the impact of the digital future on seniors

When my husband and I moved across country, we took the usual step of requesting the U.S. Postal Service forward our mail from our old address to the address where we knew we would be staying until we were able to buy a new home. Then, when we bought our new home, we filed another form to request the Postal Service forward anything from that temporary address to our new address. In addition, now that we had a permanent address, we contacted our business correspondents – banks, insurance companies, magazine publishers and the like – to provide our new address.

What we hadn’t anticipated is the amount of new mail we would receive as a result of the public record of our home purchase. Some of those pieces of mail were from the same organizations we had just contacted to provide our new address – AAA, AARP, and so on.

Where we probably wouldn’t have given a second glance to the same piece of mail had we received it at our previous address, we opened these envelopes, assuming the contents were in response to our change of address requests. But very careful reading was required to distinguish among them since many of them were intended for people new to the area who weren’t already members or subscribers. I caught myself just before writing a check for what I initially thought was a membership renewal when I saw the carbon copy of the renewal check I had sent just a few weeks earlier.

There is no bad ending to that story, largely because the purchase of a new home is not a regular recurrence. After a few months, the offers from businesses in our new area stopped coming and we could return to our pattern of opening and shredding or recycling the contents of correspondence that we know we don’t need.

But as I approached 65, another barrage of mail started arriving: offers for Medigap and life insurance coverage. Since my husband and I have taken all the steps we believe we need for insurance coverage, including Long Term Care insurance to protect our financial resources from disappearing if one of us can no longer live independently, it is fairly easy for us to identify the envelopes we can ignore and toss/shred.

Those direct-mail marketers use some very aggressive and manipulative, tactics to get us to open their envelopes. “Private, for the attention of the addressee only.” “You requested this information.” “You are invited to a free dinner at [fill-in-the-blank] restaurant.” I just keep in mind what I learned long ago, having heard the phrase since an even earlier time: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

What distresses me about direct-mail marketing aimed at seniors is that seniors, especially those living on their own, are among the most vulnerable targets for scams which use the same manipulative tactics, playing on fears on the one hand and on willingness to help others on the other.  For example, AARP and the Better Business Bureau have identified one of the top six scams targeting seniors as involving a phone call to a senior who recently lost a spouse, supposedly from a grandchild in trouble and needing money. Obituaries list all the surviving relatives’ names, providing the scammers with the information they need to place the phone call to the grieving surviving spouse at a time when he or she is making one of the most significant adjustments in life to make the pitch for help.

Recently, I began thinking about how much more vulnerable seniors will be in the future when what is referred to as the Internet of Everything connects information about people even more tightly. Even if a senior doesn’t have a computer or a social media presence, devices being sold have the technology that may allow the unscrupulous to obtain information without the subject being aware at all. And as technology becomes part of the ordinary and mundane, it may not be possible to purchase versions without the embedded technology. Try to find a cellular phone that doesn’t include a camera these days. Those photos may include geographic coordinates embedded in the metadata, two concepts I wouldn’t have tried to explain to my dad, even before his memory and cognitive functions began to fail.

That is why an article from the Pew Research Internet Project15 Theses About the Digital Future, has resulted in my spending a lot of time thinking about whether I agree with the authors’ assessment of which are optimistic and which are pessimistic when viewed through the lens of a senior point of view. Below are the 15 theses, stately objectively without giving away the authors’ assessment. In the next posts, I will consider each of the theses with my own assessment of which I look forward to with enthusiasm and which with dread.

  1. Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.
  2. The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance.
  3. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.
  4. Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially tied to personal health.
  5. Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.
  6. The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.
  7. The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated
  8. An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.
  9. Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
  10. Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them have new capacity to make life miserable for others.
  11. Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power — and at times succeed — as they invoke security and cultural norms.
  12. People will continue — sometimes grudgingly — to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.
  13. Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
  14. Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.
  15. Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’
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