N E I L B A L L A N T Y N E
My personal social work journey began as a youth social worker working in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. Later, I moved to the social work department at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, from where (later still) I was seconded to the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS). Six years ago my family and I migrated to New Zealand and, after a short spell as a consultant, I returned to the academy and now teach on a distance learning social work programme at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. I must confess that, throughout my career as a social worker and social work academic, I have had a preoccupation with the object I have chosen.
I chose the computer because …
… partly because of the deeply ambivalent, love/hate relationship this object has with social work and social workers; and also because of my own fascination with this incredibly fluid, shapeshifting emblem of modernity. In many respects the computer symbolises the antithesis of social work: the opposite of a quintessentially, human to human, face-to-face, relationship-based profession. Computers have been frequently portrayed by social work authors as instruments of techno-rational managerialism. There are countless pages of research attesting to how database applications have undermined the professional judgement of social workers, stolen precious time from direct work with service users, and reduced complex client problems to a forced choice in a drop-down menu. And yet, that is only part of the story: this peculiar technical artefact is also capable of empowering people with disabilities, telling persuasive stories that win campaigns for social change, and mediating highly effective social services and social work education at a distance. The emergence of mobile networked devices and social media has, in an incredibly short space of time, transformed our perceptions of the communicative and expressive potential of computers. A potential that is enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of social workers and social work educators who are, for example, harnessing twitter to facilitate social work book groups, using Facebook to form communities of practice, and blogging to challenge and resist neoliberal government policy changes.
It is this very fluid, shapeshifting aspect of the computer that I find so fascinating. Although we can describe computer hardware as an object, in reality, it is the interface to a plethora of networked digital applications and objects. Computer technology represents the world of social work in digital form. In digital text, numbers, images, video and audio, human lives are captured, professional opinions shared, risks calculated, services planned and care plans costed. But the powerful affordances of computing power come at a price. Although I have stated that the computer is merely an interface, it is a mistake to think of it as a passive intermediary. The computer, and its software applications, are always active mediators. Computer applications are agents that attempt to shape and configure the actions of users; but they are also, in turn, shaped by our use. (The social work shaping of technology can occur in a planned way, when, for example, applications are built using principles of user-centred design; but, more often, this emerges informally when, for example, social workers develop work-arounds in order to subvert database designs that constrain good practice).
The shapeshifting computer is always on the move. The once ubiquitous beige box topped with a cathode ray tube that dominated the desks of most social work teams is fast disappearing. In their place is a proliferation of digital interfaces in the form of flat screens, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. As the internet of things unfolds some predict that computers will embed themselves in everyday objects forming a web of intelligent, connected devices capable of structuring your day, informing you of the latest legislative change that might be relevant to the case you are working on, or automatically updating a predictive risk score based on your last data input to a client record.
Has the emergence of the computer been good or for bad for social work? Will its future trajectory improve the quality of life of service users; or will it work in the algorithmic interests of bureaucratic, managerial, machine-like organisations? Both dystopian and utopian visions of the relationship between social work and the polymorphous computer are likely to be limited, both tend towards technological determinism, assuming that it is technology that will do the talking. I am confident that the computer will, in its multifarious forms, be a perpetual companion to social workers in ways that are to be welcomed, and in ways that must be resisted. Relationship-based practice is at the heart of social work and progressive social workers must struggle to keep it that way. Part of the struggle will be about harnessing the computer as an ally for an empowering, social work practice based on an ethic of care; part of it will be about resisting unethical, disciplinary uses of computing power to extend the surveillance and control of service users, and the governance of social workers. Either way, love it or loathe it, the computer is an object with which social workers must continue to contend.
What do you think? What do you love or loathe about the computer as a tool for doing social work?
Image credit | Luke Jones | IBM PC