You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction? Take a look around

It is really beginning to feel as if we are, in the words of P.F. Sloan, ‘on the eve of destruction’. His seminal 1964 song resonated with a generation and when you read back through the lyrics it could almost have been written yesterday.

The eastern world, it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’

A time of unprecedented public anger? Perhaps not

There may be peace in Vietnam but America’s war in Afghanistan rumbles on, a limp withdrawal and Taliban resurgence looking increasingly inevitable despite so-called ‘peace talks’ and ‘ceasefires’. Iraq cannot recover from the invasion of 2003, the hellish rule of Saddam Hussein replaced by a cyclical nightmare of Shia and Sunni violence, exacerbated by foreign interference.

And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin’

Middle East peace has arguably never seemed further away. The bloodshed of the 1960s has continued unabated, spreading beyond the borders of the Holy Land to engulf almost every regional state. Iraq we have mentioned, Syria and Yemen sit in ruins, Lebanon is forever on the cusp of civil war, Jordan itself is overstretched by Syrian refugees, the Arab world internally divided by Qatar and religious dissent.

Yemen’s horrific civil war barely gets a mention in world news today

If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave

Nuclear catastrophe is not as tangible a fear as it was in the 1960s but nuclear proliferation has increased nonetheless. North Korea is a nuclear state, there’s no denying it. Iran will follow, regardless of what deal the P4+1 – now the USA has withdrawn – try and conjure up, the revolutionary regime of the Islamic Republic hellbent on securing a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, the two powers that started all the trouble remain at odds. America and Russia are withdrawing from important treaties designed to avert nuclear war, to reduce stockpiles, to stop needless tests, to ensure peace. Putin and Trump posture and the world loses.

Pakistan confirms its nuclear power status with this test in May 1998

And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’

If human respect was disintegrating in the 1960s it is well and truly eviscerated now. An era of such consistent bile and hatred amongst mankind there has never been. People spew their nastiness from computer keyboards, whilst others take to the streets in defiance of their governments who have proven wholly incompetent at unifying their nations in a time of crisis.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China!
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!

China may not be as red as in the days of Mao but the communist party is unerring in its ruthless suppression of internal dissent. Think of the Uighurs imprisoned in Xinjiang, or the brave democracy activists brutalised on the streets of Hong Kong. All carried out under the watch of the West, unwilling or unable to prevent it occurring.

And what of Selma, Alabama? How far has America really come since those bloody marches of 1965? Minneapolis is simply the latest flashpoint in an unending spiral of racial degradation, where the black minority remain second-class citizens despite one of their own having won the presidency twice in the last dozen years.

From Selma to Minneapolis: the same old campaign?

Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space,
But when your return, it’s the same old place 

Yes despite all the problems facing us here on earth we are lusting after outer space once more, only this time our faith is pinned on the private sector after the shocking expense of the government-led space programmes of decades ago, carried out as the ultimate game of one-upsmanship against the Soviets. Perhaps it is wise to seek distant planets on which to rebuild our species with the continuing implosion of mother Earth.

It’s undoubtedly sad that despite half-a-century of fevered progression we remain trapped by the same problems we faced in the 1960s. If any part of the world is exploding now it is the West, shown up by our inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic and our colossal failure to provide inclusive societies for our citizens. Governments alone are not to blame; individuals at all walks of life must carry the can for our woes, the lack of respect for their fellow man a tragedy almost unique in its completeness.

Mass trenches for the coronavirus dead in New York

Perhaps the most pertinent and poignant line of Sloan’s song is:

This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’

An amazingly simple truth and what feels like somewhat of an understatement at this troubling time. For those who don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction, you need to wake up and you need to think about what you can do to change the world.

Luddites Beware: Coronavirus Pandemic Threatens to Accelerate Robot Invasion

One of the ongoing challenges of the twenty-first century will be managing the increasing transition from human labour to robotic service across almost all walks of life. This is, of course, hardly a new issue but the dramatic advances in the abilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) make it increasingly pertinent to the global economy and societies across the world today.

A robot janitor at a Walmart during the Coronavirus lockdown

Furthermore, there are legitimate questions over whether the coronavirus pandemic will hasten the adoption of robot workers in many industries. Robots are currently substituting for humans in many work spaces, whether it be as cleaners, warehouse packers, grocery store assistants or a host of other roles currently deemed unsafe for man. Once a company has invested in a robot worker, and it has done a sterling job, then why go back to a human, with all their innate reliability deficiencies?

Large segments of the workforce have been replaced by robots over the past century, particularly on the production line in manufacturing industries, in data analytics, or through shops moving online to name a few examples. There has been periodic backlash, but more in the vogue of perennial discontent rather than a mass upheaval against a changing system.

Those refusing to adapt to ‘modern times’ are invariably labelled as anti-industrialists, technophobes or Luddites, and this latter term is worth taking note of.

The Luddite movement arose in early nineteenth-century England amongst skilled textile workers who feared the encroachment of mechanisation on their livelihoods. Aided by strong communal support and effective propaganda, the Luddites – named after the fictional stockbreaker Ned Ludd – spread from Nottingham in 1811 to large swathes of the country. The Ludd warriors were mainly independent artisans intent on destroying the textile machinery destined to replace them in brazen nighttime raids on local factories.

A famous image of Luddite frame-breaking in 1812

There was precedent for the Luddite movement, the eighteenth century having seen protests across England and Scotland against technological innovation at the expense of the already-underpaid and chronically overworked labourer. Mass riots by the weavers of Spitalfields in the late 1760s and early 1770s – exacerbated by the immigration of French Huguenot silk-workers and cheap foreign-made products  – prompted a brutal response from the London authorities. And so too did the Luddite movement, which by 1816 had fizzled out after many of its leaders and proponents were imprisoned or executed, sometimes in mass hangings.

Though the Swing Riots of 1830 by agricultural workers against new threshing machines briefly revived governing fears of another nationwide revolt, none caused such an alarm as the Luddites which is perhaps why the term has been passed down as a common slur against those fearful of the direction of technological change.

As we know, the Luddites were always fighting a losing battle. Humanity’s story is one of the endless progress of technology, even if it is sometimes to the detriment of its own species. Undoubtedly the vast majority of technological change has been beneficial, improving the lives of even those whose jobs have become redundant. But the question now is how do we ensure there are enough ‘human’ jobs left to support a global population that is already far too large?

Robot careworkers are employed throughout Japan, designed to make-up for a shortfall of staff in this industry

Certainly it seems reasonable to put faith in robots that can measurably perform a task better than a human, such as aspects of computing, precision engineering, component assembly etc. A grey area remains, however, with regards to robots serving as replacements for human-to-human interaction. An AI cyborg might be a more efficient checkout assistant than a young man or woman, but does that make them better? Do all customers value speed over human contact?

It seems unfair to label anyone concerned with the pace of robot infringement on society as a Luddite given the limited empirical evidence we have in many sectors, not to mention the lack of agreement on AI ethics and how to manage increasingly sophisticated automatons.

Anti-robot protests have been held by those concerned over the ethical issues of robot-human interaction

The inexorable march of progress continues apace, but it would be foolish to think that this won’t end violently if the rapidity of AI incursion on our daily lives is not carefully managed. We should also consider the potential for regression within our own species by palming off so many jobs on robots, and by further limiting social interaction, an issue already problematic due to the explosion of social media and remote communication platforms.

Perhaps it was straightforward enough to hang a few troublesome textile workers back in early nineteenth-century England for the technological elites to get their way. Let us hope that our democratic intentions – and thankfully a large proportion of the world still has such aspirations – can ensure that, pandemic or no pandemic, we do not simply cast aside the employment structures that have driven global betterment over the course of the past century and more.