It’s the Rich Wot Gets the Pleasure

My parents considered themselves members of the ‘upper-middle class’, and took pains to ensure that we children understood that.  I’m not sure I ever did, though, although we were neither rich nor poor.

Most of my growing-up years were spent in a modest, suburban home, on a standard-sized lot, in a neighbourhood of similar families, none of whom had everything they might have wished for.  I was ten years old before we acquired our first black-and- white television set, for example; I was sixteen before we got our first car, a ten-year-old British import handed down from my grandfather.  As a matter of fact, hand-me-downs were integral to our lives.

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We knew there were lots of families who had more material wealth than we did, but they didn’t live in our community.  Their homes were larger and boasted swimming pools, two-car garages, and paved driveways, with proper kerbs, not ditches, lining their streets.  We knew there were people with far less than we had, too, but we would encounter them only infrequently, and were taught it was best to avoid them.

So we did realize, I suppose, that we were in the middle between the rich and the poor, between the so-called upper and lower classes.  But the finer distinctions within this middle class were lost on us.  It mattered not that one kid’s father drove a bus, while another’s worked in an office.  No one cared if somebody’s mother had a job, while another’s was a stay-at-home Mum.  Blue-collar and white-collar meant nothing to us.  Knowing we were loved and safe was all that mattered.

As an old rock song attested, …Here [we were], stuck in the middle with you.

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One of my grandmothers used to sing an old British pub-song, in a fake Cockney accent, to the great amusement of her grandchildren, and it seemed to reinforce the fact that we were solidly and safely middle-class—

It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure,

It’s the poor wot gets the blame,

‘Tis the same the ‘ole world over,

I’n’t it a bloomin’ shame!

Mind you, as we grew older, we were encouraged—strenuously—to strive for as much as we could get, to never be satisfied with less.  It was important, we were taught, to pursue an education; to find, not a job, but a career; to plan for the future; in short, to rise above our station in life.

Inevitably, some of us took that advice, and some of us did not.

Today, I’m led to believe by pundits and prophets that the middle class is disappearing as the wealth-gap widens between the rich and the poor—or, perhaps more accurately, between the few rich and the multitudinous poor.  I admit it’s hard for me to comprehend that, because I’ve never been either fabulously rich or ruinously poor.  Being in the middle has always seemed a good place to be.

I recently finished an interesting book—Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari—that delves into why, despite a professed passion for equity and fairness in our modern, liberal society, our species continues to divide ourselves into castes—cultural, religious, and economic.  I’m about to begin a sequel, Homo Deus, which looks at where we are likely headed.  Harari does not paint a rosy picture.

An overly-simplified conclusion I am drawing from this reading (as one ensconced in our privileged, first-world setting) is that some people appear comfortable with their lot, no matter how mundane it may be, apparently satisfied so long as their basic needs are met.  Others, fewer in number, do not accept that status quo, and try to break new trails.  Some plod along their life-journey, eyes cast on the path beneath their feet (or, more likely, on the smartphone in their hands), while others, more curious, more ambitious, look for alternate routes to follow, even if that means foregoing some of the more immediate gratification they might otherwise enjoy.  Sort of like the proverb of the grasshopper and the ant.

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But why do we make the choices we do?  Why are some of us seemingly content to muddle along in what I might call a state of arrested development—consumed by our electronic gadgets and devices, immersed in our own narrow worlds, uninterested in the broader issues of our time, and desperate to believe we are going to be looked after?

Looked after by whom?  The rich?

A new ruling class of people—those who rouse themselves to effort and endeavour, who pay attention to what is happening around them and in the wider world, and who consciously think about the consequences of their actions—is rapidly moving ahead of its less-diligent cohort.  And the space between them—call it intellectual-gap or achievement-gap—will only exacerbate the wealth-gap we publicly decry.

Recent studies are demonstrating that an over-dependence on electronic gadgetry, an inability to pry oneself away from those seductive pixels of delight, is changing the human brain’s learning patterns.  And not for the better.  In its extreme, this change will render addicted users incapable of thinking for themselves, dooming them to a dreary lifetime of mindless, eight-second sound-bites and 280-character communications.  In virtual servitude to those who rise above.

It hearkens back to the maxim of Roman times, the trick to keeping the rabble in their place—Give them their bread and circuses.  Already there are disturbing signs that much of the populace cares for not much more.  And technology has provided it to them in the palms of their hands.

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The day may or may not come when all of us will live out our daily existence like so many drones and worker bees, ruled by entities possessed of artificial intelligence.  That remains to be seen.  But until that day, it is almost a certainty that the strivers among us will assert dominion over the slackers—a triumph of directed, purposeful intellect over superficial intelligence.

Given all this, I would change the words to my grandmother’s ditty—

It’s the thinkers and strivers wot will get the pleasure,

It’s the complacent plodders wot will get the blame…

Just wait.

Unreal, Baby!

Virtual reality.  The term itself is an oxymoron.  How can something be virtual—that is, not physically existing—and at the same time real—that is, actually existing?

In the techno-world we inhabit, however, such a dichotomy is not only possible, it is pervasive.  Today, we can slip behind a high-tech, VR mask and subject ourselves to almost any experience we desire.

Examples might include free-falling from a bungee-platform without the cord, performing magic alongside Harry Potter, or doing open-heart surgery on a patient who is thousands of miles away.

None of these things is really happening, but you feel as if they are.

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Artificial intelligence—another contradiction of terms.  How can something that is artificial, not genuine, be mistaken for intelligence, an innate, genuine ability to discover and utilize knowledge and skills?

Yet today, we know of many tasks being performed by AI machines that were formerly the sole purview of human beings.

Smartphone banking, Siri or Alexa speaking to us from our computers, and the genius of Pandora in predicting our musical tastes are but three examples.

We know these robots and techno-bots are not really human, but they do many of the things only we could do, once upon a time.

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Augmented reality.  This is a somewhat more easily-understood concept, where the elements of a real-world environment are supplemented by computer-generated sensory input—sound, video, graphics, or GPS data—almost as an overlay to the reality being observed.

Anyone who has played Pokemon Go, or who has modified a facial selfie with the addition of a dog’s ears and nose, has experienced AR.

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Quantum computing—based on quantum theory, the nature and behaviour of matter at an atomic and sub-atomic level—is still in an embryonic stage, but it’s what enables these modern-day paradoxes.  Quantum computers, once fully developed, will function in multiple states, and perform tasks using all possible permutations, simultaneously.  Like the human brain can do.

The difference between that and the technology we know today dwarfs the span between the abacus of ancient times and today’s supercomputers by many-fold.

A revolution is upon us.

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So, what do we do, we mere mortals, as the transformation hurtles toward us?  Do we resist, as Luddites of old?  And if we tried, would it make any difference?  Would we be drowned by the waves of change?

Or, do we embrace the onslaught, strive to understand it, seek to control the extensive influence it will have on us?  Do we even know how we would do that?

Perhaps a third alternative—chill out and accept whatever change is approaching.  Will it be a saviour to humankind, taking us in spite of our shortcomings to a more perfect state of existence, a Valhalla?

Or might it be more akin to what W. B. Yeats, the great poet, called, a…rough beast, its hour come round at last, [slouching] towards Bethlehem to be born?

Much depends, I think, on our continuing, collective will to exert control over our environment, a hallmark of human beings since first we stood upright on two legs.  We have unfailingly stridden toward our future, determined to overcome (or, failing that, to adapt to) the challenges we have faced.  We have never shirked from that reality.

But in a VR world—where reality is virtual and nothing is authentic—how do we continue to do that?  Blind to the physical world around us, and to its authenticity, enslaved behind our masks to the make-believe worlds we will have chosen, we will be tossed like so much flotsam and jetsam on the seas of change.

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Will we collectively continue to assert our dominance over the world in which we live, or will we succumb to the comforts of AI entities we have created, with their false promises and reassurances?

Of all the pestilences that might afflict our world over the next decade—nuclear war, pandemic disease, mass starvation, lack of potable water, catastrophic climate change—the most likely, in my view, is the ascension of artificial intelligence in all its forms, and the threat they will pose to humankind.

Dictators of the past, to consolidate and expand their power over their citizens, adhered to an ancient Roman maxim, postulated by Juventus:  panem et circenses[Give them] bread and circuses.  Distract the rabble, entertain them, and they will leave you alone to work your will.

Is that we have today—VR, AI, AR, and their ilk—a techno-version of the circus?  Will quantum computing spell the end of our human autonomy as it quickly subverts our will to compete?

A decade ago, the question would have been unthinkable.  Now, not so much.

Unreal, baby!

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