A very bizzy day is time for a diversion from the usual heavy dose of economics and politics.
If you peer through a magnifying glass at a bug on a leaf, you may find yourself looking at a different world. Tiny legs might work their way along the delicate structure, as firm as a human hiker across the solid ground itself.
This world takes on the color of the mind observing it when it becomes a story. Some may see this new thing and ask questions – how the bug came to like that particular leaf, how it is able to grip it, and so on. Others may be content reporting the details of the situation, such as the shape of the legs and jaws of the bug.
Anytime new perspectives open up the difference between science and technology is revealed at its basic essence. Science is a practice of asking questions far more than providing answers. Technology is about rendering that new information into something practical and useful. That difference may seem subtle, but it is critical to understanding how new information shapes our personal and public lives in a world bombarded with new ideas and observations.
The woman ahead of us in line at the convenience store had a bit more than the impatient, bored look we all shared. She held her head high and spoke to the cashier in a friendly tone, paying for the gasoline she was going to pump. Like many people at this store, in this part of St Paul, she paid with cash – but hers came in crisp twenties slid neatly out of a bank envelope. After we paid our own way out of the line I asked my daughter if she noticed. “My guess is she just cashed her paycheck because she doesn’t have a bank account,” I told her. It was a good guess, because it turns out that more than 17% of that particular neighborhood’s households have no bank account – and many rely on the UnBank check cashing up the street.
There are many reasons people don’t have bank accounts, up to and including the fact that check cashing stores can actually be cheaper than fees on everything. But some people wind up using these places for a “Payday Loan”, or a one-month advance on the next paycheck. A recent study shows that people who do this have to take out another loan the next month to pay off the first, and so on – with 62% eventually hitting 7 or more months in a row, the point where the interest payment exceeds the loan amount.
Is technology a net creator or destroyer of jobs? The question is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when workers in mills found themselves put out of work by large industrial looms. In France, they threw their shoes (sabots) into the weaving machines to destroy them – the origin of the term “sabotage”. The protests didn’t stop the machines, however, and the workers had to find something else to do in an ever-changing economy where machines did more and more work.
Today, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, with new gadgets coming into our lives constantly. Automation is also transforming our lives, with new robots and artificial intelligence replacing workers constantly. Are today’s productivity gains tomorrow’s unemployment? Increasingly those who study technology in our lives and the popular media are coming to the conclusion that yes, workers are net losers in the race against tech. And this is not a partisan issue.
(The Sage) knows he makes no fine display,
and wears rough clothes, not finery.
It is not in his expectancy of men
that they should understand his ways,
for he carries his jade within his heart.
– Tao Te Ching 70 (Rosenthal)
The short, hunched figure appeared in front of me loaded with purpose. The weather bent us both down, compelled our gaze towards cautious feet and the treacherous lack of grip underneath them. It was only a casual glance that saw the short red coat and hood approaching as I wondered who else might be out making their own time down the sidewalk. A child? A friend? Anyone I knew?
When we approached a few plodding paces apart a quick glance up saw her as an old woman. I could not make out many details about her presence rendered trivial as we both concentrated on our chilling task, the path from here to there. I smiled a quick “Hello!” and she said as much back as we passed, still a stranger though also a comrade in purpose. We were both anonymous in our shields against the cold that might catch up if we had stopped for any more than a word. The weather itself had rendered us equal, distant, and humble.
A generation or two ago, workers were able to count on companies large and small to take care of them. More than just their pay, the working people of America got something critical from their job – security, a promise that the material things in their life were something they could depend on. In return, there was loyalty – and after decades of work, a pension.
There is little doubt that the nature of work is changing. The exact nature of these changes and the magnitude is hard to pin down, but it’s clear that people don’t work the same way they used to. As we contemplate the next version of the economy forming around us as this Depression slowly comes to an end it is more and more clear that the nature of work – and the corresponding social arrangements that come from it – will continue to change.
This is why reform in policy, taxation, and many other fixed arrangements is essential.
If you are worried about the future of the US or the world, you need to attend a FIRST Robotics Challenge Competition. Your worries will dissolve into cheers for the moment and tears for the sheer beauty of kids doing amazing things – challenged and coached appropriately.
This year’s challenge isn’t quite the “hockey with robots” that we are used to. They have to stack bins and put a heavy container on top of them, a feat that challenges them to power great forces with intricate precision. It takes strategy, planning, and a lot of learning how to use power saws and drills. But the Great River School team 2491 No Mythic is hitting the challenge with great energy and determination. It’s also a lot of fun.
A study came out that says a little more about letting kids go off and do what might seem dangerous, even at an early age. It seems to fit with what I’ve seen at Robotics League.
A celebration to start Black History Month
Our third grade class filed under the concrete breezeways that loosely connected the classrooms of Coral Reef Elementary, past the Seagrape tree at the end of the open courtyard, and into the big cafeteria. It was the only space large enough to hold all the energy of so many kids, cooled only by tall jalousie windows that caught the breezes off Biscayne Bay. The air inside was heavy and anxious, and just like nearly everything in Florida it could be oppressive if you let it get to you. But we kids just took it in and made it exciting. This was our music class, the time when we could bubble our energy in a new song taught to us on the tired piano by Mr. Michaels.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;