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

5 thoughts on “Computer”

  1. Of course I love (a bit) technology. This website and blog -which I like- wouldn’t have existed without it. But let’s look back and see what happened. Technology played a big part in the development and growth of public services, and in any ‘growth’ of any kind. It is speeding things up and is at the root of the constant change. Public services have to become now ‘lean’ (ie more for less services, less employees), whilst technology is nurtured more than ever. Of course, we hope that It can fill in the gaps, after expectations, needs and demands have reached the heights and money has been withdrawn, or invested into something else, for someone else. And we need to develop, constantly make things better, and technology can help. Technology is our enchanted garden, but I feel that It is being constantly misused. We relate to technology the way the medieval men related to the ‘angels’. They saw them everywhere, wanted them in their proximity, put their hopes in them as ‘mediators’, whilst others took advantage of this frenzy, until the worries and conversations about the ‘angels’ disappeared. But technology is more resilient, one of the strongest things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Neil, I’ve loved the freedom of creativity that computers have offered. The digital blank canvas has always fascinated me.

    I’m going to drag up an old argument, I’ve worked with Apple Macs since the late 80s and I love their focus on the human interface design and making things easy to do. I loathe the Microsoft Windows environment with its focus on business applications and a user interface that makes you fight to get anything creative done. Its dawned on me that the Windows environment is very business oriented and forces you down particular paths much like the techno-rational managerialism point you make above. (Conspiracy theory alert! :-)I feel that all IT Services Personnel, no matter what organisation you work for want to maintain the Windows environment because the system keeps it breaks down and keeps them in a job!

    I loathe having to watch colleagues at work struggle with Windows based machines to get even the simplest of tasks done, the struggle draws the mind away from creating beautiful learning objects to be shared in the social work community. I love that more than ever before learners are much more tech savvy and that they are demanding of us learning artefacts that are crafted to a professionally standard. For them, the slightest blemish tends to draw the eyes and ears away from the learning content. I would love us to move away from business orientated machines to those that allow our creative imaginations to digitally flourish. I say love what is simple and loathe what is complicated. Lets ditch the Windows environment (that I loathe) with its focus on business applications and embrace the Mac environment (that I love) to intuitively unleash our creative potentials for the good of our profession. It’s not a rant, but if it was (it’s not) it’s over! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. As a Mac user I agree, too – but what can we do to get Apple to play fair and become a fair tax company? I worry about supporting companies that are not putting back into the community what they are taking out. I have a real dilemma because, unlike Starbucks, where I can walk on by to an independent coffee shop, what do I do when I want to replace my Mac? Advice pease!

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      2. Simon, not on commission, have been using Macs for a long time now, even during the 90s when it looked like Apple would fold. It is the simplicity of use that I have always liked, just being able to imagine, design and create! It’s wonderfully liberating.

        Mark, I can not ever condone the tax situation. I strongly believe that we have to blame Apple and our elected law makers for this situation. For example, the recent ‘tax deal’ with Google is appalling when our public services are being cut to the bone.

        In terms of advice, I can only tell you what I feel. At this point in time, I take a Utilitarian rather than a Kantian stance with the Apple tax dilemma. I believe that by using an Apple Mac I am producing digital tools/experiences for students and practitioners that are enhancing practice, leading to potentially better outcomes for a wide group of service users and carers. I would struggle to do this if I did not use my Mac. I will continue to use a Mac in the hope that the tax issues will change in the near future. I accept that this may not be something with which everyone will agree.

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