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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.

Digital health ‘from above’ and ‘below’: Cases from Italy

Shireen Walton22 February 2021

Photo by Negative Space, Stocksnap.io

During my ethnographic research in Milan between 2018-2019, from interviews with patients and doctors, consulting regional, national and EU reports, and participation in hospital meetings, I learnt about the development of digital health in the city of Milan, the region of Lombardy, and across Italy. Digital or mobile health (mHealth) has been developing in and across Italy in recent years[i]. Since 2016, a few regions such as Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany have been particularly active in this field, and Lombardy’s activity in digital healthcare is above the national average.[ii] Developments in this area have since been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic during 2020, in Italy, and in Lombardy in particular, which saw the highest number of cases in Italy in early 2020. Digital technologies have played a significant role during the pandemic in a number of core areas relating to health from regional and national healthcare access communication and delivery and nascent public-private partnerships, to the everyday experience of lockdown. Amid the pandemic, the country has witnessed an increase in state engagement with the digital, including a range of public-private partnerships that, for example, offer ‘digital solidarity’ packages to citizens[iii] and seek to warn against ‘fake news’ about the virus that has been shared across social media. In March 2020, the Italian Ministry of Health published a warning list of ten particularly pertinent ‘fake news’ items about the coronavirus that were circulating across the Italian social web, urging the public to be vigilant about this issue.[iv]

During my broader ethnographic research studying ageing, care, and smartphones in Milan, I found that formal and informal policies and practices exist within a nexus of an emerging digital health scene ‘from above’, and a diverse adoption of digital practices by people of different ages and backgrounds ‘from below’. Amongst research participants who were smartphone users, googling for information about health and using WhatsApp to communicate with and care for others, for example, could be popular activities not wholly distinct from broader uses of smartphones for care and communication. Concurrently, these practices could also go hand in hand with the spread of mis/disinformation[v].

As such, although Milan and Lombardy are leading sites within Italy for healthcare and digital innovation, a range of factors continue to affect the equity of healthcare access, delivery and uptake, online and offline; such as income, socio-economic factors, regional location, and language; and these factors all play a role in the differentiated experience of living and ageing with smartphones in Milan that I explored during my research in Italy, and which are core themes in my forthcoming book as part of the ASSA book series with UCL Press, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond (2021).

References

[i] The uptake of mHealth in Italy has been reported as steady while slower than in other European countries such as Estonia and Denmark. Kostera, Thomas. 2019. ‘Digital health – Europe is moving at different speeds’. The Digital Patient (blog), 25 April. https://blog.der-digitale-patient.de/en/digital-healtheurope/. Accessed 23 November 2020.

[ii] See Postelnicu, Leontina. 2019. ‘Q&A: How Italy is working to digitise healthcare’. Healthcare IT News, 23 October. https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/europe/qa-how-italy-working-digitise-healthcare. Accessed 23 November 2020.

[iii] In Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, ‘digital solidarity’ packages were offered to bridge some of the socio-economic and digital gaps highlighted and perpetuated by the virus, at a time when digital practices of care and communications had taken on heightened significance. See Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale. 2020. ‘Solidarietà Digitale al servizio di studenti e commercianti’. Solidarietà Digitale. https://solidarietadigitale.agid.gov.it/#/. Accessed 21 November 2020.

[iv] See Ministero della Salute 2020 Salute (Ministry of Health). ‘Covid-19, occhio alle bufale’. http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/news/p3_2_1_1_1.jsp?lingua=italiano&menu=notizie&p=dalministero&id=4380. Accessed 23 November 2020.

[v]The distinction between misinformation and disinformation has been defined in terms of intentionality. The former describes the sharing of information regardless of intention, while the latter involves the intention to mislead, misinform and/or manipulate. See: https://www.dictionary.com/e/misinformation-vs-disinformation-get-informed-on-the-difference/ and https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews