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Bringing Ageing to Life

alex.clegg12 May 2022

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

On 8th June, the ASSA team will host a workshop to bring together different anthropologists of ageing. This will include discussion of comparative papers from each of the team members.

My paper, written alongside ASSA researcher Laura Haapio-Kirk, offers a comparative perspective of ageing and how it is defined around the world. Whilst we bring insights from our colleague’s research, the bulk of the ethnographic comparison is based around my work in Kampala, Uganda, and Laura’s in Osaka, Japan; despite contrasting socio-demographic circumstances, with Uganda one of the world’s youngest populations, and Japan one of the world’s oldest, this comparative framework offers an opportunity to explore how people redefine age and older personhood in ever-changing circumstances, particularly in light of shifting intergenerational relationships.

Like the rest of the ASSA team, both Laura and I quickly realised that the ‘mid-life’ or ‘middle age’ (45-70 years old) category we had set out with, was not particularly applicable in our research contexts. For example, amongst my participants in Uganda, including older people, health workers, researchers of ageing[i] and age-based advocacy organizations in Kampala such as The Aged Family Uganda (TAFU), Uganda Reach the Aged Association (URAA), HelpAge Uganda, Health Nest Uganda (HENU), age is more likely to be determined by the experience and health of the individual, as well as their income and environment. People with sufficient experience and social status could be considered an elder at as young as 40 years old. Or, in Japan, older age categories are shifting within the ‘super ageing society’. While such age-based categories may be required for developing policy regarding health care and work, Laura found that such categories are of diminished importance for most people in their daily lives. For example, while people may recognise that they are suffering from age-based illnesses or use the category of ‘elderly’ when struggling with their smartphone (“I can’t do it, I’m elderly!”), in their day-to-day lives they also enjoy many continuities with their younger selves and feel rather that their interests and personality have actually become even more pronounced with age. Or, in Ireland, Brazil, Chile and China, people aged 45-70 rebuke the stereotypes associated with middle age which is something the ASSA project explored in more depth as this short video shows.

This is not to say that age categories are not also socially significant, but that they do not necessarily acquire meaning in line with the chronological concept of age we had set out with. Instead, our comparative discussion shows that age categories are socially negotiable, which means that they are dynamic, experiential and continually evolving, but also often articulated in line with established intergenerational norms and family roles. In this articulation, what values are brought to life, re-established, and experienced as part of ageing? How does this relate to contemporary contexts informed by global marketisation, migration, urbanisation and digitisation?

The ASSA project has documented various ethnographic examples which demonstrate how age is redefined by our research participants in diverse settings and within a shared global context of population ageing, longer life expectancies, declining public health investment and increasingly individualised self-responsibility. These redefinitions tend to disrupt chronologies, for example in resistance to meanings attributed to ‘middle age’ or ‘elderly’, and in the more relational and experiential definitions of age, ‘bringing ageing to life’. Often, we found that people seek to re-define established categories of age based on their experience as it deviates from that of their parents’ generation or public discourses around ageing. In some cases, this may reflect ‘active ageing’ discourses or even ageist attitudes, which tend to discriminate against inactivity, poor health and appearances of age.

[i] Thanks to Dr. Annet Nankwanga, Dr. Betty Kwagala and Dr. Abel Nzabona at Makerere University for introducing categories of age in the Ugandan context.

The TikTok of Anthropology

alex.clegg17 March 2022

Open access image from Pixabay

Author: Daniel Miller

I want to make a slightly surprising suggestion. That my current ambition in anthropology is to become more like TikTok (or its original Chinese form Douyin). Because TikTok captures something that is central to the ethos of anthropology as a discipline. Currently the ASSA project is developing an approach called Smart-From-Below. The premise of this stance is that smartphones are cresting a wave that consists of a historical shift of creativity back to ordinary people. Enabled by its extraordinary capacities anybody can come up with a significant and helpful use of their smartphones in, for example, helping develop heath care or organising information. The idea of smart-from-below is that the anthropologist learns from observing these and then re-packages them in order to make these creative ideas available to everyone else. The 150-page manual we have published by Marilia Duque on our website about how you can use WhatsApp for health is an example of this approach. You can download the manual here.

Eugene Wei has recently written three fascinating blogs about the algorithm behind TikTok of which the most relevant is available here. The two previous blogs demonstrate how the company ByteDance developed an extraordinarily successful algorithm that watches you as you watch TikTok. It quickly learns from this your preferences and feeds you more and more of what you evidently like to watch. I am particularly interested because I also have a PhD student Ken Zheng who has just competed nearly a year working as an intern in ByteDance for her PhD studies. The third blog is not about the algorithm but about how easy it is for anyone to make TikTok videos. In the tradition developed as sampling culture in music, much of this riffs off and comments on prior videos circulating on TikTok. There was a profound book The Signifying Monkey by Henry Lewis Gates Jnr that argued for the origins of this kind of cultural practice in jazz and before that in particular African cultural systems.

What this means is that ByteDance doesn’t really need to know anything about its users or their content. All that matters is that it developed the best current system for allowing peer to peer cultural sharing and trajectories of creative development. In other words, allowing people to observe and learn from each other, rather than trying to impose or develop content itself. At this point the analogy between TikTok and Smart-From-Below should be clear. Anthropology has never been that concerned with telling people what to do, or creating their `content’. Rather it stems from our appreciation of what people themselves creatively develop as cultural forms and practices, and then letting other people learn from that. It is not the only thing we do, but one of our primary contributions is in facilitating peer-to-peer cultural learning. I would like to do this more effectively in the future. In other words, at least for this purpose, I would like to become more like TikTok.

Updated 21/03/2022

On re-reading my own post I decided it required a short caveat just to prevent any misunderstanding. I am only suggesting we might become more like TikTok in relation to peer-to-peer communication. I fully recognise that there are all sorts of other aspects of TikTok, whether its potential for superficiality or misinformation that of course, I have not the slightest desire to emulate.