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The geographies of health and wellbeing – by Pauline Garvey

Laura Haapio-Kirk15 August 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey

Photo (CC BY) Anna Li

Fairly frequently the Irish media focuses on the ‘downsizing dilemma’ for retirees (O’Rourke 2017), but what receives less attention is the downsizing that comes with marital breakdown. As I conduct research the frequency with which I meet men and women who are separated or divorced is striking. This observation is backed up by recent census data that reveals that separation is currently a significant aspect of life for many Irish families. The Central Statistics Office figures show a significant increase in the percentages of people who separate in the forty-plus age groups (CSO, 2016). The rate of separation peaks at age 48.

This trend in mid-life is significant because, otherwise, marital breakdown is decreasing in the general population. In fact, there was a decrease of 11,115 separated or divorced persons aged under 50 between 2011 and 2016. By contrast there was a substantial increase of 29,224 persons over the age of 50 between 2011-2016. Not only is there an age factor but there is also a gendered dimension in how people report their marital status. Lunn et al. (2009) found that more women than men report themselves to be separated. The conclusion they drew was that men who are separated are more likely to identify themselves as ‘single’ rather than ‘separated’. Also a higher rate of re-marriage by men goes some way to explaining the disparity in figures between the rate of female separation and the rate of male separation, but it also raises questions about how Irish women self-identify following separation (see Hyland 2013).

What we learn from this is that marriage separation is particularly significant for people in their 40s and 50s, that a larger proportion of women do not re-marry and think of themselves as separated rather than single. This alteration in domestic circumstances may be experienced with a mix of emotions but the people I have spoken to are keenly aware of the importance of being accessible to others as they age. This has been discussed with me as either an issue regarding physical (‘what if I fall getting out of the bath?’) or emotional wellbeing (‘my daughter knows when I’m watching Love Island and she’ll text me “he’s a wally” …so I don’t feel alone’). One woman told me of a series of health problems she encountered around the time she was due to retire. As a result of what she calls a ‘bad reaction to life’, she suffered from acute depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 6 months. On her release and return home she described the effect of having automatic text messages sent to her from the hospital as part of her treatment. The text messages that she received were automatic daily messages: ‘they sent me texts every day or every second day saying ‘how are you doing?’, ‘hope everything is ok?’. So although the messages were not personalised, she describes them as  ‘sending some positivity, it was superb to think that someone knew you weren’t well and could send a text to say you weren’t alone’. The key issue for her is that regular text messages inquiring about her health represented ‘a life line, some contact from the outside world to say we care about you and hope you are getting on alright’. 

As my research continues it is clear that while no life experience can be viewed in isolation, the geographies of age, the places that one experiences midlife, can matter a great deal. My respondents are not just well or unwell, they experience age, health, illness or wellbeing in specific places, whether that is in the privacy of their homes, public spaces or doctors’ clinics. Similarly in contrast to being single, this research causes me to consider the ways in which ‘being separated’ is relational? Should we think of separation as a geographical term, suggesting a lingering connection to place as well as to person?

 

Central Statistics Office, Ireland (2016), available online at https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp4hf/cp4hf/ms/

Hyland, L. (2013) Doing’ separation in contemporary Ireland: the experiences of women who separate in midlife, D.Soc.Sc Thesis, University College Cork, available online at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/1179/HylandL_DSocSc2013.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Lunn, P., Fahey, T. and Hannan, C. (2009) Family Figures: Family Dynamics and Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006, Dublin: ESRI and UCD.

O’Rourke, F. (16/09/2017) The downsizing dilemma? Getting rid of the family furniture, The Irish Times, available online at www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/the-downsizing-dilemma-getting-rid-of-the-family-furniture-1.3214649

What is a smartphone?

Daniel Miller1 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.