The last 10 years has seen a dramatic change in our use of connected, smart devices, but are they creating an unequal world asks Matthew McKenna, PhD candidate, Department of Psychology

Matthew McKenna
The last 10 years has seen a dramatic change in our use of connected, smart devices. With the advent of ‘Quad-Core Computing’ in 2012, the past decade has witnessed an almost exponential increase in the proliferation, availability and computational capacity of computers, smart ‘Wearable Devices’ (WDs), smartphones and vehicles, and many other technologies that together comprise the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). The first quad-core smartphones and tablets were released in 2012, offering a major boost in processing power; representing a substantive step towards the realization of the modern IoT.

The IoT machines that surround us have sensors, processing ability, software, or other technologies that connect and exchange data with each other or the internet, and are marketed as a tool of independence enhancement and overall empowerment for the user. However, the high-tech industry is concerned with retaining the rigid and hugely profitable stratagem of favouring the younger user and has, thus far, been slow to incorporate universal design specifications to accommodate the requirements of older adults or of persons with disabilities.

2012 was also the ‘European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations’ and it also witnessed the publication of the ‘2012 Ageing Report’ by the European Commission. However, despite these arguably juxtaposed developments in the fields of technology and EU strategic initiatives for person-centred and human rights-oriented development, older adults have, in many cases, experienced disempowerment rather than empowerment in an increasingly connected society.
Various reports forecast that the global IoT market will be worth $2,465.26 billion by by 2029, up from $478.36 billion in 2022. This form rapid development has led to uneven progress and a multitude of direct and indirect forms of discrimination throughout society. A significant portion of older adults and pre-retirement age persons have experienced exclusion and reduced ability to engage in their social, private, economic and political lives due to the advent of advanced IoT technologies. Having grown up and experienced adulthood in the pre-cyber age, many among older generations have suddenly found it impossible to continue living a familiar pattern of life in the same manner as they have done for decades.

Rapid technological progress in recent years has led to pronounced levels of ‘generational divides’ regarding ‘familiarity of use’ with high-end technological goods and computational devices such as computers, smart-phones and increasingly, evermore interconnected household appliances and WDs that together utilize smart and IoT technologies. Having lived a greater part of their lives without utility or need for a computational device of any kind such as a home computer or a smart phone with internet connectivity, many older adults view modern technological devices with confusion, hesitancy, or apprehension. On the other hand, for many among younger generations who are familiar with smart devices and IoT technologies, the increasing ubiquity and integration of advanced computational apparatuses has arguably enhanced ease of access to financial resources, job prospects, education, social life, politics and entertainment. This reveals that the manner of production, purchase and utility of connected smart devices in the modern age favours the younger user.

Even Assistive Technologies (AT), apparatuses proposed to facilitate independent living for persons whose independence and capacity for self-governed daily living and participation in all areas of life is inhibited in our current social model, are fraught with problems. Many are developed without input from the end user and, are laden with stigmatic assumptions about their lives. There are many serious challenges to address regarding ambiguous, non-standardised and intersectional ageist policy biases in the procurement, rationing, delivery and subsequent accessibility of smart technologies and IoT devices and services for older adults. The underpinning philosophies that govern emerging technologies are of vital importance in preserving and enhancing the autonomy and independence of all users.

At the policy level, siloed departments with an absence of cross-sectoral thinking makes for a muddled and, at times, conflicting governance of AT. What’s missing? The people the policy affects. How to solve this issue? A human rights-oriented approach to the integration of IoT and smart technologies into the lives of all persons and a person-centred and human rights-based approach at the policy level for the integration of smart technologies and IoT devices in society.
A key take away from my PhD research is to try and discover the perspectives underpinning policy and guiding strategic principles with respect to the integration of smart IoT devices, including AT into the lives of older adults. My research examines existing academic research, policies and publications through discourse analyses to uncover the perspectives and principles dealing with the integration of these technologies with the lives of older adults. Through this process, key obstacles and challenges to cross-sectoral policy cooperation can be identified and addressed.

My PhD is one of many within the ADVANCE CRT, the SFI Research Centre for Research Training in Advanced Networks for Sustainable Societies, that aims to develop a human-centred model of integration of smart and connected technologies into all aspects of human society. A central question is to understand how policy can then drive market behaviour. The industry partnerships fostered through ADVANCE CRT help to lobby and advocate for the incorporation of a human-rights oriented ethos in the production and utility of IoT and AI devices and applications, alongside smart AT, by technological firms. ADVANCE CRT aims to meet the challenges posed by a connected society to ensure the ethical and human-rights oriented integration of IoT and AI technologies in society and to bolster cooperation across the civic, public, private and civil domains to protect individual freedom and independence in a modern high-tech society.

In addition, my project work is conducted through Maynooth University’s Assisting Living and Learning (ALL) Institute, whose research and core mission is to promote a rights-based and person-centered approach to social inclusion and independent living. My supervisory team and colleagues in ADVANCE CRT and the ALL Institute provide expert knowledge and guidance in support of my research. As in ADVANCE CRT, the ALL Institute comprises a field of multidisciplinary academics who bring together and share diverse perspectives from their respective fields of expertise. The ALL Institute has fostered a sizeable strategic network of contacts and professionals from civil society and multiple fields in academic research and has been very successful in raising awareness of barriers to social inclusion and independent living. Although it is a new institution, the ALL Institute has already put itself on the map as a key promoter of human rights and person-centered development for all.