Lessons from a Connected Christmas

Is it too late to wish you a Merry Christmas? Well, I hope you had a good one.

I’ve been running a number of Connected Christmas events this year using the pretext of a Christmas party to try to turn older people on to the benefits of having new technologies in their lives.

This is always a difficult and challenging task, but I have to admit that this year it appears to have been particularly challenging; and I suspect I won’t do Connected Christmas in quite the same way in future years. I still want to use the opportunity of the approach of Christmas to highlight social isolation and loneliness amongst older people, and the role that new technology can possibly play in addressing this, but I am increasingly coming to the point of view that Connected Christmas needs to be a stage of the process which needs to start much earlier than Christmas.

This year the proportion of people I engage with who say “not interested….  new technologies are not part of my life” is higher than it has ever been in the past. Now I think a lot of it is part of a trend, in that it’s something that has been developing for years now, that the people who are truly digitally excluded are increasingly the hard-core who are super resistant to having new technologies in their lives. It’s not just a question of lack of skills and a lack of interest, it’s an active resistance. And I would like to add a word of congratulations here to the mainstream media. Thank you newspapers, thank you TV and radio stations, you have done a brilliant job of making sure a whole generation is excluded from the Internet. The amount of times I come across the comment that I don’t want anything to do with that because it’s all about fraud, or if I go on the Internet I’m going to get scammed.

But another possibly related issue that I keep coming across is older people who say to me that “that kind of stuff is the bane of my life. My children and my grandchildren are on it all the time and it means I can’t get them to talk to me”.  I try to counter that attitude by saying to people that, if you learn how to use those things yourself and you engage with them, then you will have something in common, you will share interests and you will be able to join in the conversations your family members are having online. I’m struggling to get that message through however, and I am increasingly coming to believe that digital technologies are increasing the generation gap because younger people are immersed in a world that their older relatives are not participating in, and, in many cases the older people are actively resisting opportunities to join in.

I find this frustrating and baffling to a degree. But I don’t think it is unsurmountable. A while ago, I wrote a piece about “Technology-Enabled Nattering” because I believe that what older people really want to do it chat with each other. And when I say “chat”, I mean it in the original sense of the word, not its internet incarnation which involves doing a lot of typing or key-pressing. That’s why I am still looking for funding (anyone, please?) to run some pilot projects which get people talking to each other on a regular basis via video conferencing. And, I want to throw out a challenge here. I think devices like Alexa and Google Home offer the opportunity for social networks to move beyond typing and photographic-based interactions and towards real conversations, involving voices not keyboards. That way older people need no longer be excluded from their younger relatives’ social media interactions. Done right, this approach could mean a real breaking down of the digital divide between the generations. What do you think of this idea, please comment down below.

I hope you have a great New Year. I leave you with a video I recorded just before Christmas, which encapsulates my idea that we should form support groups to crowdfund the purchase of tablets to connect lonely older people to friends and family. What do you think of that idea?

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