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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Ageing Actively in Focus

ShireenWalton8 January 2019

Books about ageing are currently in the spotlight. As discussed by Daniel Miller in an earlier blog post from February 2018, philosopher Kieran Setiya has looked at mid-life, from theoretical and practical perspectives. Another more recent work comes from journalist and author Carl Honoré, who in (B)older: Making the Most of our Longer Lives (2018) suggests a rethinking of ageing as a positive feature of the human experience, to be increasingly acknowledged and enjoyed more than ever before in history – a bonus not a burden.

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

What these books have in common is a call to shift our thinking about ageing from a negative; to consider the positive aspects of later life, and to rebrand ageing along ‘active’ lines, recalling the European Union’s emphasis on ‘active ageing’. In Italy, a country with the second (after Japan) oldest population in the world, active ageing receives much public policy and media attention. One avenue through which I came in to contact with these initiatives is through Auser, a nation-wide NGO in Italy founded in 1989. The organisation has branches all over the country, and the Lombardy region headquarters is in Milan – located in zone 2 where I am based for my research. Auser’s mission statement is ‘promoting the active ageing of the elderly and enhancing their role in society’ from  an inclsive perspective: ‘addressed primarily to the elderly, but open to relations of dialogue between generations, nationalities, different cultures.’

Auser website (English version)

Attending one of their meetings in Milan in December, I learnt about some of the main ways that ageing is being envisioned; towards skills-acquiring and sharing; a push towards enjoying life through ‘Active Welfare’, a concept the organisation defines as follows:

“Perhaps we will all have to work on building a model of “active welfare” based on financial resources adapted to social needs, built on an integrated system of subjects and public and private interventions, where through informal networks, the State, the Third Sector and individual citizens all work to build the social welfare of people, thus strengthening the concept of community and of social cohesion.”  [Auser mission statement, website]

Auser December meeting, Milan December 2018. Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

I do not want to detract from these optimistic and significant attempts to combat ageism, but as ethnographer, I have to also investigate, specifically, what possibilities are/could be available to who – locally, regionally, nationally? From the middle-aged Italians in this fieldsite, I hear a great deal about the devastating economic situation in Italy since the 2008 economic crash, which makes the idea of retiring for many seem nigh on impossible, particularly if sufficient structures of in-family care are not in place due to transnational family lives and financial pressures. Active ageing is is also difficult to envisage amongst some of the individuals, families and groups I am working with from countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Peru, many of who currently imagine their futures as continuous work(ing). Noor, 45, a schoolteacher from Alexandria, explains how she “hopes my children will take care of me, as I take care of them…if we are together, Inshallah, we will all be fine.” How, I wonder, will her 15-year old daughter take care of her Mother in years to come? What might potential future Grandparenting be like for Noor, as an Egyptian single Mother living in Milan in her 60s?

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Ali, Hazara (44), from west Kabul works a number of jobs, including as a night-time lorry driver. His wife and children are currently in another northern European country with his wife’s family. Ali explained the following: “Of course for the future having money is fundamental, but it is also important if you are a helpful person, and do good things for people; for your family, for your people (Hazara), and for humanity.”

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Noor’s investment in Italy seems to be long-term; her ever-strengthening language proficiency, her children growing up in Italy, attending school and speaking fluent Italian, the death of her parents in recent years back in Alexandria and her own severance from the rest of the family in Egypt means that she feels she is here to stay, intent on growing old near her children. For Ali, currently working in Italy and visiting his family when he can, the geographies of his and his family’s future remains unknown.

My ongoing task then is to consider how people are ageing in – and away from – their homelands, aided by smartphone connections, but in many cases lacking public voice, and/or not involved in many of the dominant culture’s organisations and groups dedicated to ageing, health, and wellbeing. I am continuing to explore about these issues in line with broader conversations about contemporary citizenship, the role of technology, the state and NGO’s, migration trajectories & biographies, and the ongoing categorisation of peoples into strategic kinds of subjects (Giordano 2014). The approach reflects my commitment to studying ageing across cultural lines here in Milan.

References

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

The Age of Migration

Xin YuanWang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.