21. An appreciation of greater needs

“What really motivates or drives you?” I asked my friends at an end of summer luncheon.

“Need arouses my inner being and sustains it,” volunteered finance manager Janice with considerable intensity. “My need for a kind of spiritual affirmation demands a deeply inward search on my part,” she confessed. “I need to have a sense of where I am going. Above all, I have a need to accept my  own uncertainties.”

“I like your honesty, Janice.” retorted James who spends much of his time in Southern Africa helping native groups to modernize their agricultural practices. “Of course we all have a need to know where we are going in this overly revved-up world. The people I work with have seemingly unending material and physical needs — but their social needs and acceptance are richly met in their families and the solidarity of their relationships.”

“Needs. Needs! I’m dealing with weeds all week-end”, joined in Anne, a sun-tanned neighbor desirous of lightening the conversation. “They’re much more real to me than all that psychologizing and social anthropology.”

Fred, the oldest of the group , could not resist inserting a limerick:

There was once a bloke in dire need
Whose thoughts had slowed with his seed
He considered jumping the Niagara
But instead chose the latest Viagra
And is now celebrating in deed.

We all chuckled at Fred, but I was determined to bring the discussion back on track. “The experts on happiness point out that it is not money nor goods nor travels that fulfill our innermost needs. I agree with James that in the tribal communities, like those of New Guinea, the communal life of these so-called primitives provides a much simpler and comparatively more satisfying life for its members than we create for ours.”

“Yes they do,” agreed James. “ their tribal ties, their close family connections, their lack of sexual inhibitions, their spiritual contact with their ancestors, their closeness with nature, the expressiveness of their art all serve to fulfill their what you called their innermost needs.”

“They enjoy significant primary relationships with other,” added Janice, revealing her own inner needs, and then continued “but they are involved in something higher than the material world. They accept the need for self-esteem.”

“Janice you read your own concerns into those of New Guinea natives,” observed Fred. “I prefer to deal with real needs.”

“What do you mean by real needs? Are some unreal to you, Fred?”

“Real needs are those basic ones like thirst, hunger and sex. Less real ones like support and commitment — which concern you —  I think of as secondary needs,” countered Fred who could sense Janice was becoming increasingly irritated.

I decided to try and defuse the discussion by bringing in Karl Marx. This tactic has worked for me for years. “Marx defined humans as ‘needy creatures’ who experienced suffering in the process of their hard labors when trying to meet their  physical needs. Marx recognized that their efforts also helped to meet their emotional, moral and intellectual needs. But in this process of meeting such diverse needs, humans developed new needs. This implied that, to a certain extent, we humans can make and remake our own nature.”

“I prefer to skip Marx,” responded Fred. “I see needs defined according to our having, doing and interacting. This means: nourishment, good health, security, affection, participation, understanding, identity, creativity, autonomy and freedom.”

I had to admit to myself that this old codger had his feet solidly planted on the ground. Mary-Lee, however, swiftly retorted. “Sure, Fred, but how do these needs depend on human qualities like a sense of humor, passion, care, adaptability, achievement, respect,  or receptivity?”

“Our individual needs are representative of all the efforts and interactions involved in being members of society,”  tersely replied Fred.

“I’m glad none of you have confused needs and wants,” interjected James. “In Ethiopia I have remarked that ordinary people want what they see on TV and end up feeling needy.”

“Needs are more urgent, intensive and imperative than mere wants,” rejoined Janice. “humans keep on redistributing their wants but seldom their needs.”

“There I have to agree with you, Janice. Wants are often spread by greed. I have come to see capitalism itself as the collectivity of wants and the denial of the real needs of the poor, the sick, the old, the weak and so forth,” said Anne who had been remarkably silent.

“The accompanying word to “want” is the almost infantile ‘MORE’,” added Fred. “That is also the by-word of capitalism.”

“I guess I need to be needed,” admitted Janice. “I also suspect my needs are driven by internal dissatisfactions, unrest and a kind of imbalance.”

Agreeing with her, I concluded: “We all have a powerful need to be needed, that others want us and need us. We must develop an awareness of our feelings as indicators of the needs that are alive within us. I think that is what we have  been doing in this lively lunchtime discussion: arriving at some agreement on the importance of the individual needs of each of us. Identifying our needs, met or unmet, as Janice has been trying to do, is the most vital step in this process. Thank you all.

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20. Ultimate Directions

Reviewing my recent blogs, I am made acutely aware of the recurrent thread of “the void,”  repeated regardless of the subjects covered: I am obviously protesting at the lack of any long-term vision, of positive goals, of a sense of destiny, or even of a modestly better future. Aspirations all around seem diminished. Progress currently appears submerged by the tentative. (For example, by the inability to make basic reforms to an economic system which has failed us.) What does this reveal about us?

I try to think back a hundred years to 1913 — the height of “La Belle Epoque” as that brief era was later named. The promise of that time was uplifting: new roads for automobiles, telephone poles rising everywhere, communication by radio on its way, the potential of air travel a sudden possibility, scientific breakthroughs occurring in multiple directions, and for those living in Britain, France and Germany  a growing pride in their expanding imperial powers. The arts, especially in painting, music and ballet, were pushing in exciting new directions.

A year later this collectively uplifting vision crashed! In the Netherlands, my grandfather, Alex Citroen, who had believed that wars had finally come to an end, was crushed. The profound despair overwhelmed him. It caused a swift end to a middle-aged man who had been in good health.  His wife, Tilly, said the outbreak of war broke both his spirit and his body.

Nobody had foreseen the horrors of WWI with its massive millions of deaths, gas attacks, machine guns, tanks, trench warfare and  surprising air attacks. The world which followed the armistice of November 1918 was a somberly reflective transformation from what it had been four years earlier. Nevertheless there were a number of reformist leaders following WWI with utopian plans for a League of Nations, attempts at creating a universal language, a world court, and a ban on the use of chemical weapons and gas.

Four generations later we still see gas being used and new and even more lethal weapons held in massive stockpiles: A-bombs, Hydrogen bombs, Neutron bombs as well as undisclosed varieties of biological weapons. However, our leaders express no vision of the kind of world towards which their populations should be aiming.

For many years I have been advocating cooperation instead of competition, co-operatives instead of corporations,  but there are few takers.  Ours is not the age of utopias. Viewers and readers apparently prefer dystopias which illustrate how much worse the world could be under any other system.

Indeed “The Market” is now the prevailing driving force in most of the world. It serves as a materialistic endorsement for capitalism. This market is purportedly based on customer and investor preferences. Nothing spiritual, moral, or ethical is involved, as Adam Smith had cautioned more than 200 years ago in his Wealth of Nations and his Theory of Moral Sentiments.1

Price, profit, competition, greed, practicability, availability, convenience, speed, possession, security and “trends” are among the principal determinants of decision making in ”The Market.” Hunger, inequality, poverty, unemployment, environmental pollution, or fairness are of no immediate concern. Neither are justice, charity, cooperation, nor fraternity. The arts have no greater impact than sports as driving forces in the Market. So where does this leave a planet where the population is headed steadily upwards towards the 9 billion mark?

I must admit I feel overwhelmed by some of the prospects facing us: a planet flooded by a population 2/3rds of whom will be huddled in megapolitan urban slums. How will the landless and property-less masses be able to express their inevitable frustration and anger over the shortages of food, water, and security? What kind of life goals will these masses have in the automated structure which surrounds them and which will increasingly protect ring-fenced oligarchic wealth?

It is all well and good to hold out the “open society” as a role model for a democratic future, but will it provide the next generation with some degree of satisfaction? Our global collective has yet to produce a clear picture of the direction in which we, the inhabitants, might seek to advance or the kind of world we might ultimately envision as desirable. At the moment our principal concerns seem to revolve around minimal changes in economic policy or myopic party politics.

Perhaps, at this stage of our relatively youthful civilization, we have to recognize that the world cannot be transformed according to some ultimate plan. The millions of years old insect societies offer no model. But I firmly believe that we can exercise our extraordinary mental powers in order to leap out of the current void.

Thinkers with both imagination and powers of persuasion are sorely needed to show us the way towards an equitable and effective economic structure. With billions of people going to bed hungry every night, with ever more living in grueling poverty, with tens of millions of young people in the advanced northern tier of nations lacking employment opportunities, and with banks often being run by inept, sometimes corrupt and universally greedy managers, the existing economic system is not fit for purpose.

A start must be made by recognizing that no economic system can forever depend on growth: that is the way of cancer. From there we have to find a system not based on dollars, pounds, rubles, rupees and the rest, but on a more universal and equitable form of payments based on cashless credits. And then we must make certain that a distribution system for our powerful agricultural and manufacturing base, now capable of providing enough for all, is focused on  both fairness and effectiveness. I am not describing a utopia but a way towards a working economy whose administration is now made plausible by the incredible power of the new computer systems and the global internet.2 Proposals for alternatives such as the above must be welcomed and closely examined instead of being ignored or feared. That is the most sensible way out of our current void.

1See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy? (2003) pp. 156-157.
2Op.cit. Dollars or Democracy? Part II.

19. Overwhelmed by Data

One of the earliest sayings I can remember is: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” In the years that followed I learned the benefits of diversification and the dangers of single strand resolutions to many human problems. Now I am frightened how mindlessly we are putting all our info into one gigantic electronic basket.

But how long will the information stored by friends and family, by banks and the tax people, by Google and Yahoo, by the intelligence services as well as such social network as Facebook or Twitter remain accessible? Five years? A decade?  Most unlikely 25years. And what will this do for the  historical understanding of future generations? For now this seems of negligible concern.

Ever since the mass production of silicon chips and computers as well as the accompanying development of the internet, most of those living in the advanced technological nations have focused on both the ever-increasing speed of communications, its use in all applicable areas, and the conversion from different forms of calculation, classification, and storage to labor-saving computers. Most of the younger generation never learned penmanship and many have never written a letter!

The revolutionary consequences of the past thirty years have overwhelmed economics, markets, airline travel, research, information communication, as well as our daily lives. This has led to far more comprehensive and intensive change than the introduction of printing or even the much more gradual transformations of the industrial revolution.

From the globalization of corporations to the globalization of credit cards, the ease of  networking communications, and the immense social impact on the younger generation, the scope of this revolution is so overwhelming that it has become difficult for us to digest.  “Progress” in the form of hi-tech is moving humanity in so many new directions and at such an accelerating  speed that we are at the point of losing control.

Our taxes, bank accounts, credit card transactions, police records (including fingerprints, health records including DNA files, car licenses and driving records, CCTV recordings, NSA and GCHQ spying on our communications, are only some of the areas affecting our lives and which are now dependent on the storage of what is being called “Big Data.” Is this new information structure sufficiently resilient to cope with yet unknown threats ranging from intentional sabotage, solar flares or simply the inability to deal with the congestion caused by incredibly rapid growth? Indeed, when will the sheer volume of traffic that all these servers process become so overwhelming it causes a systemic global black-out?

The Guardian (UK), in a front-page story pegged to major computer crashes on the  Nasdaq stock market, Google, and insurance companies, warned that “governments, banks and big business are over-reliant on computer networks that have become too complex.”1

Jaron Lanier, the author-creator of the concept of virtual reality, went further in writing that the digital infrastructure was moving beyond our control: “When you try to achieve great scale with automation and the automation exceeds the boundaries of human oversight, there is going to be failure.” (Not only in the breakdown of specific servers but also of entire systems, such as the global stock exchanges and the banking system.)

And there seem to be no boundaries: Cisco the California based manufacturer of communication equipment predicts that in four years it will be possible to transmit in a three-minute burst over the internet the data equivalent to all the films ever produced.

At the same time, greed, as evidenced by the extreme demands of high-frequency computer trades of shares by hedge funds and banks, is triggering ever more mini-crashes on the stock markets. In May 2010 one such incident following a false report caused close to a trillion dollars to be erased in 20 minutes from the value of US shares. (Most of this was swiftly recovered.) Once a stock fell to an automated “Sell” level, it was impossible to halt all the other computers from executing their sell commands and across-the-board selling spread with lightning speed.

Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and such social sites as Facebook, Flicker, and Twitter, all need to process and store immense quantities of data. Twitter alone has to grapple with 500 million tweets a day! When glitches occur, and this seems inevitable, the “dirty” entities  — sometimes simply garbled or confused ones and occasionally intentionally corrupting ones from hackers or alien sources, such as North Korean or Syrian military saboteurs, can corrupt files and communications which could ultimately bring down the entire system.

At this level, there is a rising awareness of the problem. Google alone is investing around £4 billion ($6 billion) a year on network data centers. Annual global spending on such centers will rise close to £100 billion ($150billion) this year.2

The rise of big data has resulted in many traditional data warehousing companies, such as Teradata, continuously updating their products and technology. The Teradata product encompasses a massively parallel processing system referred to as a “data warehouse system” which stores and manages data. The data warehouses use a “shared nothing architecture,” which means that each server node has its own memory and processing power. Adding more servers and nodes increases the amount of data that can be stored. The database software sits on top of the servers and spreads the workload among them.3

Speed has also become a factor as has the surging demand for storage. Consider that almost three quarters of all trades on the American stock exchanges are being executed by machines which process transactions in less than a millionth of a second via fiber-optic connections. As a necessary consequence Teradata is also used as a series back-up during downtime. The systems work to balance the work-load of big data which has arisen exponentially from new media sources, such as social media.

Storing increasingly immense quantities of data also has become a challenge by placing a limit on the number of years most of it is (or can be) stored. At the same time, more steps are being taken to prevent disasters from occurring. A prime example is Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync (commonly known as EAS). This is a protocol designed for the synchronization of email, contacts, tasks, and notes from a messaging server to a smartphone or other mobile device. But such efforts also  illustrate how the global system has grown along market-driven choices and corporate decisions — not according to any plan nor oversight nor set rules or regulations. This does not seem like a comprehensive way to proceed globally. Alas, the possible consequences of the fantastic expansion of Big Data may not be recognized until a comprehensive melt-down suddenly occurs with the most dire results for all but the most undeveloped societies like those of Papua New Guinea or Bhutan. You have been warned!

1Juliette Garside, “Warning over data meltdown,” The Guardian (UK) 24 August, 2013, p. 1
2Charles Arthur, “The Cost,” The Guardian, 24 August, 2013, p. 7
3See the Teradata entry in Wikipedia