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2021 round-up and happy new year!

Laura Haapio-Kirk31 December 2021

By Danny Miller and Laura Haapio-Kirk

Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

2021, despite its difficulties, has been a key year for the ASSA project. The high point for us was in May with the publication of the jointly-authored comparative book The Global Smartphone. The book presents a radically different understanding of what the smartphone is, based not on speculation but a huge amount of direct observation of its use and consequences around the world based on our 16-month ethnographies. The book is available to download for free from UCL Press, along with the two translations in Italian and Spanish  that have already been published, and it is currently being translated into the other languages of our fieldsites (Japanese, Chinese, French, Portuguese). The publication launch was well covered in the media including full-page discussions in newspapers such as the Guardian and Sunday Times, international press ranging from the World Economic Forum to local publications around the world, and BBC radio interviews.

Also published were the first two of our monographs: Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland by Pauline Garvey and Daniel Miller, and Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy by Shireen Walton. We are on track for more of our ethnographies to published as monographs in 2022. Once they are all published we will have a total of nine monographs documenting the ways in which experiences of ageing and the use of the smartphone are now inextricably interwoven in various ways for people around the world. Watch this space!

Comic based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and Georgiana Murariu, and illustrated by John Cei Douglas.

Our website, designed to complement the book series, features videos, infographics, comics, and stories from the fieldsites, presented in a way that is intended to be accessible and engaging. For example, we took several of our key findings that appear in The Global Smartphone and created a ‘Discoveries’ section of the site that allows for a multi-media introduction to the central ideas emerging from the research. The website recently won the AVA 2021 Award for Best Visual Ethnographic Material Addressing Ageing and the Life Course in the Multimodal category. The AVA Award is a collaborative effort of the EASA’s Age and Generations NetworkAssociation for Gerontology, Aging and the Life Course and EASA’s Visual Anthropology Network.

We also launched our online course: An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health on FutureLearn. We were very happy to meet many enthusiastic learners from around the world, and were delighted with their feedback on the course. The course features many videos and interactive elements that encourage participants to become ethnographers in their own right. We will announce future dates, so please do register here for updates if you would like to take part in the next round.

Feedback from FutureLearn learners on our course.

 

We are currently developing our mHealth agenda, including producing an edited book to be published by UCL Press, featuring chapters by the team about their various mHealth initiatives. We are also progressing applied projects around mental health and nutrition in Uganda and Trinidad respectively.

As you can see, it has been a busy year and we are delighted to be able to start sharing with you the results of our research.

We hope that you are keeping safe and well, and wish you a happy new year from the entire ASSA team!

Illustrating ASSA’s findings with comics – part 3

Georgiana Murariu18 August 2021

By Georgiana Murariu & Laura Haapio-Kirk

In this blog post, we present the third comic in our ASSA comics series – this time set in Lusozi, a neighbourhood in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Researcher Charlotte Hawkins conducted fieldwork here for 16 months on the intersection of ageing and smartphone use. In order to do this, Charlotte took part in participation in community activities such as women’s groups and savings groups, including a group called ‘Togetherness is Strength’, which is also the title of this comic.

Here, we see how a community comes together to save money for smartphones through a rotation savings group, common in Kampala. Groups such as these are increasingly communicating via WhatsApp but in this particular fieldsite, not everyone has a smartphone. The savings group wanted to ensure every member had a smartphone so they were able to communicate via WhatsApp. When this issue is discussed at a meeting, we see how group members facilitate individuals’ access to smartphones through cooperation, in a way that is aligned with the ‘smart-from-below’ approach that is characteristic of so many of the research participants in this project.

Because not everyone will be acquainted with the way a rotating savings group works, in this comic we aimed for a balance between descriptive text and narrative visuals, such as the panels showing the celebration and funeral to indicate what money collected through these savings groups can often be used for. Membership of groups such as ‘Togetherness is strength’ goes beyond financial and economic benefits, however, giving younger generations in Lusozi an opportunity to sit with their elders and learn from them, as they would have more regularly in the past. At the beginning of scripting we played with the idea of including this element in the comic, however, after advice from our collaborator, artist John Cei Douglas, we decided to focus on one distinct event which Charlotte had observed during fieldwork – the coming together to help various members buy a smartphone.

Although we were equipped with photographs and short films from the Ugandan fieldsite as references, it is not always easy to transform complex stories from someone else’s research into a short comic that will be read in seconds. During the rough draft stage of the comic, we worked together with Charlotte to gather feedback on elements like the characters’ outfits, the setting (we had to think about ways of quickly conveying who is ‘running’ the meeting), and the dialogue between the characters, which had been adapted from her fieldnotes. Some phrases that we initially included in the script were slightly changed following a few rounds of feedback. Although the comics are a creative interpretation of the research findings, in condensing real-life dialogue, we did not want to depart too much from what the characters in the fieldsite would actually say. This very helpful guide to collaborations between artists and humanities researchers explains in further depth the processes involved in such endeavours.

After the script was improved based on Charlotte’s feedback, we also received notes from John, who, through a series of questions, asked us for specific details we hadn’t thought to include, such as how many characters are in the savings group itself and how we’d like the chairman/vice-chairman of the meeting to be differentiated. We eventually solved this visually through the addition of a clipboard. John also suggested we needed a stronger conclusion. We settled on showing how one of the members of the group continues to benefit from the smartphone acquired through the savings group many weeks later – in the last panel, he is shown helping his daughter with her homework by googling something. John has been instrumental in helping us figure out how to build the ‘flow’ of the comics and how to assemble different moments that, taken together, ensure that the message of the research is understood. As Dr Alpa Shah, associate professor of anthropology at King’s College London describes in this blog post, transforming anecdotes, research notes, and findings into comic-style illustrations can be a bit like translating something into a different language!

For us, the process consisted of a draft script on Google Docs shared between Georgiana and Laura, Charlotte, the researcher, and John the artist. In the end, we strove to achieve a common vision, that told a particular story from Charlotte’s research in a way that would work for this particular format. We hope we have got the balance right!