Wednesday, June 1, 2011

TECHNOLOGY AND OUR CHANGING WORLD

A question far more interesting to me than "What do you consider to be the major inventions and discoveries during your lifetime?" is how technology has changed our lives and created an economy far different than the one my parents knew.


  
I recently read on my Kindle a story by Rand B. Lee entitled "Three Leaves of Aloe," which is included in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. It opens with the protagonist Amrit Chaudhury, who works the telephones at Mumbai-Astra Telecom, Ltd. in India, joking with her undersupervisor Shradda Singh about the names they give for themselves to Americans they talk to. Maggie Jones. Bobbi Grant.  "'Jane West!' Amrit put her left hand over her heart and fanned her right hand weakly. 'I mean to say, it isn't as though they can't tell by our voices that we're Not From Around These Parts.' She spoke this last in an exaggerated American accent, which set them both off (to giggling) afresh."


Who among us hasn't had that experience when talking to a computer technician half a world away? The term "global village" seems exactly right for our world at the dawn of the 21st century, a planet where the concept of the "nation state" seems obsolete when corporations are multi-national and do not respect artificially drawn geographic borders.


One of our mantras, which I've often repeated, is that today we find ourselves in a "highly competitive, global, knowledge-based economy." Okay, so far so good. But what does that really mean? I sniff a little bit of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" in that description. A new wrinkle on Social Darwinism. The jobs that sustained uneducated---or under-educated---men in my father’s generation are no more. That economy, as we’ve been told repeatedly, has been replaced by a “service economy.” Specialized knowledge and the social as well as language skills (especially foreign languages) women are quite good at trump the “size” and “strength” advantages that formerly helped men find jobs in construction, heavy industry, etc. 


In a sense the playing field has been leveled in terms of race and gender, and that is good. That is progress. But today an American worker is in competition with labor all over the planet. And the preferred, even required, skills that make an individual competitive in this new technology-dominated era, the knowledge essential for America itself to survive in this century is (as President Obama never fails to remind us) summed up in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), which our schools K-12 are trying to implement with a sense of urgency---an urgency nowhere to be found when we talk today about the role of the humanities.

  
I enjoy hugely my Kindle, my Word Processor (Think of what Virgil, Homer, Shakespeare, or Dante would have accomplished with this, the internet, translation engines, and on-line writer’s tools, which are a God-send for a contemporary writer; I recall back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s Amiri Baraka publishing an essay in Black World where he complained that the typewriter was “corny,” and he's been proven right about that), and all manner of gadgets. However, late some nights when the world is quiet---a vision of a new, 21st century dystopia comes to me: societies here and around the globe where a new caste system arises based, not on race or gender, but instead on learning. On a very specific kind of learning and quantitative skills demanded by the new economic reality. 


The Brahmin class, as I see it in this vision, will have as its avatars people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and PayPal's Peter Thiel, the young men who invented Google and Facebook, the businesses like Virgin Galactic and Project Enterprise planning on launching tourists into suborbital space, i.e., those who merge the new commerce with a specialist’s knowledge of science and technology that is cutting edge. Those without such knowledge will slip or settle farther down in the economic and social caste system, condemned for a lifetime to low wages; and on the lowest rung will be those unfortunate human beings with no high tech education or skills at all. Perhaps some individuals in my vision of this brave new world that I imagine late at night---indeed, whole groups whose intellectual performance is below the new, required standards----will be considered “obsolete,” and allowed to perish through what the Nixon administration once called “benign neglect.”



Or am I imagining the world as it is today? You tell me.


Yet in the midst of such a gloomy meditation, I read in the newspaper a day or so ago that China and India, the home of Lee’s character Amrit Chaudhury, are vigorously investing in Africa, swapping technology and the tools for modernization in exchange for access to that continent’s natural resources, and educating Africans in their own equivalents to M.I.T. Perhaps the global village has a hopeful future after all.



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