Tag Archives: referendum

Fear of Technology

On Galiano Island mobile phone coverage is at best spotty.  Around Sturdies Bay, where the ferry lands, coverage spills over from one of the nearby islands and the tiny graph in the upper corner of my cell phone window shows four bars, but just two kilometres down the road that signal is almost non-existent.  Our cabin lies in a complete dead zone.  A couple of years ago a phone company was proposing to erect a tower on the ridge above our place, but ‘opposition grew’ among the locals.  My neighbour came by, wearing a battered straw cowboy hat, holding a petition opposing the tower.  He knew the phone company claimed the tower would be entirely safe, but he felt they couldn’t be trusted.

At the co-op where I live with my family in Vancouver, there was a similar spate of opposition that arose against the addition of ‘smart meters’ to the building complex’s servercentral-industries-technologyelectrical system.  Those meters would send out a signal, much like a mobile device does, and it was felt by numerous of my neighbours that that signal might be harmful to human health.  According to BC Hydro, the corporation installing the new meters, exposure to radio frequency during the 20-year life span of a smart meter is equivalent to the exposure of a single 30-minute cell phone call, which would suggest that I should be a lot more concerned about the installation of the cell phone tower on Galiano than I should be about the installation of a smart meter in my Vancouver home.  Regardless, my Vancouver neighbours were at least obliquely aware of such safety claims on behalf of BC Hydro, but they were not about to be swayed in their opposition to the meters.  They too brought round a petition.

My neighbours are quite right to not trust the corporate agenda.  As the documentary The Corporation has so nimbly pointed out, that agenda is about one thing and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else—the maximization of profit, and the resultant increase in share price.  That focus is amoral, in effect sociopathic, but then one can hardly expect it to be otherwise.  Corporations exist in a world of other corporations.

And certainly there is no shortage of examples where the corporate agenda had a direct and deleterious effect on human health.  From big mining to big pharma to big finance, corporations have regularly pursued profits at the expense of our collective wellbeing, there’s little doubt of that much.

Thomas Edison himself once opposed the installation of the electrical grid in America.  Go figure I know, a man who was after all the father of the electric lightbulb, but here’s what he said: “…I have always consistently opposed high-tension and alternating systems of electric lighting… not only on account of danger, but because of their general unreliability and unsuitability for any general system of distribution.”*

In 1891, at a village meeting in Bradford, Vermont, there was a contentious vote taken regarding a proposal to purchase an electric light plant for the purpose of replacing the local gas street lamps.  The vote was not in favour.  Here’s what Larry Coffin, President of the Bradford Historical Society, wrote in his blog about the successful opposition at that meeting: “That opposition seems to have come largely from those who disapproved of a government-owned enterprise, although there were those who were just opposed to change.”

The fear of new technology is indeed linked to a more generalized fear of change.  Change, especially when it’s cloaked in the ‘hardwear’ of unfamiliar technology, makes us uneasy, makes us aware that the new, coming situation may well be open to exploitation by others, exploitation which might put us at a disadvantage, or do us harm.

And petitions are rather like referendums, as I’ve written about them elsewhere on this site.  They bring out ‘the opposition’ in us, opposition that comes with the empowerment of opposing, whether it be out of fear, or resentment, or simple contrariness.  We oppose because it makes us feel safer, or more influential, or that we have at least temporarily beaten back the forces that seek to gain advantage upon us.  It’s an attitude that rarely contributes to the greater good, that is rarely healthy.

I didn’t sign either petition.


*Source: Edison, Thomas A. The Dangers of Electric Lighting, North American Review, November, 1889. pp.630, 632, 633.


Referendum Politics


An old friend once said to me that she thought voting should be a privilege, rather than a right.  She felt citizens should be educated on the issues before they would qualify to vote.  With that, presumably, would come the government requirement to take a course, complete a quiz, or somehow prove that you as potential voter were sufficiently informed to be eligible to step into the ballot box.

It’s a bit much for me, involving a bit too much faith in the benevolence of government, but, on the other hand, it’s not hard to empathize with the sentiment.  Anyone who has made any sort of sustained investigation into the illegality of soft drugs, for instance, will soon come to the conclusion that the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ is a colossal waste of police and legal resources, a policy which pitchforks money to organized crime, fills up jails with non-violent offenders, and delivers scant results in terms of decreased drug use.

And yet, until very recently—maybe—a majority of American voters favored retaining laws prohibiting marijuana use.  Why?  Well, two reasons I think.  First of all emotion, the historical residue of the hysteria generated by ridiculous government campaigns from out of the past touting the dangers of “reefer madness!”  Secondly, the simple fact that these people aren’t well informed about the issue.  They haven’t studied the facts.  They haven’t seen how much money is spent eradicating marijuana fields, taking down grow ops, busting teenagers, jailing small-time dealers.  They haven’t considered how much money flows to gangs, when it could be flowing in taxes to depleted government coffers.  They may be vaguely aware that the prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s didn’t work out that well, giving rise to the American Mafia, but they haven’t really had to examine the parallels between those events and the prohibition against marijuana.  Why have the majority of Americans viewed marijuana prohibition as a good thing?  They don’t know any better.

It’s just one example which raises the question of whether ‘direct democracy’ is a good thing.  The digital revolution is fast delivering us the means to hold a referendum on every issue, voting from our smart phones, tablets and laptops.  Should we go there?  If we do we could probably eliminate the need for those noxious politicians squabbling in cantankerous legislatures.  Then we could institute, just as my friend suggested, online courses which a prospective voter would be obligated to complete, before casting her vote on any particular proposed law.  Tempted?

The question can be more germanely asked, here and now, as whether an elected official is compelled to vote ‘the will of the people.’   Setting aside for a second the reality of a ‘party whip’ dictating to said official how he will vote, should our rep be free to vote according to his own personal assessment of the proposition, or should he be obliged to vote in line with what polls show is the view of the majority of his constituents?

Personally, I’m a believer in representative democracy, where we send our best and brightest to debate, study and confer on the issues of the day, and then vote according to their soundest judgment.  Referendums are a mug’s game.  If we are to see progressive change in our society, we’re better off avoiding them.  Why?  For one specific reason: voting ‘no’ empowers; voting yes does not.  We can frame the referendum question as carefully as we like, crafting it like obsessed ad men, but the fact is that the number of voters out there who feel at least mild resentment toward politicians dwarfs the number who may be uninformed about any particular issue.  These folks are generally not terribly happy with their lives, and the easiest place to direct the blame is toward the government.

Thus, when the opportunity arises to ‘stick one’ to the government, they’re going to take it; they’re going to vote no to change.  Voting no means that the power still resides with you—maybe I’ll vote yes next time, if you’re nicer to me in the meantime—but voting yes means you no longer hold any leverage.  The power has been passed on to people who may never care to seek your input again.

As I keep saying, change is constant; new problems will always arise, so we need change to contend with those problems—new solutions for new problems.  And referendums will always make that difficult.  They’re a political cop-out.  They amount to politicians dodging their responsibility.




The Singularity

It’s the ultimate sci-fi concept.  Those infernal machines keep getting steadily smarter and smarter until, one day, shazaam, they surpass human intelligence and we arrive at “the singularity”—a point in time beyond which, almost by definition, the future is unknowable.

The idea has been popularized by science-fiction writers like Vernor Vinge  and Ray Kurzweil, who rightly point out that such an event would be more than a little disruptive to existing social and economic conditions.  Certainly we’ve seen that kind of disruption already with the effects of the digital revolution on nearly every industry out there.  It may have begun with music, but can you think of any industry now which has not been at least bent out of its former shape, if not turned on its proverbial ear, by the advent of digital technology, whether it be publishing, journalism, travel, entertainment or war?

Scott McIntyre, the CEO of Douglas McIntyre Publishers, the largest independent Canadian publishing house, tried to put the pressure on his industry into perspective during an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 21 of 2012.  He repeated the publishing bromide which states that the first book Johannes Guttenberg published, after inventing the printing press, was The Bible.  The second book he published was “a screed on the death of the publishing industry.”  A little perspective on any problem is always a good thing.  Sadly however, proper perspective or not, Douglas McIntyre filed for bankruptcy on October 22 of 2012.

Kurzweil suggests, in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, a scenario of “accelerating returns” on computer technology, whereby computers progressively design new and better computers along an exponential growth curve.  Like humans, computers become self-replicating.  It’s an evolutionary path which, Kurzweil believes, is inevitable.

It all relates back to “Moore’s Law,” the oft-cited axiom which states that the processing power of computer chips doubles every two years.  Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore provided the basis for the Law back in 1965, and his prediction has proven to be almost supernaturally accurate to date.  It’s interesting to note, however, that Intel itself has predicted that the trajectory may finally end as soon as 2013.  Moore has added that, “It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”

Computers, I am told, are very near reaching the human brain’s capacity for language recognition.  Can we safely predict from there that, as many have suggested, a computer will nonetheless never be capable of writing, say, King Lear?  I recall a university professor of mine, back in the day, who cast withering aspersion on the prediction that, by the day he was speaking to us, the chess champion of the world would be a computer, reminding us that Boris Spassky currently occupied that seat.  As we all know, the good Professor would be in no position for such easy defamation today, as not only is a computer chess champion of the world, IBM’s ‘Watson’ triumphed over the very best players of the TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity is more than the ultimate sci-fi premise; it also represents the ultimate faith in technology.  Kurzweil believes that we will soon be able to achieve immortality via an upload of our bio-techno-enhanced consciousness, that we will be able to revive the dead, so long as we have stored enough information about them before they physically disappeared.  Optimistic seems an inadequate descriptor for this view.  Others have suggested that as computers exceed our intelligence and go on, at the same exponential rate, to become super beings far eclipsing our powers in every capacity, they will come to regard humans as utterly inconsequential, much the way we regard mosquitos—periodically irritating, but a problem easily remedied with a decisive swat.

1) Change is the only constant, and 2) prognosticators of the future are like baseball players at the plate: the very best of them get it right only about a third of the time.  These are the only two axioms that occur to me as reliable when it comes to considering the future.

The digital revolution has far more in common with the industrial than it does the Gutenberg revolution.  Like the industrial revolution, it has a profound upside, and a profound downside.  It remains for us to collectively attempt to benefit from its upside, and protect ourselves from its downside.  (The demise of independent Canadian publishing is no small loss.)  On an individual level, it’s the very same challenge.