Your House Is Watching You
Saturday morning. Shagged out after another hectic week of bingo and daytime TV, you opt for a little lie-in. Ten, eleven, eleven thirty, eleven thirty-five... Soon, your bed notices that you haven't got up. “What's going on?” it thinks. It leaps to the obvious conclusion that you are dying/dead/in some peril. Your bed calls for back up. Within the hour, nurses are knocking on your front door... Ding-dong: welcome to the future that's already here.
eNeighbor is a system now in place at over 50 US old-age homes stretching from Portland to Philadelphia. Sensors under the floor, in the cupboards, in the fridge, toilet, and yes, in the bed, feed information for each user's apartment into a central computer. Over time, the system “learns” your habits – the two-hour nap in the afternoon, the three hours of TV in the evening. Advanced systems also use the bed sensors to monitor weight changes – if you're putting on or taking off, it could be a sign of disease. If you're constantly doubling back, it could be dementia. A similar system being pioneered in France adds CCTV to the mix, actively studying posture to look for signs of physical deterioration. Anything out of the ordinary and it calls in the carers. Membership of this brave new 1984 wonderworld costs just $100 a month, and for most seniors who enrol, they're under the robotic thumb of the machine state and they're actively loving it.
“Everyone in this building has the system,” says Charles Marriott, a 73-year-old Philadelphian emphysema patient who got to duck out of the nursing home he'd been in for 18 months. “Some of them don’t like it, but most people would say that it's a good thing for all concerned. For instance, one day I took some Codeine with my new medication and I passed out in my chair. So the system called the building supervisors, and within a couple of hours, I had paramedics at my door.”
We also spoke to fellow 73-year-old resident Thomas Smallwood about the situation.
Vice: Hello Thomas, do you mind being woken from your afternoon dozing by the computerised calculation of a statistical deviation from your previously profiled average behaviour curve?
Thomas Smallwood: No, I don't. They need to do more. Now me tell you this - they need to do that because they need to know that I'm OK. For instance, sometimes in the afternoon, I go to sleep in a chair in the living room, and then they phone me and I wake up and they tell me to move about a bit so they know that I'm OK.
Do you feel like you're being watched?
Yes, I do feel like I'm being watched. But I'm glad that they do that. Because I'm a heart patient, have been a heart patient for 19 years. It's wonderful. I think that all independent people should have someone to find out how they're doing, because without this system you could've fallen on the floor no one would hear anything and no one would know where you are at.
How broadly do you think it should be extended? Just to people with specific problems or to the more general population?
The population. Because if you're sick or anything like that it's a very serious situation. I could be talking to you right now and then right after that fall down and nobody knows.
So that used to be a very big fear of yours?
Yes, it was because when I had a heart attack the first time I didn't know what was going on, whether anyone was going to find me in time.
It is kind of like living in the future, isn't it?
Do you think you're the tip of an iceberg? Do you see a lot of application for this?
I do. Because they need these things to make sure people are safe. I don't figure myself as elderly because I'm 73. I can still move and get around. But I have seen other people that actually need these things, because some of them can't do anything for themselves.
Smallwood's also an ex-nursing home, and therein lies the crux. All technology above a certain level is indistinguishable from magic anyway. With such subtle sensors, eNeighbor-type systems are out of sight and out of mind. While we might all hypothetically fuss about moral implications, at a base level it's human nature to prefer invisible engines constantly watching over your life benevolently. Couple that with the massive savings in healthcare costs these systems bring, and a nation's seniors are about to become blinking dots on a control room gridmap. In the end, Big Brother loves you and you love Big Brother – what's the big deal anyway?
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