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“Iconographies for Retirement” – By Pauline Garvey

GeorgianaMurariu31 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

 

Downsizing, Rightsizing, Upsizing — by Daniel Miller

XinyuanWang24 June 2019

A while back, Pauline Garvey and myself decided to write a chapter for our book about downsizing. This means that we rather assumed that downsizing would be an evident phenomenon for the age group we are studying, mainly people in their sixties and seventies. Certainly, in Ireland there is pressure on older people; hints from the media and the state that moving to a smaller home would help free up large family homes for families with children and perhaps release equity for their own children who are finding it hard to buy their own homes.

I found that most of my informants resent such pressure, feeling that they have worked hard for and deserve their homes. Their children may be living abroad and when visiting, my informants want to host them in their own homes.  Anyway, there are no hotels in Cuan. These people often want to move from the older estates they currently live in, where houses are typically expensive to maintain. But the evidence, confirmed from interviews with estate agents, is that they are not downsizing. Rather they aspire to move to new build houses, but with at least three bedrooms. When visiting such houses I found that they use this opportunity to express their desire to be modern and youthful. Far from squeezing possessions accumulated over decades into small retirement flats, they give these away and embrace modern furnishings and styles for their bright new houses.

Similarly, while they may be getting rid of their many accumulated possessions in the process. They may use this realign themselves with modern sensibility, viewing these actions as evidence that they have embraced the modern ‘green’ environmentalist perspective. So both in moving home and in divesting themselves of possessions, it seems that, far from preparing for ageing, they are seeking ways to become more youthful and more attached to contemporary mores.

Other evidence suggests that there is only limited transfers of equity down the generations to enable younger people to buy their own homes.  It seems more common for them to suggest that their children’s families can come back and stay in these reasonably spacious homes, while they are saving money to purchase their own. Most commonly, these children really want to be able to buy a home within Cuan itself, and this is expensive.

Actual downsizing is important in relation to frailty at whatever age this arrives. Alongside the need for specialist aids, downstairs bedrooms and toilets and, when required, a move to specialist sheltered accommodation or a nursing home. But, consistent with our earlier findings, this is about physical need. Otherwise, it seems to matter little whether people are in their eighties or fifties, they no longer consider themselves as old people who have to shrink their worlds, rather they remain concerned to find strategies for updating their world and remaining contemporary.

I thought this was quite an original, even radical finding; but perhaps we have not gone far enough. A 2016 report by the UK’s NHBC Foundation called Moving insights from the over-55s based on a survey of 1,500 households who have moved home, suggests that nearly a third have actually upsized, that the most popular homes are four bedrooms and that 46% have put more money into their new homes, rather than released equity. Unfortunately, the survey is not broken down by age. It is not then surprising that terms such as rightsizing are coming to displace downsizing. What that report doesn’t do, which we hope our project will do, is delve into the deeper context that may explain why this is happening.

 

Doing time — by Pauline Garvey

XinyuanWang5 March 2019

This month I have been asking people about retirement. I’m finding that some people adopt grand projects on their retirement: one man, for instance, published a book that compiled all his photographic works completed over 12 months in the 1950s. A woman told me that she has collected all the short stories and opinion pieces she ever wrote and put them in a folder for relatives to read after she is gone.

Finally, one man who does not see himself as particularly artistic or creative, keeps a photographic record of his holidays to leave to his adult children in years to come. As we talk about such matters, the word legacy comes to mind. But legacy is difficult to capture because for many – including myself – it is unclear precisely what this term means. For some it concerns completing something that has worth and would otherwise remain undone. For others, it means leaving a sort of cartography of memories behind for the next generation.

Legacy, I have realised, tends to suggest individualised works and occasionally my assumptions have been challenged in this regard. This month, a group of retired, elderly women I meet regularly embarked on a craft project to knit several hundred small chicken shapes in preparation for Easter. The chicken shapes will be given eyes and ribbons around their necks. They will be stuffed and decorated. The local chocolate factory have agreed to donate several hundred small chocolate eggs that will be inserted into the chickens and then the totality will be given to the local hospice as part of their fundraising activities.

As I’m told of these tasks, I marvel at the work, the energy, the organisation and the generosity of these women and wonder if activities such as these represent a collective legacy, something bigger than the sum of its parts. But at the same time, I think there is more to these activities than issues of legacy.  Keeping busy is a common motif in my research. One man described his wife as ‘she’s like a shark, they die if they stop moving’ whereas another referred to the bonus of ‘having something to get me out of bed in the morning’.

Anthropologists are aware that it is in the structured routines of the day, that time is felt and experienced. As my research progresses I find that respondents constantly talk of practices in terms of time, ie. finding something that gives shape to the day, that takes time and converts it into something productive.

Time, for some becomes problematic not because it is scarce but because it must be filled.

Commonly women in my craft group, aged in their 70s and 80s comment on their need to stay busy. One woman told me she had knitted 100 small chickens because  ‘I just knit when I’m watching tv’. Another joined in that she also likes to have something to do when watching television, ‘I feel guilty if I’m not keeping active’, she said.

Of course watching television is not ‘doing nothing’, but the emphasis is on being productive with time, not letting is slip away. This point is considered so self evident that some informants look at me askance when I ask why it is a good thing to be active.

Activities fulfil the purpose of keeping them busy, of filling time that otherwise might be empty where they might feel adrift. In that respect, time is something that is ideally practiced. Which leads me to wonder: which is most important – the doing of time or the activity that fills it?

We are all going to die before we get old

DanielMiller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.

 

Dr. Google will see you….anytime.

DanielMiller4 October 2018

Given that I suspect almost everyone you know at least occasionally uses google to look up health related information, at least sometimes, there is not a great deal of research on the consequences – though I have no access to google’s own research. This has therefore been a major focus of my work on digital technologies and health here in Ireland. What are the main conclusions so far?

Most noticeable is the way googling exacerbates differences in class and educational background. There is a pronounced spectrum. At one end are those, often without medical backgrounds, who would comfortably use google to track down the latest medical journals, because they are trained in research. At the other end are those who simply look at the items that come at the top of their google search, which are often scare stories, rumours or commercial sites. As one pharmacist noted `They just type it into google and probably read the first couple of articles that come up. So whatever’s most recent. They don’t differentiate NHS from random.’ This can be very frustrating to medical practitioners when it leads to their patients locating the problem in the latest online speculation, rather than starting with the practitioner’s own analysis.

This spectrum is complex because of several contradictory factors. A surprising number of people in this town mention that there is someone with medical training, within their extended family, who may mediate their searches. There is also a well educated section who use googling as a kind of anti-medical-establishment resource seeking out alternative and complementary treatments, which they feel deal with issues and consequences that are neglected by bio-medical establishments.

At both ends of the spectrum most people see equally strong positive and negative consequences of googling. They feel more knowledgeable, and in control of their treatment, but they also see googling as a cause of considerable stress and anxiety. They note that pretty much any symptom could potentially indicate cancer or some other life threatening condition. Some therefore limit their googling. Many people are wary of informing doctors of their searches for fear they will be seen as a nuisance or a challenge to the doctor’s authority. Googling may be a factor in deciding whether to see a doctor, but it also employed subsequent to visits to the doctor in order to better understand terminology, medicines and procedures. Pharmacists may actively guide people in their googling. Those who differentiate trusted sources of information mostly choose the US Mayo clinic or the UK NHS site rather than any Irish sites, and also favour specialist sites dedicated to their particular conditions. Unlike early evidence from other fieldsites in our project, such as in our recent blog post about Cameroon, there is little use of YouTube here for health information.

To conclude, google appears to provide equal information to all, but in practice, it may extend class and educational differences and create problems of online health literacy. Well-educated people become still better informed, while poorly educated people are left even more confused and anxious. The obvious solution is kite-marking those sites backed by established professional bodies. This does nothing to prevent a preference for complementary health sources, but does ensure a more equal playing field for those who, to use a common expression here, think of online as Dr. Google.

The Challenge of Menopause

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.

 

What’s the Opposite of Facebook? Err…it’s (still) Facebook – by Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton28 June 2018

Authors: Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

Facebook as digital allotment for growing community? Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Once Facebook had become established, there developed a general consensus as to its primary social consequence: it allegedly led to rampant narcissistic individualism – people preening themselves in public, and to the decline of community and ‘proper’ sociality. The dominant motifs, much used in advertising at the time, would be of a woman posting herself painting her toenails a bright colour, or a teenager posing for a selfie. As such, Facebook was castigated by older people as something which encouraged this self-centred orientation by the young. Yet by the time the Why We Post project developed in 2012, the evidence was that the primary orientation of this social media was indeed social. The young posed with their arms around their Best Friend Forever and Facebook had become central to mother and toddler groups and the reintegration of families separated by migration and diaspora.

We work in very different field contexts; Danny within a comfortable small Irish town, and Shireen in an inner-city, multiethnic neighbourhood of Milan. Yet in both cases, the people we speak to say that the main reason they use Facebook is to keep up with the community; to share in another opportunity for being together (this time online), and to find out about events and gatherings taking place in the area. In the Irish case this might be a charity walk such as `Darkness into Light’, to raise money for the prevention of suicide, or the events associated with a weekend celebrating traditional music, or to facilitate community development in a new housing estate. In Milan, this could be to arrange and advertise a mass convening in public space one Saturday afternoon, standing side by side holding hands to form a 4km long catena umana (‘human chain’) – an act of celebrating the unity present in their community, and to contest the negative perception of the neighbourhood as a ghetto. Facebook, in both of these contexts, is the main site for local community news, community history, community photography and so forth. In the Irish site, this is especially important for local sports – of which there are a great many in this small town. For example one informant from Buan goes on Facebook several times a day. They look at two Buan sites concerned with swimming, two closed groups; one called Buan Talk and the other Buan buy/sell/swap, a Buan kayaking group, the fortnightly Buan News site, and the site of one of Buan’s cafes. In the Milan site, community Facebook group(s) are where the neighbourhood keeps together in a range of interesting ways, including where people express willingness to offer their time or a helping hand to one another. One informant in the Milan site found it remarkable, for instance, how if someone gets sick or needs help with something and posts this to the group, there will be an average of 20-30 responses each time from people willing to help them – from buying some basic groceries to picking up medicines, and so on.

Such community uses are not new, but they may have become increasingly important while more individualistic uses have declined., This may reflect the way in which Snapchat has become more important for young people, while WhatsApp has taken on the primary role of linking families together in everyday communication. By contrast, Facebook with its combination of visuals, texts, unfolding events in sequences, complemented by basic information such as contact details, is now ideal for advertising the latest play, or explaining to people how to get their T-shirts to support a charitable walk. Another factor, noted by Danny in 2012 is the way Facebook is gradually migrating from younger to older people in its usage. While there is a cross-generational feel to these community Facebook groups, the people that create, use, and invest time in them are increasingly in their 40s and upwards.

In both fieldsites, creating community includes establishing what is appropriate usage. For example, politics is largely avoided since it would be divisive. In the Milan site, this is especially important given the negative views other people have of this area – here, Facebook groups project an alternative, positive image of the neighbourhood. People using Facebook in these ways create a nurturing space for their community; a kind of digital green allotment space (echoing the importance of physical community allotments in both the Milan site and in Buan), where community togetherness offers some respite from the wider noise of Facebook, and the wider web at large, and where above all, the existing altruism we both find present in our fieldsites can plant itself/be planted, collectively self-nurture, and grow.

You will still find selfies on Facebook, and plenty of interaction within families, but in our two fieldsites, what is striking is the degree to which Facebook has taken on a role which is pretty much the exact opposite of its assumed consequence – which was the development of narcissistic individualism. Today, for many people in our fieldsites, Facebook is where the offline development of community spirit is enhanced by its cultivation within a digital online space.

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.

The Blow-in Community

DanielMiller4 April 2018

Sneem, Kerry, photo by Bill Barber

Most people one meets in this small Irish town describe themselves as blow-ins, meaning they were born in some other part of Ireland. That’s hardly surprising since given the huge expansion of housing estates since the 1970s it is demographically true. More interesting is their dedicated participation in the vast number of community and volunteer groups that can be found here. Many of these organisations were founded by people born here, but it is the blow-ins who have sustained and expanded them and seem quite passionate about their contribution to the subsequent sense of vibrant community.

There is an important lesson here for anthropology. We have tended to see authenticity through ideals of tradition and continuity relating authenticity also to actual origin. But in most places this ideal of community is a modern invention and antidote to the fragmentation of the forces that we call modernity. The original population had less need for such an explicit ideal of community. As one such person noted – when he was young his large family was sufficient for his social interactions. The Catholic Church was and still is often the primary vehicle for a sense of wider socialising. While identity with this pleasant town was simply a given by birth. The same person noted that he would always say he was coming into the town, while blow-ins might say they were coming into the village.

By contrast, the vast majority of blow-ins initially encountered this town through tourism and viewed it as a rural seaside idyll, very likely often the place they wish they had been born into. Once they have settled, and in many cases retired, community and identification develop through their active and creative labour. This is an opportunity to help create the idealised community that they have imagined themselves moving into. Some of them would like to call the centre a village while those born here are clear that it is a town. It is the blow-ins that need fascinating and anecdotal history, prizes from being a tidy or age-friendly town, books, chess, bowls, theatre, creative writing, painting, music, sports, film and many other clubs. In this they are joined by the original inhabitants who gratefully accept this support and appreciation, while remaining quite aware as to who is or is not a blow-in, for example, who has rights to be buried in the original cemetery.

 

The Anthropology of Smartphone Apps

DanielMiller14 December 2017

The ASSA project is broad, including a focus upon middle age and a commitment to an engagement with mHealth. But at the centre of our work, connecting all the other elements, will be eleven ethnographies of smartphones. We are interested in the way that people in midlife, who may have started worrying about the loss of their capacities in life, are suddenly confronting an object, the smartphone, that seems to promise all sorts of new capacities. This represents the clearest point of continuity with our earlier Why We Post project. Indeed, in the book How the World Changed Social Media the previous team predicted that social media will shift from being a discrete category, to become assimilated within the emerging culture of smartphone Apps. We want to provide the patient scholarship of sixteen months engagement to assess this extraordinary new world.

Tinh tế Photo (Creative Commons)

Against the journalism that claims that these are either entirely positive or negative, our focus is likely to be on the integral contradictions.  Apps can appear as a shift towards still greater individualism with a focus upon monitoring the self. But Why We Post showed social media to be often a re-engagement with traditional sociality, such as constant communication with family and friends. App culture means it matters less than ever where one is actually located, and yet one of the most important genre of apps is dedicated to improving one’s locational skills and seeing the world in terms of maps. Apps provide still more immediate and comprehensive linkage to knowledge of the world, including news and yet simultaneously provide greater capacity to disengage from that world through gaming and fantasy. They can dematerialise music and books, but become our most important material possession.

The role of anthropology is to acknowledge the complexity and contradictory nature of app culture as a rejoinder to simplistic claims and simplistic moralising. But also, to show that for ordinary people, most of the time, these contradictions are not particularly problematic. They have been rapidly absorbed as part of everyday life. Understanding how people in our respective fieldsites have achieved this act of creative appropriation will help anthropology in its ultimate quest – which is to better understand the nature of humanity.