In 2000, I made some predictions about technology use in social services. How did I do?

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In June 2000, I was part of a discussion looking at what our community might look like in 20 years – Predictions 2020. You can download the complete proceedings (PDF). There are some great ideas and interesting conversations. The gist of the day was: “What does the future hold? This is something about which most of us wonder. With a clear understanding of the challenges before us and the development of a common goal, to some extent that future can be molded. It was with this in mind that we held the Predictions 2020 forum. The intention was to bring together the ideas, hopes and concerns for the future that exist among human service providers and members of our community so as to better prepare for the future.”

My role was to look at technology in human services.

The final proceedings document discussed technology in the preamble:

How will our lives be further changed by new technologies? As Donald Norman, a professor of psychology and cognitive science, says, “Technology changes rapidly; people change slowly.” Does this mean that the gap in society between the technology (i.e. the Internet) literate and illiterate will grow as time goes on? As academic and writer Dale Spender points out, “Just as the information medium once changed from manuscript to print, now it is changing from print to digital. And just as those who were illiterate in a print based society have been kept ‘out of the loop’ and unable to participate fully in the community, so now are computer illiterate people facing a similar fate as ‘outsiders’.” The issue of a societal gap resulting from rapid technological development and adaptation by only a portion of society could easily cause the gap between rich and poor to grow in this age where information (and access to information) is as good as gold.

How will technology affect the functioning and delivery of human services? Will it facilitate how human services operate, or will it marginalize people further? Will community organizations be reluctant to incorporate too much technology for fear of isolating some of their clients? Will small organizations secure greater access to resources, and be able to share innovative ideas better since organizing person-to-person meetings can be difficult? Or will there be a loss of innovation through the lack of personal contacts as people meet less and less often? In short, will we drive technology or will technology drive us?

Below is what I said at the discussion. I think it still fits for today and how we should approach technology in our work in social and human services.

Some quotable predictions about technology

Before we look ahead 20 years it might be worthwhile to look back 20 years to see what a few people had to say about the future of technology.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” (Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder in 1981)

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” (Kenneth H. Olson, President of Digital Equipment, Convention of the World Future Society, 1977)

Even more telling is something that was said last year, “Technology is the expression of the society; it is an expression of the values and the abilities of the people that generate it. It is indeed a most revealing indicator of our society. And the fact is that technology in turn shapes the values of a society and of its people.” (George Bugliarello, http://www.isepp.org/1998/drgeorge.htm)

Defining technology

Simply put, technology is tools we use or processes we use to accomplish something.

Technology is all around us. Here is just some technologies we’ve become used to in our offices:

  • Computers
  • Phone systems
  • Voice mail
  • Couriers
  • Faxes
  • Carbon copies
  • Photocopiers
  • Laser printers
  • Colour printers
  • Alarm systems
  • Coffee machines
  • Fridges
  • Microwave ovens
  • Heating and cooling systems
  • Scanners
  • Modems
  • Internet
  • Pagers
  • Cell phones
  • Local area networks
  • Internal email
  • Headsets for phones
  • Ergonomic keyboards
  • Typewriters
  • Palm pilots/personal devices
  • Databases
  • Pencils, pens

Technology, the last 20 years

Here is a quick timeline of the progress of technology over the last 20 years. (http://ox.compsoc.net/~swhite/timeline.html)

1980 – DOS developed “DOS addresses only 1 Megabyte of RAM because we cannot imagine any
applications needing more.” (Microsoft on the development of DOS.)
1982 – 80286 Released
1985 – Microsoft Windows
1990 – World Wide Web
1993 – Mosaic – first popular graphical Web browser
1994 – Netscape Navigator version 1 released
1995 – Windows 95 released

Let’s focus on information technology, because that’s what I’m most familiar with and I think that it is the technology we hear the most about these days.

Where are we now with information technology?

The Internet has rapidly become a commercialized phenomenon, driven by business and commerce, becoming a world of entertainment and information. It’s estimated that computers double their speed and capacity every 18 months. Public access to the Internet is increasing in major urban centres. Computer prices are dropping as their capacity increases.

We’re bombarded with advertisements and information about the next best “killer app” and telling us to “imagine a world…”.

At the same time, the gap between the technology haves and have-nots is constantly growing and will most likely continue to increase. Owning a computer and getting high speed Internet access is still out of reach for many people in our society. Ambitious estimates say that maybe 30% of Canadians actually have Internet access at home or in their workplace.

Information is available in an unprecedented quantity. You’re a click away from medical advice, a company’s annual report, your member of parliament, a friend living across the ocean, news all day every day, more information than you could ever actually make effective use of in a given day. The ability to collaborate with colleagues without geographic barriers is possible.

Sharing information and resources, collaborating with each other in an open and transparent way. They say that almost anything is technologically possible, what could the future hold?

What could the future look like?

“Information and communications technologies and being able to access the Information Highway, the Internet, does not necessarily automatically lead to wisdom, good decisions, happiness or any of those kinds of things. And we need better decision making in many areas of life and the information and communications technologies may help us get better information, but good decision making for a just society will depend on wisdom, judgement, analytical skills, and values just as they always have, and wisdom we are told comes from experiences of life, sense of history, the natural and social sciences, from ethics and philosophy, and not the computer chip, and so the kind of people we create out of this society will be more important even than the kinds of technologies we have.” (David Crane, Economics Editor, Toronto Star, http://www.candesign.utoronto.ca)

Some interesting trends, outlined by the Communications Research Centre of Industry
Canada: (http://www.crc.ca.)

“There is a heightened expectation for interfaces that are better-designed and simpler to use. A new generation of non windows-based computer interface technologies are on the horizon that will be improved sufficiently during the next decade including:

  • speech recognition and natural language interfaces;
  • virtual reality environments;
  • intelligent agents;
  • information filters, and;
  • social presence in collaborative environments;

The practical consequence of heightened expectations for more sophisticated user interfaces is a need for much more complex software.

Demand for ubiquitous communications services offering access to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, appears to be worldwide. Among service offerings that are driving the systems and support technologies required to provide ubiquitous communications are:

  • wireless public telephone, office communication services and multimedia services;
  • remote mobile data communication services;
  • secure communication services;
  • personal security services, and;
  • mobile information services like position location, vehicle identification, weather and route.”

Apparently, the future is wireless, secure, and personal!

There is, and will continue to be, increasing demand, dependency and requirement for access to information wherever and whatever it is. The emerging future global network will provide a powerful and versatile environment for business, education, culture, and entertainment. Sight, sound, and even touch will be integrated through powerful computers, displays, and networks. People will use this environment to work, study, bank, shop, entertain, and visit with each other. Whether at the office, at home, or travelling, the environment and its interface will be largely the same. Security, reliability, and privacy will be built in.

Customers will have the choice of different levels at varying price points. It is intended that this dramatically different environment will provide a more agile economy, improved health care (particularly in rural areas), less stress on the ecosystem, easy access to life-long and distance
learning, a greater choice of places to live and work, and more opportunities to participate in the
community, the nation, and the world.

Welcome to Utopia!

What does it all mean for us as non-profits?

What I think this means in some practical terms is that people will be looking, as they always do, for communities of interest, places to join and belong. They will also be looking for some way to manage the information overload that already exists and will continue to grow. The advent of “My Yahoo” (http://my.yahoo.com/) where surfers can personalize their Internet interface will only grow and become more popular.

What that means is the way we provide and communicate information will have to change and there will be more urgency to share information and resources. The Internet could actually force some organizations to become more collaborative, which can be quite threatening. The culture of the Internet is about openness and sharing. It flies in the face of traditional economic models, where things are generally offered to consumers for free. This trend will most likely only continue and those that don’t subscribe to it will find themselves left behind by those who offer the public access to information and resources.

So, we can see the future as an opportunity or a threat, but the reality is that things are moving at an exceptionally fast rate of change. The question is whether we will seek to be swept along or try to drive some of that change in our interests.

We could end up with a world where:

  • people are isolated in a room or cubicle with Email contact to the rest of the world;
  • meetings happen via video-conference with us wearing sensory suits so that we can nudge our virtual neighbours;
  • the job is never-ending as you can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and;
  • Privacy is lost in the workplace as your boss can monitor your Email, calculate your keystrokes per hour, clock how long (exactly how long) you were in the washroom.

Or could it look like a place where the Internet becomes a tool for us to support our communication and community building? Are we looking at using it as a tool for social change, social participation, community outreach, education and training?

Some questions we need to ask ourselves:

  • How do people relate to information? What information and content do people need? How will people tell their stories?
  • How do we build a community? How do we do it now?
  • We can’t divorce ourselves from the fact that we’re already trying to answer those questions now regardless of new information technology. Technology might give us another way to help answer the questions, but it itself is not the answer.
  • How do we create electronic space, electronic platforms which are specifically carved out to serve civil society and non-profits?

One of the things that the average person is losing in this society is their voice. We need to work to build something that Mark Surman, an Internet Consultant, has called an Electronic Commons, an electronic space where we can talk about what it is to be a citizen, what we want our society to look like and ideas for how we can get there. (http://www.candesign.utoronto.ca)

Most of us don’t want to organize a revolution and we don’t necessarily want to stand on street corners to have the discussion. We need more spaces where ideas can be shared, not intellectualized, and we need to ensure that the so-called “end users” are there, moving the process along, not just following.

Most of us are divorced from information technology tools and what they are creating. We have become a world of experts and we rely on them for our future. If you define an expert, as I have heard it defined, as someone who knows more and more about less and less, we may be heading down a very narrow path, one that is a bit too enamoured with technology from a product perspective rather than a process perspective.

By process, I’m talking about something that all of us are already engaged in, the social development and community development process. Information technology has been made quite incredibly useful for the business and corporate community. In our work we are being told ever more to work more like a business, generate revenue, become competitive, serve our customers, etc.. While we have much to learn from the business community, we must ask ourselves, if they are meeting us halfway and learning from what we have to offer. Are we asking them to?

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with newer information technologies. I use them every day and couldn’t really see my life without them now, but I think it’s important to be skeptical, and think critically and question the conventional wisdom of our times. Questioning and thinking critically means becoming informed and that takes time – a luxury many of us don’t always have. But it is time well spent, because this technology is shaping our lives and the lives of the people we serve. They are more likely to be the technology have-nots and therefore it is important that we try to be points of access and information for them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll walk into your organization and hop on a computer and surf the net, or maybe eventually it does. But, for now, think of how you can bridge the technology gap for them. It doesn’t even have to mean stepping out of the role you already play for them, it just means adding another tool to your repertoire. You’re already a bridge to something for them. Think of this as an extension of that role.

When we talk about technology we need to keep in mind that, for technology to be useful and used by us, it must be incorporated into the work that we already do. If we just make it something that gets added to our work we will end up being driven by it. And it will drive us because the obsession in our society with technology is not going to go away and it will affect us, whether in private or at work.

To get anywhere in the future that we think we want to go, we need to step back and learn the
basics. We need to work together to develop standards so that anyone can work with the
information we create.

So, what are some of the fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves?

a) We need to know what some of the trends are:

  • How can we better track and respond to community trends?
  • What is useful to the people we serve? What is useful to us?
  • What government policies can help us? How will the government’s vision affect us?
  • What is the industry “vision” for this technology? How will that affect us?

b) We need to make a concerted effort to become technologically literate: (Welcome to your learning curve!)

  • Where does this technology fit into my day-to-day work? How can it help me to accomplish the goals of my work, my organization, my vision of what my community should look like?

c) We need to look at how we define community development:

  • Are we prepared to share with each other more and more?
  • How are we positioned to work through the information and power issues that technology represents? By this I mean that if information technology does indeed become ubiquitous, how will we change what we do to still be important to our clients?

Ultimately, the role of Community Information Centres and Social Planning Councils will become
even more important to us all as we look to work and collaborate across our various community
sectors.

One thing is for sure. This kind of discussion and sharing of ideas cannot end today. This kind
of forum is important, but it’s difficult for us all to get together like this. With the Internet we can
bridge this geographical gap and continue our discussion online, either via the Web or via Email.
Those of us here today who are interested can ensure that the things we talk about today do not
simply become predictions that we sit back and wait to see happen, but become goals that we
work toward.

(image credit Ed Schipul, reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0)

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