York University
2001 TEL
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, ON  M3J 1P3
416.736.2100 ext. 33616

Concordia University
Department of
Communication Studies
7141 Sherbrooke W.,
L-CJ 3.329
Montreal, QC  H4B 1R6
514.848.2424, ext. 2535



Redressing Silences, Confronting Mobility: Seniors, Cell Phones and Aging


This research project explores the intertwined and variable contours of the discourses on old age and mobile technologies. Our specific interest is in the cellular phone and its adoption, rejection or adaptation by a group of people often left out of media studies: the ‘senior citizen.’

Researchers: Barbara Crow, Kim Sawchuk

One of our primary research objectives is to explore whether, and how, studies of mobile technologies such as the cell phone tacitly valorize all things new and emergent. Our pilot studies and preliminary literature review indicate that media scholars tend to ignore technologies that are considered old and passé. With a few notable exceptions, the discourses on the use and integration of new technologies occlude those who are considered too old to be of interest. How are these assumptions and attitudes towards newness perpetuating a cluster of values that valorize youth, innovation, creativity, disposability, and productivity? Paradoxically, these underlying assumptions exist at the same time as seniors are seen as a new potential market for cellular services and are increasingly targeted for services that emphasize their need for security and surveillance.

In approaching this cluster of intertwined issues, our analysis will document and analyze the academic and corporate discourses on aging and mobile technologies from the introduction of the first cell phone in Canada (1985) to the present moment. Our particular interest is on how these discourses create an ideal mobile subject and imagined user.  Thinking critically of the discourse on the cell phone as an emerging technology is a place from which to consider some of the values embedded within media studies and research on aging."New and Old, Young and Old: Aging the Mobile Imaginary"


"New and Old, Young and Old: Aging the Mobile Imaginary” 

As Lisa Gitelman (2008) argues in Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture “new” forms of media are represented and marketed to us as better, faster, more convenient and almost always in an ahistorical context. In this paper, we will discuss the implicit and explicit discursive identification and slippage of “new media” with the “young” in the public manifestations of a nascent mobile imaginary and some of the tacit consequences of the emergence of this discourse in a neoliberal conjuncture. In the logic of neoliberalism –with a trend to the increasing privatization of public life, an emphasis on heightened consumerism, the growth of mobile and precarious labour, and an economics of perpetual growth– to be dated, is to be fated. When the new is equated with a valorization of the qualities of youthfulness it is urgent to consider how this influences attitudes towards the processes of aging, foments increasing social or economic divisions, denies inter-generational connectivity, and ignores how those too old to matter negotiate, resist, subvert or ignore mobile technologies and the injunction to be perfect mobile subjects.

Crow, Barbara & Kim Sawchuk. "New and Old, Young and Old: Aging the Mobile Imaginary,” Materialities and Imaginaries, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, February 11-12.


"Into the Grey Zone: Seniors, Cell Phones and Milieus that Matter"

Within the burgeoning literature on the everyday and innovative uses of cell phones and mobile technologies, there is a concentration of detailed statistical or ethnographic data on those who are young or middle-aged (Ito, 2005; Caronia and Caron, 2004; Thulin & Vilhelmson, 2007). With the exception of a handful of articles (Wong, Thwaites, & Khong, 2008; Lee, 2008), much less attention, scholarly or otherwise, is paid to those who are fifty-five and over: this demographic constitutes a ‘grey zone’ literally and metaphorically (Harris-Decima, 2008). Our research on ‘Seniors and Cells’ rectifies this absence and is intended to contribute, productively, to the discussion of the intertwining dimensions of age, technology, and the everyday practices of citizenship by differentiating between ‘shades of grey’: we highlight what they do, and try to make sense of it in their terms, rather than comparing seniors with more ‘active’ user-groups. 

While we cannot claim, at this stage of the work, that we are in a ‘truly mobile setting’, our research has brought us into milieus that matter to our subjects: milieus are spaces of encounter and exchange, and not merely sites of data collecting and gathering. We discuss two sorts of milieu: intimate individual exchanges comprised of one-on-one conversation, and social interactions that break the isolation and loneliness often experienced by seniors. These milieus take shape within broader national contexts of telecommunications infrastructures and policies that influence and structure individual choices. We end with a discussion of some of the practical strategies we have adopted for engaging with these users from a perspective which allows them to transform the research agenda (Walker, 2007). In this paper we describe some of the broader lessons learned from our project to date, and reflect upon our research process and practice.

“Into the Grey Zone: Seniors, Cell Phones and Milieus that Matter,” with Kim Sawchuk. Observing the Mobile User Experience, Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop held in Conjunction with NordiCHI, Rekjavik University, Rekjavik, Iceland, October 17. 


 "Talking 'Costs': Seniors, Cell Phones and the Personal and Political Economy of Telecommunications in Canada"

Seniors, defined as persons aged 65 and up, are becoming a much larger demographic in Canada at the same time as the wireless telecommunications industry is expanding. Yet in terms of academic research, few studies have examined how seniors understand and negotiate the influx of digital communications devices, such as the cellular telephone, into their world. Using industry and government data, as well as individual and group interviews and observations with over 120 Canadian seniors, this paper examines the repertoire of ‘cost’ in the group discussions held with this cohort. It does so from the perspective of a feminist political economy that takes into account individual experiences in the context of macro-level, structural analyses of institutions and industry. This preliminary study suggests that financial considerations play a significant role in seniors’ cell phone practices and may lead to a strategic decision to impose restrictions on their use. These restrictions to access often run counter to the desire, amongst many seniors, to have access to a cell phone for ‘emergency purposes’. The comments made by this cohort make apparent the way that personal economies within a household on restricted or fixed incomes intersect with the practices of the wireless industry and suggest future avenues for media and ageing studies.

Sawchuk, Kim; Crow, Barbara. 2010. ‘Talking “costs”: Seniors, cell phones and the personal and political economy of telecommunications in Canada’. Telecommunications Journal of Australia. 60 (4): pp. 55.1 to 55.11. Monash University ePress. http://tja.org.au


"Seniors, Mobility and Tactical Cell Phone Use"

In much of the scholarship, research and activism in social media and DIY has focussed on youth, there has been little attention the ways in which seniors use, deploy, resist, subvert and engage with social media. In this paper, we would like to focus on one particular form of social media, the cell phone, examining it in the overall  ‘ecology’ of their communication practices. We have interviewed over 100 seniors in rural, suburban, and urban centres on what they think about and how they use cell phones, and how it is deployed within their everyday lives. Our preliminary findings indicate a robust, articulate engagement on the part of seniors with cell phones. They offer  insights about changing communication practices, comments on coping with confusing marketing and cell phone bundling, and explanation of “emergency: management strategies. 

Crow, Barbara & Kim Sawchuk. “Seniors, Mobility and Tactical Cell Phone Use,” DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, OISE, University of Toronto, November 12.