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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk14 February 2020

Japan has gained a global reputation as being the sort of place where one can ‘imagine our digital future’ – from stories of men marrying their virtual girlfriends, to techno-cemeteries replacing tombstones with LED Buddhas, an imagination of ‘techno Japan’ has developed which can be quite removed from the everyday experiences of people living there. Japan has been slow in many ways to adopt new technologies despite an international perception of being at the forefront of technological innovation. This imagined futuristic Japan is perhaps a result of the prominence of robots and advanced technologies in Japanese popular culture, or because of the impression made on travellers by iconic bullet trains and singing washlet toilets. Day-to-day life in Japan is actually remarkably low-tech; the economy is still largely cash-based despite government attempts to encourage card and mobile payments, much bureaucratic work is still paper-based rather than computerized, and old technologies such as fax machines are still popular. Indeed the name of new Reiwa era (Japan’s new imperial era following the end of Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign) was announced internationally in April 2019 via a fax sent to Japanese embassies worldwide.

On 26th of February I will present my work at a symposium in Sheffield called ‘Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan’. The event is organised by Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies, bringing together scholarship on technical innovations of Japanese art and design with discussions about the use of digital technology to understand Japan. The organisers envision Japan-focused digital research as a productive model for emerging and developing studies of digital cultures around the world. “Imagining our digital futures” requires us to look at our digital present, which in Japan is more commonly about the smartphone rather than robots. And the age-group who are especially keen to imagine a digital future is the middle-aged to elderly, who are finding digital means for challenging previous models of ageing. While Japanese youth have historically been seen to drive innovation in digital communication practices, older people are now starting to embrace the smartphone and are developing their own digital cultures.

My talk will present findings from long-term ethnographic fieldwork I conducted among older people in Kyoto and Kōchi Prefecture, examining ageing, health, and everyday usage of the smartphone. Given the economic and social challenges posed by Japan’s ageing population, the government has turned towards technological solutions, such as assistive robotic devices, to cope with a decreasing health and care workforce. Yet it is in everyday smartphone practices such as messaging, Googling, and using social media that older people are re-imagining care, finding new forms of independence, and crafting new experiences of ageing when compared with previous generations.

With many nations around the world exhibiting ageing populations, there is international focus on how super-ageing Japan is dealing with this demographic shift. By studying the digital practices of middle-aged to elderly Japanese people, this research demonstrates that the smartphone is increasingly central to their lives, and will be key to developing technological innovations for dealing with the challenges associated with ageing.

If you’re near Sheffield do come along, and also check out the Japan Now North festival in the week preceding the symposium with a range of film screenings and discussions on Japanese art, literature, and film. The festival includes a screening of the film ‘I Go Gaga My Dear’ by veteran Japanese documentary filmmaker Naoko Nobutomo. After the screening I will be chairing a Q&A with Nobutomo, discussing her film within the wider context of the Japanese ageing society.

Older adults in Chile as digital immigrants: facing the ‘digital transformation’ towards a paperless world

Alfonso Otaegui22 April 2019

Photo by Alfonso Otaegui

Nowadays many bureaucratical procedures can be done online. In just a couple of years, however, online will be the nearly only option in Chile. This paperless trend represents a challenge for older adults, as it pushes them to access the internet for everyday tasks that were simpler for them on paper, such as paying the bills or getting information on free activities for seniors.

Older adults constitute a significant component of the Chilean population, as the aging process of this South American country has continued. According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), the percentage of people aged over 65 years or more grew from 6,6% in 1992 to 11,4% in 2017 (2.003.256 people). If we extend the age range to 60 years or more, the figures get even more significant. According to the National Service for Older Adults (SENAMA), 16,2% of Chile’s population is 60 years old or older (roughly around 2.800.000 people) (‘Censo 2017 reveló que (…)’ 2017).

The Chilean Senate has recently approved the bill of  “Transformación Digital en el Estado” (“Digital Transformation in the State”). This law aims at modernizing the functioning of the State. “We are in 2018 and we still handle most of our bureaucratical procedures on paper”, said President Sebastian Piñera in the letter accompanying the law proposal (‘Mensaje de S.E. el Presidente de la República (…)’ 2018: 2). The president encourages the use of electronic resources based on two main arguments: saving time and sparing paper. One of the main points of the bill is that most State bureaucratical procedures will have to be done in electronic form. This bill takes into account the fact that some people lack access to the required technology, and it gives to those people the chance of doing bureaucratical procedures on paper. However, this possibility is strictly exceptional. While the electronic form is the rule, the paper is an exception that will have to be requested and duly justified (ibid. 7).

So, how does this government initiative affect older adults? This 16% of the population needs to access the internet to become part of this ‘Digital Transformation.’ According to the Chilean Sub-secretary of Communications, 84,8% of the access to the internet in 2018 was done through mobile devices (93,4% of these devices were smartphones) (‘Conexiones 4G se disparan 35% en 2018 (…)’ 2019). This situation implies that older adults will need to master the smartphone to keep up with the proposed changes in the administration.

Learning to use a smartphone implies a challenge for older adults, at least on two fronts. Firstly, it implies an adaptation to a new type of user interface (UI). Mobile devices’ UIs are radically different from the electromechanical UIs found in the older technologies more familiar to older adults. While in older technologies’ UIs most –if not all– of the system functionality is accessible at once through buttons and switches, mobile devices’ UIs imply navigating several screens and contextual menus that display only a fraction of the whole system at a time (Docampo et al. 2001).

Secondly, this learning process requires proper guidance. In the smartphone workshops I volunteer, I often ask my students about the main obstacles they encounter in their learning experience. By far, the factor they complain the most about is that their younger family members lack the patience to teach them. “My daughter bought this phone for me –says a 63 years old lady– and taught me [how to use it] on the first day. After that, if I ask something, she says ‘I already taught you’!”. “When you ask them how to do something –explains a 67 years old man–, they do it very fast on your phone, ‘pa, pa, pa, it’s done!’, but they don’t show you how to do it”. Elderly students require self-paced learning, as they experience greater anxiety and frustration while learning to use new technology (Fisk et al. 2009).

If the Chilean government wants to include this important sector of the population in this ‘Digital Transformation,’ then it should develop public policies to address the unique learning needs of older people properly. In all fairness, there are several state-run cultural centers and public libraries in Santiago that offer free lessons for older adults –as the ones where I’ve been teaching. They have two constraints, unfortunately. On the one hand, there is a very limited number of places: in some cases, students are allowed to attend a workshop only once, as they have to leave the place to new students. These workshops usually last one month (with one or two classes a week), which is not enough for students of this age, who need various exercises over more extended periods (Fisk et al. 2009). On the other hand, the teacher-to-student ratio is not as high as it should be. The diversity of UIs across the whole spectrum of Android phones requires personalized teaching, as any procedure explained in front of the entire class has to be repeated with each student, to apply minor –yet fundamental– tweaks to each case.

Chile is pushing forward the paperless trend. A well planned public policy of digital alphabetization for older adults with specialized teachers would be then of the utmost importance to help the older ‘digital immigrants’ (Leung et al. 2012) to join the trend.



Censo 2017 reveló que más del 16% de la población chilena es adulto mayor. (2017, December 27). Retrieved from http://www.senama.gob.cl/noticias/censo-2017-revelo-que-mas-del-16-de-la-poblacion-chilena-es-adulto-mayor

Conexiones 4G se disparan 35% en 2018 y abre expectativas de cara al despliegue de 5G. (2019, April 10). Retrieved from https://www.subtel.gob.cl/conexiones-4g-se-disparan-35-en-2018-y-abre-expectativas-de-cara-al-despliegue-de-5g/

Docampo Rama, M., De Ridder, H., and B. Ouma , H. 2001. Technology generation and age in using layered user interfaces. Gerontechnol. 1, 1, 25–40.

Fisk, A. D., Rogers, W. A., Charness, N., Czaja , S. J., and Sharit, J. 2009. Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches2nd Ed. CRC Press.

Institituto Nacional de Estadísticas Chile. 2018. Síntesis resultados Censo 2017. Santiago: Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas Junio / 2018.

Leung, R., Tang, Ch., Haddad, Sh., McGrenere, J., Graf, P., and V. Ingriany. 2012. How Older Adults Learn to Use Mobile Devices: Survey and Field Investigations.ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing, Vol. 4, No. 3, Article 11.

Mensaje de S.E. el Presidente de la República con el que se inicia un proyecto de ley sobre trasnformación digital del sector público (2018, June 25). Retrieved from https://digital.gob.cl/doc/Proyecto-de-Ley-Transformacion-Digital.pdf