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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.

 

 

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.

 

The place of WhatsApp in the ecology of care

Marilia Duque E SPereira26 August 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Dr. Gusso uses WhatsApp Business at Amparo Health Clinic (Photo: Marilia Duque)

In 2015 a PwC research report suggested that the Brazilian m-health market would reach $ 46.6 million while a GSMA report forecasted that 45.7 million Brazilians would benefit from mobile health projects (see here). In 2017 the scenario was even more optimistic. According to Statista, Brazil was expected to become the largest m-health market in Latin America with revenues of around $ 0.7 billion. These numbers explain the impressive amount of m-Heath startups and startup Incubators I’ve seen in Sao Paulo (see Eretz.bio, for example). But they don’t explain why after 7 months of fieldwork I still couldn’t find the people who are actually using these m-health apps. Instead, I found an intensive use of WhatsApp among my informants, filling the gaps in communication and making a huge impact on the ecology of care which we address in this project.

For example, every day early in the morning, Ms. M (54) sends a good morning message through WhatsApp to four lady-friends older than her. “It is like volunteer work because I know they are lonely and that message will make them happy and socially connected”, she explained. Ms. D (66) also starts her day sending a WhatsApp message. But in her case, the message is sent to her only daughter who lives in France, as a sign that she spent the night well. She is supposed to send this message every day before 10am otherwise her daughter will call a friend to check on her. “Some people say my daughter abandoned me, but the truth is that she is closer than many of my friends’ children who just live nearby”.

That is the same in the case of Dr. J., a physician who works in Sao Paulo and uses WhatsApp to take care of his 93 year-old father. After having a stroke, his father moved to Dr. J. brother’s house located two hours away.  Dr. J. created a WhatsApp group to talk to his brother and to his father’s caregiver. He gives her all the instructions she needs, and she updates him with information such as what his father ate, how he slept, how much water he drank, how much he exercised and how he was feeling. After a few months, he could tell how improved his father was and he explained how WhatsApp helped him and his family to feel safe and engaged.

Dr. K. also uses WhatsApp to provide care at distance. He works in my field site as a generalist providing ambulatory care to old people. WhatsApp allows him to give orientation about what to do when patients don’t feel well, and he can also ask them to go to his office if necessary. In many cases, he said, he can solve problems providing only care at distance. Dr. K. believes that the simple fact that the patients know they can use WhatsApp to contact him makes them feel safe and comfortable.

WhatsApp is also helping clinics to manage people’s health. Amparo Health, for example, is a clinic that uses WhatsApp Business to connect patients to doctors. The patient pays a monthly fee to have access to low-cost exams and to specialists like ophthalmologists, gynecologists, dermatologists, nutritionists and psychologists. What is new here is that all procedures and exams are coordinated by a generalist, who is available on WhatsApp. Dr. Gusso, the head physician at Amparo Health, explains that because the clinic business model is based on membership, they have no interest in demanding unnecessary exams or appointments. Doctors are paid by the hour and not by performance and that includes time to answer WhatsApp messages during the morning and afternoon. At the end of the day, he said, they are using WhatsApp to provide care at a distance, helping people to stay healthy, to feel safe and to save money. Prevent Senior, a health insurance company, also uses WhatsApp to make patients’ lives easier. In cases where treatments require on-going medication, patients can use WhatsApp to ask for new prescriptions. They can receive their prescriptions at home or they can go to the doctor office to get them, but with no need to schedule an appointment.

WhatsApp is the primary method of communication for 96% of Brazilians with access to smartphones. And among my informants older than 60 years old, that is also the app they use the most. Now imagine what can be achieved if WhatsApp features are explored to make the communication between health insurance companies, doctors, patients, caregivers, family and friends healthier too.

The digital divide in age-friendly Dublin

LauraHaapio-Kirk14 June 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey.

Age Action website[1]

 

Recognising that over the next 30 years the number of people in Ireland over the age of 55 will double and the number over 80 will quadruple, there are lots of initiatives dedicated to positive and active ageing in the capital city. In 2013 the Irish Department of Health published the National Positive Ageing Strategy which set out a ‘vision for an age-friendly society through the achievement of four national goals (participation, health, security and research)’[2]. Dublin City Council claims the city was the first capital in the world to adopt a city-wide approach to becoming age-friendly[3]. In order to do this the Dublin City Age Friendly Programme 2014-2019 tackles nine key areas that may negatively impact on older individuals[4]. Under a series of headings it commits to providing alternatives to sheltered housing (Home and Community); supporting older people’s engagement with social and community life in which they live (Social Economic and Political Life); helping people volunteer or work in their locality (Learn, Develop and Work); providing facilities to engage in sports and activities (Healthy and Active Living). It also aspires to make the public sphere more manageable for older people such as providing adequate seating and level footpaths (Outdoor Space and Buildings); ensuring that public transport is adequate for journeys that older people are taking and the pedestrian crossings are timed at the correct speed (Transport, Safety) and finally ensuring access to information, both online and off-line for older individuals (Information).

Over the course of my research I will look at some of these initiatives more closely, but for now I’m interested in exploring how people access information. It is here that the digital divide can be most striking: when smart and competent people find themselves grappling with digital technologies such as simple commands on smartphones and computers. For an ever-growing number of activities such as booking a flight or reserving a table at a restaurant one is required to do it online. One organisation that is working to combat digital exclusion is Age Action and I was interested to note that one route to signing up for computing courses is by filling out an online form![5]. What at first glance looks like a contradiction is in fact something quite different. The Age Action website is directed to friends and relatives because feeling excluded from digital media impacts whole families and networks of friends rather than solitary individuals. One’s place in a social network is continually reiterated through simple messaging such as checking in with kin or organising meet-ups, allowing people to demonstrate care as well as receive it. Of course the question remains, what about the people who need help getting started but have no one who will intervene of their behalf? For these, the digital divide remains an insurmountable barrier.

 

 

  1. https://www.ageaction.ie/how-we-can-help/getting-started-computer-training/sign-up
  2. http://www.dublincity.ie/agefriendlycity
  3. http://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/content/HousingAndCommunity/Community/Age%20Friendly%20Charter-English%20A2.pdf
  4. http://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/content/HousingAndCommunity/Community/Age%20Friendly%20Charter-English%20A2.pdf
  5. https://www.ageaction.ie/how-we-can-help/getting-started-computer-training/sign-up

Experiences of ageing: as diverse as the experiences of using a smartphone

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui11 June 2018

Photo (CC BY) Garry Knight

Conducting an urban ethnography in Santiago, Chile,  has so far involved looking for opportunities in which to meet people who would agree to share their experiences on ageing and on the role of the smartphone in their everyday lives. As the coordinator of this project, Daniel Miller, once said, ‘Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering […], which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something’.

I started, then, to volunteer as a teacher assistant at a cultural center for the elderly, helping out in two workshops on the usage of smartphones. This experience has been as rewarding as it is interesting. In four weekly meetings the students are taught the basics of smartphone usage: general settings (connecting to Wi-Fi networks, setting screen brightness, etc.), using the camera, WhatsApp and Google Maps. These very enthusiastic and engaged students do not represent the whole spectrum of relationships that the elderly have with the digital world.

In a recent study in the UK by the Centre for Aging Better and the Good Things Foundation on the usage of internet by people aged between 55 and 93, the researchers aimed at including three key groups: resistant non-users (people who do not use the internet and do not intend to do so), lapsed users (former users of the internet who had stopped going online) and current users (experienced users and also beginners). If we used the same categories in my field site, we could say that the students of the workshop would be in the third group.

Even though I am working with a limited sample of people and am in the early stages of fieldwork, it is remarkable how ethnography has already allowed me to perceive the complexity of the practices surrounding the smartphone and to question several taken for granted assumptions on the life experiences of the elderly.

One of the first things to notice here is the lack of homogeneity in the expectations of usage of smartphone: one lady wants to take HDR pictures to post later on Instagram, a man wants an app to scan QR codes he comes across in flyers, others want to use an app to measure glucose levels. In the same vein, the difficulties they encounter are also diverse: some might find it difficult to understand the difference between (paid) mobile data and (free) WiFi, or to understand the notion of ‘the cloud’, some others might have trouble with the touch interface. This diversity in the usage of the smartphone echoes the general diversity in the experience of ageing.

As a psychologist specialised in pyschogerontology, Daniel Thumala, points out: ‘no hay una vejez, hay ‘vejeces’’ (2017). The contrast between the singular and the plural applied to ‘vejez’ (‘old age’) could be translated as ‘there is not one [standard] experience of ageing, there are [several] experiences of ageing”. Several factors play a role in every particular experience of ageing: family (as child and as parent), education, work, eating habits, exercise, toxic habits, etc. (Villalobos 2017). This is also true of the diversity of factors that play a role in the adoption and usage of smartphones by the elderly, which can be shaped by the following:

  • the usage of previous technologies (e.g. familiarity with a keyboard, or with playback icons),
  • family support (e.g. tech assistance provided by grandchildren),
  • education,
  • fine motor skills and general expectations on the usage of the device (e.g. to gain independence, to stay in contact with family, to track bodily functions, etc.).

It will be interesting to go beyond the context of the workshop and to learn how the smartphone is integrated in the diverse experiences of everyday life of these engaged students. Media reports on the smartphone usually focus on the capacities it might bring to the user. If we take that perspective for a moment, even though it is by no means the only possible one, we could ask ourselves to what extent, if at all, the smartphone might be helpful for the elderly to gain higher autonomy. According to Thumala (2017) –and this goes against ageist preconceptions on the dependency of elderly people–, 76% of elderly people in Chile are autonomous. It would be interesting to see if the smartphone plays any role at all in this autonomy.

References

Miller, Daniel (@DannyAnth). “Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering (I am pretty good at making tea), which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something.” 19 April 2018, 12:18 a.m. Tweet.
Richardson, James. 2018. I Am Connected: new approaches to supporting people in later life online. Centre for Ageing Better and the Good Things Foundation. [free download at https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/research-publications/i-am-connected-new-approaches-supporting-people-later-life-online]
Thumala, Daniela. 2017. Imágenes sociales del envejecimiento. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile
Villalobos C., Alicia. 2017. Conceptos básicos acerca del autocuidado. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile.

What is a smartphone?

DanielMiller1 June 2018

Author: Daniel Miller

Photo (CC BY) newkemall

I have spent the last two months in my Irish fieldsite trying to answer a simple question: what is a smartphone? Actually, it’s a fiendishly difficult question. Several older people started our discussion by insisting that the only things they use their phones for are voice calls and texting. Once we looked at the phone in more detail, it turned out that just the most common functions include WhatsApp, maps, voice calls, camera, alarm/time, Facebook, text messages, calendar, weather and news. Once we add a variety of more specialist apps such as sports, music, airlines, banks etc. we easily reach the most typical result which would be that an individual uses between twenty-five and thirty different functions of their smartphone.

In the newspapers, the personalisation of the smartphone is understood as the advances in algorithms and artificial intelligence, which allow smartphones to learn from people and predict their behaviour. But, just as in our previous Why We Post project, for the ethnographer, these corporate developments pale into insignificance compared to the personalisation represented by the diversity of usage that will arise from the way an individual configures this multitude of apps.

Indeed, it may be the personality of the user that comes across most. A man expresses a particular version of masculinity in demonstrating how all his usage is based on need and pragmatism. He mentions more than once how, now his daughter is no longer in Australia, he will never use Skype again. By contrast, a woman, aged 69, has every last detail of her life, from the steps involved in paying each particular type of bill, to the slide decks from workshops she has attended, all carefully classified in nested hierarchies of icons on her iPhone. About the only thing she doesn’t like is the clumsy and intrusive Siri. In both cases the smartphone effectively expresses their personality. Sometimes a particular activity dominates an individual’s phone life; a phone where everything is geared to a retirement spent playing and teaching the banjo, or a phone that contains seven apps all associated with sailing.  It’s not that a woman is addicted to her phone, or even to YouTube per. se., it’s just that she can’t stop spending two hours a day following US politics on YouTube. More commonly the phone will revolve around three or four key activities and concerns such as a combination of family, sports, holidays, and photography.

Working with people in their 60s and 70s, I come to appreciate that they are not elderly, but that much of their life may be devoted to caring for an elderly parent in their 90s. For some of these people everything about the phone is connected with this responsibility of care, whether mobilising family care through WhatsApp, showing pictures of great grandchildren through Facebook, using maps to get to a hospital appointment, employing phone and text to negotiate with the local council and never turning the phone off, because you never know…

An equally important component of what makes the phone is people’s lack of knowledge. An older person is told to download an app, but she has never heard of Google Play and so attempts this action using an icon labelled ‘Downloads’. A man won’t buy a new Samsung Galaxy because it doesn’t have an inbuilt radio and he doesn’t know he can download radio as an app. Many users do not know the distinction between Wi-Fi and data that they have to pay for, so they won’t watch video while on Wi-Fi because they think it will cost them. Many can’t understand that a phone which ‘doesn’t work’, is not a broken phone, rather they just need to go about something in a different way. This is because the smartphone has so little in common with traditions of machines and tools. There is no manual they can actually use. Trying to work out precisely why one 80-year-old finds every little step impossible and another seems entirely comfortable in using these phones may give us many clues as to what, in effect, a smartphone is.

In the newspapers the smartphone appears as the constant development of new capacities – articles about the latest thing you can do with your smartphone are commonplace. For the ethnographer the smartphone is the myriad constellation of new actualities – we strive for an appreciation of what ordinary people create with or cannot understand about these devices.

The fruits of ‘olugambo’

Charlotte EHawkins28 May 2018

In many ways, mobile phones have allowed people in Africa to overcome the limits of state bureaucracy (de Bruijn and van Dijk, 2012: 12). To further credit the versatile potential of mobile communication, and the need for it, these limits have recently started closing in on mobile phone use in Uganda with two particularly contentious issues. Firstly, an embargo has been issued on SIM card registration to ensure the validity of existing data following a spate of unresolved kidnappings[1]. Secondly, President Museveni has proposed a tax on social media use in order to address the deficit. WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Viber are all targets for the proposed daily fee of 100ush for all simcards using such “over the top” platforms[2]. According to the President, social media is used only for ‘olugambo’ or ‘gossip’.  He has exempted internet use for educational purposes, as “[i]t is like going to the library using the encyclopedia or referring to the dictionary. These must remain free”[3].

During fieldwork in the Ugandan context of intrinsic kinship (Whyte & Whyte, 2004: 77) and “scattered families”, I have observed many instances in which social media is used for more than ‘olugambo’, which itself is more than fruitless. As Tanja Ahlin notes in her study of migrant families’ care of elders through ICTs, phone practices are “not only about communication, just as remittances are not only about sending money” (2017). This frames an overarching question for my on-going research in Uganda; what are “over the top” platforms used for other than gossip? Many people have shown me how WhatsApp groups are used to circulate information –

I’m told that even the news of this proposed taxation reached 15,000 people in 10 minutes; “if anything seems to be relevant and effecting the lives of people directly, the messages tend to go very fast”.

WhatsApp groups also appear to be commonly used to share information about health. As one interviewee told me, he is part of a group with friends who are Doctors and teachers, “any information one of them gets, I get it here”. Or another, who recently found out the nutritional content of beetroot and bananas through his WhatsApp group and has started eating more of them. Or the hospital staff, who have a forum on WhatsApp for sharing information about patients and medical supplies, supporting health workers to do their jobs efficiently. As one message about the benefits of lemon peel circulated on WhatsApp recently stated, “thank goodness for Social Media…Pls forward to lots of friends”.

Photo (CC BY) Charlotte Hawkins. Tthis solar panel is used solely to charge the household’s phones, suggesting that access to communication is a priority.

[1] https://www.independent.co.ug/mtn-stops-sale-of-new-sim-cards/, accessed 03.04.18

[2] http://nilepost.co.ug/2018/03/31/tax-facebook-whatsapp-users-museveni-to-minister-of-finance/, accessed 03.04.18

[3] Ibid.

References

  • Ahlin, T., 2017. Only Near Is Dear? Doing Elderly Care with Everyday ICTs in Indian Transnational Families: Elderly Care with ICTs in Indian Families. Med. Anthropol. Q. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12404
  • de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R., 2012. Introduction, in: de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R. (Eds.), The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
  • Whyte, S.R., Whyte, M.A., 2004. Children’s Children: Time and Relatedness in Eastern Uganda. Afr. J. Int. Afr. Inst. 74, 76–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3556745

‘Healthy Ireland’ by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk16 February 2018

From the Healthy Ireland website: http://www.healthyireland.ie/

Author: Pauline Garvey

 

Just last month the Irish government launched the latest national initiative to promote health and wellbeing across the country. The Healthy Ireland campaign 2018 was launched on the 6th January and aims to encourage people to ‘get active, eat well and mind their mental wellbeing’ (www.healthyIreland.ie).  Many of the planned initiatives run through local libraries and are advertised by pictures of families cycling through wooded glades or groups of friends exercising outdoors.

On the day of the launch in Dublin’s sporting venue Croke Park, Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Leo Varadkar said:

The message of the Government’s Healthy Ireland 2018 campaign is simple; I’m encouraging everyone to get involved, by making the small changes needed to improve your health and your family’s health. That could mean including a walk in your daily routine, making healthier choice at meal times or taking a break from your phone to give your mental health a boost. These positive and sustainable changes can help us all build a healthy Ireland (MerrionStreet 06/01/18).

The webpage dedicated to HealthyIreland acknowledges that social factors such as levels of education and income, or housing and work conditions may adversely affect health, and are determined by social, environmental and economic policies beyond the direct responsibility or remit of the health sector. Therefore the campaign asserts the ‘health sector alone cannot address these problems – we must collectively change our approach.’

Excessive mobile-phone use has now been added to nutrition and exercise as a health risk. And while this is interesting, it is perhaps not surprising. Frequent associations between an unhealthy attachment or addictive behaviour and mobile-phone use have been profiled in the national media recently. For example in December 2017 new research from Deloitte, found that 90% of 18-75-year-olds in Ireland now own or have access to a smartphone – putting Ireland among the top users of smartphones in Europe. By comparison 88% of people own, or have access to a smartphone in Europe. Richard Howard, head of technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte greeted this figure with some caution: “Mobile devices are a relatively new ‘addiction’ to our social fabric and they form an important part of our daily activities and interactions’ (Quann 2017).

There are lots of unknowns in smart-phone use, which is why we are currently investigating this topic, and why we try to understand the smartphone in actual life situations. For example while the Deloitte study found that half of Irish people thought they used their phone too much, 60% thought their partner used it too much! What does this tell us of the place of the phone in negotiating relationships? Are people neglecting their loved ones, forging new friendships or engaging with existing friends and family in novel ways?

Meanwhile the government’s response in the Healthy Ireland Campaign is clear:  “Take the stairs rather than the lift, Eat more fruit and veg, Take a 30-minute break from your phone”. And Varadkar describes his own practice of turning off the phone during meals – “it not only makes the meal more pleasant and your interaction with people more pleasant, it is actually good for your headspace.”  (O’Connor 07/01/18)

 

References:

HealthyIreland 2018, www.healthyireland.ie

MerrionStreet Irish Government News Service 06/01/18, available online at https://merrionstreet.ie/en/Issues/Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_launches_Healthy_Ireland_2018_campaign.html (http://www.healthyireland.ie/about/)

O’Connor, Wayne 07/01/18 ‘Healthy Ireland 2018 aims to get us all fitter and more mindful’ Irish Independent, available online at https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/healthy-ireland-2018-aims-to-get-us-all-fitter-and-more-mindful-36464484.html.

Quann, Jack 05/12/17 ‘Three million Irish people now own or have access to a smartphone’, available online at http://www.newstalk.com/Mobile-phone-habits-of-Irish-people-revealed

Puzzling contrasts in Santiago

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui6 February 2018

 

Photo 1. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

I arrived in Santiago de Chile over a week ago, in order to conduct a 16-month ethnography on the experience of age, the use of smartphones and their relation to healthcare among migrants working in this city.

The very first time I walked around Santiago I was puzzled by the sudden and stark changes in its architecture and general appearance. You can be walking by a beautiful cobbled street among art nouveau three-storey houses with iron work in their wooden doors (Photo 1) and just fifty meters later you can find a whole block of damaged late 60s ugly functionalist six-storey buildings (Photo 2). It is a feature local Chileans are aware of and remark on: the absence of transitional features that might soften these abrupt changes.

Photo 2. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

These stark contrasts are evident in the neighbourhood where I am conducting fieldwork. Yungay is a protected heritage zone inhabited by the Chilean upper class in the early twentieth century. Nowadays this population has migrated Eastwards and uphill leaving behind many of these beautiful old big houses, which have been occupied by multi-rental low income migrants. By contrast, other old houses, restored as lofts, provide huge continuous areas for the few. As a result, we find well maintained homes within dilapidated neighbours. While art nouveau houses are covered by colorful graffiti, as part of this architectural palimpsest of different eras and social classes (Photo 3).

Photo 3. (CC BY) Alfonso Otaegui

These contrasts make manifest a deeper material contrast: the income inequality gap. As is sadly the case in much of Latin America, Chile has a high index of income inequality (47,7 2015 World Bank estimate). According the National Institute of Statistics, the average income in Chile in 2016 was of $ 517.540 (roughly U$S 862). But only 28,6% of the working population, receive this amount or a higher salary, with just 9,7% of the working population earning over one million Chilean pesos (around U$S 1660).

Notwithstanding the high index of income inequality, Chile shows deeper internet penetration (71,7% had access to Internet in 2016) compared to the rest of Latin America (average 56,1%). The same study by IMS Mobile showed that 9 out of 10 users connect to the internet through their smartphones. As in the Why We Post project, with which a number of the ASSA team were involved, this suggests that greater equality in online access may not result in diminished inequality more generally. But the situation is likely to be quite complex and hopefully the next 16 months will provide a more nuanced picture, beyond the facades of the architecture.

References

IMS Mobile in Latam Study, 2nd Edition, September 2016, free access through https://www.imscorporate.com/news/Estudios-comScore/IMS-Mobile-Study-Septiembre2016.pdf

OECD (2018), Internet access (indicator). doi: 10.1787/69c2b997-en (Accessed on 04 February 2018)

The World Bank. Databank. Poverty and Equity. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=poverty-and-equity-database

What an app reveals about the brutality of life in rural China – by Xu Zhiwei

ShireenWalton25 January 2018

Recently, the smartphone app Kuaishou emerged from China’s cutthroat online entertainment market with more than 400 million registered users and an estimated worth of some two billion USD. It is now the fourth largest social media platform in the country, after WeChat (an instant messaging, and e-commerce and payment app), QQ (instant messaging), and the Sina Weibo micro-blogging site. The majority of the content on Kuaishou is made up of self-harm videos with “comic” twists, rather like the American TV show “Jackass.” Viewers can watch daredevils do everything from swallowing lightbulbs to lighting firecrackers under their own backsides. Those taking part are almost all from smaller, third-tier cities or rural-urban fringe zones. They seek internet stardom by harming their bodies in unconventional ways.

Middle-aged woman eating lightbulbs and worms

In China’s cosmopolitan cities, Internet celebrities are able to rake in tens of thousands of yuan every month by live-streaming themselves eating or shopping. Kuaishou users emulate their urban counterparts, hoping to making a fortune by becoming famous. However, for these people, without wider networks or resources, the results are generally disappointing, and mostly they remain mired in poverty.

For rural China, kuaishou culture expresses, in a particularly eye-catching manner, both this population’s desire for achieving a better life, and more importantly, the cultural difficulties of being poor in contemporary China. Through these practices of bodily harm and self-insults, these people reveal, among other issues, just how unacceptable they find the condition of poverty.

– Xu Zhiwei