Digital Culture & Quantified AgingCollection Archivist: Sharon Caldwell
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”. Many of the inventions showcased here fall into three major technological categories: smart homes/The Internet of Things (IoT), which use sensors in order to remotely track, analyse, and understand individuals’ behaviours around the home; wearables, which include smartwatches, smart shoes, fitness trackers, and personal emergency response systems (PERS), that track and manage health-related vitals such as sleep, heart rate, activity and stress levels, as well as detect and communicate accidents such as falls or illnesses; and robotics/artificial intelligence (AI), which include social/companion robots and virtual assistants used in both personal and long-term care homes, that assist with specific tasks, provide care, communicate with family, and alleviate loneliness.
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. A variety of words are used to describe this population, such as “seniors”, “elderly”, and “older adults”, which all carry different connotations.
Many of these advertisements contain similar narratives and imagery, emphasizing older adults’ need for independence, empowerment, agency, active lifestyle, family connection, and safety. At the same time, some of them echo ageist stereotypes, painting the elderly 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 parent(s) lives, bordering on intrusive surveillance strategies, which blurs the line between ‘caring’ and ‘controlling’. It also raises ethical issues such as privacy and consent.
Although most of the technologies are marketed towards seniors who are still healthy and active, some of the technologies, such as GPS smart shoes, are geared towards those with cognitive health issues such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
This collection records the innovative ways that companies are addressing the needs of an aging population, but also raises bigger questions about our culture’s beliefs about aging and caregiving.