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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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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 – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton19 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 – By Marilia Duque

LauraHaapio-Kirk26 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.