On 28th and 29th of September I attended the 2023 Annual Meeting of the Socio-gerontechnology Network in Utrecht, Netherlands. This network brings together scholars from across social science, humanities and design disciplines who are interested in critical studies of ageing and technology, creating a new academic field that we might describe as a meeting point for these disciplines. Members aim to strengthen critical and reflexive thinking and research by emphasizing the complex and co-constitutive relationship between ageing, technology and society, leading to better policies and designs for older people in a digitizing world.
The 2023 meeting was the fifth since the network formed in 2017, its title Theorising Ageing in a Digital World seeming to focus on the first of two pillars described on the network website:
1. Contemporary theorising to further our understanding of the complex co-constitution of ageing, technology and society, including a curiosity towards the development and combination of new and various methods conducive to our knowledge production.
2. Critical, reflexive and constructive contributions to the development, design and implementation of technologies. Network members share an interest in contributing and engaging with the field, through various means such as research, collaboration with care workers, engineers and designers, and political actors.
This was not the case however, as the meeting was extremely broad, allowing the second pillar to shine through thanks to the many descriptions of fieldwork sites and communities of practice offered during the event.
The meeting was made up of a series of parallel paper sessions, plenary panels and a workshop, with poster sessions conducted during the lunch break. The program and book of abstracts can be downloaded here. Presentation styles and content were varied and included performance-papers, film and storytelling, with many of the papers describing ethnographic research that offered sometimes humorous and often very personal insight into older persons’ relationships with technology.
After an introduction from Chair of the Network Alexander Peine, the meeting broke into two sessions. I attended session 2: Technologies with and for migrating and minoritized older adults, where I first learned from Marloes Bults about a Netherlands-based citizen science study that aims to understand how migrant older adults use and experience Anne4Care, a virtual assistant that shared their homes. Tanja Ahlin then touched upon a matter that is close to all migrant’s hearts (I count myself included) as she described how digital communication technologies shape elder care over distance, using her experience of conducting ethnographic research with nurses from India who have migrated abroad. Helen Manchester shone a spotlight upon research into processes of co-design that situate older adults as experts regarding their own lived experiences, before Jeanny Jijing Huang described some gendered differences and social relationship practices in long-distance eldercare, based upon a study focused on Chinese men and women who have emigrated for work.
After refreshments I followed Paper Session 3: Artificial Intelligence in ageing research and practice, another enlightening session that began with an overview of theorization about the relationship between AI and ageing which included a critique of data as capital, offered by Vera Gallistl. Karin van Leersum described Dutch policy approaches and perspectives on ageing related to the aim of keeping older people living at home, highlighting relationships between people and the technology that they come into contact with as a result. Justina Stypinska and Rüya Gökhan Kocer closed the session with a clear explanation of how bias in algorithm and automated decision-making is created.
The lunch break saw the first of the poster sessions. Topics included investigations into how media discourse constructs older people’s portraits of smart technology adoption and engagement, the role of senior influencers on social media, the promotion of agency and self-reflection through art, technology use for ageing in place, problems related to digital loneliness, and virtual reality as a tool in care homes.
The afternoon began with a plenary panel: Ageing in Data, Dilemmas of ageing in technology: Data, digital inclusion and media practices, organized in collaboration with the ACT Lab and the Aging in Data project.
Nicole Dalmer presented research into mapping older adults dataspheres, research that aims to unsettle stereotypical assumptions and to understand place based affective relationships with technologies. Mireia Fernández-Ardévol described how ageism can be seen to feed back on itself at both design and symbolic level, while Galit Nimrod outlined a wholistic methodological approach to addressing human robot interaction in later life.
I closed the day participating in the Doing Theory in Socio-gerontechnology workshop, which aimed to explore theories and concepts used in the field and identify what has proven helpful and what has proven difficult when researching ageing in a digitized world. The workshop centered around a Frankenstein’s monster design, photos of which alongside an explanation can be found here. Participants attached theories and concepts they use in their work onto or around the monster, creating a kind of conceptual and theoretical storyline, before discussing what could be seen as fundamental and what could possibly be discarded.
The day opened with the second Plenary Panel: Theorizing Materiality, with emphasis on the importance of the material world in the constitution of later life. Michela Cozza opened with a post-humanist critique of transhumanism arguing the need to see interdependencies and co-constitution in ageing. The speaker used the concept of sympoiesis to redefine the technological relationship while ageing, a term that could be seen as related to the process embodiment ideas that underpin Foundation President Piero Bassetti’s concept of Poiesis-intensive innovation. Wendy Martin continued the materiality analysis looking through the lens of the datafication of our rhythm(s) of life to explore digital embodiment, a theme continued by Vera Gallistl and Anna Wanka who described the ‘spacetimematter’ relationship and the importance of time in the creation of boundaries. The panel closed with what we might call a performance-paper, Kim Sawchuck presenting Six Short Tales of digital entanglement, a wonderful and somewhat ironic narrative presentation about concrete dilemmas and post-humanist performativity.
Paper Session 7: Inclusion and participation in media and digital societies began with ethnographic insights into how older people engage with digital support networks (under the premise of the independent digital citizen, which carries expectations of individual skilling) from Stig Bo Anderson, while Tot Foster introduced a series of very entertaining film clips made by older people during the Rebellious Voices project, the aim being to connect through culture as we age. Mélanie Couture described several ways that older people find themselves mistreated through technology use, even though they do not receive the same warnings as children in terms of digital safety and rights, before Nikhita Jha led us along an amusing narrative that described the trials and tribulations of designing research into bias.
Paper session 9 focused on care in times of digitalization, with speakers presenting and debating uses made of technology, their fitness for purpose and availability. The existence of cruel forms of optimism or what we might think of as tech-utopia based upon rampant positivity, and uses of data about care were also topics of debate that involved all of the speakers in the panel. Session 10 took a more intergenerational perspective, with several of the presenters highlighting shortcomings in design processes (including how older people are excluded and how ageist representations remain prominent within the imaginaries of developers), and stereotypical views taken by younger generations of older people and how they manifest in technological design. A related issue raised was ageism in the technology design workplace, where older people (over 30 in many cases) are pushed out of their positions. Once again this session described ethnographic work from a host of different fields.
The meeting closed with a final plenary panel focusing on epistemologies and technologies of measurement of aging data and the transformation of aspects of human life into data. Wendy Martin raised the question of what is visible or invisible of bodily derived data and how this is shaped. Constance Lafontaine and Kim Sawchuck addressed the notions of in-scription, pre-scription and de-scription and Stephan Katz raised a host of questions around planning life through technology, datafying of health, implied life courses and technological health.
Some Personal Reflections
This was a very enjoyable meeting to attend as it offered a broad range of entertaining and insightful high-quality presentations. It was well run, fast paced and beautifully hosted. Lunch (vegan or vegetarian) was delicious and abundant.
The participants came from a range of fields which meant an array of question perspectives and plenty of interesting conversation during the breaks. Many of the speakers offered ethnographic accounts of the research situations that had led to their theorizing, which was both entertaining and important in offering background to arguments. There was a lot of humour and originality everywhere.
The influence of feminist critical thought could be felt throughout, with Helen Manchester and Donna Harraway’s work regularly cited. These approaches (based on my own experience) seem to be less represented in the Responsible Innovation literature, even though the issues addressed are clearly related and closely shared. There were also a lot more women present than men, which again would be untypical of an RI conference, which I find interesting in two fields that have a common ancestor in Science and Technology Studies (STS).
Readers interested in deepening their understanding of the field should download the open access publication Digital Ageism: How it operates and approaches to Tackling it, edited by Andrea Rosales, Mireia Fernández-Ardévol and Jakob Svensson and take a look at the open access chapters in Socio-gerontechnology: Interdisciplinary Critical Studies of Ageing and Technology, edited by Alexander Peine, Barbara Marshall, Wendy Martin and Luis Neven.
I would like to thank the organizers for their hospitality and all those who participated in making this such a rewarding meeting to attend, and very much look forward to following the network into the future.