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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


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.

You can download the eBook here: https://www.ledizioni.it/prodotto/smart-ageing-a-milano-altrove/

You can download the eBook here: https://www.uclpress.co.uk/collections/series-ageing-with-smartphones/products/171347

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.

A screenshot of the Italian Government’s Digital Solidarity page

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.

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/

Bringing Ageing to Life

By alex.clegg, on 12 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.