Mulling essence of public services may help bridge digital divide

Wan Lixin
While technology advances have resulted in convenience and benefits, they also threaten to widen the digital divide.
Wan Lixin

When a colleague visited a friend in neighboring Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, she was impressed by the gate of the friend’s residential compound. It can only be opened by scanning a QR code with a smartphone.

Unfortunately, this annoys some residents, notably the elderly. After many complaints, the parties involved are trying to work out a solution where the gate might admit occupants more comfortable using a card.

What surprised me is not the system – the gate to my apartment building has a similar system that responds to a card or a smartphone scan.

I was more disturbed by the lack of foresight in anticipating the needs of a sizable segment of the residents in a society that is aging fast.

My wife works at a community hospital particularly favored by elderly patients. Sometimes she has to advise them to visit a larger hospital, and this makes some patients uneasy or hesitant. Some find visits to larger hospitals intimidating, with online appointments, online registration and downloading of apps.

As one elderly patient commented, “I feel that seeing a doctor (in a big hospital) is getting more and more complicated than before.” Some of the complications, such as showing one's health QR code and e-appointment, are requirements initially conceived of the need for novel coronavirus prevention and seem to have come to stay.

Some hospitals are taking measures to make health care more accessible to those most in need. This includes preserving channels that facilitate medical access the traditional way.

While technology advances have resulted in convenience and benefits, they also threaten to widen the digital divide, with convenience for some easily translated into inconvenience for others.

For instance, it is no longer easy to flag down a taxi if you don't use Didi. In the run-up to Spring Festival, railway tickets are quickly snapped up by smart buyers, leaving many migrants in the lurch.

This lack of digital savvy makes the vulnerable feel marginalized and alienated.

Many service providers are working to eliminate physical contact. But whether physical contact should be eliminated at all should be an option.

Similarly, when it comes to public resources, going online should not be prioritized.

There are initiatives to bring the elderly into the digital world, though challenges remain.

Some blame the elderly for failing to adapt, or to march with the times, but failing eyesight, or even dementia, is just some of the traits of old age.

Some elderly people manage to buck the trend, soaking up the knowledge needed to embrace the brave new world. Congratulations!

I used to have some disdain for young people buried in their smart devices. But working touchscreens with dexterity can be more complicated than I thought, entailing a degree of technical literacy and coordination.

A harmonious society should include all, and if we are already doing well on this account, we can do still better.

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