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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Pandora turned 70 and she just opened the box again. By Marília Duque

LauraHaapio-Kirk3 July 2019

Photo (CC BY) Marilia Duque.

Author: Marilia Duque

I am packing up to leave my field site after a 15-month ethnography with older people in Sao Paulo. One thing I learned is that a smartphone is not smart by default. Most of the times, specially for older people, a smartphone could be a stupid little thing that releases a new set of problems they now have to deal with, just like a Pandora’s box.

The character of Pandora can be perfectly represented by a 70-year-old lady I met who just received her box in the form of a gift from her son. This pandora’s box contained many gifts: a telephone, camera, calendar and computer and they were all hidden inside a Samsung Galaxy phone. Pandora’s husband warned her: “You should never turn this on. We are not supposed to steal technology from the youngsters”. Pandora then left the smartphone inside its box for weeks until she found out she was not invited to her old school annual reunion. The explanation they gave to her? “It was all set up through our WhatsApp group, dear”. In a mix of rage, sorrow and curiosity, Pandora immediately opened her smartphone’s box and turned it on.

As in the Greek myth, our Pandora also released some plagues and devils she now has to deal with. In her case, she faced fear, low self-steam, and anxiety. She first experienced fear of breaking the device, fear of being charged for something she was not using, and fear of erasing something important, like the pictures of her youngest grandson’s swimming competition. She then experienced a lost of self-esteem because her smartphone’s display was set to sleep after just 30 seconds of inactivity and she just didn’t have the proper time to think about what to do before the screen turned off. And when she asked her son for some help, he simply had no patience to explain to her what was happening. Instead, he took her smartphone from her hands, reset the sleep mode to 5 minutes and gave it back to her saying “it is intuitive, even children are supposed to learn how it works”.  Pandora still doesn’t use her smartphone to its full potential, but a friend from her church has downloaded WhatsApp for her. She has finally joined her old school friends’ group and also her charity group, her meditation group and her family group. Now Pandora experiences anxiety because she has to manage so many messages that just keep coming without interruption. Pandora doesn’t understand that the connection is on 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, but she can choose not to be.

Curiosity was what made Pandora open her smartphone’s box and turn it on for the first time. But it is also curiosity which is the only thing that can save her. With curiosity (and with a little help from her friends), Pandora can dig deeper into her smartphone until she finds a solution – ‘hope’. It is hope that was left remaining in Pandora’s box. She will make ten mistakes for each thing she does right. She will be annoyed because she can enlarge the font size and the display size of her smartphone, but this will disrupt her WhatsApp screen lay-out and she will feel lost again. Even so, with time, she will become more confident to try new things and make new mistakes and learn with them. In doing that, Pandora will discover that one more gift was left inside her smartphone. Pandora will finally experience the smartness of her smartphone. A smartness that is only achieved in practice, when the smartphone provides a solution for someone’s need or desire.

Fear, low self-steam and anxiety will still exist. But Pandora won’t have time to pay much attention to them. She is now checking Google Maps for the easiest way to go to a museum with her friends. She is deciding to take an Uber so she can improve her English with Duolingo during the trip. She is experiencing that fraction of smartness that makes her think that her smartphone was actually a gift from the gods to mankind. A gift she had the curiosity to open and the courage to keep it on.

Blame the phone..! UI design and elderly smartphone users.

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui12 August 2018

Photo (CC BY) J Stimp.

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, a first step in my ethnography of the experience of ageing and the use of smartphones involved volunteering at a cultural center in the working-class neighborhood where I am living in Santiago de Chile. For a couple of months, I have been a teacher’s assistant in two workshops on the usage of smartphones aimed at elderly people. In these workshops lasting for four weeks, enthusiastic grey-haired students learn the basics of smartphones settings (unblocking the phone, connecting to Wi-Fi, turning on and off the GPS, flight mode and the like), how to use the Camera app, Whatsapp and Google Maps.

In addition, for a couple of weeks, I have been giving a complementary workshop by myself, for those who have already finished the main workshop. This complementary workshop focuses on repetition and exercising: students have the opportunity to practice in more extended periods of time what they have learnt in the first workshop, and to go step-by-step over and over again. This complementary workshop has given me the opportunity to be in more frequent contact with the students, and to become more familiar with their struggles and their success in mastering this nowadays pervasive new device. Many of the difficulties I noticed have been also spotted by my colleague Marilia Pereira in her field site in Brazil.

One of the most common feelings expressed by the students at the beginning is frustration: the phone doesn’t do what the teacher has just shown, the screen goes off all of a sudden, or cryptic warnings pop up, among other things. In my short experience so far, the most common —yet invisible— difficulty lies in the touch interface. Many elderly students find it difficult to distinguish between a ‘tap’ and a ‘long press’, and they tend to do a ‘long press’ when a ‘tap’ is required. I believe it is related to the lack of self-confidence when using the smartphone: they press the button long enough to be sure they are pressing it (as with a door bell). The problem though, is that the long press is a different input and therefore produces a result other than the expected one. Another difficulty lies in hitting the exact right spot on the screen, as, again, a slight miss has a different outcome (e.g. on Android’s Whatsapp’s chats menu, hitting the contact picture will show you that picture, hitting just a little to the right will open the chat), contributing to the general feeling of frustration.

Another common experience is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the vast array of menus, gestures, and different ways to do the same things on the smartphone. Having shared many classes with these elderly students, I started to grasp the experience from their point of view. Considering the difficulties of the touch UI, the diversity of Android iterations, manufacturer’s software skins, etc., I can see how complex and overwhelming this experience might be. All the functions of the phone seem chaotic to me now: there is no clear logical hierarchy in the arrangement of apps and functions. Most of the students do not recognize the difference between the home screens and the app drawer (the majority have Android devices), especially when the wallpaper in the app drawer is the same as on the home screens (but, adding to the confusion, this does not happen with every phone). One old man did this to access the camera: instead of tapping the camera icon on the home screen, he would tap the app drawer icon, and then the camera icon inside the app drawer. Furthermore, as the teacher of the main workshop pointed out, they expect to learn the ‘one way’ to do something on the phone, while multiple ways are possible (and sometimes these are needed, when one of the ways does not work).

In these situations of frustration, they tend to blame themselves (“I don’t understand technology” or “my head is not good for this”) as they judge themselves unable of learning the intricacies of this device, which seem evident for their grandchildren (who don’t have the time nor the patience to teach them). Having experienced this frustration myself when trying to teach a simple procedure to a new student whose specific smartphone model I have never used, I wish they would allow themselves to blame the phone now and then (I certainly do). Sometimes the interface is not as intuitive as it should be, sometimes too many shortcuts stay in the way and sometimes there is no visual cue on where to tap (the flat design of previous years has made this worse). However, I must say that they blame the phone sometimes, but in the most radical way: ‘this phone does not work’ (therefore, it must be changed). This has happened when they had accidentally left the phone in flight mode or silent mode, and they were unable to either receive phone calls or hear them, respectively. It is as if they could see the problem only in themselves or in the hardware (the phone as a device), while the software (and UI design) remains a blind spot. The interface is there, yet it goes unnoticed.

All in all, this is just the beginning of a long path for these new old beginners. It will be interesting to see if, as the workshop progresses, these engaged learners build up more self-confidence and make their way through the garden of forking paths of mobile UI.

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

Yaoundé’s obsession with sport and health – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk27 March 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Every day at 6 a.m. thousands of citizens invade the street of Yaoundé. As well as work, many are there for sporting activities such as running. They make evident the hundreds of formal and informal associations devoted to sports, and health.

This Saturday morning, as usual, retiree Samuel (58) is here with his wife (55) and his grandson (6). Samuel is the co-founder of a sport group called “club santé famille” (“family health club”). Starting in 2015 with 3 members, they now number more than 70. Each member pays a small participation fee for basic equipment (small carpets, tracksuit), and a coach who directs the two-hour session. These sessions are mainly held on weekends and include dance aerobic activities, running walking and also just relaxing. There are three main categories of such groups:

  • Sports groups based on ethnic and friendship networks
  • Sport and culture groups that include other self-help activities such as (informal banking, cultural activities)
  • Professional sport groups.

(CC – BY) Patrick Awondo

Sport and health in an unequal city

Yaoundé is a city of enclaves and inequality, which is reflected in these weekend sports. In my three main fieldsites, Mvog-Ada, Quartier Fouda and Mfandena, the distribution of sports infrastructures illustrate the gap between the citizens’ commitment to sport and the lack of public facilities to support those efforts. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, promote sport as a condition of a healthy life, as against smoking and drinking. Despite which there is a lack of public infrastructure to support sports initiatives. In Mvog-Ada there is basically no place for running or even walking on the narrow streets. Sports groups have to cross the city to find a stadium or free space for running such as the University of Yaoundé 1 campus,  and the Omnisport stadium which is being prepared for the 2019 African football nations cup.

Gender

One striking feature in Yaoundé is womens’ commitment to sports. While a decade ago an informant noted that women rarely participated in sport, today they dominate. As one of my informants (a 45-year-old teacher), underlined, you would rarely find women involved in those groups. Nowadays, the groups are dominated by women. In the “famille santé club” among the 70 registered members, 55 are women.

 

Puzzling contrasts in Santiago

LauraHaapio-Kirk6 February 2018

Written by Alfonso Oteagui

Photo 1. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

I arrived in Santiago de Chile over a week ago, in order to conduct a 16-month ethnography on the experience of age, the use of smartphones and their relation to healthcare among migrants working in this city.

The very first time I walked around Santiago I was puzzled by the sudden and stark changes in its architecture and general appearance. You can be walking by a beautiful cobbled street among art nouveau three-storey houses with iron work in their wooden doors (Photo 1) and just fifty meters later you can find a whole block of damaged late 60s ugly functionalist six-storey buildings (Photo 2). It is a feature local Chileans are aware of and remark on: the absence of transitional features that might soften these abrupt changes.

Photo 2. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

These stark contrasts are evident in the neighbourhood where I am conducting fieldwork. Yungay is a protected heritage zone inhabited by the Chilean upper class in the early twentieth century. Nowadays this population has migrated Eastwards and uphill leaving behind many of these beautiful old big houses, which have been occupied by multi-rental low income migrants. By contrast, other old houses, restored as lofts, provide huge continuous areas for the few. As a result, we find well maintained homes within dilapidated neighbours. While art nouveau houses are covered by colorful graffiti, as part of this architectural palimpsest of different eras and social classes (Photo 3).

Photo 3. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

These contrasts make manifest a deeper material contrast: the income inequality gap. As is sadly the case in much of Latin America, Chile has a high index of income inequality (47,7 2015 World Bank estimate). According the National Institute of Statistics, the average income in Chile in 2016 was of $ 517.540 (roughly U$S 862). But only 28,6% of the working population, receive this amount or a higher salary, with just 9,7% of the working population earning over one million Chilean pesos (around U$S 1660).

Notwithstanding the high index of income inequality, Chile shows deeper internet penetration (71,7% had access to Internet in 2016) compared to the rest of Latin America (average 56,1%). The same study by IMS Mobile showed that 9 out of 10 users connect to the internet through their smartphones. As in the Why We Post project, with which a number of the ASSA team were involved, this suggests that greater equality in online access may not result in diminished inequality more generally. But the situation is likely to be quite complex and hopefully the next 16 months will provide a more nuanced picture, beyond the facades of the architecture.

References

IMS Mobile in Latam Study, 2nd Edition, September 2016, free access through https://www.imscorporate.com/news/Estudios-comScore/IMS-Mobile-Study-Septiembre2016.pdf

OECD (2018), Internet access (indicator). doi: 10.1787/69c2b997-en (Accessed on 04 February 2018)

The World Bank. Databank. Poverty and Equity. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=poverty-and-equity-database