net.wars: Don't mention the war.

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 February 2003

"This is a bit too distressing for breakfast," said one of the old ladies at my mother's table before consulting with the waitress to work out whether she'd already ordered breakfast and if so, what she'd chosen. We were talking about the prospects of war (and the Nanny Diaries).

Wendy M Grossman

I don't visit my mother all that often, but there was a 90th birthday and a bunch of relatives, and so I stayed the night in her ... assisted living residence, I think they call it. Run by the Hyatt hotel chain, the place gets all the residents in pretty good meals in clean, respectable clothes, and aside from the canes and walkers neatly tucked away in corners , you probably wouldn't notice much different from an ordinary hotel dining room, until you listened closely and noted the number of discussions about who had and had not ordered dessert. The whole place most strongly resembles a convent or monastery, where what people were "in the world" falls away from them, leaving only a detached communal atmosphere in which you are effectively alone.

It is my belief that one of the biggest changes the Internet will make is to the quality and reach of our lives when we reach that level of age or immobility. When I am 90, I will have been using email (assuming it still exists!) and socializing online for more than 50 years. It will not be something new I have to struggle to learn, but a way of life that will accompany me wherever I go. If I can't see, screen access software will read it to me. By then, perhaps screen access software will have many output options: an electrode into the brain to convey the contents telepathically perhaps. The Hyatt also uses a system of wall-mounted sensors that interact with tags newer residents wear around their necks.

If all that research into wearable computers, conductive fabrics, and personal area networks pays off, clothing itself could be programmed to guide the new resident to the dining room at the right times, perhaps by turning on guidelights to show the path. Similarly, the telemedicine applications being talked about now will allow clothing and bedlinen to monitor a resident's health, sending out an alarm if someone needs urgent attention or something is wrong - much more effective than a panic button. And of course research always continues into combating the effects of aging, because improving their prospects in that area matters to all aging philanthropists.

But these things merely change the details, not the fundamental structure. I do not want to live in an institution, even one that thinks it's a hotel. And there is this problem of being able to afford care, which most of us are going to struggle with. So I'd appreciate it if some of you bright research types out there could get started - you've only got 41 years until I turn 90.

First of all: holograms, like in a couple of Asimov's robot mystery novels or the TV series Quantum Leap. Some of the women at my mother's table are terribly frightened and upset about the prospects of war. They're a bit frail to be out in crowds of a million people, so why can't they send holograms they to tomorrow's demonstrations instead? Holograms would also be useful for family weddings, and other occasions you want to be seen at but not actually go to. Holograms should also be a success in the business travel market, since the hologram won't care about grenade-carrying Venezuelans.

Second of all: the memory lens. I got the idea for this from the fact that if I comb my hair over the sink with my glasses off, the sink looks perfectly clean. So what I want is a lens that does for the holes in your memory what my glasses do for my eyesight: bring reality into focus so you can see it. I feel sure this would be a million-seller, because everyone forgets things they wish they hadn't. Maybe you could rent-to-buy starting when you're 20.

Third of all: lightweight retractable appendages. I have no idea how you could make these work mechanically, and I assume some materials science work would be needed, but I envision a wearable system that could send out wheels, stabilizers, or pseudopods at will, so that you could, at the touch of a button, select among a wheeled walker, stairs walker, or chair (wheeled or stationary). Or how about some way to use those conductive clothes to create artifiical muscles, or some kind of nanotechnological system embedded in your mattress that would grow stronger muscles for you overnight? I'm not fussy which of these improbable technologies gets developed. All of them, why not?

Fourth of all - and it could be that if you guys manage this one we could do without number three: teleportation. Personally, I've always thought it ought to be possible to teleport between places with the same name. Work on it.

But what I will want is a life in the world, where my past doesn't fall away. My guess is that for the foreseeable future, the best preventive technology available for that is younger friends. I'm interviewing 20-year-olds. Who are all marching tomorrow. Just like 1968.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).