Can Technologies Fix Our Aging Societies?

by Leo Matteo Bachinger

Once the “Golden Age”, late life today appears increasingly problematic: late life has become a site of controversy. Asia (most prominently Japan), Australia, Canada, Europe and the US are facing the “greying” of societies in terms of a “care crisis”: With longer life spans and sinking birth rates, western societies struggle to finance and ensure the quality of their health and eldercare systems.

The good news is, we already seem to have found a solution: Technologies feature prominently in Europe’s care policy as well as in the US presidential plans (cf. this fact sheet, this recent statement, or this article). But what do these solutions look like? Two corporate films of LeadingAge, a key policy maker in the US eldercare sector, offer a glimpse into the technological future of caring.

These portrayals propose a technological fix – solving our societal problems with a technological response. New devices ought to step in and take over the job of caring for our aging parents and grandparents. This is their purpose: Taking over our job of providing care. Watching the films, one would easily be ready to buy into this vision.

But should we be rooting for such solutions? It is intriguing imagining the easy fit of delegating care work. But focusing on this utility misses an important question: What is the impact for practices and relationships of care when they are increasingly delegated to machines?

Watch the films again. And this time come up with answers to three questions. Note them down (and feel free to post your responses in the comments below!).

  • Who is tasked with providing care? To whom?
  • How is the technology used by different kinds of users: doctors and nurses; seniors; relatives?
  • After answering (2): How do relationships of care change when these new technologies enter the arena?

Focusing on utility limits us to ask for what technologies can do for us. And indeed LeadingAge’s devices appear to serve a utilitarian purpose: What they are doing for us is – in its essence – getting rid of the burden of care. My questions on the other hand aim at avoiding this one-sided perspective. My own answers may illustrate:

  • As technology steps in, family members are involved in caring only as they occasionally “check” one’s status via web-tools and over distance. It is the medical expert who provides care: doctors and nurses. They offer advice to their clients. The clients receive the advice and oblige.
  • Technologies mediate these exchanges of advice and obligation. They are applied by “care providers” as tool for a) monitoring and b) transmitting corrective intervention (advice on treatments, exercises, meal plans, medication,). In turn, “care recipients” ought to use the technologies in exactly this sense: as mere recipients (of advice).
  • Connect the dots: We recognize a one-directional, authoritarian ideology of technology (providers act, recipients oblige, with power concentrated at one end of the spectrum). This ideology gets exposed in the very terminology of care: it has providers, recipients, appears as burden.
    Care is about caring for.

Winner argues “that technologies are […] powerful forces acting to reshape […] activity and its meaning”. Technologies are political in this sense. Thinking through the questions I suggested reveals how technology can replicate, materialize and foster an authoritarian ideology of care: by perpetuating authoritarian care (i.e. the assumption of one-sided relationships between “providers” and “recipients”) in establishing social relations. Utility asks for what technology can do for us. Understanding the politics of technology points us to how we do things (care, for example) with technology. This is why we need to reflect carefully on the decisions we make by building technological solutions to the “care crisis”. Especially since these solutions affect those that are perhaps most vulnerable: those in need of care.

It is we who need to engage with these questions: We, who buy and set up the technologies in our own homes. We, who develop or fund them. And we, who decide to give them a go. Such technologies are promising to be a major part of the solution to challenging problems. Yet, we should not easily buy into them without getting a chance to ask our questions.

These are the questions we need to deal with: What can late life mean? What key values for caring do we want to agree upon? How can we arrive at a more inclusive society that abandons the idea of care as one-sided encounter? I think this is what we need to pay careful attention to. And we should do so before we come up with our technological solutions. So we are capable of lessening the burden of care by allowing late life to become golden age again.

Leo Matteo Bachinger recently finished his MA in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Vienna and is now continuing his studies as PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is particularly interested in interactions of society and technology and in investigating alternative modes of technology development.