Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Jetpacks over New Orleans

Scott Edelman has an editorial over at entitled: The Odds of Being Uneven. It's a thought about how the fruits of science and technology seem to be poorly distributed among the population. He quotes William Gibson's aphorism, "the future is already here—it's just unevenly distributed."

I sent a reply to and to Mr. Edelman that I am adapting for this post.

Certainly the problem of uneven distribution of the fruits of scientific and technological advance is one of great challenges of our age.

However, the challenge needs to be seen in two segments: those who cannot take advantage of those fruits, and those who (for various reasons) choose not take advantage. In the first segment we have those have no access to the "Future," those for whom geographic or cultural isolation bars them from those fruits. These can include indigenous peoples living in the Amazonian rain forest or sub-Sahara Africa. Bringing the future to these peoples seems almost straightforward. Our problem lies with the other segment.

Those that choose not to take advantage of the future include anti-technology groups such as the Amish, various counter-culture “simplicity” advocates, populations living under Sharia law in many Middle-Eastern countries, and regrettably, many inner-city poor.

For those that have seen the “future” and turned away, I can say no more than to promise I won’t fly my jetpack over their compounds and scare the livestock. Yet even these people must come to some accommodation with the future. (Stephenson’s The Diamond Age posits them selling status-bringing craftwork to those whom technology has provided wealth.)

Those whose access to the future is barred by cultural taboos are the subject of a whole ‘nother editorial.

But problem of the American inner-city poor is not that they do not have access to the “Future,” that is, the fruits of science and technology. It is that many of them do not understand how their futures must change how they behave in the present. Poor people have a lot of trouble envisioning the future and then planning for it. One must plan to finish high school, one must plan to take an entry-level job, seeing it as an entrance to to working world, one must plan not to have illegitimate children.

And by poor I do not mean those who do not have money at any particular instant. I have been broke and homeless in a strange city during one of the technology busts of the 1970’s-1980’s. Poverty is a cultural problem that has resisted the best efforts of armies of dedicated social-service workers funded with multiple trillions of dollars over the last three decades.

Edelman writes:
What the despair dredged up last week showed was that those with access to cars and credit cards (all 20th-century inventions) could at least make an attempt to escape, while those without could not.
Cars and credit cards were accessible to almost anyone in New Orleans who behaved in ways that made them available. The problem was not access. The problem was that their behaviors made the fruits unavailable. To cite an gedankenexperiment, if I drive drunk and have my car seized by the police, I will not have a car to evacuate. More commonly, if I cannot (or will not) hold down a paying job, I won’t have a credit card to fund my evacuation. This is not to blame the victims trapped in New Orleans by the flooding, which people included many wealthy tourists who were abandoned in their hotels. These people were failed by their mayor, their police department, their governor and the federal bureaucracy.

Again, Edelman writes:
I still believe in the future. But we must engineer its approach so that its fruits will be shared by all. Humanity has always been separated into the haves and the have-nots. We have just been reminded of the consequences of that. As the promises of science fiction continue to come true, the gap between those two groups will grow even larger. Isn't it about time we spent as much time and energy solving that problem as we're doing on creating cell phones that will download clips from American Idol even faster for those who can afford them?

Because when I finally am flitting through the skies strapped to my personal jetpack, I don't want to be looking down at those living in poverty below.

I want all of us to be flying high together.
I, too, want all of us (who so choose) to revel in the promise of the Future. The problem that we must address is not how to shower (distribute) material things onto the poor, for everyone must have a choice to accept or reject the Future. But rather, how can we develop social safety nets that do not provide a disincentive to the virtues of industry, thrift, and personal responsibility?

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