While the field of telecare has evolved from simple monitoring technology that provides awareness about older people’s safety, technology development in telecare tends not to focus explicitly on the phenomenon of awareness itself. Further, little research has been undertaken to study how the roles of family members and friends can be better harnessed in enabling independent living. Since social contact is beneficial to health, this thesis argues that research into phatic technology – awareness systems for the maintenance and creation of social interaction possibilities rather than the representation and transfer of information – should go hand in hand with telecare deployment to enhance the social contact between older people and their family and friends. To explore the design of phatic technology, a study was conducted to understand the context of independent living. This thesis shows that phatic technology should not be viewed as a cure for loneliness in this context, but as a resource to act upon, because being independent is being resourceful. Further, design should respect context by acknowledging that there is enjoyment in solitude.
It is perhaps in human nature to equate a quiet place with loneliness. Inspired by how people use the radio to compensate for the lack of social interaction, this thesis approaches the design of phatic technology from a soundscape perspective. By encouraging people to re-listen to their soundscape, the functions of sounds in everyday life are elicited to inform design. This thesis contributes to soundscape theory by showing that, in domestic life, the soundscape is mostly linked to presence through the creation of a narrative of others. People also have the ability to recognise the rhythm of their soundscape and thereby identify when certain sounds are missing.
Based on an improved understanding of the contexts of independent living and domestic soundscapes, this thesis presents a novel use of sonification to create phatic awareness in independent living with a phatic technology called SonicAir. Design reflections on SonicAir deployment contribute to design knowledge of phatic technology. This thesis contributes to the field of interaction design and communication theory by demonstrating that the links between social presence and phatic communion are the accountable and narratable aspects of lean signals. Lean signals may be direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, but they are accountable, narratable and ritualised, routinised and rhythmic. The thesis also contributes to presence theory by demonstrating how social presence is experienced through phatic technology.