March 2014


Old folks, new technology

By Robyn Annear
© Darren Pateman / Fairfax Syndication

© Darren Pateman / Fairfax Syndication

Can senior citizens bridge the digital divide?

Albert was an early adopter. In 1984, aged 68, my father-in-law bought one of Apple’s first Macintosh computers. He followed the set-up instructions until – magic moment – the screen lit up. But barely had he registered the novelty of the Trash icon when his wife, in the kitchen, switched on the blender and the Mac’s screen went black. Albert may have been up to the challenge of IT, but the household wiring was not. The blender was banished to the shed, an early casualty of the digital revolution.

Like a blender, the Mac was ready to use straight out of the box. And it came with a spiral-bound manual that took the user step-by-step through the computer’s set-up and operation. Sure, the Mac was limited and clunky and slow, but to those of us who used one it felt like the future had arrived. It enabled us to do with ease things that had been difficult. It was consistent and (mostly) reliable. It was, in short, a superior appliance. At about 60 times the price of a blender, it bloody well ought to have been.

The dominant technological “interface” of Albert’s formative years in small-town South Australia was mechanical. Next, according to a “Technology Generations” framework devised in 2001, came the electro-mechanical generation (those born between 1930 and 1960), followed by the display generation (1961–70), and the menu generation (1971+) – to which must now be added the touchscreen generation.

The generations are getting shorter, giving younger IT users no chance to rust onto an interface style before the next one comes along. This makes them nimble, adaptable, pliable, shaped by the technology that they use and that uses them. Earlier generations could count on developing an interface style that would last a lifetime, serving them through their working years and bringing a sense of mastery in old age. And now? Speed and change, not efficacy or consistency, are the hallmarks of our technologies and what they demand of us.

The idea that, in our youth, we lay down a mental model based on that era’s prevailing “user interface experience” is one way of explaining why grasping new styles of technology can be a struggle. The ageing process brings cognitive changes, too, that affect our ability to learn and adapt. Cognitive psychologists have found that, although “crystallised intelligence”, related to life experience and acquired knowledge, remains stable with age, “fluid intelligence” – encompassing short-term (working) memory, concentration and spatial cognition – tends to decline. Fluid intelligence is the key to learning new skills and adapting to change; even minor depletion can make an older person’s learning curve far more arduous. 

There will be readers, I know, who take exception to this depiction of dwindling IT aptitude as we age. And it’s true that personality, life experience or genetic good fortune mean that some older users find IT no more confounding than do the rest of us. But for many, the difficulty of acquiring IT proficiency, or even of retaining it, in older age causes real distress and frustration. Some give it up as too demanding. Faced with a choice between the life-eating propensities of the digital habit and doing the things they’d rather do, the way they’d rather do them – between the Mac and the blender, in effect – they opt to stick with what they know.

Concern over ageing and the “digital divide” centres on issues of social isolation, health and exclusion from the digital economy. Governments – just like private enterprise – have found “clear cost-benefits” in shifting online as many of their services as possible. But older people are disproportionately disadvantaged by this shift. For those without IT skills and internet access, it has become harder to find information, register a warranty, enter a competition or submit a form. And the new nationwide eHealth system is beyond the reach of many who would most benefit from improved monitoring and access to their medical records.

So where are the main-street service points offering web searches, downloads, printing and form lodgements? Post offices and libraries, the last bastions of shopfront public service, are ill-equipped to meet the needs of those stranded on the digital dark side. Rather than bridge the divide by providing actual services, governments have relied on a pseudo-philosophy of empowerment: if they want fish, teach them how to use a fishing rod.

Since 2009, the federal government has funded about 2000 “Broadband for Seniors” kiosks, staffed by volunteer tutors in community centres, retirement villages and seniors’ clubs around Australia. Besides aiming to address the access disparity, this and other IT training initiatives recognise that digital engagement can improve cognitive functioning and maintain independence in older adults, while email, photo-sharing, Skype and other social media promote connectedness and wellbeing. (With over-65s now Facebook’s fastest growing market, scrutiny by grandparents is said to be a factor in the social network’s waning popularity among teenagers.)

Broaching the digital realm at, say, age 65 requires a leap of imagination and a certain surrendering of self. And it can be no toe-in-the-water approach. Immersion, repetition and time – lots of time – are needed. And support, but where does that come from? A recent pilot program in regional South Australia supplied participants, aged 65 and over, with a laptop or iPad, internet connection, one-on-one tuition, and in-home support for a year. To scale up the project’s benefits for the wider aged community, said the University of Adelaide project team, would require not just ongoing and personalised training and support but a “seniors technology bonus” to assist with the cost of IT and internet access, “try before you buy” programs, assistance with set-up, and simplified explanations of internet service plans.

For now, though, classes are too infrequent, courses too short. (My home town’s “Broadband for Seniors” kiosk operates just one morning a week.) And once you’re home alone with the infernal machine, who can you call on for help? Family and friends tend to be of limited use, lacking time, patience, proximity, or all three. I once tried to instruct my mother, by phone, in the operation of a computer mouse, which must rank with juggling custard as an exercise in futility.

Mastery is hard enough to come by, and then things change. Digital flux poses the biggest challenge to older technology generations, those who grew up with knobs and dials and single-purpose contraptions that, once mastered, stayed mastered. Even a minor upgrade (so-called) can shatter a hard-won and fragile sense of competence. What’s happened to my inbox? Where did the print icon go? New versions of software in which usability – let alone familiarity – is sacrificed to novelty are said to suffer from “functional bloat” or “feature creep”. For novice IT users, this can mean a constant battle between the task they’re trying to accomplish and the tyranny of software. Try typing the minutes of a meeting and Word will insist on imposing bullet points, a heading hierarchy and an outline (whatever that is). “The real function of the feature,” admits Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley insider and the author of You Are Not a Gadget, “isn’t to make life easier for people.”

Experts in the field of gerontechnology contend that the IT industry ought to consider the needs of older users, arguing that they’re a potentially lucrative market and that modifications for their sake will also benefit other users. Suggested improvements include an adaptive framework, whereby software would personalise itself to the user’s preferences: things like adopting larger text and streamlined menus. Surely Microsoft, with its market dominance and Bill Gates’s record of philanthropy, would be well positioned to develop such a framework, as well as to build more cross-generational capacity (say, the option to retain a “classic” interface) into new versions of its ubiquitous Windows operating system and Office software.

On the other hand, there’s a widespread expectation that, with the passing of the pre–World War Two generation – who had little or no exposure to IT in their working lives – the problem will largely disappear. In the United States, the Pew Research Center reports a steady rise in web users aged over 65, with the current figure (54% in 2013) roughly equating to that of the 50–64 age group in a survey a decade earlier. They’re pretty much the same people, just ten years older. The relative ease of touch technologies suggests that, in ten years’ time, many more older people will be digitally engaged.

Soon after that, if you believe the hype, old age may itself cease to be an issue. Google last year established its Calico biotech project, with the stated goal of combating ageing and, ultimately, “solving death”. One of those on the Calico team is the inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil, who, in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, predicted that before mid century humans will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain”.  Become immortal, in other words.

It sounds like science fiction, but Google hired Kurzweil last year not as something kooky, like  AOL’s “Digital Prophet”, but as chief engineer. In the shorter term, Kurzweil and others at Google are working on perfecting speech- and image-recognition technology, using deep-learning software that attempts to recognise patterns by mimicking the brain’s neural activity. “As we understand how the brain does intelligent things,” says Kurzweil, “we can create more intelligent machines.” He believes parallel advances in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will enable the augmentation of body and mind, eliminating disease, ageing and death (at least for the elite few who can afford it), so that eventually humans and machines will be indistinguishable.

The serious intent is further reflected in the search giant’s recent acquisition of DeepMind, a leading artificial intelligence (AI) developer working at the interface of neuroscience and technology. A condition of the acquisition was that Google, whose corporate credo is “Don’t be evil”, establish an ethics board to prevent abuse of AI technology. “My number one risk for this century” is how computer scientist Shane Legg, one of DeepMind’s founders, rates the risk AI poses to humanity.

That risk is the endpoint alluded to in Jaron Lanier’s remark that the real function of a domineering software feature is not to make life easier for people. “Instead,” Lanier goes on, “it promotes a new philosophy: that the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves.”  But old or young, online or offline, take faint heart from this: deep-learning software gets smart by scanning the contents of the entire internet, drawing on our collective knowledge, experience and existence. Even if only as an entry in a phone directory, you are already part of the machine.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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