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Smartphones as Constant Companions

Shireen Walton17 May 2021

Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy considers the experiences of a range of people of different ages and backgrounds, and how their lives play out in different contexts: within an inner-city neighbourhood in Milan, the broader urban environment of the city, across Italy, or transnationally and digitally, online. Throughout my urban digital ethnographic research, I came to learn about how different older adults experience and shape their social worlds and activities between levels and conceptualisations of autonomy, privacy and freedom. The smartphone features prominently in this everyday modulating of sociality, helping people decide when to make themselves available to whom and giving them a way to keep in touch with what is going on locally and further afield.

To consider some examples: Pietro and his wife Maria in their seventies had recently been added to a new WhatsApp group representing the apartment building they have lived in for more than 30 years. The two had different reactions to this; while Maria welcomed the digital sociality and its usefulness for communicating on practical matters, such as the use of communal spaces and corridors, or issues to be shared and discussed, Pietro was more ambivalent at first about this unfamiliar mode of communication, especially as the WhatsApp group quickly morphed from the supposed function of information exchange to the wider postings of emojis, memes and even poems. At the same time the notifications he receives on his phone, including wider notifications such as news alerts, bring Pietro pleasure throughout the day, making both him, and Maria, who is active in a number of WhatsApp community groups, feel connected to a certain social buzz of ‘distant closeness’ (Van House 2007) and ‘intimacy at a distance’ (Elliott and Urry 2010) they enjoy in retirement.

Fig 1 – Casa di ringhiera apartment buildings in Milan – Photo by Shireen Walton

Fig 2 – Meme shared in a local women’s WhatsApp group.

For Rosalba, a participant in her sixties, the smartphone was a kind of familiar presence informing her about the weather or recipes found online. Rosalba drew comfort from the multiple presences contained within it, mostly those of her children and family whom she connected with through the smartphone. At the same time, the smartphone was an ambiguous object, which she felt guilty about using so much. Throughout the research, participants expressed a range of concerns about privacy, surveillance, dis/misinformation and online bullying, while simultaneously feeling that the smartphone had become quite central in their lives, particularly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic where digital communications took on a heightened significance amid experiences of lockdown.

As such, the book teases out some of the contradictions, affordances, and problems the smartphone poses for people at different ages and stages of life. In another respect, the smartphone is implicated in the ways in which people confront the ethical dilemma of: ‘where should I be?’ with regard to social commitments and care responsibilities, played out in different places offline and online. For Noor, in her early fifties, who was born and grew up in Egypt and who has been living in Milan with her family for over a decade, the smartphone was implicated in her broader reconciling of place, work, and care. The smartphone presents no ready answers to these dilemmas, but in many cases, it is there, adopted in diverse ways, as a ‘constant companion’ in the figuring out of life and the multiple entanglements of the life course.

Figure 3: Watching a popular online cooking programme on YouTube. Photo by Shireen Walton.

 

References:

  • Elliott, Anthony., Urry, John. (2010). Mobile lives. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Van House, Nancy, A. ‘Flickr and public image-sharing: distant closeness and photo exhibition’ in In CHI ’07 extended abstracts on human factors in computing systems, 2717–22. New York: ACM Press.

Forget me not – portrait photography in the smartphone age

Xin Yuan Wang16 April 2021

One of my previous blog posts talked about photography as a hobby among older people in China, where the protagonist Mr. Shou brought up the question of the ‘sense of ritual’ in the digital age. In the newly released short video in this blog, I invite you to listen to the same Mr. Shou and what he thinks of his photography, a hobby he has managed to develop as a professional occupation after retirement.

‘Photographic memory’ has long been the subject of anthropological inquiry. In our project’s forthcoming comparative book, The Global Smartphone: beyond a youth technology, we argue that nowadays, smartphone photography is the opposite of traditional photography, whose aim, historically, has been to restore memories. Smartphone photography, on the other hand, is more about taking the opportunity anywhere, anytime to ‘put a frame’ upon anything that people notice in their daily life.

In a way, it is through smartphone photography people experience life. In the short film above, Mr. Shou’s case provides a different angle to this story, enabling us to appreciate the co-existence of both smartphone photography and ‘pre-smartphone’ photography in people’s lives. For example, in Mr. Shou’s case, his professional portrait photography would not reach many people without the successful WeChat blog he runs. Therefore, it is important to observe that ‘smartphone photography’ and ‘pre-smartphone photography’ do not necessarily rival each other, as both of them have found a niche in today’s exuberantly visual world.