Older Adults as Critical Adopters and Resistors of Technology

Inclusive Design

Collaborators Northumbria University

Abstract

We argue that while many older adults are circumspect users of digital technology, they bring rich and critical perspectives on the role of technology in society that are grounded in lived experiences across their life courses.

Method

We report on 20 technology life story interviews conducted with retirees over the age of 60.

Takeaways

Our analysis shows how experiences of technology across their life courses significantly undermined participants’ sense of competency, independence, resilience, agency and control.

While HCI research has often addressed the needs of older adults, they are often framed as being sceptical of digital technologies. We argue that while many older adults are circumspect users of digital technology, they bring rich and critical perspectives on the role of technology in society that are grounded in lived experiences across their life courses.

We report on 20 technology life story interviews conducted with retirees over the age of 60. Our analysis shows how experiences of technology across their life courses significantly undermined participants’ sense of competency, independence, resilience, agency and control.

Dissonances between what our participants valued and the perceived values of technology have led them to become critical adopters of technology, and resist its intrusion into certain aspects of their lives. We discuss how the critical perspectives of older adults and the value dissonances they experience are valuable for designing future digital technologies.

Our findings clearly intersect with some of the values that the literature has shown to be important for older adults, such as competency, independence, resilience, agency and thriftiness. In our participants’ technology trajectories, these values were woven together through a narrative of control.

Our participants felt they were losing control over their own lives, but they also expressed a sense of lost control across society, in part driven by digital technologies.

Value Dissonances as a Design Material

The technology trajectories of our participants also show that the way they think about digital technologies is grounded on expectations built upon encounters that took place before those technologies were introduced. Often this could mean our participants expected to understand in great detail how their digital devices worked.

We open up different interpretations of older adults’ feelings of inadequacy towards digital technologies: it could very well be that our participants’ expectations in terms of technology understanding are not too high, but rather that the degree of understanding we have come to expect from confident users of digital technology may be too low. This poses the question of how to design digital systems, services and devices that reveal themselves through use and tackle users’ helplessness through understanding.

Circumspection as Everyday Resistance

The concept of value dissonances poses the question of whether older adults’ circumspection towards digital technologies could be interpreted as a political stand or a form of protest.

Connecting older adults’ attitudes towards technology to more political forms of resistance also changes the discourse from one of blame to one of legitimacy. Resistance to digital technology stops being equivalent to resistance to change or to a “(largely irrational) attachment to the status quo", and becomes a justified response to shifts in the technological landscape. It now becomes possible to develop guiding sensitivities for the design of digital systems better aligned to their personal values. Such digital systems would not only be more attuned to our older participants’ values: they would be better technology overall and for all.

The Life Course Perspective and HCI

By drawing attention to how the techno-historical context contributes to perceptions, notions and expectations of technology, the life course perspective also confronts us with the question of how our contemporary technology context - characterised by such things as ubiquitous computation and networking capabilities, bulk data collection, widespread surveillance, the deployment of algorithmic decision making and ever-increasing energy consumption - will shape the understandings and attitudes towards technology of future cohorts of older adults.