Opposites Distract

In the current political climate—and not just in the United States, as Brexit reminds us—opposites seem to be the order of the day. The middle ground seems to have fallen out as those frantic for turning back the clock to a day that never really ever existed make their voices louder and more strident. After seven millennia of progress, the apogee of mankind—and let’s be explicit that we mean rule by white men—was reached in “the greatest generation” and the happy days that followed in the 1950s. Those of us born to protest for an even greater idealism have, by our very nature, disrupted the smooth calm that fictitiously prevailed through the first half of the last century. In a new millennium the ghosts of the last century dictate policy. Would I have felt safer then?

The more I ponder this stark dualism, the more it seems that the origin is religious. In its most recent iteration that religion is branded as Christianity, but in actual fact the dualism goes much deeper than that. The adjective “Manichaean” has become popular with writers who discern a certain black and whiteness to our outlook. Mani wasn’t the first dualist in history. In fact, he was somewhat late to the game. We don’t know much about Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him, but we do know that he set out to devise a new religion. His outlook was one that saw the world as opposites. For every good god there had to be a bad god. There was a struggle that would result in either going to a heaven or a hell. Just about every religion that has developed ever since has shared his conflicted outlook.

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As political pundits bellow more like hippopotami than elephants, trumpeting that those who are different are not to be trusted, we’ve come once again into a dualistic world. Pluralism and globalization are not without their critics. Technology, however, has ensured that they will continue apace. Some governments have tried to “switch off” the internet. Those on the other side of the Berlin Wall didn’t want the truth of what was happening on the other side to be known. They had invented a dualism that was protected with rifles and threats. The problem is things aren’t as simple as the Manichaeans would have us believe. Ours is a world of beautiful, glorious complexity. It takes religion, it seems, to make such a wonderful chaos into something far too simple to match reality.

Simple Gifts

Thing Explainer, a whimsical gift for my daughter at Christmas, is perhaps the trendiest present found here this year. Randall Munroe, who makes a living as a web comic artist (who knew this was even possible?) wrote/illustrated the book to explain complicated things in simple words. Indeed, he limits himself, with some license, to the thousand most common words in English. Due to the almost viral success of the book, websites now exist so that even those of us with advanced degrees can explain things with common words. It reminds me of the Common English Bible in that it attempts to make something complicated easy to understand by using a level of writing accessible to the majority of readers. Thing Explainer is, naturally, for fun. There is, however, an underlying question.

Have we reached a point where reading itself has to be enhanced by making it simple? Some things are, by their very nature, complex. At a time when more and more kids are being encouraged to attend college, the traditional basis of higher education (the classics, classical languages, the humanities) has eroded so far that higher education is not what it once was. My daughter’s engineering program is highly technical and doesn’t naturally promote the things I recall as “college.” Maybe I need someone to explain it to me in simple words. What’s wrong with being literate? With finding challenging books worth the effort to get through? Some things are complex.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

I wonder how a society survives when complexity disappears. Today my wife and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary. Marriage can be a complex thing, but it is something that can be explained in simple words. When we decided to marry the idea was lifelong commitment, not knowing the twists and turns that life would take. If the Internet existed in those days I didn’t know about it. (Certainly, being a web comic artist wasn’t a job that yet existed.) Doctorates still led to teaching careers. 9/11 hadn’t happened so that living in a modified police state wasn’t yet part of daily reality. There weren’t really words to explain it. It was one of those most basic human things. Turning to Thing Explainer I find that love is one of the thousand most-used words. It does perhaps show, after all, that complex things can be stated in a word we all understand.

They, Robots

Somehow I knew robots would continue to be part of my life. After all, they are a staple of science fiction and they are indeed also a staple of science fact. As my association with FIRST Robotics taught me, robots are everywhere. (And they can play frisbee better than I can.) So when I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Robots Aren’t the Problem: It’s Us,” I knew I was in for a scolding. It’s not so much the robots that worry me, it’s what they say about us. People thrive in environments of complexity. Even a simple robot has me standing next to a bunch of teenagers scratching my head. I don’t know what half the parts are and have no idea what the other half do. Even the components can be complex. A good case can be made that the natural world is equally, if not more, complex. I can imagine how, for instance, being confronted by a tiger in the wild would offer a bewildering variety of complex implications. And yet, robots are the world we’ve constructed for our selves.

Not every job is immediately threatened by mechanical replacement, but we know that in the industrialized world some jobs have disappeared. Our choices of how to find meaningful vocation are being conscripted by the machines we make. Like God we make them in our own image. Unlike God, we make them more powerful than ourselves. Richard Florida, in his Chronicle article, notes that some claim the robots will free us to become more human. Only if the economic barons will allow it. Even today, at the very beginnings of the robotics revolution, it is awfully hard to find a satisfying job. Even with very extensive education. I know this from experience. At the end of the day you end up working to make money for somebody else. Robots didn’t steal my vocation, business did.

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I appreciate Florida’s point, but I wonder if we can’t point a finer point on it. All people are greedy, to a point. In most of us a human, all too human, conscience starts to bother us when we realize that we are unfairly advantaged. Some people even actually do something about it. Those who run the business, however, didn’t get to the top by obeying the dictates of conscience. The apotheosizing of money demands that humans be treated like, well, robots. We are all servants to those who aren’t shackled with quibbles and moral qualms. Robots, on one end, are reducing the number of jobs. On the other end entrepreneurs are seeking whom they may devour. The mass of humanity is caught in the middle. When it is time to beg for mercy, from what I’ve seen, the far safer bet is with the robots.