X Close

ASSA

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

China’s social credit system: The Chinese citizens perspective

XinyuanWang9 December 2019

Please note: this is the full version of an article that is set to appear in the Conversation this week. This longer version is aimed at those interested in reading more about the topic.

The Social Credit System: Current Context

There has recently been a considerable amount of media coverage of the Chinese social credit system. This tends to be heated and unequivocally negative, as a kind of manifestation of China as 1984.

My recent 16-month on-the-ground anthropological research explains the reasons why some ordinary Chinese members of the public welcome the system*.

Although critics often see the system as an intrusive state surveillance apparatus, there is a perception among the Chinese population that this is a national project to boost public morality, fight fraud and other crimes and generally fix the nationwide crisis of trust gripping the country.

Chances are that before reading this, you will have heard of the social credit system and may even know one or several things about it. Originally proposed in 2014 and set to be rolled out nationwide against a self-imposed deadline of 2020, the system has been described by the South China Morning Post as China’s “most ambitious project in social engineering since the Cultural Revolution”. The aim is for the national system, once fully functional, to allocate a social credit score to members of the public based on their social, economic or other activities and deeds. With the so-called ‘red-list’ and ‘blacklist’, the aim is to effectively regulate both the behaviour of private citizens as well as that of businesses. The social credit system (Shehui xinyong tixi in Mandarin) will leverage ‘Big Data’ including geolocation, purchasing history, social media content, and footage from CCTVs equipped with facial recognition technology (already in use in several first-tier Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai). Given China’s poor record of data security, it is understandable that commentary around the issue is largely negative, with the system having been called an ‘Orwellian system controlling virtually every facet of human life’ or likening it to a dystopian episode of the series Black Mirror.

Given this context, I want to shed some light on some of the concerns and myths surrounding the issue of shehui xinyong (social credit) system. I recently came back from doing ethnographic research for the UCL’s ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’ project, which involved 16 months of living in in Shanghai (from late 2017 to 2019). During my time there, I found that positive perceptions of the social credit system among ordinary Chinese people were more prevalent than negative ones. Some welcomed the introduction of the shehui xinyong system while others were indifferent, and a significant number could see its benefits. How can we explain this extreme discrepancy in perception and attitude?

To take a step back, there is of course the factor of how big issues such as this are discussed in China versus how they are discussed outside of China, which can differ significantly due to factors like censorship. It is not unusual for issues about China to develop into a more heated discussion outside of China. As the old Chinese saying goes: ‘The flower tree planted inside the wall, has its blossom seen outside the wall’. Nowadays, ‘the wall’ in question has certainly been upgraded to version 2.0 in the form of the ‘Great Firewall’. The case of the social credit system is different however – we are not just talking about groups of dissidents wanting to bypass things, but something that may soon concern every single citizen’s everyday life.

Chinese citizens are not unaware of the massive amounts of personal data being collected ‘smartly’ (in real time and connecting many different elements such as buying history and geolocation) and the consequences of poor data security have not gone unaddressed either – see the recent public outcry with regards to the ‘deepfake’ app ‘Zao’ (a convincing face-swapping app that can insert anyone’s face into videos, TV shows and other media after uploading a single photograph). In the context of China being a country where ‘Smile to Pay’ facial recognition systems are used for payment (Alipay), it is understandable that this would deepen fraud concerns.

To sum up, although factors like censorship might have been the reason for the conversation not being as heated inside China, it does not seem to account for the way ordinary Chinese people praise the social credit system even in private and informal talks among friends.

Flyover in Shanghai. Photo by Xinyuan Wang (CC BY)

China’s crisis of trust

Living in China is tiring…you have to be vigilant and always on-guard against others, so you don’t fall into pits which are everywhere.”

Mr. Zhu, in his 40s, explains his reluctance to let his mother use a smartphone – she may fall prey to online scammers. He is not alone in worrying about what is seen as an intensifying crisis of public morality and a crisis of trust crisis that manifests through  everything from rising numbers of fraud cases, to widely publicised scandals in the country’s food safety and pharmaceutical industries.

The question of who to trust, and social trust more broadly is one that is pertinent to every modern society, not just China. Although the idea of someone being ‘trustworthy’ (chengxin) has long existed in the Chinese traditional moral system, it is widely believed this was fundamentally damaged in the past 50 years, starting with Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), now seen as a period characterised by the ‘breakdown of public morality’.  A turbulent period characterised by families turning on each other and being forced to denounce any friends or family members deemed counter-revolutionary, the Cultural Revolution has also had the effect of eroding the concept of chengxin and therefore also mutual trust over time. Erosion of social trust during and following periods of political turmoil is of course also not unique to China.

In addition, back when China was an agricultural society, a person’s social role was relatively fixed, meaning those who came in contact with them were more certain about whether they could trust them, given that the interaction happened within a clear network of social relations. The Chinese concept of guanxi (loosely translated as social relation) doesn’t only refer to social connections but is a more sophisticated concept that refers to a trusted social relation in which endorses an individual’s value. Risk management based on guanxi was confronted with unprecedented challenges as a result of fast-paced urbanisation, market-orientated economic reforms as well as massive domestic migration over the past thirty years. The fact that these enormous social and economic changes followed political upheavals political upheavals has massively contributed to the current trust crisis in China, where a large part of the population feels that they are ‘uncertain’ about whether to trust people, with a significant number also seeing themselves as victims of fraud. So severe is this nationwide crisis of trust that even President Xi reportedly believes China is “losing its moral compass”.

Let us take another example: 35-year-old Mrs. Liu was one of my research participants, and the mother of a new-born. While searching for a full-time, live-in nanny to take care of her baby due to her mother being unable to take care of him because of ill health, she found herself deeply troubled by the stories she was hearing about live-in nannies:

I have been told so many bad stories about those live-in nannies, from stealing to abuse… nowadays very few locals are willing to do the job. Rural migrant workers are not trustworthy, many of them have low suzhi (human quality) without any credit. They are here in a big city, nobody can tell where they come from and where they have been or what they have done. Everything can be faked, fake ID, fake personal stories, I have even heard of domestic agencies helping workers fake a whole ‘package’ of information. If something wrong happens, they can just move to a different place, and nobody will know.

In the end, following her friends’ suggestions, Mrs. Liu installed secret monitors at home to test different nannies and ended up hiring the one whose behaviour was most trustworthy when she thought nobody was looking.

As Mrs. Liu says, there are many cases of fraud and scams where the victim does not get compensated for the crime perpetrated, and the offender can simply move to another province or start a business in a different industry, with little trace of who they were in the past, and having faced no consequences. The national blacklist, one of the central elements of the proposed social credit system, is supposed to remedy this. People also believe that a quantified credit score can help mediate or settle legal settlement of economic disputes. In China, it is not unusual for lawbreakers to fail to pay debts or fines, or in some cases even to issue an apology to an injured party. In cases where the set fines are not seen as punitive enough, and the crime is too minor to lead to imprisonment, there seems to be no other form of redress, leading to a vacuum which some think can be filled by the credit system. Blacklisted citizens are penalised by being prevented from buying plane or high-speed train tickets, staying in luxury hotels or getting personal loans. They are also not allowed to join the civil service, take senior jobs in state-owned firms or start companies in the food or drugs industries. It is reported that already today, more than 12 million people are on this blacklist and they have been denied more than 17 million plane tickets and 5 million high-speed train tickets.

Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that the social credit system can deter not only ‘unethical’ deeds such as scams or fraud, but also what are referred to as ‘uncivilised’ (anti-social) deeds.

Mr. Zhu says:

I can’t wait for the implementation of the social credit system, there will be less fraud for sure. Also, I think about those who play videos out aloud on public transport, those who jump queues, those who just dump shared bikes irresponsibly in the middle of the road… I bet they will behave themselves if they know their ‘bu wenming’ (uncivilized) actions will actually be recorded by high technology. Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?

Both Mr. Zhu and Mrs. Liu regard themselves as good citizens and believe only bad citizens should be worried about the credit system. As a popular Chinese aphorism goes, “The only way to prevent people from knowing what you did is not to do it at all in the first place”. In Mrs. Liu’s case, there is support for a social credit system that is pervasive and based on (sometimes secret) surveillance. The average person is clearly less concerned about giving up some privacy if this means a significantly higher degree of security and certainty.

The end justifies the means,” says Mr. Zhu.

The ‘imported’ modern credit system

A widespread belief in China which Mr. Zhu and many others uphold is that western society is ‘civilised’ (wenming) precisely due to its very own long-existing credit system. This is perpetuated by different myths and some invented stories which have tended to circulate in Chinese society. A typical such story would be:

An intelligent Chinese young woman is studying in a European country and while travelling, notices that there are no ticket barriers in place and tickets are rarely checked. Because transport is expensive, she decides to take advantage of this ‘loopholes’ and rides the train for free every time she needs to travel.  Although she gets caught a few times, most of the time she gets away with it and even feels smug about it. She finally graduates with great marks and starts jobhunting. Although she gets to the final interview stage on multiple occasions and the interviews go well, she seems to be unable to secure a job. When she asks an HR Manager for feedback on why she was not successful, she is told: “Both your CV and your performance in the interview have recommended you as the ideal candidate for the role. However, when we checked your individual credit record, we found that you have caught dodging train fares three times. Unfortunately, we have no confidence that you can be a good fit for our company, which values honesty above than anything else”.

There are many different versions of this story, from shorter versions appearing in print magazines to online articles. These differ only in the details – sometimes the protagonist is a man rather than a woman, and the setting of the story can either be a European country or the United States. Regardless of these minute details, the main message of the allegorical story remains the same – a capable person without credit has no chance of being successful in a Western or indeed any modern society where individual citizens carry their own verifiable credit history with them throughout their lives. These stories were becoming popular well before the announcement of the social credit system and during my field work in Shanghai, more than half of the research participants I spoke to confirmed their familiarity with these stories.

Mrs. Cai, a retired middle-school physics teacher in her 70s, is one of the citizens who has strong faith in the so-called credit system used in the West. Assuming that I, as a university staff member in London, must have a good score in the UK’s credit system, she even asked me to share some of my experience with her grandson who is planning to study in the UK. Although many people don’t have a clear picture of how exactly credit histories or scores are calculated or used in the West in general, there is a belief that there is a pervasive and all-encompassing credit system in place in developed countries, something that makes it easy to trust even strangers. The myth is not unrelated to the fact that financial credit scores were introduced to China in the 1980s, during a period of economic liberalisation, as a Western import, which makes the current social credit system a sort of  extended version of these in the imagination of some members of the public.

However, the deeper and underlying reason for the popularity of such myths lies in the fact that Chinese society has been seeking a model of moral guidance during a time of painful transition from an agricultural and collective society to a modern individualistic one (and therefore one where the previous methods of risk management and checking trustworthiness have disappeared). While the stories mentioned above may be false, they are simply the reflection of a commonly held imagination of the problem created by individualism and modernity in China as well as the emerging social expectation that individuals take full responsibility for and be judged by their deeds.

Life as credit

Having set the context and talked about why some citizens welcome the security promised by the credit system, it is important to mention that notions of responsibility and judgement are actually nothing new, being rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Although the structure and tech-facilitated implementation used by the social credit system may look very modern in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese citizens, the underlying logic of the system is actually in line with the deep-rooted cosmology of Chinese folk religion, itself influenced by Buddhism as well as Daoism.

Talking about issues of ethics and morality, people in China often refer to an old saying: ren zai zuo, tian zai kan (“people are doing things, the sky is watching”).This reflects a common belief shared by the Chinese that whatever you do on the earth, there is always a record of your good and bad deeds in the ‘sky’ (tian). Unlike the Christian God, the concept of tian is much ‘nebulous’ and less humanised and somewhat resembles the laws of nature (especially in the discourse of Daoism). Tian resembles the sky in that it is distant to the point that it has given up on the task of reconciling the human world with itself, but nevertheless knows about everyone’s deeds and thoughts. Tian therefore doesn’t judge ‘randomly’ – one can potentially create a good fate through good deeds.

As the anthropologist Rudolf Wagner[1] argues, traditionally, Chinese people view life itself as credit. In this case, the system of ‘karma points’ is simply the standardisation of the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers. One can earn points by doing good deeds, but these can also be easily squandered through bad ones.

The social credit system as it exists today, which is more like a patchy network of regional pilots and experimental projects, still has a long way to go before becoming a comprehensive system at a national scale which determines every aspect of a citizen’s life within a single score. One can obviously debate whether it is appropriate for the state to play this role of Tian, but the very acknowledgement of the fact that the social credit system neatly matches a fundamental understanding of the relationship between human beings, society and the universe helps us to understand why the popular response has so far not been what might have been expected.

 

* This article is based on a 16-month traditional ethnography on the use of digital devices such as smartphones in Shanghai. Ethnography tries to minimise artificial encounters, such as surveys and interviews, in favour of being present with people in their everyday lives. I estimate that I talked with around 500 people and there are 146 people I would have spent at least 15 hours with. Conversations about the social credit system came up naturally rather than through direct elicitation.

 

 

[1] Rudolf Wagner. 2014. Fate’s gift money: the Chinese case of coping with the asymmetry between man and fate. In Hagen, J. & Welker, M. Money as God. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 184-218.

 

 

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

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui22 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.

 

References

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

 

Drawing as ethnographic method

LauraHaapio-Kirk4 February 2019

Drawings made during a group interview about the smartphone.

The anthropological method of participant observation can only go so far when trying to understand the role of an object such as the smartphone in a person’s interior emotional life. The relationship a person has with their phone is deeply connected to the relationships that person has through their phone, to others and to themselves. Yet asking people about their relationship with their phone often yields limited responses: “It’s convenient for staying in touch”, “I rely on it for everything”. People take for granted that the smartphone is a helpful tool, but they typically have not considered their relationship to it specifically, and how it affects their relationships, behaviour, and identity, therefore I needed to find a way to have deeper discussions about the smartphone if I was to understand it in terms of affect. In order to explore the topic directly I thought that engaging informants in drawing might be a way to make the subject more tangible. I asked a group of middle-aged friends to make a two-minute sketch of their relationship with their smartphone, to bring to our next lunch date.

One of the members of the group has been undergoing chemotherapy for the past six months. While I was hoping that the drawing task would elicit reflection on the affective nature of the smartphone, I did not make that an explicit part of the instructions: I only asked if they could represent their relationship with their phone in a drawing. So I was delighted when this woman produced the most striking drawing out of the group, which shows her at the centre holding her smartphone surrounded by the range of ways she is emotionally affected by the smartphone in her daily life. She explained to me:

Especially while I have been sick, the smartphone has become very important to me. It is my connection to the outside world. The days following chemotherapy my body feels drained and I cannot leave the house. During that time if I receive a Line message or sticker from my friend I feel uplifted. But I can also feel sad and disappointed if I hear from my daughter that she is having relationship problems. When I am at the hospital having chemotherapy I watch films on Netflix and they often make me feel emotional. I also sometimes read surprising news stories. My smartphone makes me feel all of these things!

During this time of illness and potential loneliness, the smartphone offers an escape from her present situation to the world beyond.

“During treatment my smartphone connects me to the outside world”

It was striking that half of the drawings were based on a design of the individual at the centre, with feelings or behaviours or information radiating out. When we discussed this as a group, the majority of women said that they feel that the smartphone is the centre of their life (chuushin), some had even written the word on their drawings. They agreed that it is an object that is not only physically close to them but emotionally central too since it connects them with many of the important people and things in their lives. For many of the middle-aged people in my research, beyond this friendship group, shifting from garakei to smartphones meant an increase in dependency on the device for daily activities, from communicating with friends, to arranging nurse visits for their elderly parents, to booking shifts at work, to online banking. One woman told me:

I switched from my old garakei to my smartphone last year when my husband died and I needed to start being more independent. It has completely changed my life – I do everything with it. I recently went to Tokyo to visit my daughter and I would not have been able to do the trip without my smartphone and the maps app.

This increasing dependency on the smartphone was treated with ambivalence by some members of the friendship group in this case study. One woman explained that the smartphone is the centre of her life but she wishes that it was not, because it then becomes a kind of burden.

This idea of the smartphone as a burden was repeated when discussing another similarity between two of the drawings: both depicting the user sitting while looking at their smartphone. For these two women, rather than reply to messages in the middle of doing other activities such as while on the train or walking, they almost always wait to reply to messages when they have enough time to sit and focus only on the smartphone. They explained that they are not capable of multitasking, yet the burden of knowing that there are messages waiting to be replied to gives them the sense that the smartphone is taking too central a position in their lives. They often will not open messages unless they have the time to sit and reply, because they do not want the sender to see that they have read their message and subsequently feel ignored if they do not reply immediately. While the smartphone can increase a sense of burden for some relationships, for others it can ease the burden of care:

My father has a smartphone and he sends me messages all the time, so many of them! Because it is so easy to send messages he tells me what he is eating and what he is doing. Giving him a smartphone is a way that I can care for him when I am not physically there. Although I feel he sends too many messages, it is easy to reply to him with a sticker to show that I care. So while there is more frequent contact, it is less troublesome contact than a phone call which would be disruptive.”

This statement reveals the affective capacity of the smartphone to enable a new kind of care from a distance, which is perhaps even warmer than if it were face-to-face due to its less burdensome nature.

This visual methodological experiment provided a basis for a three-hour discussion of the smartphone. I plan to repeat this experiment with other informants as I think that the activity worked well for focusing a discussion. The participants were all interested to see how their drawings differed from everyone else’s, and they were far more interested in the topic of the smartphone than on previous occasions since they had already spent some time contemplating it beforehand. After the session a number of the women messaged me to say that they had come away from the experience with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role of the smartphone in their lives. The active nature of drawing enabled people to discuss their affective experiences in a deeper way, and connected people to their feelings about the smartphone more successfully than discussion alone.

Double feature

MayaDe Vries Kedem19 July 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

My field site last month was a bit sleepy as it was Ramadan. This holiday continues over a whole month during which Muslims fast throughout the day, break the fast after sunset, and continue eating throughout the night. In Jerusalem, during these days, school and work places usually finish early and people who fast prefer to stay home, especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer and the heat forces people to stay indoors. During Ramadan, the elderly club at Dar al Hawa was closed and there were no activities at all. However, its WhatsApp group, “The group of the elderly club members,” was open 24/7.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, as part of my ethnography, I conduct a participatory observation at the elderly club at Dar al-Hawa Community Center. Recently, they agreed to add me to their WhatsApp group, which was established in October 2015. The admin of the group is also the coordinator of the elderly club. Besides the admin, there are 30 members in the WhatsApp group, although 50 members participate in the weekly meetings and activities at Dar al Hawa. That means that people do not receive information through the WhatsApp group. Instead, the coordinator phones them about the regular activities of the club, such as sport lessons, field trips, and so on. However, some information they miss since they are not part of the WhatsApp group; that is the informal messages, which are usually composed of images of flowers combined with a “good morning” or “good evening” blessing or other quotes from the Qur’an calling to pray to the Prophet Muhammad.

They also do not receive the various videos containing information about bad foods, such as snacks, that cause cancer, a disease that bothers everyone at the club.

When asking their club’s coordinator if she thinks it matters that some members of the group miss such information, she said it is not a big deal. I agree with her that it is not such a big problem, as long as they get the formal information and keep on coming to the club every Sunday and Thursday. However, I do think it can affect to some extent the sociability of the members who do not carry a smartphones and cannot use WhatsApp. Those images of daily greetings have a positive impact, based on my short experience in the WhatsApp group.  Just reading the blessings and seeing the joyful image attached—usually of red and pink flowers—have a positive impact, even if it is just a minor one.

Nevertheless, an image is just an image, and it is fair enough to say that looking at it will not solve major problems of elderly such as loneliness, difficulties in walking, or reaching high shelves at home.

Overcoming such problems is not easy, and one of guest lectures at the elderly club dealt exactly with such issues. The lecturer was a representative from the non-profit organization called Mini Active. This important organization run by women only has a project for elderly people in which an authorized instructor for the golden age meets with elderly people, including the elderly club in Dar al Hawa, and brings all sort of objects for keeping the home environment safe. There was complete silence during almost the entire lecture, indicating that it was an important topic. I sat quietly as well during the lecture and took photos of the various objects.

At the end of the lecture, they all approached the table where the objects were exhibited and asked the instructor many questions. There was a big fuss and noise around the table, and it seems many of them asked if they could buy some of the objects, but they were not for sale. The instructor explained where they could buy them, but not all of them heard her, meaning they missed this important information. Furthermore, it means that probably they will have to go with someone from their family because many of them do not drive or need assistance when leaving the village of Dar al Hawa. I felt an urge to do something for those who did not hear her or would not remember how things look like when they go to buy them. Therefore, I took photos of each object and sent them immediately to their WhatsApp group. While sending it, I knew that there were club members who would not receive these important photos. Furthermore, other important information was missing, such as the locations of the shops and their phone numbers. Therefore, I prepared a file with all the photos of the objects and the names and details of the nearby shops where they can buy them. I sent the file in the WhatsApp group, but more importantly I printed 30 copies and handed it personally to each one of the club’s members who were present in the last meeting.

خدمات.docx.pdf

Why is it important to blog about this? I find this experience significant to the ASSA project that aims to understand how digitation assists seniors. It is a great example of how elderly people experience life today. They are in between the fast pace of smartphones and the digitization of life, but not all the time, and certainly not all them are, as happened at the Dar al Hawa elderly club.

So, let’s imagine a scenario of a person going to buy one of the objects he was told about in the elderly club’s lecture. But, he cannot remember its name and he mistakenly forgot his phone at home so he does not have the image with him.  The information paper handed out at the meeting was left in his bag, folded inside his wallet acting as a safety net, un-digitized. Now he can quietly buy what he needs. Therefore, it seems to me that when thinking of life improvements for older people, it should always be on both tracks, with digital and non-digital features. In a way, it is like a double feature screening, of the same movie from two different copies: analog and digital.

From smartphones to target phones

Marilia Duque E SPereira26 April 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Photo (CC BY) Marilia Duque

Helen, a 67-year-old woman, was frustrated when she couldn’t show me all the pictures of her grandchildren that she keeps on her smartphone. “I came here with nothing. It is not safe”, she said. We were talking at a large square where people come to walk and exercise every day. Curiously, the place is also one of the 200 points with free WI-FI provided by the City Hall in São Paulo. Like Helen, many people who I’ve been talking to mentioned that they don’t feel comfortable using their smartphones in public spaces. Most of them agreed it is not safe to make and receive calls or to text on the streets. And they have good reason to be scared.

The number of robberies involving mobile phones represented 65.1 % of all robberies registered by the police in São Paulo in February of this year (percentage over total robberies involving documents, money, and mobile phones). According to the journal “O Estado de S. Paulo”, half of the streets of São Paulo had at least one mobile phone robbery reported from 2016 to 2017. I talked to 60 people in my fieldsite during this month and the numbers are also impressive. More than half of the informants had a smartphone stolen at least once or have someone in their family who experienced this. Because of that, people are creating different strategies to protect themselves and their smartphones in public spaces. For example, Lucy (65) said she would never answer a call on the street: “I just let it ring”. Lilly (67) makes some exceptions: “I take a quick look inside my bag. If it is one of my children who is calling I just go inside one of the stores on the street, so I can answer the call”. Jonas (56) doesn’t have children but accepts emergency calls only after he gets inside some safe space, like a coffee shop or mall. I have found more people who choose to leave their smartphones at home as a strategy to avoid violence: “I won’t risk my life”, one of the informants told me.

Photo (CC BY) Pixabay

People who have never had a mobile phone stolen or who don’t have a relative who did, feel lucky or blessed. Some of them also believe they haven’t been stolen because their devices are too old (they don’t have a smartphone), like one of my informants said: “Nobody wants that. They would probably say to me to throw it away as garbage”. That is not the case of Marcus (60). He already has a smartphone, a two-year-old one. But when I asked him when he was planning to buy a new one, he answered: “The next time someone steals mine”.

When I started my fieldwork, I thought the cost of service and the high rate of illiteracy (24% of the population older than 60 years) could be the two main barriers for the development of m-health initiatives for elderly people in Brazil. But security has became one of the key issue I will need to be aware of from now on. The strategy to leave the smartphone at home, for example, can invalidate two potential functionalities m-health apps can provide. The first is reminding elderly people to take their medicines correctly. According to Silva, (Schimidt and Silva, 2012), 40% to 75% of old people don’t take medicines at the right time or in the right dosage. The second is to contact relatives in case of a fall: one functionality provided by the apps Elderly Help or Mobil-SOS Be Safe, for example (Souza and Silva, 2016). All these advantages can be lost if elderly people just don’t feel safe enough to take their smartphones wherever they go. As one of my informants told me “if you have white hair, you are already a target”.

References:

Silva, R; Schimidt, O.; Silva, S. (2012). Polifarmácia em Geriatria. Revista AMRIGS 56 (2): p. 164-174.

Souza, C.; Silva, M. (2016). Aplicativos para smartphones e sua colaboração na capacidade funcional de idosos. Revista Saúde Digital, Tecnologia e Educação 1 (1): p. 06-19

The Age of Migration

XinyuanWang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.