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),
- 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.