Hurry up and die, says the net to old people


I started typing the words “old people should…” Here’s how Google finished the sentence.

screen shot of Google search of "old people should"

Screenshot of my Google search on old people

Do try this at home. Watch closely as you type “old people should” into Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Bing, Mozilla’s Firefox – or a search engine that respects your privacy and doesn’t track you like DuckDuckGo or StartPage. Whichever one you use, it will immediately start guessing what you want to find out.

It’s not mind-reading and it’s not suggestion. It’s called “auto-complete”. An algorithm that predicts and displays possible searches. So you can choose words that are kind of like what you wanted to search. Or change to what everyone else wants to know.

“Old people should – die? Thanks, Google”, My New Old Self, 29 Oct 2013

My New Old Self first Googled “old people should” a year ago. I was inspired by a UN Women campaign that used auto-completed searches of “women should”  – with results like “stay at home” – to expose sexism and discrimination against women. I used the alarming auto-completed results of my searches to make anti-ageism posters.

"Old people should" internet searches shows agism

One of 4 posters made from auto-completed internet searches

I decided to do this exercise again this year to see if there has been any improvement in attitudes around aging. I am sorry to reveal that things have got worse. Last year the auto-complete algorithm suggested that “old people should die”. This year Google said they should “hurry up” about it.

Bear in mind that the auto-complete algorithm is based on the most common phrases used in real internet searches. So it tells you what most people – of all ages – think about a given topic.

Search specifically for what young people think about their elders and you get results like this.

Annoying, slow, bad drivers, boring, stubborn, set in their ways, they spend an unneccessarily long time doing slow boring things like making tea, putting a doily on a plate that you put biscuits on for instance, they tell you inane stories about how the bus stop opposite the church used to be further up the street years ago, how there used to be a building in a particular place but it’s not there anymore… but my views are subject to change with time.

– “Young people, what do you think of old people?” Yahoo Answers

If this is what younger people are thinking when they comment about us online, I’d hate to know what’s in their minds when they actually see us.

On the other hand, while this kind of ageism may seem disturbing – is it so different from the way we thought and spoke about old people when we were young?

Maybe our best hope, in terms of combating ageism, lies in the ever-increasing populations of older people around the world and their eventual impact on perceptions of aging.

By 2050, the number of older persons will be twice the number of children in developed countries, and the number of older persons in developing countries is expected to double. This trend will have profound effects on countries and individuals.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the International Day of Older Persons

There will be more and more of us older people over the years – at least we’ll have company as we age!




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