Diversify Smart Nation conversation

Since the launch of the Smart Nation initiative last year ("A smart Singapore in the works"; May 14, 2014), it has been emphasised that the plan is ultimately about meeting human needs and enhancing people's lives, rather than having technology just for the sake of it.

Whether deliberate or not, this sets up a false dichotomy -wherein critics of the Smart Nation are portrayed as Luddites who refuse to consider the progressive potential of technology.

We should think about smart technologies in a more nuanced way.

Far from having universal and predictable consequences, technology potentially transforms how people perceive, think, act and live. In turn, technology is shaped and reshaped by social norms, attitudes and practices.

In short, technologies have dynamic social lives.

Similarly, smart technologies have important social dimensions and implications.

For instance, one of the priorities identified for the Smart Nation initiative is to enable Singapore's greying population to age gracefully and in place.

Telemedicine will enable patients to consult and receive instructions from their doctors from home.

Mobile apps could facilitate the monitoring of patients' physical conditions, with the data automatically sent to healthcare workers at regular intervals for assessment.

But what if patients prefer meeting their doctors in person? Could patients be overwhelmed by self-monitoring practices if they'd rather not confront the reality of their illnesses on a regular basis?

Moreover, self-monitoring technologies may cause patients to be alarmed by readings that are not correctly interpreted.

After all, people seeking healthcare often feel highly vulnerable when they are ill or suffering from severe pain.

For healthcare workers, data-mediated representations of patients may not be accurate or sufficient, thus, hindering care or advice.

By playing up rational, motivated and empowered users of digital medical technologies, we risk overlooking emotional burdens and complications of self-care and self-monitoring.

For a Smart Nation to truly benefit people, we need to have a broader and more nuanced conversation around the social lives of smart technologies beyond technocratic rationality and ask: Just because we can, should we?

Ezra Ho Suhan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline Diversify Smart Nation conversation. Subscribe