Our Backs to the Future

In the modern corporate themed allegory ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ about adapting to a changing set of circumstances, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw have to adapt to a sudden change in their environment when their ‘cheese’ or key resource disappears. Only one of the characters is able to adjust fully to the change or ‘disappearance of the cheese’ successfully-an interesting point to note. From this quaint fable about changing facets of life in the 20th and 21st century we are expected to come to the realisation that change is inevitable and those that do not adapt or ‘bend with the breeze’ will break or be left behind. The tale has been told often and is used as a kind of corporate mantra in the post-modern world. Yet, the type of change in the story which advocates and supporters of ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ promote isn’t like Cardinal John Henry Newman’s concept of change-that of inward spiritual growth which will lead us to become more fully aware and compassionate human beings; rather it’s based upon Frederick Taylor’s mechanistic view of the human being as outlined in his 1909 book “The Principles of Scientific Management.” This was one of the earliest studies in change management and an example of a mechanistic model of behaviourism which was used to manipulate people into becoming robot like and enabled them to be used merely as cogs in the servitude of the owners of the means of production.
And it is this model of change which futurists like Peter Diamondis promote. In a recent presentation in the city state of Dubai, Diamondis proclaimed his own doctrine of change arguing that it no longer happens every 100 years, but every year (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). He claims as his own, the somewhat paradoxical mantra that ‘change is a constant’ feature of 21st century life.
Well, yes and no. One could argue that there’s always change just as day turns into night and the seasons predictably come and go (perhaps less so these days due to climate change), and we are born, grow old and die. These kinds of ‘constants’ in change are founded upon the existential conditions in which humanity constantly strives to survive and where it appears we seem to have created such a mess of it all. We need to address with increasing urgency whether or not we want our species is to survive, and endure the kind of future predicted by Dr. Diamondis.
Among the kinds of changes he predicts are that high school students will have the ability to sequence their own DNA and that life will become more ‘like a manufacturing process” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I can already hear Marx and Engels chortling quite happily “we told you so”. He claims that today 100 years of age is the new 60. Well Dr. Diamondis, I’d prefer not to be alive at 100 as I’m damn sure I’m not going to feel much better than I do now at 60!
3D printing will develop to the extent we’ll be able to “print cement to build our houses and manufacturing will become “geography independent” and the mass of humanity will become ‘empowered’ (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I’m not sure how this will work for the 99% who won’t be able to afford the printer, electricity or who may not even have a shelter in which to begin this great architectural innovation.
Artificial intelligence will gradually supersede our ability to make choices and privacy will be a “thing of the past” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Well, thanks to Edward Snowden, we already know this, and with Facebook buying the messaging app Whatsapp for $19bn it is all but confirmed.
In addition he predicts an even more gloomy ignominious future with more “jobs going to China to India to Robots” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Not sure how the 1.3 billion Chinese will respond to this, but if Tiananmen Square is any indication of ‘moving the cheese’ in that country-I wouldn’t want to be Sniff, Scurry, Hem or Haw. However, they might fare better in India where the 1.27 billion might adjust given their reluctance to break out of their rigid case system, and where any kind of cheese is a welcome relief to the abject poverty and misery of their disenfranchised population.
President Obama will not be happy at all with Dr. Diamondis health care predications for the future, in which we will be able to ‘self-diagnose our own medical conditions’ and treat ‘most illnesses at home’. (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014) After all the delays and angst over ‘Obama Care’ it now seems the President would have been better advised to consult with Dr. Diamondis. He could have avoided the Supreme Court challenge and that awful public brawl with those ungrateful Republicans.
The point is futurists have their place in the world alongside Tarot card and Palm readers, who I often consult-well; so did Nancy Reagan! As for the future my money’s on the predictions of Rick Evans (Evans, 2013) as sung by Zager & Evans in 1969. They reflect a far greater and more urgent reality: the existential condition of humanity; whereas Peter Diamondis has his head buried in the lucrative and exclusive sands of Silicon Valley:

References
Evans, R. (2013). Zager & Evans Lyrics. Retrieved from Metro Lyrics: http://www.metrolyrics.com/in-the-year-2525-lyrics-zager-and-evans.html
Masudi, F., & Nazzal, N. (2014). 2050: The Shape of Things to Come. Dubai: Gulf News.
Johnson, S., Who Moved My Cheese, Putnam Books, (USA) 1998

In Defense of Humor in an Age of Blame, Revenge and Scapegoating

Fawlty Towers, the British sitcom, which aired in the United Kingdom and its former dominions between 1975-1979 provides an insight into the psyche of British Humor. Fawlty Towers is essentially class driven, culturally misogynistic and racist as it projects a kind of put-down-humor on the other. Yet its humorous content has been (and still is) enjoyed all over the world. One particular episode comes to mind The Germans; in this episode a slightly crazed (more than usual) Fawlty has a restaurant full of German tourists whom he won’t let forget who started and won WW II. To the British and those of her allies who fought Germany between 1939 and 1945 it is hilarious in its portrayal of a deep-seated bigoted man caught up in the social veneer of class and cultural snobbery. Fawlty’s mad antics are captured in the way he pokes fun at German hurt and offense at defeat and British gloating of victory in WW II. But to a significant number of Germans it was deeply offense and humiliating. The overall suicide rate in the two Germanys between 1975-1979 conservatively was probably around 17  % per 100,000 people, yet we would be hard pressed to find a causal link between those suicides and that particular episode of Fawlty Towers.

Similarly, Mind Your Language, another late 1970s  British sitcom sought to portray the pranks and tricks of foreign language students in the United Kingdom;  once again subject content was of a racist nature and stereotyping and apportioning blame were key themes in the program. Yet, both these programs provided an outlet for people to laugh at themselves and they provided a jolly good belly laugh for large majorities of the population in the United Kingdom and in countries to which the programs were syndicated. However, those whose cultural identities and nationalities were lampooned and humiliated in Mind Your Language were often deeply offended, and the show was eventually chopped by a London Weekend Television executive who found it in appalling bad taste. Yet, once again it would be a totally erroneous claim to attempt to equate the ever-increasing suicide rate in the late 1970s among minorities in England to that particular TV series, even though the rate was growing at around 2% of the national average.

In a report through the Mail online, it is claimed that Middle-class people use humor to try to demonstrate their superiority. In research conducted through the University of Edinburgh it was found that the upper and middle classes enjoyed what was termed more “sophisticated humor” than the working classes. It was claimed that the middle class were less likely to enjoy the humor of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, but would embrace Paul Merton. (Cohen, 2010).

One can argue that there are degrees of humor, and  some humor is tasteful while another form is not. The late British comedian Benny Hill, and Paul Merton are situated at different points on the humor continuum in British daily life.  Yet these are often subjective points of view based on cultural and ethical norms; but overall humor is  a vehicle in which we are able to laugh at ourselves, our cultures, societies and things we consider sacrosanct in an effort not to take life too seriously. This is particularly important today, given that we are led to believe through the ever increasingly monopolized and controlled media conglomerates, that life is very serious (fiscal cliffs, terrorism, climate change , global warming etc.) and must be taken seriously! Humor is a welcome antidote to such a pessimistic and manipulating view of life. It is also subject to and limited by cultural norms and understandings too-often one may find it difficult to understand why something is funny or humorous in one culture and not another, or humor in one culture or context may be deeply offensive in another-knowing where to draw the line is a difficult call in our globalized techno-crazed driven world. Remember Borat!

A significant number of people throughout the world laughed along with Australian DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian after it was revealed they had called the King Edward VII hospital in London enquiring on the well being of the Duchess of Cambridge. It wasn’t so much the intent-that is enquiring about the Duchess’s health- but the audacity of the joke, and the way the two presenters mimicked the accents of a privileged aristocracy that the world laughed at; along with an additional side effect- a mimic of corgi’s barking in the background-it was an example of the kind of larrikin humor Australians-like it or not- are known for, and enjoyed by many people around the world. Also, it was an under-handed way of sending a jibe about the social and cultural differences between the two countries-as Clive Dunn, the late British comedy actor would have retorted- “They don’t like it up ‘em! “

And they didn’t. The King Edward VII hospital “deeply regretted” the incident, while at the same time condemning the joke as a “foolish prank that we all deplore” (BBC, 2012) . Although they went on to report that information given out was already in the public domain. Fearing some kind of repercussion the radio station in Sydney, 2Day FM also went into PR frenzy mode and issued ‘damage control’ statements about the harmless nature of the joke and wishing the Duchess well in her continuing confinement. The hospital also claimed that the two nurses involved in the hoax call were simply carrying out their duty and were not subject to any disciplinary measures.

A few days later the world was shocked to learn that one of the nurses who spoke to the DJs took her own life not long after the incident became public knowledge. Following on from her death there has been a frenzy of public outrage over the prank, as well as significant fall out for the DJs, 2Day FM and its corporate sponsors, along with official complaints at the highest levels between London and Sydney; Scotland Yard has contacted the Australian Federal police.

Notwithstanding one’s opinion of the joke and the subsequent fallout, the key question is to what extent are DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian responsible for the suicide of Jacinta Saldanha? Can a casual link be established between the two incidents?

Suicide and the in-depth personal issues which surround those prone to suicide are extremely complex.  There’s no definitive profile of a person who attempts suicide, although professionals attempt to draw up a list. Schimelpfening (2012) outlines certain conditions/situations that are associated with an increased risk of suicide:

  • death or terminal illness of a relative or friend
  • divorce, separation or relationship disintegration
  • loss of health (real or imaginary)
  • loss of job, home, money, status, self-esteem or personal security
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • depression

In addition, there are certain times when people may be more prone to suicidal feelings, such as:

  • holidays and anniversaries
  • the first week after discharge from a hospital
  • when treatment with an antidepressant first begins
  • just before and after diagnosis of a major illness
  • just before and during disciplinary proceedings (Schimelpfening, 2012)

Receiving a prank phone call, or embarressing the Royal family, or lacking a sense of humor, or being shy, or being perceived as not doing your job, or professional ineptitude are not on the above list  however mitigating these personal circumstances might be in the case of Jacinta Saldanha, and even if they were they would signify a much deeper problem on a personal and psychological level. Lord Glenarthur, the Chairman of Edward VII hospital said that “the immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses…the long term consequences has been reported around the world and is, frankly tragic beyond words.” (BBC, 2012) Yes, they are tragic, but linking the two together-the joke and the suicide is extremely disingenuous from a social, cultural and psychological perspective.

All humor runs the risk of humiliation of one sort or another; it’s at the core of the genre of comedy and satire.  Also, People kill themselves for reasons of which we will never know. I lost a brother to suicide some 20 years ago. Years of soul searching after his death revealed little understanding as to why, but more of an understanding of how complex the human character is and that while people may tell us who they are through their actions-we never really know them in their essence or essential being. Since Ms. Saldanha’s death public outrage has grown both in Australia and the United Kingdom and the noise in the technosphere is akin to  Dickens’ character Madam defarge and her supporters screaming ‘off with their heads!’ while sitting,  gloating beneath the blood soaked guillotine . It seems we live unhappy lives in unhappy times, where exacting revenge, apportioning blame or finding a scapegoat, sometimes under the guise of retrospective justice, takes precedence over rational and reasoned social discourse while maintaining a Shakespearean sense of comedy in the face of tragedy. No one knows why Jacinta Saldanha ended her life. Mel Grieg and Michael Christian are not responsible for her death no matter how ill conceived their joke.

BBC. (2012, December 9). Kate hoax call: Scotland Yard contacts Australian police. Retrieved December 2012, 2012, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20656911

Cohen, T. (2010, April 8). Mail online Science and Technology. Retrieved December 9, 2012, from Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1264203/Middle-class-preference-sophisticated-comedy-veiled-snobbery.html

Schimelpfening, N. (2012, October 30). Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs. Retrieved December 9, 2012, from About.com-Depression: http://depression.about.com/od/suicideprevent/a/warning_signs.htm

Is the Law an Ass?

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble… “the law is an ass—an idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.” [1]

It seems Mr. Bumble’s wish that the law may be opened up by experience is not too far off-or is it? The Australian High Court’s ratio decidendi that the inclusion of colorful logos, images, and brand designs on cigarette packaging is no longer allowed has been welcomed by many in the medical, educational and legal fraternity, and rightly so, because as the argument goes, the wrapping of the product is what seduces the user into the addiction in the first place. Moreover, it’s time those big tobacco companies, and their disgraceful profits gained on the backs of the suffering of millions who die horrible slow, painful cancerous deaths got their comeuppance. It has been going on for just too long.

The Australian High Court has ruled cigarette manufacturers must use olive-colored packaging for their products. The cigarette packets, as they are affectionately called by their users, will be wreathed in graphic images of sick and dying people, along with cancerous tumors on the throat and mouths, and bodies emaciated and eaten away as a result of lighting up a cigarette many times over. At last all those who have suffered, or lost a loved one through this repulsive addictive habit will have been vindicated, and may be able to find some solace in the court’s ruling.

The argument is premised on the idea that making the wrapping as unattractive as possible will discourage and deter those who are using tobacco as a crutch in their lives, and through fear of death and suffering prevent anyone else from ever starting. It’s the classic modification argument, behavioristic and deterministic in its very essence. But will it work? I’m not a great believer in any form of determinism. There’s the smaller matter of a greater  concept called free will, and leaving aside someone forcing an infant to smoke from a very young age (which is abuse), at some point a choice will be made to light up one of those “ vehicles for nicotine addiction”.

The question becomes whether one has the will or not to stop smoking upon learning about the risks involved. I did, after 16 years of smoking upwards of 40 cigarettes a day. It took 3 months, a few sessions of hypnotherapy, and an inward determination to kick a habit which, when I started I had not been educated in anyway about the consequences-oh yes the 60s and its decadence, and then all those Bogey and Bacall movies and the chain smoking-how cool was that! But it was more a case of a lack of education about smoking and its effects which seduced me-it was a socially cool thing to do-and then there was the rush and addiction which followed; but I was after some years able to quit. In the end I did it cold turkey, so to speak-I just willed it. I fought it like I wanted to win-and I substituted it for walking, then running, then learning to swim. I didn’t overeat or become a chocoholic, alcoholic, sexahoilc, or any other kind of holic; I just become fitter and happier. My friend still smokes. He buys packets which already have gruesome pictures of the diseased, dying and dead on them-but he simply takes them out of the packet, and places them into his new, gold  cigarette case, with its platinum skull and cross embossed on the lid. He grins, looks at me and says “Churchill smoke and drank, and lived into his nineties” So bring on the olive packets with their obsessive portraits of death and dying; but lets not stop there-what about all those sugar products? Obesity is on the rise; let’s have all our candy wrapped in black wrappers with graphic pictures of rolls of open liposuction, and veins swelled to bursting point with hardened yellow cholesterol. And lets not forget the cookies and snacks either-Lays, Pringles and the rest of them; out with their brightly colored, happy snacky packaging-lets go for a brown wrapper,  and vivid pictures of open heart surgery, and inserted stents buckling under the pressure of slow, viscous blood unable to pump through over gorged arteries. What about alcohol? I’d suggest a heavy green can and bottle for all types including beer, spirits and wines of every conceivable variety and vintage. The label should show a seriously cirrhosised liver, with a simple message saying “wishing you all the best” My point, although not very subtle here is that we cannot legislate to change personal behavior. People are fickled creatures, and will do as they please whether we like it or not. I think Mr. Bumble is right in this instance-the law is an ass-where will this folly end?


[1] CHARLES DICKENS, Oliver Twist, chapter 51, p. 489 (1970)