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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Puzzling contrasts in Santiago

Alfonso Otaegui6 February 2018


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.


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