Following events about virtual reality and tech accessibility at the North London branch, committee member Maureen Childs MBCS and Erwin Schaefer MBCS explore how older people may feel excluded from benefits of technology and how a few small changes could make a big difference to IT use by seniors.

Imagine the past… primitive computers, the size of a room, used exclusively by top companies, universities or government agencies. No internet exists and nobody knows what ‘social media’ is supposed to be. To call somebody, you use a rotary-dial telephone attached to a socket in the wall. You have three or four TV stations but they shut around midnight. To get your news, you purchase your favourite newspaper in print. To buy anything, you pay by cash or perhaps by cheque. If you are young and love music you might carry a cassette Walkman around with you. And nobody can contact you if they don’t know where you are.

The state of the nation

Fast forward  a few decades to arrive in a world where computers have become ubiquitous and where their use has changed the world beyond recognition – at least if you’re part of a generation that has known life and work without them.

So, are today’s seniors just annoying relics of a bygone era? People who should just adapt to all that exciting new technology and accept the realities of this Brave New World? That isn’t a fair assessment.

Making the change

In the last decade there have been numerous reports produced by many responsible organisations including the World Health Organization and UK government, to highlight the potential problems with senior IT use, or lack of use. The reports gave a stark reminder of how the lack of use of technology, for whatever reason, has caused desperate isolation and the knock-on effects of this on a large proportion of the UK population.

To explore the many accessibility problems as well as the new capabilities of technology, BCS North London branch held two informative and interactive events. The first event was in early February, held in conjunction with Cassette, a company that specialises in ‘virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive technology’? for use in health and social welfare. Virtual reality was chosen as the event topic to address inclusion, entertain and dispel fears of the unknown.

In the second event, entitled digital inclusion, the North London branch invited a number of London seniors to discuss the problems they had with accessing the internet - there were as many problems as people. They involved logistical problems like not having the dexterity to use touch screens, the print of websites being too small, not remembering passwords, incompatibility issues between platforms, not to mention security problems, confusing upgrades and contact with criminal intent.

There are plenty of people in their 70s and older who have taken enthusiastically to new technology. There are many more people who confidently grew into the computer-age during their careers, but might be baffled and annoyed by the constant introduction of new apps and ever more prolific communication formats. And then there are those who have sidestepped technology, who are unaware of even the basic aspects of the digital age. There might be health reasons or a disability making it difficult for them to use computers unaided, there might have been a lack of opportunities to gain exposure to computers during their lives, there might well be an element of apprehension involved as well.

Doing our duty

As members of a compassionate society, we should encourage an inclusive attitude toward more vulnerable people by assisting those that are struggling to achieve a dignified level of digital access. There are still too many occasions where older people are simply excluded from social activities or even a meaningful and useful work experience because they do not receive the comparatively modest assistance and encouragement that would enable them to fully participate in society.

While suggestions for a more age-friendly society are being made by the World Health Organization and filtering through to countries adopting the concept of Age Friendly Cities, there still needs to be more work at a grassroots level. Leaving digital inclusion and training to unqualified overworked librarians, care staff or community volunteers, is simply no longer an option. More and more services, such as basic healthcare, benefits and payments are all moving from a paper-based system to access online.

What needs to be done?

Looking to the future, there needs to be a national programme of IT inclusion. This needs to address everything from the physical design of hardware to software right through to relevance and usability, with a good level of professional training. There needs to be, not only a plan of change but a culture of accountability to ensure that everyone - seniors, returning parents, people with disabilities, new citizens, young people - are not disadvantaged and can make the same digital journey as those who are a little more tech-savvy.

Are we heading in the right direction?

We also need to ask: ‘where is digital technology leading us?’ There are many useful aspects that we would not want to lose again - not everyone is a passionate gamer but many of us enjoy having access to web links about science, culture, literature and a democratic level of political involvement that is enabled by digital media. Almost everyone has an email address, these days, to communicate. And what about those amazing miniature computers we carry around with us - calling them a ‘phone’, or even a ‘smart phone’ almost does not do them justice. 

But, are we sure we know all the potential consequences of the digitalisation of our lives? Can we be confident with the structures in place that are supposedly safeguarding our digital activities? Can we be assured that our data is not being misused? Have we not had ample evidence recently about manipulative advertising on social media to influence voters’ attitudes? Can we honestly say that this enormous phenomenon called ‘social media’ is automatically a force for good?

A digital transformation of life

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will inevitably bring change - sometimes welcome, sometimes not. It is up to society to make sure that if we make sweeping changes, in the name of efficiency and cost saving, will they be suitable for everyone? If we move the entire payment structure onto digital platforms, removing our access to cash at the same time, would we really be comfortable with the potential for abusive control of our digital visibility? Similar questions can be asked about any of the other digital information pieces about us, floating around in cyberspace, be they of a medical, professional or political nature.

We are at a point where questioning our almost total reliance, or perhaps even obsession, with computers and digital media should be part of a civic debate in which today’s seniors should have a voice. They carry the memories and wisdom of a life without any of that technology; they can tell us how to have a human-to-human relationship not involving screens, keyboards, passwords, apps, Facebook or Twitter. For the modest assistance needed by some elderly computer users, that generation can more than pay back all of society, if only we start taking them seriously as mature and insightful members of an inclusive society.