Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When There Are No More Stories To Tell

            One thing that a human being needs in order to make his life meaningful is stories.  I am not just talking about the stories that an adult tells a child or the stories that a person reads.  I am talking about a meaningful flow of events and experiences within a person’s life that leads to meaningful imprints both on the person himself as well as on other people around him.  These lived stories form the foundation, both directly and indirectly, for told stories.  Even imaginary stories have a connection to lived human events and experiences.  And rich vibrant lived stories lead to rich vibrant told stories.  Of course, to have the opportunity to live a rich vibrant story, one needs to live in an environment with some organic grounding.  The organic grounding acts as a template for meaningful encounters with other people or with different aspects of the living environment.  As people today live increasingly submerged in modern technological living environments with ever greater participation of more sophisticated machines that do more and more things, it becomes more and more difficult to have the opportunity to live meaningful stories.  Activity in the living environment becomes increasingly reduced to formal mechanical processes – free-floating activity segments (temporal figures) in a vacuum that are created as a result of the detachment from the organic grounded flows and cycles of more natural environments.  Each mechanical activity segment, consisting of defined steps, has a precise discrete beginning, a precise discrete middle and a precise discrete end, and the segment is repeated over and over without variation.  In such an environment, there is little in which a person can engage that will provide the substance for a good interesting coherent story.

            However, some people have attempted to overcome the difficulties generated by modern technological life by creating certain situations in which they can begin to develop some kinds of coherent stories.  In Chicago, a new kind of theater was developed in which groups of people can develop life stories together.  It was called improvisational theater, because groups of actors would work together to create life situations and characters, and from these premises, to improvise funny comedy skits through the interaction spontaneously created by the actors.  Sometimes, the audiences suggest the situations and the characters for the actors.  The actors have to be very quick in creating organic interactions that lead to something happening.

            Traditionally, actors have taken on the lines written for them in plays by playwrights.  This, of course, can be a very satisfying experience.  But some actors today have needs that exist beyond the traditional parameters of theater.  These are actors using a theatrical experience to put some coherent narrative theater in their own personal storylines.  Improv (a nickname for improvisational theater) serves to pull many actors out of the experiential vacuum in which their lives are stalled.

            But it is not only the actors that develop the storylines through the improvised skits.  Many times, members of the audience are asked to suggest ideas or characters for skits.  In so doing, they are not simply acting as secondary participants in the theater activity.  They are also helping to build stories for themselves.  In this way, one could say that improv theater acts as a psychologically rebuilding activity where people can try out new roles and new situations both directly, if they are actors, and indirectly, if they are members of the audience.

            One key element of improv theater is that the fundamental theatrical unit is a relatively short skit.  The reason is that when one is starting to build meaningful life stories, one has to take small steps at the beginning, before one can move into longer life narratives.  And these small improv steps seem to be effective, because improv theater seems to be everywhere that you turn in North America.  People are trying to organically grow meaningful stories for their lives.

            And yet there are developments in modern technological society that indicate a future of technological control and manipulation of just about everything such that organic story development will be suppressed.  Internet connections and communication are moving way beyond computer devices and are invading all kinds of everyday mechanisms and things.  Sensors to pick up data that are used for sorting and protection, and, on a deeper level, control and manipulation of people are present in the tags of all kinds of retail merchandise.  Sensors are present in pacemakers, and they are beginning to be present in cars that drive themselves.  They are in towel dispensers and faucets and toilets in public washrooms.  They are present in credit cards and passports.  This whole category of internet inlay in everyday objects and devices is called the “Internet of Things” (IoT for short).  It is also called “Machine-to-Machine (M2M for short).  Emily Adler wrote in Business Insider, an online magazine, on November 22, 2013 about “the transition of once-inert objects into sensor-laden intelligent devices that can communicate with the other gadgets in our lives.”  According to Adler, there are presently 1.9 billion such devices in the world, but by 2018, there will be 9 billion.  That will be equal to “the number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers, and PCs combined.”

            In order to maximize productivity, minimize risk and create security, we are moving towards turning the world into one enormous mechanism.  A mechanism where humans are increasingly needed less and less.  Actors and audience members may work to create the foundations for richer more vibrant storylines in improv theater, but, in the real world, increasingly to where will they graduate?  If every movable object increasingly has a sensor to allow it to be controlled and manipulated by some remote computer, where does one graduate into the real world from improv theater?

            Yes, some of the projects that these sensors will do seem very important.  Waste management and water management are two excellent examples.  And pace-makers keep many people alive.  But all in all, these different manifestations of IoT are coming together to create an environment where all organic friction – necessary to help people stay vibrant and truly alive – is eliminated.  And without organic friction, people cannot create or participate in stories in their lives.  And without stories, people are just going through the motions in their daily lives.  In this transition period, where there is still work that people have to perform in their engagement with machines, people become like the machines they use.  More and more, the people perform impersonal mechanical processes in conjunction with their machines.

            Without organic friction, people cannot engage in the events and experiences that bundle together into stories that form templates over time for the creation of meaningful organic imprints.  But what really worries me is that the need to put internet sensors into everything might one day extend to human brains.  Right now, sensors are planted under the skin of pets for purposes of identification.  A move to the control of humans would be an easy progression.  It might start out at first with convicts to keep order in prison.  Then it might extend to anyone who seems to be a troublemaker, however that may be defined.  Hyperactive kids, addicts of all kinds, political dissidents and other kinds of freethinkers, and just plain eccentric people.  And eventually, to keep society running smoothly, internet sensors could be put in everybody’s brains.  And this will be a means by which people will become cyborgs: human robots.

            This is why we need to have government agencies that regulate the use of this technology and think tanks as well as departments in universities that deal with technoethics.  Technological change is happening so fast, and it is like a runaway bulldozer.  We have to find a way to slow it down and even apply the brakes sometimes.  If not, there may no longer be people capable of doing meaningful improvisational theater, let alone making, preserving and receiving organic imprints within the context of fully developed life stories.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Protecting Human Jobs From Computers And Robots

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a column about the application of social philosophy to the rapidly changing situation within modern technology is that I am forced to  constantly think about these changes.  Recently, I found an article online by Anthonia Akitunde,  editor of Federated Media Publishing, Inc. that was titled “Why Robots Could Take Over Almost Half of Human Jobs”.  It was published on October 16, 2013, so it is truly very recent.  Akitunde writes about a study done by two researchers at Oxford University. 702 types of jobs were analyzed across a wide range of industries and 47% of them were found to be vulnerable to computerization.  A whole bunch of jobs from manufacturing to the movement of materials to even the legal professions were included in this category.  According to the researchers, any job that could be “ restructured to remove the need for high-level perception and manipulation, and creative and social intelligence” was vulnerable to takeover by machines.  In other words, human jobs that had a large amount of routine tasks would be eliminated.  This is the kind of job done by a lot of average middle-class workers.

            But don’t worry.  A company like Amazon uses robots to transport items within its enormous warehouse, but it still needs humans to take things out of the bins that are transported.  70,000 temporary workers are being hired for this purpose and several thousand of these temporary workers may be converted into permanent workers.  What happens to the other temps?  Heaven will provide.

            The study, although done by researchers from a very fine famous university, is still just one study.  Nevertheless, the trends uncovered by their research are certainly not counterintuitive, but rather reflect changes that have been discussed in the writings of many people, including yours truly.  The only surprise element for me in this study is the potential for this takeover to occur so soon. Even when workers are needed for work that is not routine – work that can be done in conjunction with the work of the computers and robots – there are still an awful lot of jobs that will be eliminated.  And the price for the short-term cut in costs in various businesses through the increasing use of computers and robots is the long-term cost of long-term mass unemployment.

            This is unfortunately a situation that does not lend itself to the voluntary actions of individuals in order to deal with its effects.  This is not a situation like when I suggest it would be healthier for people to diminish their use of consumer technology, to not always buy the latest model of something or the latest app.  This is not a situation where going on a personal technology diet will have any significant effect. 

            Many workers are being put into an economic vacuum where they are unable to meaningfully participate in the money-making activities that keep a society running.  They are also being put into an experiential vacuum, where they are not grounded in or bonded to any part of the flow of the important money-making social processes in which people have traditionally spent a major part of their daily lives.  Living in a vacuum, these long-term unemployed workers become like ghosts – vacuumized free-floating figures that are unable to leave meaningful imprints on the surfaces of their fields of experience.

            One way that such ghost people might validate their existence and pull out of the experiential vacuum would be through violence.  As I have discussed in previous articles, violence becomes a desperate solution by people in modern technological society who want to pull out of chronic numbness.  Imagine if large-scale violence started occurring as a result of mass unemployment from the takeover by computers and robots of a significant percentage of jobs.

            It seems to me that just as we all have a vested interest now in protecting our natural environment from being totally destroyed, so we all have a vested interest in protecting our human vocational environment.  Just as government has started creating laws and rules that  impose limitations on the amount and the quality of pollution that businesses, homes and the government itself can create, so the government should start creating laws and rules protecting the amount and the quality of human jobs..  In the U.S., we have an E.P.A. – an Environmental Protection Agency.  Now we need a V.P.A. – a Vocational Protection Agency that protects human jobs from the encroachment of computers and robots.  Employers should not have the automatic right to use computers and robots for jobs that humans can do.  The truth is that although basic tools like knives and hammers are helpers to human beings, technology has now evolved to the point where we have work entities that are competitors or rivals to human beings.

            A Vocational Protection Agency will not interfere when companies lay off workers, for instance, when business is slow.  Nor will it get involved in wages, salaries, and benefits.  It will simply concern itself with giving out government permits or licenses to companies for the use of computers and robots in such situations where humans are unable to do a particular kind of work, or, at least are unable to do it safely.  Obviously, there are situations where computers still act as an aid to human workers rather than a displacement of them.  In addition, the agency will make sure that humans are still doing all of the work of which they are capable.

            Now some of my readers might say such an agency will stop progress and slow down growth.  But what good is the progress and growth, if such a large percentage of people are going to be prevented from receiving the benefits.  The economy is not some abstract entity.  At bottom, the economy is made up of the people. – workers as well as managers and owners.  When possible, people should be allowed to keep their jobs.  Computers and robots can be introduced into a work situation provided that they either extend the capacities of workers without replacing them, or else, they do completed tasks by themselves that humans can’t do or, at least, can’t do safely.  An example of the latter is robots that handle radioactive materials.

            Other readers might say, I want to add another stultifying layer of bureaucracy to government.  There is no question that government regulation slows down economic processes.  In some countries, it practically paralyzes them.  But regulation is sometimes truly needed to deal with aspects of human life that could get out of control in a destructive way.  Having masses of unemployed workers, masses of ghost people floating around in a dangerous vacuum, is a potentially very explosive situation that could lead to dire consequences.  By comparison, another level of bureaucracy is simply an annoying discomfort.

            Work gives people a source of economic survival.  It gives people the opportunity to feel empowered and more secure by being able to make and preserve organic imprints ( however meager these imprints may be  as a result of the mediation between the worker and his working environment by modern technology ).  And it allows people to use their work to feel grounded in and bonded to their living environment.  Work is not only important in economic terms; it is also important in psychological and experiential terms.

            The accelerating displacement of human workers by computers and robots is but one of many rapid changes occurring in human life today as a result of technological evolution.  Just as we have developed a body of thought called bioethics to deal with the moral implications of many aspects of modern medicine, so we now have to develop a body of thought that we can call technoethics to deal with the moral implications of the way modern technology impinges on human life.  We have to start working on this body of thought now, while we still have an opportunity to maintain some control over the situation.  We must do this before it’s too late.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow