Innovative technologies are clearly assisting in two major trends in the 21st century, the youth revolutions in the Middle East and the fiscal issues associated with aging populations in the G-20 nations. This shouldn’t be unexpected, if one is familiar with the Broadband Commission’s report to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, this past fall, entitled “2010 Leadership Imperative: Toward a Future Built on Broadband.” The report highlighted technology’s effects on major social demands and economic needs, including population aging: “Broadband infrastructure is important for… the range of different needs of aging populations in information, entertainment, lifelong learning and retraining. It will prove vital in the delivery of health care services to growing numbers of elderly, enabling [them] to live independently longer. There will be impact in ways we are only beginning to understand.”
The world’s aging populations are now gaining a new second phase of life never before thought possible. And it’s the same technologies connecting Tunis to Amman that are also connecting the elderly to doctors, to work, and to vast social networks that are breaking the limited and unimaginative scope of dependence and disability that have defined aging.
If technology is the game changer for aging populations, it is equally the enabler of political upheaval. As David Brooks explained in a recent New York Times piece, “Huntington’s Clash Revisited,” the people of the Middle East had reached democracy not because “they do not hunger for pluralism and democracy,” as political scientist Samuel Huntington thought, but because “they were simply living in circumstances that did not allow those spiritual hungers to come to the surface.” The role technology has played is hard to deny. If Huntington had the advantage of applying this 21st century lens, he, too, might have come to a different conclusion.
Viewing technology as a democratic enabler prompts us also to revisit George Orwell’s 1984. The book has enraptured us for six decades as we witness and welcome technology’s invasion into our lives – and embrace online banking, smartphones, and Google Earth. But the science-fiction-like communicative technology that Orwell imagined – to be used by authorities as barriers to freedom – is today proving to be a path through which such freedoms are gained. Consider everything from Radio Free Europe’s role in bringing down the Wall to the ways in which Facebook and Twitter have been facilitators of democracy. (Last week, in Cairo, a baby girl born post-Mubarak was named Facebook.)
It may seem implausible, especially to those who have understood aging as a condition of dependency and disability, that aging populations can be a path for wealth creation and fiscal sustainability. But the implausible often comes to pass. What we need now is a new crop of motivated thought leaders who are willing to look squarely at this aging populations era and decide how technology can continue to help us manage radical demographic shifts.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is managing director, the High Lantern Group, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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