2.5 The Social Aspects of Telematics, Disabled and Elderly People and the Future Challenges

Vappu Taipale and Leonor Moniz Pereira

Citizens, Research and Technology

In the society of tomorrow, technological development is such an inevitable and vigorous trend that neither citizens nor researchers can afford to remain withdrawn from this trend. The general disposition towards scientific research is most impatient these days. Even regarding basic research, the attitude is anticipation of quick results. This leads to a very simplified mode of prioritization placing science in a secondary position. On the other side, the citizens have also become more aware of and more exacting about scientific research than previously. The possibility exists that the public opinion might exert pressure on scientific research with the view of having it directed to some goal, irrespective of the researchers' own interests and wishes. However, the political and ethical viewpoints in relation to scientific research have also been gaining more and more importance in these last few years.

Helga Nowotny points out that already today scientific and technological knowledge production is moving out of the traditional "laboratory model" into an "ecological model" which means that many heterogeneous sites are now to be found in society, which implies that knowledge production itself is becoming socially distributed. Scientific and technical knowledge is thus produced increasingly in different contexts of application, where producers and users act together in a form of co-production. A shift occurs towards transdisciplinary and problem-oriented teams, ideals, skills and experience where the people possessing them are brought together in ever changing and new configurations, often in a temporary or transitory form. At the same time, the necessity to compete and to collaborate simultaneously is emerging.

Welfare Services Facing the Future Needs for Independent Living

All around Europe there is presently a lively discourse about the need for increasing productivity and efficiency of welfare services. Inefficiency in the production of welfare services is certainly most unethical. It is quite as unethical as exclusion of whole population groups from the field of welfare services. The need for efficiency and productivity is based on several different reasons.

Understandably, the first and foremost of these is the economic situation. In very few countries the economy has developed in accordance with previous expectations, particularly in the most industrialized part of the world. Another matter affecting the present debate is the demographic factor. In all the industrialized world, the population is rapidly growing older. Also European countries which presently have a "healthy" type of age structure are evidently facing a quick ageing in the near future. This phenomenon is characterized by the fact that the most rapidly rising age groups are the very oldest, i.e. those consisting of people more than 85 years old. At the same time, the proportion of elderly people living alone is rapidly increasing in OECD-countries.

New visions tend to alleviate some trends which seem to be quite constant concerning social welfare services. Firstly, the future model seems to be based on the principle of local activity. Regionality and locality in the making today emphasize the importance of close-range democracy, familiarity with the own region, and differentiated solutions on regional basis. All this is based on the principle of decentralization gaining ground on a global scale. Of course, there exists a constant tension between centralized and decentralized action which has to be taken into account - the solutions are not easy and simple. The whole idea of future European Union and subsidiarity, the striving for local decision making, the problem of fading local funds and increasing local needs at the level of villages and households show how locality will be a strong power in future, and how important information technology will be fully developing the needed infrastructure.

Secondly, the future mode of organizing the services will be transformed towards flexibility, the multicoloured mode of welfare mix which aims at combining different forms of organizing and producing services with social innovations for their implementation. Increasingly, services are moving to the homes of the patients or customers. This innovative work knows no inviolable factors, be these established administrative borders, settled occupational titles or traditional attitudes. Inside the services there is a compelling challenge to develop working methods (e.g. solution-centred short therapy, network activities, self-help and self-care groups). The demands of flexibility touch on everything performed and provided in the future and here, too, a flexible flow of information is highly important.

Thirdly, the future services will be emphasizing user's viewpoint. Services will be directed on basis of users' estimates of their quality, users' needs and requirements concerning the quantity of services and the mode of their organization will be taken into account more seriously. Professional expertise is inevitable but will be complemented by another type of expertise, i.e. the user's know-how of his/her own life and situation.

Fourthly, welfare services make a most labour-intensive sector. Consequently, the farthest-advanced technology will not be able to replace all the need of living care work between human beings. The task of information technology is to contribute to the restructuring of the work, to intensify all exchange of information and formation of networks, to rationalize the collected data, and, first and foremost, to promote the user's or citizen's independent living. These changes in services can neither be implemented from above, nor from outside, nor by norms and regulations alone. Thus, the welfare services will be more dependent on technology. This then creates a new end user group of "welfare professionals". In fact, the change will become real only with the active participation of the manpower (womanpower) of welfare services - a well educated, ambitious, deeply humanistic resource in this revolutionary work.

Democracy and Telematics

Technology has decisively entered the society and the everyday lives of its citizens. It has seized the role of an "actor", anyhow having the property of cutting both ways. On the one side, technology, especially telematics is a partner in our daily lives with a facilitating influence on the living of each of us. On the other side, the technological lifestyle is unavoidably connected with an uninterrupted increase in the number and complexity of information systems. From the viewpoint of ordinary citizens, this makes understanding the totality of technology difficult, thus easily alienating them from the decision-making in matters of their immediate interest. This problem can briefly be defined as one of democracy of technology. To what degree is it possible for an ordinary citizen to understand technology and influence it? Telematics has a very decisive role in social integration; it can give the most equal opportunities to everyone, be she/he a young, old, able-bodied or disabled person as long as their needs are taken into account right form the beginning.

These questions have relevance specially in relation to groups who are thought to be outside the limits of normal productive life. Elderly and disabled persons, for example, are more than often faced with situations in which "normal technology" is inapplicable for them. This can be for a variety of reasons: sometimes technology has not been planned for the most demanding situation or the training needs for the development of the user's ability to use the equipment or service were not foreseen, and sometimes proper account is not taken of the extra help that is required to allow the service to attain its purpose and optimize its potential use. What is needed is a new kind of awareness of the social character of technology. Along with the fast development of technology, the related social requirements, the evaluations, and - more than anything else - the knowledge basis, are rapidly changing. One of the greatest challenges of the future will be integration of the accumulating experience and specialized skills development of this field in the developing technology and its overall evaluation.

Because the social structure as well as the society is rapidly changing, the developed systems should be as far as possible accessible to all. A piece of equipment that is meant for everyone has additional advantages because it comprehends a much larger number of users, and is therefore, less expensive in the general context of society. Technical solutions could be planned from the very beginning taking care of the needs of the whole society. In order to be able to cope with these requirements, technology needs to be thought of in a more "integrated" way responding at the same time to accessibility problems raised by all kinds of functional problems of elderly and disabled people in relation to physical access, equipment handling and procedures, comprehension and memorization. In the case of special solutions, services or technical aids for disabled persons and elderly it should be remembered that they should solve the problems of tomorrow, not only the problems of today. Here are the real challenges of future life: to fully use the potentials of technology to overcome old fashioned solutions and processes of marginalization.

The importance of social knowledge related to the adoption and use of technology is particularly apparent in cases concerning special groups like elderly or disabled persons. Social advantages and disadvantages from the use of technology are mostly of a very practical and intimate character for them. Is it preferable to take into use a new aiding device which greatly facilitates daily life but may also reduce personal contacts with nurses/home helpers? It may be assumed that all elderly or disabled people hardly wish to have a device which removes a familiar helper transferring her/him to "more productive" activities. A device aiding hearing or motion improves an elderly person's contact possibilities - however, he/she may have personal reasons for leaving the device unused. Whose point of view should prevail in a case like this?

In the development of technology it is of importance to see the fact that elderly and disabled people are experiencing and "modelling" technology in their own particular way. This world of their own experiences might well be utilized as a valuable information source for estimation of the social usability of technology. The more devices-based prospects for facilitating daily life will be there, the more pronounced will become the role of these groups in the indication of value judgement problems related to technology.

Technology can be regarded as a synthesis of human and mechanical factors, of social and technical aspects, a kind of an actor-hybrid in the field of society, as Bruno Latour indicates. On the one hand, technology widens the scope of human activities, on the other hand it has the effect of reformulating conditions for social behaviour. Representing this type of a synthesis, technology for elderly and disabled is serving as perhaps the most illustrative expression of the meeting of the technical and the social, the human and the non-human. Taking this viewpoint, the research and development of information technology not only has to be considered a necessary, but in fact an absolute prerequisite for future society, and this research and development has to take into account the needs and requirements of elderly and disabled people.


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