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.

grasshopper

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.

Revolution

A friend told me a while back about a financial planning seminar he’d attended, where the wealth management advisers waxed enthusiastically about growth and value stocks, citing several examples of corporations and enterprises that met their criteria for each category.

Not satisfied with their explanations, he asked them where a company such as Amazon, with its vast, online distribution network, would fit in their scheme of things.  Or Google.  Or Facebook.  Would such companies be considered growth or value stocks?

The answer surprised him.  Neither.  And the reason?  None of those ventures had any tangible ‘product’.  To the financial advisers, they were too impalpable to be categorized.  Their core business exists in the ether, as it were.  It’s just technology.

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My friend considered this ludicrous.  When one looks ahead to the next decade, one must be impressed by the role technology will play in what some have described as a fourth industrial revolution—the first occurring when machines were developed to supplant manual labour in the early nineteenth-century; the second when mass manufacturing methods appeared later in that century and into the next; and the third when digital technology began to overtake mechanical and analog processes in the late twentieth-century.

And what will this fourth revolution look like?  How will it affect, not people of my generation so much, but our children and grandchildren?  I recently read a summary of issues discussed at a conference sponsored by Singularity University, a consortium of information-technology innovators and providers, and it gave me pause.  If these leading-edge thinkers are to be believed, the revolution will encompass a period of exponential growth unmatched in previous history.

Consider the following, gleaned from the aforementioned online summary.  Computer software and operating systems will discombobulate traditional business models, as we are already seeing with such companies as Uber, which owns no cars, and Airbnb, which owns no properties.

Computers will become ever more powerful, as demonstrated by the IBM Watson, which is able to offer basic legal advice within seconds, to a greater degree of accuracy than its human counterparts, and which can diagnose cancer more accurately than doctors.  What need will there be for generalist lawyers or doctors in a few more years, as computers become arguably more intelligent than humans?

Smartphones will be available and affordable to almost three-quarters of the world’s population within the next five years.  That means everyone will have access to the same information, to the same teaching, to the same outcomes in learning, and in the language of their choice.  Education will become not only affordable, but entertaining.

A medical device will soon be beta-tested to work with smartphones; it will analyse more than four-dozen bio-markers deduced from retina scans, blood samples, and breath tests, and identify diseases threatening our health.  Within a few years, the technology will become inexpensive enough that almost everyone alive will have access to effective, low-cost medicine.

Efficient, green-energy solutions will develop much more quickly than has heretofore been the case.  Solar energy, for example, will drive traditional fossil-fuel providers out of business as it becomes less and less costly.  With the cheap electricity it generates, desalination efforts will expand, providing the world with an increase in the amount of potable water available for its ever-increasing population.

solar power

Electric and self-driving cars are already here.  When they become more prevalent and affordable—and they will—entire industries will be disrupted.  Who will need a car when a ride can be summoned as needed via smartphone?  No maintenance costs.  No insurance costs.  No parking costs.  In fact, no need for the vast tracts of urban land that are given over to parking lots.  Perhaps most importantly, a dramatic reduction in the number of people who die every year in automobile accidents.

What will happen to the Fords, the General Motors, the Volkswagens of the automobile industry when the Teslas, Apples, and Googles begin to market vehicular computers for the masses?  And what of the large insurance companies?  With fewer accidents, not to mention the medical advances cited earlier, their medical and car insurance lines will wither and die.

For young people about to enter the workforce, what does all this mean?  It is anticipated that up to 80% of the jobs we count on now will become obsolete in the next twenty years.  Will there be enough new jobs to replace them?  And if so, what sort of jobs will they be?  With the increase in longevity we witnessed during the twentieth-century expected to grow more rapidly, there is an obvious need to develop vocational and avocational pursuits for the escalating population.

So, for my friend and me, and for anyone who is thinking about financial planning for the future, where is the growth, and where is the value, if not in the technology-driven industries driving the revolution?

If you doubt these trends, please call me and make an offer on the once-valuable Kodak and Fujifilm stocks I still have in my portfolio!

The Message and the Medium

In 1964, long before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase that has become iconic—or as it might be termed in today’s online environment, gone viral.

The medium is the message.

Today, more than fifty years after the publication of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it is amazing how prescient he was.  As I understand his thinking, he was positing that the form or method of communication was more significant to our evolution than the content being communicated.

The content is the easy part, that which our minds tend to focus on as we listen to, watch, or read something that sparks our interest.  It could be the latest album from a pop star, a television program, or a new book we’ve picked up.

The medium, and there are many examples—smartphones, tablets, televisions, movies, print media, recordings, to cite but a few—is the structure or framework in which the content is couched.  The medium is how, not what, we learn.

To see how important the medium can be, imagine learning about a massive earthquake, for instance, in one of three ways: by hearing the news on the radio, by watching video on a nightly TV newscast, or by witnessing live events as they happen on your mobile device.  Which would have the greatest impact on you?

It might be argued that the advent of television was one of the most unifying forces the world has ever seen, allowing populations from every corner of the globe to see everyone else.  It was the dawn, perhaps, of the notion of a worldwide village.  If that is so, then the emergence of the internet with its worldwide web immediacy has surpassed even that.  This medium, with its instantaneous online access, has brought far-flung peoples as close as next-door neighbours.

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All good, right?  For the closer we are, the better chance we have of understanding each other, of allowing for each other’s differences, of adapting to each other’s unique ways of living.  Or not.

In 1961, well before the publication of McLuhan’s book, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA, Newton Minow, criticized commercial television as a vast wasteland.  He was referencing both the calibre of programming available (the content), and the failure of the industry to utilize television (the medium) to its best effect.

A letter writer to a newspaper recently remembered how, in his childhood, he and his friends slew dragons, conquered armies, practiced games of skill, and played at sundry other activities, just as children today do.  But, he wrote, they did it without computers.  And they did it, for the most part, outdoors.

Those activities (the content), and the environment in which they pursued them (the medium), influenced their cognitive, social, and bodily development.  It made them, for better or worse, who they are today.

But what of tomorrow?  What effects will the media of today have on the intellectual and physical growth of young people?  There has never been more content to share, to learn from; yet it remains secondary to the manner in which it’s delivered.  Just as McLuhan stated.

How often I have seen when I’m out and about—at a restaurant, let us say—two people sitting opposite each other, each with attention focused solely on their smartphones.  Are they texting each other, I wonder, rather than talking?  Are they so disenchanted with their present company that they’d rather be with someone else, if only vicariously?  Or is it that the lure of the technology (the medium) has persuaded them away from human interaction (the content)?

Human brains are evolving organisms, constantly adapting to conditioning stimuli from the environment.  Hence, the brain of the indigenous New World person who spied the first European sail on the distant horizon more than five hundred years ago, and the brain of the erstwhile seafaring explorer, would have functioned quite differently than that of today’s urban dweller.  None of them would likely survive for long in the others’ world.

Yet we, the people who descended from both aboriginal and interloper groups, do survive today, proof that the brain has responded to the information discovered by subsequent generations, and to the forms in which that information was presented.

Should we despair that future learning, and the means in which it’s delivered, will be different than the past learning with which we are familiar?  Or should we celebrate the change as progress?

Should we criticize the infernal internet, that vast wasteland, and its array of technology that seems to isolate people from one another, even as it brings us together?  Or should we embrace it as the surest way to advance our global civilization?

In search of answers, I decided to consult a medium.  Alas, she had no message of comfort for me.

Perhaps I’ll do a Google search.