My last entry was a slam on Wall Street journalist Holman Jenkins for whining about how Airbus gets help from the governments of countries in which Airbus designs, builds and employs. My point was simple, Airbus and the Europeans have a symbiotic relationship that obviously works well for them. It seemed Holman was crying like a baby because he thought Airbus had an unfair advantage over Boeing. But let’s stop crying for a moment and look at what Boeing is doing… it’s not a dismal story. The big news for Boeing is the new 787. This design is breaking all kinds of barriers that leads to the most environmentally safe aircraft ever. The advanced engine design, new composite materials and aerodynamics all come together to provide a 20% increase in fuel efficiency and a projected 10% decrease in operating cost. The aircraft will also be quieter while emissions such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have decreased significantly. I travel all too often, so what I also consider great news is the effort Boeing is making to provide a better experience for passengers, including bigger windows, better acoustics, wider seats, wider isles, bigger overhead bins… The list goes on. It’s all good. I can’t wait for airlines to start replacing those awful 737’s with these babies.

So forget those stuffy Wall Street belligerents that can’t see past their politics… Who cares if Airbus gets government help? Boeing seems to be doing just fine – in fact that European tax money that flowed through Airbus and into the European sub-contracts for research and development may have turned into a benefit for Boeing anyway. Rolls-Royce in England for example, who makes the engines for the A380 is working with GE to develop the revolutionary engines for the 787 while Dassault in France provides the cutting-edge digital modeling systems for the super-computers that allow Boeing to break so many engineering barriers, even right down to the British pumps and values and French wiring the 787 is truly a global effort. It seems American and European engineers are working hand in hand to build the machines of the 21st century, the whiny bean counters in Wall Street just got to get over their stupid hang-ups.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Holman Jenkins expressed in the Feb 9, 2005 issue of the Wall Street Journal an opinion about Airbus that I’ve been noticing a lot lately. It seems the roll out of the new A380 double-decker jumbo jet has many anti-Europeans all tied up in a knot. Jenkins sets the mood of his temper tantrum by asking the question… “What has Europe got for $15 billion in taxpayer handouts over three decades, besides a fetish object that politicians can fawn over to distract attention from their economic failures?” It seems that answer

 

is fairly obvious… a larger sales value than any other commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world, including Boeing. Not that Jenkins was really asking for an answer, he quickly dismisses the question and rolls into what he calls “today’s topical question”… “Are Airbus executives – who have the potential to be world-class, even if their home economies aren’t – out of their minds?” But even this question seems to be more of a rhetorical stab than anything else, maybe he just needed to vent a little bit before getting down to the nuts and bolts of his actual problem.

Yes, that’s right… HIS problem. The contents of his compliant form reveals the real nature of what he has to say. In simple words, he is miffed that Airbus is relying on government subsidies. But how is that a problem for Airbus? And since most of the Europeans don’t seem to mind paying for it then how is that a problem for them? In general, Europeans take more vacations overseas than American do, maybe they actually like the idea of Airbus rolling out a luxurious aircraft for the ride, maybe there is some value in the pride they have in such trophies of European engineering. That may seem like a hard concept to wrap our pragmatic American minds around but think for a moment about how our tune changes when we see the Thunderbirds ripping through the skies above the football stadium in their F-16’s. We don’t seem to have a problem spending our taxes on military contracts do we? Oh, that’s different, I know. The military expenses are keeping the world safe… It’s always different. I don’t need to argue the differences between what people think is important to spend money on, my point is simple… people are willing to spend taxes on what they think is important to them, and if we were less than hypocritical, we would understand that freedom includes the right for people to make that decision for themselves. But ironically, the Bush administration,

so-called champions of democracy, can’t seem to accept this. Right now they are demanding a roll-back of a 1992 agreement that tolerates government subsidies as long as they are limited to 33% of the launch cost of a new aircraft. So much for free-will. Jenkins wraps up his gripe-session with the challenge that Airbus executives

should “show some class” by spurning further direct handouts in competition with Boeing. He says… “it’s the disciplined way to run a business that deserves the confidence of investors.” I guess he thinks that private capital is the only respectable way to get funded. That doesn’t say much for our military contractors. And really, if you think about it, it’s a sad world that relies on private capital for everything anyway, because private capital takes the wonders of science and engineering away from the realms of human capacity and ties it down to the servitude of bean-counters.

 

For years science fiction writers have dreamed up worlds where man becomes subordinate to machine. But while the dramaturgic presentations make box office hits, the understated reality of human subordination continues to draw closer. Indeed it can be argued that we are already subordinate to machines as I will attempt to explain here.


Self-Inflicted

For this to make any sense, we need to dispose of the classic sci-fi notion of machines “wanting” to control man. Machines don’t “want” anything; they lack the natural desires of man, at least hitherto. If the machines of the 20th and early 21st centuries overthrow man, it will be the doing of man himself. So we have to ask ourselves, why would we willingly submit ourselves to our machines?

To further understand this perspective it’s necessary to distinguish a difference between the natural state of man, which motivates us and the technical state of machine which enables us. If we view these states as transient links in an evolutionary chain, we would have to recognize that while natural evolution progresses very slowly in increments of generations, technological evolution progresses very rapidly in leaps and bounds. Between these states is the interaction of natural motive and technical capacity that we often refer to as culture. The entire evolution of our cultures from fire pits and caves to laptops and coffee shops is made possible by the rapid advances in technology while the slower natural state of mankind remains almost constant. The reason for our self-inflicted submission is that while our technology races ahead to enable us to submit ourselves, our unchanging motives to do so are inescapable.

Addiction to Technology

The most obvious signs that this is happening are in systems where money takes motivational priority. From a collective viewpoint, such a priority would be established by our unchanging natural motive to acquire things that we need to secure our lives; today, that means wealth. In the meantime, the accelerating evolution of our technology pushes the dynamics such as the ever increasing difference between the size of production and means of production.

For example, the printing press increased the output of written material while decreasing the required resources such as a team of scribes and a great deal of time. In the last century alone, technology has enabled the mass production of almost everything consumable. Single corporate entities can now create products and services in quantities never before imagined. The economic perspective on this is generally positive, increasing the size of production while down-sizing the means of production widens the profit margin. Wider profit margins can make it easier to pass cost savings down the supply chain probably causing an increased demand. Ever increasing production and ever increasing profit margins. It would seem that everyone wins. But I detect a consequence that seems to go mostly unnoticed. That the ever increasing output has already far exceeded human capacity to process, we are in fact, dependents of our own technology. If all the computers in the banking industry broke, none of the banks could possibly hire enough accountants to process the millions of customer accounts gathered through computer-enabled mass service. Of course the odds of that happening are very slim. Information systems are designed with back-ups and redundancy in mind, in fact individual computers go down all the time without causing network-wide problems so to worry about computer malfunctions interrupting our mass production is like worrying about broken printing presses interrupting the world of publishing. It hasn’t happened since the 15th century, why would it happen now? So from the capital perspective, our reliance, indeed our addiction, to technology seems to pose no threat, only glorious advantages. But once again, it’s a matter of perspective. Like any other addiction, the danger doesn’t come from interruption, it comes from continuation.

Compromises Us

So far I’ve explained that our dependence on machines comes from our own addiction to them and how we arrive at this addition through the bi-directional influence of culture and technology and how the economic “high” makes this addiction appealing to our inescapable nature. Now let’s consider the consequences.

Physically…

In the last 3,000 years of technical evolution we have followed a pattern where a piece of technology extends our capacity to carry out specific tasks, the invention of wheels, levers pulleys, engines and power tools have all extended the physical capacities of our work, but as we rely more on these machines, we rely less on our own muscles and so we are allowed to grow weaker.

Today many of us have to allocate significant time at the gym every day if we want the kind of bodies our ancestors had, but what’s important to realize is that our ancestors had no option, their physique was a by-product of cultural demands and limited technology, they also had shorter lives. Today our technology is more capable but our cultural demands have only changed, they have not diminished. Simply put – you don’t have to be strong to survive in our culture anymore, but you still have to secure your means of survival. This is cultural selection. It’s not uncommon to find business people engaged in the type of competition that taxes their time leaving none or very little for options such as the gym. After all for many of these people a fine body doesn’t pay his bills, an impressive sales pitch, or a better product than the competition does. So it’s not just the technology-enabled “easy life” of sit-down jobs in air-conditioned offices and the abundance of food served to us on plastic trays that has developed a generation of fat weaklings, it’s also the technology-influenced cultural demands. People literally have to fend off their demanding schedules to eat right and to exercise. Again, much of this depends on the difference in cultural priority between capital and social structure, which explains why the capital-centric societies such as the USA have the most stressed out lard-asses in the world.

And Mentally

The invention of language, printing and mathematics has extended our intellectual capacity, enabling us to store massive quantities of knowledge and influence massive quantities of minds. It’s the written language and the printing press that evolved small cults of oral tradition into religions of global scale. In the last 60 years of technical evolution came the computer, which extends this intellectual capacity even more and adds a whole new dimension, no longer is technology limited to static recordings of information but now it can dynamically process information. If we follow the pattern that we have explored so far, this would add our mental capacity to think to the endangered list of human traits.

Can this really happen? Why not? All the requirements are there just like they are for our physical compromise. Businesses can streamline their means of production with computers, using robots and automation to replace workers entirely. Most of the jobs taken over by computers are those that involve simple tasks. The reason for this is that computers are incredibly stupid. Essentially, everything comes down to a one or a zero. What gives computers the edge over humans is speed, with which these machines can achieve the illusion of being smart. On the other hand despite all the fuss over artificial intelligence, these machines lack certain things that the human mind possesses, such as intuition. Although scientists and engineers are working on ways to develop artificial intelligence, there is good reason to believe that machines will never possess such capacity. The so-called artificial intelligence we find on the market today are only the by-products of AI research, but to this day there is no machine that can actually pass the test of intelligence. Roger Penrose, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, provides an extensive explanation as to why in his book, The Emperor’s New Mind. Still, once again, we don’t have to rely on machines to degrade ourselves, we can do that ourselves just fine. Once again, we can turn to economics to do the job for us. Already we can see how computers and robots are taking over the simple jobs, but what is more alarming than that is the economic pressure to modify the tasks that are too complex for computers into simple operations that computers can handle. Despite the worthy recommendation to customize the computer to fit the business process, companies are realizing the cost advantage of modifying the business process to fit the computers. We can see this at any retail outlet that sells software for handling personal finance. People buy Quicken or Microsoft Money, go home and re-engineer their financial process to fit the templates that come with the software. This is happening on all levels.

For example, about a month ago, my wife and I needed a car towed. When we took the car to the shop, they told us the tow truck caused about $2000 of damage. When we called the insurance company we got an agent that was obviously following the dot-to-dot of a computer program. According to the program, the truck could only have damaged the car if it collided with it. Despite my wife’s detailed description of the event, the agent continued to ask irrelevant questions… “What color was the tow truck?”… Did the tow truck have a car seat in it? We didn’t get the impression that the agent was capable of judgment but I would guess it far more likely that this agent simply wasn’t allowed to think outside the box. The process had to fit the computer’s template, this was probably the most cost effective way to manage the situation. It’s a numbers game, if 90% of the calls can be handled by FAQ’s and simple computer programs then the frustration of the other 10% is sacrificed to lower the cost of operations.

It could be said that one of the greatest assets of the human mind, judgment, is at risk because of the simple fact that it’s too expensive to maintain in a competitive market. The only thing standing in the way of healthcare systems with automated physicians that would amount to nothing more than algorithmic pill dispensers that are willing to trade a 10% or even 25% negligence margin for a wider profit margin is a sense of morals… perhaps the last hold out for the human race.

In the end we can easily see that our struggle to preserve our attributes is not a struggle against machines, although it may look like that on the surface. Indeed, the real struggle is against our own self-inflicted and inescapable slavery to money.

07. February 2005 · Categories: Politics · Tags: ,

So the elections in Iraq went well… or at least it has that appearance. That’s nice, at least the Bush people have something to cheer about… Well, let’s be honest; isn’t it more about jeering than cheering? In the rhetorical battle between the conservative right and the liberal left, the Iraqi elections finally presents a chance for the pro-Bush conservatives to shove a victory in the faces of their opponents (I guess)… But what about the Iraqi people? Is there a real victory for them?

There are lots of arguments to suggest that the elections are a farce or even illegal under the international law but I’m going to put all that aside and assume for the sake of argument that the Iraqi elections are a real and valid expression of democracy.

I still have to ask the question… Does the election, however pretty it may look, really mean that the Iraqi people are better off? And how are we even qualified to know the answer? American people in general hardly know anything about the Iraqi people. We only think we’re experts because of our mainstream media reports about our war in that country. Before we invaded Iraq in 1991, most American high school students couldn’t even locate Iraq on the map. Iraq was like Tajikistan, Albania, Sierra Leone, Burma and many other countries suffering from tyranny that we Americans in general don’t give a rat’s ass about. But when we invade a country, all of a sudden we become experts.

What we seem not to notice is that out of the mainstream coverage of Iraq, surprisingly few reports are honestly focused on the realities of the Iraqi people. Most accounts of the conditions in Iraq are brief supporting arguments for or against our actions in that country. In general, the stories we hear aren’t really about the Iraqi people, they are about us. That is what we are interested in… ourselves. So it just seems a bit presumptuous for us to say the Iraqis are better off now, perhaps we should finish the sentence and explain what we are really trying to say… “The Iraqi’s are better off now thanks to us and our fabulous president.”

The point I am making is that we cannot know about the true condition of the Iraqi people, who’s culture is so different than our own, if most of our perceptions are based on our military actions there and the battle between factions of our own politics. How can we even compare the condition of their lives now to the condition of their lives back when we weren’t even paying attention?

Also, it maybe worth noting that elections don’t say a whole lot on the surface anyway. Lot’s of countries have elections that are nothing more than the cosmetics that make tyrannies look like democracies. Freedom House rates The Sudan, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea and many more countries as “Not Free” and yet all of them hold elections. We of all people should know about the long distance between holding elections and securing a good government… In a nation that proclaims itself to be the most democratic nation on earth, the tenant of votership (at least among the minority of Americans that feel voting is even worth their time) seems to be “to choose the lesser of two evils”. Ultimatley, we don’t even pick our leaders, we choose between candidates that essentially, the government choose for us and even then, our votes are not direct, the electoral college sits in the way of that and even then, once a president is elected, he chooses the rest of the cabinet members without any further input from the voters and of course there is always the question of who the “elected” government is really working for, the people that provided the votes or the special interest groups that provided the money? This maybe hard to avoid in the third most populous nation in the world but the point is simple… The holding of elections does not automatically equate to freedom or even a real democracy.

I agree, it’s nice to think that we have improved the lives of the Iraqi people, but I think all we can say, in all honesty, is that we changed things for them… whether it’s for better or worse cannot be proven by the existence of an election… such proof can only come from the real changes in Iraqi life that comes from the government that comes from the election, not to mention the costs of these changes, such as the inevitable and violent reaction to a US-built democracy in an Islamic region of the world.