Martha Stewart vs Mark Zuckerberg. Seniors vs Silicon Valley.

Brian S Hall / September 30th, 2013

Help! My iPad’s fallen and it can’t get up!

Much mirth ensued across both Twitter and tech blogs last week when the very entrepreneurial — and very senior — Martha Stewart broke her iPad. Perhaps she only has herself to blame considering the series of naive tweets she unleashed upon her followers, including:

No, Martha. There is no magic button — yet — that alerts Apple that your iPad is broken. Nor does Apple — yet — offer a service where they come to your home and repair or replace your device, not even for the very wealthy. Except, that is not the real story here. Rather, it is this:

Is Silicon Valley really so blind to the computing revolution taking place right in front of their eyes?

I suspect the answer is yes.

The evolution of computing is very clear on this: it starts with a few than spreads to the many, with each new computing revolution touching exponentially more lives: mainframes to minis to PCs to, now, smartphones and tablets. The market for these latest personal computing devices is literally in the billions of users. These billions of users include potentially a billion senior citizens.

Silicon Valley, however, appears utterly blind, even disrespectful to this market; to its size, its wealth and to the fact that it is growing faster than any other demographic, at least in the developed world. Mocking older people’s inability to “google” or to “turn on the Internet” or effectively service their iPad limits us to the incredible opportunities just around the corner.

The Valley’s notorious cult of youth is the most obvious telltale sign.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, who said a few years ago: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?”

In the Valley, youthful smarts trumps all, apparently, and all flows from that.

Now the head of a publicly traded company, Zuckerberg no doubt still believes his youthful words. As the New York Times noted, the median age of workers at Facebook is a mere 28. This is not uncommon.

The seven companies with the youngest workers, ranked from youngest to highest in median age, were Epic Games (26); Facebook (28); Zynga (28); Google (29); and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and Monster.com (all 30). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only shoe stores and restaurants have workers with a median age less than 30.

Ask yourself: if a tech company had a median age of, say, 60, would you believe it could effectively build devices and services optimized for twenty-somethings? Yet all of Silicon Valley is absolutely convinced of the reverse.

That Zuckerberg and other leaders in Silicon Valley clearly favor young over old is obvious in so many ways. This shows up not just in the age of their workers. Their ongoing lobbying efforts with FWD.US, for example, are  part of a multi-pronged effort to bring talented — young — workers into the US. Perhaps this is wise, possibly even necessary. But shouldn’t such efforts come after they have thoroughly proven their willingness and their ability to hire and train older workers?

Unfair? I don’t think so. The stated mission of FWD.US is “to promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.”

Given the median age at the many tech companies supporting FWD.US, I confess I find it difficult to accept that their leaders care all that much about keeping the citizenry competitive. Forty year olds can’t learn to work for Facebook?

Which brings me back to my larger point: can today’s youth-obsessed tech companies effectively build products and services optimized for people of advanced age? Is Silicon Valley about to cede this giant market to others?

The demographic that will experience the biggest growth over the next decade — by a vast margin —  is seniors. In the US, there are already over 40 million seniors — age 65 or older. Many of today’s seniors, including my parents, are only just now using their first-ever computing device. Almost certainly they can benefit from new form factors, new modes of input, new ways of thinking about UI.

Regrettably, the Valley appears convinced that its devices, such as iPads, and its platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, are magically optimized for all, just as they believe twenty-five-year-olds make for the very best workers. Such a blind spot will no doubt create opportunities for others, elsewhere.

Consider the latest offering via the very creative Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. The company’s new Kindle Fire HDX now includes “Mayday” — a one-click service that instantly connects the user to live person-to-person video chat. According to Bezos, this will “revolutionize tech support.” This may not be a hollow boast:

With a single tap, an Amazon expert will appear on your Fire HDX and can co-pilot you through any feature by drawing on your screen, walking you through how to do something yourself, or doing it for you—whatever works best.

Did anyone in Silicon Valley even contemplate such a thing?

Isn’t this the land of bold ideas and audacious, daring new creations?

I am not calling on Silicon Valley tech companies to build devices and services explicitly for senior citizens. I am asking for far less than that. I am urging the region, filled with some of the world’s best and brightest, to understand that by expanding their worldview — and ridding themselves of their bias of working with and alongside old people — they might understand and then capture a market possibly far larger than any they are in now. All while helping to empower millions as never before.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    It’s not just youth vs age, its able-bodied vs the disabled.

    And I think nothing illustrates the irritating ableism of the tech industry more than its obsession with ever-higher pixel densities on displays. A laptop with a resolution higher than 1024×768 is useless to my half-blind spouse because the fonts and images on the web become too tiny for her to see if the resolution goes any higher than that.

    Windows’ system level scaling is useless since the UI of 90% of apps breaks if you change it from the default. Plus it has no effect on how most browsers handle the web (as far as I know, only Opera does the right thing here, in that they scale up the fonts on every page according to your system level setting while still rendering the page in a readable form)

    Apple is one of the very few tech companies that appears to spend even a nanosecond thinking about making their devices and software visually accessible, and even they have serious, er, blind spots — mobile safari, for instance, does not allow you to increase the default font size for web sites, so we have to use a 3rd party browser on our iPads (no, Apple, constantly double tapping to zoom in on a part of the page is not an acceptable solution).

    • Good point. Accessibility is not just about age.

  • William Volk

    Game Industry too: No Consoles for Old Men.

    • Ha. Let’s hope they’ve much better things to do.

Protected by Gerben Law