A tug of war between independence/originality and dependence/conventionality

glasscastle

What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.”  (1)

From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then,  Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable.  If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from  discovering these facts on her/his own.

However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened.  If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.

The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart).  The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver.  Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”.  She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.

Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.

The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance.  If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.

The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?

From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.

In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?

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(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html

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Call for Academic Papers: Technology and (un)employment from the Italian perspective

CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)

 Italian Studies: Technology and (Un)employment 

Organizers: Antonio Marturano (Università Tor Vergata, Roma) and Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (York University, Toronto).

This session aims to investigate the cultural implications of technology and (un)employment from the perspective of Italian Studies. Expressions of the impact that technological advancements have on work are part and parcel of Italian culture (in films, such as Io e Caterina; in novels, for ex., of Paolo Volponi, or Francesco Verso;  in visual art: Futurismo, etc.).

Technology has come to replace human workers not only in repetitive tasks but also in more complex occupations. Technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence keep developing rapidly; the trend indicates  that no occupation or profession will be immune to technological progress. The proponents of technology extol its beneficial aspects for humanity (medical, lifestyle, etc.), and the critics propose various doomsday scenarios (general unemployment, economic divide, hopelessness, etc.). But the consensus from both sides appears to lay in increased education and re-training both to keep working, as well as keep oneself otherwise occupied.

Contributions which take account of the writings of philosophers, political thinkers, literary critics, such as Antonio Gramsci, Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, Alberto Abbruzzese are welcome.

Topics to be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Italian approaches  to technological (un)employment: educational, philosophical, social, political, economic, literary, etc.
  • Italian popular culture and technological (un)employment: film, science fiction, i gialli, music,  etc.
  • Italian Weltanschauung with regards to technological (un)employment
  • Pedagogical strategies and curricula contents vis-à-vis technological (un)employment
  • Role of Italian studies in view of reduced workload or jobless future
  • Italian (im)/(e)migration, technological change, and work
  • Italian language and technological (un)employment

 

Please submit an abstract in English or Italian and a short bio to a.marturano@gmail.com and jvzocco@yorku.ca,  by February 15, 2018.

______________________

** CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)  http://canadiansocietyforitalianstudies.camp7.org/Conference-2018

For information on CSIS News or to post a message, please contact the List Manager, Dr Maria Laura Mosco, at csisnewslist@gmail.com

Millennials and beyond: born to satisfy the “needs of the market economy”

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Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016,  231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.

The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries).  According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:

  1. they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
  2. they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
  3. their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s  interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
  4. they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
  5. they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
  6. they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
  7. they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
  8. they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
  9. they allow credentialism to be rampant,
  10. they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
  11. they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
  12. the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).

There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.

What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?

The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)

“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired  pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.

Moreover, there are routs to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then,  it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However,  the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186).  Words for parents:  “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).

The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years  now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to  successfully  prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not  delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.

In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2)  i. children and language as well as  ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.

As for 1), it  is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business”  (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.

2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more  words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii.  It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.

3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how does this bear on the woes of the university.

4)  I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that  the authors state that  75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with made this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.

The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people.  Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly,  and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.

In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case  the students have a job,  no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.

 

McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

mcdon

For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Social Media: Implications for the University

book

The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Technology-driven unemployment: dilemmas for ethics and social welfare

This is a call for articles to be published in a Special Issue of the journal Ethics and Social Welfare.

untitled 

In Praise for Idleness (1935), Bertrand Russell claimed that “We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.” Russell’s optimistic vision regarding the role of technology advocates for work reduction which would increase human welfare and liberate people to be able to devote their time to culture and leisure. His optimism does not seem to be justified in light of recent economic and technological developments which lead to serious unemployment rather than cheerful work reduction. The loss of jobs due to technological innovations is starting to reach crisis proportions as many scholars (such as David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1995) and popular press warn (for ex., Eduardo Porter, “Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect”, The New York Times, June 7, 2016).   There are indeed many voices which decry the unemployment situation exasperated by the replacement of humans by machines, and apparently no job is likely to be immune. The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. Although the scholarly work published on the topic focuses mainly on the technical, technological, and market side, assessments which consider the ethical and social welfare implications of technological unemployment are still to be addressed in detail. The submissions to the special issue will contribute to setting the agenda for this serious and timely discussion. Topics to be explored from theoretical as well as practical perspectives include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • The role of governmental institutions in technological unemployment
  • Jobless future: is unconditional basic/universal income the answer?
  • Social, political, and economic approaches to welfare in a jobless future
  • New ethical dimensions of work originating from the technological unemployment crisis
  • Political and social inequality created by a jobless future
  • Strategic plans for skills, education, re-deployment for the technologically jobless
  • The political control of technological unemployment
  • Welfare, leadership and jobless future
  • Technological displacement vs technological innovation from the perspective of social welfare
  • Historical visions on the ethical impacts of workload reduction
  • Creating new values for a jobless future
  • Political values in welfare and technological disruption in the job market
  • Work as human value
  • Conflicting values in a jobless world (for ex., the refugees crisis in the EU)
  • Religious values and technological unemployment

Brief for contributors: In line with the editorial aims of the journal, this call for papers focuses specifically on the relationship between ethics, welfare, and values implicated in the policies and political strategies on the one hand and technologically-driven unemployment on the other. The editors welcome academic papers which are interdisciplinary in character. Contributions may combine wider ethical and theoretical questions concerning technology-driven unemployment with practical considerations leading to social policies and professional practices (especially the existing and future policies of local/national governments and international institutions, such as EU, UN, WTO to cope with the problems of technological joblessness). The special issue, as with other issues of the journal, welcomes material in a variety of formats, including high quality peer-reviewed academic papers, reflections, debates and commentaries on policy and practice, book reviews and review articles. Academic papers should be between 4-7,000 words long, and practice papers should be between 750-2,500 words long. Please consult the style rules laid-out on the journal’s website: http://www.tandfonline.com/resw. All academic papers will be double-blind peer- reviewed in the normal way.  Practice papers will be considered for publication by the editors. 

For any further information, contact Prof. Antonio Marturano (marturano@btinternet.com) and Prof. Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (jvzocco@yorku.ca).

Procedure and timelines

Submitters will be informed about the outcome as soon as possible after this date.

Abstracts should include 1. The essential content, argument, and methodology of the submission, 2. The submission’s aims and conclusions, 3. The relationship of the submission to the aims and scope of the journal.

  • Completed first drafts of papers are due by the 23rd of July 2017 and must be submitted to https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/resw.
  • Final (revised) versions must be submitted by the 18th of June 2018.
  • Final confirmation of paper acceptance by the 30th September 2018.
  • Papers published in the first issue of Volume 13, 2019.                                                                                                                                                                       

‘Technological unemployment’

The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. (http://www.wtn.net/technological-unemployment-summit). Although in the last 10 years or so various scholars have tackled the issue of technological joblessness from technological, political, and psychological perspectives, the language used to refer to this type of unemployment has as yet to be analyzed. What follows is then the first attempt to make sense of this topic from a roughly semantic point of view as illustrated by English usage.

Technological unemployment and its synonyms

The most striking linguistic process is the birth of the meaning of the phrase technological unemployment itself. At a first glance, the meaning of the phrase is relatively simple: “unemployment caused by technologically-driven labor-saving or efficiency-saving processes”. But the adjective “technological” normally does not carry a causal meaning:   other phrases, such as technological change, technological advancements, refer to change in/of technology, or advancements in/of  technology. The adjective in these instances then refers intrinsically to technology itself. In  the phrase technological unemployment, the meaning of “technological” does not refer to “technology” in the same way, i.e., it is not “unemployment in/of technology”. Clearly, it is the meaning of “unemployment” which begs for a causal sense. Some of the phrase’s synonyms are technological joblessness, disruptive technologies, replacement of workers, reduction of job classification, technological efficiency. Whichever side of the debate one is on, it is clear that these phrases carry within themselves positive and negative connotations: it is usually the technologists who believe that yes, “technological unemployment” creates unemployment, but it also drives the search for other types of jobs;  “disruptive technologies” disrupt, but may also create other jobs; “replacement of workers” causes joblessness but also “amplifies people” (Sikka), “complements workers” (according to Irving Wladawsky-Berger quoted in The Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2015/11/06/technological-unemployment-and-the-future-of-work/)  . It must be pointed out that it was customary to refer to blue-collar, unskilled or semi-skilled work as bearing the brunt of unemployment caused by technology, as human manual labor is being replaced by machines. But examples of AI encroaching on professional types of work (surgeons, instructors, lawyers, etc.) illustrate that no occupation or profession is “safe” from being replaced by machines . It is also interesting that many publications deal with the “future of unemployment”, which means basically types of jobs that will be less prone to be replaced by machines, i.e. relying on the accepted notions of employment.

Meaning, function, and nature of work

Anyone interested in “technological unemployment” cannot but muse about the meaning, function, and nature of the concept “work”. In what is hoped will become a decisively seminal work entitled The Refusal of Work (London: Zed Books, 2015), David Frayne dissects the nature of our present meaning of the term “work” and analyzes those cases of “workers” who themselves decided to work less.

refusalThis, of course, is yet another take on “unemployment”, and, in many ways, contradicts the logical bases of both the neoliberal capitalist  system and furnishes more fuel to that aspect of postmodern culture which underlines the fact that “the burden is on the user/worker/individual”.

If we identify ourselves by the job we hold, then it is a tragedy to lose this job and become unemployed: we lose our identity, our life-purpose, our Weltanschauung. This work-based perspective of human life is so ingrained in many cultures that it is even enshrined in at least one country’s Constitution (the example of which Frayne could have used to bolster his arguments): Article 1 of the Italian Constitution states that “L’Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro” (Italy is a democratic republic founded on work).

Notwithstanding this incorporation of the function of work in one way or another in all societies, it is clear that the notion of  “work”/ “job” /”remunerated occupation” belongs to yet another of the “big narratives” which are being shattered in late modernity/postmodernity. Clearly then even those philosophical views which take into account work as something different from leisure (for ex.,  Bertrand Russell), start being insufficient.
Even if it is obvious that the notion of the meaning of “work” is dramatically being transformed, many urgent questions remain which await clear answers. These answers should assist humans rather than bypassing them. Here are just three which deal with “technological unemployment”:
1.  What types of employment are necessary for humans to thrive?
2.  What role (if any) does education play in creating “the good life?”
3.  Is the concept of “work” a useful cognitive tool?

These questions, unfortunately but excitingly, lead to reconsidering the meaning of the term “humanity” which, crucially, is totally lacking in discussions using  the phrase “technological unemployment”.

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Additional material which insist on efficiency (economic and technological side) only rather than looking at the problem also from a human point of view:

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36376966?utm_content=buffer2a746&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer