Author: Marilia Duque
I am packing up to leave my field site after a 15-month ethnography with older people in Sao Paulo. One thing I learned is that a smartphone is not smart by default. Most of the time, especially for older people, a smartphone could be a stupid little thing that releases a new set of problems they now have to deal with, just like a Pandora’s box.
The character of Pandora can be perfectly represented by a 70-year-old lady I met who just received her box in the form of a gift from her son. This pandora’s box contained many gifts: a telephone, camera, calendar and computer and they were all hidden inside a Samsung Galaxy phone. Pandora’s husband warned her: “You should never turn this on. We are not supposed to steal technology from the youngsters”. Pandora then left the smartphone inside its box for weeks until she found out she was not invited to her old school annual reunion. The explanation they gave to her? “It was all set up through our WhatsApp group, dear”. In a mix of rage, sorrow and curiosity, Pandora immediately opened her smartphone’s box and turned it on.
As in the Greek myth, our Pandora also released some plagues and devils she now has to deal with. In her case, she faced fear, low self-esteem, and anxiety. She first experienced fear of breaking the device, fear of being charged for something she was not using, and fear of erasing something important, like the pictures of her youngest grandson’s swimming competition. She then experienced a lost of self-esteem because her smartphone’s display was set to sleep after just 30 seconds of inactivity and she just didn’t have the proper time to think about what to do before the screen turned off. And when she asked her son for some help, he simply had no patience to explain to her what was happening. Instead, he took her smartphone from her hands, reset the sleep mode to 5 minutes and gave it back to her saying “it is intuitive, even children are supposed to learn how it works”. Pandora still doesn’t use her smartphone to its full potential, but a friend from her church has downloaded WhatsApp for her. She has finally joined her old school friends’ group and also her charity group, her meditation group and her family group. Now Pandora experiences anxiety because she has to manage so many messages that just keep coming without interruption. Pandora doesn’t understand that the connection is on 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, but she can choose not to be.
Curiosity was what made Pandora open her smartphone’s box and turn it on for the first time. But it is also curiosity which is the only thing that can save her. With curiosity (and with a little help from her friends), Pandora can dig deeper into her smartphone until she finds a solution – ‘hope’. It is hope that was left remaining in Pandora’s box. She will make ten mistakes for each thing she does right. She will be annoyed because she can enlarge the font size and the display size of her smartphone, but this will disrupt her WhatsApp screen lay-out and she will feel lost again. Even so, with time, she will become more confident to try new things and make new mistakes and learn with them. In doing that, Pandora will discover that one more gift was left inside her smartphone. Pandora will finally experience the smartness of her smartphone. A smartness that is only achieved in practice, when the smartphone provides a solution for someone’s need or desire.
Fear, low self-esteem and anxiety will still exist. But Pandora won’t have time to pay much attention to them. She is now checking Google Maps for the easiest way to go to a museum with her friends. She is deciding to take an Uber so she can improve her English with Duolingo during the trip. She is experiencing that fraction of smartness that makes her think that her smartphone was actually a gift from the gods to mankind. A gift she had the curiosity to open and the courage to keep it on.