Shireen Walton discusses her book, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Interview by Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard: As you note, active aging agendas “aim to encourage people to exercise control over the aging process and stave off the experience of decline and frailty through a range of ‘active’ practices, such as physical and mental activity, engagement with others, a good diet, and even cosmetic surgery and medication.” (22) Your text is a critique of the institutionalization of this concept, which is borne out by your interlocutors who seemed to shun efforts by the Italian state to recruit them in explicit projects of active aging. At the same time, many of your interlocutors found that the maintenance of a sense of utility or usefulness to their family or to the community at large was key to their maintenance of selfhood beyond their identity as an older person. How might we account for the way that state-supported efforts to promote active aging might be simultaneously shunned and taken up (perhaps in a different context), as reactive aging (25)? Is this a contradiction when it comes to an individual’s experience of aging?

Shireen Walton: Yes, and thank you for raising the question; I would say there is a certain contradiction surrounding ideas about, and practices of, what is understood to be activity. In chapter two of the book I consider some of the frameworks in which ageing has been positioned in Italy, in the EU context, as well as in the US under the rubrics of ‘active’ and ‘successful’ ageing respectively, thinking about these frameworks alongside how notions of activity are thought of and lived in practice among the people I came to know during my research in Milan. I found that a number of research participants may not necessarily ascribe to certain prescriptions of activity, but at the same time, and for a multitude of reasons, expressed their desires to be active, or rather, useful – something that the smartphone became directly implicated in. A number of older adults in their seventies I came to know were active in many socially-facing ways across the neighborhood that was the locus of my research; volunteering in local schools, running allotment clubs, co-facilitating a women’s multicultural centre, and helping out with childcare as grandparents. Through these activities, people expressed feeling useful, and derived a certain satisfaction from their ability to be engaged in such ways, on- and offline. This utility was linked to their sense of invecchiamento sano (healthy ageing), which in turn formed part of a higher or moral purpose that was seen as a core part of the meaning of one’s life. In cases where social lives were reasonably active then, calls for activity from the state, or other groups or practices linked to age were not necessarily engaged with, and could even create a sense of people being seen as, or feeling, old in ways they may not identify with. As you highlight, older age could be seen as an identity marker that a number of research participants were to some degree reacting against (though not always, and not necessarily intentionally) through their everyday lives and practices. Where age-related initiatives were notably being taken up is in the field of adult education, and specifically, digital literacy classes for older adults – something that has continued to develop online during the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, and which we discuss in more detail in chapter seven of our collective book stemming from the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project, The Global Smartphone.

Rachel Howard: The function of the smartphone, and its applications for communication, as a constant companion that is both personal and intensely ubiquitous, troubles the concepts of homeland and of home itself. How might the use of—and the need for—this object, suggest a shift in the concept of aging in place or active aging?

Shireen Walton: The constant companion, as I refer to the smartphone in the book, entails a number of shifts in the concept/experience of aging in place because it affects many inter-connected aspects of life, including the reworking of place, and notably, the place of home – in The Global Smartphone, we conceptualise the smartphone itself as a transportal home; a place within which we live. In my book I discuss how the smartphone accompanies people as they pass through stages of life; this may entail a loss of a sense of home through migration or displacement, or, people may experience a largely physically home-based life in older age that without digital technologies may potentially feel isolating. Or, some people may be living with both of these experiences. Being digitally connected in the home is something that has come very much to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the varied experiences of lockdown across Italy, and across the world.

Coming back to your question, what we can say is shifting with the presence of smartphones in everyday lives is both the experience of the home, and the concept of home itself. Some research participants in Milan would engage with medical care from home through WhatsApp, sharing images of symptoms with their doctors, or they would share and receive comfort and emotional support through forms of affective communication, photo and meme-sharing. In other cases, research participants from regions such as Sicily, or countries such as Egypt, Peru, and Afghanistan, who for varied reasons are unable to regularly visit the regions and countries they were born and grew up in, and where members of their families live, have a particularly heightened experience of the smartphone as a transportal home, which facilitates their virtual presence in multiple places/spaces, and affective economies, to employ Sara Ahmed’s term. However, seeing the smartphone as a kind of mobile dwelling is not to diminish the importance of either homeland, which for some research participants remained symbolically, practically, and politically very important, or the physical home space, as a site of care, physical presence, assistance, and company. These phenomenological shifts, nevertheless, prove very significant in understanding contemporary experiences and geographies of ageing, and of living with (and without) smartphones.

Rachel Howard: The text makes ample use of the case study and visual media, like embedded video, photos, and websites. How do you see these methods amplifying each other? How do these methods enrich or challenge our understanding of digital fluency? 

Shireen Walton: It’s been one of the exciting aspects of the ASSA project, and our open-access book series with UCL Press, that we have been able to incorporate photographs, embedded videos, and hyperlinks as part of our ethnographic storytelling. Via these multimodal means, readers can come to learn about the lives and experiences of number of people we carried out research with through a series of short videos linked to our blog and website, which can be viewed alongside other visual materials, such as our recently published comics on the ASSA blog, which tell a selection of fieldwork stories. This interest in interactive storytelling reflects our research participants’ own interests in engaging with smartphones, tablets, and audiovisual media for education, storytelling, and learning, and these aspects have been a keen interest and commitment of the project from the start.

Rachel Howard: It seems that being youthful may be performed in many different ways, across a range of practices as well as externally defined and internally experienced qualia, including the use of cellphones as a way of “awareness” (143) to different life-worlds not accessible to your interlocutors in their youth. The discussion of narratives in Italy regarding different age groups’ use of digital technologies at times seemed to mirror narratives in the U.S., particularly when you note, “Older people are often depicted in the media and in political debates as a vulnerable group that is susceptible to ‘fake news’, while young people, regarded as ‘digital natives’, can be presented as at risk of addiction or becoming enslaved by the device, and suffering long-term health risks.” (82) This seemed like a double bind. Is it ever possible for your older interlocutors to achieve what many seem to desire—to felicitously perform youthfulness? If so, what does that look like?

Shireen Walton: It’s a good question, and it raises a key point about inter-generational relationships that I aimed to explore in the book: how is age represented alongside other identity categories, and how do people see themselves – and each other – at various ages and stage of their life? A range of popular discourses, media narratives, and advertising continues to contribute to the production of certain assumptions and stigmas concerning older and younger people and technology around the world. In Italy, while younger generations may be depicted in the media as almost tech-obsessed, older people have been viewed somewhat traditionally as outside of the tech bubble. Examples throughout the book seek to nuance these representations by illustrating the various uses of smartphones and multiple social and political purposes they serve that I came to learn about from research participants of varying ages and backgrounds. Amongst research participants in Milan in their fifties through to their seventies a number of people expressed not feeling young but, as mentioned in the first question, not necessarily identifying as old either. Their smartphone formed a kind of bridge between ages, people, places, and aspects of themselves; enabling a way of being connected in a fast-moving world of apps, chats, images, information and documents, that, alongside wider forms of social and political engagement, made some people feel in a sense younger than what their actual age was. However, as I aready mentioned, this youthfulness was not just about feeling and performing youth for the sake of it, but was notably about feeling useful – to others, to family, to the community where utility was associated with activity and mobility, including in virtual forms. What might then be enveloped into a framework of youthfulness may involve any number of activities, such as running an allotment club, volunteering to teach Italian language classes at a local NGO, administrating a women’s choir and its lively WhatsApp group, or playing an active role in grandparenting. It may also be about carving out time for one’s self through apps for meditation and poetry, step-counting, or music. Overall in the book I try to describe a certain circle of activity, utility, privacy and sociability, that the smartphone – or rather, what people do with it – is involved in squaring, as the smartphone, and how people live and narrate their lives, calls established categories and assumptions about age(ing) into question.

Rachel Howard: To return to the ubiquity of the smartphone, I want to invite you to reflect on the way that it both mediates and changes the terms of communication practices amongst your interlocutors. Is the smartphone, in some ways, like a walker or a cane for digital communication? What new kind of communication skills does the smartphone require its user to learn? Do your interlocutors use the smartphone in ways other than originally intended, thereby shifting its function?

Shireen Walton: The smartphone entails multiple forms of communication, and these will vary depending on who is using a particular device, in a specific context, via certain kinds of digital infrastructure. Using a smartphone involves firstly learning to use it, as well as the subsequent social etiquettes, languages, apps, and communication forms that the social aspect of it entails. Chapter five of the book details a number of examples of how in some cases the smartphone amplifies existing forms of communication; where for example, audio messaging may be preferable to those who may otherwise routinely converse on the phone. In other cases, visual forms of communication such as stickers, emojis, and memes might play upon people’s creativity or reflect, say, the sense of humour between siblings or friends. On the other hand, the multiple options for communication afforded by the smartphone also draws people into experimenting with how they communicate and express care; such as the research participants who had entered into a new and unfamiliar habit of returning a meme-a-day to a friend or relative as a form of talking without talking, or communicating expressively online via stickers and memes. This circles back to your earlier question about the significance of the smartphone for ageing in place. I would say that the range of creative uses I encountered amongst older adults in Milan extends the smartphone beyond a kind of walker or a cane for digital communication. Rather, the object forms an intimate link with the person, their language(s), politics, and their social universe. For potentially bringing about confusion and anxiety as it affords connection, companionship, and mobility, the smartphone can be both a rock of support and the hard place of people’s lives, homes, and relationships.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s