Last week during one of the women’s group activities at the Multicultural Centre I have been regularly attending in Milan I was asked if I could take a photo for one of the Italian women, Maria, in her early 70s, who volunteers at the Centre three days per week. Maria had just been found on Facebook by an old school friend and wanted to instantly send her a nice photo of herself ‘here and now’ on Facebook messenger to acknowledge and build the connection. Maria spent some minutes deciding where to pose, and how to fix her appearance, to the extent that it cut short in an abrupt manner the end of the meeting. Maria’s desire to connect across time/space there and then was so strong that the barries between the smartphone’s buzzing social universes and the physical social setting of the Centre had crossed over, with mixed responses by others present.
Such examples of smartphone ‘intrusions’ into a social scene are not uncommon, and go hand in hand with a range of attitudes and judgements – that are often expressed and shared, ironically in smartphone-circulated memes, cartoons and photos. During my time in Italy a range of popular mantras reflect the alleged intrusion that digital connectivity feel poses to life: ‘we are all addicted!’ ‘just look at people on the metro – all face down, scrolling away, ignoring everyone and everything around them’, ‘at a party, no-one speaks to each other anymore, it’s crazy!’ and so on..
As an anthropologist, I find the worries and anxieties that some people have about smartphones – their over-reliance, seeming addiction or just about their general usage, part of the curiosity in exploring what the smartphone is, and how people describe it in relation to their everyday practices. Peeling back the layers of these discourses, one sees the spectrum of practices that smartphones are implicated in in individuals’ lives, from connection with family, friends and community, to tools for navigating bureaucracy, citizenship, and health. All the while, the digital infrastructures that form and shape the basis for these interactions and practices (wifi, roaming data, connection speed…) form a part of people’s contextual and sited experience with their smartphone in daily life.
The notion of the ‘switched-on-self’, the boundaries between digital and non-digital lives has been a more general theme in my research and participant observation in my fieldwork with Italians and migrant groups in Milan. The correlation between being on/off in the person’s mind/body recalls and in some sense plays into wider global social trends like the flourishing of mindfulness and yoga that are posited by many people I speak with here as opportunities for peace – ‘places’ and practices to go to and do to ourselves and our bodies to ‘switch off’ from our busy, including constantly connected, digital lives.
Throughout my research I have noticed how the issues of technology addiction and connection have been defined along age lines. At AUSER, a nation-wide NGO association for active ageing in Italy with a headquarters in my fieldsite, and Milan-based organisation Grey Panthers that is concerned with ageing and technology, what I have deduced is that while facilitating digital connectedness is a core policy concern aimed at older people (senior/anziani) , while policies and initiatives being designed to tackle digital addiction have been identified an issue prominent amongst the young (giovani) . The ASSA project’s interest in middle-age has helped nuance these discourses about young and older populations by looking at how people live their lives with smartphones – including between ‘old’ and ‘young’ categories of age.
To take some examples. Alberto is 60, by policy standards he is neither old nor young. He still works full-time as a history school teacher at the local public school, and is an active volunteer in local community events. Reflecting upon his relationship with his smartphone Alberto describes how he does not consider himself particularly technologically savvy, nor up-to-date with regards to apps. However, from the moment he wakes up (first his alarm, followed by checking WhatsApp, Facebook and then email notifications from bed) he is attaccato (‘attached’) to his phone. He says he is mindful of his pupils’ usage, particularly in the classroom, but confesses to regularly checking his phone during school hours himself. He is in touch with his daughter in her 20s who is searching for work, as well as with the left-wing community organisations he co-runs with friends, monitoring Facebook pages dedicated to spreading awareness of local history and resistance to Fascism, particularly in light of the current policies of the present Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right anti-migrant stance. Alberto’s smartphone is a reflection of his social universe, and this visibly engagements and investments with this smartphone.
Meanwhile Davide, 64, is retired, on a state pension. He volunteers running one of the community allotments in the neighbourhood several days a week. Davide uses his smartphone regularly. It is central to the way he runs the allotments, communicates with the community, and maintains his social life as a single, retired, socially-active man in his mid-60s. Davide also does not consider himself a tech-savvy person. Speaking about apps and app usage he, like many other people I find, explains: “I don’t have any apps really… I rarely use any…” We then discover together, by observation with the phone, that he does have a number of apps, and in fact uses a number of these frequently – many of the social media apps, an app for his gym, an app for the weather, apps that identify what certain plants are… He is not ‘addicted’, but he is reliant, reasonably heavily, on his phone.
Smartphone practices for some like Alberto and Davide are involved in reflecting and shaping individual lives, social identities and wider offline practices. However, digital infrastructure and connecting to the Internet also plays a significant part in explaining smartphone reliance, and people’s conceptualisation of their phone. In some cases, loss of Internet connection (due to low reception or running out of credit) can be annoying, humiliating, and harmful.
Adla from Tanzana is in her mid 30s, and has a 1-year old daughter. She has been in Milan for a year and a half. Her daughter was born in the city, but has been told by authorities that her daughter is not yet old enough to attend nursery. Adla explains how she does not feel entitled to take part in certain social / support groups since her daughter is too young to go to school and she is uncomfortable attending the mothers groups in here area that are a big source of community life here but which are dominated by Arabic-speaking Egyptian women, which makes Adla feel like the ‘wrong kind of foreigner’ with the ‘wrong kind of languages’, being Tanzanian, speaking Swahili and some English, but limited Italian. Adla relies on her smartphone to navigate the geography of the city, including finding relevant administrative offices, using Google Translate to communicate in basic Italian, and maintain connection with her family – her sister in Sweden, her husband is working in another country in Africa, and the rest of her family are back in Tanzania. Adla does not have Wi-Fi in the one-bedroom apartment where she lives, so uses data roaming through her basic monthly social services allowance to access her familiar social universe. This connection to her smartphone as a physical thing holds intense meaning for her and her ability to navigate her way through each day. Even when the data has run out and it is not connected it is of comfort to Adla in the absence of physical, familiar, offline social life. Unlike Alberto or Davide, whose smartphones reflect their wider activity and presence in the neighbourhood, Adla’s smartphone life takes on heightened significance where her offline life is marred by insecurity and limited physical participation.
In a final example, an Egyptian family in the neighbourhood have been applying for a visa to visit their immediate family in the US who they have not seen for several years. The couple, in their mid-40s, work full-time in Milan as a baker and cleaner respectively, and their teenage children attend local public schools. Every year they apply for entry to the US via a lengthy application system. The family do not have WiFi at home and have limited data roaming on their phones. Upon receiving a letter in the post saying that they need to check the status of their visa application on the US state department website within a specific time period, the couple try to do this in the hours when they are not working, and due to their long working hours that leaves little time to stay for long periods of time in Internet cafes. The site keeps crashing and needs refreshing, and entering the application details in English, a language neither of them speak, is time-consuming. They repeat the process over and over again on their basic smartphones, at times in public free WiFi zones in the city, or at home with their limited data, to no avail. Upon learning about their experience with this process I become involved – the couple ask me to assist with internet access and English translation. Eventually, we discover that their application has been refused, to the couple’s stoic acceptance. It is but a small anecdote in this family’s larger experience of social stress, living on the margins of society in Milan as a close-knit ‘stranieri’ (foreign) family making do in their current set-up, where smartphones, Internet connections, are all part and parcel of broader lived realities; practices, experiences and desires.
In sum, the relationship between the smartphone, and what is often viewed as addiction or social rudeness – particularly amongst youth – are important themes to nuance further, along broader demographic lines. Understanding how and how much different people, of different ages and socio-cultural backgrounds, use and shape their lives around in a given context in relation to smartphones may well point to technological addiction, ill-health, and too much screen time, but it also highlights how central the phone is as a thing itself – for many, an object of attachment, including and beyond its switched on capacity for digital connection. A wide range of factors stemming from broader social contexts thus situate the smartphone holistically as an object of everyday life.
Notes and references:
 Auser’s mission statement is aimed at ‘promoting the active ageing of the elderly and enhancing their role in society’, which includes technological education and encouraged usage for wellbeing and for a positive impact on lifestyle. In the University of the Third Age for over 60s that Auser runs through a network of volunteers, ‘technological awareness’, as well as lectures on the dangers of data and privacy issues form a part of a broader curriculum on a wide variety of topics from horticulturalism to cooking to tourism and so on.
 De Pasquale, C., Sciacca, F., Hichy, Z. (2017). ‘Italian Validation of Smartphone Addiction Scale Short Version for Adolescent and Young Adults’ in Psychology 08(10): 1513-1518.