An ageing digital population

My wife and I spent last weekend pottering around the sleepy villages of North Norfolk. Vegas it isn’t, but having dropped the kids off with grandparents, we had two days to recharge and spend some time together. It was a nice little break, but one experience has stayed with me.

We were queuing to pay for some bits and bobs in a branch of Boots, when I noticed that the lady in front of me, in her early 70s I would guess, was becoming increasingly distraut as she attempted to pay for her items. She appeared to have some difficulty with fine motor control, had a shake that became more and more noticable as she became more upset, and in the end she gave up and decided to pay with cash.

Fifteen years or so ago I had had a similar experience when working at the London School of Economics. A well-reknowned Sociologist had come back to the School after a number of years of working in Israel, and I had the task of updating his decrepit and dusty 286-powered, MS-DOS IBM PC with a newer model which was running Windows 95. Stan, although not that old, had a fairly awful shake, and his motor control was just not up to the niceties of double clicking and pointing with a mouse. The struggle to get used to a shift in operating system was confounded by it’s inability to deal with someone without good co-ordination.

I saw some research recently that showed that the biggest age group for the purchasing and use of tablets was the over 55s. The baby-boomers are tech savvy and, if not early adopting, are certainly at the front of mass adoption of new form factors of technology. And yet these devices, which are nothing without software, are being coded for by those in their twenties and thirties. I fear a gap opening, and one of mis-matches in generational culture.

The two stories I told above are a key example of this. It’s really easy to fall into a problem/solution trap when it comes to defining new technology, and when the young (or in my case the “still thinks he’s young but has to accept at least some of the reality of his personal situation”) look at the old, the temptation is to focus on problem solving: therefore let’s focus on the problems of being old; therefore solutions to failing faculties.

Now all of that is important – I for one had never considered how locked out of the modern world of commerce one would be without the ability to reliably enter a PIN – but it runs the risk of being terribly patronising. There’s lots of talk about how the world of Apps is “democratising” the world of software development. Maybe making sure that there is true representation in the cross-section of society that is given the knowledge of how to exploit the wonderful devices we now have at our disposal, rather than targetting the (as one of my colleagues would put it) “hoodie-wearing start up coders” that tends to be the major focus of the tech world. That way there is more likelihood that there will be great ideas coming from across our societal wealth of knowledge and experience, rather than just some crass assumptions and shoe-horning of zeitgeist concepts to solve “problems” that aren’t really there (at at least are the really important things in life).

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