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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Smartphones as Constant Companions

By Shireen Walton, on 17 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.



  • 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.

ASSA Team Update – April 2021

By Georgiana Murariu, on 28 April 2021

It’s been almost two years since the members of the ASSA team came back from fieldwork and we have lots of updates and new material coming in the next couple of weeks!

What is the ASSA team up to?

The 6th of May will see the launch of the first three books in the ‘Ageing with Smartphones’ series, which is based on the results of the team’s research:

All of the books will be open-access and downloadable from the UCL Press site.

A Twitter thread summarising some of the points in the Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland book is here. This can also be found on Instagram here.

The Global Smartphone is a comparative book that focuses on the take up of smartphones by older people in all of our 10 fieldsites, many of which you might have become familiar with by now if you have been following this blog!

  • Cuan, Ireland
  • Thornhill, Dublin, Ireland
  • Lusozi, Kampala, Uganda
  • Yaoundé, Cameroon
  • Bento, São Paulo, Brazil
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Kyoto city and Tosa-chō in Kōchi Prefecture, Japan
  • Dar al-Hawa, Al-Quds (east Jerusalem)
  • NoLo, Milan, Italy

The rest of the books will talk about each specific fieldsite in more depth, focusing on ageing, retirement, and the changes to the way in which people live, communicate, resolve intergenerational conflicts, and care for each other and their own health – all aided by the smartphone, of course.


We also have a 3-week course on Futurelearn coming up on the 10th of May, called ‘An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health‘.

The course is free to take and is also based on the results of the ASSA team’s research – it is self-paced and makes use of interactive discussions and short films in what should be a comprehensive look at topics like smartphone use in different social and cultural contexts, models of ageing, and different aspects of mobile health (including the team’s alternative approach to it).

You can now pre-enrol onto the course and you will get notified when it starts. The team will be present throughout the course to interact with learners and give feedback on the various discussions happening throughout the course.


On the 26th of May we will host an open session where members of the public and anyone interested in the project can meet the team and hear more about their fieldwork while having the opportunity to ask them questions.

The event will be hosted by UCL’s Centre for Digital Anthropology and chaired by Hannah Knox. You can register for the event here.


In the meantime, we have also updated the Publications page on our website with a few recent open-access papers on performing healthy ageing through images, deploying visual aids such as emojis and stickers to maintain a digital public façade, and much more!

We’ve also published a Discoveries page, which summarises the main findings of the project. These are illustrated through short videos, infographics and a few cartoon-style illustrations. There will be more cartoons to come in the near future and we are excited to share the results of our research through this creative medium!

In the meantime, we will continue blogging here on a weekly basis.

Finally, if you haven’t had a look at our project trailer yet, you can do so below!