Digital Care and Community in Milan and Beyond
By alex.clegg, on 5 July 2022
Author: Shireen Walton
Upon the recent publication of the Italian translation of my monograph Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond (published with Ledizioni as Smart Ageing a Milano (e altrove): Soggettivà e socialità nei contesti digitali urbani italiani) in this blog I reflect back on some of the core aspects of the book, and how these might provide food for thought concerning threads and tensions in urban-digital neighbourhood living. Particularly in times of crisis and emergency, from the Covid-19 pandemic, to the current water shortages being seen across northern and central Italy in cities such as Milan, existing community ties – and inequalities – can be exacerbated, calling for continued anthropological sensitivity and engagement with care infrastructures and forms and avenues of social support – aspects of which I reflect upon below in relation to my fieldwork in Italy from 2018-2019.
The book explores the lives and experiences of a range of people of different ages and backgrounds in an inner-city neighbourhood in north-east Milan, during 16 months of ethnographic research. Many residents had moved to the city and/or country at different points in their life, from other regions of Italy, as well as from countries including Egypt, Peru, the Philippines, and Afghanistan.
In studying ageing and the life course and digital communications in this neighbourhood, I came to learn about how older adults experience and shape their time, social worlds and practices between ideas and scales of autonomy, privacy and freedom. I came to learn about how the smartphone was embroiled in these issues, embedded as it is in people’s daily life, work, activities, and relationships. We might briefly consider some stories from the book that illuminate these themes in particular ways.
Pietro and his wife Maria, in their seventies, had recently been added to their apartment building’s WhatsApp group. The two had very different reactions to this. While Maria welcomed the digital sociality and its usefulness for communicating on practical matters, Pietro was more ambivalent about this unfamiliar mode of communication, especially since the WhatsApp group had quickly morphed from the supposed original purpose of information exchange to the postings of emojis, memes, and even poems. Over time, Pietro learned to enjoy these aspects of routine, remote connections.
For Rosalba, in her early sixties who works full-time and lives by herself, the smartphone felt a kind of familiar presence informing her about the weather or recipes found on YouTube. Rosalba drew comfort from the multiple presences contained within the phone, mostly those of her children and extended family who lived in the South of Italy.
For Noor, in her early fifties, who was born and grew up in Egypt, and who has been living in Milan with her family for over a decade, the smartphone was implicated in her broader reconciling of place, work, and care between Alexandria and Milan, a theme that has been recently illustrated in one of our project’s comic series.
The smartphone, as the book suggests, presents no ready answers to a number of dilemmas, but in many cases, it is there, adopted in diverse ways, as what I refer to in the book as a ‘constant companion’ in figuring out life. In many cases seen throughout the ASSA project, the smartphone presents what we call in our collective book The Global Smartphone a ‘Transportal Home’; or a place within which people today might feel they effectively live.
The kinds of care practices I witnessed across the community and online during fieldwork in 2018-2019 took on heightened dimensions during the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to questions of digital vulnerability that came to the fore as Covid gripped the country and the world, the Italian Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization had put together a ‘Digital Solidarity’ campaign in March 2020, whereby a range of services such as free online newspapers, faster internet and access to e-learning platforms could be accessed. These efforts built on Milan’s self-conscious development of a reputation as a ‘smart city’ – which provides the larger-scale backdrop to the zoomed in ethnographic detail concerning the relationship between care and surveillance I explore in the book.
Today WhatsApp support groups have become vital to people in many ways, from ways of dealing with the anxiety of retirement to forming a lifeline of community and/or extended family support during lockdown. During the pandemic in Milan, several initiatives administered by local NGOs aimed to keep people connected to services and support, such as one local initiative that called on neighbours to share their wireless connections to assist children whose families do not have internet connections at home. Amid ongoing socio-economic, political, and environmental change and crises, digital avenues for fostering solidarity, awareness and engagement continue to shape life in the neighbourhood and beyond.
How people came to care for one another during heightened moments of crisis brings up the more general issue that came up in my ethnographic research, about the ways in which people could be / made themselves socially available to one another or not; a concept I call ‘Social Availability’. I discuss the ways in which Social Availability in this inner-city neighbourhood was modulated and adapted and how this could be moralised in particular kinds of ways — when people felt obligated to be more socially available than ever, via their smartphones, and when the line between care and surveillance became finer still.
Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy overall highlights how life with smartphones, before and certainly during the age of Covid, taps into some of the anxieties1 of the present moment in Italy, Europe, and further afield, concerning community, care, and solidarity, and how these are envisioned and practiced in digital and non-digital forms, and, where the twin element in the intimacy of ‘Constant Companionship’ provided by smartphones, is constant and intimate tracking.
1 The ambiguity I describe briefly here forms a key analytical framework for discussing ageing with smartphones in the book, and is something I discuss in more detail in the following author interview here: https://campanthropology.org/2021/11/29/3607/