When Aldous Huxley wrote in his 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World that, “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards,”, little did he know he would become one of the most quoted ‘futurists’ warning of the dangers of future technology submission.
Thankfully I am a natural optimist, and my early years in technology and out outlook of the future was guided more by the lyrics of Phil Oakey and Georgio Mororder, “Though your miles and miles away, I see you every day, I don’t have to try, I just close my eyes, I close my eyes.”
I am glad I am inclined to look on the brighter side of technology because last week I started to think more deeply about how technology was going to be ever more important in my life and the life of my mother.
Now, on the basis she won’t mind me divulging a little of the story, my 70-year-old mother is starting to have a memory which is more inclined to forget the last 15 minutes but remember something that happened 45 years ago. Over the past 12 months this obvious decline in her memory has become ever more evident in the way she copes with day to day life, and after a week of her staying in our home on a short holiday, the challenges of her remembering to do the things we all take for granted increase slowly but surely, and the decline this is having on her health increase almost imperceptibly.
As the week unfolded so did the realisation that whist my mother today is perfectly happy to live on her own, but that taking medicine is becoming more irregular, knowing when she has fed herself or her dog a little more uncertain, and paying bills or keeping to a budget become that much harder.
So today, with a mother who lives 200 miles away, we live in a world between normality and uncertainty. Mum knows she is struggling to make sense of certain things, and recognises that she is becoming less able to do the things she needs to do and do them in the right order, at roughly the right time, and in a way that keeps her healthy so she can continue to function in her own home and in her own right.
I will be honest, it scares the hell out of me, because in the bastardised words of somebody discussing the speed of technology change, “Today will be the most confused day in my mum’s life, but today is also the least confused she will be for the rest of her life.”
Of course, medication will help. But I am not sure it is simply pills that will make my mother’s future more bearable, I do have a view that a tablet or two might provide an answer if this technological intrusion can work for both of us.
And as I sat thinking I pondered the value of technology in her home and what I could do to facilitate my mother living better, providing her with nudges to do the right thing, and providing me and my siblings with a level of limited knowledge about how well she is looking after herself.
What I thought about most was I don’t want to move from being her son to being her technology big brother. I don’t want her to feel that I am constantly watching for her not to make a cup of tea, have too many biscuits or not enough fruit, or track her every move around her home so I know when she has spent a day watching TV.
I don’t want her independence intruded on by technology, but I would like her life augmented by it so she can spend as long as is possible being herself in her own home, and living a good quality of life in her own home because technology is providing a low level of background nudges and intelligent interventions when things start to go out of kilter.
My mother needs a nudge home – one that make sure she takes the right pills at the right time. One that keeps her connected to her family and friends when she decides not to visit them. A home that keeps her safe but does not control her life. But she doesn’t need to sit wearing a pair of VR googles all day or have a robot follow her around shouting ‘Jean, you haven’t taken your pills and the bathroom scales told me you have put on 14lbs this week.’ That small cyber-friend would find itself in the bin in no end of time.
What she and I need is a nudge home with a low level of background intelligence to see the signs that my mother is comfortable and that gives me enough knowledge to intervene in the lightest of ways when behaviour starts to change that could cause my mother a problem.
Is she shopping well?
Is she eating well?
Is she cooking at regular intervals?
How much food is she throwing away after she has eaten.
Is her home heated properly?
What does she weigh?
Is her bank account OK?
Is she in the garden much?
How long is she sleeping?
Now you are going to look at that list and say he is just being big brother in another way, but I don’t want to sit in front of a Mum Dashboard regulating her every movement, I just want to invest in augmented living appliances that could provide me with variances that give me a clue that something is up. None of these devices need to bark order at my mother or send me immediate alerts to my desk because she took her pills an hour later than she normally does. I don’t want to run her life or the devices do that either – but her life should run more smoothly because there is an imperceptible level of intelligent running through her home and her life.
Some immediate challenges spring to mind, and here I am torn between the right to data privacy and the right to a satisfying life. I think I will also be torn up by companies who are now so eager to meet data privacy regulations I will find it near impossible to build a solution that works for my mother, me, them and the regulators. I have a feeling we are walking into a data privacy nightmare that stifles augmented living to the point I will end up with half a picture but we will see. I am in this regard as pessimistic as Huxley but for different reasons. The dystopian few may choke of the innovation I and my mother need. But I will remain optimistic.
I know that striking this balance between augmented living and anxious living is going to be a fine line, but I take the view that my mother would rather have a home that nudged her now and again, and a son able to keep a concerned eye remotely and not too intrusively than a care worker in her home every day, or worse still her home becoming a place no longer capable of supporting her independent living.
So, I decided this week to become a champion of this subtle and non-submissive form of technology living and ensure my mother isn’t subdued by illness or by the technology that could help her. I want her to have a new lease of life and an independent future, so I will hunt down and engage with companies who want to make the nudge home is a happy and safe place to live and one that can be lived in independently longer.
I hope that we can get this right – all of us involved in technology, caring, and healthcare because the issues facing the planet of an elderly population are not going away soon, but we must solve it in a caring and supportive way, not one of real-time alerts and intrusive technologies.
I hope that one day, my mother and I, in the words of Georgio and Phil, ‘We’ll always be together, However far it seems, We’ll always be together, Together in electric dreams.’