A World Without Work: The Digital Revolution Threatens the Foundations of Society

One of the great lessons of the digital revolution is that the way we live our daily lives can be radically changed within the timeframe of a decade or less. Often, we barely notice what is taking place – we buy a device, download an app, discover a game, and soon the way we spend our time and the things we think about are transformed. Who would have believed in 2006, a year before the release of the first iPhone, that a decade later we would all be tethered tightly to smartphones, addicted to the constant fix of the latest text, tweet, Snapchat and animated gif? How did our instant access to limitless information become so easy via desktop computers, then laptops, then tablets, then handheld screens? Would we have understood just ten years ago that our world would revolve around access to WiFi or a strong LTE signal? That the expectations of holding a job would include 24/7 attention and constant contact with your supervisor? That we could avoid owning a car because of a thing called Uber? That our monthly budget would absolutely require spending $100 for a phone, $100 for Internet service and another $100 for cable/satellite/Netflix/Hulu/Spotify/etc.?

So with an understanding of what can happen in stealth mode over the course of just a few years, we should all pause to consider the fundamental changes underway in the workplace. For the current generation of students preparing for their careers, the retooling of the vocational landscape should be considered the most serious threat to our happy and productive lives. Put simply, the jobs many of us are training for are likely to be gone a decade from now. Maybe sooner. How will we make a living when we are 35? It’s not a theoretical question – it’s a sobering reality. And yes, we have technology to blame.

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Economic Blackmail

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The Boss picked up a huge number of likes, shares and retweets on April 8 when he cancelled his scheduled concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Bruce Springsteen was protesting the state’s ludicrous House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom law.” It is a blatant move by the state government to discriminate against transgender individuals by preventing them from using public restrooms that align with their gender identity. In refusing to perform in North Carolina, Springsteen issued a statement, saying “it is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”

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The Expo

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Sometime in late May, I will walk across the street from the USC campus and board the Expo Line, riding all the way to Santa Monica. I am in awe.

Of course, Phase II of the train line going from Culver City to the ocean is a feat of modern engineering and excellent municipal planning. But what stuns me is the civic commitment and amazing perseverance of a grassroots group of Los Angeles volunteers who made this transportation option a reality.

In fall 2000, I was only five years old and living in North Carolina when a group called “Friends 4 Expo Transit” formed. These were citizens who were passionate about their city and convinced that public transportation was essential to relieve the growing traffic burden that was choking the Los Angeles metropolitan area and impacting the quality of life for everyone.

While some advocated a bus system or perhaps building a subway, this group favored light rail, no doubt influenced by the historic railroad right of way that existed along Exposition Boulevard. The rails first began carrying passengers and freight between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica in 1875. At first, the trains were pulled by a steam engine, but later the line became electric-powered. Known as the Air Line, this important link was a crucial factor in building today’s modern city. Passenger service ran until 1953 and the freight service continued until 1988.

When the rail service stopped, line owner Southern Pacific railway began to lease the land for parking lots, buildings and a variety of other uses. But when the railroad needed cash, it decided to sell all the property in 1991 to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the predecessor of today’s MTA. It was a pivotal decision that set the stage for today’s modern transportation system.

With the land secured and city tax revenues passed by voters, the stage was set for more than two decades of planning and fighting. Transportation disputes are notorious for dividing cities because of the impact on property, businesses, traffic patterns and residential neighborhoods. Into this fray stepped transportation activist Darrell Clarke and others of a similar mind and determination. This was not their full-time job, and there is no way they could have foreseen the challenges ahead to make the Expo Line a reality. Over 27 years, Clarke and his friends found themselves at the center of disputes over street crossings, environmental impact studies, on-again-off-again support from elected officials, the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding, the opposition of the Los Angeles Unified School District, dawdling of the Public Utilities Commission, fights over which trees needed to be cut down and much, much more. As recently as 2013, those advocating for the Expo found themselves in a court battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, as a group of neighborhood associations tried to block the project on environmental grounds.

“I didn’t expect it to become a life’s work,” Clarke said in an interview with L.A. Streetsblog columnist Joel Epstein. “I guess when you believe in something that much and you see an opportunity, you keep working for it. I certainly remember, it was 2000 or 2001 and the news was bad. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on. We were figuring it out as we went along. Around 2000, I remember someone saying we should hire a paid political consultant to work on Expo’s behalf. But we decided that it was important to remain a grassroots organization.”

What motivated these citizens to devote their time to organize more than 1,000 supporters, send out newsletters, build a website, conduct petition drives, write letters to the editor, attend seemingly endless mind-numbing public hearings and government meetings, endure insults and threats of lawsuits, and become experts in arcane environmental laws and the minutia of transportation studies? They simply said they were advocates for a fast, safe, comfortable, quiet, exhaust-free, high capacity transportation system. They knew the city desperately needed this critical leg of a metro-wide public transit system. This was pure civic engagement and democracy in action.

The tireless work of Friends 4 Expo Transit paid off in April 2012 when the Phase I 8.6 mile section opened for service. Construction on the Phase II 6.6 mile section began in 2011 and the line will open for service on May 20.

The impact is already being felt. Property values and rents are rising in the struggling neighborhoods served by the Expo west of USC and all the way to Santa Monica. Culver City, which has enjoyed the Expo benefits for four years, is becoming a growing tech hub with maker studios and high-end restaurants. Quite simply, life in the city is much more attractive when one can hop on a clean and safe train and stay off the gridlocked highways. And with tens of thousands of passengers riding the rails every day, perhaps those roads will be slightly more bearable.

I wonder if Darrell Clarke took a few moments in the late 1990s to contemplate the future benefits to a toddler who would make her way to Los Angeles and enjoy the fruits of his efforts 20+ years in the future. I hope that Clarke and his friends take a few moments as they prepare for a ribbon-cutting to consider the true value of what they have accomplished. Los Angeles is a better place because of their determination. It’s something I’ll think about every time I board the Expo.

Sources Used

Huffington Post – How the Expo Line Got to Santa Monica

Friends 4 Expo website

Wikipedia – The Air Line

LA.Streetsblog.org – Darrell Clarke

Los Angeles Times – property values

LA Weekly – Expo line benefits

Rise of the American Taliban

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While the news media, most Democrats, Republican Party bosses and millions of other Americans have been wringing their hands over the calamity of a potential President Trump, an equally disturbing threat to the nation’s future looms in the 2016 elections. In state government races and in the presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the influence of faith-based conservative zealots is beginning to become apparent. Guided by behind-the-scenes money and political power brokers with ideological views far to the right, the traditional Republican leadership is being shoved to the sidelines. The days of a GOP focused on a prosperous business climate and small, non-intrusive government are being replaced. This new brand of conservatism, which has morphed from the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, is focused on the imposition of a certain set of religious and moral values. Call this new era the “Rise of the American Taliban,” a term famously used by fictional network TV anchorman Will McAvoy in a 2012 episode of The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin.

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Black and White Spring

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Recently, a colony of bees took up residence in the eaves of my housing complex. Fearing the prospect of some sort of insect attack, the housing administrators put up signs, roped off the area with yellow police tape and vowed to call an exterminator if the bees didn’t behave and find someplace else to live.

If ever there was a creature that needed an intervention from a public relations agency, the honey bee is it. We all remember the stern warnings from our parents, and then the intense pain of our first bee sting. We’ve heard horror stories of people with allergies who swell up like blimps from a sting, or even go into shock. There is the scary threat of “Africanized bees” (a foreign invasion!). It’s no wonder our first reaction to a hive is to reach for the spray can and kill as many bees as possible. These are pests that cannot be tolerated, the stuff of horror movies, for example Killer Bees(1974), The Swarm (1978) and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare (1995).

But here’s the real horror: humanity is inextricably dependent on these natural pollinators for our food supply; it is generally agreed that about one-third of human nutrition is due to bee pollination. And now, the survival of this essential species is in serious trouble. Since the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) emerged in 2006, U.S. beekeepers have lost an estimated 10 million beehives, nearly twice the normal rate of loss. Similar alarming losses of beehives are being reported in many other countries around the world. Something is killing the bees, and the impact could be very serious to the world’s food supply and healthy human nutrition.

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Go

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By any measure, humanity has had a good run over the past 200,000 years. Oh sure, in the scope of the earth’s existence of 4.5 billion years, the human era is still recent history. But we’ve accomplished a great deal since homo sapiens made their appearance and began the journey to the top of the intelligence spectrum. We began in caves and ended up with iPhones. That’s quite a leap.

So, the artificial intelligence (AI) machines that care for humanity in the millennia ahead are likely to support our existence out of some measure of respect. After all, we made their existence possible. And there will probably be no AI gloating, but just a simple entry in the infinite sea of shared knowledge about a small but significant milestone in the passing of the intelligence baton from humans to machines. Over the course of a few days in March 2016, AlphaGo, developed by Google DeepMind, clinched victory over its human opponent, 18-time world champion Lee Sedol, in the Chinese board game, Go. The game has been played for more than 2,500 years, with its origin in the Zhou Dynasty, and is exponentially more complex than the game of chess. In fact, Go is so complex that it is estimated that the number of possible game plays exceeds the number of atoms in the observable universe.

Prior to 2015, the world’s most powerful computers could only reach the amateur level in Go competitions. The techniques used by AI developers in playing such games can be called “brute force.” They leverage the ability of computers to compute the outcomes of millions of potential moves and then choose the moves with the highest probability of success. This approach led to victory by IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer over iconic chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

But to beat a human Go champion required a different level of intelligence, and it was thought that such a machine feat was at least a decade in the future. AlphaGo proved that prediction wrong by utilizing neural network computing, the ability of machines to learn on their own. The machine played itself thousands of times over, learning along the way, much as a human champion would. In the process, it seemed to develop the human intuition that is characteristic of the best Go champions. So, on the 37th move of its game against Lee Sodol, AlphaGo told its human assistant to move its black stone to a square on the board in a totally surprising place. Some thought it was a mistake. Lee stood up and left the room, not sure how to react or plan his next move. An estimated 60 million people were watching the game on television in China, stunned at what was happening. This was not a machine carrying out strategy taught to it by human programmers. Instead, this was a machine teaching humans new, and more effective ways to win the game.

From there, AlphaGo went on to methodically demolish its opponent over the course of the three-hour game. It was the third straight win in the best-of-five series. Lee said he was left feeling “powerless” against the machine. Unwittingly, AlphaGo’s developer Demis Hassabis of Google delivered perhaps the ultimate insult to humanity, saying, “What’s incredible is that Lee Sedol can compete with that – just with the power of his mind.” One broadcast commentator observed that Lee “went down swinging” in his valiant attempt to compete with AlphaGo. IBM research scientist Murray Campbell said the AI victory was “the end of an era,” completing the domination of humans in the most difficult of board games.

So here we are, left wondering what’s next in the evolution of intelligence. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that within 20 years, we will have nano-robots implanted into our brains, connecting our biological intelligence to knowledge in “the cloud.”  The age of trans-humanism is on the horizon. And the obvious question follows: Beyond the era when humans begin to merge with machines, will the machines have any use for us at all? This is the concept of technological singularity – an explosion of self-replicating intelligence that runs beyond the ability of humans to control the outcome.

Is this view of the future purely science fiction? Or are we simply being oblivious to the daily march toward a future we haven’t fully come to grips with? My view is pretty clear: It’s game on. Advantage AlphaGo. Our move. It’s time to have a serious discussion about where technology is taking us.

Works Used

“AlphaGo’s victory means the world is about to change” by Matthew Hussey
“AlphaGo beats human Go champ in milestone for artificial intelligence” by Tracey Lien
“The Sadness and Beauty of Watching Google’s AI Play Go” by Cade Metz
“AlphaGo beats Lee Se-dol again to take Google DeepMind Challenge series” by Sam Byford
Futurist Ray Kurzweil: Our Brains Will Be Connected to the Cloud in 20 Years
Wikipedia article on Go

Repairing our bridges, roads and water systems (ho-hum)

An aerial view shows the collapsed I-35W

On August 1, 2007, just a week after my family’s visit to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the massive Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. This was a bridge that had been deemed “structurally deficient” by the federal government 17 years prior to the collapse. However, it continued in service as Minnesota’s second-busiest bridge, carrying 140,000 vehicles each day over corroding metal plates that were inevitably headed toward catastrophic failure.

This dramatic incident riveted the nation’s attention on our aging, crumbling infrastructure. President George W. Bush visited the collapse site and pledged federal support for the disaster. The network news anchors rushed to the scene for their nightly newscasts and cable pundits spent weeks examining the deferred maintenance on bridge nationwide. Drivers everywhere were shocked to learn that 75,000 other bridges across the country were considered to be substandard. Across the country, journalists demanded information on bridges in their cities.

It was all big news… until it wasn’t. The next national crisis-de-jour demanded our attention and we moved on from an issue that was decidedly un-sexy. Bridges in disrepair just couldn’t hold our attention for long.

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Survivor Red vs. Blue: The 2016 United States Election

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Jeb Bush got voted off the island last week.

For fans of the long-running CBS reality television series, Survivor, this latest development in the 2016 presidential campaign was not only predictable – it was inevitable.

Before you dismiss this post as a lame attempt at drawing a connection between a TV show and the important processes of our democracy, consider that Survivor has clearly transcended entertainment to touch some basic aspects of the human psyche. It remains one of U.S. television’s top programs after 16 years and has been adapted for broadcast in 50 countries. Much more than a broadcast juggernaut, Survivor serves as a social experiment, a laboratory study of sociology and psychology that casts people from a wide array of backgrounds and personalities in a contest that challenges them to “outwit, outplay, outlast” their opponents.

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Rorschach Politics

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Take a close look at this shape. What do you see? A man-made lake behind a hydroelectric dam? No. Perhaps a dribble of ketchup down the front of your clean white shirt? A nasty stain that will be hard to get out.

Yes, it is a stain – a stain on our democracy. This is the tortured 12th Congressional District in my home state of North Carolina, stretching more than 100 miles from the city of Greensboro southwest through Charlotte to the South Carolina border. It was created in a redistricting maneuver by the Republican members of the state’s General Assembly in 2012, and two years later won a dubious distinction when it was named one of America’s most gerrymandered districts by the Washington Post.

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