Danger Ahead Redux

Fearful kitten with arched back

Fear (photo courtesy of Andreas D.)

I’ve had some interesting conversations with people on Facebook about my last post related to social workers and their fear of technology. New technologies all raise questions about how to use the technology in a way that is consistent with our values and ethics. In order to do this, it’s necessary to fully understand the technology: it’s strengths and limitations, the nature of the privacy protections that exist, and, I would add, the cultural norms for it’s use. By the latter I mean that each tool has it’s own set of cultural norms, i.e., what’s okay on Facebook differs from the norms on Twitter.  So, of course, each tool requires that we learn about all of these aspects and consider how to apply our values and ethics in this context.

Mary Carney (social work faculty member at SUNY Fredonia) noted in a Facebook comment that Mary Richmond wrote about confidentiality issues and the telegraph in her classic book Social Diagnosis. Robin Shapiro (clinical social worker in private practice) shared this wonderful blog post where she summarized what she learned at a workshop on ethics, technology and therapy. These are exactly the dialogues that need to take place whenever any new technology is introduced.

What I object to in the wording of the 2010 Social Work Congress imperative on technology is the fact that some people felt they needed to specify that technology be implemented ethically, responsibly, etc., for this imperative and none of the others; there’s an assumption that people need to be told this and if not instructed to behave this way, they may well behave unethically and irresponsibly either because that’s who they are, or because the technology has the power to corrupt them.

It will be impossible for the social work profession to move fully into the 21st century without integrating technology into our work. I have dialogued with many social workers about their fears–these are important dialogues to have. But we need to have the dialogues in the open, now.  Because, as is true for our clients,  our fears will keep the profession  stuck if they aren’t surfaced and addressed.

Photo courtesy of Andreas D

Danger Ahead

Telescope falling onto a person

Beware of Technology: It's Dangerous

The Social Work 2010 Congress concluded last month and yielded ten imperatives for the future; one related to technology: “Integrate technologies that serve social work practice and education in an ethical, practical, and responsible manner” (2010 Social Work Congress Voting Results). This is good, yes? Well, yes. And no.

Yes in that it is definitely a necessary task for the future. Actually, I would venture that it’s a necessary task for now, even yesterday.

And no? As I reread the imperative my eyes lingered on phrase at the end of the sentence, the one that read, “in an ethical, practical, and responsible manner.” Well of course it should be implemented this way. But why does that need saying? Wouldn’t we expect all of the professional imperatives to be implemented this way?

So I went back and read the nine other imperatives. None of the other nine qualified the implementation of an imperative with a phrase like this. And the second imperative (related to implementing business and management models) certainly would have been a natural place to do so if specifying the “how” of implementation was to be a consistent part of the imperatives.

So why single out technology? It’s clear that at least some people felt this was necessary to specify. The very presence of the phrase suggests fears that technology will be implemented in unethical, impractical, and irresponsible ways. It is possible that that could happen? Of course it is. And it’s also possible that business and management models could be implemented in unethical, impractical, and irresponsible ways. And it’s possible that most of the other imperatives could be implemented in this fashion as well. Everything we do is subject to the risk that we could behave unethically, impractically, and irresponsibly. Yet it was only in the writing of the technology imperative that this was specified. This simple act conveys the suspicion and fear of technology that some (many?) social workers have. Technology is not seen as neutral, but as something that is dangerous. And those who use technology? Well, clearly they need to be monitored to ensure they don’t behave unethically, impractically, and irresponsibly. Because one couldn’t possibly trust that they would implement technology according to their professional ethics–on their own–without being told to do so.

I’m left wondering how social workers felt about the telephone when it was first invented. Were there fears about how it would destroy face-to-face relationships? Were there those who worried about colleagues implementing it irresponsibly? Unethically? If so, how long did it take before the telephone was accepted as a tool, one that could be used effectively or misused, like any other?

To be clear, I wasn’t at the 2010 Social Work Congress, so I didn’t hear the dialogues that went into crafting the proposed imperatives. The fears may or may not have been articulated. But the inclusion of that phrase suggests that they were lurking there nonetheless. While there are many social workers who have embraced technology as a tool for practice, policy and education, it suggests that there is still a sizable group who is reluctant and fearful.

My fear is that the fear of technology will destroy the social work profession. We’re at critical juncture in time. There is a growing need for human services professionals in the health and behavioral health arena–social workers have been an important part of this workforce to date. However, there are many other professions that can now fill one or more of the roles played by social workers. And there are many ways that people who seek to make a difference in the world now use technology to do just that. Technology, online social network, and the digital world are becoming the ways in which many Americans and people all over the world are seeking information, resources, building communities, and reaching out across the globe. Mobile devices are fast becoming the primary way that people from all walks of life are accessing social networks and other online resources (see this recent NY Times op ed for more on this). Eschewing technology and digital domains–or even moving toward them slowly, with much ambivalence– could well leave us sitting back in the 20th century while the rest of the world moves on.

Photo courtesy of Abulic Monkey