The aging population isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s a group of people with particular needs. This concept — along with the importance of questioning stereotypical notions of aging — is at the heart of the annual Stephen Katz Lecture in Interdisciplinary Aging Studies at Trent.
“Stephen Katz was really the visionary behind Trent’s Centre for Aging and Society (TCAS),” says TCAS director, Dr. Sally Chivers. “We chose to honour his retirement by launching a lecture series that would bring in international scholars in aging studies, an area that goes beyond what gerontology typically does. It’s a bit more critical and political, and it looks at the cultural and social implications of aging.”
Algorithms can perpetuate ageist stereotypes
The third annual lecture, on October 16, features Professor Kim Sawchuk, a professor in the department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. Its title, “Bunions, Brain Games, and Belly Fat: Ageing & Algorithmic Media,” is a witty eye-catcher, but one that also points to a serious social issue: how computer algorithms profile aging individuals and perpetuate ageist stereotypes.
“Interest-based advertising is a new development in how the marketing and advertising world is functioning,” says Prof. Sawchuk. “It takes input — our age, where we live, gender — calibrating it and creating algorithms that make predictions not only on what they think may be appealing to us, but also targeting our insecurities.”
The inspiration for the lecture came from firsthand experience. When Prof. Sawchuk turned 55 she was suddenly barraged with online ads connected to age and gender, many leaning towards health problems and products promising to “solve” them: how to get rid of bunions, or how to cope with back pain. She began to research how this advertising works — in an era when cell phones track locations and reveal their users’ social media platforms.
“In terms of social media use people want to be connected,” says Prof. Sawchuk, “but it’s like playing with the devil. If you know you’re being targeted it makes you more prepared to understand how the algorithms operate though, and learn to read them in a critical way.”
Research into aging and the digital world in keeping with the philosophy behind the Katz lecture series
Prof. Sawchuk notes that the onus should move beyond individual awareness; that marketing companies also need to be informed that what’s being presented through online advertising is “a very narrow representation of aging,” as well as one that may have negative ramifications when it comes to serious matters such as the treatment of illnesses.
Her research into aging and the digital world is very much in keeping with the philosophy behind the Stephen Katz lecture series, says Professor Chivers.
“She’s thinking about issues connected to aging and how they’re manifested on the internet, an area people don’t often associate seniors with. She’s bringing knowledge about how widely and disparately seniors are participating in the digital world. Her work is engaged exactly in the field of critical age studies that Professor Katz was pivotal in starting.”
For more information about the Stephen Katz Distinguished Visiting Scholar Lecture and registration please visit https://www.trentu.ca/aging/events/stephen-katz-distinguished-visiting-scholar-interdisciplinary-aging-studies.