WHY IS THERESA MAY STILL IN OFFICE?

As an American reporter covering the scene in the UK for the past fifty years, I am astounded that such a divisive, obdurate and short-sighted figure should still be leading the Conservative Party after four years of ineptitude. How can this be? The former Minister of the Treasury had portrayed her, following her snap election as “a dead woman walking.”

I first observed Theresa as a vengeful fighter some eight years ago when, as Home Secretary, she took on the police, cutting 20,000 from its ranks without considering the consequences. The effects have been disastrous, but she has evaded being held responsible for her actions.

Immigrants — who unlike the police, have no union, no funds, and no organization — were another group whose numbers she wanted to reduce. She professed to support immigration while creating a “hostile environment” which served to erode social cohesion in the country. During her time in the Home Office, it became possible to be hostile to Jamaicans who had been formally invited to work in the UK in 1962. The treatment of “Windrush” group’s members was so embarrassingly disgraceful that even Theresa finally had to publicly apologize last year.

As Home Secretary, her general approach to civil liberties could at best be described as careless. For example, after various extended consultations with “experts” she pledged to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and was only deterred from this misguided effort by the intervention of Brexit .

Amidst the political infighting which followed the Referendum, Theresa was selected by Conservatives as the least objectionable of the contesting candidates to become their Prime Minister. Overnight she became a devout convert to Brexit after she personally had voted to remain in the European Union. She became beholden to the extremist Leavers who had become most prominent in the Conservative party. Since then, without considering the possible negative consequences, Theresa has been steadfast in pushing for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In an extremely foolish move she called for a snap election in 2017 expecting that she would increase her majority in Parliament. Instead she nearly lost and became dependent upon the ten members of the DUP delegation to stay in power. Since that time, she has been determined to keep to her “red lines” no matter what. This has prevented her from looking after the well-being of the nation.

Teresa has continued as Prime Minister primarily because there is no prominent figure, not even within the extremists in the so-called “European Research Group”, who wants to take over the agonizing job of concluding Parliament’s Brexit nightmare.

The “ERG” succeeded last autumn to gather the 48 members of the parliamentary Conservative party necessary to trigger a challenge to the Prime Minister’s tenure. However when it came to a vote by all Tory MPs, she received an endorsement of 200 in her favor and only 117 against. Under the Party’s regulations, this meant, Theresa could not be challenged again from within for an entire year.

The absence of a truly popular leader in a divided Parliament worked in her behalf. Most politicians would have had the good sense to resign if they suffered a 432 to 202 defeat in Parliament as this stubborn Prime Minister did this year. Not Theresa! She has plodded-on with weak promises of “short delays” to be followed by further tactics to postpone conclusive Parliamentary votes for as long as possible in order to avoid defeat and cover her inability to come up with a satisfactory agreement with the European Union.

Only now are the ardent Brexiteers slowly beginning to acknowledge that her administration is a failure. However, she seems to be oblivious to what might lie ahead: If Britain does leave the European Union, the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom might be in the cards. Theresa, who has seriously lacked vision has irresponsibly side-lined the Scots. Most likely the Scottish Nationalists would decide to hold another referendum and because of a floundering and economically desperate United Kingdom, it would most likely succeed.

We are not there yet, but Theresa (who cannot bear any talk of the extension of Article 50’s deadline) may finally have to admit that her strategy failed. This will put an end to the tenacious hold on power of an obstinate Prime Minister who never should have accepted the leadership of her party.

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FACING UP TO A TROUBLED PLANET

The digital revolution could well be leading to a global breakdown of our faltering political, social and economic systems. Our increasingly populated planet is being pushed further and faster by automation and by the speed of change itself. These reckless advances go way beyond the irregularity of social developments over the past ten thousand years.

Troubling questions are being raised: Where are we headed (or beheaded)? What will be the dubious consequences of technological advance? How can we halt the growing inequality of inequalities? Are the racing advances in genetics threatening the human race? Are current robots going to be replaced by more clever bots? The questions multiply, but not always sensibly.

No one expects results from gathering elites, such as the annual sprinkled event in Davos, where the most powerful of the world’s corporate executives continue to push for the speed-up of automation. Although their overwhelming concern is profits, some intrude saying it is money. Profit is purportedly for their shareholders and the wealthy, but is essential for maintaining the status quo. The global inequalities and job losses may seem paramount to many, but as usual they were not tackled at Davos.

Yes, I too am a bit flummoxed when at breakfast I hear my wife asking questions of Siri on her mobile. Not that I am jealous, but it rattles me that she talks to Siri just as if that chat-bot were human. Later on in the day there are times I want to say to her: “Don’t ask me, I’m not Siri!” However, I am concerned that Apple may be recording such pseudo exchanges on the Internet for profit. Stolen surveillance, even of exchanges with chat-bots, is thriving globally. And that seems staggering when Tim Berners-Lee’s launch of the web was only thirty years ago. That’s real change.

Constant improvement seems like a societal pre-requisite, just like perpetual growth, but while both seem irresistible they are also cancerous. For example, do we need and do we want further and further technological advances regardless of how this may affect our lives? Do we really need more innovative gadgets? Faster computers? Crypto-coins? We see how plastics are floating with wild irresponsibility in the seven seas. We note how dangerous carbons are beginning to interfere with breathing. Around us ever-expanding soulless cities are affecting everything, even our spirits.

The advances of technology grant us incredible powers of communication which our predecessors never dreamt of, but then this has not helped dealing with matters like unwanted phone calls, cancelled flights, or computer sabotage. In my lifetime I have observed that with the advance of computers the ability of people to write, that is to even sign their names, is fast diminishing. I have also noted how our historical relationship to the horse has all but vanished, ending thousands of years of inter-dependency and inspiration. Today our sterile dependence on the automobile has absolutely no connection with nature.

And now it seems we are headed towards Artificial Intelligence with little concern for its impossible consequences. If AI becomes as popular and addictive as mobiles, this could lead to the slowing down of our minds and to a reluctance to interact socially with others. In a recent new book titled Re-Engineering Humanity it was projected that human beings could lose their self-sufficiency, their critical abilities and even their judgment. Others suggest ethics and morals might vanish like dandruff. Even our sexual behavior might be seriously undermined. Apparently, humanoid-robot bordellos are now operating for eager customers in Barcelona, Moscow, Toronto and Turin. New developments with robosexuals are unrolling as I write. Differentiating between digisexuals in the new world of Snapchat sexting is quite beyond me. A Ms Emily Witt writes that ”Digital sexuality allows for the possibility of anonymity, gender-bending, fetish play and other modes of experimentation with a degree of safety and anonymity that’s not present in the physical world.” Apparently there is great demand for ever-softer plastics.

We are faced not only with viral technologic advances but also with innovative destruction. Dozens of children’s apps (even in the friendly world of Peppa Pig for children under six) have become widely popular even though adults have little knowledge of what such viewing might mean for the dream life of these children. As a consequence of the fast speed of images on their screens, the focus of the young begins to turn off if the image lasts longer than about six seconds. The lifetime effects of this on younger generations are yet to be determined.

The wealthiest of our elites may underwrite investigations of social problems but will never institute anything which interferes with their own power. Profit comes first and the ultimate effects of the free market are tertiary. The deep transformational reforms that are essential aren’t recognized at all. For a long time I have wondered how humanity can sustain a working relationship between the confining aspects of a tired capitalism and the ideals of a steadily ageing democracy. Indeed we do not want to admit that this much maligned capitalism may be the root cause of most of our troubles.

More than a decade ago I offered an alternative to the current economic system with a new “Incentive Economy,” which stopped the use of money (to be exchanged with electronic payments) and replaced corporations with cooperatives. The reception to my radical ideas was more than hostile. Even NPR (National Public Radio) in the United States refused to review the book (on the grounds that its governmental funding might subsequently be affected.) What my daring Dollars or Democracy? advanced was simply rejected being unacceptably revolutionary.

Our digitally changing global challenges are spread so widely that just trying to list them is destabilizing: Washingtonian disinformation, mounting alpine inequalities, earthquake-like capitalist rumblings, early samplings of Artificial Intelligence, faster introduction of non-stuttering robots, plastic saturated stretches of the Pacific, mass migration of Central Americans northward, the prospects of yet another Wall Street-inspired economic fiasco, the possibilities of laboratory-cultivated plagues, the arousing underground military build-ups, never-mind the unpredictable environmental disasters, as well as our somewhat sick global liberalism — all add up to the prospect of an unstable future. I must admit that the sinister warnings of global climate change deniers on the possibly fatal costs of our ecosystems is almost as terrifying.

The frenetic Trumpian changes and dysfunctional Twitter imbalances are ever harder to digest. And that’s not all, the insecurity of the “left behind” is beginning to haunt us.
The current ineptitude of our political leaders is giving their globally forsaken, or “deplorables” the opportunity to increase their electoral numbers. Recent elections have shown that those who have no experience in government and are remarkably unfit for office are favored to win over those with experience, expertise, or ability. Aristotle suggested some 2,200 years ago that far preferable to elections, which give powers to the oligarchic, public office should be chosen through lots. In our time this would be through slot machines. That would give new political openings for those running the gambling casinos.

Citizen assemblies it is suggested could also offer an alternative to strongman politics. As has been amply demonstrated, outspoken populist figures, while staging dramatic interpretations on the challenges of our times, seldom come up with practical solutions. They contend that the plans for the meritocracy which developed over the past fifty years according to the formula “IQ + effort = merit” resulted in the devilish mechanism for the transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. The populist leaders believe “wealth – IQ = populist success.”

Production and consumption were, until recently, at the basis of our lives. Now, perhaps with tumultuous change, we shall have Artificial Intelligence and Robots in control while the richest humans (with little empathy) migrate to the Moon or Mars escaping this polluted planet. Ultimately, this would leave it for the unfit semi-bots to gradually disappear… from the Internet?

Note: Yorick’s latest book, FORWARD! is available from Amazon

ON RIGHTS AND WRONGS

There should be no shame in changing one’s mind on issues or apologizing for being wrong. These rigidly polarizing days, however, saying “sorry” or admitting one’s errors has become almost prohibited for politicians. As the Economist has noted it is rarely in the interest of those who are in power to pretend that they are never wrong.1

In writing this blog I freely admit I have been wrong on a number of occasions. I feel that unless one admits to the possibility of being wrong, there is less chance for change or improvement. I have been wrong on a wide variety aspects of life’s challenges. Although there is often not as much distance between right and wrong as I imagine, being “right” does not always lead to desired results and I know that what I consider to be wrong often can have positive consequences. I have to admit that while there is usually a right way and a wrong way, the wrong path sometimes seems more attractive to me.

I was seriously wrong, for example, when it came to the referendum in the UK on leaving Europe, but I felt at that time that the only way Europe could change and advance on such major issues as that of refugees or the rescue of the Greek economy was to shake up the overly bureaucratic and inept administration in Brussels. My argument, however, was quite different from that of the Brexit enthusiasts in the UK who thought this was the only way to liberate their country from the demands of the European Community. I speculated that if there was a strong voice to protest what was happening, change might occur without an unlikely vote for an exit. In being so seriously wrong, I did not recognize the negative effect the departure would have on all of Europe as well as on the UK.

I was equally wrong about Donald Trump’s chances of becoming President. I truly did not believe it was possible. I still can’t believe that such a large number of the American electorate could be so desperate and manifestly uninformed. Yes, I was wrong about the mental perspective of Americans living in the “rust-belt” of the United State. I was unaware how these people felt neglected, full of anger, painfully frustrated in their hopes for a better livelihood, and unable to come to terms with the intelligence of a black President. This exposed ignorance on my part and a lack of insightful reporting on the part of the media. Yes, I find it hard to recognize that 8 percent of America’s high school graduates can’t read or write.

It is also true that I have never been capable of appreciating the comparably miserable situation of the jobless German workers in 1932 who saw Adolf Hitler as the leader who could revitalize Germany. This mad Austrian, whose background was entirely alien, seemed preferable to the far more intelligent politicians of the time. I find it hard to accept that the electoral masses often find it difficult to cope with intellectuals. True, we all seem ready to disregard information or facts, which conflict with our strongly held views. Today, whatever economists or scientific experts demonstrate as being right has little effect on large segments of the population. This has become increasingly evident in the case of beliefs about climate change. It is not that people are blind or deaf, just that they don’t want to follow facts which run counter to their own beliefs.

I feel that I have been right about my opposition to and rejection of smoking and the use of brain destructive drugs. My concern with antibiotics, my fears of pollution, and my objections to nuclear weapons have all been evident in my blogs. I believe that our actions are right in proportion to the degree to which they improve the planet and produce happiness for human beings. Such actions are wrong when they result in wanton destruction, pain and misery. The nightmarish stockpiles of atomic and hydrogen bombs being held are insane. They may know it is wrong but the political leaders of this world are convinced that the only way to preserve their national positions is by holding masses of such weapons. Ultimately such a massive wrong may spell the end of mankind.


1“How to be wrong,” the Economist, June 10, 2017, p.74

HALTING THE DEREGULATIONS

The current political and economic systems hold profits ahead of other considerations so that large corporations, like Koch industries, can abuse both their workers and the environment in ways which should be controlled by state intervention in the form of regulations. However an army of lobbyists and vested interests in both Washington and London have been pushing to deregulate wherever possible.

We have been witnessing a sinister political and ideological transformation on government controls. There appears to be a desire in various segments of society for less state steering and regulation to be replaced with ever further freedom for both the market and privatization. Reducing the size of the government is one of the structural changes which are focused on the reduction, cutting or even closing down of numerous existing policies for ideological, political or economic reasons.

Following the economic crisis of 2008, the intense economic austerity programs imposed by different governments affected different aspects of society, including the dismantling of various social benefits, pensions, and controls over air and water pollution. The scaling back was camouflaged as “efficiency savings”, “cutting red tape”, “reform”, “retrenchment”, or “deregulation.” Such linguistic variations were motivated by obfuscating politicians searching for blame avoidance.1

Last February, President Trump signed an executive order to place “regulatory reform” task forces and officers within federal agencies in an effort to pare down the massive red tape of recent decades. Then in another executive order, ‘Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,’ called for all government agencies to eliminate two existing regulations every time a new one is issued. Furthermore, the cost of any new regulation had to be offset by the two being removed. This order was swiftly renamed “one step forward, two steps back,” by many of those working in public health as well as other public services.

The ideologist and initially Trump’s top strategy advisor, Stephen Bannon, announced early on that his goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” Fortunately he was fired, but conservatives still hoped that funding for regulations such as the Clean Air Act would be reduced as would those of drug and food safety groups. Indeed, the White House withdrew or removed from consideration some 800 proposed regulations that had never been activated by the Obama administration. Trump then identified some 300 regulations related to energy production and environmental protection that were spread across the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Interior and Energy Departments. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said these measures were to “slow the cancer that had come from regulatory burdens that we put on our people.” (But there were representatives of the gas and oil industries who cheered.)

Yogin Kothari of the Union of Concerned Scientists countered that “Six months into the administration the only accomplishments the President has had is to rollback, delay and rescind science based safeguards.” The administration’s regulatory agenda revealed its objective. Kothari insisted that ”It continues to perpetuate a false narrative that regulations only have costs and no benefits.”

More broadly, “dismantling” incorporates a way of thinking. Neo-conservatives like
Richard Perle and David Frum a couple of decades ago declared that “A free society
is a self-policing society.” This was part of a larger drive to discredit the state as a source of redress for hardships. In the United Kingdom there were similar attacks from leaders of the Tory party who desired a new focus which emphasized greater community and local government powers. This has resulted, for example, in having established food safety structures quietly dismantled.

A special correspondent for The Guardian recently wrote that “Local authorities — a crucial pillar in the edifice since they have legal responsibility for testing foods sold in their area — are so starved of money that they have cut checking to the bone.”2 The result is that the Foods Standards Agency is in the process of rewriting much of the basis of food regulation in the United Kingdom and, as a consequence, commercial interests will be protected more than consumers. Big businesses, like supermarkets, will be pleased by privatized inspection and certification schemes which will lead to more “commercially astute” understanding. (Such as covering the sale of outdated foods such as chicken products.)

Lobbyists in England, as in the US, bait lawmakers as well as the national audience with plausible concerns. They suggest that “overreaching regulations” harass start-ups and small businesses. Educational and training requirements on a number of professions impose costs on low and middle-income workers striving for better positions. The lobbyists then proposed that stripping away regulations and consumer protections are the easiest ways to lower such costs. They ignore other solutions to lower the burdensome entry costs for those educationally enrolled.

I believe that there are genuine and rational reasons to question the construction of mountains of bureaucratic regulations. Now many of these regulations reflect serious concern about the environment, worker safety, pensions, health — well, about almost everything affecting human beings. I have long felt that common sense exercised on most issues regarding human welfare would be preferable to regulatory excesses.

Federal Laws like NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) as well as state-level regulations and rules have ensured that citizens are protected from the harms of less responsible businesses and corporations. Environmental regulations prohibit these from disposing industrial wastes irresponsibly and serve to protect the health of both workers and communities. OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has some 3,500 specific provisions to cover the health and safety of construction workers. Detailed regulations on electronic job injuries and illness from air pollution in the work place impose fines and other sanctions to make it costly for irresponsible parties to act recklessly. However, much of such protective regulation is currently in jeopardy. Lobbyists and opponents in Congress suggest that publicly displaying information according to the injury requirements would unfairly damage the reputation of the employers. Pushing aside concerns of dangers to workers exposed to Silica and Beryllium, President Trump has been eager to roll back the executive order by President Obama in 2014 titled “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.”

The neoliberal program which has been envisioned aims to switch our values of “the public good and the public interest” to a value system based on “the market” and individual responsibility. Prof Sendhill Mullainathan, an economics professor at
Harvard, suggests that “New technologies are rattling the economy on all fronts. While the predictions are specific and dire, bigger changes are surely coming. Clearly we need to adjust for the turbulence ahead.” He believes that the neoliberal agenda could give way to a new focus which will incorporate an authoritarian mode of economics aimed at accountability and the “audit culture.” Mullainathan cautions: “A lifetime of work will be a lifetime of changing, moving between firms, jobs, careers and cities.” By-passing such purportedly creative destruction, he believes “we ought to enable innovation to take its course.”3 Such excuses for the unfettered pursuit of profit would end the system of protective regulations which have taken decades to develop. It seems obvious to me that regulation is essential for the democratic state. In our daily lives we drive our cars, take our pills, drink our water, and comfortably eat most foods because we take the safety regulations covering all these acts for granted.

France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, has said “we need to rethink regulation, so as to deal with the excesses of globalized Capitalism.”4 The devious excesses of the current economic system manifestly threaten our future. By now, it should be clear to every voter and each citizen that deregulation is generally not in the public interest and should be fiercely resisted if we truly want advancement of the common good.


1Michael W. Bauer et al. Dismantling Public Policy, (2014) pp.30-56

2Felicity Lawrence, “Vital protections in are being dismantled,” The Guardian, August 25, 2017, p.31

3Sendhill Mullainathan, “Planning to cope with what you can’t forsee,” The New York Times, September 5, 2017

4“Regeneration,” The Economist, September 30, 2017, p.12

THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGING PERSPECTIVES


For those of you who accidentally received a first draft last week of this blog, this one is quite different in its overall perspective. You may be amused by the radical changes made.


As a member of the older generation, the changes I continue facing in everyday-life are historically unprecedented, wide-ranging, and in many ways controversial. A number are difficult to handle or to tolerate for many different age levels.

I find the continuing acceleration in the speed of change in life disturbing. Everybody is “busy” most of the time. We race from one place to another, spend too much time in traffic jams, rush through what we have to read, see on television and follow on our computers. Meals are cut short and Victorian style afternoon teas are no longer in fashion — they are too time consuming.

Through the dynamism of both technology and finance, we have changed not only the pace of life but also have altered its quality and direction. Money (that is, profits) has been the driving force of capitalism but almost no attention has been given to the effects on human beings which follow most innovations. In my last blog I focused on the unknown impact of iPads and tablets on infants. That was not the occasion to examine the possible impact of computers, mobiles and automation on adults.

What first comes to mind is what I am doing right now! The hours spent everyday on my computer are bad for my back, my eyes, my hands and my spirits. I still love writing with pen or pencil and find these wonderful, but slow and I, too, am often in a hurry. I am not on Facebook or the other social networks because they would intrude into my moments of leisure, time in the garden, or time to reflect.

So where can we take the currently uncontrolled and unplanned advances of technology which are popularly assumed may end with Artificial Intelligence? How to test the effects of automation on human beings as well as on entire societies? It is evident that as long as money/profits remain the prime driving force, there is little possibility of controlling the advance of untested but desirable technology-driven innovations for our brains and mental states.

Let me suggest that the pharmaceutical industry is a good example of what the Silicon valley giants could try to copy: In most countries almost all new medicines have to pass a variety of rigorous tests for their suitability on patients. If this difficult as well as bureaucratic program works effectively for protecting our physical health, why could different tests not be applied for the mental well-being of those subjected to electronically stimulated waves — ranging from head-sets to our everyday iPhones? We have little idea at the moment to what we are subjecting our brains (and hearts) and what the possibilities of damage there may be from many electronic devices.

On a broader perspective, some of the impacts of the new technology on the younger generation are evident: many no longer communicate in writing on paper and tend to stick to minimalism when it comes to expressing themselves. They even don’t like to use the telephone, regarding it as a medium of old-timers. I have been advised by a son that he no longer reads any email which extends beyond two terse paragraphs. As a writer, I find all of this poses cultural challenges which we could perhaps correct in schools and universities over time.

As a writer and former journalist, I am most disturbed by the newly popularized crisis of faith in journalism. The masses like to get the instant flow of events from Twitter and the online news organizations. What with the perverters of the truth, like Murdoch’s Sun newspaper in the UK and Fox News in the USA, the press increasingly gives readers the scandals they want rather than informing them of the events which might increase their knowledge or might be useful. For that matter, I have to confess that getting the Trump scenarios out of my mind is becoming an everyday challenge.

Even much of our economics are becoming unfathomable: Bit-Coins with their digital crypto-currencies make no sense. It seems that they are new instruments for gamblers, tax evaders, and high-tech risk takers rather than money to be used every day. Controls by governments of QE (Quantitative Easing) in which billions upon billions of dollars, pounds and other currencies have been pumped into bank reserves also seem most dubious. The whole QE process comes straight out of wonderland and tends to confuse minds, even in government, about reality.

I must balance these deep concerns with my expression of positive advances in so many areas. I am most enthusiastic about the giant greenhouses being based on the Eden Project in Cornwall. The co-founder, Sir Tim Smith, wants “to create oases of change… our job is to create a fever of excitement about the world that is ours to make better.” His group is now planning the construction of giant green-house domes in China, Australia and New Zealand.

I find the GPS of finding one’s way around the world as directed from outer space is a marvelous technological breakthrough, much as it may do away with our former ability to read maps. This is a variation of the impact that the technologies have on our abilities. When kids in schools some fifty years ago were given simple hand held adding machines, they quickly forgot how to do their sums.

The miracle cures for cancer exploiting the powers of genetics and our human immune systems are to be lauded. The related advances in gene editing techniques are promising extraordinary solutions to many of our genetically based illnesses. However, as with medicines, we should try to advance more carefully with intense examinations of the possible consequences rather than triumphantly announcing breakthroughs. The moral challenges we face with the introduction of gene editing must be dealt with enormous care and consideration. Our perspective of how to protect our minds after all these millennia of change and development must not be corrupted by the lure of money nor even by the competitive egos of leading scientists.1

Governments around the world are now planning to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles over the next 25+ years because the rising levels of nitrogen oxide present a major threat to public health as well as to climate change. If governments can do this on a cooperative basis, why can they not start research on whether the electronic products of ‘Silicon Valley” are affecting the mental and asocial imbalances of the population?

Thankfully, there are numerous aspects of our evolving cultures, like the above, which are greatly encouraging. I think it is most important to focus on these to bring greater hope to millions of people who have become deeply discouraged by the universal focus on capitalist competition, celebrity, and terrorism in this new millennium. I am advocating that the wonders of being alive on this incredible planet truly should be the basis for much of future optimism in the next generations.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, (1996) pp. 421-428

iPADS for INFANTS

I was rattled in a restaurant recently watching a couple encouraging their year-and-a-half toddler to slide a finger across his iPad. The little one was excited to see the changes on the screen. A few weeks later I observed a two-year-old grabbing his four-year-old brother’s iPad and operating it vengefully! For a few of the “advanced” members of this age group their first word is not “Mom” or “Dad” but “Pad.” Some toddlers even have become addicted to these electronic wonders! What is happening is that children are being subjected to unknown and untested challenges to their personal development.

There are numerous videos on YouTube of these little ones sliding their fingers across the pages of magazines lying on the kitchen table in an effort to activate them. Parents may wonder how the tablets affect their young ones, but most are pleased that quiet reigns in the house and they rationalize that even at this early stage of life their offspring are learning how to focus and develop their attention spans. However, some mothers and fathers are so fearful of the possible consequences that they have chosen to deny their kids access to these technological marvels.

“There is something important going on here and we need to learn what effects this is having on learning and attention, memory and social development,” says Jordy Kaufman, the director of BabyLab, one of the rare groups researching in this area, which is under the auspices of Australia’s Swinburne University.1 His team is trying to learn how the iPads and tablets affect the long-term mental development of the very young. His BabyLab is using innovative approaches to explore the cognitive as well social aspects of brain development in the very young.

The techniques at BabyLab include behavioral eye tracking, which measures observable changes in development, for example whether babies have a preference for faces over objects, as well as electro-physiological methods, which track changes that occur in brain activity when resting or responding to iPads. Toddlers do detect subtle changes. When they see something happening on the screen, like a change of color, an object in motion, or a face. The youngsters may empathize with what they observe. Their instant reaction is: “Is that me? Is that another?” For an instant they relate because that’s the way their brain is wired. Some of the very young may believe that the iPad is alive, but most intuitively accept that it is not.

While in depth studies have been made of the effects of television on the younger generation, very little research has been made on the effect of tablets on those in kindergartens. Indeed there may be benefits for the very young in developing motor skills as they learn to push buttons and softly slide their fingers. Their exposure to tablets may give them a kick-start to learning. However, Kaufman cautioned that “There is a school of thought that tablet use is rewiring children’s brains, so to speak, to make it difficult for them to attend to slower-paced information.”

Denying children access to iPads entails risks, contends Rose Flewitt who is doing research at the Institute for Education at the University of London. She studies how iPads can help literacy at the nursery and primary levels. “Having one section of society that is growing up with skills and one section that is growing up without it,” is problematic she posits. On the other hand, tablets and iPads do nothing to foster social skills for the very young.

The immediate response to pushing a button is highly satisfying and pleasurable for children who delight in the lights, images and sounds that emerge. There also are no admonishments coming from the iPads as well as a lack of any positive feedback. The electronic instruments are fast, dependable and soon become familiar. However, the cold glass, plastic and metal of the casings of the tablets provide only limited sensory experiences for the very young. There is none of the comfort provided by the traditional cuddlys and stuffies. The experts wonder whether a profound shift in childhood mindset may be taking place here without our understanding. It is appalling how little is known about the effects of the rapid and continuing educational technology advances these children now experience.

What is certain is that many of the new generations get hooked on the irresistibility of the swift educational technology advances. By the time they are teenagers they are likely to spend close to eight hours a day using electronics like computers, TV sets, smart-phones and iPads as most American 13-year-olds do today. However, I shall not wander into the more advanced levels of the $100 billion educational technology industry (which here encompasses the combined European and North American educational technology markets) which experiences continual development driven less by the needs of students and teachers than by the profit motive.

Over the past three decades we have seen that computers have been used to improve efficiency in the classrooms and keep pupils engaged, but they have not transformed learning in the way the promoters had predicted. It is basically unknown whether educational technology is advancing the potential of the new generation. The Economist contends that there has been a succession of inventions promising to overhaul education, but these have not done so yet. There has been little difference between the money spent on IT in schools and the abilities of 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading who have not received it.2

It seems evident to me that what is happening electronically at the early stages in the lives of children is now one of the basic aspects challenging their overall mental development. We simply don’t know how abandoning the reading of books, listening to stories, and other aspects of traditional education will affect future generations. Artificially personalized machine contacts are unlikely to match the look of the human eyes, the sound of a genuine voice, the scent of the adult, the warmth and familiarity of touch — all of which exert a personal impact whose combined effects on the psyche cannot be over-estimated. I believe we are putting our culture and entire civilization at great risk if we allow “the technological” to overwhelm “the human” during the introduction of the new generations into this world.


1Paula Cocozza, “Children of the Revolution,” The Guardian, January 9, 2014

2”Machine Learning,” The Economist, July 22, 2017, p.18

NEW DIRECTIONS FOR RIGHT AND WRONG?

Even before this era of “fake news” and the easy willingness to mix lies and truth, I already was deeply concerned about the swift decline in our belief in ethical rights and wrongs. I accept that we may find it increasingly difficult, given the distractions of social media, to live by our traditional ethical guidelines. However, I feel strongly for the universal need to accept the principles of right and wrong which resonate within us.

Historically, morals, affiliations, and religions have all been dependent on strongly held convictions in right and wrong. Philosophers, beginning with Socrates (469-399BC), have long debated the foundations of moral decision-making. Socrates was one of the earliest of the Greek philosophers to focus on self-knowledge in such matters as right and wrong. He advanced the notion that human beings would naturally do good if they could rationally distinguish right from wrong. It followed that bad or evil actions were the consequence of ignorance. The assumption was that those who know what is right automatically do it. Socrates held that the truly wise would know what is right, do what is good, and enjoy the result. However his most famous pupil, Aristotle, held that to achieve precise knowledge of right and wrong was far more unlikely in ethics than in any other sphere of inquiry. Aristotle thought ethical knowledge was dependent on custom, tradition and social habits in ways that made it distinctive.

Only much later did John Locke, strike in a new direction with his determination to establish a “science of ethics.” He went astray in his search but, as we shall see, this was to be picked up again by neuroscientists hundreds of years later. David Hume, a philosophical contemporary then went on to assume that empathy should guide moral decisions and our ultimate ideals.

John Stuart Mill in the mid 19th century advanced liberalism in part by advocating that following what is right would lead to an improvement of our lives. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” Mill wrote.1 Admittedly many actions in this colonial era increased the well-being of some while inflicting suffering on others. “Wrong” often boiled down to selfishness while “right” encompassed willingness to take personal responsibility for considering the consequences that such actions might have for others.

Today “right” and “wrong” are generally assumed to have come from schooling, parental teaching and legal and religious instruction. However, primatologists like Marc D Hauser, a Harvard biologist, contend that the roots of human morality are also evident in such social animals as apes and monkeys who display feelings of reciprocity and empathy which are essential for group living. Hauser has built on this to propose that evolution wired survival among other social factors into our neural circuits.2 The swift decisions that had to be made in life-or-death situations were not accessible to the conscious mind. Hauser’s ultimate objective is to get morality accepted as being objectively true. This counters what most people in the northern hemisphere believe: that ethics are relative to time, cultures and individuals. Thus questions like gender, abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia waver in the winds of right and wrong.

The prolific Anglo-Irish writer, Brian Cleeve (1921-2003) asked: “Has the time arrived again when people must make moral standards a personal crusade? Has the time come to stand up and be counted for the difference between right and wrong?”3 Cleeve contended that “In our modern eagerness to be tolerant, we have come to tolerate things which no society can tolerate and remain healthy. In our understandable anxiety not to set ourselves up as judges, we have come to believe that all judgments are wrong. In our revulsion against hypocrisy and false morality, we have abandoned morality itself. And with modest hesitations but firm convictions I submit that this has not made us happier, but much unhappier.” In his book on 1938: A World Vanishing, he held that at that time the average man and woman in Britain “possessed a keen notion of what was right and what was wrong, in his and her own personal life, in the community, and in the word at large.”

The entry of neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, and social scientists into the search for understanding a possibly physical basis for such philosophical challenges as right and wrong has led to experiments with brain-scanning technology. The work of Harvard professor, Joshua Greene, has led him to conclude that “emotion and reason both play critical roles in moral judgment and that their respective influences have been widely misunderstood.”4 Greene’s “dual-process theory” posits that emotion and rationality enter into moral decision-making according to the circumstances. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine specific areas of the brain as it functions: The flow of blood to the amygdala (the seat of emotions) is compared to the flow to the prefrontal cortex (which houses deliberative reasoning.) The results Green believes illustrate that even when humans are calculating abstract probabilities, they also may rely on emotions for guidance. “Reason by itself doesn’t have any ends, or goals,” Greene concludes. ”It can tell you what will happen if you do this or that, and whether or not A and B are consistent with each other. But it can’t make the decision for you.” Greene believes that by learning more about the neurological mechanisms involved in moral decision-making, people could eventually improve the way they make their judgments. Rationality cannot function independently of emotions, even in those who are utilitarian or rational decision makers.

Globally we have come to separate ethics and politics. No group can impose its moral conceptions on the society at large. Social media are powerful in creating herds of subscribers to groups with facades of universal values which mask narrow interests and replace ethics. Members need to be “right” in order to feel popular. The divisions between those who believe they are right sharply divides them from those perceived to be wrong. Most people want to be right as an indication of their intelligence, their power, their vision and ultimately of their desire for admiration and acknowledgment of their status. Like exhibitionist peacocks, some almost seem desperate to display their “superiority.” Our psychological make-up traditionally strengthens such positions. William Hazlitt wrote some 200 years ago that, “We are not satisfied to be right unless we can prove others to be quite wrong.”5

Some three generations ago Adolph Hitler insisted that “Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong.” I suspect there are contemporary leaders would might agree with such an extraordinary assumption. I feel that the requirements of a moral life are unlikely to be promoted by the current political leaderships. The sociologist Max Weber held that the ethic of responsibility in politics only could be resolved if we demand the minimal of internal and external danger for all concerned.5 I regret to say that this demand seems unlikely to be followed, but personally I believe that individual responsibility, which must entail a good measure of rationality, is absolutely essential if there is to be a reversal of the fast-fading social significance of human Rights and Wrongs.


1John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism II, (1863)
2Marc D. Hauser, “Moral Minds” (2006)
3Brian Cleeve, “1938: A World Vanishing,“ (1982)
4Peter Saalfield, “The Biology of Right and Wrong” Harvard Magazine, January (2012)
5William Hazlitt, “Conversations of James Northcote,” 1830.
6Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” Essays in Sociology, (1946) p.119