Over the 20 years the internet has exploded into the primary communication tool for a large part of the population. If you’re under 40 you almost certainly use the internet to ‘connect’ and ‘engage’ or any other buzz word you like, with other people. It’s what the internet is really good at: letting you easily and quickly have conversations with people thousands of miles away.
So, how is that going to effect social isolation over the next 50 years? I work for a charity that works with social isolation support groups that work with elderly people to prevent, and counter, older people being stuck in alone, with nobody to talk to. Many have physical problems that prevent them getting out of the house, some have mental health issues and it’s a massive problem for people aged from 50 to 90. They’ll often not talk to anyone for days or even weeks at a time which has serious effects on people’s quality of life.
The groups try to combat this by holding meetings, picnics, dances etc. all provided by volunteers. They have drivers who will go around and pick up older people with mobility problems and one group even have volunteers hosting tea parties at their houses and inviting local older people in. They even encourage people to use Skype and other tools to talk to distant family. They do amazing work and really make a difference to these people’s lives.
It got me thinking about me. I’m 23, but in 50 years I’m going to be like some of these people. Of course, there’s many factors which contribute to social isolation (income, health etc.) but I could be in the same situation. My question is how the internet will affect that. Most of my friends live 2-300 miles away from me and I speak to them primarily over the web and I wonder whether because we’re used to this kind of communication that we won’t feel the same isolation. Can we, as a generation, avoid social isolation through the fact that we’re always connected?That includes this forum post, reddit comments, Twitter, Facebook and whatever communication revolutions occur over the next 50 years.
Of course there’s a lot to be said about actually sitting down and being with someone IRL. There’s having fun on Skype or on Xbox Live and there’s sitting with your friends in person. Can technology overcome this? Video is certainly going to increase its usability through ‘appliance’ devices like the iPad or through your TV. How is that going to affect our ability to connect? Now, an older person can use the phone to talk to someone but there’s still massive loneliness - is that going to be the same for all this technology? Is there simply no substitute for physical interaction?
Technology will advance so much in that time that perhaps we, today’s cutting edge youth, will be left behind and feel as confused and worried about technology as some of today’s older people are today?
There’s lots of question marks here because I don’t know the answers. There’s certainly been studies carried that suggest positive effects on older people who use technology to connect with their families but it’s hard to predict the future of an entire generation.
What I do know though, is that technology has the promise to make a lot of these issues less damaging. As we develop easy to use, universally cheap products for current and future older people that they can shop on, talk to their friends and family with and, of course, read reddit AMAs on then we might just go a step towards reducing social isolation and improve the lives of millions of people.