Ageing, technology, and multidisciplinary research: intended and unintended consequences

Written by Barbara Barbosa Neves, University of Melbourne:  As a sociologist of technology, I have always been drawn to the Latourian idea of opening the black box of devices, of objects, of networks (Latour, 1999). Progressively, I felt the need to be engaged in the creation of the box in order to study closely the social process of technology design and implementation – i.e., its internal and external complexities. This led me to join a Human–Computer Interaction laboratory devoted to ageing and technology, and a Department of Computer Science. I worked with computer scientists and interaction designers to understand social needs and aspirations of older adults (65+) to then inform the design and testing of devices and experiences. Although ageing and technology is an exciting field for researchers and practitioners, particularly for those mapping the links between digital and social inclusion, it is still a niche in a world that is fairly youth-oriented and that generally frames ageing in terms of costs, with limited attention to its societal benefits[1].

One of our main projects looked at improving and testing a digital communication technology (app) designed with and for adults at risk of social isolation and loneliness, especially for those who were frail and institutionalised. It is important not to associate ageing with frailty, but that project worked with and for a specific group of people. The technology included multimedia options to communicate with family and friends and was based on large non-textual touch icons (no typing was required) to accommodate users with visual and motor impairments. Its concept stemmed from research and policy recommendations suggesting that new communication technologies could enhance opportunities for social connectedness – defined as meaningful social interaction, not just social interaction – reducing both social isolation and loneliness amongst older adults (Baecker et al., 2014). The literature shows consistently that older adults experiencing social isolation (measured through lack of quality and quantity of social ties and low social participation and support) and loneliness (subjective feeling of not belonging, of lacking companionship) are more likely to suffer from depression, social disengagement, cognitive and functional decline, morbidity, and early mortality (see Baecker et al., 2014; Neves et al., 2015).

When our technology was ready to be used after several prototypes and field-testing, we conducted two- and three-month deployment studies in two Canadian retirement communities (n=16). We gave our participants the technology to use as they saw fit during that time and studied its adoption and feasibility to enhance social connectedness. To this end, we used a mixed-methods strategy that included interview data, psychometric scales, field observations, usability and accessibility tests, and logging data. The intended consequences were an increase in their perceived levels of social interaction, although the feasibility of the technology to enhance social connectedness was only observed for those who had relatives living abroad. Yet, as with any sociotechnical process, we found several unintended consequences: from icons that did not work with a specific cultural group despite its previous assessment, to intergenerational tensions arising from different communication norms and expectations, to more positive consequences such as increased confidence with digital technology. However, there were two unintended consequences that troubled me: firstly, the technology seemed, at times, to make two participants more aware of their social isolation and loneliness, when family did not reply to their messages. Secondly, although it is expected that participants engage in impression management efforts (about their family, the technology, etc.), I realised how often researchers were also intensely engaged in those same efforts. The language we used was an example of those efforts; we still used ‘correct’ terminology (‘swiping’, ‘tapping’, which we did not see as jargon) at the end of the studies even though only a minority of our participants had adopted that terminology. I realized that I had also become part of the box.

It is this multidisciplinary approach to research that allows us to better understand what is in the box and to decipher its uses and consequences for different agents, including researchers. My incursion in a different field brought other unintended consequences. Notwithstanding the multidisciplinary and applied research rhetoric of our funding agencies, departments and universities, I often had to justify to my sociology peers what I was doing in a totally different field (‘not even a cognate science’, I once heard) and prove that I was still one of them: the latter would result in long theoretical and epistemological discussions at conferences, after the usual question: ‘but wait, do you have a theoretical framework?’ as if multidisciplinary and applied research were devoid of any theoretical understanding. A recent article in the Times Higher Education warns about the perils of pursuing a multidisciplinary career because ‘journals are highly specialised and there is still little funding for projects that span subject areas’. I have also struggled with these circumstances because top-ranked publications in computer science are in conference proceedings, not in journals. Additionally, getting multidisciplinary grants is an ongoing battle. Interestingly, I was welcomed and valued in a different field, because sociology gave me both a comprehensive set of critical analytical skills and the openness to learn from other scientists in an area that needs a multidimensional lens. To ensure a wide recognition of the societal value of sociology, it is time to change the script and practices about multidisciplinary and applied research. I am new to Australia; but the fact that I am working here might suggest that things are different in this part of the globe or already changing. The fact that TASA has a thematic group on applied sociology – while international sociological organisations such as the ISA and ESA do not – is also a promising sign.


Baecker, R., K. Sellen, S. Crosskey, V. Boscart and B. Barbosa Neves (2014) Technology To Reduce Social Isolation And Loneliness. In Proceedings of the 16th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers & Accessibility (pp. 27–34).

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope: Essays On The Reality Of Science Studies. Harvard University Press.

Neves, B. B., R. L. Franz, C. Munteanu, R. Baecker, and M. Ngo (2015) My Hand Doesn’t Listen to Me!: Adoption and Evaluation of a Communication Technology for the ‘’Oldest Old’. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1593–1602).

Short Biography

Dr. Barbara Barbosa Neves is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. Previously, she was an Associate Director and Research Associate of the ‘Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab’ (TAGlab) at the department of Computer Science of the University of Toronto. Prior to this appointment, she was an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Lisbon. Barbara’s research intersects sociology of technology, ageing, social networks, social inequalities, and digital and social inclusion.


[1] Australian research has been key in deconstructing the one-dimensional vision of ageing as a mere societal cost – see, for instance, Vaus, Gray, & Stanton (2003) and the work by TASA’s vibrant ageing thematic group led by Sue Malta and Michael Fine.


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