• An illustration of cattle and a barn in a rural field.

    America’s Fading Pastoral: Picks of the Week

    Who Wants to Run That Mom-and-Pop Market? Almost No One | The New York Times

    What happened when Walmart left | The Guardian

    When Health Law Isn’t Enough, the Desperate Line Up at Tents | The New York Times

    Rural divide | The Washington Post

    Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors With Ukrainian Firmware | Motherboard

    Doctor Shortage In Rural Arizona Sparks Another Crisis In ‘Forgotten America’ | NPR

    Walt Disney had Marceline, Missouri. A fable cemented in his mind by a fleeting childhood stint in the rural southern town. Through his company, through Disneyland and “Main Street U.S.A,” Disney channeled memories of a bucolic small town and rural life. Though Disney’s father only briefly flirted with a yeoman life in Marceline, dusty Midwestern paradises, small towns, and steamboat adventures dominated early Disney works. Historian Steven Watts, writing in 1997, contends the infatuation America shared with Disney and his Marceline grew out of yearning. The late 19th century drawing up to 1920 witnessed a shift in residence patterns of Americans toward urban centers. Following The Second World War our country’s “Amber waves of grain” deposited once rural children in coastal cities and in sprawling new cities like Chicago. Just like the Bergsons in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, there are those who have “stayed behind” but in our East Coast bubble few are seeing what has continued to afflict swaths of our country.[1]

    Disney was not the only American infatuated with rural life. Thomas Jefferson praised the yeoman farmers of the burgeoning Republic claiming, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he had a chosen people…” but our small towns are shuttering.[2] The farmers and “fruited plains” cherished by Disney and Jefferson alike seem to be in a state of constant suffering. Our American population exists in strange contrast. With more people living in only 146 counties than outside of them, there exists a particular type of American tunnel vision, one which focuses on our own region, or “country.” But when drug addictions to meth, heroin and other opioids claw their way north up the coasts, and into these counties, behind them we suddenly see a history of addiction, a vanishing lifestyle and all the associated pain which ravaged an entire segment of the sea to shining sea. While Watts claims Disney films offered those “suffering from the dislocation of historical change” a comfort from their vanishing way of life, today we see even more vanishing. Doctor shortages, widespread poverty, perceived abandonment which may not be at all unfounded. This piece of America, far away from the forgetful minds of the Northeastern megalopolis, is still suffering the dislocation of historical change.

    When she was still alive, my family would load up our car and drive the hour or so from our New Jersey home to my grandmother’s house along the shores of the Delaware River.  My mother once, after giving her more trouble than I care to admit, claimed going to the Delaware River was the only vacation I liked. She was right. While I couldn’t stand the heat and busyness of the Jersey Shore, with its bumbling crowds and din, I seemed to find comfort slowly meandering up Delaware Drive in our car, watching the river blink out between farmland and the occasional small town center. There was rust on the road, railroad tracks, closed down silos and mills, signs of objects once important suddenly left to wither. However, through the rust, through the seemingly tempered march of life in this river valley and the hushed conversations about drugs, unemployment and other woes, an intense pride in life and lifestyle managed to cut through. Though I don’t think John Steinbeck’s farmer, stopped for lunch on an idling tractor, would ever believe he would need a piece of European software to fix his tractor, the tragedy of the Joads in Grapes of Wrath seems to still be playing out in between our dense urban centers. While hope in a return of lifestyle abounds, and regional pride has not subsided, few steps of consequence have been made.

    [1] Steven Watts. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. (University of Missouri Press: Columbia, MO, 1997)

    [2] Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1785.

  • Robotic arms with empty conveyor belt

    Our Automated Life: Picks of the Week

    California’s would-be governor prepares for battle against job-killing robots | The Guardian

    How automation is going to affect jobs in pharma, core, auto and consumer sector | The Economic Times

    One of Europe’s most influential investors gave a brutal example of how AI could wipe out white-collar jobs | Business Insider

     

    Last week, YouTube channel Kurzgesgat (German for “in a nutshell”) released a video titled “The Rise of the Machines – Why Automation is Different this Time.” The smartly animated video essay paints a bleak picture, one where “productivity is separating from human labor.” Their warning frames modern innovation as a movement decreasing the number of jobs. Automation, and the reliance on complex software to trim fat, so to speak, results in effective, streamlined corporations with higher profits, but ones employing fewer people. The ability to breakdown complex tasks into smaller, simple ones, and to “learn” from a mass of constantly acquired data, creates machines able to out class any human at specialized work. Fear of lost work from automation has struck deep enough to manifest, ironically, in a University of Phoenix advertisement. A factory worker, put out by machines, becomes a newly hired computer specialist after attending University of Phoenix. The commercial closes with our hero crossing out the “it” in the famous “We Can Do It!” Rosie the Riveter poster and writing over it with a capital “IT” for information technology. This deep-seated cultural fear of machines making humans irrelevant, and making those who own the machines very rich, is warranted, but ignores potentially more pernicious effects of automation.

    Nicholas Carr, in his book The Glass Cage, argues automation changes us from users of tools to technicians, and monitors of them. Such a world of automated tools can actually affect our ability to learn and even affect our skill sets. Carr uses the example of Airline Pilots. With increasingly automated and computer controlled “glass cockpits” pilots are frequently no more than monitors of a computer as it flies a plane. Yet, when incidents occur Pilots fail to react properly, driving up the number of accidents caused by “pilot error.” Furthermore, the “offloading” of our cognitive process onto tools stunts their growth. What can seem comical at first, like driving down a one way street because the GPS told us to, actually reflects a deeper issue: the trust we have in our tools usurps our own thoughts and even the awareness of our own actions.

    What appears on our screen is never random. The “Recommended” section is a carefully harvested crop of articles, videos, items, grains reaped from the wealth of data highlighted Kurzgesgat. But, in our Internet culture, speed triumphs over all else. Conversely hesitation, slowness, or what some would call thoughtfulness is antithetical to technology. While some fear the replacement of our skills with machines and Nicholas Carr fears automation is changing our humanity; other fears have only recently been realized. Neil Postman, writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death, claims the television, through shows like Sesame Street reduces education to entertainment. He argues television shows require no prerequisites nor induce any perplexity, stripping away the needed building, the formative and the foundational steps involved in learning. With the algorithms recommending for us having been designed to keep us in motion, to entertain us, our entire thought process, as combined with a machine, is reduced. The structure of our time, then, echoes Fire Chief Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life. I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, give them fun?”

    These algorithms do not just entertain us: they cloister us. Evgeny Morozov writes of Google’s understanding of Urbanism: “[Google’s Urbanism is of] someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in a self-driving car. It is profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google’s world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to.” Applying such a view to how we learn, to how we consume what is supposed to color our thoughts, we are left with a highly insular, relativistic mode of thinking. We see what is tailored for us, and we consequently experience none of the requisite displeasure or slowness necessary for true thought. We find ourselves at Marcel Proust’s misunderstanding of the theater, why he believed it to be continually engaging: “so incorrect was the picture I drew for myself of the pleasures to be enjoyed there that I almost believed that each of the spectators looked, as into a stereoscope, upon a stage and scenery which existed for himself alone, though closely resembling the thousand other spectacles presented to the rest of the audience individually.” German-Korean Philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that in this atomized culture, one where life is stripped almost to bare, the excessive upward-ness, the comportment of constant positivity, obsession with health and the unending hum of thousands of voices, we are brought to the most severe stages of psychological burnout.

    Within our automated reality we are amused, entertained, without skill and without work. Our present is what Henry David Thoreau would describe as “an improved means to an unimproved end.” In writing about a telegraph recently strung from Maine to Boston, he lamented “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.” He argued connecting two places, who may not have much of anything to say to each other, creates a situation “as if the main object were to talk fast and not talk sensibly.” Our current technological narrative is both fast and unrelentingly positive. We extol the virtue of our “progress” forward, yet if this is where we end have we simply created improved means to an unimproved end? – Francis Quigley, Research Analyst.

     

  • Missiles launch towards Syria on board of USS Porter

    #31 in Trending: U.S Strikes Syria – Picks of the Week

    Brian Williams is ‘guided by the beauty of our weapons’ in Syria strikes | The Washington Post

    US strikes in Syria launched from USS Porter | YouTube

    Dozens of U.S. Missiles Hit Air Base in Syria | The New York Times

    Trump launches military strike against Syria | CNN Politics

     

    Friday morning the number thirty-one top trending video on YouTube, beneath asapSCIENCE: “Are you normal,” celebrities eating hot wings and Jimmy Fallon and the Rock “photobombing,” is a video from the United States Navy showing Tomahawk missile launches from the USS Porter. The under-lit video spikes briefly as rocket engines ignite, revealing the deck of the Porter. There is no movement, no change, only a hiss and a bright light as a spark lofts out of frame.  Little on the deck of the Porter can be described as “human” and no crewmen or beings of any kind exist in the footage. Thursday night I watched the almost three-minute video in bed, in pajamas, full from dinner and icing my shoulder after the gym. When the video ended YouTube queued up another, footage from the U.S.S Ross, but below the queue it recommended “Impractical Jokers” videos, a web series from a video game magazine, and clips from the television show “Scrubs.” I sent the video of the Porter to two friends via Facebook chat, one called it “eerie.” Last night Brian Williams called the footage “beautiful” invoking the words of Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

    YouTube is replete with videos of people dying. Should YouTube be unsatisfactory, any number of websites can sate one’s appetite for death; the social network Reddit contains a Subreddit titled just that: “/r/watchpeopledie.” After the video of the Porter I looked up “Tomahawk missile impact” and found a few videos of missile tests, the United States Navy blowing up ships in the ocean, and a video of an apparent Tomahawk strike on ISIS fighters; people died in that video. Following the impact, the fireball and cries through my computer speakers I closed out of the video and watched some clips from Impractical Jokers. I shut my laptop, went to bed, woke up for work, drove in with no traffic, sat and watched video of the U.S.S Porter again. At my desk in a Gilded Age mansion on Bellevue Avenue I consumed United States Military might. I watched AC-130 gunship training, A-10 Warthog strafes, and Nuclear weapons tests. Almost every piece of United States War Materiel is the subject of a YouTube video.

    I was seven years old on September 11th, 2001. News spread through my elementary school and my teacher turned on the television in our classroom, a decision the merit of which I still wrestle with (my mother has no such ambivalence), and a classroom of twenty or so seven and eight-year-olds watched an event none of us could grasp. We fed off the fear, the consternation; the façade of calm put on by our teacher. When I went home my grandmother tried to comfort me, my father was trapped in Long Island, and my mother still at work. I remember one word: “terrorist.” My grandmother assured me no terrorists could get me in our den. Now I know she was unsure. We saw the smoke in our New Jersey suburb, and from then on my memory is shoddy. It is hard for me to untangle what I remember and what I’ve made myself remember. We went to war shortly after and for the majority of my life we were at war.

    Soon children born after September 11th will graduate high school. Some of them already have driver’s licenses. We usually say this as a way to make ourselves feel old. To link the age of a young person to an event deeply seared in our memory, trauma so intense the taste remains stuck between our teeth. They’ve been at war almost their entire lives. Wikipedia claims the war in Afghanistan ended in 2014 and the war in Iraq ended in 2011. We know those figures aren’t accurate. Troops were still in Afghanistan into 2016. The wars continued, for some children the war comprised an entire lifespan. But war did not affect the overall trajectory of their lives. Some will say this is untrue, the war touched every facet of our lives.  They would be right. Policies related to war and related to the Post-9/11 reaction have shaped these children’s lives. But in a way, they don’t connect to the war. The trickle down policies, the professional military with no draft, the far away-ness of the conflict, did the war even really exist?

    Watching missiles launch from the deck of the Porter I thought about myself at 15, myself at 16 and 17. I thought about those pieces of my teenage boy brain not completely formed on the world; not quite right. Now, who we want to call “young men and women,” are watching Tomahawk missiles fly through the dark and flicker out in the night. They see it happen on their computer screen. An image ends at the corners of the screen, behind it no depth. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, in studying social interactions, noticed through digital communication we tend to expect more “frictionless” interactions. While problems worked out through looking at another person are difficult, messy, and taxing, interactions through media like text and Facebook chat carry no burrs. Interactions are diffuse, sliding between relationships and persons easily. Images of war become just as slippery. War, the “#31 top trending video” on YouTube, takes on a flatness, an empty, disconnected image. Do we watch these videos delighted that our wars are as frictionless as our social lives?

    Every few weeks or so I’ll be confronted with death in a small rectangle, only a few inches in area, on my Facebook feed. Soldiers shot in the head on camera, suicide bombs exploding; I once met a man who described to me his favorite videos of people dying. These are infinitely frictionless, able to be turned off at a moment’s demur. So much so I’ve grown concerned over myself. Concerned I can see atrocities, see death in front of my face and simply grunt, complain, and carry on unbothered. While September 11th, 2001 is a scar on my mind, I cannot remember all the videos and pictures of death I’ve inadvertently come across; or been sent as a “joke.” I watched the missile launch alone, atomized in a cloud of brute information, sanitized, presented flat.  My grandmother was scared on 9/11. Yet, each following “event” carried less sting. Awash in a collection of weak internet ties destruction, death, and fear, are stripped from their bearings, restructured, and “recommended for me,” as façade. Such digital manifestation breaks down the sinews of our most traumatic tendencies. – Francis Quigley

     

    Image Credit: United States Department of Defense. 

  • A row of bee hives among a field of flowers bordering an orchard

    A World Without Bees: The Developing Crisis

    There is a recent media fixation about bees being put on the endangered species list, and an apparent panic that rightfully corresponds. There are seven Hawaiian bee species now classified under the protection of the Endangered Species Act by the United States. While all bee species are not on the endangered species list, it is important to note that many species of bees are dying at an alarming rate. In just six years, California’s honey production fell by nearly half, and, due to exceedingly frigid winters, the honey bee population in Iowa decreased by nearly 70%. However, this rapid loss of bee population is an epidemic not just in the United States, but in England and China as well. Internationally, this bee crisis caused economic turmoil for China and soon enough similar problems will arise in the United States.

    While a decrease in honey availability may not seem all that threatening, bees play a large role in the production of agricultural products. According to biologist Dave Goulson, about 75% of all crop species require pollination by some sort of animal, most typically bees. This means that crop pollination by insects has an estimated value of $14.6 billion to the United States economy and £440 million a year to the United Kingdoms. If all species of bees continue on the apparent path to extinction, there will be detrimental effects to each countries’ economy. A large portion of United States revenue comes from the export of crops to a variety of countries. In 2015, there was a decline in agricultural exports, for several reasons, and this decline is predicted to continue if bee populations do not recover. While bees may not be required for the pollination of every plant, a majority of plants have higher yields of berries, seeds, or fruits when pollinated by bees (compared to abiotic pollinators like wind).

    Without bees’ pollination, there is potential for a drastic drop in crop exports. The agricultural export industry relates notably to the United States’ economy. In fact, in the fiscal year 2015, farmers exported $139.7 billion of agricultural goods worldwide, and US agricultural exports support more than one million American jobs. Pollination by bees affects other non-food based crops such as cotton. Americans export about 65% of the cotton grown domestically, presenting yet another potentially devastating consequence if the bee population decreases further.

    Bee populations are also struggling in England and China. Bees contribute to the Chinese economy $52.2 billion annually by pollinating commercial crops. In 2014, the United States imported 9,601.8 thousand metric tons of vegetables and 12,686.7 thousand metric tons of fruit. China is among the top five common places of import for American fruits and vegetables, both dried and fresh. However, in recent years, bee populations in China have plummeted to near extinction.

    Measures of preventive action have been put into place in the United States to help save bee populations. Many factors can be attributed to the decline of the population including climate change, insecticides, neonicotinoids, parasites, and pathogens. Many countries, including China and the United States have banned one or more bee harmful insecticides. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized this decline in bee population in 2014, and provided an $8 million incentive via the Conservation Reserve Program, for Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin farmers who “establish new habitats for declining honey bee populations.” More than half the commercially managed honey bees are in these five states. Additionally, as of September, the USDA will provide a $3 million subsidy, to help reseed pastures with bee-appropriate plants.

  • Hands type on laptop computer

    The Onus of Choice: Picks of the Week

    Facebook Wants Users to Help It Weed Out Fake News | Forbes

    Jack Dorsey says Twitter is not responsible for Trump’s election, but it’s ‘complicated’ | CNBC

    Reddit moves against ‘toxic’ Trump fans | BBC

    Twitter bans multiple ‘alt-right’ accounts | engadget

    2016 was not a good year to be a tech company. Twitter’s struggling to profit, Facebook is still reeling from its massive fake news debacle, and major web forums are buckling under rampant abusive behavior. It was the witching hour of the Internet and we were able to see at full bore the most grotesque second half of its Janus face. Fake news, harassment, echo chambers and conspiracy theories overwhelmed the core value of the Internet: democratization. Now major tech companies are coming to grips with a problem they have delicately danced around for a decade; choosing between idealized free speech and reality.

    Twitter is famous, or infamous, for proclaiming itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party of the Internet.” Since its inception Twitter struggled with maintaining its hardline commitment to free speech while consistently fumbling issues of abuse. For years they remained unable to find a comfortable position, vacillating between deploying algorithms preventing President Barack Obama from getting inflammatory or offensive questions during his Question and Answer session to flatly ignoring victims of sustained, targeted campaigns of abuse. While Twitter struggled with its demons quietly, similar problems manifested elsewhere. For each the root cause was the same: free speech. Connecting the world openly and freely, disseminating information equally and giving a voice to all are core tenants upheld by Internet Canon law, but the past year has revealed each of those adverbs is qualified.

    Companies like Reddit and Twitter, fearing failure, have taken steps to create a welcoming appearance and attract and retain users. Responding to criticism, Twitter banned “Alt-Right” accounts, and Facebook began rolling out new measures to combat fake news. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman admitting to secretly altering comments on the Donald Trump themed subreddit “/r/The_Donald.” Huffman had seen Reddit plagued by issues stemming from “/r/The_Donald,” in one such example a hiccup in Reddit’s processing algorithm led to user’s homepages containing exclusively posts from “/r/The_Donald.”  But, wanting to have his cake and eat it too, Huffman chose to keep the illusion of freedom while subtly changing reality. Each instance drew heavy criticism, equating the moves to censorship. Worse still, Twitter and Reddit are struggling to deal with a cold reality; championing “free speech” may mean playing host to ideas you do not agree with. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, like Huffman, had to answer critics claiming his service allowed Donald Trump’s election to President. When asked how he personally felt about Trump’s election, and Twitter use, he answered “it’s complicated.” His response demonstrates a waning commitment to the “free speech wing.”

    Calling the Internet a “Public Place” is a common argument among advocates for Internet free speech. Mike Rugnetta of PBS’ “Idea Channel” argues that the Internet is more akin to a shopping mall than a square. Unlike the town crier, speech on the Internet occurs on private servers that are owned by individuals or corporations. Just as malls give the illusion of being an open public space one is not necessarily afforded the same freedoms, as they are technically on private property. Tech companies are now faced with a stark choice; adopt an “anything goes” policy and suffer the consequences or start filtering content and suffer the consequences. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit now must ask themselves, should we be more like shopping malls and less like the town square?

     

  • Panelists: Joanne Pope Melish, Keith Stokes, and Brent Leggs

    Memorializing our Conflicted Past: Historic Preservation and Slavery in New England

    The Pell Center had the privilege of hosting four excellent speakers on November 1, 2016. The lecture centered around the question: how do we as a nation memorialize the slavery and injustice of our past?  Each speaker focused on answering this question in regards to slavery in New England.

    Audience members at the Pell CenterJoanne Pope Melish spoke first, describing the immensity of the slave trade in New England and describing how New England began as a national leader in slavery.  Melish offered examples of current memorials to New England slaves, such as the painting featured on the lecture pamphlet, entitled The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters by Ernest Hamlin Baker.  Despite the title, the painting does not display “economic activities,” but several shirtless black slaves and a fully clothed white man on a horse.

    Melish also described a memorial in Barrington, Rhode Island from 1903 dedicated “to the faithful slaves.”  She concluded her lecture with the question, what do these exemplary memorials do to the image of slavery/ of slaves and slave owners?

    Keith Stokes, the Vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group spoke next.  Stokes offered his clear opinion of the appropriate memorialization of slavery in the United States.  Stokes shared a video created to memorialize the African children of the God’s Little Acre graveyard in Newport.  The graves date from the 18th century and every child buried there was either born or died a slave.  The video features names and information from individual graves as well as a picture of a child of matching age and ethnic decent.

    Stokes described two different kinds of memorials to slavery in the United States.  Brown University’s campus features a memorial of a ball and chain.  This type of memorial focuses on the slave trade and objectifies slavery.  In contrast, memorials such as the Phillis Wheatley statue in Boston Massachusetts remember the individuals and honor the people, families, and their achievements.  Both types of memorials have their appropriate place, Stokes says, but for him, it’s the human memory that matters.

    Brent Leggs followed, beginning with the idea that a nation’s identity resides in the places and stories that are honored andBrett Leggs speaking at the Pell Center.  preserved.  White history, names, and stories are most often memorialized whereas black history, names, and stories are often lost.  Leggs focused largely on the recent upsurge of University effort to acknowledge their own history of slavery.  Leggs listed several Universities, including Yale University, which renamed a building after Polly Mary.  Penny Outlaw followed Brent Leggs as the last speaker.

    Penny Outlaw works as the co-president of the Royall House and Slave Quarters historical landmark and museum in Medford Massachusetts.  In her work, she memorializes the past by presenting the lives of the salves of the Royall family home.  She gives tours and educates the public on the living condition of slaves in New England.  She told the story of her experience with a group of people, each connected by their common ancestry to American slaves.  The group spent the night in the slave quarters and shared what they knew of their family history.  Similar to Keith Stoke’s approach, Outlaw memorializes the past through the memory of the people, focusing more on the day to day life of the adults and children in the Royall home.

    The speakers gave unique and personal accounts of the history of slavery in the United States.  Some shared examples of failed or counter productive memorials, others described and shared touching and powerful memorials.  Despite the abolition of slavery, America’s past clearly has some hold over American society today.  A meaningful memorial, then, does not just remember and recall, but brings awareness to the trauma and triumphs of not a the trade, but the people.

     

    – Julia Morisi

  • The Ethical Challenge of New Technologies

    On October 5, 2016 the Pell Center hosted an audience full of eager students and community members in the beautiful ballroom of the Young Building for a thought-provoking lecture on the complex ethical future of the world as emerging technologies continue to yield unexpected consequences. The talk featured Naval War College Provost Lewis M. Duncan. As a member of the Board of Directors for the Advancement of Science in Space, Duncan is well-versed on the impact of the hard sciences on human reality. His career as a professional in the research of 100516srup-4380experimental space physics has afforded him a firsthand look at the mind-boggling exponential growth

    of technology within the last 40 years. As a self-proclaimed “pathological optimist,” Duncan’s lecture presented the technological future of the world with hope and excitement while simultaneously hinting at the consequences of some unforeseen problems that are inevitable within the next 50-100 years. Through an overview of six developing technological categories, Duncan encouraged the audience to look ahead and to consider a world of endless possibilities.

    To top off the talk, Duncan began with a brief history of human-kind, discussing our development as a species within the last 13,000 years. He demonstrated through an analogy how patterns in human development and innovation have always been exponential. Duncan describes technological development like the common brain-teaser which asks participants to determine when a fish bowl that fills with marbles by powers of two becomes half-full. Duncan describes the technological development process from far away, showing how the bowl fills seemingly all at once as it is at one moment half-full and then, as the marbles double upon themselves, completely full in the following moment. In this way, he explains that it is a mistake to view technology along straight lines. Duncan asserts that, “technology is catalytic…it builds on itself” and that necessity may not be the mother of invention any longer. Today’s technology is more decisive and divisive because scientific capability and competition encourages change instead of necessity.100516srup-4371

    According to Duncan, this is the case with the technology of the future. The beginnings of a technological revolution are already visible in six developmental categories: materials, nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, Neuroscience, robotics and artificial intelligence. Duncan says, “The world is changing faster than we are prepared for.”

    Duncan predicts that in the not-so-distant future, we will have the ability to stop cellular aging and death. Technological innovations will be giving human beings a run for their money. He says that sometime in the next 10-15 years, computers will be able to pass the Turing test. Meaning that, computers will be indistinguishable from human beings based on a process developed by scientist, Alan Turing, which measures intelligent behavior in computing machines. By the year 2040, computers will no longer need to be handheld. They will be so essential to the function of society that they will become embedded in our environment with the human brain functioning as more of a “peripheral device.” Finally, in 2050, Duncan predicts that machines will reach a state of singularity, “they will no longer need us and will race past us in human intelligence.” Duncan describes this point in human history as being similarly important to the moment when biological life first appeared on Earth.

    100516srup-4397This level of innovation seems amazing because it is likely that these machines will eliminate or reverse many of the world’s trickiest human problems like death, starvation and climate change. However, in the process, it will create a number of complex ethical questions. If we are all able to live forever, how will the world’s resources sustain us all? Will we be allowed to have children? If intelligent machines are able to replace every human job, how will we spend our time? Will there be a war in which the machines we created wipe out the human population? Will computers have culture?

    Duncan leaves these questions with the audience, forcing us all to see beyond our myopia. The future is coming and it is coming quickly, we will need to reinvent ourselves in order to keep up.

    – Hannah Lussier

  • Mercy Leadership Conference

    Every other year, the Sisters of Mercy host their International Mercy Leadership Conference in the original home of Catherine McAuley on Bagot Street in Dublin.  This year, Salve Regina sent several students to the conference, advertising the opportunity to those involved in Mercy activities such as Mercy in Motion and Sigma Phi Sigma.  Sarah Johnson, 17, Gabrielle Kubba, 18, Caroline Kelley, 18, Campus Minister Mathew Kelly and I traveled to Dublin this past August.

    The conference ran for one week and focused heavily on addressing the five critical concerns of Mercy.  Each day, attendees partook in workshops.  Sisters and involved citizens led discussions on trafficking of young women, Mercy Volunteer Corps involvement, UN Environmental initiatives, and more.  The Sisters also shared their personal experiences in living out the Mercy Mission.

    One Sister gave a detailed account of the years she spent living in Peru.  Her recount of her time abroad was both inspiring and entertaining to hear.  Though her travels were immensely exploratory, she did not travel to Peru for the adventure.  She and her Sisters travel abroad and around Ireland as service leaders, a tradition that is honored at Salve Regina University and has not changed since the example of Catherine McAuley.

    During her life, Catherine McAuley educated 200 young girls in need of an education in the main room of her home each day, a room today used for the conference.  The room adjacent to this renovated classroom is one that remains in its original form and with its original furnishings: the bedroom of Catherine McAuley, the room in which she eventually passed away.  She lived where she worked.  She saw to no distinction in her personal and professional life.  Her life and her legacy is service leadership.

    Service leadership sits at the core of the Mercy mission, and it is a mission of service that has grown and expanded since its foundation.  Interactive world maps line the walls of the conference room on Bagot Street.  A dot marks each location that the Sisters of Mercy have programs, send volunteers, and do service work.  These locations number over 40 countries, including North America, South and Central America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia.  The Sisters’ candid recounts of their service across these continents and regions reinforced their adaptive commitment to global mission and inspired attendees towards involvement in local and global communities.

    More than simply a pilgrimage to the home of Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, the conference instilled a better academic understanding of the critical concerns of Mercy, inspired activism, and revealed the Mercy mission as a strong, global effort.  My colleagues and I attended the conference at the perfect time, during the Jubilee year of Mercy.  After the caseation of the Jubilee year of Mercy this November, the need for a Mercy agenda to continue will be just as strong going into the start of the New Year.

    – Julia Morisi

  • Mario DiNunzio, professor emeritus at Providence College, stands at the Salve Regina podium.

    Who Stole Conservatism?

    The American political system has always cycled through periods of progress and conservatism. As voters grapple with just which course they favor in 2016, Mario DiNunzio, professor emeritus of history at Providence College, kicked off the Pell Center’s 2016-2017 lecture series with a discussion of his new book, Who Stole Conservatism?

    DiNunzio outlined a history of conservatism from the 18th century to today, crediting the structure of classic conservatism to political theorist Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Characteristics of this conservatism included concern for order, respect for institutions, regard for tradition, reverence of religion, and attention to practical reform.dinunzio-audience

    DiNunzio traced the evolution of American conservative political thinking from the revolution to today. In his remarks and in his book, he drew special attention to the Gilded Age–the period at the end of the 19th century when American capitalism produced vast fortunes that dwarfed even the budget of the United States. Big business, in that era, began to take precedence over government and conservative politics began to adopt a more materialistic concern.  Conservative politics increasingly became synonymous with being “business-friendly.”

    “Mario DiNunzio was my undergraduate advisor when I was a student at Providence College,” said Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes.  “When I first entered the classroom as a professor, I did my best impersonation of him,” Ludes continued.  “But the truth is, there is only one Mario DiNunzio and we were fortunate to kick-off the start of the Pell Center’s 2016-2017 programming with him.”

     

  • Long exposure photo of cars on a highway overpass. The left lane is a blur of white showing the traffic moving while the right lane is a dotted canvas of tail lights showing a major traffic jam. Soft blues from a twilight sky mix with the rough orange of urban life. Streetlights in the background reveal a world underneath the overpass one that is dark both metaphorically and literally. The photo shows concrete life coming to fruition. The buildings, the overpass itself, all of the same material. What is this urban life? It is a complex mix of blue and orange on a concrete palette drowning out the cries of a lonely green park. Just a hint of the once expansive natural wonder of this land exists surrounded by the overpass, another metaphor. The overpass is layered much like the way we experience life. While we may wait trapped in traffic above, below the cars race to and fro, trapped in an inevitable push for space. Amidst the chaos of urban life a red light frees lanes in the bottom right. Show the constructed nature of this problem we call traffic. By mans design traffic comes and goes, ebbing and flowing not from the tides but from the red lights that dot the image.

    The Problem With Ethical Autonomy

    Can We Program Self-Driving Cars To Make Ethical Choices?

    Our conception of the future is often produced by a quixotic mix of the fictional and the real. Science fiction authors hand down a perspective of the future warped by a desire to reflect, and change, the present and consequently the future. Intertwined with our reading is our own movement away from the present. Weaving together science fiction and the individual creates a future that is marked by fabulous technology, but inhabited by ourselves. The childish flights of fancy we construct into our memory when examining the future we live in are held against two paradoxical standards: the imaginative conflation outlined above and the technological progress achievable in our lifetime. We are thus simultaneously impressed and disappointed by our technological circumstance. When Captain James T. Kirk first flipped open his communicator requesting a transport back to the Enterprise, audiences were taken by the fantasy. Kirk was able to talk wirelessly, instantly, to his crew in orbit, as well as be “beamed” almost anywhere. Fifty years later cellphones are a pervasive, almost cultural, force in society yet we still lament that we cannot “beam up,” that we are still very much terrestrial beings. Though technologies we now have access to might retroactively seem to be the “obvious” technologies humanity would pursue first, this ascribed logic of technological advance clouds our sight. When a technology seems be of our imagined future it is worthy of extra consideration.

    In an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette President Barack Obama outlined an initiative by his administration to provide car manufacturers with a sixteen point compliance list for the safety “autonomous vehicles.” Vehicle autonomy, often referred to as “self-driving cars,” has appeared in the consciousness of government agencies seemingly overnight, though the technology for autonomous vehicles has existed for some time.[1] After Telsa’s “autopilot” program was involved in a fatal car accident articles have begun to appear concerning the varying aspects of these vehicles.[2] The fallout from Tesla and the apparent blessing of the United States Government spurred a wave of technological analysis. Yet economic and legal discourse, and even the President’s own initiative, sidestep ethical issues present at the foundation of vehicle autonomy.

    At the very heart of self-driving cars is the programming that allows them to function. Such “Autonomy” is, in a philosophical sense, a bit of a misnomer. The type of “autonomy” that exists inside these cars is not so much a rational and conscious actor, but a machine following a set of pre-programmed commands. Running on algorithms the cars take inputs and run them through a series of rules to create an output. The “autonomy” of these self-driving cars is an illusion. The “freedom” these cars have is one that is merely programmed to react in specific ways per the context of the situation. The cars do not have the freedom to act outside their rule bounds. They are designed to appear autonomous when it is their programming dictating their actions.

    In a car accident it is the driver of the car who is the rational actor involved in the decision making process and the driver bears the moral culpability for the results. The United States is a vehicle nation, containing almost as many cars as there are people.[3] Millions of American’s commute to work every day via automobile, on interstates and highways across the country. As the President outlines, roads are dangerous. Thirty-five thousand people died in automobile accidents just last year. He goes on to say that self-driving cars will reduce the number of traffic fatalities.[4] However, it is not a stretch of the imagination to consider a situation where a car accident will indefinitely result in death. How would we program a self-driving car to react in a scenario where, through the actions of the car, the end result would be fatal? What if a truck stops short and if the car swerves in either direction it will collide with a motorcycle but if it stops short the driver will be crushed by an oncoming truck. Do we program autonomous vehicles to always protect the driver? Or to minimize the amount of total harm? Such a scenario has resulted in two competing headlines: “Is your car programmed to kill you?” and “Is your car programmed to kill?” It appears that in allowing self-driving cars we are at least confirming the latter, they will, in some way, be programmed to kill. In a car accident the onus is on the driver, they make the ultimate decision, to swerve or to break, and are thus held responsible. But who bears the responsibility when an autonomous vehicle crashes?

    While Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were guided by the hand of the Prime Directive, in the field of vehicle autonomy there is no overarching principle. With companies like Google and Uber already pushing to deploy this technology and the most recent position by the Government being one of encouragement, it appears our haste to reach the future has superseded any reflection given to this technology’s ethical implications.[5] Improvement and innovation can mask the ethical challenges of new technology and it is yet to be seen how problems of autonomous vehicles are approached.

    [1] http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2016/09/19/Barack-Obama-Self-driving-yes-but-also-safe/stories/201609200027

    [2] http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/30/12072408/tesla-autopilot-car-crash-death-autonomous-model-s

    [3] http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-ihs-automotive-average-age-car-20140609-story.html

    [5] The 116 page DOT report can be reviewed here: https://www.transportation.gov/AV