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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Thoughts inspired by exhibitions in Shanghai

XinyuanWang1 February 2019

As one of China’s major cultural centers, Shanghai boasts a wealth of cultural events. Many locals, especially the younger generation, often go to theatres, galleries and museums. During my stay in Shanghai, beside curating the exhibition for my research participants, I also go to exhibitions on a regular basis in order to keep pace with the ever-changing cultural landscape of the metropolis. Different exhibitions attract different groups of people in Shanghai, therefore going to exhibitions also allows me to observe my fellow exhibition goers in an organic way. Every single exhibition which I went to was very interesting as I could always enjoy watching people even if the exhibition per se may by any chance fail me.

For example, the 2018 Shanghai book fair attracted a quite wide range of audience. Through the lens of my research concern upon the use of smartphones, it was also curious to see that in the sea of books some were quite happy to sit on the steps checking their smartphones and a grandfather using two smartphones to take photos of his grandchildren.

2018 Shanghai book fair

Checking smartphones in the sea of books

Taking photos with two smartphones

On the West bund art expo, I met probably the most international dwellers in shanghai who also attribute to the unique temperament of Shanghai.

West bund art Expo

Whilst an amateur painting exhibition at a community library attracted many retired people from the neighborhood. I happen to spot a lady in her 60s showing the exhibition via the WeChat video call to her family with the help of her friend.

Recently, to my surprise, I happened to walk into a pop-up exhibition about the social changes in the past 40 years (1978-2018) of ‘Chinese economic reform and opening up’ (gai ke kai fang) in the middle of an underground station. With a variety of daily life materials as well as typical scenarios of social interactions, this exhibition vividly represents what has happened in ordinary people’s daily lives and what people are longing for. (Check the short video of this exhibition)

A pop-up exhibition about the social changes in China in the past 40 years

A pop-up exhibition in the middle of an underground station in Shanghai tells you about the social changes in the past 40 years of ‘Chinese economic reform and opening up’, where the techonology plays a significant role. Filmed by researcher Xinyuan Wang

Posted by Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing on Friday, 1 February 2019

In the first section, an old-school bike represents the most advanced household transportation in the first decade of the reform era. Two semi-transparent figures, being father and son, imply a scenery associated with the old bike – the father is giving a lesson of how to ride a bike, the boy is wobbling about on the bike, asking: “Daddy, can you buy me a bike once I can ride it? Oh no please don’t let me go, I will lose the balance anytime!”

Beside the parent-child interaction, there were household items including an old sewing machine, a radio, a fridge and a TV set. The caption of this section read “My understanding of happiness started from the moment of our whole family watching TV together”. For long, the TV set has had great significance in Chinese households and the place where the TV set is located is where the family spends quality time together.

As shown in the neighboring showcase, more technology entered into people’s daily life, among them the landline telephone was the most important one. To have a household landline installed was regarded as a great honor in the late 1980s as only the public institutes had such privilege before. The caption of this section reads “For years the landline telephone had been my pride, and since then I always used the landline number as my password for my bank cards.”

Many of my research participants share the similar memories displayed at the exhibition that one has to queue at public telephone booths or visit friends who were privileged to have household landlines to make a phone call. In front of the showcase, a little boy asked his grandpa what is the landline telephone, the grandpa answered, “it is called landline telephone (zuo ji), kind of mobile phone before you were born!” Here the future is used to define the past.

Little Boy: what’s that? Grandfather: It is called landline, kind of mobile phone before you were born

The next highlighted landmark of daily technology is OICQ in 1990s along with PC. OICQ soon changed its name to QQ, and even nowadays QQ is still one of the most widely used social media platforms in China. The conversation between a school boy and a girl in the showcase is – boy: “I have got 50 friends on OICQ, and one of them even come from HuHeHaoTe (a city in northern China” Girl:” Please help me to register a QQ account!”

For years, QQ has occupied the PC screen of millions of Chinese people. The use of QQ also gradually spread from Chinese cities to rural China. Six years ago, when I conducted my PhD field work in a small factory town in southeast China, QQ was still the most widely used social media among rural migrant workers.

In terms of the digital device, as one of my research participants put it “In the past decade, the screen has become smaller, while the function has become stronger”. After a series of mobile phone ‘evolutions’, by the beginning the fourth decade of the reform era, China has entered the age of the smartphone. With proliferation of the use of smartphones, more and more older people in China have adopted a new way of interpersonal communication with their family members.

As shown in the last section of the exhibition, in a well-equipped modern kitchen, a young person is cooking while having a video call with his parents, saying: “Mum, look, I can take care of myself. Those are what I just got from the food market. Daddy has high blood pressure, don’t let him drink too much! ” His mum said: “What worry us most is that you don’t eat properly when you live outside alone, having take-away for every meal.”

A passer-by in his 30s commented: “it is so true, my mum would nag so at least ten times a day!” and his friend remarked: “in my case, it’s my mum who will hold her smartphone while she was cooking, showing me all the nice food at home via video call.”

From the old-school bike to landline telephone, from the offline family time in front of the TV set to the online family time facilitated by the digital technology, a small pop-up exhibition captures those subtle but significant material and moments of the daily lives of ordinary Chinese in the past forty years.

On top of it, located in the middle of one of the busiest underground junctions in Shanghai, this exhibition manages to reach the widest audience as possible – I have never seen so many older people and young kids in other exhibitions. Furthermore, I was most impressed by the way this exhibition gets all kinds of people involved, and such willingness and skill to disseminate knowledge is also something our project can learn from.