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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


The Necessity of Film

Daniel Miller31 July 2020

Both during the Why We Post project and during the ASSA project, I have been in the very privileged position of being able to visit all the ethnographic fieldsites. In these projects, each ethnographer writes extensively from the field and does so very well. Yet actually visiting their fieldsites added so much to my understanding of their research. But that is a disastrous admission because future readers of their monographs will never visit their fieldsites. So if I gained so much from the actual visit, despite the quality of their writing, what that really exposes is the ultimate failure of ethnographic writing by itself as the medium of research dissemination. The implication is not just that we can add something more to writing, we simply have to.

There are various ways in which this could be accomplished. Jay Sokolovsky, who works on the anthropology of ageing, has been a pioneer in exploring multi-media, as incorporated within his books. You can see this in the new edition of his edited book The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives, 4th Edition. There are many other examples of using various media to enhance text in contemporary anthropology. The Why We Post project and the ASSA project complement their publications with films, this blog, the website and other media. We will make particular use of visual materials that employ the skills of our team, such as infographics, painting and cartoons.

An illustration created by Laura Haapio-Kirk showing care workers adapting to the coronavirus in Japan. Names have been changed.

A painting scroll presented on traditional Chinese rice paper as a folding booklet – a visual field note taken by Xinyuan Wang during her research for the Why We Post project. A video about this can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XZ0WJrvE_M

One of the differences between the Why We Post project and the ASSA project is that we plan to now add films as an integral part of our books, just as still photos have been a traditional element of ethnography monographs. We feel this is possible since almost all of the readership of the Why We Post volumes came from downloads rather than printed books. Currently, we are making the films that will go into these books and also our planned MOOC, which will be available on the Futurelearn platform.

Films are clearly not the same as actually visiting a fieldsite, but they do give a sense of places and people that can help in bridging that gap. Often, the sound is as important as the visual. Films may also raise issues beyond those of text. Older people in some regions are concerned about the way their outer appearance may not correspond to the age they feel themselves to be. The anonymity that is preserved by text is not possible for films about individuals and this requires a different consent procedure.

Based on what we understand as the way people tend to consume visuals these days, we will try to keep all our films under three minutes. As an example, this is a film that I made during my fieldwork in Ireland. I love the craft of writing but I would never be able, through writing alone, to convey the personality of the main individual who appears in this film. The film also gave her a chance to participate in the process of how she would want to appear and contribute to an anthropological study of ageing and its consequences.

Information and mis/disinformation during the pandemic in Milan

Shireen Walton3 July 2020

During the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis was at its peak in Italy, I observed through my research participants and friends in Milan how information sharing, and particularly health and care information – from government and regional levels, through to community and family – was embracing digital and visual avenues of communication to significant and creative extents.

Figure 1: Image shared in a community WhatsApp group in NoLo at Easter. Source unknown.

Amid the broad range of sharing practices were many documents, advertisements, and images aimed to raise community awareness about health, safety, and wellbeing, as well as digital accessibility. For example, in March 2020, an awareness initiative administered by a local NGO dedicated to the needs of families and children in the neighbourhood called on neighbours to share their wireless connections within apartment blocks to assist children whose families do not have internet connections at home to be able to follow school lessons online. Often such campaigns are also translated by NGO groups into languages spoken in the area such as Arabic and Spanish, in order to reach broader members of the community.

Figure 2: Example of a local NGO campaign to assist with families during lockdown in Milan by calling on neighbours within apartment blocks to share wireless connections with those without WiFi.

These kinds of initiatives led by NGOs in Milan during quarantine were also met with programmes of ‘digital solidarity’ to assist with digital connectivity during the lockdown. Here, the Italian Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization partnered with private companies to offer forms of assistance to citizens such as free online newspapers, faster internet, access to online education and entertainment platforms during the lockdown. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health created a series of infographics about protocols to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, many of which were widely circulated via WhatsApp and Facebook.

Amid the rapid spread of both the virus and information during the pandemic, unverifiable information also spread quickly across the community, the country, and the world via memes, short videos, and text/voice messages. By March, the Italian state increased its involvement in this issue with an attempt to communicate the facts about the virus, with a significant pushback by Italian medical authorities against ‘fake health information’ that was circulating via WhatsApp. The Italian Ministry of Health soon published a list of ten particularly pertinent ‘fake news’[1] items about the Coronavirus that had been identified within the Italian social web, from the myth that drinking tap water was dangerous to health to the rumour that wearing face masks in the home would help limit contagion, to the idea that taking a hot bath would kill off the virus.

Figure 3:Screen shot of the Italian Ministry of Health website section on Coronavirus and Fake News. Image Source: http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/news/p3_2_1_1_1.jsp?lingua=italiano&menu=notizie&p=dalministero&id=4380

In a widely circulated YouTube video appeal Roberto Fumagalli, a senior Medical Director from Milan’s Niguarda hospital, pleaded to people in Milan, and to the nation, to stop circulating unverified information and gossip about Coronavirus, including a stream of official-sounding voice messages that had been sent via WhatsApp to people across Italy about what doctors are/are not doing or who they are/are not treating.

In light of false and misleading information concerning the virus, and in the context of high anxiety and stress caused by the experience of quarantine, a number of research participants in NoLo had intervened on social media, asking for people to stop sharing unverifiable facts and misinformation that were proving inflammatory and divisive – a practice of regulation and control of the social web that I had witnessed more broadly in the community in the previous two years during fieldwork in Milan.

Figure 4: Daily news and chats in Milan. Photo taken by author.

The spread of misinformation, or unverified or false information via smartphones and social media remains a significant part of public conversation in Italy, as in other parts of the world. This issue is particularly seen to affect older populations and is a priority concern and main point of focus within ageing policy discussions, with the assumption that older people are particularly vulnerable to ‘fake news’.

Figure 5: ‘Anziani e Fake News’ (Elders and Fake News). Advert for a discussion event on ‘information and disinformation in the era of social media’) organised by AUSER, a main nation-wide ageing NGO in Italy. https://www.auser.it/comunicati-stampa/anziani-e-fake-news-come-non-cadere-negli-inganni/

My broader research encountered concerns amongst middle-aged and older adults about the role of smartphones in spreading unverified information quickly and easily in today’s world, while a number of research participants also recognised that dis/mis information[2] also has historical roots, reflecting uses of sectors of the media and television to misinform and/or mislead, citing examples from the media and television era of Berlusconi in the 1980s to the propaganda of the fascist era in the 1930s, which many of them and/or their parents had also lived through.

Overall, the multifaceted and deep-rooted issue of contemporary information and mis/dis-information in Milan, amidst and beyond the pandemic, highlights a range of contemporary tensions and paradoxes concerning social and public life within the present information age, which smartphones – as products of, and companions to the current age ­– are complexly implicated in.


[1] ‘Fake news’ is a significant feature of media coverage and popular conversation in Italy. The Collins English Dictionary defines fake news as the ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting’: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/fake-news

[2] The distinction between misinformation and disinformation has been defined in terms of intentionality. The former describes the sharing of information regardless of intention, while the latter involves the intention to mislead, misinform and/or manipulate. See: https://www.dictionary.com/e/misinformation-vs-disinformation-get-informed-on-the-difference/ and https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews