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Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk14 February 2020

Japan has gained a global reputation as being the sort of place where one can ‘imagine our digital future’ – from stories of men marrying their virtual girlfriends, to techno-cemeteries replacing tombstones with LED Buddhas, an imagination of ‘techno Japan’ has developed which can be quite removed from the everyday experiences of people living there. Japan has been slow in many ways to adopt new technologies despite an international perception of being at the forefront of technological innovation. This imagined futuristic Japan is perhaps a result of the prominence of robots and advanced technologies in Japanese popular culture, or because of the impression made on travellers by iconic bullet trains and singing washlet toilets. Day-to-day life in Japan is actually remarkably low-tech; the economy is still largely cash-based despite government attempts to encourage card and mobile payments, much bureaucratic work is still paper-based rather than computerized, and old technologies such as fax machines are still popular. Indeed the name of new Reiwa era (Japan’s new imperial era following the end of Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign) was announced internationally in April 2019 via a fax sent to Japanese embassies worldwide.

On 26th of February I will present my work at a symposium in Sheffield called ‘Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan’. The event is organised by Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies, bringing together scholarship on technical innovations of Japanese art and design with discussions about the use of digital technology to understand Japan. The organisers envision Japan-focused digital research as a productive model for emerging and developing studies of digital cultures around the world. “Imagining our digital futures” requires us to look at our digital present, which in Japan is more commonly about the smartphone rather than robots. And the age-group who are especially keen to imagine a digital future is the middle-aged to elderly, who are finding digital means for challenging previous models of ageing. While Japanese youth have historically been seen to drive innovation in digital communication practices, older people are now starting to embrace the smartphone and are developing their own digital cultures.

My talk will present findings from long-term ethnographic fieldwork I conducted among older people in Kyoto and Kōchi Prefecture, examining ageing, health, and everyday usage of the smartphone. Given the economic and social challenges posed by Japan’s ageing population, the government has turned towards technological solutions, such as assistive robotic devices, to cope with a decreasing health and care workforce. Yet it is in everyday smartphone practices such as messaging, Googling, and using social media that older people are re-imagining care, finding new forms of independence, and crafting new experiences of ageing when compared with previous generations.

With many nations around the world exhibiting ageing populations, there is international focus on how super-ageing Japan is dealing with this demographic shift. By studying the digital practices of middle-aged to elderly Japanese people, this research demonstrates that the smartphone is increasingly central to their lives, and will be key to developing technological innovations for dealing with the challenges associated with ageing.

If you’re near Sheffield do come along, and also check out the Japan Now North festival in the week preceding the symposium with a range of film screenings and discussions on Japanese art, literature, and film. The festival includes a screening of the film ‘I Go Gaga My Dear’ by veteran Japanese documentary filmmaker Naoko Nobutomo. After the screening I will be chairing a Q&A with Nobutomo, discussing her film within the wider context of the Japanese ageing society.

‘If you are old, you invented the Internet’: A tribute to a senior geek

Marilia Duque E S22 October 2019

I felt insecure about accepting an offer of website hosting from Dudu Balochini, who suggested we host the two websites we had developed together on his server at no cost. I asked him: “But what if you die?”. I was referring to my access to the servers, but he thought it was about his age since he was almost twenty years older them me (I’m 42). He then challenged me: “What if you die?” And that was how we laughed together and moved on. The first site we published together answered a need from the Center of Ageing Studies located at UNIFESP Medical School. Their researchers monitor the elderly population of a neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, and their studies include investigating the impact of physical activity on ageing. One of the interventions they made was to map out opportunities within walking distance for older people to exercise. This mapping was manually adapted to the address of each patient – a herculean task. But an informal survey showed that 70% of program-assisted seniors have smartphones. I had this information in mind when I met Dudu for a coffee. “Do you think we could make these activities accessible through Google Maps based on people’s location?”, I asked him. And he just said “I already know how to do that. I need two hours”. Twenty-four hours later, he produced the site we called Get Up and Go: nearby activities for the 60+. “I used the Store Location feature in WordPress, but it took me a while because it was blocked for developers from Brazil”, he apologised as though I thought he was late.

The second site is part of my delivery for the applied side of the ASSA Project – Anthropology of Smartphones, Smart Ageing and mHealth. With an ethnographic approach, I observed how WhatsApp was used for health purposes in Sao Paulo. I mapped the best practices and organised them into a set of protocols for communication within hospitals and clinics. I also developed a second set of protocols addressing nutritionists (obesity and being underweight are both health issues among older people in Brazil). Both materials are open-access and should be available for download. That is why I needed a website to publish them. This time, Dudu didn’t develop the website for me. “You’re going to become a SeniorGeek”, he told me. SeniorGeek is an initiative for digital inclusion of seniors created by him. At presentation events addressing older people, Dudu tried to demystify technological themes like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Chatbots. He believed older people should know about those things or they would be cut off from conversation with children and grandchildren and, moreover, with society. Dudu also believed he could enable seniors to become digital entrepreneurs through courses that teach how to build a website, or an e-commerce or a blog. This is how I became his student. By myself, with the autonomy he wanted all seniors to achieve, I developed and published my WhatsApp manuals at http://www.saudeeenvelhecimento.com.br. In my field site, entrepreneurship gains strength among older people as a means of reintegration into the labor market. This is a consequence of the desire of many to remain productive but it is also their way to respond to corporate ageism. Dudu himself used to say he lived in a limbo: too old for the market, but not a “legal” senior yet.

Dudu was also a public figure. He was often in the media, giving interviews about the relevance of digital inclusion for seniors. At 58, he used to say, “If you are old, you invented the Internet. The problem is that people accommodated and forgot about it”. And he has a point. We just have to remember that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, creators of the TCP / IP protocol that enabled the Internet, are now aged 81 and 76 years old. However, ethnography showed me that this detachment from technology was also linked to retirement, when access to technology and needs in daily life change (Selwyn, 2004). Even so, Dudu’s speeches were inspiring and older people felt more confident because of him. Dudu died one week after I left my field site. An abrupt heart attack. On the one hand, he has achieved the death my informants desire the most: a death without illness or disease. I have written before about how my informants do not fear death. On the contrary, they see death as natural and even desire it when they think of the prospect of a future lived with physical, mental or financial limitations. On the other hand, it was an early death. Dudu was gone when he began to experience the purpose of life. I say experience because, among my informants, there is a feeling that the meaning of life is not something that can be explained by past achievements or by spiritual convictions. Therefore, they abandon philosophical reflections on the subject to focus on the present: they live today with purpose, filling daily life with pleasurable activities and, if possible, positively impacting the lives of those around them. Dudu brought these two accomplishments together in an intense agenda of events and courses.

And it was precisely the technology Dudu was so enthusiastic about that mediated his farewell. The news of his death spread via WhatsApp and was shared from group to group, giving rise to dozens of messages. Information about his funeral was also shared throughout the night, as well as information about the seventh day mass. For this last meeting, friends used WhatsApp again to prepare a last tribute. They have the idea to reproduce the “uniform” worn by Dudu, a black T-shirt, with the SeniorGeek logo. And during the days leading up to the mass, they spoke about how this production was made feasible all through their smartphones, as Dudu would like. The mobilisation was properly registered. And the pictures dominated social media again, now accompanied by the text “We are all senior geeks”. Dudu’s original WhatsApp group for his SeniorGeek initiatives was deactivated. A new one named “Senior Geek Connected” was created instead. It’s still a place where older people can find information about technology and new learning opportunities, keeping Dudu’s original idea alive. For him, above all, SeniorGeek was a manifesto against the invisibility of older people, something he believed only technology could solve.

 

 

 

 

Selwyn, N. (2004). The information aged: A qualitative study of older adults’ use of information and communications technology, Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 369–384