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A theory of a theory of the smartphone

By Daniel Miller, on 19 November 2019

Source: unsplash.com/@freestocks

Currently I am involved in writing the final chapter of our collectively authored book called The Global Smartphone. This chapter proposes a series of theories of the smartphone, which is more or less the same as saying we are trying to answer the most basic question – what is a smartphone? The more we have studied the smartphone, the more we are convinced that there are unprecedented capabilities and consequences that require theory. We have to consider its intimacy, including its ability to learn about us and the degree to which we are able to reconfigure it. We also need to encompass its reach. Being a phone for voice calls is now such a small element of what a smartphone is today, that the very name phone may be misleading. What about everything else it has become? The theories proposed range from the way smartphones transform our sense of home to the nature of opportunism, all considered in relation to our 8 different fieldsites.

The problem in calling a chapter ‘A theory of the smartphone’ is that it suggests that we know what we mean by theory and that this is something that will positively contribute to our understanding and explanation of the smartphone. Yet it is not at all clear that theory is anything so positive. Theory in anthropology is clearly nothing like a theorem in science; mostly it is a meta-level of generalisation and abstraction, visualisation, comparison and conceptualisation. After surveying the results of 8 ethnographies on the use of smartphones, theory is helpful in understanding and explaining the results.

So theory is often essential, and there is plenty of good anthropological theorising around, but today theory in much of social science seems to be developing as a kind of fetish. Students or writers of journal papers are told they don’t have enough theory, as though having this thing theory is always beneficial and necessary and exists as a requisite quantity. In practice, some academics may then resort to relating their work to various established ‘theories’, most of which were originally devised with completely different aims in mind. They will feel they are expected to make reference to terms such as actor-network theory, the Anthropocene, ontology, or to the right theorists such as Foucault or Bourdieu or Butler.

When theory is used in this way, instead of enhancing anthropology the result is more like a betrayal. We have worked hard to develop local nuance, empathetic involvement with our research participants and insisted upon respecting their particular usage and perspective. Yet as soon as we are writing the theory section, there is a temptation to ditch all that sensitivity because when it comes to theory the claims are usually universalistic and without reference to any particular population. Despite the claim that anthropologists today care about decolonising the discipline, this use of theory tends to affirm imperial assertions of their superior understanding of the world. It is tempting to suggest that the primary purpose of this kind of fetishised theory has become (as one of those same theorists Bourdieu once suggested) the creation of fashionable and obfuscating jargon, which acts to create metropolitan elites who can consider themselves intellectuals precisely because most people have no idea what they are talking about. Theory may be one of the primary means by which the university works as a system for perpetuating class differences based on claims to esoteric knowledge.

Yet our book desperately needs theory, otherwise it is just the aggregate of parochial ethnographic studies. Local immersion is necessary, but at some point does need transcending if it is to make wider claims as to what smartphones are and help to explain the results.

Theory is also needed to encompass anything unprecedented about smartphones that was not captured by prior concepts. Smartphones really matter today, which means that it is necessary to make an academic contribution to the understanding of them. But how can we create such theory while simultaneously remaining critically self-conscious about all the pitfalls that come with the way theory may become a fetish?

This final chapter will be quite long, but that is partly because the theoretical contribution is spelled out in clear colloquial English that as many readers as possible can engage with. This means they can choose to disagree with it if they are not convinced by the evidence.  Secondly, in order to retain the links to the 8 different fieldsites, generalisability and abstraction are balanced with specificity and example.

Most of the theory that emerges from analytical work in widely comparing and generalising the evidence of smartphone use and consequence can then be used to understand and explain this evidence. It is not comprised primarily of discussions of established theory, though precedents and relevant arguments are acknowledged. To conclude, before constructing a theory of the smartphone, we perhaps need to reflect for a while on a theory of theory, as a means to (if you will excuse one jargon term), de-fetishize theory itself.

“I can feel the joy of the group”: a conversation with a veteran journalist on the largest march in Chile

By Alfonso Manuel Otaegui, on 18 November 2019

Massive demonstrations in Chile

Since the 18th of October, Chile has been in continuous turmoil. Protests that initially began as a response to a rise in metro fares in Santiago escalated into a national crisis, laying bare the tensions that had hitherto been contained in Chilean society. The surface calm that dominated the so-called “paradise of Latin America” was proven to be very fragile.

At the moment of writing, and since the 18th of October, there have been daily marches and demonstrations, with barricades and looting but also brutal repressions and curfews. Protester demands include pay rises for workers, education reform, changes to pensions and investment in the state health system among others. In recent weeks, these grievances have crystallised into an overriding demand: a new constitution to replace the one sanctioned by the government of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980.

Fig 1: Plaza Italia: the biggest march in Chile. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Fig. 2: Valeria (left), her friend holding a Chilean flag (centre), the Mapuche flag (right)

Having lived here since January 2018, and in neighbouring Argentina almost all my life, I, like many, was utterly bewildered at the scale of the outbreak. Chile isn’t a country famous for protests and mass demonstrations. During the first days of the protest, I received a WhatsApp message from Valeria, a former student in the smartphone workshops for older adults that I taught as a volunteer during my fieldwork. The message was a photo of her celebrating her 81st birthday by participating in one of the ‘largest marches in Chile’ with a friend. This was a march to Italia Square, renamed by the protesters “Dignity Square” (a change that even appeared on Google Maps for a brief amount of time). Curious about her perspective on the mobilisation of protesters and the current situation in the country, I asked her to meet. Valeria had to flee the country as soon as the coup happened in 1973 because her name was included on a list of left-leaning journalists affiliated to a political party that was in the opposition, meaning she could be searched by the police at any time. After living in the UK for 20 years, she returned to Chile in the early 1990s.

Valeria agreed to meet me and I made my way to her apartment, near the Plaza de Armas (Santiago’s main square). As I arrived to meet Valeria near her home, I noticed several stores were closed – too many for a Saturday afternoon – most of them secured with metal curtains.

“It looks like a post-war zone,” says Valeria, welcoming me in her apartment on the 13th floor. She tells me that a few weeks before, she was left without a functional lift for a whole weekend. When taking the stairs on her way out of the building she fell over, which caused her head wounds that needed stitches.

“It was a huge blow, but I did not break any bones!” –she says with relief, almost cheerful.

As she makes me tea, I observe the souvenirs adorning her living room: black and white photos of her childhood in Valdivia, photos from her years in Santiago, an old map of South America, a windmill with the Mapuche flag in a plant pot, a piece of macramé with the figure of a winged dragon (a souvenir of her exile years in Wales), and on a glass coffee table some tea boxes, porcelain cups, a half-read book and a TV remote control.

Conversing with a veteran journalist about the news

Valeria inherited this apartment from her family, and receives monthly compensation granted to former political refugees. The allowance is more or less equivalent to the lowest state pension in the country and is not enough to live on, as is the case for so many other older adults in Chile. Valeria manages to make ends meet because she does not pay rent and has a small inheritance from her parents which she manages very carefully.

Valeria brings me tea. On the table, at arm’s length, she has her smartphone. As a journalist, she is fascinated by what the device offers when it comes to information and communication. Valeria was always the one sharing videos, memes, information about free events and the occasional political opinion in the WhatsApp group chat of former students of the workshop. The members of the group chat had always had subtle differences of opinion on political issues, but in recent weeks those differences became frictions, reflecting the polarised nature of the current discourse in Chile, which is visible on all of the most popular social networks in the country. A participant decided to leave the group and the frequency of messages declined (Valeria’s in particular). Although her opinions may not be representative of the Chilean older adult population, they are shared by quite a few people.

“Fake news is the order of the day” warns the veteran journalist as she digs up news items distributed among her numerous WhatsApp groups. Valeria does not trust local TV news, preferring to receive information from trusted journalist contacts through Whatsapp, making the assumption that they wouldn’t pass on a news item without verifying the information in it first.

Valeria is careful not to draw any parallels between different eras, and on more than one occasion she emphasises that she did not experience the Pinochet dictatorship (having had to leave the country as soon as it started), but the conversation alternates between old memories and the events of the past few days. She remembers a ‘guanacazo’ (a hit from the water cannon, nicknamed ‘guanaco’) she suffered almost fifty years ago –at that time the water cannon was filled with dirty water from the Mapocho river– and recalls in particular the care received from her companions, the feeling of the group being close by.

At present, Valeria also experiences the feeling of being cared for, being protected during the marches. “These boys at all times surrounded us to protect us from the [tear gas] bombs with their bottles of water, they guided us –because you are blinded by the pain– to protected areas.”

Indeed, when the police shoots tear gas into the crowds, many protesters raise their hands offering their companions bottles filled with water and baking soda, a solution that counteracts the burning sensation caused by teargas.

What astonished Valeria about this year’s protests however, is the the diversity of demands coupled with almost non-existent party identification – in the 70s, she recalls, political parties and trade unions were the ones who called the marches:

“(…) and us, university students would join them. The flags were the official ones and there was also some uniformity in the photographs. During the marches, you would hear the political slogans and shouts of the political parties. The one that was chanted by everyone was ‘the one who does not jump is a ‘momio’ and now I have heard it with the variant of ‘paco’ [derogatory for ‘police officer’]. The scarves and shirts you would see were in the official colours and patterns of the political parties, and young party members used to parade in together en masse.”

Parallels between the 1970s and now: different eras, similar feelings 

The dynamics of the current marches have taken Valeria by surprise in a positive sense – now more than ever, there is a sense of joy in among all the protesting. “These young people carry our flags with a big difference: they incorporate a wonderful playful touch. We were so serious, so formal….” Valeria explains that she had never seen choreographies or dances at a march before, and couldn’t imagine something like this occuring at previous protests. This is a development that fascinates her.

The conversation swings back into the past like a pendulum. “I saw the airplanes from here,” says Valeria, pointing to the balcony. She was living in that same apartment during the coup of 73, in which the army bombed the Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of the president. Several friends called her to warn her that she had been put on a list and should stay inside. Valeria, however, devised a simple strategy to be able to walk freely through the city, despite having been declared as being ‘on the run’. She put on one of her most most elegant dresses, her best hat, golden bracelets and earrings, and carried a designer bag. “I looked like a Christmas tree!“– she says and bursts out laughing. Funnily enough, no checkpoint asked her for any documents – such an elegant woman did not fit the visual image of a dangerous citizen. “I know my country very well…”– she says, raising one eyebrow in a sardonic tone, halfway between cynicism and resignation. Maybe the strategy would still work today.

Despite parallels between anecdotes about the 1970s protests and the current day ones, we both agree that those times and these times are very different, although I can sense that Valeria is experiencing similar feelings as she did back then. It is difficult to understand what they are. The answer would come a couple of days later.

Fig 3. Gas lacrimógeno. Campus San Joaquín. Photo by Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY).

After talking for more than four hours, we said goodbye. Days later, a demonstration broke out at the San Joaquin Campus of the Catholic University where I work. The police responded to demonstrators by  shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. I captured the moment and sent Valeria pictures of it through Whatsapp. One image in particular caught her eye – an image of a statue of Christ with his arms open, surrounded by tear gas smoke. Valeria replies:

“The defenseless, peaceful Christ wrapped in the gases is like an allegory. Powerful figure. My heart goes out to the students who are fighting for their parents and grandparents, and hold up their ideals as their only shield. Unequal physical struggle. The strength of these children lies in their solidarity and in their ideals of justice. They are rara avis (rare birds) among individualism and selfishness. In all the marches I have been, I feel the joy of the group.”

La alegría del grupo: conversación con una adulta mayor en la marcha más grande de Chile

By Alfonso Manuel Otaegui, on 18 November 2019

Desde el 18 de octubre Chile ha estado en un continuo estallido social. Todo comenzó con un reclamo de estudiantes por el aumento en las tarifas del metro, pero ello era apenas la punta del iceberg de una crisis mucho mayor. Numerosas protestas masivas en todo el país revelaron la tensión contenida, la intensa fragilidad subyacente a la aparente calma cotidiana del hasta entonces llamado “paraíso de América Latina”. Desde entonces, y hasta el momento de la redacción de este post, ha habido todos los días marchas y manifestaciones, no exentas de barricadas y saqueos –pero tampoco de brutales represiones, toques de queda incluidos. Entre los clamores de justicia social –mejorar salarios, educación, pensiones, y sistema estatal de salud, entre muchos otros– el más fuerte es el pedido de una nueva constitución, ya que la actual –aunque con varias modificaciones– es aquella sancionada durante el gobierno del dictador Augusto Pinochet en 1980.

Fig 1: Plaza Italia. La marcha más grande de Chile (Wikipedia Commons)

 

Fig. 2: Valeria (izq.), su amiga con la bandera de Chile (centro), bandera Mapuche (derecha).

Habiendo vivido aquí desde enero de 2018 –y en un país limítrofe casi toda mi vida–, experimenté, como muchos, un gran desconcierto ante tal estallido. Chile no era habitualmente conocido como un país de frecuentes o grandes manifestaciones. En esos primeros días de desconcierto recibí entonces un mensaje de WhatsApp de Valeria, una exalumna de los cursos de smartphone para adultos mayores que yo había impartido como voluntario durante un año. El mensaje era una foto en la que esta alumna entusiasta celebraba su cumpleaños número 81 participando con una amiga en una de las ‘marchas más grandes de Chile’. Así se han dado en llamar a las multitudinarias marchas a Plaza Italia –rebautizada por los manifestantes “Plaza de la Dignidad” (cambio que llegó inclusive fugazmente a Google Maps).  Le pedí entonces que nos encontráramos, ya que quería conocer su perspectiva sobre las movilizaciones y la situación actual del país. Yo recordaba bien la historia de Valeria: apenas tuvo lugar el golpe de estado en 1973, debió huir del país porque figuraba en una lista, ya que era periodista y estaba afiliada a un partido de izquierda. Luego de vivir veinte años en Gran Bretaña, pudo regresar a Chile a comienzos de los 90s. Acordamos encontrarnos unos días después en su departamento, cerca de la Plaza de Armas.

Llegando a la zona céntrica y comercial donde Valeria vive, se ven negocios cerrados, muchos para ser un sábado a la tarde, la mayoría de ellos con cortinas de metal. “Parece una zona de post guerra” dice Valeria, mientras me recibe en su departamento en el piso 13. Me cuenta que unas semanas antes había estado sin servicio de ascensor durante un fin de semana. Como necesitaba salir, intentó bajar por las escaleras y cayó por ellas. “Me di un porrazo bárbaro, ¡pero no me quebré!” –dice con alivio, casi alegre– aunque sí debieron suturarle algunas heridas en la cabeza y realizarle varias curaciones.

Mientras Valeria prepara el té, recorro con la mirada la sala de estar: algunas fotos en blanco y negro de su niñez en Valdivia, otras de sus años en Santiago, un mapa antiguo de Sudamérica, en una maceta un molino de viento con la Wenufoye –la bandera mapuche–, sobre la pared una pieza de macramé con la figura de un dragón alado –recuerdo de sus años de exilio en Gales–, sobre la mesa ratona de vidrio unas cajas de té junto a unas piezas de porcelana, un libro empezado y un control remoto de TV.

Valeria heredó este departamento de su familia. Ella cobra mensualmente un resarcimiento económico otorgado a ex–refugiados políticos. Ese resarcimiento es casi equivalente a una jubilación mínima, como la que cobran muchos adultos mayores en Chile. Tal como a esos muchos adultos mayores, con eso no le alcanza para vivir. Valeria logra llegar a fin de mes gracias a que no debe pagar arriendo y a algún dinero heredado de sus padres que administra cautelosamente.

Llega el té. Sobre la mesa, al alcance de la mano, Valeria tiene su smartphone. En tanto que periodista, está fascinada por las posibilidades de circulación de información que brinda este aparato. En el grupo de WhatsApp de los exalumnos del curso de smartphones Valeria es –o bien, era– de las más activas en reenviar videos, memes, información sobre eventos gratuitos para adultos mayores, y también opiniones políticas. Siempre había habido roces sutiles por cuestiones políticas en dicho grupo. En las últimas semanas los roces se tornaron fricciones, reflejando la polarización acerca de los hechos, que se puede percibir en otras redes sociales como Twitter. Algún integrante dejó el grupo de WhatsApp, la frecuencia de mensajes decayó, los de Valeria en particular. No se podría decir que Valeria es representativa en sus opiniones de la población chilena adulta mayor, pero tampoco se puede decir que nadie comparte sus ideas.

Las fake news están a la orden del día” advierte la veterana periodista mientras hurga algunas noticias entre sus numerosos grupos de WhatsApp. Descree en particular de la TV, a la que considera ya una fuente inaceptable para obtener información fidedigna. Prefiere la información que recibe por WhatsApp de parte de contactos en los que confía, y de los que asume chequean la información antes de enviarla, ya que varios son miembros del círculo de periodistas.

Aunque Valeria es cuidadosa en no establecer paralelismos entre distintas épocas y en más de una ocasión resalta que ella no vivió la dictadura –porque se tuvo que ir del país ni bien comenzó– la charla va como un péndulo entre viejas memorias y eventos de los últimos días. Recuerda algún ‘guanacazo’ (golpe de agua) que sufrió hace casi cincuenta años –en aquellos tiempos el camión hidrante se surtía con agua sucia del Mapocho– y rememora en particular el cuidado de los compañeros en esos momentos, el sentir la cercanía del grupo. También en estas marchas de ahora se siente cuidada, protegida. “Estos chicos distintos en cada momento nos rodeaban para protegernos de las bombas [lacrimógenas] con sus botellas con agua, nos guiaban –porque quedas ciega por el dolor– hacia espacios protegidos.”

En efecto, cuando en las marchas llega el gas lacrimógeno de los carabineros, se pueden ver muchos manifestantes ofrecer con el brazo en alto sus botellas con agua y bicarbonato de sodio, preparación que al rociarse en los ojos alivia el ardor.

De las marchas de hoy le sorprende la diversidad de reclamos junto con la casi nula identificación partidaria. En los 70s, según recuerda, los partidos políticos y las agrupaciones gremiales convocaban las marchas “(…) y los estudiantes universitarios nos sumábamos a ellas. Las banderas eran las oficiales y también había cierta uniformidad en las fotografías. Durante las marchas se oían las consignas políticas y gritos de los partidos. Uno que era coreado por todos era ‘el que no salta es momio’ y que ahora lo he escuchado con la variante de ‘paco’ [carabinero]. Tanto pañuelos como camisetas eran oficiales: color y leyenda. Tendían las juventudes de los partidos a desfilar en bloque.

La dinámica de las marchas actuales le ha impresionado agradablemente, sobre todo por la alegría que nota en ellas. “Estos jóvenes llevan nuestras banderas con una gran diferencia: incorporan un maravilloso toque lúdico. Nosotros éramos tan graves, serios…”. Me quedo pensando en el ‘llevan nuestras banderas’ que amalgama pasado y presente, mientras Valeria me sigue contando que nunca había visto coreografías o danzas en una marcha, que eso le fascinó, y que a ellos nunca se les hubiera ocurrido.

El péndulo de la conversación vuelve al pasado. “Vi los aviones desde acá” dice Valeria, señalando al balcón. En ese mismo departamento vivió el golpe del 73, en el que el ejército bombardeó el Palacio de la Moneda. Varios amigos la llamaron por teléfono: ella estaba en una lista, debía tener cuidado, debía quedarse adentro. Valeria, sin embargo, urdió una simple estrategia para poder caminar libremente por la ciudad, a pesar de estar declarada “en fuga permanente”. Se vistió con uno de sus más elegantes vestidos, con su mejor sombrero, se puso pulseras y aros de oro, y al hombro una cartera de marca. “¡Parecía un árbol de navidad!” dice entre carcajadas. Absolutamente ningún puesto de control le pidió documentos: una mujer tan elegante no encajaba visualmente en el perfil de lo considerado peligroso. “Yo conozco bien a mi país…”, dice enarcando las cejas con un tono socarrón, a mitad de camino entre el cinismo y la resignación. Me pregunto si quizás la estrategia aún hoy funcionaría.

Valeria insiste, a pesar de los vaivenes y las anécdotas emparentadas, que los tiempos son muy distintos, precaución epistemológica con la cual no es difícil estar de acuerdo. Sin embargo, se percibe en sus palabras que algo que siente ahora lo sintió en aquel entonces, pero es difícil entender qué es. La respuesta llegaría unos días después.

Fig 3. Gas lacrimógeno. Campus San Joaquín. Foto de Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY).

Luego de algo más de cuatro horas de conversación, a las que este breve recuento no hace justicia, nos despedimos. Días después, en ocasión de una manifestación en el Campus San Joaquín de la Universidad Católica, donde trabajo, carabineros reprime con balas de goma y gas lacrimógeno. Tomo entonces algunas fotos que luego le hago llegar por WhatsApp. Una imagen en particular le gusta, aquella en la que se ve la estatua de un Cristo con los brazos abiertos entre el humo del gas lacrimógeno. Valeria  responde:

El Cristo indefenso, pacifico envuelto en los gases es como una alegoría. Figura potente. Mi corazón está con los estudiantes que luchan por sus padres, abuelos, ¿y cuyo escudo es qué? Sus ideales. Lucha física desigual; la fuerza de estos chicos está en la solidaridad y en sus ideales de justicia. Son rara avis entre tanto individualismo, egoísmo. En todas las marchas que he ido siento la alegría del grupo.

 

Facilitating nutritional health through the smartphone in rural Japan

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 7 November 2019

Communal eating in Tosa-cho. Photo by Laura Haapio-Kirk (CC BY).

In September I received the good news that a joint application I made for the newly established Osaka-UCL Partnership Funding was successful. Along with Danny Miller on the UCL side, I teamed up with Dr Yumi Kimura from Osaka University who works on nutrition from a public health perspective in Japan, Myanmar, and the Himalayas. The project also involves Lise Sasaki, who previously studied medical anthropology at UCL. Our proposed collaborative project joins my ongoing anthropological research on smartphone usage among older adults in Japan with Dr Kimura’s public research on nutrition, to develop a mobile health intervention which is sensitive to local usage of mobile phones and attitudes towards health.

The project will take place in my rural fieldsite of Tosa-Cho, a town of roughly 4,000 inhabitants, in Kōchi Prefecture, South West Japan. This rural mountainous area is remote, with the nearest city (Kōchi City) being a 1-hour drive away. Rural towns in Japan are most in need of technological innovation to deal with the growing number of elderly people who are living often alone and in need of care. We know from our ethnographic research that mobile health applications are seldom used by older adults in this town, despite smartphone usage being fairly high. This indicates that there is great potential for digital health interventions but these have to adapt to the way local people are already using their smartphones, rather than encouraging them to download new apps.

Sharing food and conversation. Photo by Lise Sasaki (CC BY).

Over the course of our fieldwork, we have seen this trend across several field sites ranging from Brazil to Ireland: although mHealth initiatives may focus on changing behaviours through the use of native apps built specifically for improving health outcomes, we think making use of the ubiquitous platforms already in common use amongst the target populations could offer significant benefits. We plan to examine the creative ways that older adults are already using common smartphone applications for health and wellbeing, and will explore how these everyday applications could be used for purposes of a nutritional intervention, for example meal tracking using the application Line, or the facilitation of social eating in order to reduce isolation among older adults.

We will present our findings to doctors and health researchers at a symposium in 2020 organised by the UNESCO Chair in Global Health and Education, held at Osaka University by Prof Beverley Yamamoto. We also want to share our findings with the local population of Tosa-cho, so we plan to run a community workshop where we will demonstrate ways for people to use their smartphone to benefit their health and wellbeing. We are hoping that this research and accompanying policy report will reach beyond Kōchi prefecture and will be shared more broadly to advise on digital health policy across Japan. As older adults adopt the smartphone at increasing rates, the potential for mHealth to mitigate some of the health challenges that come with ageing is promising, but initiatives must adapt to already existing behaviours if they are going to have a chance to be sustained.

 

 

“Iconographies for Retirement” – By Pauline Garvey

By Georgiana Murariu, on 31 October 2019

Author: Pauline Garvey

As part of the ASSA project, we are developing mHealth (mobile health) initiatives in order to address the needs of our populations. In our two field sites in Dublin we are engaged in developing social prescribing sites that can be accessed online, on smartphones, and as hard copies for those who are not comfortable with digital media.


Figure 1: One Dublin-based social prescribing site that we are developing.

Social prescribing is based on the recognition that a person’s health is improved by the degree she or he is embedded in social networks and cultural activities (see my blog December 2018). In many cases it involves a GP or counsellor writing a ‘prescription’ for a patient to attend a social activity that will embed a person in their community and enhance their health in mental, emotional and physical ways. In one pilot study, the Irish Health Service Executive described social prescribing as a service that:

“…helps to link you with sources of support and social activities within your community. Social Prescribing is for you if you feel that you need some support to mind your health and wellbeing, you feel isolated, stressed, anxious or depressed, you simply feel you need the service.”

This approach to health has been subject to quite a bit of media attention in Ireland this year and has been subject to several pilot studies nationally and internationally.[i] As part of this rising tide, there is now an annual international conference dedicated to social prescribing which is being developed in diverse countries from UK to the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Finland.

The question for our team is firstly how can we develop a social prescribing site that enhances the lives of our research respondents? Secondly, how can an anthropological approach make a positive contribution to social prescribing more generally? Our approach is very much coloured by our methodology of anthropological ethnography and participant observation. This means that our insights emerge as the result of immersive participation in our field sites, building on the 16-month ethnographic fieldwork already completed. In developing a social prescribing website, we plan on continuing to work with our research respondents to understand how they use and engage with initiatives such as these.

The first issue emerged early when our informants expressed doubt about the iconography used to denote retirement.

Figure 2: One of the icons that our respondents objected to

For the people we work with, this icon seemed to capture an ageist expectation of what retirement should be rather than their actual experience of it. For example, one of my respondents jogged the 30 km home on the day he retired. Although this man’s level of fitness is not what I would describe as ‘average’, his perspective on remaining active is more in keeping with our respondents than the icon above (see figure 2).

As a result, we set about working with students from computer science in Maynooth University to create something more appropriate. As we work on developing iconography that better encapsulates the experience of our respondents, we realise that this is an ongoing iterative process that we will constantly revise as we launch our websites and work with our respondents in the years to come (see figure 1). Two alternative icons we are currently considering with respondents can be seen below.

 

Figure 3: Alternative retirement icons that we are currently considering with our research respondents.

 

References:

[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/what-is-social-prescribing-and-how-it-can-benefit-your-health-1.3840354

 

‘If you are old, you invented the Internet’: A tribute to a senior geek

By Marilia Duque E S Pereira, on 22 October 2019

I felt insecure about accepting an offer of website hosting from Dudu Balochini, who suggested we host the two websites we had developed together on his server at no cost. I asked him: “But what if you die?”. I was referring to my access to the servers, but he thought it was about his age since he was almost twenty years older them me (I’m 42). He then challenged me: “What if you die?” And that was how we laughed together and moved on. The first site we published together answered a need from the Center of Ageing Studies located at UNIFESP Medical School. Their researchers monitor the elderly population of a neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, and their studies include investigating the impact of physical activity on ageing. One of the interventions they made was to map out opportunities within walking distance for older people to exercise. This mapping was manually adapted to the address of each patient – a herculean task. But an informal survey showed that 70% of program-assisted seniors have smartphones. I had this information in mind when I met Dudu for a coffee. “Do you think we could make these activities accessible through Google Maps based on people’s location?”, I asked him. And he just said “I already know how to do that. I need two hours”. Twenty-four hours later, he produced the site we called Get Up and Go: nearby activities for the 60+. “I used the Store Location feature in WordPress, but it took me a while because it was blocked for developers from Brazil”, he apologised as though I thought he was late.

The second site is part of my delivery for the applied side of the ASSA Project – Anthropology of Smartphones, Smart Ageing and mHealth. With an ethnographic approach, I observed how WhatsApp was used for health purposes in Sao Paulo. I mapped the best practices and organised them into a set of protocols for communication within hospitals and clinics. I also developed a second set of protocols addressing nutritionists (obesity and being underweight are both health issues among older people in Brazil). Both materials are open-access and should be available for download. That is why I needed a website to publish them. This time, Dudu didn’t develop the website for me. “You’re going to become a SeniorGeek”, he told me. SeniorGeek is an initiative for digital inclusion of seniors created by him. At presentation events addressing older people, Dudu tried to demystify technological themes like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Chatbots. He believed older people should know about those things or they would be cut off from conversation with children and grandchildren and, moreover, with society. Dudu also believed he could enable seniors to become digital entrepreneurs through courses that teach how to build a website, or an e-commerce or a blog. This is how I became his student. By myself, with the autonomy he wanted all seniors to achieve, I developed and published my WhatsApp manuals at http://www.saudeeenvelhecimento.com.br. In my field site, entrepreneurship gains strength among older people as a means of reintegration into the labor market. This is a consequence of the desire of many to remain productive but it is also their way to respond to corporate ageism. Dudu himself used to say he lived in a limbo: too old for the market, but not a “legal” senior yet.

Dudu was also a public figure. He was often in the media, giving interviews about the relevance of digital inclusion for seniors. At 58, he used to say, “If you are old, you invented the Internet. The problem is that people accommodated and forgot about it”. And he has a point. We just have to remember that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, creators of the TCP / IP protocol that enabled the Internet, are now aged 81 and 76 years old. However, ethnography showed me that this detachment from technology was also linked to retirement, when access to technology and needs in daily life change (Selwyn, 2004). Even so, Dudu’s speeches were inspiring and older people felt more confident because of him. Dudu died one week after I left my field site. An abrupt heart attack. On the one hand, he has achieved the death my informants desire the most: a death without illness or disease. I have written before about how my informants do not fear death. On the contrary, they see death as natural and even desire it when they think of the prospect of a future lived with physical, mental or financial limitations. On the other hand, it was an early death. Dudu was gone when he began to experience the purpose of life. I say experience because, among my informants, there is a feeling that the meaning of life is not something that can be explained by past achievements or by spiritual convictions. Therefore, they abandon philosophical reflections on the subject to focus on the present: they live today with purpose, filling daily life with pleasurable activities and, if possible, positively impacting the lives of those around them. Dudu brought these two accomplishments together in an intense agenda of events and courses.

And it was precisely the technology Dudu was so enthusiastic about that mediated his farewell. The news of his death spread via WhatsApp and was shared from group to group, giving rise to dozens of messages. Information about his funeral was also shared throughout the night, as well as information about the seventh day mass. For this last meeting, friends used WhatsApp again to prepare a last tribute. They have the idea to reproduce the “uniform” worn by Dudu, a black T-shirt, with the SeniorGeek logo. And during the days leading up to the mass, they spoke about how this production was made feasible all through their smartphones, as Dudu would like. The mobilisation was properly registered. And the pictures dominated social media again, now accompanied by the text “We are all senior geeks”. Dudu’s original WhatsApp group for his SeniorGeek initiatives was deactivated. A new one named “Senior Geek Connected” was created instead. It’s still a place where older people can find information about technology and new learning opportunities, keeping Dudu’s original idea alive. For him, above all, SeniorGeek was a manifesto against the invisibility of older people, something he believed only technology could solve.

 

 

 

 

Selwyn, N. (2004). The information aged: A qualitative study of older adults’ use of information and communications technology, Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 369–384

 

The Full Moon on WeChat — by Xinyuan Wang

By Xinyuan Wang, on 10 October 2019

fig. 1

11 am, UK time, 13th September, in China it’s already early evening. Mrs. Tong (59), one of my research participants in Shanghai, sent me a WeChat animated sticker of a bright full moon surrounded by three joyful bouncing bunnies, saying ‘Happy Mid-autumn day!’ (fig. 1) This is just one of hundreds of stickers, emoji, short videos, or animated albums to do with the full moon or moon cakes that circulated among friends and family members on WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China (fig. 2) on the day of Chinese mid-autumn festival.

Falling on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the mid-autumn festival, or the ‘moon festival’, happened to be 13th September this year. Untouched by ‘western’ superstition surrounding Friday 13th, my WeChat profile ushered in the warmest greetings and festival wishes from a wide range of WeChat contacts from China many from my Shanghai field site which I left this June.

Mid-autumn festival is said to be second important national festival next to the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, on the festival day, family members gather to offer sacrifice (e.g. moon cakes) to the moon, appreciate the bright full moon at night, eat moon cakes, and express affection and sentiment of missing toward family members and friends who live afar.

Well, ‘live afar’ probably will be redefined as Mr. Huang (75), another research participant in Shanghai, said as a goodbye wish: “Even living in the same city, friends meet on WeChat. Live near or afar, it matters much less once you are on WeChat. So see you on WeChat.” Mr. Huang is indeed right. Three months after leaving the field work, I still feel deeply involved in the loop of neighbours’ gossips or the troublesome relationship of mother and daughter-in-law. I constantly get updates about the daily quarrels between the cat living on the 15th floor and the dog on the 20th floor, the routine exercises and activities in the old people’s home 5,700 miles away from London, all thanks to WeChat.

Back in London, my colleague Marilia asked me whether it was difficult to leave the field site. I shook my head: it is not difficult, it is simply IMPOSSIBLE. It may very well be the same case for other anthropologists in the age of smartphone: we meet people on social media, be it WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, so that even if there is an end to the field work, there will be no full stop to the constant connection with people from the field site online.

How long will the full moon appear? Wine cup in hand, I ask the sky… Why then when people part, is the moon often full and bright? People have sorrow and joy; they part and meet again. The moon is bright or dim; it waxes and wanes. Nothing in history has ever been perfect.” Those melancholy words written on a mid-autumn festival 900 years ago by the great poet Su Shi, still influence nowadays Chinese people’s interpretation and aesthetic appreciation of the moon.

Every year, on this particular night, the bright full moon conjures the collective hallucination of ‘togetherness’ among Chinese people: no matter where you are, we are looking at the same moon, and we are bathing in the same moonlight together. Almost millennium ago, clever ancient Chinese have created the ‘mega-symbol’ moon to visualize and mediate the affections in long distance. Problem solved.

fig. 2

Alas, the perfect solution doesn’t work in the face of ‘time difference’ caused by really long distance in the ‘global village’. When my Chinese friends admired the full moon at night, I hadn’t even finished the first coffee during the day. However, before I saw the full moon on the sky, I had been bathing in the moonlight on WeChat during the day. One tends to think the full moon in the sky is more ‘real’ than the full moon on WeChat, but, is it? Would the moon in the sky be the same moon had it not been wrapped with the poetic imagination of ‘togetherness’ from generation to generation in China? If it is all about the shared imagination within the specific group of population, then the moon on WeChat shared among Chinese people is definitely more ‘real’ than the moon in the sky of the unlucky Friday the 13th.

Sometimes I am wondering, had poet Su Shi lived in today’s world, on the grand mid-autumn festival, whether he would still ask the sky for the full moon, holding the wine cup high, or, would he be equally satisfied by sending the full moon on WeChat, holding the smartphone tight.

 

50 colours of menopause – reframing the ‘age of despair’. By Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 30 September 2019

Authors: Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

Photo (CCBY) Maya de Vries. Activity at the senior’s club: colouring pine cones.

Right from the beginning of the ASSA project, one of the main topics that we discussed was menopause. Although menopause is less of a taboo, and people talk about it much more in the al-Quds field site compared with some of the other ASSA sites, it took a us a while to be able to speak with informants about this sensitive topic. We discovered that for many women speaking about the physical and mental ramifications of menopause is still not easy to do and they tend to be shy and even embarrassed by it. It was only recently, after a year spent at the field site that gathering information about menopause became easier, mainly because women felt more comfortable to open up.

Research about menopause in al-Quds is rare. However there is some research about this issue focusing on the West Bank. In the article Age of despair or age of hope? Palestinian women’s perspectives on midlife health (Hammoudeh et al., 2017), authors depict the perception of menopause among Palestinian women in the West Bank who were born between 1960-1975. They clearly say that they had no access to Palestinian women in Jerusalem due to political and security problems entering Jerusalem from the West Bank.

The term used in Arabic in medical literature and discourse to describe menopause in the West Bank and in al-Quds is the ‘age of despair’ (sin al-yaas). However, in Hommoudeh’s article this term was unpopular with the women interviewed, and they preferred not using it. Similarly, in al-Quds, women that we spoke with in Dar al-Hawa, do not like to use this term. They are familiar with it, but do not wish to use it when talking about themselves, since it is not describing them correctly. The word despair is not relevant for them and perceived as negative, whether they are married with children, widowed, married with no children, or never married. They simply do not see themselves as in despair; for them it is very strong word, that does not describe their daily life.

The women we interviewed knew that they are in their midlife, but midlife for them means much more than just menopause, which carries negative associations. Many women articulated a positive view about midlife and ageing as a natural process that is part of life. Midlife, is considered to be an age of peacefulness and wisdom in the Holy Quran. The ‘age of despair’ is not mentioned; the term to describe older people is ‘old in years’ (Kbar fi al-Snin or Sheikhoukha, referring to old people, but they tend to see their age as an advantage because of increased life experience.

While talking with the women in al-Quds we found out that they talk about menopause in private and intimate situations such as meetings with girlfriends or with other women from their family. In such occasions, they talk more about the various physical symptoms characterising this age, such as – hot flashes, tension, incontinence, lack of sleep and more, and less on the mental issues that might appear. Some said that they were sure that these symptoms will pass with no need for medical treatment. They thought menopause is natural thing, and temporary. What was interesting to hear is how they refer to the term ‘menopause’, and what are the alternatives they are using instead.

In Yasmin’s (42) interview she referred to menopause as the ‘safety age’, when there is no chance to get pregnant.

yes, I have heard about it, there is another term that is used as an alternative to menopause and it’s the safety age. I know many women relatives and friends that reached this period of their life, but they never said that they were going through it (menopause). I think that this term is wrong, because there is no age that stops women.

Abeer (58) called menopause in a different name, considering it as ‘maturity age’, while referring not just to physical consequences of menopause, which are usually negative, but also to a better self.

I have been through the menopause period, I consider it maturity age, in this period women feel that they are able to take decisions by themselves, she feels that she is strong, she lives her life the way she wants, before the menopause her life was different.

Tagreed (60) sees menopause in contrast to what it represents. For her, the role of the women as grandmother is significant:

I don’t know, maybe when women reach this period her role in life ends, on the contrary, I believe that they are wrong because in this period her role becomes even more important than before, she takes care of her grandchildren, her children get married, she takes care of everything, and all the family depends on her. They think that if her period stops, that she is no longer able to become pregnant, her role in life ends. In contrast, in this period she takes care of her grandchildren, and her children depend more on her.

Tentatively, we can say that the term ‘age of despair’, is no longer relevant, and the concept of a novel, ‘golden’ prestige age is rising now. Our guess is that there are plenty of reasons for this shift, mainly because medicine is progressing and leisure activities are more commonly pursued. We will continue exploring how the digital environment impacts on this change; this still is an enigma for us, as many of our informants are not using digital devices, or health apps heavily. Some do not even carry a smartphone.

Interestingly, just as the term ‘menopause’ is being reframed, the same is happening also with the term ‘old’, as many in al Quds refrain from using it as it might be considered insulting. Many times, we see the word “seniors” instead of old, switching the word out of respect. A small example of the change in discourse can be seen in the new WhatsApp group opened two weeks ago by the coordinator of the seniors’ club under the name ‘The group of the golden age club’. The previous WhatsApp group, which is now being abandoned by its members, was called ‘The group of the older people of Dar al-Hawa’. The ‘golden’ age highlights the possibilities this age, despite menopause, can offer. Is this reframing simply concealing what is really happening in this age? Or due to various changes in the modern world, is ageing is coloured in gold? So far the al-Quds’s field site tells us that ageing is changing, and if you are financially secure, yes – you can experience the ‘golden age’.

 

 

Mobile Money & Elder Care from Kampala

By Charlotte E Hawkins, on 22 September 2019

Calling and mobile money are the most ubiquitous uses of mobile phones in the Kampala fieldsite. This connects people to their relatives across distances, allowing people to check on family or request assistance. Mobile money is often lauded as an example of adapting technology to requirements ‘from below’ (Pype, K., 2017), offering financial flexibility and connection (Kusimba et al., 2016: 266; Maurer, 2012: 589). With 33 mobile money vendors in the low-income neighbourhood where fieldwork was conducted, it is the most convenient and accessible platform for saving and transferring money.

Various people in Godown explained how they provide for their parents and relatives in the village without visiting them as “you can send money on the phone”. People sending money take cash to an agent, who arranges the transfer to the recipient’s phone number via their mobile.  Whilst relatives living in rural areas may be able to grow their own food, money is necessary for other amenities, transport, school fees, hospital bills, and burial costs. As one woman explained, if she wasn’t sending her parents money, they would have no other source of income; recently, her mother had a stomach ulcer, so she sent her money to go to hospital.  And from the perspective of an elder in the village in Northern Uganda, “life’s easier now with phones”, as they are able to communicate family problems with relatives in the city and mobilise necessary funds. This also exacerbates the burden of care for urban relatives. A local councillor in Godown explained how he bought his sister in the village a smartphone in order to make communication easier between them. But he actually finds the connectivity has made life “a bit harder” for him, as it has increased his obligation; when people have problems, they can immediately let him know and he’s expected to find money for them. Before, news of a death could take a week to reach him, by which time he may have even missed the burial and the accompanying financial obligations.

In a survey of 50 respondent’s phone use, only 3 people said they had not used mobile money in the past 6 months. Those who had used it sent and received money 3 times a month on average. We asked them about the last 3 times they had sent or received mobile money, who the person was, the amount and reason for remitting. Of 130 recorded remittances, the average amount sent was just over 200,000ugx, ranging from as little as 10,000 to 10,000,000ugx. Mostly, remittances were sent or received from siblings (28%), parents (12%), friends (11%),  and customers (10%). Sometimes people had deposited money for themselves, using their phone as their bank. The greatest proportion of remittances (28%) were for ‘help’, which could include money for upkeep, food, ‘pocket money’ or gifts. This was followed by remittances for health purposes (25%), which could include hospital bills, medicine, transport to hospital and surgery costs. 6 of these transfers were received or forwarded by the respondent in a chain of remittances, for the purposes of supporting older relatives. For example, one respondent had received 200,000ugx from her daughter, in order to help her take her mother in the village to hospital; or another who received 30,000 from their Aunt for their grandmother’s hospital bills. Perhaps the older person was unable to receive the money themselves, or perhaps other relatives weren’t trusted to pass on the money.

As economic anthropologist Bill Maurer notes, mobile services such as mobile money are appropriated within existing communicative networks (2012: 593). These instances of phone use demonstrate how mobile phones can provide a platform for intergenerational care between the city and the village. This works against a pervasive academic, public and everyday discourse about the declining social position and experience of older people in Uganda and Africa more broadly (e.g. Nzabona and Ntozi: 2017; Nankwanga et al., 2013; Van Der Geest, 2011; Oppong, 2006; van der Geest, 1997), often associated with broader contextual shifts, such as the urbanisation and technologization which have necessitated and facilitated mobile money practices. Research participants often lamented the Westernisation, increasing materialism and individualism, of the younger ‘dotcom’ generation exposed to outside influences. But in these everyday instances, ‘dotcom’ technologies are also shown to up-hold family support and obligation towards older relatives, despite greater distances between them.

References:

  • Kusimba, S., Yang, Y., Chawla, N., 2016. Hearthholds of mobile money in western Kenya: Hearthholds of mobile money in western Kenya. Econ. Anthropol. 3, 266–279. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12055
  • Maurer, B., 2012. Mobile Money: Communication, Consumption and Change in the Payments Space. J. Dev. Stud. 48, 589–604. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2011.621944
  • Nankwanga, A., Neema, S., Phillips, J., 2013. The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Older Persons in Uganda, in: Maharaj, P. (Ed.), Aging and Health in Africa. Springer US, Boston, MA, pp. 139–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8357-2_7
  • Nzabona, A. and Ntozi, J. (2017) Does urban residence influence loneliness of older persons? Examining socio-demographic determinants in Uganda. Unpublished
  • Oppong, C., 2006. Familial Roles and Social Transformations: Older Men and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Res. Aging 28, 654–668. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027506291744
  • Pype, K. (2017) ‘Smartness from Below’, in What do Science, Tehcnology and Innovation mean from Africa? eds Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. MIT Press
  • Van der Geest, S., 1997. Between respect and reciprocity: managing old age in rural Ghana. South. Afr. J. Gerontol. 6, 20–25. https://doi.org/10.21504/sajg.v6i2.116

Digital Social Participation: Cases from Milan

By Shireen Walton, on 9 September 2019

Photo (CY BY) Shireen Walton

Social participation is among the most significant factors linked to health and wellbeing later in life. As a variety of studies have shown, loneliness (both social and emotional [i]) is one of the most pressing issues of ageing. Individuals, of all ages and backgrounds seek roles, a sense of belonging and purpose, but these needs becomes particularly pertinent following retirement, in ‘empty nest’ contexts of family members having moved away, or in conditions of limited physical mobility

One question we have been exploring in the ASSA project is what might be the significance of digital social participation, or rather, social participation that is facilitated by smartphones and digital practices. My ethnographic research in one inner-city neighbourhood in Milan reveals how smartphone practices play a significant role in facilitating social participation amongst a range of individuals and groups, helping to combat issues associated with loneliness and physical/social isolation, via on– and offline practices.

To illustrate with a couple of examples.

Ugo, 75 is a retired engineer lives with his wife, Anna, 70, a retired schoolteacher, on the 5thfloor of an apartment building where they have lived for the last 30 years. Due to a severe spinal condition that affected the use of his legs, Ugo hardly ever leaves the house. A combination of technologies, the Internet, historical fiction books, and daily interactions with his wife make up his social world where he spends the days in a wheelchair at home. From the moment he wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed, Ugo is connected to the Internet via the house WiFi. Ugo uses his smartphone primarily for communication with the wider social world – he wears his smartphone round his neck in a well-worn, knitted phone case that Anna had knitted for him a few Christmasses ago. Through WhatsApp, Ugo enjoys receiving photographs from family and friends. At one point, Ugo was added to a WhatsApp group of the apartment building that was set up by one of his neighbours, a Peruvian woman called Angela, as a communication porthole for residents of the building. Before long the group transformed ‘from below’ into a forum of sharing, posting, commenting, celebrating, via emojis, memes, screenshots, even poems. While Ugo is not active overly himself on the group, the messages he receives on his phone, in addition to wider notifications such as the news, bring him a certain pleasure throughout the day, making him feel connected to a certain buzz of being-in-the-world where his physical conditions had otherwise gradually removed him from.

Ugo also uses WhatsApp to communicate with his (family) doctor.  In one instance, Ugo had a rash that had developed on one of his legs. The first thing he thought of to do was to take a photograph of it on his smartphone and send the image to his doctor on WhatsApp. This led to a kind of informal digital consultation between the two. “We are close”, Ugo explained. “He (the doctor)is like a son or nephew to me. With WhatsApp we are like family – I know he is never far away if I need anything, which comforts me. From time to time he will ask if he can pop round to see me on his way home.”

In a different example, Rosalba, 69, originally from the region of Abruzzo in central Italy is a retired secondary school teacher. She lives with her husband (75), a retired electrician, and their dog. Rosalba found the adjustment to full-time retirement a difficult transition, and missed the sociality of her professional role and buzz of school life. She soon sank into daily routines within the home; household chores, shopping, cooking for her and her husband, a few outings. But without real purpose, Rosalba found herself drifting through the days and weeks. Before long, her home space became a kind of benign ‘prison’, and she found herself feeling suffocated by emotional isolation and loneliness. One of Rosalba’s former colleagues from her school who she sees regularly at the supermarket recommended that she should come along to a women’s choir that meets once a week in the neighbourhood. Rosalba found aspects of the choir refreshing and stimulating; the multi-cultural and cross-generational aspect resembled what she had experienced at work at the school. The choir’s WhatsApp group, in particular, was extremely active. The women share photos, videos, song lyrics, emojis full of hearts, flowers, shooting stars, laughs, cries, thumbs up and down, amid a broad repertoire of digital-visual expressions of emotion. After a year, Rosalba found that she had discovered a new lease of life through the choir and its associated fora of sociality, including the WhatsApp group. The stream of messages that flows between the women and the immersive, ‘affective community’ it forms, comforts Rosalba in her day-to-day life, and she became to feel less alone throughout the days. Retirement now feels like something Rosalba can participate in and even shape, as she begins to carve out spaces for herself and her need for collectivity. She has developed her singing voice in expressing powerful and politically and emotionally-loaded lyrics of defiance, human solidarity, sisterhood, in a range of languages and dialects, and this empowerment appears to have seeped into other aspects of her life, including how she participates more actively in her social relationships, and in trying out new hobbies such as walking groups. Ageing and retiring with smartphones has been a gradual but creative and rejuvenating experience for Rosalba, and digital communications have facilitated and boosted her social participation.

For others in the neighbourhood, digital social participation can be an important way of participating in community life for other reasons. Angela (45) is from Lima, Peru. She lives with her husband and their 12-year old son in the same apartment block as Ugo mentioned above, working as a part-time teaching assistant in one of the local public schools. Angela describes her life with her family as ‘quiet and closed’. She is not particularly sociable or confident in public settings, and some of this she attributes to a difficult background and upbringing in the low-income neighbourhood her family lived in in Lima. She is particularly concerned about street crime and violence and the safety of her son growing up in Milan. Although she is reasonably active during the day between her job, the food shopping, and taking care of the family at home, Angela avoids going out at night. Through digital forms of engagement however, Angela has enhanced her social participation in the community in a manner she feels comfortable with – from the comfort and safety of her home. She participates enthusiastically on the apartment block WhatsApp group she set-up for neighbours in the building – sharing friendly messages and greetings on festive days – and is a member of various groups tied to her son’s school such as parents’ groups on WhatsApp and Facebook, which keeps her both informed and feeling involved. When one of her Peruvian friends recommended a weekly women’s sewing group, Angela joined and became an active participant on the WhatsApp group. The social worlds contained within Angela’s smartphone constitute some of the main sources of Angela’s present social life. Her social participation is both offline and online, but is most frequently played out via the smartphone.

Engaging socially in digital forms can be important in a variety of contexts and at any age. Although the politics and practices of inclusion/exclusion via digital practices are far from simple matters, requiring delicate critical and contextual attention, my research in Milan highlights how smartphone-facilitated sociality can modulate experiences of loneliness, isolation and/or social exclusion amongst a range of people, including older adults and migrants in the city, forming an overall central part of how socialities are crafted in this context.

References:

[i]  De Jong Gierveld, J. & Van Tilburg, T. (2006). A 6-item scale for overall, emotional and social loneliness: Confirmatory tests on survey data. Research on Aging, Vol. 28 (5): 582-598.