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Smartphones in “Dar Al Hawa”, al-Quds (East Jerusalem)

MayaDe Vries Kedem3 January 2020

Written by Laila Abed Rabho and Maya de Vries

Please note that the participant names used in this blog post, as well as the neighbourhood name ‘Dar al-Hawa’, have been pseudonymised for reasons of anonymity and confidentiality.

Smartphones are perhaps the most important technological devices used in the world today. In our field site of Dar al-Hawa, a neighbourhood of 10,000 people in al-Quds (East Jerusalem), smartphones are part of everyday life, including among older members of society. As part of our fieldwork, we interviewed 22 women between the ages of 42 and 75 in the area. We discovered that even though many carry mobile devices with them on a regular basis, this does not necessarily mean that they make use of the full functionality of these, including apps and other features.

All interviewees agree that having a smartphone makes communication with their family members (parents, children and grandchildren) easier, whether they are in the country or abroad. Most of them actively use WhatsApp, Facebook and Facebook Messenger to communicate, as well as to send each other prayers and quotes from the Qur’an. Some also browse the Internet and follow daily news. Overall, smartphones are seen as devices that make communication between family members much easier, especially in comparison to their older, pre-smartphone counterparts:

Eman (75), remembers a time when she had to top up her phone to make calls abroad:

“I used to have a card, and I would buy a 100 shekel card every time I topped up. When I called my brother in America or in Jordan, the conversation ended quickly – today I can call him for free. Smartphones have reduced the distance between us.”

Hala (58): “I used to use my phone to check on my daughter at university – she studied outside of Jerusalem.”

Smartphone use among older women in the Arab community is not limited to family communication and calls. Some women we interviewed use their smartphones to find recipes online:

Nisreen (56): “I love to read about cooking and find dessert recipes.”

Kholud (63): “I browse the internet to find recipes that suit my diet. I would also like to read about cooking and how to make dessert recipes.”

None of the women we interviewed use their smartphone to pay bills or do online shopping however. These findings are aligned with recent research reports on the digital divide within Israel, which have shown that there are significant differences between internet adoption and use among the Jewish population and that of the Arab population. Although internet use among the Arab community in Israel had increased to as much as 84% by 2015, there is still a large disparity in terms of the scope and nature of internet (and implicitly, smartphone) use between the two groups. While data shows that as many as 7 in 10 members of the Arab community had not shopped online or made payments on the internet in 2016, for the Jewish community, this figure was only around 30%. Among the Arab community, there are also more significant differences between different generations when it comes to browsing the internet, with over 45s being even more underrepresented and less confident that older internet users in the Jewish population.

Digital access and consequently, digital equality, tend to vary based on the socio-political background of a specific group or individual. In addition, the lack of motivation to use the internet can also occur due to a fear of technology, especially among minorities or more marginalised groups such as older people. Such groups are more likely to suffer from a lack of basic digital skills and knowledge and have limited exposure to the internet. As we have learnt from our informants, joining the digital world and learning how to navigate it are not self-evident processes, and can both take a long time. Even when adults learn how to use the phone and have practised using it multiple times, they may forget how to use it with time, some even forgetting the right way to properly use a touchscreen, for example. Such difficulties can have the effect of severely limiting the way these members of the population will use their phone, limiting their use to voice calls and WhatsApp.

Mayar (46) was very explicit about this: “I am afraid that a time will come when everything will be online. I do not know how to pay in this way. Sometimes when I am in a car park, I am asked to pay for the space online. I am also afraid that a day will come that I cannot find a machine [where I can still pay manually]. That’s why I wish to find a class to teach me how to use the smartphone. Girls in their twenties may know how to pay via the internet, but us women over 45 need education in this field.”

We also asked informants whether they use their smartphone to contact their doctor. Interviewees were keen to stress that they would never use their smartphone to communicate with their doctors in a direct way. There was one exception, Hamda (75), who said:

“Of course, I use it to communicate with my doctor. Today I want to call my doctor because I want to cancel an appointment I have. I want to tell him that I am not coming.”

It is interesting to note however that Hamda uses her smartphone to place a direct call to her doctor as opposed to using the clinic’s app or messaging him via WhatsApp. However, she is quite unique in this matter. Another research participant, Jumana (75) says: “As for communicating with doctors, I do not use it [smartphone]. I go to see the doctor face to face. If I had the clinic’s doctor’s number, I would contact them, but I don’t know how to use WhatsApp.”

The women we spoke to also highlighted the importance of phones among elderly people who were childless, or those whose children were far away and unable to provide them with immediate assistance.

Haya (62) says: “The phone is very good, I like having it with me in the knowledge that I can use it to communicate with my children at any given time. It is better than the house phone. It is very good to be able to use the camera no matter where you are. I sometimes also use YouTube.”

Rana (43) says: “Having a mobile phone is very important for the elderly who live alone today. There is even a service that allows older users to call the police or an ambulance at the touch of a button.”

The evidence from our interviews shows a widespread perception that phones have numerous advantages, assuming of course that informants know how to use their functions and features. The widespread use of smartphones also presents downsides – a fact that appeared as a more subtle implication in our  discussions with informants – something that is related to the specific cultural context of our field site.

For example, Haya (62) talks about the smartphone and the ridiculous things that can happen as a result of using the phone incorrectly:

If you know how to use it {the smartphone}, it is true that there is a lot of good in it. This phone is a blessing from God, but most people do not know how to use it in a good way, so they use it to do bad stuff. This is why some people prefer the old ‘stupid’ phone.”

The community in Dar al Hawa is considered a conservative one. It is not unheard of for some members of this community to use smartphones for abusive purposes that include discrediting or shaming other people.

While smartphones can make life easier, they can also complicate it, carrying the potential to influence the life of individuals (particularly women) and their families in a negative way.

Bearing all this in mind, it was particularly interesting to see in the WhatsApp group of the Elderly Club in “Dar Al Hawa” the following image praising the “stupid” old phone and its lack of capabilities:

It lived with dignity
It died with dignity
Never took a photo of a girl
And did not record any embarrassing situations (scandals)
And it did not carry music

 

الهاتف الذكي في حي دار الهوى، القدس

ليلى عبد ربه ومايا دة-فريس

 

تعتبر الهواتف الذكية من اهم الأجهزة التكنولوجية المستخدمة بكثرة لدى أغلب فئات المجتمع. خلال اللقاءات مع النساء الفلسطينيات في حي “دار الهوى[1] – القدس حول الهاتف الذكي واستخدامه، قالت أغلب النساء ان الهاتف الذكي سهل عليهن التواصل مع الأهل والأبناء سواء كانوا داخل البلد او خارجها.

حتى الآن تم اللقاء مع 22 امرأة بالفئة العمرية ما بين 42 و75 عاماً، جميعهن أكدن على استخدام الهاتف الذكي كوسيلة للاتصال والتواصل. أغلبهن يستعملن تطبيق الواتس اب والفيسبوك والمسنجر كوسائل للتواصل ولإرسال الادعية الدينية، كما يتصفح بعضهن الانترنت لمتابعة الأخبار. أكدت جميع النساء على سهولة استخدام الهاتف الذكي (على عكس الهاتف القديم) للتواصل مع افراد عائلاتهن خارج البلاد و داخلها:

إيمان (75) قالت: “كنت استخدم الكرت (كل مرة اشتري كرت بمئة شيكل) عندما اتصل بأخي في امريكا او في الاردن فينتهي بسرعة, اليوم انا باتصّل ببلاش. هو يقرب البعيد”.

هالة (58) قالت: كنت استخدمه للاطمئنان على بنتي في الجامعة“.

قسم من النساء يستخدمنه لتصفح ما يتعلق بالطبخ والحلويات. نسرين (56) قالت: أنا أحب ان أقرا عن الطبخ وأن استخرج وصفات للحلويات. خلود (63) قالت اتصفح النت لاستخراج وصفات للرجيم وأيضا أحب أن أقرأ عن الطبخ وكيفية عمل بعض الحلويات.

لم تقم أي من النساء اللواتي تم اللقاء معهن بدفع فواتير الهاتف او الكهرباء أو اي فواتير أخرى عن طريق الهاتف الذكي.

اثبتت الدراسات التي تمت حول الهاتف الذكي في إسرائيل الفرق بين المجتمع اليهودي والمجتمع العربي في استخدام الهاتف الذكي والانترنت. حيث وصلت نسبة مستخدمي الانترنت في المجتمع العربي حوالي 60% في عام 2011، مقارنة ب 77% لدى السكان اليهود. أما في عام 2015 فقد ارتفعت هذه النسبة في المجتمع العربي الى 84% (لجنة الاحصاءات المركزية في إسرائيل)، ولكن لا يزال هنالك تفاوت كبير في نطاق وطبيعة الاستخدام بين الشعبين.

اتضح أن أكثر من 70% من مستخدمي الشبكة من المجتمع العربي لا يتسوقون أو يجرون الدفعات بشكل يومي مقارنة مع 30% من المجتمع اليهودي. ظهر أيضاً تفاوت كبير بنسب التصفح بين الاجيال (فوق أو تحت عمر 45) بالمجتمع العربي ولكنهم يستخدمون الشبكات الاجتماعية.[2]

تتنوع التفسيرات بموضوع المساواة الرقمية حسب الخلفية الاثنية بموضوع التكنولوجيا وتبنيها:

أولا، قلة الأجور لذوي الياقات الزرقاء بسبب عدم المساواة الاقتصادية/الاجتماعية/الثقافية/التعليمية والتي من خلالها سيكون الانكشاف للعالم التكنولوجي متدني.

ثانيا، عدم وجود الدافع لاستخدام التكنولوجيا بسبب الخوف من التكنولوجيا من قبل الأقليات، نتيجة لعدم معرفة استخدام المهارات الحاسوبية والانكشاف المقتصر لشبكة الإنترنت.

مع ذلك، وكما يظهر من المقابلات فان الانضمام للعالم التكنولوجي وتعلمه ليس بديهي ويستغرق وقتا طويلا. حتى عندما يتعلم الكبار كيفية استخدام الهاتف عدة مرات، فانه قد ينسى كيفية استخدامه، أو يكون استخدامه محدود جدا (للمكالمات والواتس اب فقط).[3]

رغم هذه الدراسات إلا أن بحثنا يظهر استخدام النساء المسنات للهاتف الذكي في القدس بوضعها السياسي المركب. كما ويؤكد البحث على عدم استخدام النساء للإنترنت بشكل واسع في الهاتف الذكي، بالمقارنة مع استخدامهن للواتساب والفيسبوك.

هالة (58) قالت: “زوجي وابنائي يدفعون الفواتير

ميار (46) ابدت تخوف من هذا الامر: أنا خائفة ان يأتي وقت يصبح فيه كل شيء عن طريق النت وأنا لا أعرف كيف يتم الدفع بهذه الطريقة، احيانا يطلبون مني في موقف السيارات الدفع عن طريق النت. خائفة ايضا ان يأتي يوم لا أجد مصف فيه الدفع عن طريق ماكنة عشان هيك يا ريت حد يقوم بتعليمنا كيف يتم الدفع عن طريق النت. الفتيات في سن العشرين يعرفن كيف يدفعن عن طريق النت لكن نحن النساء فوق الخامسة والاربعين نحتاج لتوعية في هذا المجال.”

إضافة الى ذلك أكدت النساء أيضا على عدم استخدام الهاتف الذكي للتواصل مع الطبيب بشكل مباشر، سوى واحدة، حمدة (75) قالت: طبعا باستخدمه في التواصل مع طبيبي انا اليوم بدي اتصل في طبيبي لأني بدي الغي موعد بكرة بدي اقول له انا مش جاي بكرة.

لم تستخدم أي من النساء الهاتف الذكي للتواصل مع الخدمات الطبية ‘الديجيتال’. جمانة (75) قالت: “أما بالنسبة للتواصل مع الاطباء لا أستخدمه [الهاتف الذكي] فأنا اذهب لرؤية الطبيب وجها لوجه. بالنسبة للتواصل مع الطبيب قالت إذا كان رقم العيادة معي ورقم الدكتور باتواصل معهم بس انا لسا بتعلم على الواتس آب.

زاهرة (74) اذا بدي اشي من الطبيب بقول لنعمة بنتي بتتصلي اذا بدي اشي من المكتب بتصل عليهم كمان ما باستعمل الواتس آب.

كما أكدت اغلب النساء على اهمية الهاتف الذكي ومساعدته للمسنين خاصة المسن الذي ليس لديه أبناء او أن أبناءه بعيدين عنه ويعيش في البيت لوحده.

هيا (62) قالت: استخدم الواتس وباتفرج على الفيس ومرات أتصل على اختي من المسنجر. البيلفون منيح كثير بتطلعي مشوار بكون بلفونك معك بتتواصلي مع اولادك هو احسن من تلفون الدار كثير منيح بتكوني في اي محل وبتفتحي الكاميرا وأحياناً أستخدم اليوتيوب.

رانا (43) قالت: مهم جدا للمسنين الذين يعيشون وحدهم اليوم يوجد خدمة يستطيع المسن ان يضغط على الزر فتأتي الاسعاف او الشرطة.

أظهرت المقابلات أن الهاتف الذكي يتمتع بمزايا كبيرة، على افتراض أنهم يعرفون كيفية استخدام تقنياته. في الوقت ذاته، للهاتف الذكي ايضا يوجد جانب سلبي، والذي لم يظهر بشكل ضمني إلا في المقابلات مع النساء ويعتمد على السياق الثقافي لمجال دراستنا.

فعلى سبيل المثال، تتحدث السيدة هيا (62) عن الهاتف الغبي والأشياء السخيفة التي يمكن أن تحدث نتيجة لاستخدام الهاتف بشكل غير صحيح:

اذا بتعرفي تستخدميه صح بكون كثير منيح مش للهبل هذا البيلفون نعمة من الله, لكن اكثر الناس مش عارفين يستخدموه, بيستعملوه للهبل.”

يعتبر المجتمع ا في “دار الهوى” مجتمع محافظ، ولكن قد يقوم بعض افراد هذا المجتمع باستغلال الهواتف الذكية لأغراض مسيئة تشمل تشويه سمعة أشخاص اخرين. من الجدير بالذكر ان الهاتف الذكي من ناحية يجعل الحياة أسهل ومن ناحية أخرى يعقدها.

في ضوء ذلك، كان من المثير للاهتمام أن نرى في مجموعة الواتس اب التابعة لنادي المسنين في “دار الهوى” الصورة التالية والتي تشيد بالهاتف “الغبي” وافتقاره إلى القدرات:

[1] “دار الهوى” هي اسم مستعار وكذلك أسماء الذين تمت مقابلتهن.

[2] Lev-On, A., Brainin, E., Abu-Kishk, H., Zilberstein, T., Steinfeld, N., Naim, S. (2019) Narrowing the gap: Characterization of participants, short- and long-term effects of participation in LEHAVA program (To narrow the digital gap in Israeli society, in Hebrew).

[3] Gordon, C., Al Zidjaly, N., & Tovares, A. V. (2017). Mobile phones as cultural tools for identity construction among college students in Oman, Ukraine, and the US. Discourse, Context & Media, 17, 9-19.

China’s social credit system: The Chinese citizens perspective

XinyuanWang9 December 2019

Please note: this is the full version of an article that is set to appear in the Conversation this week. This longer version is aimed at those interested in reading more about the topic.

The Social Credit System: Current Context

There has recently been a considerable amount of media coverage of the Chinese social credit system. This tends to be heated and unequivocally negative, as a kind of manifestation of China as 1984.

My recent 16-month on-the-ground anthropological research explains the reasons why some ordinary Chinese members of the public welcome the system*.

Although critics often see the system as an intrusive state surveillance apparatus, there is a perception among the Chinese population that this is a national project to boost public morality, fight fraud and other crimes and generally fix the nationwide crisis of trust gripping the country.

Chances are that before reading this, you will have heard of the social credit system and may even know one or several things about it. Originally proposed in 2014 and set to be rolled out nationwide against a self-imposed deadline of 2020, the system has been described by the South China Morning Post as China’s “most ambitious project in social engineering since the Cultural Revolution”. The aim is for the national system, once fully functional, to allocate a social credit score to members of the public based on their social, economic or other activities and deeds. With the so-called ‘red-list’ and ‘blacklist’, the aim is to effectively regulate both the behaviour of private citizens as well as that of businesses. The social credit system (Shehui xinyong tixi in Mandarin) will leverage ‘Big Data’ including geolocation, purchasing history, social media content, and footage from CCTVs equipped with facial recognition technology (already in use in several first-tier Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai). Given China’s poor record of data security, it is understandable that commentary around the issue is largely negative, with the system having been called an ‘Orwellian system controlling virtually every facet of human life’ or likening it to a dystopian episode of the series Black Mirror.

Given this context, I want to shed some light on some of the concerns and myths surrounding the issue of shehui xinyong (social credit) system. I recently came back from doing ethnographic research for the UCL’s ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’ project, which involved 16 months of living in in Shanghai (from late 2017 to 2019). During my time there, I found that positive perceptions of the social credit system among ordinary Chinese people were more prevalent than negative ones. Some welcomed the introduction of the shehui xinyong system while others were indifferent, and a significant number could see its benefits. How can we explain this extreme discrepancy in perception and attitude?

To take a step back, there is of course the factor of how big issues such as this are discussed in China versus how they are discussed outside of China, which can differ significantly due to factors like censorship. It is not unusual for issues about China to develop into a more heated discussion outside of China. As the old Chinese saying goes: ‘The flower tree planted inside the wall, has its blossom seen outside the wall’. Nowadays, ‘the wall’ in question has certainly been upgraded to version 2.0 in the form of the ‘Great Firewall’. The case of the social credit system is different however – we are not just talking about groups of dissidents wanting to bypass things, but something that may soon concern every single citizen’s everyday life.

Chinese citizens are not unaware of the massive amounts of personal data being collected ‘smartly’ (in real time and connecting many different elements such as buying history and geolocation) and the consequences of poor data security have not gone unaddressed either – see the recent public outcry with regards to the ‘deepfake’ app ‘Zao’ (a convincing face-swapping app that can insert anyone’s face into videos, TV shows and other media after uploading a single photograph). In the context of China being a country where ‘Smile to Pay’ facial recognition systems are used for payment (Alipay), it is understandable that this would deepen fraud concerns.

To sum up, although factors like censorship might have been the reason for the conversation not being as heated inside China, it does not seem to account for the way ordinary Chinese people praise the social credit system even in private and informal talks among friends.

Flyover in Shanghai. Photo by Xinyuan Wang (CC BY)

China’s crisis of trust

Living in China is tiring…you have to be vigilant and always on-guard against others, so you don’t fall into pits which are everywhere.”

Mr. Zhu, in his 40s, explains his reluctance to let his mother use a smartphone – she may fall prey to online scammers. He is not alone in worrying about what is seen as an intensifying crisis of public morality and a crisis of trust crisis that manifests through  everything from rising numbers of fraud cases, to widely publicised scandals in the country’s food safety and pharmaceutical industries.

The question of who to trust, and social trust more broadly is one that is pertinent to every modern society, not just China. Although the idea of someone being ‘trustworthy’ (chengxin) has long existed in the Chinese traditional moral system, it is widely believed this was fundamentally damaged in the past 50 years, starting with Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), now seen as a period characterised by the ‘breakdown of public morality’.  A turbulent period characterised by families turning on each other and being forced to denounce any friends or family members deemed counter-revolutionary, the Cultural Revolution has also had the effect of eroding the concept of chengxin and therefore also mutual trust over time. Erosion of social trust during and following periods of political turmoil is of course also not unique to China.

In addition, back when China was an agricultural society, a person’s social role was relatively fixed, meaning those who came in contact with them were more certain about whether they could trust them, given that the interaction happened within a clear network of social relations. The Chinese concept of guanxi (loosely translated as social relation) doesn’t only refer to social connections but is a more sophisticated concept that refers to a trusted social relation in which endorses an individual’s value. Risk management based on guanxi was confronted with unprecedented challenges as a result of fast-paced urbanisation, market-orientated economic reforms as well as massive domestic migration over the past thirty years. The fact that these enormous social and economic changes followed political upheavals political upheavals has massively contributed to the current trust crisis in China, where a large part of the population feels that they are ‘uncertain’ about whether to trust people, with a significant number also seeing themselves as victims of fraud. So severe is this nationwide crisis of trust that even President Xi reportedly believes China is “losing its moral compass”.

Let us take another example: 35-year-old Mrs. Liu was one of my research participants, and the mother of a new-born. While searching for a full-time, live-in nanny to take care of her baby due to her mother being unable to take care of him because of ill health, she found herself deeply troubled by the stories she was hearing about live-in nannies:

I have been told so many bad stories about those live-in nannies, from stealing to abuse… nowadays very few locals are willing to do the job. Rural migrant workers are not trustworthy, many of them have low suzhi (human quality) without any credit. They are here in a big city, nobody can tell where they come from and where they have been or what they have done. Everything can be faked, fake ID, fake personal stories, I have even heard of domestic agencies helping workers fake a whole ‘package’ of information. If something wrong happens, they can just move to a different place, and nobody will know.

In the end, following her friends’ suggestions, Mrs. Liu installed secret monitors at home to test different nannies and ended up hiring the one whose behaviour was most trustworthy when she thought nobody was looking.

As Mrs. Liu says, there are many cases of fraud and scams where the victim does not get compensated for the crime perpetrated, and the offender can simply move to another province or start a business in a different industry, with little trace of who they were in the past, and having faced no consequences. The national blacklist, one of the central elements of the proposed social credit system, is supposed to remedy this. People also believe that a quantified credit score can help mediate or settle legal settlement of economic disputes. In China, it is not unusual for lawbreakers to fail to pay debts or fines, or in some cases even to issue an apology to an injured party. In cases where the set fines are not seen as punitive enough, and the crime is too minor to lead to imprisonment, there seems to be no other form of redress, leading to a vacuum which some think can be filled by the credit system. Blacklisted citizens are penalised by being prevented from buying plane or high-speed train tickets, staying in luxury hotels or getting personal loans. They are also not allowed to join the civil service, take senior jobs in state-owned firms or start companies in the food or drugs industries. It is reported that already today, more than 12 million people are on this blacklist and they have been denied more than 17 million plane tickets and 5 million high-speed train tickets.

Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that the social credit system can deter not only ‘unethical’ deeds such as scams or fraud, but also what are referred to as ‘uncivilised’ (anti-social) deeds.

Mr. Zhu says:

I can’t wait for the implementation of the social credit system, there will be less fraud for sure. Also, I think about those who play videos out aloud on public transport, those who jump queues, those who just dump shared bikes irresponsibly in the middle of the road… I bet they will behave themselves if they know their ‘bu wenming’ (uncivilized) actions will actually be recorded by high technology. Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?

Both Mr. Zhu and Mrs. Liu regard themselves as good citizens and believe only bad citizens should be worried about the credit system. As a popular Chinese aphorism goes, “The only way to prevent people from knowing what you did is not to do it at all in the first place”. In Mrs. Liu’s case, there is support for a social credit system that is pervasive and based on (sometimes secret) surveillance. The average person is clearly less concerned about giving up some privacy if this means a significantly higher degree of security and certainty.

The end justifies the means,” says Mr. Zhu.

The ‘imported’ modern credit system

A widespread belief in China which Mr. Zhu and many others uphold is that western society is ‘civilised’ (wenming) precisely due to its very own long-existing credit system. This is perpetuated by different myths and some invented stories which have tended to circulate in Chinese society. A typical such story would be:

An intelligent Chinese young woman is studying in a European country and while travelling, notices that there are no ticket barriers in place and tickets are rarely checked. Because transport is expensive, she decides to take advantage of this ‘loopholes’ and rides the train for free every time she needs to travel.  Although she gets caught a few times, most of the time she gets away with it and even feels smug about it. She finally graduates with great marks and starts jobhunting. Although she gets to the final interview stage on multiple occasions and the interviews go well, she seems to be unable to secure a job. When she asks an HR Manager for feedback on why she was not successful, she is told: “Both your CV and your performance in the interview have recommended you as the ideal candidate for the role. However, when we checked your individual credit record, we found that you have caught dodging train fares three times. Unfortunately, we have no confidence that you can be a good fit for our company, which values honesty above than anything else”.

There are many different versions of this story, from shorter versions appearing in print magazines to online articles. These differ only in the details – sometimes the protagonist is a man rather than a woman, and the setting of the story can either be a European country or the United States. Regardless of these minute details, the main message of the allegorical story remains the same – a capable person without credit has no chance of being successful in a Western or indeed any modern society where individual citizens carry their own verifiable credit history with them throughout their lives. These stories were becoming popular well before the announcement of the social credit system and during my field work in Shanghai, more than half of the research participants I spoke to confirmed their familiarity with these stories.

Mrs. Cai, a retired middle-school physics teacher in her 70s, is one of the citizens who has strong faith in the so-called credit system used in the West. Assuming that I, as a university staff member in London, must have a good score in the UK’s credit system, she even asked me to share some of my experience with her grandson who is planning to study in the UK. Although many people don’t have a clear picture of how exactly credit histories or scores are calculated or used in the West in general, there is a belief that there is a pervasive and all-encompassing credit system in place in developed countries, something that makes it easy to trust even strangers. The myth is not unrelated to the fact that financial credit scores were introduced to China in the 1980s, during a period of economic liberalisation, as a Western import, which makes the current social credit system a sort of  extended version of these in the imagination of some members of the public.

However, the deeper and underlying reason for the popularity of such myths lies in the fact that Chinese society has been seeking a model of moral guidance during a time of painful transition from an agricultural and collective society to a modern individualistic one (and therefore one where the previous methods of risk management and checking trustworthiness have disappeared). While the stories mentioned above may be false, they are simply the reflection of a commonly held imagination of the problem created by individualism and modernity in China as well as the emerging social expectation that individuals take full responsibility for and be judged by their deeds.

Life as credit

Having set the context and talked about why some citizens welcome the security promised by the credit system, it is important to mention that notions of responsibility and judgement are actually nothing new, being rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Although the structure and tech-facilitated implementation used by the social credit system may look very modern in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese citizens, the underlying logic of the system is actually in line with the deep-rooted cosmology of Chinese folk religion, itself influenced by Buddhism as well as Daoism.

Talking about issues of ethics and morality, people in China often refer to an old saying: ren zai zuo, tian zai kan (“people are doing things, the sky is watching”).This reflects a common belief shared by the Chinese that whatever you do on the earth, there is always a record of your good and bad deeds in the ‘sky’ (tian). Unlike the Christian God, the concept of tian is much ‘nebulous’ and less humanised and somewhat resembles the laws of nature (especially in the discourse of Daoism). Tian resembles the sky in that it is distant to the point that it has given up on the task of reconciling the human world with itself, but nevertheless knows about everyone’s deeds and thoughts. Tian therefore doesn’t judge ‘randomly’ – one can potentially create a good fate through good deeds.

As the anthropologist Rudolf Wagner[1] argues, traditionally, Chinese people view life itself as credit. In this case, the system of ‘karma points’ is simply the standardisation of the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers. One can earn points by doing good deeds, but these can also be easily squandered through bad ones.

The social credit system as it exists today, which is more like a patchy network of regional pilots and experimental projects, still has a long way to go before becoming a comprehensive system at a national scale which determines every aspect of a citizen’s life within a single score. One can obviously debate whether it is appropriate for the state to play this role of Tian, but the very acknowledgement of the fact that the social credit system neatly matches a fundamental understanding of the relationship between human beings, society and the universe helps us to understand why the popular response has so far not been what might have been expected.

 

* This article is based on a 16-month traditional ethnography on the use of digital devices such as smartphones in Shanghai. Ethnography tries to minimise artificial encounters, such as surveys and interviews, in favour of being present with people in their everyday lives. I estimate that I talked with around 500 people and there are 146 people I would have spent at least 15 hours with. Conversations about the social credit system came up naturally rather than through direct elicitation.

 

 

[1] Rudolf Wagner. 2014. Fate’s gift money: the Chinese case of coping with the asymmetry between man and fate. In Hagen, J. & Welker, M. Money as God. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 184-218.

 

 

What is a smartphone in Yaoundé?

SimonAwondo 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

A theory of a theory of the smartphone

DanielMiller19 November 2019

Source: unsplash.com/@freestocks

Currently I am involved in writing the final chapter of our collectively authored book called The Global Smartphone. This chapter proposes a series of theories of the smartphone, which is more or less the same as saying we are trying to answer the most basic question – what is a smartphone? The more we have studied the smartphone, the more we are convinced that there are unprecedented capabilities and consequences that require theory. We have to consider its intimacy, including its ability to learn about us and the degree to which we are able to reconfigure it. We also need to encompass its reach. Being a phone for voice calls is now such a small element of what a smartphone is today, that the very name phone may be misleading. What about everything else it has become? The theories proposed range from the way smartphones transform our sense of home to the nature of opportunism, all considered in relation to our 8 different fieldsites.

The problem in calling a chapter ‘A theory of the smartphone’ is that it suggests that we know what we mean by theory and that this is something that will positively contribute to our understanding and explanation of the smartphone. Yet it is not at all clear that theory is anything so positive. Theory in anthropology is clearly nothing like a theorem in science; mostly it is a meta-level of generalisation and abstraction, visualisation, comparison and conceptualisation. After surveying the results of 8 ethnographies on the use of smartphones, theory is helpful in understanding and explaining the results.

So theory is often essential, and there is plenty of good anthropological theorising around, but today theory in much of social science seems to be developing as a kind of fetish. Students or writers of journal papers are told they don’t have enough theory, as though having this thing theory is always beneficial and necessary and exists as a requisite quantity. In practice, some academics may then resort to relating their work to various established ‘theories’, most of which were originally devised with completely different aims in mind. They will feel they are expected to make reference to terms such as actor-network theory, the Anthropocene, ontology, or to the right theorists such as Foucault or Bourdieu or Butler.

When theory is used in this way, instead of enhancing anthropology the result is more like a betrayal. We have worked hard to develop local nuance, empathetic involvement with our research participants and insisted upon respecting their particular usage and perspective. Yet as soon as we are writing the theory section, there is a temptation to ditch all that sensitivity because when it comes to theory the claims are usually universalistic and without reference to any particular population. Despite the claim that anthropologists today care about decolonising the discipline, this use of theory tends to affirm imperial assertions of their superior understanding of the world. It is tempting to suggest that the primary purpose of this kind of fetishised theory has become (as one of those same theorists Bourdieu once suggested) the creation of fashionable and obfuscating jargon, which acts to create metropolitan elites who can consider themselves intellectuals precisely because most people have no idea what they are talking about. Theory may be one of the primary means by which the university works as a system for perpetuating class differences based on claims to esoteric knowledge.

Yet our book desperately needs theory, otherwise it is just the aggregate of parochial ethnographic studies. Local immersion is necessary, but at some point does need transcending if it is to make wider claims as to what smartphones are and help to explain the results.

Theory is also needed to encompass anything unprecedented about smartphones that was not captured by prior concepts. Smartphones really matter today, which means that it is necessary to make an academic contribution to the understanding of them. But how can we create such theory while simultaneously remaining critically self-conscious about all the pitfalls that come with the way theory may become a fetish?

This final chapter will be quite long, but that is partly because the theoretical contribution is spelled out in clear colloquial English that as many readers as possible can engage with. This means they can choose to disagree with it if they are not convinced by the evidence.  Secondly, in order to retain the links to the 8 different fieldsites, generalisability and abstraction are balanced with specificity and example.

Most of the theory that emerges from analytical work in widely comparing and generalising the evidence of smartphone use and consequence can then be used to understand and explain this evidence. It is not comprised primarily of discussions of established theory, though precedents and relevant arguments are acknowledged. To conclude, before constructing a theory of the smartphone, we perhaps need to reflect for a while on a theory of theory, as a means to (if you will excuse one jargon term), de-fetishize theory itself.

La alegría del grupo: conversación con una adulta mayor en la marcha más grande de Chile

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui18 November 2019

Desde el 18 de octubre Chile ha estado en un continuo estallido social. Todo comenzó con un reclamo de estudiantes por el aumento en las tarifas del metro, pero ello era apenas la punta del iceberg de una crisis mucho mayor. Numerosas protestas masivas en todo el país revelaron la tensión contenida, la intensa fragilidad subyacente a la aparente calma cotidiana del hasta entonces llamado “paraíso de América Latina”. Desde entonces, y hasta el momento de la redacción de este post, ha habido todos los días marchas y manifestaciones, no exentas de barricadas y saqueos –pero tampoco de brutales represiones, toques de queda incluidos. Entre los clamores de justicia social –mejorar salarios, educación, pensiones, y sistema estatal de salud, entre muchos otros– el más fuerte es el pedido de una nueva constitución, ya que la actual –aunque con varias modificaciones– es aquella sancionada durante el gobierno del dictador Augusto Pinochet en 1980.

Fig 1: Plaza Italia. La marcha más grande de Chile (Wikipedia Commons)

 

Fig. 2: Valeria (izq.), su amiga con la bandera de Chile (centro), bandera Mapuche (derecha).

Habiendo vivido aquí desde enero de 2018 –y en un país limítrofe casi toda mi vida–, experimenté, como muchos, un gran desconcierto ante tal estallido. Chile no era habitualmente conocido como un país de frecuentes o grandes manifestaciones. En esos primeros días de desconcierto recibí entonces un mensaje de WhatsApp de Valeria, una exalumna de los cursos de smartphone para adultos mayores que yo había impartido como voluntario durante un año. El mensaje era una foto en la que esta alumna entusiasta celebraba su cumpleaños número 81 participando con una amiga en una de las ‘marchas más grandes de Chile’. Así se han dado en llamar a las multitudinarias marchas a Plaza Italia –rebautizada por los manifestantes “Plaza de la Dignidad” (cambio que llegó inclusive fugazmente a Google Maps).  Le pedí entonces que nos encontráramos, ya que quería conocer su perspectiva sobre las movilizaciones y la situación actual del país. Yo recordaba bien la historia de Valeria: apenas tuvo lugar el golpe de estado en 1973, debió huir del país porque figuraba en una lista, ya que era periodista y estaba afiliada a un partido de izquierda. Luego de vivir veinte años en Gran Bretaña, pudo regresar a Chile a comienzos de los 90s. Acordamos encontrarnos unos días después en su departamento, cerca de la Plaza de Armas.

Llegando a la zona céntrica y comercial donde Valeria vive, se ven negocios cerrados, muchos para ser un sábado a la tarde, la mayoría de ellos con cortinas de metal. “Parece una zona de post guerra” dice Valeria, mientras me recibe en su departamento en el piso 13. Me cuenta que unas semanas antes había estado sin servicio de ascensor durante un fin de semana. Como necesitaba salir, intentó bajar por las escaleras y cayó por ellas. “Me di un porrazo bárbaro, ¡pero no me quebré!” –dice con alivio, casi alegre– aunque sí debieron suturarle algunas heridas en la cabeza y realizarle varias curaciones.

Mientras Valeria prepara el té, recorro con la mirada la sala de estar: algunas fotos en blanco y negro de su niñez en Valdivia, otras de sus años en Santiago, un mapa antiguo de Sudamérica, en una maceta un molino de viento con la Wenufoye –la bandera mapuche–, sobre la pared una pieza de macramé con la figura de un dragón alado –recuerdo de sus años de exilio en Gales–, sobre la mesa ratona de vidrio unas cajas de té junto a unas piezas de porcelana, un libro empezado y un control remoto de TV.

Valeria heredó este departamento de su familia. Ella cobra mensualmente un resarcimiento económico otorgado a ex–refugiados políticos. Ese resarcimiento es casi equivalente a una jubilación mínima, como la que cobran muchos adultos mayores en Chile. Tal como a esos muchos adultos mayores, con eso no le alcanza para vivir. Valeria logra llegar a fin de mes gracias a que no debe pagar arriendo y a algún dinero heredado de sus padres que administra cautelosamente.

Llega el té. Sobre la mesa, al alcance de la mano, Valeria tiene su smartphone. En tanto que periodista, está fascinada por las posibilidades de circulación de información que brinda este aparato. En el grupo de WhatsApp de los exalumnos del curso de smartphones Valeria es –o bien, era– de las más activas en reenviar videos, memes, información sobre eventos gratuitos para adultos mayores, y también opiniones políticas. Siempre había habido roces sutiles por cuestiones políticas en dicho grupo. En las últimas semanas los roces se tornaron fricciones, reflejando la polarización acerca de los hechos, que se puede percibir en otras redes sociales como Twitter. Algún integrante dejó el grupo de WhatsApp, la frecuencia de mensajes decayó, los de Valeria en particular. No se podría decir que Valeria es representativa en sus opiniones de la población chilena adulta mayor, pero tampoco se puede decir que nadie comparte sus ideas.

Las fake news están a la orden del día” advierte la veterana periodista mientras hurga algunas noticias entre sus numerosos grupos de WhatsApp. Descree en particular de la TV, a la que considera ya una fuente inaceptable para obtener información fidedigna. Prefiere la información que recibe por WhatsApp de parte de contactos en los que confía, y de los que asume chequean la información antes de enviarla, ya que varios son miembros del círculo de periodistas.

Aunque Valeria es cuidadosa en no establecer paralelismos entre distintas épocas y en más de una ocasión resalta que ella no vivió la dictadura –porque se tuvo que ir del país ni bien comenzó– la charla va como un péndulo entre viejas memorias y eventos de los últimos días. Recuerda algún ‘guanacazo’ (golpe de agua) que sufrió hace casi cincuenta años –en aquellos tiempos el camión hidrante se surtía con agua sucia del Mapocho– y rememora en particular el cuidado de los compañeros en esos momentos, el sentir la cercanía del grupo. También en estas marchas de ahora se siente cuidada, protegida. “Estos chicos distintos en cada momento nos rodeaban para protegernos de las bombas [lacrimógenas] con sus botellas con agua, nos guiaban –porque quedas ciega por el dolor– hacia espacios protegidos.”

En efecto, cuando en las marchas llega el gas lacrimógeno de los carabineros, se pueden ver muchos manifestantes ofrecer con el brazo en alto sus botellas con agua y bicarbonato de sodio, preparación que al rociarse en los ojos alivia el ardor.

De las marchas de hoy le sorprende la diversidad de reclamos junto con la casi nula identificación partidaria. En los 70s, según recuerda, los partidos políticos y las agrupaciones gremiales convocaban las marchas “(…) y los estudiantes universitarios nos sumábamos a ellas. Las banderas eran las oficiales y también había cierta uniformidad en las fotografías. Durante las marchas se oían las consignas políticas y gritos de los partidos. Uno que era coreado por todos era ‘el que no salta es momio’ y que ahora lo he escuchado con la variante de ‘paco’ [carabinero]. Tanto pañuelos como camisetas eran oficiales: color y leyenda. Tendían las juventudes de los partidos a desfilar en bloque.

La dinámica de las marchas actuales le ha impresionado agradablemente, sobre todo por la alegría que nota en ellas. “Estos jóvenes llevan nuestras banderas con una gran diferencia: incorporan un maravilloso toque lúdico. Nosotros éramos tan graves, serios…”. Me quedo pensando en el ‘llevan nuestras banderas’ que amalgama pasado y presente, mientras Valeria me sigue contando que nunca había visto coreografías o danzas en una marcha, que eso le fascinó, y que a ellos nunca se les hubiera ocurrido.

El péndulo de la conversación vuelve al pasado. “Vi los aviones desde acá” dice Valeria, señalando al balcón. En ese mismo departamento vivió el golpe del 73, en el que el ejército bombardeó el Palacio de la Moneda. Varios amigos la llamaron por teléfono: ella estaba en una lista, debía tener cuidado, debía quedarse adentro. Valeria, sin embargo, urdió una simple estrategia para poder caminar libremente por la ciudad, a pesar de estar declarada “en fuga permanente”. Se vistió con uno de sus más elegantes vestidos, con su mejor sombrero, se puso pulseras y aros de oro, y al hombro una cartera de marca. “¡Parecía un árbol de navidad!” dice entre carcajadas. Absolutamente ningún puesto de control le pidió documentos: una mujer tan elegante no encajaba visualmente en el perfil de lo considerado peligroso. “Yo conozco bien a mi país…”, dice enarcando las cejas con un tono socarrón, a mitad de camino entre el cinismo y la resignación. Me pregunto si quizás la estrategia aún hoy funcionaría.

Valeria insiste, a pesar de los vaivenes y las anécdotas emparentadas, que los tiempos son muy distintos, precaución epistemológica con la cual no es difícil estar de acuerdo. Sin embargo, se percibe en sus palabras que algo que siente ahora lo sintió en aquel entonces, pero es difícil entender qué es. La respuesta llegaría unos días después.

Fig 3. Gas lacrimógeno. Campus San Joaquín. Foto de Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY).

Luego de algo más de cuatro horas de conversación, a las que este breve recuento no hace justicia, nos despedimos. Días después, en ocasión de una manifestación en el Campus San Joaquín de la Universidad Católica, donde trabajo, carabineros reprime con balas de goma y gas lacrimógeno. Tomo entonces algunas fotos que luego le hago llegar por WhatsApp. Una imagen en particular le gusta, aquella en la que se ve la estatua de un Cristo con los brazos abiertos entre el humo del gas lacrimógeno. Valeria  responde:

El Cristo indefenso, pacifico envuelto en los gases es como una alegoría. Figura potente. Mi corazón está con los estudiantes que luchan por sus padres, abuelos, ¿y cuyo escudo es qué? Sus ideales. Lucha física desigual; la fuerza de estos chicos está en la solidaridad y en sus ideales de justicia. Son rara avis entre tanto individualismo, egoísmo. En todas las marchas que he ido siento la alegría del grupo.

 

Facilitating nutritional health through the smartphone in rural Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk7 November 2019

Communal eating in Tosa-cho. Photo by Laura Haapio-Kirk (CC BY).

In September I received the good news that a joint application I made for the newly established Osaka-UCL Partnership Funding was successful. Along with Danny Miller on the UCL side, I teamed up with Dr Yumi Kimura from Osaka University who works on nutrition from a public health perspective in Japan, Myanmar, and the Himalayas. The project also involves Lise Sasaki, who previously studied medical anthropology at UCL. Our proposed collaborative project joins my ongoing anthropological research on smartphone usage among older adults in Japan with Dr Kimura’s public research on nutrition, to develop a mobile health intervention which is sensitive to local usage of mobile phones and attitudes towards health.

The project will take place in my rural fieldsite of Tosa-Cho, a town of roughly 4,000 inhabitants, in Kōchi Prefecture, South West Japan. This rural mountainous area is remote, with the nearest city (Kōchi City) being a 1-hour drive away. Rural towns in Japan are most in need of technological innovation to deal with the growing number of elderly people who are living often alone and in need of care. We know from our ethnographic research that mobile health applications are seldom used by older adults in this town, despite smartphone usage being fairly high. This indicates that there is great potential for digital health interventions but these have to adapt to the way local people are already using their smartphones, rather than encouraging them to download new apps.

Sharing food and conversation. Photo by Lise Sasaki (CC BY).

Over the course of our fieldwork, we have seen this trend across several field sites ranging from Brazil to Ireland: although mHealth initiatives may focus on changing behaviours through the use of native apps built specifically for improving health outcomes, we think making use of the ubiquitous platforms already in common use amongst the target populations could offer significant benefits. We plan to examine the creative ways that older adults are already using common smartphone applications for health and wellbeing, and will explore how these everyday applications could be used for purposes of a nutritional intervention, for example meal tracking using the application Line, or the facilitation of social eating in order to reduce isolation among older adults.

We will present our findings to doctors and health researchers at a symposium in 2020 organised by the UNESCO Chair in Global Health and Education, held at Osaka University by Prof Beverley Yamamoto. We also want to share our findings with the local population of Tosa-cho, so we plan to run a community workshop where we will demonstrate ways for people to use their smartphone to benefit their health and wellbeing. We are hoping that this research and accompanying policy report will reach beyond Kōchi prefecture and will be shared more broadly to advise on digital health policy across Japan. As older adults adopt the smartphone at increasing rates, the potential for mHealth to mitigate some of the health challenges that come with ageing is promising, but initiatives must adapt to already existing behaviours if they are going to have a chance to be sustained.

 

 

“Iconographies for Retirement” – By Pauline Garvey

GeorgianaMurariu31 October 2019

Author: Pauline Garvey

As part of the ASSA project, we are developing mHealth (mobile health) initiatives in order to address the needs of our populations. In our two field sites in Dublin we are engaged in developing social prescribing sites that can be accessed online, on smartphones, and as hard copies for those who are not comfortable with digital media.


Figure 1: One Dublin-based social prescribing site that we are developing.

Social prescribing is based on the recognition that a person’s health is improved by the degree she or he is embedded in social networks and cultural activities (see my blog December 2018). In many cases it involves a GP or counsellor writing a ‘prescription’ for a patient to attend a social activity that will embed a person in their community and enhance their health in mental, emotional and physical ways. In one pilot study, the Irish Health Service Executive described social prescribing as a service that:

“…helps to link you with sources of support and social activities within your community. Social Prescribing is for you if you feel that you need some support to mind your health and wellbeing, you feel isolated, stressed, anxious or depressed, you simply feel you need the service.”

This approach to health has been subject to quite a bit of media attention in Ireland this year and has been subject to several pilot studies nationally and internationally.[i] As part of this rising tide, there is now an annual international conference dedicated to social prescribing which is being developed in diverse countries from UK to the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Finland.

The question for our team is firstly how can we develop a social prescribing site that enhances the lives of our research respondents? Secondly, how can an anthropological approach make a positive contribution to social prescribing more generally? Our approach is very much coloured by our methodology of anthropological ethnography and participant observation. This means that our insights emerge as the result of immersive participation in our field sites, building on the 16-month ethnographic fieldwork already completed. In developing a social prescribing website, we plan on continuing to work with our research respondents to understand how they use and engage with initiatives such as these.

The first issue emerged early when our informants expressed doubt about the iconography used to denote retirement.

Figure 2: One of the icons that our respondents objected to

For the people we work with, this icon seemed to capture an ageist expectation of what retirement should be rather than their actual experience of it. For example, one of my respondents jogged the 30 km home on the day he retired. Although this man’s level of fitness is not what I would describe as ‘average’, his perspective on remaining active is more in keeping with our respondents than the icon above (see figure 2).

As a result, we set about working with students from computer science in Maynooth University to create something more appropriate. As we work on developing iconography that better encapsulates the experience of our respondents, we realise that this is an ongoing iterative process that we will constantly revise as we launch our websites and work with our respondents in the years to come (see figure 1). Two alternative icons we are currently considering with respondents can be seen below.

 

Figure 3: Alternative retirement icons that we are currently considering with our research respondents.

 

References:

[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/what-is-social-prescribing-and-how-it-can-benefit-your-health-1.3840354

 

‘If you are old, you invented the Internet’: A tribute to a senior geek

Marilia Duque E SPereira22 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

 

Digital Social Participation: Cases from Milan

ShireenWalton9 September 2019

Photo (CY BY) Shireen Walton

Social participation is among the most significant factors linked to health and wellbeing later in life. As a variety of studies have shown, loneliness (both social and emotional [i]) is one of the most pressing issues of ageing. Individuals, of all ages and backgrounds seek roles, a sense of belonging and purpose, but these needs becomes particularly pertinent following retirement, in ‘empty nest’ contexts of family members having moved away, or in conditions of limited physical mobility

One question we have been exploring in the ASSA project is what might be the significance of digital social participation, or rather, social participation that is facilitated by smartphones and digital practices. My ethnographic research in one inner-city neighbourhood in Milan reveals how smartphone practices play a significant role in facilitating social participation amongst a range of individuals and groups, helping to combat issues associated with loneliness and physical/social isolation, via on– and offline practices.

To illustrate with a couple of examples.

Ugo, 75 is a retired engineer lives with his wife, Anna, 70, a retired schoolteacher, on the 5thfloor of an apartment building where they have lived for the last 30 years. Due to a severe spinal condition that affected the use of his legs, Ugo hardly ever leaves the house. A combination of technologies, the Internet, historical fiction books, and daily interactions with his wife make up his social world where he spends the days in a wheelchair at home. From the moment he wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed, Ugo is connected to the Internet via the house WiFi. Ugo uses his smartphone primarily for communication with the wider social world – he wears his smartphone round his neck in a well-worn, knitted phone case that Anna had knitted for him a few Christmasses ago. Through WhatsApp, Ugo enjoys receiving photographs from family and friends. At one point, Ugo was added to a WhatsApp group of the apartment building that was set up by one of his neighbours, a Peruvian woman called Angela, as a communication porthole for residents of the building. Before long the group transformed ‘from below’ into a forum of sharing, posting, commenting, celebrating, via emojis, memes, screenshots, even poems. While Ugo is not active overly himself on the group, the messages he receives on his phone, in addition to wider notifications such as the news, bring him a certain pleasure throughout the day, making him feel connected to a certain buzz of being-in-the-world where his physical conditions had otherwise gradually removed him from.

Ugo also uses WhatsApp to communicate with his (family) doctor.  In one instance, Ugo had a rash that had developed on one of his legs. The first thing he thought of to do was to take a photograph of it on his smartphone and send the image to his doctor on WhatsApp. This led to a kind of informal digital consultation between the two. “We are close”, Ugo explained. “He (the doctor)is like a son or nephew to me. With WhatsApp we are like family – I know he is never far away if I need anything, which comforts me. From time to time he will ask if he can pop round to see me on his way home.”

In a different example, Rosalba, 69, originally from the region of Abruzzo in central Italy is a retired secondary school teacher. She lives with her husband (75), a retired electrician, and their dog. Rosalba found the adjustment to full-time retirement a difficult transition, and missed the sociality of her professional role and buzz of school life. She soon sank into daily routines within the home; household chores, shopping, cooking for her and her husband, a few outings. But without real purpose, Rosalba found herself drifting through the days and weeks. Before long, her home space became a kind of benign ‘prison’, and she found herself feeling suffocated by emotional isolation and loneliness. One of Rosalba’s former colleagues from her school who she sees regularly at the supermarket recommended that she should come along to a women’s choir that meets once a week in the neighbourhood. Rosalba found aspects of the choir refreshing and stimulating; the multi-cultural and cross-generational aspect resembled what she had experienced at work at the school. The choir’s WhatsApp group, in particular, was extremely active. The women share photos, videos, song lyrics, emojis full of hearts, flowers, shooting stars, laughs, cries, thumbs up and down, amid a broad repertoire of digital-visual expressions of emotion. After a year, Rosalba found that she had discovered a new lease of life through the choir and its associated fora of sociality, including the WhatsApp group. The stream of messages that flows between the women and the immersive, ‘affective community’ it forms, comforts Rosalba in her day-to-day life, and she became to feel less alone throughout the days. Retirement now feels like something Rosalba can participate in and even shape, as she begins to carve out spaces for herself and her need for collectivity. She has developed her singing voice in expressing powerful and politically and emotionally-loaded lyrics of defiance, human solidarity, sisterhood, in a range of languages and dialects, and this empowerment appears to have seeped into other aspects of her life, including how she participates more actively in her social relationships, and in trying out new hobbies such as walking groups. Ageing and retiring with smartphones has been a gradual but creative and rejuvenating experience for Rosalba, and digital communications have facilitated and boosted her social participation.

For others in the neighbourhood, digital social participation can be an important way of participating in community life for other reasons. Angela (45) is from Lima, Peru. She lives with her husband and their 12-year old son in the same apartment block as Ugo mentioned above, working as a part-time teaching assistant in one of the local public schools. Angela describes her life with her family as ‘quiet and closed’. She is not particularly sociable or confident in public settings, and some of this she attributes to a difficult background and upbringing in the low-income neighbourhood her family lived in in Lima. She is particularly concerned about street crime and violence and the safety of her son growing up in Milan. Although she is reasonably active during the day between her job, the food shopping, and taking care of the family at home, Angela avoids going out at night. Through digital forms of engagement however, Angela has enhanced her social participation in the community in a manner she feels comfortable with – from the comfort and safety of her home. She participates enthusiastically on the apartment block WhatsApp group she set-up for neighbours in the building – sharing friendly messages and greetings on festive days – and is a member of various groups tied to her son’s school such as parents’ groups on WhatsApp and Facebook, which keeps her both informed and feeling involved. When one of her Peruvian friends recommended a weekly women’s sewing group, Angela joined and became an active participant on the WhatsApp group. The social worlds contained within Angela’s smartphone constitute some of the main sources of Angela’s present social life. Her social participation is both offline and online, but is most frequently played out via the smartphone.

Engaging socially in digital forms can be important in a variety of contexts and at any age. Although the politics and practices of inclusion/exclusion via digital practices are far from simple matters, requiring delicate critical and contextual attention, my research in Milan highlights how smartphone-facilitated sociality can modulate experiences of loneliness, isolation and/or social exclusion amongst a range of people, including older adults and migrants in the city, forming an overall central part of how socialities are crafted in this context.

References:

[i]  De Jong Gierveld, J. & Van Tilburg, T. (2006). A 6-item scale for overall, emotional and social loneliness: Confirmatory tests on survey data. Research on Aging, Vol. 28 (5): 582-598.

 

Applying ethnography to digital health aims; challenges and opportunities

Charlotte EHawkins10 August 2019

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

Photo (CC BY) Charlotte Hawkins

How can a holistic ethnographic understanding of ageing experiences, particularly related to health mobile phone engagement, contribute to an mHealth initiative and improve the accessibility of health services and information through mobile phones? This applied challenge in the ASSA project has initiated partnerships with digital health practitioners in most of our fieldsites – in particular, with collaborators working within existing phone practices. This aligned with our early finding across the fieldsites, that mobile phones are commonly used for health purposes, but through communication on apps evidently most popularly used, such as calls, Facebook and WhatsApp. In Kampala, I worked with The Medical Concierge Group (TMCG), a medical call centre founded by Ugandan medics to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of healthcare. They offer a 24-hour toll-free phone line, SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook access to a team of doctors and pharmacists and have 50,000 interactions each month. At the time of fieldwork, they were in the process of researching the development a psychiatric call line, or ‘telepsychiatry’. This early stage of service development meant that TMCG were interested in and able to accommodate holistic ethnographic insight in their considerations.

Ethnographic insights included systematic information on 50 low income research participants’ existing mobile phone and mobile health practices as relevant to accessing TMCG services. For example, access to airtime and data is intermittent, with a tendency towards regular low-cost subscriptions. This suggests that calling or using the internet could be inaccessible to users at least once a day. Furthermore, 54% of participants had made health-related calls in the last month, and 27% of their previous three remittances were for health purposes, which confirmed an existing propensity to use mobile phones to support family health – but only across their own network of friends and relatives. Interviews with 50 respondents encountered during the wider ethnography also offered TMCG feedback on mental health perceptions, experiences and help-seeking preferences. These interviews were predominantly with older people, mostly older women, who would not typically opt to engage with research on mental health, and yet who represent an advisory position within their family or community. This also included interviews with health workers, including psychiatric clinicians at the local government hospital, and private health clinicians within the fieldsite. Research showed that treatment for mental illness was perceived to be unavailable, costly, or stigmatised. Often respondents said they prefer to handle mental health problems through prayer or counselling within their community, with hospital treatment sought only once problems become severe. This suggested that optional, confidential, accessible or community-based mental health services could be useful for low-income people in Kampala, if advertised accordingly.

Initially, the wide-reaching interview responses were considered thematically, from causality to treatment seeking, and condensed into representative quotes for presentation back to the team. More recently, alongside the team, these themes have been expanded to inform a draft publication in psychiatric journals, which TMCG hope to use seek further funding. We also hope to further disseminate findings in accessible formats amongst other digital and mental health service providers in Kampala. As familiar to many applied medical anthropologists, translating interpretive, subjective and relativist ethnographic information within positivist, objective and universalist medical paradigms brings challenges, such as risking that complex human experiences and perceptions are reduced into ‘practical’ or digestible concepts (Kleinman, 1982; Scheper-Hughes, 1990). However, this assumes that the health practitioners and their discipline are not open to understanding their patient’s everyday realities, which has not been the case in this instance, perhaps reflecting a particular affinity between anthropology of digital health – appropriation of phone based health services is entirely dependent on their relevance and usefulness for their target populations.

The on-going collaborative process has also highlighted what anthropology might learn from the research and writing processes of health disciplines, for example: ensuring findings are widely disseminated and thus accessibly written; avoiding anecdotal, emotive or biased claims; and ensuring that quantitative statements, “many people said xxx”, are qualified and backed-up. The collaboration has  also confirmed that the flexibility of anthropological research and richness of qualitative insight potentially has much to offer health programmes, to ensure their contextual relevance. In ethnographic research, we have the privilege of time, which comes with in-depth insight, and familiarity with the community – time and understanding which we can offer usefully to other audiences. The data provided can perhaps confirm a hunch of a practitioner from the area but can also surprise them. When documented and publicised, the data encourages practitioners to both tailor their approach, but also allows them to share the specific requirements of their target population, encouraging others to do the same – or hopefully even to offer funding to support them.

 

REFERENCES

Scheper-Hughes, N. Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology. (1990) Social Science & Medicine 30 (2): 189-97.

Kleinman A. The teaching of clinically applied medical anthropology on a psychiatric consultation-laison service. In Clinically Applied Anthropo1ogy: Anthropologists in Health Science Settings (Edited by Crisman N. and Maretzki T.) Reidel. Dordrecht, 1982.