Driving Away with Autonomy

I keep hearing about driverless cars, or as I call them, mobile prisons. I don’t even like riding in a vehicle while somebody else is driving, so maybe my distaste for automated transportation is in part a personal problem. That said, hackers and feds could remotely commandeer an IoT car with powerlocks and deliver their helpless subjects right into a police station or river. But even when we are not at the mercy of tech-savvy nemeses there is a general incapacitation of humanity that corresponds to the capabilities of our machines. Talk about so-called “autonomous vehicles” should concern us about the displacement of our own innate freedom.

Marshall McLuhan’s study of “Media Ecology” argued that technology extends human abilities outside our body. The obvious advantage of tools is that they expand our capability while reducing the burden of work on our physical forms. The disadvantage, however, is that our naked abilities atrophy when we exercise them through technology. Gloves, for example, are a tool that I use when I am splitting firewood so that the friction from the handle of the splitting maul doesn’t give me painful blisters on my hands. McLuhan would describe gloves as an extension of my skin. If I wear gloves for too much of my physical work, however, my skin will remain fragile rather than tough. In other words, by extending my skin’s ability to protect beyond my body, my actual skin has become weaker.

A more cerebral example of a medium would be a mobile device, especially those which our language has come to describe as “smart phones.” Many people, including those without a deliberate Media Ecology approach, have considered that some mental abilities will decrease as we become more dependent on handheld computers. Perhaps people will have poorer memories when they’ve become accustomed to storing their friends phone numbers on their contact list and can use IMDb to recall the names of actors in movies, among other things. Maybe math skills will deplete as we now carry calculators at all times in the form of our phones. Although it is in part a play on words, it would not be too farfetched to say that “smart phones” extend our intellect outside of our body. This makes us conveniently intelligent as long as we are utilizing a handheld device, but without it we become stupider than we would have otherwise been.

So if you are riding along in an “autonomous vehicle,” that implies that you have relinquished your autonomy in exchange for a ride. The benefit is ease of transport, but the cost is the mediation of control, will, and freedom into a complex digital-mechanical apparatus. I personally prefer simplicity as well as autonomy, so I may never take the opportunity to ride in a driverless vehicle. That said, my position is not categorically anti-technology. Instead I want to evaluate media cautiously by weighing their effects on humans and the planet along with their alluring benefits. People will have to form their own evaluations, but for me the most healthy and enjoyable form of autonomous transport is walking.

Ego Versus Empathy and the Destruction of Our Children

This piece appears in POPs #2: Parents on Parenting, a zine edited by my friend Jonas and available from Pioneer Press.

And what concerns me is that, beyond the mischief of Trump and all those in his Cabinet and the people that he’s appointed into roles of leadership, I had never quite understood that we had another severe, unattended enemy in our midst. And that was our species’ commitment or weakness in the face of absolute greed. And I think we have failed to come to certain solid conclusions, because we have been so contaminated with possessions and power that we have forgotten that we have destroyed our children, or set the tone for that.

Harry Belafonte, December 5, 2016

A Love for My Child and an Empathy for Others

I have always cared about kids, but since my son was born that regard has become enhanced into a deep awe and existential empathy. I am amazed at his being, and the responsibility that my spouse and I have to care for him has magnified the sense of meaning in my life. While my bond with my son has engendered a controlling desire to facilitate for him the greatest possible experiences and opportunities, my parenting experience has also made my empathy for other children more powerful.

Sadly, this deeper understanding affects me most when I become aware of tragedies in which children suffer. In 2015, for example, the world was disturbed to see the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish boy whose dead body washed onto a Turkish beach after his family had attempted to cross the Mediterranean in a rubber raft. One doesn’t have to be a parent to feel horrified by the little boy’s death; nonetheless, being a dad compounded my empathy for Alan Kurdi and millions of other child refugees, because I know that if my own child drowned at sea after fleeing a massive civil war—even though he is, of course, safe from that and other horrific scenarios—it would amount to hell on Earth for me.

In the context of creating a healthy society that values the quality of life of all people, a powerful love for my own child generally complements the consequent empathy I experience for others, yet I believe that my ego’s tendency to overemphasize my son’s well-being creates an ethical dilemma in which a regard for my own child could undermine my obligation to society’s children at large. My complicity in systems of negligence and exploitation create a conflict between my own son’s comfort and the well-being of other children.

The Destruction of Children

Worst-case scenarios for our near-future world have been disturbing my spouse and me, especially since the recent, wicked campaign season has culminated in the election of a hateful, narcissistic oligarch who is consolidating power around himself at the probable expense of the safety and freedom of hundreds of millions of people. As parents of a toddler, we fear that our son could have to grow up in a dystopian America full of state-based drone attacks, ethnocentric vigilante violence, and a scarcity of essential resources.

Those are severe situations, yet it is with relative luxury that I can enjoy thinking about such catastrophes for my own son while millions of children are experiencing them today. The civil war in Syria comes to mind again, where 10 million refugees have either fled the country or become internally displaced, while another half million people have been killed, including 50,000 children. Such extreme suffering and destruction has occurred due to the violence between a totalitarian state and various rebel groups, and it has been tolerated and even exacerbated through the proxy wars of foreign hegemons, namely the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Although Syria is experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, children obviously suffer everywhere, whether it is in the mineral mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo or in our own communities where systemic as well as intimate power structures inflict trauma on our society’s most vulnerable and innocent members. While my humanity leads me to empathize with children who suffer, and my personal experience of the precious parent-child bond enlarges that empathy into a deep, existential sorrow, I seem to have little control over the Syrian regime’s killing of children, for example, while I do have an essential influence over the day-to-day nurturing of my own child. At the same time, I believe it would be selfish for me to act as if I have no obligation toward those who are suffering.

When Ego Undermines Empathy

 Ego undermines Empathy when I think I deserve more than I need at the direct or indirect expense of those who have less than they need. Because of both subjectivity and complexity, it is hard to articulate a point in which the preservation of my family offends the well-being of others, but I have a distinct feeling that focusing too much energy on my own material status comes with economic and opportunity costs for families who are less fortunate. To be clear, my spouse’s and my current incomes put our family around the Medicaid eligibility threshold, but various benefits of a thorough, middle-class upbringing and support network continue to make us extremely prosperous by international comparisons.

The connections between providing for my son and caring for the world’s children include political and economic examples. Politically, my family enjoys enormous freedom in raising our son with plenty of space and access to resources, in part due to the power, wealth, and pluralism of the U.S. nation-state. A basic understanding of recent history, however, reveals that the state has often acted as an imperial entity elsewhere in order to preserve its own standing—Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s are two cases out of the several hundred that come to mind. Benefiting from the freedom and security of citizenship within the world’s top superpower comes through the costs of lives and quality of life among the subjects of our foreign interventions, historically and presently.

Economically, colonial exploitation has evolved into the current tumult of global markets, whereby the so-called First World hoards resources and coerces entire groups into wage slavery to serve the comfort and convenience of the beneficiary population—the top fifth or so of the world. The story of a personal electronic device could highlight this connection between one’s wealth and another’s poverty, beginning with raw materials. Control of minerals such as coltan, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold for use in many of our machines, from cell phones to jet planes, has been linked to 20 years of civil war and the displacement of 1.4 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While government bodies and NGOs have been working to improve the situation, slavery, wage-slavery, child exploitation, and sexual violence have permeated throughout the mining operations. From a consumer standpoint, the harsh exploitation of the workers makes our high-tech gadgets more affordable. Likewise, the precious metals are exported for manufacturing to places with low wages and tough working conditions. A Foxconn factory worker in Shenzhen, China, for example, might have to save up to six months’ wages to purchase one of the iPhones that she helped to assemble. From this perspective, the humanitarian cost for the abundance of cheap goods that populate my son’s environment is a lower standard of living for the children among the 70% of the world’s families that live on less than $10 a day.

Parenting in a World of Conflict

The moral dilemmas of how to live one’s life are hardly peculiar to parents, yet having the responsibility of caring for a child augments the duty to provide security and success at great costs. I want my child to have healthy food, a safe home, space to play, imaginative toys, nice friends, and the best educational opportunities. I also want to give him attention and to spend as much time with him as possible. The problem for me is whether I am providing him with the best resources and greatest nurturing through a complicity in systems whose costs fall on others with less privilege.

Is it okay to spend fifteen dollars on a toy that he doesn’t need when the opportunity cost of that toy could be either donating a toy to another kid or giving the money to Doctors Without Borders, for example? Is it better to spend two hours at home with my son in the evening instead of attending a rally in solidarity with Standing Rock or volunteering at a food pantry? Should I move farther out into a bigger house so that he has the most peace and the most safety possible, even if the mortgage and upkeep on the home require so much of my time and money that I am too busy to engage in social movements or contribute resources to campaigns? There is no universal answer in these scenarios because they are subjective and because their contexts are complex, but there is clearly a realm of decision-making where my personal interests may undermine the moral obligation I feel toward the social good.

My son is the most important subject of my life, but to the universe he is not more important than anybody else. Certainly all children have an equal right to freedom and security, and as parents I believe we are in some way obligated to try to provide that first for our own offspring, but only in a way that allows us to also seek it for others. Whenever I see children suffering—whether from U. S. foreign policy, extreme materialism, or climate catastrophes—I care about those kids, especially because I can imagine how horrible it would be to see my own son in their situations. As a result, I want to seek a way of life that both nurtures my son and supports a healthy world for all children.

When I’m Gone

This piece appears in POPs #1: Parents on Parenting, a zine edited by my friend Jonas and available from Pioneer Press.

The invincibility of youth is a cliché that I never fully celebrated in adolescence, but I did, nonetheless, become acutely aware of my own mortality for the first time when I was twenty-five. That was the year that my dad died from a rare form of cancer. He had been a strong and healthy man, yet his body succumbed to an ugly and tortuous disease. I was happy for his suffering to end, and of course I was sad in many obvious and nuanced ways that I won’t expound here. But one lesson I learned from watching my primary role model die at age sixty was that I will also die.

My father died in a crude and beautiful room in our house that he had hand-built from massive timbers, and eight years later my son was born in that exact same room. Raising a baby boy in the same house in which I had grown up made it easy to imagine that I had become my father and that my son was a new version of me. Such comparisons are both cutely sentimental and grotesquely patrilineal, but my thinking of distinct persons as multi-generational manifestations of some common narrative was an enticement of a kind of immortality, one that may have helped mitigate my opposite, predominant feeling for a while.

Not since the death of my father has any event or process so singularly invited the fear of death into my mind as the birth of my child because time seemed to be moving so fast during the first several months of his infancy. I suppose this is mainly due to the rapidity with which a neonate develops, but whatever the cause, the effect was that my life appeared like a video on fast forward. It was terrifying to feel that not only had the first thirty-three years of my life become a blur of memories archived on magnetic tape, but that the next few decades threatened to play even quicker.

So while I was laying against a stack of pillows and watching my infant son crawl around the rug and stick objects into his mouth, I conjured the syllogism:

 If time accelerates as I approach the end of my life, then at the instant of death I will perceive all of my life’s experiences simultaneously.

It’s a kind of Relativity, I guess, wherein reaching the time of death eliminates the perception of time itself. So there is a paradox that as mortality bears down on my terrestrial mindbody like a hammer against an anvil, I will perceive a sort of timelessness in death—maybe.

Anyway, that’s a hypothesis I would prefer not to test until the second half of this century, and in the meantime I have a more conservative approach to slowing down the unforgiving onslaught of entropy. If I reverse the direction of time in my if-then statement above, I might also contend:

If time decelerates as I move back towards my first breath, then at the moment of birth I perceived my lifespan as infinite.

It makes sense because when I was a little kid a half-hour seemed like a long time, and going back even further, a newborn waking alone in a crib, for example, can take no refuge in the possibility of being comforted soon, because it only perceives its present experience.

Now, I am absolutely certain that my life has no rewind button, but I know somebody who is young enough and new enough to our four-dimensional experience that “now” feels like a long time and “later” feels like eternity. At this writing, my son is sixteen months, and I am fortunate to be able to spend a great deal of time with him. Sometimes it seems tedious and frustrating watching a baby for several hours, especially when you have work to do around the house and errands to run and so on, but these long hours are a precious opportunity to suspend or at least slow down entropy. By relinquishing worries about the gutters and the dishes and the library books for a while and instead relaxing and just being with my son in the present moment, I can live a little bit in real time and delay the inevitable demise of my existence as I currently understand it.

Of course there’s one more, vital piece to this “be here now with baby” strategy. Whether or not it really affects my perception of time now or at the moment of my death, at least I will know that I enjoyed as much time with my son as I could during my life. Afterall, there’s something else I learned when my dad died, other than the obvious notion that I too will perish. It’s another cliché, but one that I would be foolish not to honor—that I won’t be able spend time with the ones I love when I’m gone. That I know for sure. Unless—just maybe—the instant of death brings the perception of simultaneity, then mortality may bring us all together forever.