How to Keep Up (as Much as You Like, Anyway) as Our World Keeps Getting More Connected
Fifty years ago this summer, we thrilled to the sight of humans walking on the moon for the first time. The Apollo 11 mission was a human triumph and an engineering milestone, the first time digital computers controlled the movements of a vehicle carrying people.
Perhaps you feel tempted to glance at your smartphone as you read this, maybe to see if the Apollo 11 movie is on Netflix yet, or to check email—and why not? Your phone is 4 million times more powerful than the 70-pound computers that guided astronauts to the moon. Of course, smartphones are just one tool in our increasingly digital world. Computers run our cars and many of our homes. They’re making our lives easier, better, and chockful of distractions.
But being smart with technology doesn’t have to be rocket science. Stick with me as we take a quick tour of some of the ways technology is transforming our lives (and how to best navigate those changes).
Smarter Home and Health
Broadband access to the Internet has transformed how we use technology in our homes. Smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home can read a recipe, check sports scores, play your favorite music, and order a case of detergent. Plenty of people love smart speakers; others happily live without them.
A smart speaker is listening, “but it isn’t listening so it can do anything nefarious,” says aging and technology expert Laurie Orlov. Rather, it’s working to learn your speech patterns so it can do what you ask of it. There’s a privacy tradeoff, but Orlov says it’s the same tradeoff many of us already make when we use free email and social media—and why we continually see ads based on things we’ve searched for or liked online.
Smart security systems help you keep an eye on your home from afar and, when you are home, see who’s at the door before you get up. Companies including Seattle’s BuildSOUND are taking this a step further by installing systems (including a smart hub developed by another local company, Kirio) that regulate everything from home comfort to shutting off water or power in an emergency.
Technology is transforming personal health, too. Your Internet-connected smartphone, watch, or even a smart pill bottle can remind you to take medications. As we age, and especially if our memory falters, voice-activated technology and wearable trackers can help augment in-person contact from loved ones and paid caregiving. “A smartphone coupled with turn-by-turn directions is invaluable in a car,” Orlov says, and GPS tracking technology can keep watch over frail people who’ve stopped driving but might wander.
Safer and Smarter on the Road
While autonomous (that is, self-driving) cars still aren’t commonplace, they’re on the way. Meanwhile, many high-end carmakers have introduced semi-autonomous systems that can take over in heavy stop-and-go driving or offer mostly hands-free driving on the open road. Even more moderately priced vehicles—and some older models—offer driver-assist features to prevent crashes, but you need to know how to use them.
“We always advise car buyers to make sure you’re asking a lot of questions at the dealership,” says Rhonda Shah, manager of traffic safety advocacy at the American Automobile Association.
Watch demonstrations of safety features, take a class, and read the owner’s manual. Another AAA program looks at current vehicle makes and models to identify those that might have features that are helpful to people with limitations due to arthritis or recent surgery, for example. (Search online for “Smart Features for Older Drivers.”)
Personal cars are far from the only way to get around these days, and we are spoiled for choice in Western Washington. King County Metro and Sound Transit have begun teaming with ride-hail services and car-share companies to help people reach transit hubs, and transportation tech companies are using Seattle as a place to roll out new options, such as the Fiat “Lime Pods” offered by the same company that rents e-bicycles around the metro area.
Balance Needs and Wants
Of course, just because a new technology exists doesn’t mean you must adopt it. “I resist the thought of ever buying technology because it looks cool,” says Orlov. Before adding another device to your home or trading in for an even-smarter car, think about whether you really need the upgrade. “Smart in terms of safety is good,” Orlov notes, while smart for convenience—think remotely controlled thermostats or lighting—is more a matter of personal preference.
Also, think realistically about your interest in keeping up with ever-advancing technology. Says Shah from AAA, “Technology has the ability to keep us safer behind the wheel,” but drivers always need to understand the limitations of their car’s cool new features. That goes for trading up for a new phone or tablet, too. “It’s very important that people demystify technology that they want to use because otherwise, it becomes junk,” Orlov says.
Speaking of junk, think about the planet and the likelihood that what you buy today will be outdated soon. “The worst thing about technology bought over many years, and we certainly have this in my house, is the junkyard of obsolete technology that we no longer use,” says Orlov. Many sophisticated home and car systems now get automatic software updates, but Apple and Amazon thrive on people craving the latest and greatest gear. “Useful is good, appealing is good, but don’t overbuy,” she adds.
Julie Fanselow lives in Seattle. Her earlier writings for 3rd Act include the essay “Just Enough News” (summer 2018). Read more from her at surelyjoy.blogspot.com.