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2021 round-up and happy new year!

Laura Haapio-Kirk31 December 2021

By Danny Miller and Laura Haapio-Kirk

Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

2021, despite its difficulties, has been a key year for the ASSA project. The high point for us was in May with the publication of the jointly-authored comparative book The Global Smartphone. The book presents a radically different understanding of what the smartphone is, based not on speculation but a huge amount of direct observation of its use and consequences around the world based on our 16-month ethnographies. The book is available to download for free from UCL Press, along with the two translations in Italian and Spanish  that have already been published, and it is currently being translated into the other languages of our fieldsites (Japanese, Chinese, French, Portuguese). The publication launch was well covered in the media including full-page discussions in newspapers such as the Guardian and Sunday Times, international press ranging from the World Economic Forum to local publications around the world, and BBC radio interviews.

Also published were the first two of our monographs: Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland by Pauline Garvey and Daniel Miller, and Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy by Shireen Walton. We are on track for more of our ethnographies to published as monographs in 2022. Once they are all published we will have a total of nine monographs documenting the ways in which experiences of ageing and the use of the smartphone are now inextricably interwoven in various ways for people around the world. Watch this space!

Comic based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and Georgiana Murariu, and illustrated by John Cei Douglas.

Our website, designed to complement the book series, features videos, infographics, comics, and stories from the fieldsites, presented in a way that is intended to be accessible and engaging. For example, we took several of our key findings that appear in The Global Smartphone and created a ‘Discoveries’ section of the site that allows for a multi-media introduction to the central ideas emerging from the research. The website recently won the AVA 2021 Award for Best Visual Ethnographic Material Addressing Ageing and the Life Course in the Multimodal category. The AVA Award is a collaborative effort of the EASA’s Age and Generations NetworkAssociation for Gerontology, Aging and the Life Course and EASA’s Visual Anthropology Network.

We also launched our online course: An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health on FutureLearn. We were very happy to meet many enthusiastic learners from around the world, and were delighted with their feedback on the course. The course features many videos and interactive elements that encourage participants to become ethnographers in their own right. We will announce future dates, so please do register here for updates if you would like to take part in the next round.

Feedback from FutureLearn learners on our course.

 

We are currently developing our mHealth agenda, including producing an edited book to be published by UCL Press, featuring chapters by the team about their various mHealth initiatives. We are also progressing applied projects around mental health and nutrition in Uganda and Trinidad respectively.

As you can see, it has been a busy year and we are delighted to be able to start sharing with you the results of our research.

We hope that you are keeping safe and well, and wish you a happy new year from the entire ASSA team!

Smartphones as Constant Companions

Shireen Walton17 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.

 

References:

  • 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.