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The Meaning of Old

Most of us grasp the meaning of “old” but putting it into words can be challenging. When it comes to people who might be old, there are plenty of euphemisms to choose from. Senior, elderly and senior citizen come to mind, while terms like curmudgeon or geezer are available when appropriate. According to Webster’s, old is something that dates from the distant past, is distinctly different from something similar of an earlier date, has existed for a specified period of time, is advanced in years or shows characteristics of age. Old, it seems, is relative.

Rotary dial telephones are old technology, but at what point will smart phones be consigned to the “old” bin? The same can be said for CRT displays, computer punch cards, vacuum tube radios, phonograph records, Video Cassette Recorders and so on – the replacements for all of these are also living on borrowed time. New will always be fleeting, while old is permanent.

Often associated with older people, AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) doesn’t require members to be retired, nor does it have an age limit. McDonald’s offers “senior coffee” to those 60 and older, but no ID is required. As long as you are willing to self-identity as old, you can save a few cents. There are numerous venues, from public transportation to movie theaters and restaurants, which offer discounts to “seniors” and will also take your word for it. Practically speaking, there are very few concise guidelines for membership in the “old” club.

In deciding when to consider myself old, I turned to the actuarial lifespan tables and determined that my average life expectancy was 84 years. I suddenly felt young again, having put off “old” until my 85th birthday. Then along came Covid-19.

In medicine as in life, the lines for the definition of old are not crisply drawn; factors like pre-existing conditions and general overall health confound the data. Lately when I shop for groceries during the “golden” hour, the younger cashiers act as if they feel sorry for me. Every time I sneeze people look at me like I’m a terrorist. The virus is coercing us into a definition.

Ben Franklin is often quoted on the subject of old, but the text of his most famous saying doesn’t explicitly mention age. Ben’s exact words were

Our new Constitution is now established and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

While hedging a bit on the durability of the Constitution, he did say that death is certain, while offering no further clarification. The permanency of taxes is well established.

It’s difficult to argue with the certainty of death, but not everyone is prepared to just shrug and accept it. Poet Dylan Thomas captured the feeling well when he wrote

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan died at a not-so-old 39 years, raging until the very end.

The technology that accompanies us on our life journey is most certainly not ready to stop raging, as demonstrated of late by the Sept/Oct 2019 cover of MIT Technology Review which reads “Old Age is Over!” Much of that proclamation arises from Transhumanism, the idea that humans can utilize science and technology to evolve beyond their current physical and mental limitations. As evidence for their case, Transhumanists often cite the Bristlecone Pine trees of North America, considered by scientists to be essentially immortal (some are as old as 5000 years). They also point to gene editing technology that has successfully altered the DNA of the roundworm, extending its lifespan by up to 500%. Trees and worms notwithstanding, there is much work ahead before we reach “escape velocity”, where technological innovations to prolong life add years faster than they pass.

It is often said of technologists that we eat our young, in reference to the constant struggle to render the newest, sexiest products old by replacing them with newer and sexier ones. An unnamed software developer once remarked that the date for a new program release was determined not by the readiness of a requisite number of features and improvements, but by the company’s need for a boost to cash flow. The well-worn joke that things tend to wear out just after the warranty lapses is not founded on coincidence.

The formal term for this process is “Planned Obsolescence”, whereby products are concocted to require replacement, e.g., incandescent light bulbs, tech products with irreplaceable batteries, cars with yearly design changes or - my own pet peeve – textbooks. Items produced with non-durable materials, or those for which spare parts are not available, are also examples.

Transhumanists take note - perhaps with humans as with our treasured new things, a demotion to “old” was part of the plan from the very beginning.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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