Social Technology in Later Life – Let’s Have Some Collaboration

This is another post in the series on Social Technology in Later Life on which I am collaborating with David Wilcox, among others, in an exploration initially stimulated by Nominet Trust. David has set out here some issues for the way forward, and I am particularly keen to see how we can promote more collaboration between people and organisations working in this field.

As David has rightly highlighted, during the exploration, there is an inordinate amount of competition between people working in this sector. I have found out through working on Our Digital Planet that older people are still often bewildered by new technologies, and that they are, in many cases, ill-served in this respect, by organisations and agencies that work with them. And there are lots of people beavering away to help them, but they are mainly in isolated pockets, their practice is not well-known, and it certainly isn’t being scaled up in the way it needs to be.

As in several other areas of life, it is the people who most need the benefits new technologies can bring that are least likely to be able to access them. Acute lack of understanding of possibilities among older people and those who work with them is holding back their adoption.

To those of us comfortable with new technologies, it can seem obvious that they can address the loneliness and isolation that afflicts so many older people. But fear and ignorance are big barriers. I have witnessed older people refusing to use free video conferencing with relatives on the other side of the world, and preferring to rely on expensive telephone calls, because they found the video conference experience to be alien to them. This and other experiences suggest two things to me.

  • Firstly, we need to make new technology much more like the items that people are already familiar with. I think this is what Apple are so good at. There are a lot of areas where Apple has seen the opportunity to take concepts invented elsewhere and take them to the next level. They are brilliant at making the user experience of something so straightforward that their product quickly becomes the market-leader (I’m thinking of the iPod and the iPad here). But, of course, Apple stuff tends to be expensive, certainly too expensive for people who are on limited budgets, and for those yet to be convinced that the benefits will be worth the investment. But the way they do video calling is illustrative of my point. They were far from the first on the video calling scene, but the way FaceTime is integrated into the normal telephone call process on the iPhone makes it a much more straightforward experience. Even though using such systems as Skype works pretty well on the iPhone, it entails downloading and running an app which is completely separate from the normal call process, and this is a barrier to many people. If someone has an Apple device (and FaceTime now works on Mac computers as well as mobile devices) they just need to answer a FaceTime call to them to be video chatting instantly. Making a Facetime call is marginally more complex than making a telephone call, but only marginally. I think all tech should be as simple as this, and, it should be cross-platform, so that you could make and receive FaceTime calls to Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, and other devices. This might be a forlorn hope.
  • Secondly, We need to make new technology use a visible part of everyday life so that it doesn’t look like something scary to older people. During the Celebration 2.0 project, I took new technologies into places they might not usually be seen, and I have written before about how I use tech in places like supermarket cafes, parks and certain pubs, where my use has attracted attention and curiosity. An important aim of Our Digital Planet is to make new technologies visible. If people live their daily lives isolated from such uses it will never seem natural to them.

Lots of factors contribute to older people being shielded from new technology uses. Two which I think are particular obstacles are:

  • The professionals and institutions which work with some older people are not comfortable with new technologies themselves. Issues here range from organisations which continue to block use of social media and will not or cannot provide their staff with smartphones, to technophobic frontline staff who pass their fears on to people they work with
  • Younger people who are unwilling or unable to help their older relatives and connections learn from their use. We all know the adage about never trying to teach your partner to drive, at least not if you want to stay together. While working on Our Digital Planet I came across several examples where younger people brought their older relatives in asking us to help them because they hadn’t the patience or had tried and failed. This reinforces the divide and cements the notion that new technologies are a young person’s thing. Younger people quite like the notion that they are part of a cool club which their older relatives can’t join, and older relatives assume none of it is relevant to them.

Resistance to new technologies in this field also means that there is far too little sharing and collaboration, as sharing and collaboration are characteristics of organisations that have embraced social media and new technologies.

Someone needs to take some risks, and pull people together. We need to find and support the digital champions both among older people and among those who work with them. I’m hoping to work with David Wilcox, Steve Dale and others to set the ball rolling. We’re planning a Google Hangout shortly, and maybe a workshop. Let us know in the comments below if you want to be part of this.