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Granny @ Work: Aging and New Technology on the Job in America

Author: Karen E. Riggs
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: July 2005

 REVIEW 1: Chheng-Hong Ho
 REVIEW 2: Meredith Tromble

In her book Granny @ Work: Aging and New Technology on the Job in America, Karen Riggs vividly depicts the digital divide by investigating how elderly women encounter technologies in the context of work. In the book, Riggs, an associate professor and director of the School of Telecommunication at Ohio University, challenges the mainstream notion of digital divide that tends to naturalize people by their personal attributes, proposing instead that gender and age should be taken as a set of social relations inscribed in people's lives rather than as only two variables. In other words, just because one is old or is an immigrant does not necessarily mean that they will be subject to the digital divide. As Riggs states, "early old," "middle old," and "old old" have very different experiences with and attitudes toward the use of technology. At the same time, Riggs argues, this does not mean we should only focus on "the degree of oldness." Rather, she examines the dynamic definition of aging in historical contexts.

Professor Riggs' book is structured into four central thematic parts. In Chapter One, she describes the dynamic definition of aging in historical contexts, citing the increase in average life expectations, the domination of baby boomers in an aging population, the trend of aging societies in developed countries, and the changing definition of retired life. According to Riggs, the meaning of "aging" and "oldness" is far different today than during any other period in history. Thus, the digital divide of "elders" is really a contextualized phenomenon that cannot simply be reduced to a causal explanation.

The book's second theme is the ways in which older people and technology are co-presented in the media. In Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, Hollywood films, magazine advertisements, and best-selling popular literature are analyzed to create an understanding of the representation of aging and its relationship with technologies. This section explores a very interesting dimension that is seldom discussed in current literature on the digital divide -- how media-presented stereotypes encourage and shape the possible and actual use of technologies among users. Riggs proposes that the marketing strategies of selling technologies to elders are never neutral. In such advertisements, the CEOs with gray hair are portrayed as supermen, saving the company through technologies, when in fact they are often the ones unfamiliar with computers. Marketing strategies like these, Riggs asserts, have been mutually shaped by how this society conceptualizes and imagines the relationship between elders and technologies.

The third theme of the book focuses on how such imaginings are put into practice in our daily lives within the digital economy, and how such practices are restrained by historical context and the structure of organizational change in the workplace, which can also cause tension between elders and technologies. Chapter Two investigates how elders interact with each other through job-related online communities and how their perceptions of oldness shape their experiences and participations. Chapter Three analyzes how the encounters of mid-life women with technologies in the micro-computing department of Harley-Davidson are embedded in gender relations, power structures, and division of labor in the workplace. Chapter Four illustrates the various reasons why elderly women in cities decide to learn computers and how this decision has different results depending on contexts. Chapter Five illustrates how elders perceive and act in the transitional moment when new technologies are introduced in their workplaces. Taken together, these chapters dig deeply and provide a diverse and comprehensive overview of the various contexts in which older individuals interact with technologies on an everyday level and the roles such interactions play in their lives.

The book's fourth theme is the suggestion of policy solutions. In Chapters Nine and Ten, Riggs posits an interesting approach -- that we should investigate how elders "learn" technology instead of how they "use" it. Why do elders lack motivation to learn new technologies? Why do they drop-out so easily after their adoption of technology? In what ways is the process of learning incompatible with their expectations? The author suggests that these issues are directly related to whether the use of technology by elderly individuals enables them to do things that are personally meaningful.

In her presentation of these four key issues, Riggs has crafted a book that it very informative and important for digital divide research for several reasons. First, it provides strong insights into how different people account for technologies and how such accounting takes place in a historical context. She writes,
    As the Baby Boomers slink into their 60s, of course, radical changes will occur both in what it means to be elderly and what computers mean in everyday life. For now, elders have disparate experiences with both helping and information technologies prior to the dominance of microcomputer, and these disparate experiences inform their relationships to computers . . . The adoption of assistive technologies and new media gadgets depends heavily on the potential adopter's social context. What kind of value one might associate with a particular technology varies widely. (99)
Riggs further asserts that the relationship elderly individuals have with technology is also embedded in their perception of the stigma of the aged, decaying body. Such perception is also contextualized: using assistive technologies is a stigma for Baby Boomers, a tool for enhancing self-image for very old people (they aware of their vulnerability and rely on technologies to combat this stigma), and a mysterious black box for more economically challenged elders, especially the older ones among them. In other words, the author argues that a person's age is not a self-explanatory reason for their discomfort with technologies; rather, it is how the technologies are interpreted and accounted according to their life experiences and aging processes that are the keys to understanding the digital divide.

Second, Riggs argues that our perception or rejection of technologies cannot be understood solely through our relationships with them; the media ecology and the role of technology in our daily lives should also be taken into consideration. In this regard, the author echoes the concept of "social inclusion" suggested by Mark Warschauer (2003), which holds that the problem we are facing now is not only a technological issue that can be solved by digital means (e.g. increase the access), but is also an issue of whether we can still equally participate in social affairs and enjoy our lives. Thus, Riggs suggests that future policy should focus on what a government should do to make technology a meaningful and integrated dimension of elders' everyday lives.

Third, Riggs asserts that neither "women" nor "the elderly" are homogenous groups, and that any attempt to utilize gender and age as the only variables in assessing the digital divide ignores diversity and context. No sisterhood can be presumed among older women and young, technologically savvy females. Similarly, there exists a tension between older male managers and young male workers. Rather than feeling like supermen who have saved the day as the advertisements depict, Riggs indicates that such managers feel even older when using computers. Furthermore, age and gender are also inextricably intertwined with other dimensions such as class and race, Riggs argues, and that in order to better understand the digital divide, the complex picture of such intersections needs to be more deeply investigated. This echoes the work of Pippa Norris (2001), who notes that "the digital divide will never be completely erased because structural relations will prevent a complete leveling out. Some people will simply never have access to this asset for diverse reasons, some economic, some social, some cultural" (10).

In sum, Karen Riggs' Granny @ Work: Aging and New Technology on the Job in America successfully critiques current digital divide research, which tends to naturalize age and gender, while at the same time challenging the self-exploratory definition of aging. The author argues that the concept of aging is changing over time and is embedded in historical and social context. Further, Riggs raises an interesting question about how to define the digital divide in the future. Will today's young and technologically savvy individuals be described as digitally handicapped when they get older because they stick to their own ways of using technology? It is clear that the changing demographic landscape and its relation to ideas about and definitions of the digital divide will continue to be a fertile area of investigation for years to come.

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty and the internet worldwide. London: Cambridge University Press.

Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Chheng-Hong Ho:
Chheng-Hong Ho is a master student in the Department of Communication at State University of New York at Buffalo. He is now conducting a research about the context of how ICTs are used for transnational family communication. He is also planning a study of the history of public telephone and digital games.  <rolcoco@ntu.edu.tw>

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