Jeremy Wilson is astonished that more is not being done by technology companies to enrich the lives of the elderly, who are, after all, one of the more liquid, albeit lonely, groups in society.
The flatulent self-aggrandisement by the champions of web 2.0 would not grate quite so much if it weren’t underpinned by such egregious insincerity. Take, for instance, this gem from social guru-in-chief Mark Zuckerberg when he was flogging his advertising business as a noble concept to gullible potential shareholders.
“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected. We think it’s important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us… Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.”
Lofty ideals for a man in the business of helping himself to other people’s data and antithetical values for someone in the process of making themselves the market’s bitch. It’s like taking three minute showers because you believe the earth is on the brink of a carbon dioxide induced catastrophe.
If you’ve signed up to a fundamentalist ideology you are obliged to act like a fundamentalist. If you really believe that the world is at stake, you would be doing everything possible to fertilise plankton by dumping iron into the sea. And if Zuck really wanted to enrich peoples lives by making them more connected, they would be developing products for the strata of society that would benefit most: the elderly.
If ever there were a demographic tailored to benefit from the buzzwords bandied around by the Jeff Jarvises of this world, the grannies and grandads are it. The lofty ambitions of social fetishists would incur a good deal less sneering if they actually started to materialise, meeting real needs: re-enabling social engagement, sharing one’s life with family and friends, learning, participating in the community.
Over-generalisation of this topic is unhelpful; old people are not a homogenous group, after all. But taking time to understand the needs of an ageing population should be essential for those seeking to improve society through technology. So it is with no small amount of fanfare that I present The Kernel’s guide to old people.
The digital divide isn’t some abstract concept. The extent to which old people have become separated from the digitally-connected society is staggering. The are no exact figures available, but proportion of over-65s who have never used the internet is in the region of 60 per cent. For those with a modest educational background, living in urban areas and from some ethnic groups, the figures are far higher.
Government investment has seen uptake increase sharply, but it is always the most vulnerable, the oldest and the most lonely that remain without access.
The most common reason cited by old people for wanting to get themselves online is to keep in touch with their family. To what extent they are successfully doing so is again, difficult to tell, but they certainly aren’t embracing the new online social utopias: an Ofcom report has the number of over-55′s with a social networking profile at a paltry 8 per cent.
There is a psychological reason why older people struggle to adapt to new technology, and it is rooted in the way our minds build frameworks for dealing with the world around us. In an effort to reduce effortful processing, our brains establish mental structures for interacting with the world. These structures automate our response to familiar experiences.
When we encounter something new, we apply an existing mental template to it. If it doesn’t fit, we adapt the template – a process otherwise known as learning. As we get older, this process of adaption slows down and our existing mental structures become entrenched.
Thus, to join the online world, older people need training and support. At the root of their apathy toward adopting new technology is a lack of understanding – they simply don’t perceive a need – and a lack of confidence. They regularly overestimate the cost of technology and the fear of doing something wrong or breaking something is often enough to set their minds against using new technology in the first place.
The small number of localised projects backed by local government try to meet this educational need are a drop in the ocean. A huge educational gap needs filling for our rapidly ageing population.
As important as education is, the most obvious question around old people’s online inclusion is whether tailored software has a role to play. Whatever the answers may be, they shouldn’t be coming from the public sector. We’re already beginning to see government projects using horrible user interface simplification software, usually sourced from a second-rate university.
The projects usually fail, as they deserve to: imagine what a computer would look like if it had been entirely conceived in a dingy room in Whitehall and a shit ex-polytechnic with no decent engineering or psychology departments and you’ll get the picture.
I am not advocating that we alleviate the collective guilt of society for shuttering our elderly in care homes by replacing the human contact people need with technology or consumer electronics devices. Instead we need to empower old people by giving them access to the education and the tools they need to live in the connected world that so many of us take for granted.
But who is doing it? Hypocrisy runs deep when comes to the bandwagon crusades that get waged against society’s foibles. Take the pathological fear of smoking scare campaigns waged at the taxpayer’s expense. Fair enough, you might say: the facts speak for themselves. Smoking kills and costs the NHS billions.
Well, guess what? So does loneliness. It carries a health risk similar to life-long smoking, and that’s before taking into consideration the links between the lack of social engagement and the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, a disease that alone costs the health service up to £14 billion a year.
Loneliness in itself isn’t a wholly bad thing: it can inject an extra burn into sunsets, sharpen the air and intensify the colours of our introspective moments. But when loneliness is the consequence of prolonged isolation, you start to become detached from life. Instead of your senses being sharpened they are numbed; you drift in the empty menace of familiarity, desperately deciphering existence from the pallid stimuli remaining.
The most common charge levelled at social media is that it is causing us to be all alone together. While the accusation isn’t entirely without merit, being alone in the world trumps being alone outside of it. If technology can reattach people to a world that is slipping away from them, it is a job worth doing. And the private sector should be on it: after all, the elderly might be lonely, but many of them are surprisingly, albeit secretly, liquid.