Submission No. 42

From Miriam:

This week I went to an open meeting. A group of people got together to brainstorm about how to help people age with strength and health and how to help those already elderly to thrive.

We met at IDEO, the design firm based in Palo Alto. We came up with a slew of ideas. We, collectively if not individually, committed to develop some of those ideas in the public forum that is Open IDEO.

Conceptually, I think this is great, why not try to solve, or at least work on, major human needs by treating them like any design problem to be solved? Practically, it was pretty fun to hang around…thinking with a bunch of lively folks who were invested enough, for now, to give up an evening. OpenIDEO functions by encouraging these ideas, then the development of the ideas. At some point, the ideas get voted on and someone wins! My question, and I suppose IDEO’s question, is how much of an impact they can have, will they really solve problems? Of course, it’s easy to sit in the cynic’s seat, call up studies that say most NGOs and charities fail at their aims.

My friend M., who invited me to the meeting, did suggest there was something church-like about the way this project is organized and the way people give their time and skills to it.  Tom, can we have a conversation about this?

You can see much, much more at Open IDEO itself.


Miriam, this is a VERY provocative submission, even though it is not at all an artistic one (and so falls outside the usual parameters of submitforriff? Are there “usual” parameters of submitforriff? Best to keep it undefined I’m sure you would say, and I agree).

Anyway, this submission does not concern beauty and form. But it does concern truth, and questions of integrity and purpose. I believe it is (oh my god, can we promise not to use this word ever again?) riffable.

Certainly this OPEN IDEO website triggers a great deal of irritation in me. And even more interesting, as I start this riff I am not sure why — since the idea is obviously so public-spirited and well-meaning and progressive in all of the right ways.

I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful if a group of internet-savvy young people could, collectively, with clicks on the  “applause” button  and a process of comment-driven “refinement,” solve the nagging problems of old age and poor health and depression and economic inequality — all in one fell swoop?

Surely, Tom, crowd-sourcing such ideas can only be for the good?

What could possibly be irritating about this concept?

My riff:

People get older (or perhaps Dylan said it better: People just get uglier, I have no sense of time.) When people get older, they suffer, unavoidably, from the sometimes gradual, sometimes catastrophic, deterioration of their bodies.

They ache. They develop chronic illnesses of all kinds. They stumble and fall. Their bones become increasingly brittle. They become increasingly… incontinent (to name just two complaints at random).

Old people no longer have the mental and physical strength to provide the same income stream that their efforts generated when they were younger. Some retire. Some keep working for less. But in almost all cases, their standard of living declines.

Many people lose regular contact with others. Their friends die, or move, or fall away. Their children  are busy with raising children, working, etc. The experience of loneliness is common. A growing sense of isolation is common.

We get it. Growing old can create many challenges.

The OPEN IDEO campaign hopes to address these challenges. Nothing wrong with that! And in the process of generating and refining their ideas the IDEO campaign participants will, surely, narrow their focus from the challenges of old age generally to something more specific: poverty, loneliness, physical pain, squalor, boredom, fear, or some such common aspect of being old. (Some of these challenges will be interlinked, but the focus will surely have to get to somewhere specific.) So I don’t think the open-ended nature of the IDEO campaign is an insurmountable problem. Start general… get specific. Right?

What, then, is it so irritating?

I think the irritation I feel is because the context of this challenge is so naive.

What old people? I want to ask. The old people in the Western industrialized world suffer far less than most old people in the world in terms of health because of our modern medical science and the astonishing resources channeled to them through Medicare and other subsidies. The old people in much of the rest of the world, on the other hand, suffer far less than old people in the Western industrialized world in terms of loneliness, because in many developing countries communities are organized more vertically, if you will, with old people living (and dying) in far closer proximity to their families and lifelong neighbors.

Even for each old person individually, I would guess, different needs are often at odds… Improved access to high-quality medical care, for example, may extend your lifespan, but also increase your chances of experiencing chronic illness. Addressing boredom by developing “old people” apps for iPads, for example, may keep people busier but increase the tendency to social isolation. (Why bother to walk through the snow to join Ernie and Kate at the local bingo hall when I can sit alone and play bingo on my computer?)

So where exactly does OPEN IDEO want to end up? Exactly which subset of old people are they aiming to help? At what cost?

Usually you start with a cause, and damn the consequences.

Surely we can find  conditions in our own social and economic and political environment which each one of us, on a given day, will very well find objectionable, even horrific. For a Communist in the early part of the 20th century, of course, what would leap out most of all would be the unequal distribution of material resources between old people across the nation and the globe. Some old people have access to clean and heated running water; others do not. This is largely, in the U.S. and across the developed world now, based on property rights, and the acquisition of resources (which one owns) over a lifetime, by way of work, luck, inheritance, illegal activity, or some other means. Do we want to change that arrangement, subtly or dramatically, by changing public policy to enforce the redistribution of resources among older people? Or from the young to the old? (Oh right, we already do the latter, hugely, in the United States…) To these, more narrow questions the Communist would say, unequivocally: Yes! Do you think this kind of radical improvement will get enough “applause” on the OPEN IDEO website? Can’t wait to see!

For an urban planner, on the other hand, the concern may be physical isolation in living spaces. This is largely due to cultural habits of individualism, the rise of suburbs, the role of the internal combustion engine and the automobile in our lives, etc. For a  well-intentioned, ambitious urban planner, then, the answer would be a massive redesign of our culture and accompanying physical infrastructure: more self-contained “villages”! More communal bunk-houses and communal kitchens! More public transportation! Is that  the sort of thing the OPEN IDEO campaign will land upon? We’ll see!

My point is: it is possible to change things, sure. People in various groups and factions have been trying to do this for all of history! But these changes have not, traditionally, been based on how many people, steeped in individualist, Western, resource-rich thinking, click an “applause” button. Before the internet they did not circulate blank surveys asking how old people could be made happier, either. Why? Because, in the end, such a process will merely reflect one kind of alteration of the experience of old people, based on the particular views of whomever is asked. It doesn’t make sense to pretend otherwise.

It is not coherent, this aim that OPEN IDEO has, to universally improve “well-being.” In the end, at the best, they will “improve” one aspect of old age that their users consider an “improvement” for one subset of old people in the world. There’s the source of the irritation.

In the end, there will be no deus ex machina, no god descending  from the “cloud,” to make everything all right for old people. We know that, don’t we.

Getting old, no mater who you are, will still mean the degradation of your body and your mind. Many different people, as always, if asked, will want to accompany this degradation with different modes of pleasure-seeking. Some will dream of old people remaining intimate sexually! Others will want more tasty, healthy diets, with leafy greens at every meal and slow food practices! Others will want to advocate yoga and meditation! Others will want a weekly stipend…  Others (this would be my preference when I am old) will want to encourage a continuing life of the mind, with resources (libraries, book clubs, lecture series) devoted to intellectual stimulation! Some of you may dream of old people living on farms, sleeping in giant featherbeds designed for groups! Who knows what dreams the IDEO users may come up with.  But there isn’t, and never will be, a single answer.

Here’s my gripe (I think I’m getting somewhere at last): You have to start with a specific grievance. And then you look at trade-offs and costs of fixing it. You don’t get to a grievance by asking generally how we improve well-being. That implies that something like old age can be solved, made delicious, the kinks made smooth. Sorry, IDEO, the curve of life and its pleasures slopes steeply down when disease and illness and broken bodies get involved, when minds get soft.

It is painful. It is sad. The first half of our lives is a comedy. It works out! Sometimes they even get married! The second half is a tragedy. Everyone dies.

Ask yourself not how to make it… good. It cannot be made good, like much of life (despite all the many joys we experience too).

The question is not how to make old age good. The question is how do we contain the pain. Even better — which pain can we contain?

On your friend M.’s church analogy, I think it is not fair to churches. The best thing that religious institutions do (not a phrase I write often, I know) is that they recognize the unavoidable pain and loss in life, the agony, the sickness, the suffering brought on by aging. If OPEN IDEO were like a church it would not have this enthusiastic idea of old people “thriving,” as its stated aim. It would say, instead: how are old people not thriving, and how can we comfort them in their pain?

About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: