X Close

ASSA

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan – by Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

[i] Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.

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

AlfonsoOtaegui12 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.

Milan, Mobiles, and Mobility

ShireenWalton4 May 2018

Photo (CC BY Shireen Walton)

Conversations between people meeting for the first time are often marked by the question “where are you from?”. In some cases, this may be the natural utterance of, say, a curious neighbour, while in other contexts the question may be positioned and/or received as a significant political issue. Here in Milan, questions of roots and routes (Clifford 1997) have characterised many of my daily conversations with people. On the one hand this is perhaps not surprising, since I have chosen to conduct research within a ‘superdiverse’ (Vertovec 2007) neighbourhood, where identities blur, bend, and bounce in a myriad of compelling ways. In another sense, this can also be put down to my own presence here: the ethnographer with a not-so clear nationality, with a first name that sounds foreign for some, but familiar to others. This predicament of being myself una straniera (a foreigner) is proving a socially rich point of contact and connection with all kinds of people in this part of the city, particularly within the different activities I am involved in as a ‘participant-observer’, such as attending and assisting in Italian language classes for foreigners. But there is a deeper, historical facet to questions of origins in northern Italy that is a core facet of my ethnographic research.

Many people here in Milan can be regarded in one way or another as a migrant – including Italians from the south of the country, many of whom came during the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s. In his film Rocco and His Brothers (1960),
Luchino Visconti, a pioneer of the socially conscious Italian Neorealist cinema of the post-war period, shows how migrants and their families from the south faced significant social challenges in adjusting to the different experience and pace of urban, industrial life in the north – alongside the pain and nostalgia of missing or losing one’s home.

Throughout the course of the film, the Parondi family, recently moved to Milan, struggle between their traditional values – of family duty and honour – and the more individualistic society creating its vision of a modern lifestyle in the big city (Bondanella 2001: 196-199). Ultimately, the family unravels at the seams, highlighting, among other issues, the difficulties of integration.

In reality, over time, the majority of internal Italian migrants settled, secured jobs, got married, and begot future generations. Today, these are the elderly Italians that I meet, and who live side-by-side with newer generations of foreign migrants, who have themselves come to Milan in recent decades seeking work, following their families, and pursing economic stability.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In several instances in everyday life, such as at the local Friday market, all of these peoples can be seen sharing economic and social space, while in the political sphere, questions of identity continue to divide groups and foster allegiances.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

This history of various mobilities has been described to me here as follows: “there is no Milanese – we are all foreigners!” Or, a similar sentiment put in the reverse sense, “no one is a foreigner” (see image below).

In my school, no one is a foreigner. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

These expressions appear to emphasise the community’s general attitude of respect for the co-existence of many cultural and ethnic groups here. Their term ‘Milanese’ however is clearly not the same reference point as it is, say, for the wealthier, noble families who have been part of the city’s political and cultural life for centuries – including the family of Luchino Visconti. So while the framework of my study might have been positioned to compare the experiences of Italians with migrants, in effect I am unearthing the deeper historical issues of rupture and rearranged family structures, as well as the wider interplay between mobile phones and mobility, that affect all of these populations. The task, therefore, is to explore and illustrate precisely how these processes have as much to do with the different historical experiences of the various Italian populations, as they do between Italian and foreign others.

References

Bondanella, P. (2001). Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, 3rd edition, Bloomsbury.

Clifford, J. (1997). Roots: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Harvard Universtiy Press.

Vertovec, S. (2007). ‘Superdiversity and its Implications’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 6: New Directions in the Anthropology of Migration and Multiculturalism.

Infrastructures of Care

LauraHaapio-Kirk19 April 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

Someone recently told me about how he encourages his 86-year-old mother, whom he lives with, to use her home blood pressure monitor every day and record her readings in a notebook. He said that doctors had prescribed her medication to lower her blood pressure, which she did not like to take. His solution was to turn to traditional Japanese medicine which he explained is tailored to the individual’s body, rather than western medicine which relies on a universal concept of the body. He was able to track the success of this approach through the home monitoring kit, and now her blood pressure is back to normal. This story reveals how infrastructures of care are made up of various integrated systems – that blockages in the form of non-adherence may reveal alternative routes by which people navigate care and self-care.

I am part of a reading group at Osaka University hosted by Gergely Mohacsi and Atsuro Morita. A few weeks ago we discussed Morita’s recent co-edited volume called ‘Infrastructure and Social Complexity’ (Harvey, Bruun, Morita 2017). He explained that a recent focus on infrastructure in social sciences, indeed an ‘infrastrucutural turn’ in anthropology, is a result of infrastructures becoming increasingly precarious and therefore more visible. Ageing infrastructures are becoming more and more tangible as we bump up against cracks in roads and other markers of decay. Infrastructures are systems that should enable things to flow, whether that’s water, electricity, goods, or people. But what happens when people are disconnected from infrastructures, or for whatever reason the flow is blocked?

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

I began to think about how smartphones are integral to navigating many of the infrastructures that enmesh us, for example through maps that visually place you within an infrastructure of roads, or health apps that extend the infrastructure of a national health service towards more individualised care. However, as digital technology becomes more integral to health services will people with limited access (through lack of digital literacy, or affordability for example) face increased marginalisation from infrastructures of care? And how are health professionals to identify blockages in the flow of care before it’s too late for individual patients? In such cases where care is not received, it is not only the infrastructure which is revealed to be vulnerable, but individuals themselves.

A couple of days after the seminar I happened to read a newly published article titled ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ (Weiner and Will 2018) in which the authors use the concept of care infrastructure to look at the variety of people, things and spaces involved in self-monitoring using a blood pressure device. Their work reveals self-monitoring as a socio-material arrangement that expresses care for self and for others, as opposed to focusing only on the individual and the device: “Specifically, our analysis has drawn attention to the range of local actors and work involved in the practice of self-monitoring, even in the case of consumer technologies. Through this attention to work, monitoring may also come to be seen as involving not just data, but also care amongst kin, family and colleagues.” My intention for my research was always to look at smartphones as situated within wider practices and things including other technologies and people, but thinking specifically in terms of infrastructure expands my scope and gives rise to questions about how multi-layered flows are connected (or not), ranging from state level, to family based care.

References

Harvey, P., Jensen, C. B.Morita, A. (2017). Infrastructure and Social Complexity. Routledge

Weiner, K. and Will, C (2018) ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ in Sociology of Health and Illness 40: 270–282. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12590.

Goods For All Ages – By Xinyuan Wang

Xin YuanWang27 December 2017

November was not traditionally known as a month for bustling festivals in China. That was, until a few years ago, when Alibaba – the Chinese retail giant – created a trademark ‘double 11’ online shopping day. The remarkable e-shopping festival (November 11) that resulted was adapted from an obscure ‘anti-Valentine’s’ singles’ day (guang gun jie) among young single persons in mainland China, who had picked that date because 11/11 resembled single individuals. One might hope that shopping would compensate for their lack of a partner. This year’s double 11 shopping day established a new world record with sales of $17.8bn (£14.2bn) in 24 hours.

As a digital anthropologist, my interest is in the social side of this business phenomenon. Among my WeChat friends from the previous Why We Post project, I can see charts, like the one displayed here, that rank my contacts in terms of how much money they have spent, and how many items they have purchased. People are not shy, it seems, about talking about money and their shopping practices on social media.

Older people are not immune to this. For example, 62-year-old Ms Zhang posted a photo of her new air-filter machine and wrote,

Young people are just crazy in the double 11 festival. My daughter-in-law is really ridiculous, she bought a very expensive air-filter for me even though she knew I already had two. She always spends a lot of money on me, and I always say I am old now, dont need so many new things. But she never listened.

Ms Zhang’s ‘complaint’ invited a string of complements such as “Your daughter-in-law is such a filial (xiao shun) daughter! I envy you. Just take it easy and enjoy a happy life!” or “My son did exactly the same, he just filled my flat with all kinds of new stuffs he bought in double 11. But I think we should just accept the filial piety (yi pian xiao xin) from them! After all we spent money on them the great part of our life, its time for them.

The way this shifts commercial activity into issues of intergenerational relations shows its potential value for my new project on the impact of smartphones among the middle class and middle aged of Shanghai. The study of the smartphone and related digital use is an illuminating starting point for me to understand the daily social life of an urban ageing population in China. Are there other ways in which the smartphones become pivotal in linking kinship with spending, that build on traditional anthropological studies of the gift economy? Can we use smartphones studies to build a picture of the contemporary family in Shanghai? I have sixteen months to find out.

– Xinyuan Wang