Byte, Byte, Against The Dying of the Light

The Atlantic | May 2001 | Byte, Byte, Against The Dying of the Light . A new senior-care facility e-monitors every move

With a few more taps on the screen the caregiver can also ascertain what time Taylor tucks in for the evening, exactly how much he weighs lying in bed (a load cell sits under each bedpost), and whether he's resting peacefully or twisting and turning. She can take his temperature by means of infrared, keep track of how often he rolls in and out of his bedroom, and create graphs documenting changes in his patterns of movement and in his heart rate and blood pressure. And if Taylor, a former steel-company repairman who is still sharp-witted at the age of ninety-one, should ever develop Alzheimer's, the Oatfield staff need not worry that he'll absentmindedly burn himself on the stove down the hall: the infrared sensors would recognize that he had entered the kitchen, and the burners would lose power at once.

Surveillance has, of course, become part of everyday life in America. Many employers now monitor their employees' telephone conversations. The police plant video cameras on street corners, and direct marketers keep close tabs on where we go on the Web. But each of these activities accounts for only a slice of our existence. Oatfield aims to capture the whole pie. It is the nation's highest-tech senior home and perhaps the first facility of any kind to e-monitor its residents around the clock. And it is continually fine-tuning its surveillance. When I toured Oatfield recently, Bill Pascoe, the architect of the facility's computer system, speculated that Oatfield might soon begin to monitor residents' breathing. “One way to do this is to hang a long, thin microphone over where the person sits, to pick up his sounds,” he said. “You'd use a broad, multi-directional mike to pick up the ambient noise, and then you'd subtract the ambient noise and …” I felt as though I'd entered the world of that ominous Jim Carrey film The Truman Show.

[Privacy Digest]

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