I read this quote from Alan Kay, a computer pioneer known as “the father of the personal computer”. It returned me to the issue of older people and computers. Older workers are accused of being slow to take up new technologies. Older consumers are seen as technophobes. At least that is what is portrayed in the stereotypes. Is this the case or yet again do the facts not fit the stereotypes?
Self Service Technology
Suppose you are faced with ordering from an automated kiosk at McDonalds. Your alternative is to go to the counter and talk to a person. How would you make the choice and would it depend on your age? This was the topic of a recent research study. They asked respondents about the likelihood of choosing one or the other. They also asked how convenient the two choices seemed. Finally they asked how comfortable each person was with each alternative. They used a McDonalds and a restaurant scenario. In the restaurant, food could be ordered from a server or on a tablet placed on the table.
The results are surprising for those who believe in the stereotype. When offered a choice between the alternatives the older group did indeed prefer “human contact”. What was more surprising is that older people did not see the technology solution negatively. If respondents were only offered a self- service technology, there was no age based difference. The scores were the same on likelihood, convenience or comfort. The older people were not technophobes, they just preferred people.
The Technology Enemy Within
“The Enemy Within” is the stereotype we carry of old age within our heads. It is most likely to be 20 years out of date. That only becomes an issue if it starts to become a self- fulfilling prophecy. At that point our belief in the stereotype starts to drive our behaviour. There is emerging evidence that this may well be the case in many situations. Researchers within the information systems field have started to look at this issue.
Two groups of respondents were given tests of their general and computer knowledge. One group was between 18 and 29. The other Group between 58 and 78. These were not easy questions. They were designed such that an average person would only get half correct. Before starting each respondents was asked a series of questions about their knowledge in the two areas. A typical question might be:
Do you Agree or Disagree that - “In most areas of general knowledge (computer knowledge) I have as much knowledge as others on average”.
They were then given a total of 169 randomly ordered test questions. Half on general knowledge and half on computer knowledge. They were shown the questions one at a time. They were first asked how confident they were that they knew the answer. They were then shown five multiple-choice answers. When they had chosen, they were asked how comfortable they were with their answer. The percentage of correct answers was computed. This was a good measure of their actual computing and general knowledge.
The results confirmed “the enemy within”. The older group had the same level of confidence in their general knowledge as the younger. When it came to computer knowledge they rated themselves lower. Even older people who had done as well as the young group on the computer knowledge test still down rated their ability.
The scores on the “Feeling of Knowing ” and “Confidence in the Answer” followed the same pattern. Scores were related to the general confidence in computer knowledge and NOT the actual ability in doing the test. This effect did not happen with the general knowledge questions. In that domain respondents answers mirrored their actual scores. The researchers argued that for computers they were responding to what they called “cultural” factors. They were following the stereotype and underestimating their ability.
Cognitive or “How Old Do You Feel” Age
Another study looked at two groups of people. The first were those that professed to be younger than their chronological age. They called these “the young at heart”. As we have seen in previous Newsletters that is usually 70% of people over the age of 30 or 40 (Newsletter #043 “Which Time Is It?”). They then looked at another interesting group - those that felt their age or even older. These were across all age groups as well, but obviously biased towards older people. They were looking at the adoption of mobile data services for smartphones. They did it in Hong Kong, where there are high levels of penetration of smartphones and broadband. Mobile data is also relatively cheap.
Choosing to use such a service can depend on different factors. What they found was that the importance of those factors varied between the young and old at heart. The young at heart made the decision based on “perceived usefulness”, “perceived ease of use” and “perceived enjoyment”. The “old at heart” by comparison looked at “perceived ease of use” and the “social norms to conform”. They saw no pleasure in using mobile data on their phones. It was a chore brought on by pressure from their family and friends.
If someone believes he or she is not capable of performing a task he or she may not make the required effort. They will not persevere with a difficult task. It seems that how old you feel may be part of the answer. The younger at heart, the less “the Enemy Within” can come to the surface.
Does Age Affect IT Adoption?
There was a recent literature review within the Information Science field. It was about the adoption of technology. They looked at articles published in the last 10 years in the major journals. They found a quarter of the articles looked at adoption. Within that group of 253 articles, the interest in age was very limited. Only 10 articles explicitly looked at the impact of age. These used it as an independent or moderating variable. Another 69 thought it might be a “problem” and included it as a control variable. Over 100 of the studies never mentioned age. For academics in IS, age and adoption is of little interest. Across other fields the pattern is similar. There are studies in management and marketing of technology adoption. There is little interest in age as a variable. The facts are hard to get if you want to argue against the stereotype.
It is true that my definition of technology is very different those of my grandchildren. The Alan Kay quote is right. It does depend on when I was born. The stereotype might portray me as a technophobe. Despite this over the years I have been an early adopter of many technologies. In some cases I will prefer people to a self service kiosk. It looks like I under estimate my knowledge of computing. Am I now being constrained by the invisible hand of “the enemy within”?
Do I believe that I “should not” adopt technology. Or is it that I cannot see the utility in some of the new technologies. Does it depend on how old I feel? It is not a general characteristic of all old people that they can’t cope with technology and IT. The reality is far more nuanced.