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Topic for the 2016 Great American Think-Off:
“Income Inequality Threatens Democracy”
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Think-Off Finalist Marsh Muirhead interviewed by Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion live from Bemidji, November 2015
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Technology races ahead of our ability to manage the problems it creates, especially when political and economic motives drive industry and commerce.
The latest drug—despite an impressive list of side-effects—has everyone calling the doctor to ask if this one is “right for them.” Drugs have eradicated or ameliorated the worst and most widespread diseases, but profits dictate availability; the rarer diseases remain neglected in research. The rush to sell, and the public’s demands, have led to side effects, birth defects, addiction and products to combat deficient eyelashes, less than full lips, impotence in the elderly, and compulsive gambling. Wanting to live comfortably, beautifully, and forever comes at great cost. Recall the disaster of the drug Thalidomide in the 50s: thousands of still births, thousands of severely deformed infants, the collusion of government and drug companies engaged in a cover-up revealed later.
Examples from industry are legion—names and places recalling the horrors: Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Love Canal, Bhopal, India, the Erin Brockovich crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric, the Minamata mercury poisoning of thousands in Japan, the near extinction of the bald eagle due to the use of DDT. Surely fracking with its own surprises will make this list. And there is no better example than the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, launching an arms race that continues to the present hour.
Since discovering fire and inventing the wheel, we have sought a hotter fire, a rounder wheel, burning and running over ourselves again and again, no happier, no more secure than when chased by the tiger, freezing in our cave.
I stopped dead in my tracks. After hours of solo trekking I came over a crest and was surprised to see a lake. I must have crossed into Mozambique! You do NOT hike off trail near this border. Why? Landmines! At that time, 500 minefields and 100,000 IED’s had yet to be cleared. I shouted at myself: “You are SUCH an idiot!”
A trap is something you fall into and don’t know how to get out of. I was all in. The deadly technology surrounding me was entirely benign, that is, unless I took a misstep. Choose the wrong direction and I’d be missing an arm or leg like so many of the locals I saw days before in the bombed out town of Beira.
Being surrounded by life altering technology has never seemed as scary as it did that day, but trekking into today’s semi-conductive landscapes can detonate trillions of treacherous traps every nano-second. Frazzled parents checking emails miss their kids’ soccer goals and ballet leaps. Boom! Stanford researchers showed girls multi-tasking online have fewer and poorer quality friendships. UCLA showed our texting kids are losing their ability to interpret facial emotions. Boom! 185 million active gamers in the US are averaging 22 hours a week in virtual worlds of wars and grand theft they find more rewarding than reality. Equivalent time investments could produce fluency in any language or a virtuoso performance on any instrument. Instead of the promise that tech would lead to a culture of leisure for the working class, it has produced a cortisol induced Karosi, the Japanese word for death by overwork. Boom, boom, boom!
Defenders of technology point to how twitter feeds spawned the Arab Uprising but they ignore sociologists who study how the speed behind digital activism only creates weak ties. Sustainable movements that free us depend on the hard work of personal connectivity. Slow organizing, the kind that builds relationships, is what it takes to gain consensus and, as one sociologist described it, to learn how to “navigate the minefields of political danger.”
Tech freedom proponents say that computers can improve behaviors such as reducing speeding by monitoring drivers. But this is the same Orwellian web that enables cyber bullying, hacking, stalking and sex trafficking. Cyborgs watch what we watch and log what we buy with the single aim of luring us into wanting more.
As a Delta “million-miler” I travel most weeks with an unhappy herd in an ozone depleting tube we can no longer do business without. “Flight attendants; doors for departure, cross check and all call.” With that, we are lawfully sealed in. Just a decade ago it was common to greet the person you would rub shoulders with and occasionally even chat. Today, faces are frozen to screens and ears are guarded by “Quiet Comfort” headphones.
The day I read this year’s “Think Off” question, I decided to rattle the trap. I was traveling First Class where we gorge on HDMI portion sizes twice that of those cattle back in coach. When the attendant declared it was time to switch devices to airplane mode, I turned and said hello. Time flew by as I learned my seat mate was a part of the health care team that operated on Governor George Wallace for five hours after an assassin shot him five times. They could not dislodge the bullet in Wallace’s spine which left the then front running Presidential nominee paralyzed for life. My seat mate seemed pleased for the chance to explain how this likely altered the course of segregation politics.
Some trappings of tech are not hard to escape but few try. Why? We’re losing track of the way back and, more urgently, we’re not asking if the way ahead is strewn with even more beguiling booms per step. Once we are literally wearing our computers, a makeover already in full swing, the daily influence of computers becomes as subtle as it is powerful. Some call this deceit “invisibilia.” Computers that schedule us and synthesize our information will increasingly change our capacity to think. BIG boom!
That day on the Mozambique border, I decided to retrace my steps. I tread breathlessly for miles as if over burning coals. Could we escape our dependence on the grid? Not according to geo-scientists who have run simulations of prolonged power outages in cities. It always ends in anarchy, then starvation, except for fully armed, smartly stocked survivalists or for throw back farmers who wall off their land. Technology is a trap. We’re all in. Log off? Boom!