37. March of the Robots

I find watching the march of human robots absolutely revolting. All too often, while looking at the news, at any mention of North Korea, files of absolutely identical uniformed men are shown marching on parade in front of their leader. This is as close as we can presently get to producing programed human robots –- at least until we find ways to insert smart control chips into the brain!

Why are we rushing headlong — and with little consideration — into ever greater replacement of human beings by robotics and automation? It is almost as if those in politics, business — yes, even education — have no understanding or appreciation of where they may be going. The goal of “efficiency” (that is the parlance for “profit,” “more money” and lower labor costs) outweighs any impact these “advances” may have on the well-being of the human race and the societies we have created.

The full impact of an economic system we serve, rather than one that could serve us, has yet to be recognized. We are slowly beginning to accept that a continuation of capitalism as we have known it is unsustainable. However, at the same time the advancement of robotics continues undisturbed. The rapidly diminishing job prospects for upcoming generations, the increasing state expenditures on the unemployed, the mounting numbers of those requiring mental health care, the spread of those taking drugs as an escape –- all seem part of our destiny on a planet of 7+ billion people where much of the work will no longer be done by human beings but by machines.

Writer Andrew McAfee, an expert in the field, argues that it is inevitable that algorithms and robots will force profound changes in the labor market.1 In the past generation, typists, elevator operators, travel agents, clerks and bank tellers have seen their services diminished. So have middle rank state workers in the US and the UK. The new robots will inevitably terminate many jobs in manufacturing and machinery production. “In future, there may be people who — despite being willing and fit to work — have no economic value as employees.”2 It behooves us to consider their plight before we create a new caste of undesirables.

In this social and economic situation, a clear rethink is mandatory: Suspending the production of robotics would be seen as an attempt to halt progress or to stop time. Given our current socio-political-economic system this is hardly feasible.

Shifting the capitalist economy from profit to human sustainability seems overwhelmingly challenging but this may turn out to be inevitable in the long term. We must find ways to redistribute the ownership of assets more evenly as well as examining how to relocate some of the burden of taxation away from the workers to those holding the wealth. Rather than investing in the education and training of human beings, the hyper-rich prefer to invest in robotics. Robots are not unionized and never demand overtime.

It therefore is essential for us to confront the need to reconsider our ultimate direction, our human trajectory on this planet. This would entail shifting away from our addiction to short term perspectives and engaging in long term strategies.

Our first long term goal should be to provide sufficient food, housing, electricity, and clothing for all. How to achieve this?  This can happen only when we underwrite everyone alive with the basic monthly means — irrespective of whether or not they are in employment. With the advances in agriculture over the past 200 years and an almost infinite production capacity, it is essential to distribute the basic minimum to every living being.

Aristotle wrote two millennia ago in The Politics that he could only imagine new conditions for humanity if “each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation… as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.” The wisest men of Athens could never have imagined the internet but nearly all inventions made since then have caused some people to lose jobs while providing different kinds of work to others.

So we must also begin to examine and develop those functions at which we can excel but which robots cannot: There are service sectors, like the care of the very young and the aged; creative areas like music, poetry, sculpture, and gourmet cuisine, as well as the various sport activities. Demands in the medical professions ranging from mental health to physiotherapy are not likely to suffer.

Certainly at the moment those pushing for the advance of robotics are being given “carte blanche”: Andy Rubin, who heads Google’s new robotics arm, has acquired and put together a string of artificial intelligence and robotics companies, such as Schaft, Meka, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, and Boston Dynamics, in a concerted  effort to privately build dexterous and mobile robots.3

It can be argued that such robots are essential if we are to deal with the safe handling of nuclear reactors, poisonous gases and contaminating substances, and such dangerous tasks as repairing malfunctions in outer space.

The Japanese, one of the world leaders in the production of robots, introduced labor contracts a couple of decades back banning the lay-offs of workers displaced by automation. These workers continue to be paid and kept by the employers. Such a policy has proven costly to the entire Japanese economy and has thus far not been copied by others. Even at serious economic gatherings like Davos, little attention is given to the challenge posed by these global challenges.4

Now, when we are on the verge of new advances in automation and robotics, is the time for a global conference on how to deal with the inevitable consequences of a massive march of the robots in the 21st Century.

—————————

1Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age, 2013.

2Tim Harford, “The robots are coming and will terminate your jobs,” The Financial Times, December 29, 2013, p.9

3John Markoff, “Google puts money on future of robots,” New York Times, December 5, 2013.

4See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) pp. 161-2

Advertisements

36. Why CREED?

“What’s the point of it” is the title of the retrospective exhibition of Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery in London right now. I find no merit whatsoever in the show, so what is the point of my writing about it? Exactly that. I wonder what leads a Gallery director to select such a show which advances nothing, certainly not popular understanding? What do the members of the Hayward board give as an excuse for promoting so much vacuity, such latter-day phenomena as Blu-Tack stuck onto a wall? Does the trodden chewing gum on the pavement not deserve equal exposure?

How can we, collectively, have come to this without howls of protest? Is it a sign of the end of excellence or spirituality in cultural phenomena?  Namely, is there no point in our being on this planet? In this spacious gallery there is no tragedy, zero empathy, absolutely null meaning, no hint of beauty, and certainly nothing new or ground-breaking in terms of sculpture, painting, or art.1 Admittedly, there is an abundance of denial. There is, indeed, no end to the symbolic presentations of the chaos and confusion of our times, to self-indulgence, to the repetition of the gaping void, to spiritual emptiness. Perhaps that is why this show features the cinematic presentation of a woman defecating as emblematic?

Now Creed, who is a conceptual prankster, is frank in admitting that he has no idea what art is, nor for that matter, what an artist is. OK. I grant him the absolute right to put on whatever nonsense he wishes. The critics, however, are another matter. They take it all rather seriously and a few even sing modulated praise for this exhibition. So how are the school children being taken to this show at the cost of £4 per head going to be affected by this? It is certainly not going to help them distinguish between the acceptable and the discreditable, between art and pretense, between junk and craftsmanship. Defecation, as depicted in this show, cannot lead to anything new in our perception nor can it be improved upon as such. It is part of the dead ends dominating an entirely by-passable show.

Early in the 21st century it seems no longer acceptable for the cultural literate to call crap, crap. Saying that such an exhibit should never have been staged is regarded as a sign of snobbish elitism. Yes, perhaps really great art, like the Elgin marbles or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, cannot be appreciated by everyone. But to attempt to diminish these by branding them as “elitist,” may be fashionable but serves to reveal both ignorance and stupidity.

Perhaps because humans are now being so flooded by images on television, the internet, films as well as printed media, they are no longer able to distinguish between the immaterial and the valuable, between the meaningful and the vacuous. I am continuously embarrassed by visitors unwilling, or unable, to say “I like” or “I don’t like” when visiting a gallery or a home. They remain silent perhaps because they are afraid to reveal their ignorance, possibly  cause offense, don’t want to pass judgment or may be unaccustomed to expressing an opinion.

It is significant that in this show at the Hayward one learns nothing about the creator of this jumble — except that Creed has an intense desire for notoriety, fame and appreciation. He does not offer a clue about his own feelings. Nor is there any notion that the work is driven by passion, by talent, or by the spirit. Supporting descriptions in the hand-outs state he grew up in a Quaker background with little appreciation of the decorative. This minimalist background might be significant but one cannot deduce it from what is displayed.

So who has promoted Creed to have this one-man show in a huge London gallery? First of all, of course, himself. He is tireless when it comes to giving long introspective interviews. How he won the Turner prize with the creation of an empty white room filled only with a flashing light bulb filled me with bewilderment at the time. The endorsement of Sir Nicolas Serota, Britain’s foremost museum director, may have played a role here. His own gallery, Hauser & Wirth, naturally gave him unstinting support. There has been no one to say that the artist has no clothes.

Alas for Creed, the Shock of the New of the 1960’s has turned into the Big Yawn of the first decade of the 21st century. All of his conceptual gimmicks and fatigued concepts are an unattributed rehash of what had already been exploited over the last three generations.

The curatorial fashion of our time is anti-chronological so many exhibitions have been focused on the thematic. This encourages the professional curatorial world to embrace the chaotic, the thematic, and the vacuous.2 21st century galleries like the Hayward are primarily out to attract ever more visitors so that they can collect more money. This is perfectly legitimate but to present non-art, in the form of Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unwashed sheets, or Creed’s haphazard enthusiasm for Blu-Tack, undermines the very legitimacy of the institutions presenting it as art.

What attracts visitors? Scandals, shocks, porn, the “New,” anything to do with the famous or ultra-rich. None of which have any relationship to the spiritual, to inspiration, to introspection nor to craftsmanship which are of the essence in art

Artists through the centuries have drawn on their heritage, on the traditions with which they grew up. They have enlarged on what preceded: Picasso, for example, drew heavily not only on the African masks he admired in Paris, but on the experimentation of the group of artists around him, such as Matisse and Gris. One does not encounter such engagement in the work of the likes of Tracey Emin or Creed — whose work is not based on any artistic heritage. For them there is no real history, only the present. Works created out of all context are rarely works of art. They seldom inspire a following and because of their intrinsic vacuity are unlikely to have any positive impact on our future.

I believe it is essential that art and its interface with truth and beauty lead us out of this protracted period of value-free nullity in which we have become afraid of letting emotions establish any kind of preference. If modernism was guided by new perceptions and movements conspicuously breaking with traditions and optimistically looking to the future while trying to break with the past, post-modernism recycled existing values so as to render them meaningless.

The great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, declared in a famous address to the National Arts Club3 that “For a post-modernist the world does not posses values that have reality. A denial of any and all ideals is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, post-modernism sees itself as the crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain.”

I see little hope in the current approval ratings of conceptual art. If this category has any rules, parameters or system, I am unaware of these. For all I know, conceptual art ultimately may prove highly popular among astronauts winging it to other planets, but it lacks the solidity on which we can build a more artistically blessed society.

********************************************************************

1 Farah Nayeri, “When art is beside the point,” New York Times, January 28, 2014

2 Jackie Wullschlager, “Thoroughly Modern,” The Financial Times, July 14, 2012

3 New York, January 1993

35. Restoring Trust

“Mistrust the Trusts” read the caption of a November issue of The Economist.1  This truly captured the spirit of our times: Trust is vanishing all around us. We used to trust our bankers, our policemen, our intelligence services, our butchers, our generals and our economists — but no longer. We still believe that trust is crucial for the conduct and management of our lives, but our inability to shake off our skepticism about it is causing us to doubt and distrust widely, extending even to our own judgment.2

Trust is the assured reliance on the integrity, veracity and steadfastness of another party. Trust begins in infancy with the regular and repeated familiar encounters with parents and siblings. This, wrote Jonathan Sacks, “is the crucible of much that matters in later life, the growth of sympathy and trust and sociability.3

In adulthood, trust means to believe. Trust means you have no doubt about the honesty, credibility and integrity of “the other,” be that of your mother, father, tribe, nation, your partner or even God.

I know of no stronger statement of trust than that given by Job in the Old Testament: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”4 Engraved on the “greenback” US dollar are the words: “In God We Trust.”  Indeed, trust in all religions is associated with a trust in God.

The universal diminishment of trust consequently affects our religions, currencies, governments and even our rapidly developing technologies. Trust depends on communication and much of this now relies on the internet and mobile phones. While we now rely on these new means of communication not only do we mistrust them but we even recognize that they are lowering our ability to trust.

Looking into someone’s eyes is different from seeing their face on a screen. The impact on trust is significant. It is strong enough to make or break a deal. Hearing their tone of voice may be revealing, but observing the twitch of their lips may be much more significant in romance as well as in business. Alas, some preschool children, fixated on their appliances, are finding it hard to communicate directly with others because they are lacking the essential social skills!

The degree to which one party trusts another is a measure of belief in their fairness, honesty or even the empathy of the other. “Confidence,” rather than trust, may be a more appropriate word for a belief in the other party’s competence.

Consequently a failure in trust may be excused or forgiven more easily if it is interpreted as a failure of competence rather than deceit or hostility. Trust is a social construct and, as such, must remain open for discussion as to whether it can continue to operate effectively given the impact of the new technologies. Indeed, how can we really trust communications which are riddled with malware, spy networks, and hacking by various media experts?

We need trust because we increasingly find ourselves operating at a border between confidence in what we know from past experience and the challenge of new contingencies. Without trust, the whole spectrum of possibilities opens up and should be considered. Potentially this can lead us into a paralysis of inaction. To counter-balance this, choices or decisions are often made on impulse in which the possibility of an alternative course, such as cooperation, is barely considered. Thus trust acts positively as “a reductor” of social complexity in our lives.

It is widely accepted that social trust benefits the economy while low levels of trust inhibit economic growth. Trust is thus seen as a lubricant for the economy, cutting the cost of transactions between parties. Theoretic models have shown that the optimum level of trust that a rational businessman should exhibit in transactions should equal the trustworthiness of the other party. Were he trusted less, it might lead to lost opportunities, trusting too much could lead to possible exploitation and vulnerability.

Breaking the law, as in the case of fraud or theft, paradoxically can also lead to a twisting of trust. For example, J.P. Morgan, the bank which has had to pay fines of around $30 billion over the past three years for different “dubious” involvements, defied trust. It mis-sold mortgage bonds to pension funds, routinely bundled bad home loans in the United States into securities which were then sold as being of high quality to investors, and it failed to alert US authorities about Bernard Madoff’s giant Ponzi scheme despite deep suspicions about the loans made by the staff of JP Morgan. The astonishing reaction on the part of the shareholders was, in part, that they have come to trust J.P. Morgan’s ability to overcome any and all problems and produce a good profit at the end!

In the UK the public has overwhelmingly lost its trust in banks and bankers. More than £130 billion of British taxpayer money was spent bailing out the banks ever since the credit crunch in 2008. Trust in Barclays, for example, has fallen spectacularly as it was at the center of the Libor (London inter-bank lending rate) scandal. Libor is considered to be one of the most crucial interest rates in finance, underpinning trillions of dollars and pounds worth of loans and financial contracts. The failure of the five major banks to play by the rules may ultimately result in dividing them into smaller units in an effort to rebuild national trust.

In politics, as in banking, trust remains a complex and slippery notion. For the great English philosopher, John Locke, the wider sense of trust was central to consensual government. Locke believed that the government was the servant of society, bound by the provisions for which it had been constituted by the people. When a breach of this trust occurs and those in power “act contrary to their trust,” power quite simply “devolves to the people.” Thus trust was seen by him as a way to limit arbitrary power.

Much influenced by Locke, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “When a man assumes a position of trust, he should consider himself as public property.”5 Few politicians who have assumed a position of trust have lived up to Jefferson’s standard. The most disgraced President in American history, Richard Nixon, who did not inspire trust in others and could barely trust himself, wrote that in politics “If people trust a man, it does not matter much what he does or says.”6 It seems that all too many politicians in the 21st Century fail to inspire trust and the electorate seem to shrug its collective shoulders.

So what can be done to restore trust in our times? Trust could be rebuilt through honesty and meaningful communication. However, this has become an ever greater challenge in an era of declining print readership and increases in global mini-communications such as tweeting. There is widespread acceptance that to gain someone’s trust, you must trust her (or him). This rarely happens on the internet except perhaps erotically on dating sites. It seem almost impossible to conceive of this occurring in terms of politics.

Dr. Robert Huizenga, a Beverley-Hills internist and TV star, has offered some useful steps to build trust in our relationships. He suggested: “Be predictable” and notify others when you become “unpredictable.” Growth and change are always accompanied by a smattering of chaos. Welcome such shifts for they are part of an effort to search “for something better/different/ richer/deeper.” Also make certain your words match the message. “Mean what you say and say what you mean. Trust is awareness of the intent beneath the obvious message.” And believe the other party is competent “and has the internal strength and capacity to handle anything. Such trust builds trust.”

Huizenga was presenting steps for personal relationships, but these apply to politicians, business leaders, and  the rest of us as well. Restoring trust often is a long process. It is also unlikely to become any easier for future generations. But start with yourself. We can begin by making progress there. Finding others you can trust is likely to be more challenging, but ultimately this may prove well worth all your efforts. Trust will remain essential to our psychological well-being, whatever the technological advances, and for as long as we continue to be truly human.

—————————————–

1November 19, 2013

2 It is truly frightening to consider the staggering amount of information about us which is being stored in various facilities: Our National Health Service records (UK), health insurance services, Social Security, pensions, driving license, passports, bank details, credit and debit cards, telephone services, TV license, voter registration records, as well as all the material collected on the internet by the likes of Microsoft, Google, Skype, Yahoo, Safari, Firefox, Facebook, and Twitter.

3 Jonathan Sacks, “The Politics of Hope,” (1997) p. 191

4 The Book of Job XIII.15

5 Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Baron von Humboldt (1807)

6 Life Magazine, May 28, 1956