Archive for March, 2017

Eventually I want to get to the subject of the surge in vandalism and hate crimes against Muslims, Jews and many other sectors of society.  But first…

Traveling gives you a deep understanding and respect for the fact that civilization is often based on a thin veneer of civility.  By that I mean that for many, human nature hasn’t changed that much over time and from area to area.  When walking through the ruin streets of Pompeii I considered how superficial many aspects of our so called “progress” actually were.  Stripped of laws and institutions, what we normally regard as civilized or even progressive societies could easily revert to an egocentric and warrior like state.

When the civil rights revolution took place in the southern U.S. at the end of the 60s and through the 70s, there was a radical difference in the way that black people were treated.  It wasn’t a perfect situation and there was a lot of residual discrimination and racism.  Obviously, there still is.  But, by and large, a lot of it was submerged and the overall state improved dramatically.  Not because people changed, but because the standards and expectations along with many of the actual rules shifted strongly in the direction of civil rights.  And so it has remained, with racist, pre civil rights sentiments, percolating quietly below the surface, unfortunately still manifesting from time to time, still being addressed in law enforcement, incarceration and many other areas.  But one cannot say that there hasn’t been significant improvement, to the point that a current debate is whether discrimination and inequality still exist, or whether “white privilege” exists.

We see that thin veneer in other areas as well.  Several years ago, here in Canada, riots broke out in Vancouver that surprised everyone.  It was in response to a sports event.  For one strange night the rule of law was suspended and people let loose with their more primitive, violent selves.  This is not unusual, and one can’t help but wonder what the results would be if our society lost the ability to enforce the consequences to the rules and laws that define our society.  What would happen in a natural disaster or an epidemic where police and other emergency resources were unavailable?  Would our better natures take over or would the primitive self lash out in self preservation.  People concerned with survival in such situations are not overly optimistic, claiming that 10% of the population would have little hesitation to stealing your supplies and around 1% might be willing to kill you in order to eat … you.

It’s an old question, often told in literature and films.  My feeling is that a rather large percentage of society is constrained by a very delicate and easily broken veneer of civility, held in check by fear of consequences.  They secretly harbour a world view that places them at the top of the priority heap.

[For clarity, let me explain that I do not hold all people in such regard.  When I’m talking about “human nature” here, I’m thinking about the more primitive, irrational aspects of it.  I’m not even talking about people with a conservative or traditional world view, as it is plain that hatred comes from all parts of a political spectrum.  Our society is progressing and evolving, and there are many who don’t fall into this category.  Unfortunately there are also many who do.]

Herein lays, in my opinion, the basis for the current shift in vandalism we’re witnessing.  Many uncivil people, normally are constrained by the standards of society by which they’re surrounded by rules, examples and expectations.  When you have a prominent person like the President of the United States purposefully taking a sledge hammer to that veneer of civility, many people see it as permission.  They are emboldened by these brash and uncivil expressions of anger and hate, misogyny and racial profiling exhibited by a person who is a powerful symbol and icon of what the social standards should be.  The President’s status in such matters cannot be overemphasized.

Donald Trump has seriously damaged our society, not just in the U.S. but all over the world, by trashing civility and empowering Neanderthal behaviour.  Many things such has his comments about women and encouraging violence and intolerance at his campaign rallies (among so many other things) have set a new standard.  Now nothing keeps in check the base attitudes and opinions which were previously closeted by people because social standards were opposed to them.  Those social standards are no longer in control.

In this light it is easy to understand the bomb threats and vandalism of Jewish gravestones.  It is not reasonable to believe that hatred will be directed only in the limited direction that the U.S. administration chooses.  Hatred is a primitive thing.  Once unleashed it will find its own way into the heart of all people who have been harboring frustrations and prejudices, whether it be against Muslims, people of colour, Jews, gays or whatever is at hand that provides an opportunity to lash out against someone different.

Jews seem surprised at this recent violence and persecution.  I’m not.  It may easily spread to other groups.  Once you open Pandora’s Box, the consequences are out of your control.  Trump did, and it is.  And it will take a long time to reverse.

In his book, Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut describes a world where master craftsmen and the best assembly line workers are studied and recorded in order to program robotic automation to emulate them.  Work on the factory floor is all done by robots programmed to copy the movements of the best workers.  These workers are paid a handsome bonus and then relieved of their jobs, just like all of their co-workers who are not as fortunate to get the bonus.  The result is a massive amount of unemployment with people receiving enough to get by, but generally living aimless, drifting lives.  I read the book back in the 1970s, but the haunting picture has remained with me for decades.

Now we are seeing signs that the this prophetic literature may actually come true.  Automation in factories is responsible for more of the unemployment in the manufacturing sector than most people know or are willing to admit.  Fortune magazine estimates that over 80% of lost jobs are due to automation or other related domestic factors.  When this is told to politicians they often respond with, “Well, then there will be jobs building and maintaining the robots.”  But studies show that jobs related to automation are very temporary, disappearing when the designing and building are completed, and the maintenance jobs are quite sparse (that being one of the advantages of automation, -you don’t need a large work force to maintain production).

Similarly, we are now looking at the very real prospect of a revolution in driverless motor vehicles.  Once this is perfected it will impact everyone from taxi drivers to truck drivers.  Big rigs moving along principal highways will be the first to go driverless.  It will be more efficient because robots don’t have to sleep or stop to eat.  Transit buses will likely be the next to be hit.

We’re already heading towards automated check outs at the grocery store and at MacDonald’s.  It’s only a matter of time before AI tech gets to the point where employees like warehouse workers and even middle management position become at least partially redundant.

I don’t see new jobs in technology keeping pace with those jobs being lost by the above circumstances.  Even if they did, there is the whole question of educating people adequately in order for them to fill those jobs.  Currently there is a huge shortage of skilled workers in the tech industry, now largely being filled by immigrants because the domestic population can’t rise to the occasion.  However, even if you could train the local MacDonald’s cashier or short order cook to write code for automations, I don’t think it would cover those finding themselves out of a job.

So what’s the answer?  Well, Player Piano is one of the possible consequences.  It describes a society that has a very polarized social strata, with many people deemed “not useful” and therefore marginalized.  You see a similar story in the TV series, “Incorporated” where the engineers live inside walled cities and the majority of society are left to fend in the lawless “Red Zone”.

Another possibility is that we increase the need for productive labor by engaging in a war.  A bonus to this (so to speak) is that it may do a lot to wipe out national deficits and debts as well.

But barring these dystopian solutions, what can we do to adjust our society to cope with automation?  Diametrically opposed to the problem societies mentioned above is, for example, the society envisioned by Star Trek, -a utopian society where technology has solved most of humanities needs and problems, but where people still lead meaningful lives.

I would suggest that the solution involves a whole scale re-evaluation of both our economic and educational systems.

Economically, the answer lies in a guaranteed annual income, already being experimented by some countries like Denmark and Finland.  The idea of a guaranteed minimum income has a long American history, as you can discover if you Wiki it, and has even been spoken well of by conservative pundits like Andre Coyne in Canada (National Post).  In this model, people would have a guaranteed minimum annual income to which they could add through other gainful work.  It would have to be paid for by flattening out the current polarization between the poor, the middle class and the economic elite.  This doesn’t mean eliminating differences in income, nor does it remove the incentive to better your economic situation, but it does recognize that companies are eliminating jobs to increase profits.  You would think that companies would recognize that they may be maneuvering themselves out of a market and towards both an economic and social crisis if they don’t “share the wealth” in some way.

Shorter work weeks may allow more people to be involved in the jobs that survive.  Instead of one person working a 40 hour week (or, as is often the case, more) you might have two people working 20 hour work weeks, but with the same pay.  Yes, that doubles the employee expense for the company, but that company saved the money it put out by automating.  In the end it will still make at least the same profit.  I know they automated so that they would make more profit, and they may still be able to do so, but not with the same impunity that they would have if they simply dismissed half or more of their work force.   I am sure there are ways that could be structured so that everyone would benefit more from automation, -just, perhaps, some not as dramatically.

Then again, these shorter work weeks would produce an excess of free time.  One would hope that people could benefit from this, but the reality probably is that without proper education people may feel aimless and without purpose, or may fall into traps of self gratification that will not be beneficial to anyone.  The role of education has to change.  Not only will it have to adjust its curriculum to the needs of this new social order, but it will have to spend more time educating the person to live rather than just to work.  Much more attention needs to be given to self reflection and self improvement.  A mindset that will encourage things like hobbies, self improvement, lifelong learning, and community service needs to be introduced into the curriculum.  Opportunities for this kind of self improvement have to be built into the system as well as building a sense of empowerment which causes people to engage productively.

These are major paradigm shifts for both economics and education.  Don’t ask me how they will be accomplished, but we don’t really have a lot of time.  We’re very quickly going to make some fundamental decisions to change or to not change.  The result will forge the kind of world we’ll inhabit in less than a quarter of a century.

 

A part of the solution has to be that we try to retain a respect for human endeavour.  Just because a job can be replaced by a robot or computer program doesn’t mean that it has to be.  Corporate striving for the largest profit may dictate that people be replaced with machines, but that doesn’t have to be how it plays out if we engage different economic priorities.  The fact is that when I go to a doctor, I prefer a human being (even if they are assisted by technology).  If I go into a small store, most people enjoy talking to the human owner.  Certainly jobs in teaching, although they might efficiently be replaced by technology, would be better served with human interaction.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we have to.  In the Medicine Wheel there’s a stage before doing where you examine your vision and projection of the goal.  Sometimes human priorities related to that vision are more important than the purely efficient and cost effective ones.  Often things that are cost efficient are only successful because there are few alternatives, and they don’t really make anyone happy, worker or customer, other than the ones reaping the profit.

It’s a tall order because many of the required changes require a social evolution that we can only envision on a far horizon.  It may be a question of technology having evolved faster than society, nd faster than what is for our own good.  On the other hand, the adversity and consequences may spark the necessary change, but probably at a huge cost.