Does technology make society exclusive or inclusive?

Technology has been well developed in many sectors and we all have been using it in our daily life, such as mobile phones, computers and even in the counter payment process. When technology is more and more advanced, then does it mean our life is getting more and more convenient or it’s another way around, especially during covid-19?

Krugman once said that the inrush of technology in today’s society, which is increasingly moving towards digitization in its numerous spheres (information, communication, social relations, leisure, education, and economy, etc.) is producing what several authors have called “a new industrial revolution”. In our human history, we have been through the twice industrial revolution, the time we are living now could be the third, which is the technology-driven digitization revolution. Based on history, there are always dramatic changes along with revolution, changes in the production, merchandise, working style, daily life, communication etc. Right now, we can feel the changes most evident especially during this pandemic time, where people’s life has been restricted but rely on technology and digitization.

Since the pandemic started, the school has been shut down for safety reasons, over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom, and students begin to have classes at their homes through the internet and computers. Then how about those students who cannot afford to buy computers and pay for internet fees? The answer is clear that the help is limited even after the government has distributed the subsidy. According to a questionnaire of 597 families conducted by the Society for Community Organization in Hong Kong in August 2020, 40.2% of the children said that they lacked internet computers at home and needed to rely on their parents’ mobile phones for class. About 47% of the children said they had no printers and therefore could not print their assignments. In addition to hardware, the network is also a major problem-about 36% of the respondents said that there is no broadband installed at home or insufficient data and Internet speed to attend classes. Similarly, in America, about one in four eighth-graders who are poor do not have a desktop computer or laptop (23.7%), and almost one in three (29.4%) do not have a tablet-which are essential if students are to be able to follow instruction online. Indeed, 7.0% of eighth-graders who are poor do not have home internet, the other essential instrument for remote study. In contrast, only 7.7% of non-poor students lack a desktop or laptop computer, and only a tiny fraction of non-poor students (1.6%) are without internet access, reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2017. In this year, a Los Angeles Times survey of 45 Southern California school districts found profound differences in distance learning among children attending school districts in high-poverty communities.

The significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds can be found in so many other countries, especially in the poor and developing countries where the resources are scarce. As a result, education has been changed dramatically, with the distinctive rise of e-learning caused by the pandemic. It has distracted students’ school life forever and it will shape future education differently.

A similar situation can be found in the elderly, who are less technology-focused and lack digitization knowledge no matter before, during, or after covid-19. In China, since the pandemic spread all over China, the government has issued a health OR code to track each and every one. Refer to Wikipedia, the health code is an application used as a personal electronic pass. Applicants can automatically generate a QR code by filling in personal information, health status, travel history, place of residence, and whether they have been in contact with suspected or diagnosed pneumonia patients, etc., to automatically generate a QR code with three colors of red, yellow, and green, and dynamically display the personal epidemic risk level. As of April 2020, more than 200 cities in mainland China have launched the “health code” based on the Alipay platform, and the epidemic prevention health code based on the Tencent platform has landed in nearly 20 provincial administrative regions, covering more than 300 cities and counties.

For the elderly, they often rely on their children to generate the code for them, but some still don't have one. In August 2020, an elderly man in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, was rejected by a bus driver because he did not have a smartphone and could not scan his health code. Similarly, Wu Xianzhi, who lives in Guojiapu Street, Changde, Hunan, has been suffering from bronchitis for more than ten years, but he has postponed the plan for medical treatment because he heard that the hospital was strictly managed by accessing through the health OR code during the epidemic but he did not have such code.

There’s no much space for the elderly in digitization. One video went viral recently in China in November 2020, an elderly woman went to pay medical insurance under heavy rain, but when she reached there, the staff told her that ”we do not accept cash and you can either call a relative or pay on your mobile phone”, and the video caught the elderly being at a loss. Imagine if you were that old lady and how you would feel. Chinese people are now getting used to paying with their phones, virtual money, and are leading the way in this field, with many other countries likely to follow. But as the nation goes cashless, tens of millions of older people are being left behind, with state media repeatedly reporting on the nightmarish experiences they face because of their difficulties navigating a smartphone from the SCMP. The world is aging and if we design things that leave the elderly behind, then we will be left behind as well when we are old. Technology and digitization is the breakthrough and truly make our lives convenient, but we should also not erase the old way of interacting and communicating.

If the world and each and everyone has the same level of technology or digitization literacy and access, then it is definitely making the world inclusive and equal, but we are not living in the perfect world. In a nutshell, technology has separated people into different categories and levels, while this pandemic is a magnifier that magnifies the existing problems with technology so that we can see the extremes. Hence, technology alone cannot make society inclusive, but to design for different people with different backgrounds, and embrace different approaches.

Originally published at on December 15, 2020.



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