“Slow down, you move too fast                                                                                       You’ve got to make the morning last                                                                                   Just kicking down the cobble stones                                                                            Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”

               The 59th Street Bridge Song

Paul Simon wrote the above lyrics during the nanosecond in history when it was in fact cool to use the word ‘groovy.’  (How is it that much, much older words, like ‘cool,’ or ‘hip’ can remain cool and hip seemingly forever, while a perfectly good word like ‘groovy’ immediately lapses into full blown dorkdom?)

He wrote the song in 1966, when the hippie counterculture was flourishing (1968 saw it begin to sour), when themes of ‘dropping out,’ and going ‘back to the land’ were ascendant among young people.  (Both Bruce Cockburn and Canned Heat were “going to the country.”)  Some of those young people left the city to form rural communes, which almost always disintegrated in a matter of months, as individual goals and disparate personalities clashed with the communal ideal.  Reality can bite down hard on those who believe that the peaceful serenity of the natural world can easily be reflected in the messy functionings of humankind grouped together, even where they share a common purpose.

Carl Honoré, a Canadian living in London, referenced the 59th Street Bridge Song in the opening passage to his 2004 book, In Praise of Slow.  In the text he suggests that, “The Slow movement is on the march,” that is people everywhere were steadily joining the ranks of those practicing slower work, sex, food, medicine, even weightlifting.  In closing the book he asks, “When will the Slow movement turn into a Slow revolution?”

Well, from a point in time almost ten years later, the answer would seem to be ‘not yet,’ and ‘not any time soon either.’  Today, technical innovation continues to drive change in a way that makes the pace of 2004—no YouTube, no iPhone—look almost placid.

Saint Iscariot photo
Saint Iscariot photo

No, slow is not easy to attain these days, and nor, for that matter, was it back in the sixties, not in any successful, final sense at least.  Slow has to be a deliberate choice of course—say, to leave that demanding job and pay the price in both dollars and status—but there is something counterintuitive about going slower that should be recognized by all those looking to step off today’s fast train.  It may be nicely summed up in a quote that Honoré serves up via Edward Abbey, cantankerous American author and environmentalist:

Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

If you want to expand your life, include in it more by way of experience, fulfillment, payoff, it’s not to be done by going faster.  Speed is the mortal enemy of memory, and even on Galiano, I have to remind myself, when I arrive and set about the myriad of tasks always awaiting, that if I try to do too much, stay too busy, I will almost instantly find myself at the departure point.  When that happens, it feels like I just got caught in a revolving door, whirled around a few times, then immediately dumped right back where I began.  Like I never did exit onto the other, island side.

As in all things, the challenge is one of balance, and the key commodity here is what I call engagement.  There is very little to be gained by ‘dropping out’ entirely; it’s an act of defeat, of surrender.  There are many, many fascinating components to stay abreast of in today’s world, and the very best thing about the internet may be that it makes such engagement easier.  You can be a part of a whole plethora of communities, without ever leaving home.

Stay engaged.  Never stop learning.  Keep looking for fun in new knowledge, skills and experiences.  But don’t kid yourself; we are all on a fast train which is hurtling toward oblivion.  If you want to hasten the journey, stay busy.  If you want to remember the trip, expand the experience and consciously enjoy it more often, step off once in a while, kick a few cobble stones, see if you can conjure up a little groovy.


Income Inequality Is Increasing Everywhere… Except Latin America

Income inequality—wherein the rich get richer and poor poorer, relatively speaking—is increasing almost everywhere.  Even in the Asian ‘tiger’ economies of China and India, the gap is growing.

A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada confirms that the condition exists here as well.  The report notes that, after reaching a peak in the late 1990s, “even though higher commodity demand and prices helped Canada’s economy grow faster from 2000 to 2010 than most of its peers, including the United States, income inequality did not decline.”

Les Chatfield photo

It seems the only general exceptions to this noxious trend are parts of southern Africa, and, interestingly, Latin America.  A 2012 study by the World Bank, as reported in the Guardian, offers some explanation: “For decades, Latin America was notorious for some of the widest income gaps in the world, but a combination of favourable economic conditions and interventionist policies by left-leaning governments in Brazil and other countries has brought it more closely in line with international norms.”

So as the income gap has been expanding in nearly all parts of the world, Central and South America have been tacking steadily into the winds of ‘free market forces’ which have been growing income disparity across the planet.

As usual, however, that’s not the end of the story.  Because while these two opposing trends have been underway, overall poverty in the world has been on the decrease.  Millions of people have in recent years been lifted up out of poverty, especially in countries like China and India.  In Brazil too, the last decade is reported to have seen 20 million people escape poverty.

And income inequality in many Latin American countries, including Brazil, is still high.  It’s just that it’s been getting better, whereas in the more ‘developed’ countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years.  Of the 16 countries which the Conference Board has designated as Canada’s peers, just five of them have seen income disparity shrink since the mid 90s.  If those 17 countries are ranked from lowest to highest growth in inequality, Canada comes 12th highest.  The U.S. ranks highest of all.  Between 1980 and 2007, the income of the richest 1% of Americans rose 197%.

In the States, there is of course heated debate as to why the gap has been growing so steadily.  In today’s world of what Al Gore calls “robosourcing,” where technology is displacing many low-skilled workers, the changes are often attributed to what have been traditionally—and fatalistically—labeled “market forces.”  Other, more progressive economists like Paul Klugman challenge that view, instead pointing to the decline of unions, stagnating minimum wage rates, deregulation, and government policies that favor the wealthy.

There is less debate as to why the gap has been expanding in India and China, where it’s generally recognized that the typical income level for those working in urban industries has been fast outpacing the average income of those who remain at work in rural, agricultural areas.

But if we consider the example of Latin America, where numerous decidedly “left leaning” governments have held power in recent times, the explanation as to growing North American income inequality coming from Klugman and his cohorts would seem to be more convincing.  Leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia and the late Hugo Chavez in Venzuela, whatever your view of them, have not been shy about enacting programs of genuine income redistribution.  And their policies would seem to be at least part of the reason why revenue disparity has been improving in Latin America, while deteriorating elsewhere.

So as I’ve commented on elsewhere in this blog, the problems of a jobless recovery from the great recession of 2008, along with stagnating median incomes seem crucial for countries everywhere these days.  While it flies in the face of free market, anti-government views which seem to have held so much sway for so many years in the U.S. and Canada, the evidence emanating from Latin America would suggest that maybe it’s time we recognized that a more, not less interventionist government role is what increased economic fairness may require.


Self Serve

There are no self-serve gas stations in Richmond, BC.  This is a rare but not unique circumstance; another Vancouver suburban municipality, Coquitlam, has none either, and both Oregon and New Jersey in the U.S. have only full service stations.  The reasons seem to vary—supposed fire hazard (while pumping), increased employment, cultural aims in the case of Oregon—and I’m generally sympathetic to the idea of giving someone a job, as opposed to inserting a card into a machine.

But the other day, while driving through Richmond on a near-empty tank, I found myself thinking, ‘Nah, I’ll just keep going into Vancouver, where I can fill up without having to talk to another human being.’  And I should add that the cost of gas is no higher in Richmond than it is in Vancouver; it is in fact sometimes cheaper.

Just another case of technology isolating us, playing very effectively into the fact that social interaction requires effort, and wherever technology allows us to avoid that effort, the need follows.  Technology feeds itself; we merely provide the food.

Our relationship with technology, especially digital technology, is invariably complex, and it’s difficult at times to know where the causation lies.  Here’s an article about a classical musician performing on stage who notices an audience member recording his performance with a phone.  ‘Is this good or bad?’ he wonders.  His answer is that it is both, and so the conundrum continues.

Regardless of whether self-serve technology is good or bad, it is of course coming on, full-tilt.  I check my own book out of the library now, sliding the bar code beneath the shimmering red line, and we’ve all seen the self-serve checkouts proliferating at the supermarket, while line-ups grow at the remaining human-attached tills.

As with so much of new technology, there are three stages to the self-serve onslaught: resistance, acceptance, then, as the technology gets us in its unfeeling grip, intransigence.  We no longer want to go back.  The deed is done.  (I’m still in the resistance phase when it comes to self-serve checkouts.)

3360848077_3eb327ab8bThis gnarly relationship extends all the way out, I would suggest, to that which we have with robots, particularly sociable robots.  Theorists make much of autonomy, when trying to define the difference between a computerized machine and a robot, but it’s not an easy line to draw.  Any of us know that an ATM is fully capable of acting autonomously.

But properly sociable robots—the kind which talk, sigh, even tell jokes—have been proven to enhance the emotional and psychological health of seniors in long-term care facilities.  And we are not talking here about only those seniors suffering from some degree of dementia (although those with all their faculties intact are reluctant to admit to their bonding with an automaton).  It seems we are genetically programmed to respond to gesture, facial expression, even tone of voice.  So when these robots raise an eyebrow, smile, purr contentedly, or turn their ‘faces’ to follow us across the room (as they do), we can’t help it.  We buy in.

Undoubtedly these robots are great at reminding us to take our medication, but do we really want them as friends?  Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. Professor of Science and Technology, has asked, “Do we want to make [robots] in such a way that we’re going to love them because they will be pretending to love us?”  Because we should not, in the end, be fooled here; the response we helplessly give to these charming machines, as they push our “Darwinian buttons”, is entirely illusory.  As Turkle puts it, “There’s nobody home.”

My daughter flew from the nest to attend Quest University this fall, a terrific institution where they teach that, in any good debate, the questions are more important than the answers.  So here are a couple of questions to further this small contribution to a much wider ontological debate:

Is a caregiving robot the ultimate in self-serve?

If/when you get there, to that advanced, isolated age, do you want a robot taking care of you?