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Date Published: 10/20/1999
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Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Late Boomerology And Beyond: Singing The Body Virtual/Geriatric

Dion Dennis

Boomerology: The study of the nexus between the rise of the virtual class, architectural patterns of race and class segregation, and the concurrent technologically extended and enhanced life span of an expanding, aging population.

Recognizing the Third Vector of Separation: Much has already been written about the confluence of two vectors of millennial urban separation. The first, a new form of architectural urbanism, has been an ongoing reaction to the vibrancy, spontaneity and social violence of street life during the 1960s (from the random appearances of street theater/music and mass political action to the campus, ghetto and urban violence of protestors, rioters and police). The spaces of cities and suburbs have been reshaped by a bunkered privatism that reconstitutes post-1960s zones of cities and suburbs, as Mike Davis has noted, as a series of demarcated security fortresses.1 As the idea and reality of a public commons withers, the very creation and cultivation of these "common-interest-developments" arguably forms the necessary preconditions for much contemporary urban violence.

The second vector of separation is the much ballyhooed construction of "lifestyle" virtual communities on the Internet. Celebrated by such enthusiasts as Howard Rheingold, Stewart Brand, and George Gilder, implausible utopian claims are routinely proffered about the emergence of virtual, digital forms in a virgin "frontier" that democratizes participation and access. The social facts of information networks - that they are bureaucratic products, that they are networks of extremely detailed information collection and panspectral surveillance, that such webs produce new forms of pink and white collar sweatshops - all of these social facts are blithely ignored. Although there are some obvious and significant benefits to digitalization, such as access to information and resources long and exclusively held by professional legal, medical and technical cadres, these benefits are not evenly distributed. The cost of hardware and software, the training, time and literacy needed to master formats, the bureaucratic habit of mind need to recognize and exploit possibilities; all of these prerequisites generally reinforce the exclusions of post-1960s urbanism.

In the 1990s, these two vectors of separation merged with a third vector of separation -- the emergence of an incipient gerontocracy. In the new century, architectural and technological vectors of privilege and exclusion will find themselves increasingly anchored to prerogatives of a ruling gerontocracy.

This essay is about the birth of a concept, the hatching of a heuristic idea, a melding of extant perceptions and ideas into conceptual synergism: The emergence of a virtual gerontocracy during the first half of the 21st Century. The ideology and practices of the virtual class depicted in "The Theory of the Virtual Class" (Kroker & Weinstein) might well be melded with the looming imperatives of the gerontological. These virtual elites will become, over the first half of the 21st Century, geriatric cyborgs (geriborgs), deploying a remote and detailed net of technology to extend their bodily and informational privileges over an extended time-span. These geriborgs will display their novel twists on a classic Benthamite theme: security; security personal, security social, security financial, security spatial.2

What's new in all of this? News and information channels, such as National Public Radio (NPR) or CNN, routinely proffer a plethora of stories, reports, commentaries and policy debates on either technology issues or the social problems that surround the demography of aging in the older industrialized countries. In at least one relatively modest futurology tome, Future In Sight, chapters on the emergence of geriatric societies and the effects of computerization abut, albeit without a direct or indirect nexus.3 My purpose here is to remedy this common oversight, to begin a polyalogue about the nexus between the geriatric and virtual in the early 21st Century. For the lack of a better term, I have termed the study of the nexus between the rise of the virtual class, intensive patterns of urban spatial segregation, and the technologically extended and enhanced life span of a rapidly growing, aging population, boomerology (For it is with the baby boomers that this extended event-scene emerges). And I suspect that much will yet be written on the subject. However it manifests, one effect seems probable: An ascending army of gerontocrats may well be plying the micropolitics of power, shaping the routine governmentalities of everyday societies, as prominent and ubiquitous members of a geriatric virtual class a generation or more from today. A phalanx of technologically extended octogenarians, comfortably situated as a significant part of the virtual class, will aggressively extend their narrow interests out from an amalgam of segregated gated communities and fiber-optic networks over the next half-century. From these privatized enclaves, strategically placed among omnipresent webs of cul-de-sacs, (which have become a sacred, repetitive architectural form), these gerontocratic priests build a shrine to the Millennial Idol, the 21st Century Golden Calf, a postmodern Baal; to Securitas, the God of System Worship. These subjects of Securitas, these priests and patrons of risk-management, are busily shaping the material, economic and iconic environments of the 21st Century. Surely, they are worthy objects of our attention. We should begin mapping the Taxonomy of the Geriatric Virtual Class, the better to know them. To frame the sections below, I offer up a tentative, heuristic taxonomy, a rough, initial classification, to be followed up by exegesis and analysis:

Zen And The Art Of Geriborg Maintenance: A Boomerological Preamble

What are the identifiable vectors of force that will tie the class-based world of the gerontocratic, the virtual and the architectural? Consider the following trends:

A Global Aging of Humans, as the population of the planet ages in mean and median terms, disproportionately skewed by technologically extended life spans for the middle and upper socioeconomic strata in the industrialized North, and the upper-economic strata of the South;

The amplification of contemporary spatial patterns of privatization, separation and segregation, visible in pre- and post-Millennial architectural forms, such as gated communities, walled enclosures and defensive architecture. These are further supplemented with intensive forms of pre-structuring of perception, habits and thoughts. These pre-structured elements are dominated by formats of security, status, age segregation and commodity consumption;

The ubiquity of global telecommunications and computerization, which will tend to replicate and intensify already highly stratified, abstract, institutionally mediated and hierarchical relations, where the speedy micro-activity of the virtual (commodities, futures and derivative markets, for example) impact, at a greater and greater distance, on the world of the 'real';

As demographically and economically privileged geriatric cyborgs, geriborgs habitually reproduce, modify and extend the viability of complex information systems and artifacts that impact them. Geriborgs self-monitor and self-optimize to increase their overall levels of individualized performativity. The objects of self-optimization may be their bodies, their functionality of a plethora of high-tech prosthetics, the physical safety of their fortresses, or the current status of investments. Taken as a whole, geriborgs are obsessed, in fact, defined solely by their obsession with private bodily and information-based risk-management rituals. Most geriborgs inhabit a solipsistic, self-absorbed micro-universe, shorn of any sort of positive evaluation of the public sphere. (Through the lens of big-screen local, national and international Panic News, the public realm is predominantly perceived as a chronically perilous zone of dangerousness and risk). So what will be the contributions made by-and-for this privatized, bunkered population? We can reasonably expect an explosion of private, convenience-oriented ergonomic devices, memory-enhancement drugs, voice-recognition systems, talking computers, and virtual cemetery plots, where the dead live on, in the bowels of Web servers, in text, photos and slide shows.4 This hydra-headed phenomenon, from prosthetic optimization, to regimes of lifestyle management, from within the walled cybernetic temple of the god Securitas, is what I collectively term "Zen and the Art of Geriborg Maintenance";

Finally, as the zeal for various forms of security (the extension of benefits over time) continues to eclipse those of equality as the Prime Directive of postmodern society, the eloquence of Pogo comes to mind. Insofar as we are all, as Haraway reminds us, (aging) cyborgs, Pogo's famous aphorism rings true in the millennial world to be: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Graying Demographics: Locating the "Geri" in Geriborg

In the U.S., the narrative of aging populations has generated a profusion of policy and marketing mantras. It is seen alternatively/simultaneously as threat (bankrupting the welfare state and setting the stage for generational warfare) and as opportunity (to market everything from personal services, electronic prosthetics, revitalizing drugs [such as Viagra], Winnebagos and redesigned homes and appliances). The table below summarizes the changing demographic scene in the U.S.5

Table One: Demographics of Aging in the U.S. - 1900-2045
Date Life Expectancy
(years)
Population Over 65
(raw numbers)
Population over 65
(of total demographic)
1900 47 3.1 million 4 percent
1930 60 6.7 million 5 percent
1960 70 16.7 million 9 percent
1995 78 31.1 million 12 percent
2025 (est) 85 62.5 million 20 percent

One statistical marker is upon us. According to President Clinton's Health and Human Services Cabinet Secretary, Donna Shalala, "In the year 2000, older people will outnumber children for the first time in [U.S.] history."6

Another significant trend is the shift within this demographic group. The population of those who are 85 years plus (the very old) is increasing more rapidly than the entire group. In 1990, about one in twelve (8 percent) was 85 years or older. By 2045, this group will comprise 20 percent of the elderly.

According to the UN's Administration on Aging (AoA), the global scene mirrors many of these trends, with an increase of persons 60 and older from 200 million (in 1950), to 350 million (in 1975), to 590 million (at the millennium) to 1.1 billion by 2025. According to the AoA, this is "an increase of 224 percent since 1975...[while total global population will increase by 102 percent]. Thus, by 2025, older persons will constitute 13.7 percent of the world's population."7

But who are these folks? Who will be able to afford advances in diagnosis, drugs, organ transplantation techniques, bionics, and diet? Will panaceas be equally spread across the lines of social class, race, gender, and geography? Or is this generational aspect the only significant source of social stratification? Of course, if you are a self-proclaimed "leading visionary on the aging of America and the maturing marketplace," such as Ken Dychtwald, you just might believe (out of a need to aggressively market "Age Wave, Inc." enterprises) your own Web-based promotional materials:

By 2020, the old will control America. Youth will be at their mercy. America will have become a "Gerontocracy." Legions of experienced and active older men and women will have incrementally taken over more and more of the power until they will be lodged firmly in nearly all positions of control from property ownership to government support to political leadership to university tenureship (sic) -- even to control family wealth -- reminiscent of the elder control of America that prevailed before the industrial age.

According to Dychtwald, there's no overarching need to worry about generational tyranny because

Today's somewhat self-absorbed generation of elders will have been replaced by a new generation [aging boomers] ... [that] will devote much of their time and resources to improving the lot in life for younger generations.8

(It's a wonderful, if transparent move -- luring incipient geriborgs, Dychtwald's target market of potential [baby boomer] clientele, with a fantasy of generational power, moderated by a flattering self-portrait of their own future benevolence, while taking a satisfying swipe, no doubt, at their parents, the disappearing World War II generation).

Taken as a whole, it's an egoistically appealing but profoundly false and self-absorbed piece of whimsy for boomers, this notion that collectively, we will become, over the next twenty years, kinder and gentler mini-versions of Bill Gates. For while we might want to indulge the whimsy that "We Are the World" (benevolent, enabling and loving), our built and virtual environments, our ubiquitous and everyday practices of estrangement, segmentation and separation much better reflect the sentiment of another popular boomer tune: Jim Morrison's "People Are Strange."

Fortress Geriborg

A sense of generic "others" as strange, a totalizing estrangement; this is constituted by physical separation and economic exclusion. This estrangement generates the ubiquitous fear upon which the geriborg eagerly constitutes and converts metropolitan landscapes into geriscapes. In the name of Securitas, geriborgs embrace enclave worlds of the gated and walled, as consumerist privatopias. Unrelentingly anxious about the dangers still lurking in dwindling pockets of public spaces, incipient geriborgs construct new community and public space forms to discipline those imagined "dangerous others" (such as male adolescents, migrant workers, and the "throwaway" children of the inner city poor). These tactics of control and exclusion take the contemporary forms of locked neighborhoods, armed guard dogs in public squares, the installation of cameras on the commons, the enthusiastic endorsement of class and race-based asset forfeiture rituals, and the routine plotting of byzantine street grids and bizarrely produced highway exits. Yes, the geriborg inscribes his/her fear on the physical landscape. There is a burgeoning literature, in architecture, urban studies, environmental psychology, and cultural criticism on the proliferation of landscapes of fear in the U.S. Yet this is but one realm of spatialization and the most obvious one. Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear is but the latest trenchant commentary on the militarization of everyday life.

As Saskia Sassen rightly points out, there are profound spatializations of inequalities within virtual electronic spaces. For example, the inequalities of class and race are reproduced in the virtual, via real physical infrastructure (or lack of such) according to Sassen:

Within global cities we see a geography of centrality and one of marginality. For instance, New York City has the largest concentration of fiber-optic cable served buildings in the world; but they are mostly in the center of the city, while Harlem, the black ghetto has only one such building. And South Central Los Angeles, the site of the 1993 uprisings, has none.9

Sassen goes on to point out that deregulation, privatization and globalization policies adopted by national governments facilitate mergers of and international alliances between telecommunications, computer and TV (satellite and cable) companies. Sassen notes that the end result is the formation of megacorporate information and entertainment entities in a reconstituted, multiformat, global multimedia market. The overall effect, she says, "can only increase the distance between the technological have and have nots among firms and consumers." It is a fissure that will be broadened by differential modes of access in speed and content (equivalent to first, second and third class seats on trains), with well-heeled geriborgs paying for high-speed ISDN, satellite or cable modems, along with hefty entry fees for a variety of databases and services. For prosperous, technologically adept geriborgs, it's not a problem. Ensconced with their computer screen in a Fortress Privatopia is an exercise in reconstituting a secure social reality on their turf, where the "other" is almost always (sans viruses, spamming or a deliberate hack) safely digitized into an ephemeral, controllable, and flickering virtual presence (or non-presence).

However, it is good to remember that the cyborg is "but the latest stage in the human desire for self-improvement."10 It is yet another variation on the fecund utopian idea of the "new man" that stretches from the French Revolution to the present. Coined by Clynes and Kline in 1960, notions of the cyborg spread outward like a rhizome and mutated like a viroid from its military-industrial complex origins.11 The notion of a geriborg is another such mutation. And like its progenitor, the cyborg, the idea of the geriborg represents a complex nexus. It incorporates the politics of technology, ubiquitous militarization, resituating military cybersystems into commercial and public sector milieus, the demographics of aging, the politics of fear, logics of consumption, exclusion and structured inequality, and the intended and unintended effects of human/hardware/software ensembles. But in the end, it is about the geriborgs overriding concern: Security (as the extension of benefits over time). Such benefits will probably include (but certainly not be limited to) the following: Health and physical longevity, cutting-edge medical services, secure pensions and financial stability, physical security, class and (often) ethnic or racial segregation, an architectural/domestic environment that adjusts for physiological changes, and highly structured modes of ingress and egress between various millennial fortresses (gated community, mall, doctor's office, hospitals, financial institutions, etc). A Geriborgian world is one where assistive technologies have been transformed from humble beginnings as canes and walkers. In a Geriborgian social order, assistive technologies also surpass their more sophisticated and specialized contemporary incarnations as intensive environments of care (such as hospitals) and enablers of the disabled. As the new century emerges, technological innovations now make it possible to market a total assistive environment. Such technologies include interactive voice recognition and speech hardware/software ensembles, global positioning devices, the use of radio waves as the communicative transmission medium between appliances, enhanced graphics and display hardware, and doubtless, a variety of emerging, if still somewhat obscure hot house technical inventions.

Equipping the Geriborg: Constituting the Total Assistive Environment in the Geography of Distributed Mini-Citadels

Consider the following snippets:

Baby boomers can expect a big lift of sorts when they reach old age: robots that do the laundry, lug heavy loads, make fresh coffee, even take out the trash... Other gadgets could open doors when they go for a stroll, warn of slippery spots on sidewalks, give authorities their exact location if they fall, and monitor their mattress pressure to prevent bedsores...

(The explosion of the geriatric population in an age of digitalization) adds up to a big opportunity for companies like Virginia-based Barrier Free Lifts, which makes a device resembling an amusement ride that lets a disabled person scoot from one room to another in a motorized harness attached to overhead tracks... (These lifts) sell for $5,000 to $10,000 fully installed...

Rehab Robots...has built a robot that it says can help people eat, drink, shave, play games, brush their teeth and put on makeup.12

Speech recognition technology is coming into its own...One service, the Automated Mortgage Broker, can verbally respond to callers' questions about loan requirements, options and rates, and even explain technical terms in layman's language. 13

To no small extent, these developments are part and parcel of current advances in assistive technology for the disabled. Through the everyday use of hi-tech assistive technology devices, some of the disabled have already become functional cyborgs. For example: Anyone who has seen and heard physicist Stephen Hawking will recognize, upon reflection, that he has long ago become a cyborg, one whose use of digital voice technology has circumvented some of the effects of devastating physiological losses. Voice-assistive and complementary forms of these assistive ensembles are already here. That is not new, and that is not news.

What may well be new, and news (other than constant technical innovation) will be the imminent creation of a mass geriatric market for such devices. Such devices will become common insertions into the mundane choreography of daily life for millions (or tens of millions) of well-heeled boomers. And the use of these devices will most likely take place behind the walls and gates of distributed mini-citadels, those clustered and exclusionary "common-interest developments" driven by an ideology of "hostile privatism" and paranoia.14 Connected to each other and the world by technological conveyances, they will be less a cybergeoisie, (as Dear and Flusty claim in a discussion of Los Angeles' bunkered spaces) and more a gerontogeoisie. The technological and cyberspace dimensions of geriborgs are programmatic, that is, security-oriented. The inwardly focused domestic spaces of these fortresses will likely be a sour simulacrum of a popular Boomer TV cartoon series of the 1960s, The Jetsons. It will be sour because while a technological dreamscape remains, the freedom and joy of movement that characterized the Jetsons' mobility through their imagined universe has been displaced. In its stead is the bunkered reality of a quasi-carceral lifestyle and the inevitability of physical decline, and the various technological devices and interventions that attempt to mitigate against such a decline.

Outside these security patrolled geriatric complexes is a vast and growing underclass of Latino, Asian, Black and White poor, often living with a minimum (or less) of basic public services and in decaying circumstances with crumbling infrastructure. As Mike Davis noted in an early version of The Ecology of Fear, in California, it wasn't hard for three of the state's prominent demographers to construct a plausible narrative for an imagined Southern Californian civil war in 2030.15 They sketched a situation in which the (mostly white) ruling geriatric elite, wishing to extend their security indefinitely, tightens down the taxation screws on a marginalized, stigmatized, younger, non-white population. An intolerable event ignites a chain of events that leads to a bloody generational, ethnic and class war, a war with roots in a matrix of social and economic tensions that are already very clearly and currently present. It is a possible response to an autocratic gerontocracy, a gerontocracy whose social, economic and political dominance would be tightly linked to the use and control of sophisticated technological ensembles. Whether this scene fully emerges, the roots of an American Apartheid grow stronger and deeper.

Conclusion

While depersonalized regimes of risk-management have replaced grosser exclusionary practices, the overall effect of these newer governmentalities is arguably as onerous as those of Bull Connor and P.W. Botha. In our collective denials, we might want to believe, really truly believe Dychtwald's portraits about the nobility of selfless, kind-hearted boomers. But trolling around the absurdly twisted roads that serve as postmodern moats for geriborg fortresses in the Mission Valley District of San Diego, I can't help but recognize a specific intent in their construction. They take me back to my childhood, early in 1963. I remember the day that I saw the image of a little man on the CBS Evening News, in formalwear, on a black and white screen, delivering a speech after taking an oath of office. Behind him was the Alabama state capitol, Montgomery.

Driving around Southern California, it certainly appears that Governor Wallace was a prophet, though certainly not as he intended it (as a recuperative gesture to the Old South). Since 1963, practices of exclusion have gone postmodern, viroid-like. They have merged with those of Security to become a mutating complex of architectural, technological and gerontological phenomena. From 21st Century Geriborgian Privatopias a complex and refracted reassemblage of Wallace's vision has emerged. From the collective rumble of cars lining up on an entrance ramp, the compulsive shoppers at the upscale mall, and retirees desperately attending to maintenance tasks comes the collective voice of a postmodern, 21st Century Leviathan. He murmurs a defiant declaration that belies the bright sun-drenched day: As I watch the choreography of bodies and spaces, I hear his mantra blowing in the wind:

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."


Notes


1. Mike Davis, "Fortress L.A.", in City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books. 1990; pp.221-264.
2. Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash:The Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
3. Barry H. Minkin, Future in Sight: 100 Trends, Implications and Predictions that will most impact businesses and the World Economy in the 21st Century. New York: MacMillan, 1995.
4. Carter Henderson, "Affluent seniors: industry and the aging." Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe. Current N.410, 1999; p.16. And for a look at the actual "virtual" cemetery site, visit The Cemetery Gate Information Page: http://www.itcanada.com/~bruce/info/cempge1.html
5. Charles F. Longino, Jr. "Myths of An Aging America." American Demographics, August 1994.
6. "AoA Update, Federal Government Kicks off International Year of Older Persons." Administration on Aging, Vol 3, Issue 6, October-November 1998.
7. Ibid, "The Global Dimensions of Aging."
8. Ken Dychtwald, "Speculations on the Future of Aging." Inside 1996: http://21net.com/content/inside_se/agewave.htm
9. Saskia Sassen, "Electronic Space: Embedded and segmented." Lexis/Nexis Academic Universe. International Planning Studies, Vol 2, Issue 2, June 1997.
10. Richard Barbrook, "All About Cyborgs?" Telepolis, 1996.
11. Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. " Cyborgs and Space." The Cyborg Handbook (ed. Chris Hables Gray). New York and London: Routledge, 1995; pp.29-34.
12. Johnson, Steve. "Gadgets to Keep Disabled People on the Go." Lexis/Nexis Academic Universe. SCENE, Sacramento Bee, March 2, 1997; pg D5,
13. Carter Henderson, ibid.
14. Dear, Michael and Flusty, Stephen, "The Iron Lotus: Los Angeles and postmodern urbanism." Proquest/UMI. Vol. 551, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage, May 1997.
15. Davis, Mike."Mini-Citadels and Geroncrats." http://www.cs.oberline.edu/~pjacques/etext/davmurbancont/Mini-Citadels.html


Before his reinvention as an academic, Dion Dennis was everything from a Fuller Brush salesman to a garbageman. Now armed with an Interdisciplinary Ph.D, he is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Texas at San Antonio.
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