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Second Life

By Daniel Miller, on 11 July 2017

We had intended to only start blogging in October when our project actually starts. But the inclusion of a special section in this week’s The Economist (8/7/2017) on the `young old’ is too great a temptation to resist. There are three main components to our forthcoming project. The ethnography of the smartphone and the development of mHealth are two foci. But our foundation is in re-thinking the experience of age for those who can no longer be designated at either young or elderly, i.e. those between the ages of 45 and 70. For me, an interest in how older populations appropriate technology had grown partly from previous projects. When Facebook started to become ubiquitous I was arguing that in the long-term I could see this as more of an older person’s than a younger person’s innovation. My logic was that this was in essence a platform for social communication, and in most societies studied by anthropologists the traditional ‘burden’ of active social communication had been that of older women rather than younger men, especially when it came to keeping up with what is happening in families. Our Why We Post project has shown how in many regions of the world, this kind of intra-family communication is the core to Facebook usage. When I first suggested this alignment, people thought I was insane since Facebook was assumed to exist only for teenagers. But in The Economist the same point is now being taken seriously.

The Economist is mainly concerned with the economic implications of longevity, but for our project there is a real intellectual challenge in researching how living longer than previous generations changes peoples’ understanding of themselves, but also ultimately of the meaning and purpose of their lives. We want to get involved in the practical implications, as in the rise of mHealth, but first we want to compare the experience and meaning of ageing for this demographic across our 12 fieldsites.

The Economist also has a leader asking for a new category or label for this age group. Their own proposal of ‘pre-tired’ is fun, but is probably not intended to ‘stick,’ to the degree that a category such as ‘teenagers’ has. In a preliminary discussion with the team I had proposed the term ‘Second Life’. I know this was the name of a popular computer game but that seems to have faded somewhat and I think it is possible to re-use the term. The reason for this choice is that it seems clear that many people in their fifties and sixties actually want to stay in work, but not necessarily in the work they have done so far. Many would like to return to education, but to study something different. Those who were working when they were parents and were therefore unable to spend as much time with their children as they had wanted to are more likely to want to be active grandparents. Whereas perhaps those who were full-time parents are less likely to be as involved in grand-parenting. In other words, people realise in their fifties that they may have done thirty years of work, but then may have another thirty active years to do something else. So the idea of Second Life, suggests that people now have the opportunity to, as it were, start again, based on the experience and the mistakes of life so far.

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