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What is a smartphone in Yaoundé?

p.awondo6 December 2019

Marina and Angel teaching their grandmother how to use WhatsApp

More than 19 months after the beginning of my fieldwork in Cameroon, I find myself coming back to the questions that I set out to answer when I first arrived at the fieldsite: what is a smartphone and what does it do to middle aged people’s lives as they are experiencing a new socio-cultural and economic dynamic?

The data from the field is rich, and there is a multitude of ideas that jostle in my head. In this blog post, I’ll explore three possible answers:

  • The smartphone is a social object more than it is an individual
  • The smartphone is only smart because applications and their uses make it so.
  • Smartphone use among retired people should be explored in the context of being linked to the inversion of the roles involved in the transmission of knowledge: for the first time, it is older people who are having to learn from younger generations (the so-called ‘digital natives’).

Although these are only provisional conclusions, they may reflect similar findings in other studies looking at smartphone use among retirees and older people.

The smartphone as social object

It may seem surprising to make this observation. The smartphone is considered to be a personal and individual object first and foremost. Debates around the emergence of the first mobile phones (which eventually evolved into smartphones) have tended to emphasise its individualising dimension. With the emergence of social networks, the social dimension of phones and smartphones became more prominent. However, the basic question of why people use phones brings us back to the social and socialising dimension: ‘we need a smartphone because we want to call people, to be in touch, to receive news’, say my research participants. Despite the material dimension of this individual object, it remains above all a social object. My informants get a smartphone at the initiative of a person, a group, or because of aspirations that are situated beyond the individual. The smartphone is thus a ‘community object’, helping to reinforce reconfigurations of kinship (family groups, friend groups and others). This is all the more true in relation to the continuous popularity and increasing influence of social networks. For example, many retirees I spoke to in Yaoundé who were initially reluctant to own a smartphone were eventually offered a device by family members or their loved ones. Sometimes they ended up acquiring a device for themselves in response to pressure from relatives to ‘join the family Whatsapp’ (an expression that has become commonplace in Yaoundé).

Apps make the smartphone

In Yaoundé, the youth we met and talked to seem as ‘obsessed’ with phone brands as anywhere else in the world. Fueled by a flourishing second-hand market on Kennedy Avenue (the centre of digital and smartphone life in the capital), their preferences seemed to reflect the biggest current players on the smartphone market: the Apple-made iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei.

The majority of retirees in the city are disinterested in the race to buy the latest gadget, even if they are more likely to have the means to buy these. Retirees have a more utilitarian vision that often determines their phone choices – a significant number receive phones from relatives without necessarily having a say in what the phone type or brand might be, thus making them dependent on the choices of relatives who sometimes incorrectly anticipate that they don’t need “sophisticated technology”. Although partly true,  older members of the public can get caught up in spending time staring at their smartphone screens just as easily as younger ones. For them, it’s the use of apps that ‘makes’ the smartphone:

What good is a  smartphone if you can’t have WhatsApp, YouTube, Google or listen to BBC Africa or FRI?[1]” is a question I often heard. In Yaoundé, people in their middle age and older often have more than one phone – a ‘simple phone’ for voice calls, and a ‘real phone’ for apps including Whatsapp, playing music, looking up information and ‘another life without relationships’ , as pointed out to me by a 65-year-old mechanical engineer I met in a sport group.

The phrase ‘un vrai téléphone’ (a real phone) has become common in Cameroon and means at least two things: a phone that is truly a branded one, and a phone with the ability to do things. The possibilities offered by apps, such as playing a video or getting in touch with friends are what make a smartphone ‘real’. When talking about smartphones, people in Yaoundé will first ask what the phone’s brand is, as well as what it contains in it in terms of applications and other features. It is also ‘who’s in the phone’ that’s important too.

“Digital native” and historical inversion

Daniel Miller recently pointed out that the emergence of the smartphone and more broadly of the digital, has resulted in a sort of reconfiguration of the relations between social groups. For the first time, older people in Yaoundé are no longer the ultimate repositories of knowledge, its circulation and organisation. Obligated to learn from young “digital natives”, retirees in Yaoundé face a situation of historical inversion. Without necessarily impacting social hierarchy in general, this inversion invites these groups to weave new social links.  Retired people faced with this situation that I spoke to said they were “embarrassed by the dexterity of the youngest”, but “amused by this situation”. A majority of informants believed that the hesitation to join social networks for example is linked to the feeling of not having mastery of this technology.

A 59-year-old high school teacher tells me: “…there is a real need to fill the technological gap between generations. My generation hasn’t even mastered the computer, and now they have to master the smartphone.”

Despite his age, he refers to older people as ‘their generation’, with the implication being that older people have to learn from the youngest, which is a challenge for all of Cameroonian society.

When they weren’t learning how to use technology by themselves, most of my research participants said that the best teachers were their children and grandchildren. There are direct implications for this in terms of intergenerational relations. This current moment of tension between “seniors” and younger generations is also being reinforced by political and moral tensions in the country – thus, the dynamic of the interaction between them when they are learning from each other is interesting in that it reveals something about current Cameroonian society.  Older generations learning from the young means they are in effect forced to adopt collaborative behaviors instead of perpetuating the more traditional hierarchy represented by seniority.

[1]Radio France International

‘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