In April 2017, people using the music-recognition app Shazam might have noticed the app behaving a little oddly. Usually the mobile app identifies songs by comparing sound input to the sound records in an online database. But last month, users in the UK saw the app experiencing a little hiccup as it tried to spit out song names, Adweek reports. It was as if Shazam just couldn’t remember.
Shazam’s strange behavior wasn’t a glitch. It was part of an effort called “The Day Shazam Forgot,” intended to raise awareness (and money) for Alzheimer’s studies. When the app eventually produced the song’s ID, it also served up an ad for the nonprofit organization Alzheimer’s Research UK. Apparently, more than 5,000 people visited the donation page as a result of this campaign. Information about how much money the campaign raised was not immediately available.
It’s a noble cause, as without awareness or money, we can’t get any closer to a cure for this progressive, incurable disease. But I’ve watched as a non-Alzheimer’s form of dementia robbed someone I love of his ability to speak a complete sentence. And I’ve felt his frustration, and my own, as he grasped for words that he never caught. So I didn’t love watching a promotional video of Shazam reduce such a complicated, devastating condition into a digital caricature.
To back up, Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that affects more than 5 million Americans — usually (although not always) over age 60. Scientists are still working out exactly what triggers the condition, how best to diagnose it, and how to cure it. We do know that over time, damage to the brain and the buildup of abnormal proteins break healthy connections between brain cells. This can interfere with cognition and memory, and forgetting things like words and names can be an early sign.
But a lot of things besides Alzheimer’s can cause forgetfulness. Normal aging, for one thing, and common drugs like Benadryl. Medical conditions like depression, anxiety, or other dementias can also cause memory problems.
And there’s a lot more to Alzheimer’s disease than severe lapses in memory. “What Alzheimer’s really does, besides the memory, is that it gets people to the point where they can’t do what they did before,” says Yaakov Stern, a professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “At some point, people can no longer dress themselves, or eat, or [independently use the] toilet. It gets worse and worse. It’s a devastating disease.”
“What we did on Shazam was only a snapshot of the condition.”
So conflating Alzheimer’s with forgetfulness seems counterproductive. But Tim Parry, communications director for Alzheimer’s Research UK, countered that they needed to make their point within a couple of words, given the way Shazam’s platform works. “We hoped we could provoke some thought from Shazam users and drive people to the charity to support us, or to find out in much greater detail about all the symptoms,” Parry told The Verge in an email. “While what we did on Shazam was only a snapshot of the condition, we felt more good would still come from engaging people in this way, as opposed to doing nothing.”
Stern agrees. While in the past he’s found fault with television shows that made light of forgetfulness, he didn’t find the Shazam gimmick particularly egregious. “I think their intention was to just nudge people into thinking about Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s research,” he says. “I’m not offended by it, especially because… it’s raising awareness and it’s raising money for an Alzheimer’s association that’s hopefully doing good things with it.”
“Their intention was to just nudge people into thinking about Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s research.”
It isn’t easy to get people to focus on emotionally painful things. So it’s possible that serving up a simplified version of the disease to unsuspecting app users might be a relatively nonintrusive and effective way of convincing people to donate. And it’s not really Shazam’s job to teach users about the effects of Alzheimer’s; the company is pointing toward resources that can. But on rewatching the promo video a third and fourth time, I still can’t quite come around to liking this compromise. It hurts to see a piece of software pretending to have a disease that’s so devastating to those of us with flesh-and-blood parts.