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'Grey technology' should be the new black

When the elderly can't access services or communicate, we all lose

My dad seems to have a propensity for breaking the all of the kit we’ve given him to allow us to have a trans-oceanic video chat pretty much any time either of us wants. Apple’s Facetime came along just around the time I moved to Australia. Skype had already been around for years. Between these two we’ve been able to keep our relationship going strong, even at a 13,000 km remove. The tyranny of distance has been just a little less tyrannical as a result.

But lately, all of this technology has become just a little too fragile for my dad. Heading into his late 70s, he’s losing a lot of the fine motor skills needed to manage all of our very sensitive devices: mice, smartphone screens and even keyboards have become bigger and bigger obstacles to our ability to communicate. Sometimes - as when Microsoft sneakily decided to upgrade his computer to Windows 10 without his permission, but failed during the upgrade - the devices themselves revolt and become unusable.

On a recent visit I took my dad to visit US retailer Fry’s - a giant palace of consumer electronics, gadgets, gizmos and toys - hoping to find something that might ease his burden, and bridge the chasm between what he can do and what the computer demands.

To my surprise, I found nothing that fit into that category - at least nothing on sale publicly. It’s as if both manufacturers and retailers assume everyone using these devices are fully able-bodied. Even I, with my middle-aged eyes, can’t read fine print anymore without a very expensive pair of spectacles - and I’m a member of an entire generation growing older and (let’s just be honest here) less able with every passing day. My dad has already arrived at a place where all of the rest of us will someday land.

When we get there, will any of this tech work for us?

These devices do have modes that magnify their displays - which is helpful if it’s easy to get into and out of that mode, and if every app does the right thing in that mode. But that’s never the case (try it yourself and see). Instead, we design gadgets for a hypothetical person with perfect sight and perfect sensorimotor capacities, able to swipe, click, clasp and drag with perfect alacrity.

No one is perfect, and no one can do all of these actions indefinitely. Sprain a few fingers and try to use your smartphone, or develop a repetitive stress injury and try to type. Even before we’re old we all experience different levels of capacity, yet our devices stubbornly refuse to follow where our bodies lead them.

It’s true enough that most folks in their 80s rarely use the Web - it became popular after many of them retired from full time work. But folks in their 70s and 60s use Facebook with abandon (which is why their grandkids don’t use it). That means we’re about to hit a wall where the way we’ve designed our devices and the way we’ll need to use those devices will not meet. There’ll be a disconnect between capacity and application.

That’s a shame, because it will leave a lot of people - like my dad - cut off.

Neither product designers nor advertisers ever entertained a need to reach anyone over 55, believing their days as consumers to be at an end. What we’re seeing - as more people live into their ninth and tenth decades - is the birth of a new sector of the economy, which began with the wellness needs for that generation, but is now broadening into meeting them at their point of capacity. That’s more than Zimmer frames; it’s every device we touch, and in particular the shiny devices we use to communicate with.

Perhaps this is simply the overhang from Silicon Valley’s cult of youth: when you’re in your 20s or 30s life in your 70s or 80s is nearly inconceivable. Even Tim Cook, one of the elder statesman in tech, is only 56. The grey hair we need to even begin to frame a solution to these problems is thin on the ground.

But “grey tech” is starting to emerge. What I thought was one of the weirdest products I saw at CES 2017, a ‘smart’ walking cane studded with sensors to help guide a person around, first seemed like a silly idea.

I now think it's a step in the right direction, because it makes its user more able. We need to amplify that intention and spread it liberally throughout the tech sector. We shouldn’t be leaving anyone behind just because they're greying out. ®

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