Saturday, 28 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

I recently read two articles which, at first sight, were unrelated. However, when looking closer, they were both intrinsically linked even if their subjects were different.

One piece dealt with our working lives and how long we will be toiling for. In the developed world longevity is the new buzzword. We are living longer. We might not be procreating at the same rate but third age denizens are all the rage at the moment. Unintentionally, mind. We are living longer because our standards of living have also improved. We have fewer life-ending wars. A population-decimating event like the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed between 20 and 40 million people, is unlikely to happen again. Whether you are in favour or against them, many modern diets provide healthy options that were unthinkable only two generations ago. That is why the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman caught us all by surprise. They were both expected to live longer.

The second article focused on the long-heralded arrival (and conquest) of robots. Well, robots have been with us for many, many years but apparently their role in society is about to change drastically. The appropriation of the world by robots will be apparently in the form of emulations. They will be modelled on the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet. Add quick decision-making and overall expediency and... voilà, the robot revolution is here!

Why do I think that the two pieces are related? Because if, on the one hand, we are living longer and therefore retiring at an older age, where does that leave us in relation to robots? If they are coming to take our jobs (pardon me for sounding like a Daily Mail or The Sun reader), what is left for us, the humans who breathed (metaphorically speaking) life into their metallic bodies? There seems to be a hitherto-unnoticed contradiction. Or perhaps there is no contradiction but intent.

It was John Maynard Keynes who promoted the idea that in the future we would have more time for leisure activities. Technology would take care of the daily grind. Workaholics would be looked down upon and pitied. But even one of the more important economists of the 20th century could not predict the arrival of zero-hour contracts, outsourcing and consumerism. Together these elements (and others) sustain our on-one-leg-balancing economy. Workaholics, far from being treated with quasi-condescension, are worshipped and imitated.

Sorry, mate, but I've come to take your job

In a generation’s time, if we are still living as long as we are living today and retiring at, say, 80, what will we be exactly doing? If robots are fast taking over and within a few years they will be performing most manual and technical roles, what do we, then, do with the rest of the population? Remember that we are talking here about self-managed machines. No need for Joanna or John to go to uni for three years in order to get a degree in engineering. The robot already has an in-built function that makes it (it? How about “her” or “him”? Why not?) plan its professional life as if it were a human being. You see, the robot is emulating one of those 200 eminences grises.

As I mentioned before, the automated future has been with us for many years now. But it has never felt as threatening as it does now. I guess one of the reasons is that the world of robotics felt distant; not so much an Us vs Them scenario but more like an Us and Them. Yet, that “and” still meant distance. It is not the same now. Now there is a real possibility of Sam at the till in our local supermarket being a robot. If that means giving hot-blooded, human being, 60-year-old Susan the heave-ho, then, so be it. What happens to Susan, then? She still has another 20 years before retirement, has worked at the local supermarket for more than 30 years and is not qualified to do anything else. Where’s the Plan B here?

You can see now why these two pieces of news, which at first sight seem unrelated, scared the living hell out of me. At almost forty-five, I am no spring chicken but I think I still have another twenty-five years inside me of active toil. I love what I do and for the life of me I cannot see a robot doing my job. Then again, technology is moving at such a fast pace that I would not be surprised if one day there is a knock on the door and I open it to greet an R2-D2-looaklike with a simple message: I have come to replace you.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 1st June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of the reasons why I became a pacifist years ago was the sudden realisation that most wars (I would probably say “all”, but I do not want to be absolute) are senseless. The brutality involved contrasts sharply with the glory they supposedly bring. Of course, there are conflicts that are necessary, either because of nations being invaded and having to defend themselves or border skirmishes that turn into full-on confrontations. One of them was the First World War, which became the backdrop for Ernest Hemingway’s wartime novel A Farewell to Arms.

I first read this book back in uni. I say “read” but what I actually mean is that the book content somehow went through me, including my brain and left no traces. Nothing to do with the writing, which I think it’s pretty good in my humble opinion. At the time I am describing there were still coffins arriving from Angola, the result of a decade-long “international adventure” that cost Cuba twenty thousand troops. I do not think that I was then in the frame of mind to understand Papa Hemingway’s universal message: war is chaotic and produces neither saints nor sinners.

Re-reading the book now I realise that in the intervening 20-odd years I have become more staunchly anti-war. Coming across again the lives of Frederic Henry, the American “tenente” and main character, and his Italian confreres, I cannot ignore the sense of detachment one must adopt in the theatre of war. What this approach does to one’s humanity is, paradoxically, to take it away. The only way the Italians can kill the Austrians is by seeing them not only as the enemy and invader but as non-humans first and foremost. Same with the Italian battle police when they arrest their own officers during the army’s retreat: they kill them.

A Farewell to Arms can be said to be not just a novel about the crumbling of columns of soldiers but also about the crumbling of an ideology: wars are necessary and are winnable. The human wreckage left behind betrays this idea and turns it on its head. The fragile minds, the inability to display any kind of rational thinking and the moral collapse amongst troops are testament to war’s barbaric nature.

Hemingway’s language when describing his characters’ actions is casual, almost ordinary. There is a sort of quotidianness that lulls the reader, almost making us comfortable and misleading us to think that perhaps war is not that bad. Yes, there is a little bit of suffering and killing but it is all for a good cause. Until reality kicks in to great effect. Frederic Henry kills an engineer who tries to desert him and his men as they leave their jeep behind, stuck in the mud. The murder is in cold blood, but even calling it murder feels wrong and Papa wants us to know that, for this is war, what did you expect? It is not called murder but execution. His description of the death of Aymo, one of the Italian drivers, takes him fewer than ten lines.

And yet, there are beautiful moments in the novel that remind the reader that maybe, just maybe, there is hope somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Henry falls in love with a British nurse. Although love is the wrong word here. Both Frederic and Catherine, the nurse, are fleeing personal demons: she, a dead fiancé, he the spectre of a war he feels ambivalent about. Together, they build a relationship based on pain and escapism rather than love. I must admit that I found the dialogue between them repetitive and monotonous; however, it is one of the ingenious ways in which Hemingway shows us the futility of war. At any given moment one of these two characters can be wiped off the face of the earth forever and then what? Nothing, because that is war really, the battle for nothingness.

The novel might have reinforced my pacifism but I doubt it made Hemingway feel the same as he was writing it. Machismo is everywhere: there is plenty of braggadocio, especially of the womanising variety, Italian men are shown as virile and hot-blooded and the American lieutenant as calculating and decisive. A Farewell to Arms might be more nuanced than other Hemingway novels but in its no-holds-barred depiction of war it somehow celebrates old-fashioned masculinity.

Whereas Books 1; 2 and 3 create the background for Hemingway’s plot-setting and character-exploration, the last two parts bring powerful reflections on war and its controversial role in peace-brokering. Who knows? Perhaps Papa Hemingway was also a pacifist after all.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th May at 6pm (GMT)


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