Social work has the reputation of being averse of technology, of being Luddites. However, with each new innovation the profession has given considerations to the challenges and opportunities that emerged. This happened early in the 20th century when the telephone became widely available and it became used as a tool in crisis intervention and counselling. The same happened near the end of the century when the personal computer became popular and social workers around the globe started wondering what the implications would and could be for their daily work. Bear in mind those were not the computers we use now, but bulky machines with little memory, floppy disks, one-colour screens that were humming all day. Of course there were concerns about loss of privacy and erosion of the warm face-to-face contact, but also nervous excitement about information-at-your-fingertip and expert systems that would capture social work knowledge.
In 1985, the numerous small initiatives exploring these challenges and opportunities found each other and gained momentum. In the USA, Dick Schoech launched the first issue of the Computers in human services journal with the support of people like Walter LaMendola. This was an expansion of the already existing Computer Use in Social Services Network (CUSSN). The journal was later renamed to Journal of Technology in Human Services. Also in 1985 in the UK, Bryan Glastonbury published his Computers in social work.
These people, together with e.g. Hein de Graaf (NL), Jackie Rafferty (UK), Rob MacFadden (Canada) and Jan Steyaert (NL & B) launched HUSITA (Human Service Information Technology Applications) and ENITH (European Network for Information Technology and Human Services) and organized a series of almost yearly global or European conferences. The American journal was complemented by the UK-bases Computer Applications in Social Work journal. It was later renamed New Technology in the Human Services and ceased to be published in 2003.
By the end of the 20th century both the technology as well as its relation to social work had profoundly changed. Technology was more user-friendly, cheaper and more powerful through the widespread availability of internet at home. The relation between technology and social work changes in two ways. First, there were the worries about a digital divide, where private ownership of a computer and home access to internet would be the base for new social inequalities. Community technology centres and public libraries tried to remediate this. Secondly, there was focus on what citizens would do with all this technology at home in terms of neighbourhood websites and communities of interest. With the advent of web 2.0 this also brought interest in citizens as sources of information (Wikipedia, …) and the building of social networks (Facebook, …). Would all this result in more social quality, or proof to be an erosion of social capital?
Within social work, computers can now be found nearly everywhere. Not just for the average office tasks, but also to support (online) counselling and the maintenance of client records. Just like in 1985, respect for privacy of client information and the wish to avoid bureaucracy are still on the agenda.
This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 06-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2013