Tag Archives: iPhone

The Phone Zombies

I have heard many people complain about the phone zombies. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: they populate subway wagons and cafeterias, staring dumbly at their screens instead of focusing on the world around them. They detach themselves from reality and instead devote their attention to their virtual, meaningless lives, to which they remain always connected, foregoing real human contact, literature or thought.

Gone are the days when people actually read in the subway. Or contemplated. Or stared at the other passengers while considering the great truths of the human race.

English: Dan Brown, bookjacket image.

God Bless You, Dan Brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing is, I really don’t remember those days. Back when there were no phones to stare at, I remember people sleeping or staring blankly at infinity. Some others looked positively sad. I even have a vivid memory of a guy with a knife that liked to poke holes on the subway wall while singing and clapping loudly. Yes, some commuters would do crossword puzzles and, yes, some would read, though probably not Nietzsche but Dan Brown or whatever the equivalent was back then.

I don’t really mind the phone zombies. In fact, I think they only look like zombies. To be more precise, I think some of them are zombies, but not because of their phone. You see, people who don’t like thinking or reading don’t need any excuse to not do any of those things. They just don’t do them. Listening at the noise of the rails is distraction enough. People who like thinking or reading or contemplating the great truths of human existence will most likely use technology in order to further these passions and, even though they will seem to be lost in their screens, they will be doing something productive.

For example, I like to read my flipboard and my feed.ly when I am on the tram. I get updated on science and technology issues and, sometimes, I check the news. I probably look like I’m a babbling idiot, but that’s because my brain is engaged in highly demanding cognitive processes that deviate my brain’s attention from trying to look cool while I read.

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady u...

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady using her Nokia 1100 cell phone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have also noticed that many people actually read on their phones. Sometimes, incredibly heavy stuff. Before technology boomed, you could not read “In search of lost time” in the subway. It just didn’t fit in your handbag or your pocket or whatever it is you had. You had to stick with light-weight works, which were the only ones that were easy to transport. But now you don’t even have to carry any extra stuff with you: you turn on your phone, go to Google Books and start reading “A tale of two cities” for free. And boy, isn’t that wonderful.

What I want to say is that I don’t think technology is making is dumber. We may look dumber, but have you ever looked at someone who’s watching TV? Yes, not the prettiest sight in the world. It’s just the relaxed face muscles. Technology cannot make you dumber or smarter: you are dumb or smart and it is this characteristic that’s going to determine how you use technology. You can use Coursera to learn Quantum Computing or you can post comments on youtube saying “ur hot” to 15-year old girls. But technology is not making you do these things. Your brain wiring is.

That said, I do feel there has been a shift in the weight that new generations put on cognitive abilities, but that has happened before. Before the printing press, people memorized books. This may seem like an amazing achievement to us, but it was relatively routine back then. Right now, no sane person would even try. But why would we? We have books. We don’t have to memorize them. The information is there, readily accessible: we have outsourced the need.

This outsourcing trend is continuing to a much higher degree now. We can check any fact we want in our phones in less than 30 seconds. Why would we bother to memorize any dates? Today we need to be good at browsing and filtering information, not at retaining it. We have machines that do this for us. Of course, a person may look dumber since, without their phone, they seem to possess a lot less knowledge than a person from 30 years ago. However, if we could bring someone from back then here and give them a phone, their global man-machine performance would in all likelihood be lower than that of a man-machine set today. That is: we have adapted to our new tools, so much so that our intelligence cannot be measured without taking them into account. Our gadgets work as extensions of our psyches.

Have we become dumber? I don’t think so. Separate from our extensions, maybe. With them, there is no contest. Consider this: I teach a 16-year-old who knows more about cutting-edge science and technology than I do. How? Reddit and an interest in the subject. This was unthinkable when I was his age: the information just wasn’t available. Now it is, for anyone who wants to have it.

Is it any wonder we spend hours glued to our screens?

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Should We Ban Imports from Countries that Violate Human Rights?

As jobs continue to disappear in the industrialized world, many blame technology. They are partially right. However, there is another culprit: delocalization. Most of our products are now manufactured in developing countries, where human resources are substantially cheaper. This allows us to have greater purchasing power, since we can acquire goods that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, were they made at home. That’s the story they tell us, anyway.

However, all this talk of cheap products being beneficial for the working class is deluded at best and an outright, deliberate lie at worst. The working class is disappearing precisely because of this: all of those jobs have left and been turned into precarious, nefarious ones in countries that would allow this. The people who relied on these jobs have gone on to unemployment or a lower-quality, lower-pay position. How do I know it is lower pay? The answer is straightforward: as jobs get outsourced to developing countries, there is less demand for workers, whereas offer stays the same. Hence, less pay. Also, the data shows I’m right (see below).MiddleClassGraphs_web_21

So yes, we can afford an iPhone, but not because it is made in China. If it wasn’t made in China but in the US and every single manufacturing job that’s been outsourced had stayed in the US, you would be paying more for your phone, but you’d have a considerably higher salary. Don’t be fooled: outsourcing only has one beneficiary. I’ll give you a clue:  it is not the working class.

There’s something baffling about the whole outsourcing conundrum. If I have a company in, say, Spain, and I offer salaries under the minimum wage, with no social security, I will go to jail. The reason I’ll go to jail is what I’ll be doing is against the law; it’s against the law because it’s considered immoral. However, I can start a subsidiary of my company in China and do exactly that, but to Chinese people. In fact, I can be even more brutal and, if I’m lucky and have friends within the Party, get away with polluting, exploiting and pretty much whatever tickles my fancy. Why do the laws of my country allow me to do this? Beats me. I thought human beings were the same everywhere; apparently, I was wrong. Spanish people don’t want to be exploited? Never mind! I’ll go to China and find someone who does.

The fact that a Spanish company (or a Chinese company that exports to the West) can do this puts companies who do the right thing at a disadvantage. Now, before we go into why good companies are at a disadvantage, let’s focus on what I mean when I say “the right thing.” To me, it is a combination of:

  1. Offering decent wages.
  2. Having reasonable working hours.
  3. Providing social security coverage and/or insurance.
  4. Not abusing their workers verbally or physically.
  5. Other common-sensical stuff I’m sure I don’t need to add here, like maternity leaves, etc.

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China ...

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to why good companies are at a disadvantage. Let’s see: if I have a company that makes some product and wants to compete with the rest, I have a choice. I can either act immorally (exploiting workers in developing countries with working conditions that would be inadmissible in the West) and have a competitive edge; I can also act morally and lose it, since my products will be more expensive than those of the competition.

But careful! This does not happen because companies are evil: this happens because our laws are made in such a way that they pretty much enforce this behavior.

(Of course, let’s not be naïve. If we have the laws we have, it’s because they’ve been lobbied for by companies. So probably they didn’t have a drive to not be evil in the first place. Like Eric Schmidt said when confronted with his Google’s questionable tax-evasion practices: “we are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Apparently, for Schmidt “capitalism” means not paying the taxes that allow roads, hospitals and schools to be built.)

English: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of G...

Way to go, Eric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This situation was, until now, quite beneficial for Western companies. Only now they’re starting to realize it may not have been such a great idea. The Chinese, apparently, weren’t content with being exploited: they started creating their own businesses, using every single tactic from their Western counterparts and harboring the good will of their government, which enables them compete in even more favorable circumstances. This has resulted in the almost complete control of the telecommunication infrastructure market by Huawei, for example, which has strong ties to the Chinese government. Suddenly, Western companies are losing the edge.

This situation could be easily averted, though. It would be as simple as banning imports from countries which do not respect human rights or, at least, taxing them severely, so that employing people in sub-human conditions would stop being a good business decision. This way, manufacturing would go back to the West and jobs would be recovered. At this time of economic uncertainty, they’re sorely needed.

What would be reasonable conditions for lifting the ban/taxes and establishing a free market zone? Equal labor laws. It makes sense to have toll-free circulation of goods between countries with the same standard of living which treat their workers similarly. It doesn’t make sense to give the countries which do the wrong thing an unfair advantage. The recent attack against social welfare in Europe can be seen as the logical consequence of this: if countries like China do better, precisely because their workers are less protected, it seems logical to follow their steps in order to grow as fast as the Asian giant.

But this is a terrible idea: it aims to level the playing field to the lowest possible conditions. Shouldn’t be doing the opposite? Shouldn’t we be leveling the playing field so that all workers, Chinese included, had better conditions? Aren’t we going backwards? Who, exactly, benefits from this? I would argue not even the Chinese do. If China was not allowed to export to Europe unless it had better labor laws (and human rights, since we’re at it) the pressure on the government to make some changes would be huge, especially with the growing middle class and the amount of companies which depend on exports to the West in order to survive. This law would not only benefit workers in the West, but workers everywhere, by forcing their countries to treat them right or be left out of the free market zone.

Someone may question the economic viability of this. I would reply that this is not an economic argument: this is a moral argument. Companies should not be allowed to treat their workers unfairly. If they do, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell their goods, regardless of the benefits this may have for the economy. The economy, let’s not forget, is the people. And if the people cannot lead a dignified life, then the stock market can rise as high as it wants to. It won’t make a lick of a difference.

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