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Digital social ecosystem needed for the elderly

WANG HUI | 2023-02-09 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Staff members show elderly clients advanced phone features at a mobile service shop in Huainan City, Anhui Province in May, 2022. Photo: CFP

As the pandemic accelerated society’s digitization process, the digital life of the elderly has become a key issue for post-pandemic social governance. To govern the elderly community, we need to take the perspective of active aging while paying attention to both the “digital gap” and elderly people’s diversified demands for digital dividends. This approach requires us to innovate the social governance system in the context of social integration. We also need to leverage our social governance strengths in precision intelligent information communication, synergy among players, functional coupling, and scenario adaptation. In this way we can build a more active and inclusive digital social ecosystem for senior residents along the dimensions of social governance ecology, industrial ecology, and intelligent civilization ecology.

Public opinion guidance 

For the social governance ecology, it is necessary to achieve deep fusion between the “all-media” communication system and the modern social governance system. The all-media communication system, composed of smart media platforms of various kinds, formats, and functions, has already infiltrated all sectors of life. It is now the primary system of public opinion guidance, internet security, digital economy, smart city construction, and people’s digital life. 

From the ecological perspective, it is possible to achieve in-depth integration between the all-media communication and the modern social governance systems. Smart media is the network node that enables humans to interact in certain scenarios. It plays an important role in facilitating the orderly flow, smooth communication, and precise governance of information, data, and subjects of value within the ecology, so that social governance can transition from scenarized development to ecologicalized development. 

To build elderly users’ digital social ecology with the help of smart media, all-media communication must be systematized. The core strategy for achieving this is combining “hard power” with “soft power,” and “horizontal integration” with “vertical integration.” The foundation of this strategy is the massive number of users and the amoung of data. Specifically, “hard power” refers to cooperation with television and cellphone manufacturers, for which media content platforms can be built for senior users’ content consumption. Combing “soft power” means to create brand and public credibility through information production and aggregation in a bid to enhance user stickiness.

“Vertical integration” refers to developing O2O businesses based on local services for seniors by enabling counties’ and districts’ convergence media centers to input their resources regarding government affairs and services. “Horizontal integration” means to fully engage elderly people’s initiative on social media platforms and encourage the “younger-old” adults with energy and a willingness to serve others by participating in community management and decision-making. This method helps build an integrated public opinion guidance and public service platform for the elderly, while boosting senior members’ sense of social participation and self-efficacy. 

Further, an all-media communication ecology based on “smart media plus elderly social governance” must include an all-media matrix platform featuring synergetic development with AI at its core, an integrated services platform for cloud media, and a comprehensive data platform for smart cities applications. At this point, smart media is no longer a specific form or tool, but a genome embedded in a complex network of public, group, organizational, and interpersonal communication. It will become an organic part of senior members’ digital social ecology. 

Demand for individualized service 

From the perspective of industrial ecology, it is essential to develop a “smart elderly care economy,” an economic genre featuring a digital economy, scenario economy, and experience economy. Going forward, the smart elderly care economy will become one of the most important economic forms for digital social development for the elderly. Smart media is equipped with a vast user base, rich relation resource, and strong computing power and distribution capacity. When integrated with different industries, economic forms, and economic scenarios, smart media can become an important structural element for the smart elderly care economy. Smart media can be utilized to lead demand, create consumption scenarios and facilitate technological empowerment and cross-industry cooperation. 

Currently, due to inadequate integration of digital technology and elderly care services, smart elderly care is faced with two obstacles: technological development and service promotion. To design and develop smart elderly care service products, we should rely on data when building a system to precisely locate supply and demand. Meanwhile, it is necessary to bring out information products suitable for senior groups of different digitization levels, so that smart elderly care can adapt to different settings, users groups and districts. “Digital inclusiveness” can help senior social members cross over the digital gap. 

In the post-pandemic era, smart media will become an informatization platform for social governance, which makes comprehensive information sharing possible among different sectors, levels, and businesses. It will also optimize the allocation of smart elderly care resources, and eventually establish an integrated social governance model that fuels common development. 

The abundance of scenario resources is also an advantage of smart media. Scenarios link information, demand, relations, and services together, through which elderly users’ potential demands and values are untapped, while new gray economic forms are generated. 

For example, we can use a centralized system for a smart community to link the demand side with the supply side, i.e. senior users and e-commerce platforms, related merchants, and elderly care service institutions. “15-minute life circles” like “e-grocery markets,” “e-day care,” and “e-elderly care” can be created to meet elderly people’s demand for individualized and scenarized care services. It is also advisable to make use of smart media’s strength of information aggregation. In virtue of elderly care service data bases, information networks, and digital processing technology, we can build an efficient, open, and integrated platform to include the supply side, demand side, supporting services, and regulators into the picture. This approach can bring the most out of smart elderly care providers. 

Digital ethics

To build the ecology for a smart civilization, it is essential to develop ethics in the digital elderly community, in which lurk ethical risks, such as losing control under interactive modes, or a rigid information hierarchy among elderly people. These risks can surface due to many factors, including too much emphasis on online traffic and intelligent algorithms. Such risks could lead to mismatched human-machine relationships and alienated subjectivity, which could even evolve into unequal rights to life. 

To deal with the above issues, it is important to put people first and respect the elderly people’s dominant position in this regard. Essentially, the ethical risks embedded in a senior digital community reflects the arrogation of technological reason over value rationality. Thus, we need to bring back humanistic value rationality and prioritize people by combining biological intelligence’s environmental perception, memory, reasoning, and moral judgement with machine intelligence’s abilities in searching, calculation, and distribution. We need to embed human moral standards and civility into smart devices and algorithms. For instance, we can develop intelligent technology like “health codes” into individualized integration service platforms for senior users. By building a bridge between chips and hearts, we can make humanized intelligent social governance possible.

Next, it is necessary to prioritize the building of moral regulation and institutional arrangements. We should refer to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” and “Asilomar AI Principles” when developing standardized moral ethics system suitable for elderly people’s digital social governance and smart elderly care scenarios. Moral values like filial piety need to be merged with intelligent technology, and elderly people’s tendencies also need to be considered. We need to clarify the boundary of responsibilities among different people within the digital community for the elderly. It is also essential to adopt the concept of digital inclusiveness by endowing the elderly with new-type information data rights to protect their rights of self-determination, such as through algorithm interpretation rights.

Last, it is also necessary to drive technological integration innovation and make smart elderly products safer. Regarding technology, we need to prevent smart technologies from overextending their authority over human goals. This requires sufficient digital attainment and collaborative design to help senior users overcome the digital barrier. 

From the perspective of public responsibility, it is important for the government to take proactive measures, including supporting smart elderly care products via additional policy input, market guidance, and industrial regulation. The government should also prevent technology from going out of control, as with incidences caused by algorithmic black boxes. It should also prevent deviations of product value orientation resulting from unrestrained capital expansion. For instance, through timely release of the list of demands for smart elderly care application scenarios, the government can provide guidance for enterprises in terms of safety, transportation, health services and smart companionship so as to help enterprises carry out innovation in technology and services. 

All in all, a digital social ecosystem for the elderly with smart media at its core needs to fully embody humanization and diversification. It requires us to adopt digital inclusiveness, build an all-media communication framework, create elderly care service scenarios, and jointly build a digital social ecosystem shared by all senior members. In addition, we need to make “people’s city built by people” a reality, ensure that the “city works for its people,” and improve modern society’s governance system. 

Wang Hu is a professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Shanghai University. 

Edited by WENG RONG