We work in an environment where we regularly say that we using technology to try to change the world for the better. Then the world turns around and shows you that it is far stronger than you think. It always faintly amuses me that a massive airliner can be seriously delayed by a head wind, but this ceases to be funny when the wind system is called Katrina, Sandy or the latest, Pam.
The world turned round and gave us another slap in the face last Thursday – not on the scale of Pam but still a nasty reminder that we are not yet anywhere close to being in control. Terry Pratchett died. It wasn’t unexpected; he had been suffering from a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease, posterior cortical atrophy, for several years. There is a cliché that people “battle” a disease. In Terry’s case this was true. He fought with an immense rage both the disease and the laws that would not allow him to choose the time and place of his death and “…die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the ‘Brompton cocktail’ some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.”
One of Terry’s fascinations was technology. He was a voracious user of computers and the Internet, and many of the Discworld novels demonstrated the way in which society reacts to the impact of science and technology. This was at the heart of his last published work “Steam Up”, written well after the disease had begun to grip him. In it the invention of the railway causes a wide range of reactions and political shenanigans, just as with the proposals for high speed railways in California and Britain.
Technology is paying tribute. Many websites will now contain “GNU Terry Pratchett”. It is a very nerdy in-joke, and you can read about it here: http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/redditors-are-making-sure-terry-pratchetts-name-lives-on-forever–lJjYpijRag
We don’t know what causes the various forms of Alzheimer’s, we have difficulty diagnosing it, we can’t cure it, and we don’t even know how to alleviate it, except in minor ways for some forms of the disease. To quote Terry again “as far as we know the only way to be sure of not developing it is to die young”.
There is work going on, around the world, on using technology to make early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. This will allow training for the sufferer to cope with some of the issues, but there is still a long way to go. For the rest of us, we have to acknowledge the world’s power, but still continue working to try to make it a better place.