Aging, Culture, and Technology

Curator: Sharon Caldwell, Digital Culture and Media Lab (Decimal Lab), University of Ontario, Institute of Technology | June 2018 ongoing

Collection Editor: Isabel Pedersen
Collection Archivist: Sharon Caldwell

FABRIC is excited to release the new collection, Aging, Culture, and Technology.

According to a United Nations (UN) 2017 report, there are an estimated 962 million people aged 60 or over in the world, and that this population is growing at a rate of about 3 per cent per year. As the world’s population continues to age, there has been a surge of research initiatives dedicated to addressing, as the UN puts it, “one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century” (“Ageing”). Particular emphasis has been placed on the role of technology in aging, especially as a tool in helping people “age well” and stay active. In their research on ‘quantified aging’, Marshall and Katz (2018) note that, “The ‘doing’ subject is central to contemporary agendas of active aging, and to constructions of the ethical aging subject”, and that “‘successfully’ aging bodies are no longer just ‘busy bodies’, but busier, smarter bodies” (p. 67).

This collection seeks to investigate the emergence of “gero-tech” — technologies that focus on promoting and improving the wellbeing of an aging population as they seek to “age in place” — as well as examine the rhetoric that surrounds aging in our society. Although the majority of the resources included here are from a North American point of view, there are some European and Asian perspectives, such as the popularity of robotics in Japanese care facilities. Through the visual language of corporate video advertisements (demonstrations, customer testimonials, and storytelling) and news documentaries, as well as the written language of brochures and news articles, we can track how experiences of aging are represented in the media and within the larger culture. By also including critical responses to aging-related technologies, we aim to open up dialogue about ethical considerations.

Researchers and companies have been working to bridge the digital divide by developing more accessible technologies and/or creating opportunities for older adults to adopt current technologies. The inventions showcased here generally fall into three major technological categories: (1) ambient technologies, including smart homes/The Internet of Things (IoT), which use sensors in order to remotely track, analyse, and understand individuals’ behaviours around the home; (2) wearable technologies, which include smartwatches, smart shoes, fitness trackers, personal emergency response systems (PERS), and virtual reality (VR)-based video games, that track and manage health-related vitals such as sleep, heart rate, brain function, fitness and stress levels, as well as detect and communicate accidents such as falls or other emergencies; (3) robotics/artificial intelligence (AI), which include social robots and virtual avatar applications used in both personal and long-term care homes, that assist with specific tasks (such as meal prep or entertainment), provide care, communicate with family, and alleviate loneliness through companionship.

Many of these advertisements contain similar narratives and imagery, emphasizing older adults’ need for independence, freedom, active lifestyle, social interaction, and safety. At the same time, some of them echo ageist stereotypes, painting elders as personal and financial burdens. Many of the stories are told from the point of view of the family member or caregiver, centring their feelings and fears about their parents’ safety. Their ‘peace of mind’ is achieved through constant monitoring of their parents’ lives, bordering on intrusive surveillance strategies, which blurs the line between ‘caring’ and ‘controlling’. It also raises ethical issues such as privacy and consent, and highlights the need for research that places older adults’ voices at the forefront to ensure their agency.

This collection also tracks the global trend that expects social robots will be developed for older adults to serve as companions, such as Jibo or Rudy, or provide therapeutic comfort and emotional care, such as PARO the robotic seal or Brian the Robot. In recent research, Pedersen, Reid and Aspevig (2018) argue that social robots have formed part of a “rhetoric of urgency”. Instead of developing robots to meet the rich, cultured lives of older adults, they are developed to serve as problem-solvers for global aging, a phenomenon which constructed as if out of social control. The feared lack of human caregivers available to manage this aging population has resulted in the push to develop emotionally intelligent robots to fill this void, offering older adults a kind of “simulated compassion” , instead of the full complexity of human care. This leads to the ethical paradox that social robots might reduce the lived experience of aging subjects, rather than serve to enhance.

This collection records the innovative ways that companies are addressing (or not addressing) the needs of an aging population, but also raises bigger questions about our culture’s beliefs about aging and caregiving.

A screenshot of some of the artifacts in the collection

Curator’s Response

This was a really exciting project to be able to work on. Many of the technologies in the archive, especially wearables such as smartwatches and activity trackers, have been marketed towards individuals who are read as young and fit. This project opened up space to explore a different population that is generally invisible in the world of tech. As I researched more, I realized that there are a plethora of initiatives happening that are working to change this. There is still a very pronounced fear of aging (and ultimately of mortality) in western culture (especially in Silicon Valley), and markers of youth and glowing health are very much privileged and glorified, but some of these artifacts aim to challenge this, by aligning older age with things that are typically reserved for the young: health, independence, and freedom of movement.

At the same time, these “freedoms” come at a cost: increased levels of surveillance and regulation of their bodies and their lives. Aging bodies that are not deemed physically or cognitively “healthy” by the moral standards of capitalism (such as those with dementia or chronic diseases) are subjected to an even greater amount of control. Through the use of metadata, I wanted to highlight this tension between empowerment and ethics. I chose keywords that are used in many of the advertisements, such as “health”, “independence”, and “freedom”, but also added augmenting keywords such as “controlling”, “surveilling”, and “fearing”.

There are several different ways that aging is described in the advertisements and in news sources: “older adults” (or “older people”), “seniors”, and the “elderly”. I tagged each artifact with only the specific word(s) they used in their advertising (either in their videos, youtube descriptions, or on their website in general). These terms all carry different connotations and I thought it was important to track the use of language in order to better analyse representations of aging (e.g. in terms of ageism, cultural differences, etc.).

I hope that this collection can be used as a resource for further study and investigation into the intersections between aging, culture, and technology.

References

Katz, S., & Marshall, B. M. (2018). Tracked and fit: FitBits, brain games, and the quantified aging body. Journal of Aging Studies, 45, 63–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2018.01.009

Pedersen, I., Reid, S., & Aspevig, K. (2018). Developing social robots for aging populations: A literature review of recent academic sources. Sociology Compass, 12(6). https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12585

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: Key Findings and Advanced Tables, 11. Retrieved from https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf.

United Nations. Ageing. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/ageing/.

This collection is has been funded by the Digital Culture and Quantified Aging Social Science and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant 2017–2022, Dr. Barbara Marshall (PI, Trent U), Dr. Stephen Katz (Co-PI, Trent U), Dr. Isabel Pedersen (Co-PI,UOIT), and Dr. Wendy Martin, Brunel University.