Monthly Archives: June 2013

Who Answers to the People?

The ongoing protests and uprisings in the Middle East are nearly continuous in our daily news, as rebel factions challenge their existing governments. The rebels represent those disillusioned by autocratic, corrupt governments supported by powerful elites, who exploit people and resources to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The bulk of the population suffers widespread poverty, unemployment, religious and sectarian rivalry. Similar uprisings are occurring now in Brazil, where the benefits of its rise in economic power are extracted by the few to the detriment of most of the population. We tend to shrug off these events assuming it cannot happen here, but is that true?

Although our system of government is presented as a representative democracy, in recent decades well-financed corporate lobbyists have successfully influenced politicians to support policies that benefit the wealthy and the corporations. Following the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations have license to fund political campaigns as freely as individuals, further exaggerating their political influence. The result is deregulation and tax breaks, which benefit corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. High unemployment allows employers to hire people at low wages, offer few if any benefits, and extract hours of unpaid labor. Jobs often are exported overseas to countries of extreme poverty, which allow cheap labor and worker exploitation. Our unemployment rate is highest among young people. Even those with college degrees, finding themselves with huge debt, must accept low wage jobs. Who are the representatives for these people?

With its laissez-faire approach our government now functions as a corporatocracy allowing corporate leaders and shareholders to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The government answers to corporations, corporations answer to no one, and no one answers to the people. Social media foster exploitation through addiction and distraction. Intensified partisan politics and pervasive “us vs. them” attitudes decimate any sense of community and social responsibility. Our deteriorating, underfunded public education system does not produce the thoughtful, informed population, willing and able to participate, to allow democracy to flourish and prevent corporate exploitation.

Corporations use intensive lobbying to limit government regulation and interference in their practices. It is easy for those with money and power to influence politicians, who then use propaganda to hide their true agenda from uninformed voters. As economic benefits accrue to fewer and fewer people, more may become disillusioned, depressed, and desperate, with some resorting to crime, substance abuse, and suicide. Might the negative social impact of government complicity in exploitation and profiteering someday create a crisis here similar to those happening in other countries, where no one answers the needs of the people?

Robots Or Us?

In 1949 Norbert Weiner, a mathematics professor at MIT and founder of the science of cybernetics, wrote an essay on the machine age, in which he considered the consequences of technology. In his conclusions he stated, “the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do … if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.”

A recent New York Times article reviewed one of the latest hot technologies, the development of robots to provide comfort, care, and assistance for the elderly and disabled. Some day the robots could bathe, dole out medication, provide companionship, and perform myriad other chores. Families would be relieved of the burden of providing care or of hiring caregivers, raising moral and ethical issues.

Should we entrust anyone to the impersonal care of robots? Would we want to interact with robots rather than humans when we get old? Do we need the human touch? Robots can substitute for us in performing boring, repetitive, and laborious tasks. They can be designed to act and respond like humans in particular situations. But they cannot provide the comfort and understanding, the warmth and empathy that is unique to living, feeling beings.

Is technology conditioning us to substitute mechanical for human touch? We are comfortable with technology, which makes it easy to communicate remotely, but it substitutes for direct personal interaction. Texting and tweeting is more often superficial or inane rather than substantive and our devices are addictive. People walking along or sitting together at a restaurant, talking or texting on their cell phones rather than interacting with their companions, are a common sight. Parents at school presentations often are more attentive to their cell phones than to their children’s performances. Behavior once considered rude, now seems almost acceptable.

Are we becoming narcissists? If so, perhaps we will be content with robots as friends and caregivers. Even now they can take over some chores and allow us more free time. They soon may free us of responsibility for care of elderly relatives and perhaps even our own children. Today children spend their early lives in day care, and then move on to school, sports, and other organized activities with minimal personal interaction with family members. This is a necessity at times, but often a choice. If robots are able to provide child care, will we choose to start and end life in the care of robots?

What will we become as people and as a society if we continue to devalue personal interaction, and robots become readily available to free us of responsibility for others, allowing us total self-indulgence? Will we prefer robots, rather than friends and relatives who may be less compliant, to indulge us? Will we affirm Weiner’s conclusions?