Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make


About three months ago, we took in a new member of the household: a 13 year-old dog named Christopher. A friend of ours just turned 90 and is moving, and couldn't take him with her; my son knew Christopher for a couple years, so we agreed to try him out.

I haven't owned a dog in ages, and so I had no real idea what I was getting into. But with two cats (at the time), and birds whove established nests all around the house, I was feeling like, what's one more animal?

He was, of course, somewhat guarded at first, and had some health issues, but over time has become more comfortable, both socially and physically.

One thing that concerned me was that I'd have to drive everywhere with him, as he's too old, and I'm too smart, to have him run beside me on the leash while I bike. So I found an old Burley trailer, ripped out the seats, and put in a dog bed. With enough dog treats he'll hop right in, and now happily rides.

Most days we go to Peninsula in the morning, and he has a circuit he likes to make, visiting different classrooms and saying hi to different kids, and to a cage of guinea pigs. I can't tell if the thinks they're friends or food.

Some of the kids knew him from his previous life; like my son they had tutored with his old owner, who herself was a teacher at Peninsula for a long time. So he's quite the celebrity at school. And he's made a couple canine friends, too.

Being thirteen, he has a variety of chronic ailments, and so he takes as many allergy pills and vitamins as I do. But peanut butter seems able to disguise just about everything.

And despite his age, or perhaps because of it, he's quite cheerful, yet generally pretty mellow. He sleeps like a rock, and like Marlowe has a genius for finding strategically inconvenient places to bed down: getting to the coffee maker in the morning is now like the maze scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indeed, his example, along with my dad's heading off to Singapore for two years after his retirement, has started me rethinking the nature of aging. To the degree I've thought about it at all, I've tended to assume that getting older is mainly about declining faculties, managing chronic health problems, and fighting social irrelevance– telling kids to get the hell off your lawn, but not knowing which kids they at because you don't have on your glasses.

But maybe there's more to the story. Maybe the other stuff can be epiphenomena, the friction or froth that is part of every part of your life.

I've been thinking about this particularly in relation to technology use. There's a tendency of think of elders as 1) incapable of understanding computers, 2) a set of engineering challenges (decreased mobility, reduced short-term memory) that need to be solved using technical means, and 3) something a bit less than free agents. But Steve Jobs was something like 18 months away from being eligible for Medicaid when he died; was he too old to "get" Apple's products? Do the guys (and they're largely guys) who built Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s, who spent their careers in the computer industry and now are retired, somehow lose the ability to think about technical stuff when they get their gold watches?

I suspect that, for important segments of the population at least, the conventional narrative about computers and aging is completely wrong. That there are things we can learn from elders about technology choice and use– about how much to let devices into our lives, about how to use them, about what things really matter. Sure, there are things people my age can do to help our elderly parents make sense of technology; but there are things we can learn from them, too.


1 Comment

  1. One of my most interesting, and valuable, friendships is with the woman who manages my apartment building. She’s 92 and incredibly active and fun, though slowing down a bit, and absolutely still very much engaged in the world. We have a neighbours and friends bookclub that we’re both a part of and she’s always the only one to actually get the book finished every time and she complains that her “other” bookclub is just full of old complainers. It’s really fun to be with her and have an immediate roll model for how I wish to live my old age (if I make it that long).

    And as far as technology goes, she loves her email but thinks that Facebook is a waste of time (she’s probably not wrong) and, as she says, she doesn’t have much time left to waste. At our last meeting our book was “I Do Not Come To You By Chance” which is about Nigerian 419 scammers (it’s fiction but it gets the scam right) and she was right there with us.

    As a culture we distance ourselves from old people. And I think that as we distance ourselves for everyone else through technology (I’m not arguing that it must do that but I think it has in many ways flattened relationships) and we don’t bring the elderly onto our platforms I wonder how much further that distance will then.

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