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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Illustrating ASSA’s Findings With Comics: Part 2

By Georgiana Murariu, on 22 June 2021

By Georgiana Murariu & Laura Haapio-Kirk

In this blog post, we present the second comic in our series illustrating key findings from the ASSA project. ‘The Next Step’, based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, drawn by John Cei Douglas, and scripted by ourselves, can be seen below in both English and Spanish.

Alfonso Otaegui did his fieldwork in Santiago, the capital of Chile, where he spent a year volunteering at a cultural centre in the city, teaching older adults how to use smartphones. Alfonso has recently written about Chile’s increasing digitalisation of services and the government’s aim to become ‘paperless’ soon. Many of his research participants expressed the anxiety that soon they might be left with no choice but to use a smartphone to access specific services, even if they do not feel confident using one.

Alfonso has also written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the imposition of digital services upon people in Chile. Older people are not only strongly encouraged to become digitally savvy by their government, but also by their own family and other acquaintances in order to stay connected during the pandemic.

Alfonso’s experience teaching smartphones at the cultural centre has given him a wealth of insight into the sorts of things older people struggle with when they first learn how to use the device. One of the common struggles older adults encounter when learning to use the device is the experience of anxiety facing too many options, for example on a menu that offers several calls to action illustrated through icons. While doing an exercise on sharing an image, several students would be distracted by the vast array of other possibilities/icons.

It’s not all negative, however – far from it: Alfonso found that once older people had mastered the smartphone, their developing digital skills opened up all sorts of possibilities for them. As Alfonso put it in the short video below, at any given time, they are two taps away from frustration, and two taps away from empowerment.

It is this journey towards digital literacy that we wanted to illustrate in the comic below.

To script the comic, we used material from Alfonso’s photos, research, anecdotes and the short film above, deciding to create a character that combined many of the experiences of his participants. Using the direct quote “pa,pa,pa, it’s done!”, which came from an individual in Alfonso’s research, we shaped a character and narrative around this particular moment of frustration, which you can see below in both English and Spanish:

‘The Next Step’

‘¿Y ahora, cómo sigo?’

Illustrating ASSA’s findings with comics

By Georgiana Murariu, on 26 May 2021

By Georgiana Murariu and Laura Haapio-Kirk

Towards the end of last year, when the collaborative The Global Smartphone book was was nearing completion, we started to think about how to take some of the key findings presented in the books and turn them into ‘discoveries’ on the project website. Presenting key findings in such a way required that we nuance the broad findings with stories from our fieldsites. While, of course, it is possible to do so in text, we wanted to continue the ASSA project’s commitment to pushing traditional tropes of academic dissemination by embracing visual storytelling. At the moment there is lots of exciting work being done in graphic anthropology, as demonstrated by the vast amount of quality work submitted to the Illustrating Anthropology exhibition that Laura co-curated last year, supported by the Royal Anthropological Institute. We decided that we wanted to experiment with comics as a form of research-driven storytelling. After receiving generous advice from Dr Gemma Sou who contributed to the exhibition, we approached the illustrator John Cei Douglas, whom Gemma had collaborated with for her comic ‘After Maria’.

In the recently published The Global Smartphone, when we talk about findings and theoretical contributions such as The Transportal Home or Beyond Anthropomorphism, we always try to illustrate the finding with evidence and vignettes from the field. But what if we could actually illustrate these concepts through comics? Working with the ASSA team to tease out particular stories and observations from their fieldwork, we set to work scripting a series of comics that depict the local ways that 10 of our key ‘discoveries’ manifest in our 10 fieldsites. Working with John closely on these scripts has been an invaluable learning experience, as we soon discovered that scripts had to be pared down to the essentials, and text kept to a minimum in order to make the format work and make the most of John’s sensitive and evocative drawings.

Transforming the researchers’ analyses, observations, and stories into short comic scripts has prompted really valuable discussions about representation, anonymity, and the nature of creative responses to research. What seems like a vital quote in an ethnographic story in a monograph cannot always be included in a cartoon and can actually be more powerful when illustrated without words. Equally, there may be panels in the comic where one may feel like ‘not much happens’, but which are important to conveying the feel and atmosphere of the fieldsite, or the internal experiences of a character.

We will release one new comic every couple of weeks and will reflect on the process of creating anthropological comics here on the blog. We hope that you’ll join us on this journey!

Below is our first comic, drawing on the research of Shireen Walton, who conducted her fieldwork in Milan, Italy. In this comic, we see how the concept of the transportal home plays out in the life of Heba, a migrant from Egypt. Shireen worked in a diverse inner-city neighbourhood, and met a number of migrants who had a particular relationship to their smartphones. Their devices connected them to their families in their home countries and were their ‘constant companions’.

In this cartoon, the fictional character of Heba is inspired by the people that Shireen worked with. Heba is living a busy life in Milan, raising her two teenage children. She is connected to Egypt, where she was born and grew up, through her smartphone, and through various interactions she has with her family throughout the day. As much as her physical environment that surrounds her in Milan, the smartphone is a place in which she ‘lives’ while carrying out her daily activities such as listening to Egyptian music and communicating with her family throughout her day. ‘Home’ is located simultaneously in the physical and digital domains, which are interwoven and integrated. You can read more about the concept of ‘the transportal home’ on the project website here.

We hope you enjoy the comics and would love to hear your thoughts!