of self-confidence when using the smartphone: they press the button long enough to be sure they are pressing it (as with a door bell). The problem though, is that the long press is a different input and therefore produces a result other than the expected one. Another difficulty lies in hitting the exact right spot on the screen, as, again, a slight miss has a different outcome (e.g. on Android’s Whatsapp’s chats menu, hitting the contact picture will show you that picture, hitting just a little to the right will open the chat), contributing to the general feeling of frustration.

Another common experience is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the vast array of menus, gestures, and different ways to do the same things on the smartphone. Having shared many classes with these elderly students, I started to grasp the experience from their point of view. Considering the difficulties of the touch UI, the diversity of Android iterations, manufacturer’s software skins, etc., I can see how complex and overwhelming this experience might be. All the functions of the phone seem chaotic to me now: there is no clear logical hierarchy in the arrangement of apps and functions. Most of the students do not recognize the difference between the home screens and the app drawer (the majority have Android devices), especially when the wallpaper in the app drawer is the same as on the home screens (but, adding to the confusion, this does not happen with every phone). One old man did this to access the camera: instead of tapping the camera icon on the home screen, he would tap the app drawer icon, and then the camera icon inside the app drawer. Furthermore, as the teacher of the main workshop pointed out, they expect to learn the ‘one way’ to do something on the phone, while multiple ways are possible (and sometimes these are needed, when one of the ways does not work).

In these situations of frustration, they tend to blame themselves (“I don’t understand technology” or “my head is not good for this”) as they judge themselves unable of learning the intricacies of this device, which seem evident for their grandchildren (who don’t have the time nor the patience to teach them). Having experienced this frustration myself when trying to teach a simple procedure to a new student whose specific smartphone model I have never used, I wish they would allow themselves to blame the phone now and then (I certainly do). Sometimes the interface is not as intuitive as it should be, sometimes too many shortcuts stay in the way and sometimes there is no visual cue on where to tap (the flat design of previous years has made this worse). However, I must say that they blame the phone sometimes, but in the most radical way: ‘this phone does not work’ (therefore, it must be changed). This has happened when they had accidentally left the phone in flight mode or silent mode, and they were unable to either receive phone calls or hear them, respectively. It is as if they could see the problem only in themselves or in the hardware (the phone as a device), while the software (and UI design) remains a blind spot. The interface is there, yet it goes unnoticed.

All in all, this is just the beginning of a long path for these new old beginners. It will be interesting to see if, as the workshop progresses, these engaged learners build up more self-confidence and make their way through the garden of forking paths of mobile UI.

The Challenge of Menopause – Daniel Miller

DanielMiller3 August 2018

Photo (CC BY) Daniel Miller

For a project concerned with health and mid-life, menopause is an obvious target. What specifically does an anthropological perspective add, first to understanding menopause and second to envisaging a positive digital intervention? One key anthropological component, which is the comparative perspective, will have to wait until the team completes its research, but from my Irish fieldsite there are many possible insights. The challenge is firstly that no two women have the same experience. Menopause can start in your 30s or 50s. It can be almost symptom-free or have dramatic effects, some of which may never end.

The anthropologist will focus on the way medical issues are inextricable from the social context. The effect can be on close relationships. As a pharmacist told me, Sometimes they come and say ‘I’m ready to kill my husband I think I’m going crazy’ very reassured when you say it could be the menopause”. Or women report that vaginal dryness makes it too painful to have sex. Women have told me that their mothers never mentioned menopause to them, or that they do or do not feel they can discuss the topic with their sister or close friends. Mostly they report that menopause is a topic that can only be broached through jokes. The impact might also be on wider relationships, such as to one’s work: “You might say to your colleague `could you just take over for a moment’ and then not explain why you would disappear, because you had a flush and you needed to remove yourself”.

Then there is the relation to wider medical authorities. Concerns about HRT or addictive sleeping pills may mean they prefer to consult complementary medicine rather than doctors. Knowledge seems to be a complete lottery, where some are well aware of the potential effects on bone density while others have never had anyone suggest this is something they might look into. Listening to women, within an ethnography, also alerts one to the considerable differences in perspective. One woman will give a feminist perspective about the need to rethink menopause as a celebration of a natural process, rather than merely a medical problem. While another, who is undergoing IVF and is desperate to have children, sees nothing to celebrate.

For us, the ASSA team, it is important that this same alertness to the social and wider context should manifest itself as the anthropological contribution towards delivering that will be of genuine benefit. One of the lessons from this research is that we need to see smartphone apps less as autonomous interventions and more as potential hubs. Different women will respond to different levels of information. There are those who are turned off by text and just want visuals, contrasted to those who want to read the medical journals. In my research so far, women have split equally between those who would prefer a discussion forum based on complete anonymity, to those who would only want to discuss these issues with people they can identity and feel some sort of relation to. In making relevant information more accessible all these factors need to be taken into account, but first and foremost comes listening to what a broad range of women say.

 

The digital divide in age-friendly Dublin

LauraHaapio-Kirk14 June 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey.

Age Action website[1]

 

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)’[2]. Dublin City Council claims the city was the first capital in the world to adopt a city-wide approach to becoming age-friendly[3]. In order to do this the Dublin City Age Friendly Programme 2014-2019 tackles nine key areas that may negatively impact on older individuals[4]. 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![5]. 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.

 

 

  1. https://www.ageaction.ie/how-we-can-help/getting-started-computer-training/sign-up
  2. http://www.dublincity.ie/agefriendlycity
  3. http://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/content/HousingAndCommunity/Community/Age%20Friendly%20Charter-English%20A2.pdf
  4. http://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/content/HousingAndCommunity/Community/Age%20Friendly%20Charter-English%20A2.pdf
  5. https://www.ageaction.ie/how-we-can-help/getting-started-computer-training/sign-up

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.

Milan, Mobiles, and Mobility

ShireenWalton4 May 2018

Photo (CC BY Shireen Walton)

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.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

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.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

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).

In my school, no one is a foreigner. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

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.

References

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.

‘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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Africa Can Do for Technology – by Charlotte Hawkins

ShireenWalton29 January 2018

The Economist recently published an article called ‘what technology can do for Africa’. The article covers key discussions around the potential of technological development in sub-Saharan Africa, but falls into pitfalls common to the subject. Determinism is evident in emphatic statements like: “countries are on the cusp of a tech-driven transformation that is already beginning to make people healthier, wealthier and better educated at a pace that only recently seemed unimaginable”. Mobile phones are top of the list, said to have made ‘leaps’ possible. This pervasive image of Africa ‘leapfrogging’ stages of ‘Western development’ with mobile phones in order to improve health, education, communication and business is certainly compelling. But in reality, many digital development practitioners are increasingly skeptical of this utopian ideal, said to be Western-centric (Suchman, 2002, 2011; Tunstall, 2013; Nussbaum, 2010) and to result in unsustainable ‘pilots’ (Holeman, 2017; Huang et al, 2017) which can leave new gaps in their wake.

The Economist article attempts to acknowledge this critique by countering optimism with evidence that the region’s infrastructure is increasingly “sluggish”. The below map of Africa is entitled merely ‘Ill-equipped’, and shows limited access to electricity and mobile phones across much of the continent; in Uganda, 25% and 41% respectively. Besides a few tech hubs, technological advancement and education are unfavourably contrasted with that of Silicon Valley and “the rich world”, from which “Africa risks falling even further behind”; implying a sense of failure, and of technology as a global race.

Through 16-months ethnography in Kampala, I hope to find a different middle ground with a more considered optimism towards ‘what technology can do for Africa’, or instead, ‘what Africa can do for technology’. In the article, Liberian medic Dougbeh Chris Nyan is poignantly quoted to say: “We are forced to be inventive to become masters of our destitution”. In line with Katrien Pype’s exploration of the meaning of technological inventiveness in Kinshasa, ‘smart’ solutions are built around constraints and ‘from below’ (2017). For example, mobile money, “the bank account in your pocket”, a pertinent example of technology adapted to African requirements.

How do people in Uganda appropriate mobile phones and mHealth to accommodate their preferences and needs? During my fieldwork, this question will direct an enquiry into the active role people take as users of technology. As evident in the pilots which do scale and survive, initiatives must begin and meet with sociocultural realities.

– Charlotte Hawkins

References:

  • Holeman, I. (2017) Human-Centered Design for Global Health Equity.
  • Huang, F., Blaschke, S., Lucas, H., 2017. Beyond pilotitis: taking digital health interventions to the national level in China and Uganda. Glob. Health 13.
  • Suchman, L., 2011. Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 40, 1–18.
  • Suchman, L.A., 2002. Practice-Based Design of Information Systems: Notes from the Hyperdeveloped World. Inf. Soc. 18, 139–144.
  • Pype, K. (2017) ‘Smartness from Below’, in What do Science, Tehcnology and Innovation mean from Africa? eds Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. MIT Press
  • Tunstall, E. ‘Decolonizing Design innovation: Design Anthropology, Critical Anthropology and Indigenous Knowledge’. In Gunn, W. Otto, T. Smith, R. (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.