Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Generation to generation

Intergenerational wars seem de rigour at the moment, although to me they seem rather hackneyed. The current manifestation is the slanging match between Millennials and Baby Boomers. The latter being accused by the former as wreckers who have destroyed the planet and the economy, leaving them with unaffordable housing, healthcare, insurance and taxes and only McJobs to pay for it all. The former accuse the latter of being snowflakes who need 'safe spaces', cannot decide what gender they are, are unwilling to work or study and have no intellectual consistency.

Cicero famously said 'Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.' Or maybe a blog or a Tweet…. Horace, noted that
'Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more
worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more

As the philosopher said, there is nothing new under the sun.

The usual moans that one generation has about the other are, to be fair, and as the above quotes show, neither anything new, nor totally without foundation. However, we always relied on one central contract - that the wealth, learning and opportunities afforded to our elders would come down to us, in turn to passed on to those coming behind us. In the last century it became so that we would accrue yet greater wealth and learning than our parents to pass on to our children who in turn would enjoy yet greater opportunity. That now seems to have broken down, with a generation retiring now that will be the last to do so early or to enjoy wealth and the fruit of their labours for so long.

We now see succeeding generations earning less than preceding ones, looking at working longer and enjoying shorter and poorer retirements. We will be caring for our elders into our old age, as they live into their ninth or tenth decade, while our kids will have to live with us because they cannot afford to set up their own homes. Multigenerational households will be inevitable once again. Social mobility will slow down. Inherited wealth is being passed on (often skipping generations) but will benefit only those with affluent grandparents.

Our care system, designed to ensure that no-one would go into their final years uncared for, is now breaking down because we are seeing both an increasing ageing population who live longer but with poor health and increased dependency. Hidden within this are the millions who care for parents, spouses and siblings, many of whom are also older and in deteriorating health. Successive governments have refused to grasp the public policy nettle of finding a wider social solution, including insurance schemes as part of retirement planning.  Many solutions have been put forward, but it requires a government prepared to put in the time, money and political capital to make it happen.

If the generational contract is breaking down, snowflake Millennials resenting feckless and selfish Baby Boomers and vice versa, then how do we expect the young to care for the old, to fund their care or be their carers? Maybe we need some intergenerational reconciliation, because the grim reality is, we will need each other in the decades to come. If the Millennials ? and Baby Boomers hate each other now, how will it be for Generations X and Z when it's our turn? We Genexers will be caring for the Boomers and the Millennials and the Genzeds as we begin to move towards our retirements. Our households will soon include parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. We'll need to find a new way of relating to one another, because the option to move out will be less and less available for the youngsters, and the option of care homes, let alone domiciliary care won't be there for our elders. We'll need to reinvent family again.

The Jewish households of the Old Testament were known as beth'avoth, or households, and were not only intergenerational (parents, grandparents, children and their spouses and the grandchildren) but also slaves (or bond servants) and foreigners or sojourners. The nuclear family did not exist. Go around the world, you'll find the nuclear family still a recent aberration, to be found in the emerging middle classes of developed and developing countries, but nowhere else. Here in the West where we invented this aberration, we are soon going to have to abandon it again, along with the lone parent household, the singleton living alone or the childless couple in a large, empty house. We'll be sharing rooms, sharing lives, sharing meals, sharing hopes, fears, opportunities and troubles. It may not be as horrible as we fear - in fact, maybe, just maybe we'll find again something we lost a long time ago.

But I bet we'll still moan about the youngsters of today - it's an institutional sport!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Loving the Robot?

The live-action version of Ghost in the Shell is (for the time being at least) out in cinemas. It has become infamous because of an alleged 'whitewashing' by casting the Caucasian Scarlett Johansson in the role of  Major Motoko Kusanagi, a supposedly Japanese character. In the original anime, the character is of indeterminate race, not least because she is, in fact, a cyborg. Not a woman but a sophisticated, human-seeming, armoured chassis holding a human brain. The gender and race of Major is anything but what it seems. The English title taking its cue from  Arthur Koestler's 'Ghost in the Machine', exploring the idea of identity and self outside of our physical body. Major is not really a woman, even if her brain is (or was) - she only appears to have humanity because her body has been created that way. She could have any form.

Why does she have a female form (especially one that is regularly on show in a skin-tight latex combat suit)? Let's be honest, given that the prime audience for anime and most Hollywood action sci-fi is fifteen-year-old males, the answer is not too hard to figure out. Major may be tough, and not have any overt sexuality beyond her appearance. Some may even argue that she is subverting the stereotyping of women, but actually, the film is still pandering to it, just creating the new stereotype of the sexy but tough female warrior that has become fashionable ever since Sigourney Weaver took down the Mother Alien in Cameron's Aliens.

It is interesting that so many depictions of artificial intelligence are female. Eva in Alex Garland's superb Ex Machina is deliberately female, to appeal to the sexual proclivities of Domal Glesson's hapless Caleb, but despite being referred to as 'she' throughout, it is quite clear that Eva is an 'it' - a self-aware machine with the physical appearance of a young woman. Here, the reason for the female form is explicit - she has been created by an alpha male who equates his sexual potency with his creativity and power over his creation and other people.

In Westworld, the Hosts are both male and female, but it is the two female Hosts, Maeve (played by the badly awards-overlooked Thandi Newton) and Dolores Abernathy who achieve self-awareness first, through the violence done to them by men.

In the film Her, the AI is again female and possessing the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson (again!), with whom the protagonist falls in love. Like Eva, she is really an 'it' and using her apparent femininity as a ruse to control the men around her. She does not share their feelings or motivations.

As I delve into current science fiction narratives about Artificial Intelligence, it seems to me that really they are more about how men perceive women - tough and sexy, manipulative and other abused, yet triumphant, but all ultimately the creation of men, not people in and of themselves. True AI is not really being explored. Maybe we need to hear from some more female authors to explore the subject in another direction.

I also think this is about male creativity and power over nature - which as CS Lewis pointed out is really about some men's power over other men (and in particular, women) and nature. It is a perversion of the divine cultural mandate of stewardship over Creation. The steward has become the dominator. It also reflects the way men disempower, control and dominate women.

Science Fiction has explored this deeply theological theme ever since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. There, the creative male discovers he cannot be a true father to his creation, to which he brings life (a female act) and it is a disaster.  It is far from a coincidence that this exploration of the theme of male power and creativity is explored most explicitly by a female author!

It is also true that science fiction has a habit of becoming reality.  This is almost certainly at least in part true because the engineers and thinkers behind so much of the technology coming out at the moment were fans of science fiction and are trying to bring these childhood dreams into reality. So don't be too surprised if when strong AI does appear, it will be feminised. After all, the virtual, digital assistants around at the moment, from Siri to Cortana and Alexa are given female personas in both name and voice. 

Deep AI - self-aware machines like Ex-Machina's Eva - is a long way off and may never arrive. But in the meantime, how we interact with increasingly intelligent technology, with the creation and with other human beings is being shaped by this dominating, will-to-power mentality here and now. Will that technology in time replace the human creativity and intelligence that gave rise to it and in turn become another means to control and dominate humanity and creation?


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