Age and Income: Unwanted effects on technology utilization?

5 05 2010

It is no secret that the population in the United States is ageing at a rapid rate. This can largely be attributed to the baby boomers following the end of World War II who are now the ones entering retirement age en mass. The United States Department of Health and Human Services Department on Aging estimates that adults age 65 or older will account for 19% of the United States population by 2030, equivalent to 72 million people. Similar trends are beginning to play out in other countries around the globe as well.

Since it seems that there are more people ageing during a period in history where technology is increasingly becoming ingrained with every day lifestyles, where do older adults fit in this situation? That is one of several interesting topics analyzed at a recent presentation by one of my master’s program classmates, JQ Abbey. As more people enter into convalescence, how are they to interact with the latest technological breakthroughs in digital communications?

Attempts are being made to get older adults not just online but comfortable enough in using online technology to realize the great potential that the Internet holds at any age. Silver Surfer’s Day is an annual event begun in 2002 where various events are held around the United Kingdom to help older adults understand and utilize digital technology. This year’s events are taking place on May 21. In addition to providing Internet assistance, Silver Surfer’s Day events can take on many forms in bridging the gap between older adults and cutting edge technology. Resources for utilizing social media tools such as Twitter, how to play interactive video games or using digital cameras to upload pictures online are all possible topics discussed at these events.

If events such as these were taken away, how would older adults gain hands-on experience with new technology? Some might say that their children can teach them. This seems more like a cope out for several reasons. For one thing, their children are adults themselves with adult responsibilities that come with living their own lives such as jobs and raising their own children. Secondly, time can be a highly elusive entity. In order for an older adult to become familiarized with the latest technological tools, incremental steps will likely need to be taken along with plenty of time to answer any questions that are almost guaranteed to surface. Finally, what about older adults without any offspring? Are they just deemed unlucky and therefore unable to be taught how to use a laptop computer to surf the Internet?

Older adults are not the only members of worldly populations who are at a disadvantage in using technology. My classmate’s presentation also pointed out that children and families in lower income areas also experiencing similar problems. When money is limited, many families cannot afford Internet service, but efforts are underway in attempts to lessen the “digital gap” that results in such situations. One effort is the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation, which is an intensive program that provides technology skills training to children and their parents from economic disadvantaged urban areas. The program takes place in the children’s own school, often on weekends, where teachers help to facilitate the skills training. The benefits from this approach are multifaceted:

  • Parent/child bonds can strengthen
  • Parental communication and trust with their child’s teacher are increased
  • Community involvement is encouraged
  • Completing the program provides child and parent with greater confidence and ability to use different technological tools and resources

What is most interesting about these paradigms is that they focus on a shared problem between two seemingly unique populations. For older adults, they often lack familiarity with technology such as computers and how to use the Internet. For families living in lower economic levels, often access and training for technology use is lacking. However, clearly benefits can be realized by addressing these groups. The aforementioned programs are steps in the right direction. This is especially true when considering that a recent BBC World Service poll found nearly four out of five people consider Internet access to be a fundamental human right. With that kind of sentiment being clearly documented, more efforts need to be made to allow humans of all ages comfort in using the basic modern technologies.

If privacy and the Internet is a disparate match, is sacred personal space an endangered phenomenon?

5 03 2010

Privacy is something we think we know. However, if you asked someone to define privacy half a century ago, I can almost guarantee that his or her answer would be noticeably different from the answer someone in the present would provide. In essence, what we consider privacy is not what it used to be. A significant influence contributing to the changing perspective on privacy is the Internet.

The Internet is a vast, often uncontrollable, entity that has provided many significant breakthroughs in the ways humans interact. It in due to this influence that some claim the idea of privacy has been turned upside down. Having just completed Daniel Solove’s book, the future of reputation, I am forced to consider how privacy is morphing towards a potential extinction.

Although Solove presents numerous perspectives regarding privacy and personal reputation within online communities, several factors stood out to me in particular.

The first factor is age. When is too young for someone to be inputting their life’s details online for the entire world to absorb? Seven years old is too young in my opinion. This is an example that Solove referenced in that seven year olds are now blogging on the Internet. This presents several problems. For one thing, at seven years old, children are unable to perceive the repercussions of their actions. This is particularly true with regard to intangibles such as online, electronic submissions. Secondly, at such a young age, a person lacks the maturity to effectively weigh risk. In turn, tremendous vulnerability can spring from seemingly innocent blog posts. What happens if a child posts their home address or phone number? If a pedophile happens to be tracking the blog, a serious problem could spring from this seemingly innocent contribution to the online world. Furthermore, actions by minors online affect their parents, as parents are the ones who are legally responsible for their children’s conduct. This allows for the possibility that parents, in addition to their child, could face overtly negative consequences from sharing information online.

Underlying everyone of the privacy related issues examined in Solove’s book are norms. In Solove’s own words, “a norm is a rule of conduct, one less official than a law, but sometimes as improper to transgress…Norms are widely known and widely observed rules of social conduct (84).” That being said, norms serve as the foundation to individual and societal actions. As such, norms have traditionally provided everyone a sense of entitlement to live their life with a measured degree of secrecy, a separation between one self and the prying eyes and ears of others.

Please reread the prior sentence, placing emphasis on the word traditionally.

The Internet may be changing not just the premise of privacy but also the relevancy of the entire concept. One consideration Solove touches on in the book is if privacy has a place in the future? Will there be a need, desire or ability to maintain privacy as humans rapidly accelerate deeper into the twenty-first century? Pondering this possibility within group discussions, classmates of mine predicted what norms maybe utilized in the year 2020 regarding privacy. The primary norms that were predicted include:

  • No anonymous posts online, everything is tied to an identity
  • Opt-in security and privacy protection measures instead of opt-out
  • Expectation to share life online, possibly ostracized if not
  • Expected to make connections with others so as to remain socially relevant
  • Always on, some degree of constant functionality online

I cannot claim to know how many, if any, of these predictions will prove the test of time. One point was raised though relating to these predictions that makes me seriously doubt the benefit of eroding privacy. If privacy were essentially to be expunged, replaced with an always-on mentality, would people become masks or illusions of their true selves as a default protective mechanism to being constantly exposed? Fear of being ostracized for expressing true feelings, opinions and perspectives would result in people living within a shell of their true identities because of the ever-present knowledge that someone is watching.