Chapter 52: The Z Future

Tech and the new outer limits.

If you flip this issue of Zoomer magazine to the “Prophet of Zoom” cartoon on the last page, you’ll see that this time the Prophet delivers his monthly observation – about Zoomers, Technology and Long Life – from Space. The inspiration for this comes from a sci-fi story I once read about a group of aging trillionaires who, in response to a scientific discovery that living in low gravity increases longevity1, underwrite the building of a kind of floating Las Vegas space station, which they have launched into a low-gravity orbit around the Earth with themselves and their helpers as its exclusive passengers. They have everything they need with them: food, flora, fauna, the world’s libraries and cultural treasures, and pleasure facilities and companions as well. The catch is they can never go back down to Earth. If they do, the weight of gravity will crush and kill them, making longevity moot.

That story, though fascinating, was pretty bleak. But things here today are more upbeat. If I read the Prophet correctly (and I have a bit of an in), what he is suggesting is that in the 21st century, we’re already living on a kind of technologically booming spaceship Earth, with innovations and products that promise to both extend our lifespans and increase our quality of life; and not just for trillionaires but for all of us (if we’re lucky enough to live in a country like ours). Not only that, a good percentage of these technological advances, whose benefits will inevitably be enjoyed by the younger world, wouldn’t exist if we didn’t exist, because we’re the intended end-users.

One of the by-products of any major war is scientific and technological innovation, particularly in the areas of medicine and communications. Wars create increased need for the treatment of increased injury and illness, as well as a need for people to contact each other under difficult circumstances. The Second World War, for instance, saw the development and refinement of the first broad-spectrum sulfa drugs and antibiotics, as well as skin grafts, blood transfusions and mass vaccinations (of the 17,000 Allied soldiers wounded at Dunkirk, not a single one who was immunized beforehand developed tetanus).

The struggle with aging is a major war itself (I can see many of you nodding), and it has had its own technological fallout. Specifically, the past 50 years have seen the development of artificial replacement parts for the human body that can rival the Six Million Dollar Man2 in scope and performance.

A while ago, in Zoomer magazine, Jay Teitel wrote a three-part article about the new Cyborg Nation, in which he estimated that there are, today, more than 300 million people worldwide (a “nation” roughly the population of the United States) whose bodies contain significant artificial replacement parts. These include artificial joints – knees, hips, shoulders and ankles – as well as pacemakers, heart valves, artificial atria, arterial stents, and hearing and dental implants.

Not only are their numbers increasing exponentially, so is the durability and lifespan of the devices (the latest artificial hips can last up to 25 years). And these devices do a lot more than just trigger the alarms at airport security scans; they improve the quality of life for the newly bionic and, in the process, may increase their lifespans as well.

After Teitel underwent his first hip replacement at the age of 54, he had his second at the age of 64. “If I had been 64 in 1950 or even 1960,” he now says, “I’d be walking with two canes or rolling around in a wheelchair and in constant pain. Today, I play hockey three times a week pain-free.” A 64-year-old who can exercise regularly also stands a greater chance of living longer than one who can’t. For my part, my limbs and joints are still my own, but my health has been improved radically by the miracle of the modern dental implant. Were the year 1950, not 2015, it’s probable that I’d be experiencing pain, eating mush and shrinking because of decreased nutrition. (And a slowly collapsing face probably wouldn’t do much for my love life either.)

It’s not just tomorrow’s medical innovations that are linked to our demographic; it’s also the popular digital technologies of today. For example, up until 2008, the primary business of the small Swedish communications company Doro was selling desktop and home telephones. At that point, the company underwent a profound change and shifted focus exclusively to “the design, development, marketing and sales of telecommunications products that are customized to fit the needs of senior citizens.” Their first product, a simply formatted mobile flip phone with large buttons and a one-button emergency call feature, was an immediate hit, not just in Sweden but overseas as well, especially here in Canada.

But it’s their older-directed software that makes using PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones easier for an aging population that strikes me as most novel. The interface also accommodates what I think will become a new category and function of technology; namely, telecare and medical dosage and adherence trackers that let outside caregivers and family members monitor the well-being and medication use of aging loved ones. Other companies are getting on the bandwagon, providing a range of products to help older adults stay in their homes; everything from an “adaptive spoon” for people with Parkinson tremors to “smart clothing” that can transmit a wearer’s breathing, heart-rate and skin temperature to, eventually, actual robot companions, in the not-so-fantastic fantasy vein of the 2012 movie Robot and Frank.

When it comes to highlighting the unusual relationship between our demographic and technology, though, nothing is as revealing as the eReader. Coincidentally, I purchased one of the first eReaders in the late 1990s. But it was clumsy compared to today’s versions, and my fondness for writing notes in the margins of whatever I was reading prompted me to put it away and forget about it. But then this past February, a colleague came back from a trip to a resort in Mexico and told me about a surprising thing he’d seen there. For every guest over 50 who he saw reading a paper book, he said he’d seen nine using an eReader or a tablet. For people under 30, however, the numbers were reversed. Mostly, they looked at their phones, but if they did read a book, it was invariably an old-fashioned “real” book, not an e-Book.

Intrigued, I contacted Michael Tamblyn, president and chief content officer of Kobo, the Toronto-based eReader company. He corroborated my colleague’s observations. “Almost 50 per cent of Kobo eReader users are 55 and over, and 20 per cent of our users are 65 and over. You have to remember our market follows reading demographics, rather than technology demographics. In a bookstore the median age is 45 to 55. We see similar patterns in eReader use”. Other reasons Tamblyn gives for eReader popularity among Zoomers include the ability to enlarge font size for older eyes; the light weight of the device compared to a traditional book, especially a thick one, important for anyone with arthritis; the convenience of taking one small flat screen as opposed to half a dozen hardcover doorstoppers, important because older people take more vacations; and the convenience of being able to order books from your home, and get instant delivery, important for customers with limited mobility. “Included in that 65 plus bracket are a lot of people in their 70s and 80s. And what we’re especially happy about is the number of people who have been able to come back to reading through eReading, because maybe large-type books couldn’t make type large enough, or they couldn’t get enough selection in traditional large-print books.”

So here’s the scoop: eReaders weren’t designed for young people, and intended to trickle “up” to us. They were designed for us, and intended to trickle down to 17-year-olds. And its not just eReaders. One recent winner of the Tour de France spent his down time during that cycling marathon checking out various artificial hips online, trying to decide which one he wanted to replace his ailing right joint when the event was over. He was 31. The Prophet of Zoom would not be surprised. Eventually, everyone, he would tell you, regardless of age, gets a ticket on 21st-century spaceship Earth. But, as Zoomers, it turns out we have a unique effect on the gizmos and gadgets that improve life on the space-ship: almost without exception every innovation that’s specifically designed with us in mind ends up being of benefit to all ages. This may be because, as older people, we’re naturally adept at linking the past to the future, and vice versa. Or, since we’ve seen so much, because our overview will always be broader and more encompassing. Either way, I’m sure the Prophet would put us on the bridge of the ship, maybe in Captain Kirk’s seat. Who else is more qualified to steer into the future, than the people closest to it?

1. In fact, there’s no scientific evidence to date that low gravity increases lifespan.

2. A 1970s hit television show.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.