Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Hyphenated American

There was a time, not too long ago, when America described itself as a "melting pot," a nation singular in the notion that it was composed entirely of immigrants.  Oh, sure, there were those who opined how the American Indian ( or Native American, if you prefer) was here first, but if you really want to be accurate about it, the Indians were just as foreign to North America as anyone. They migrated from Asia. So when you get right down to it, America really sits on a continent of immigrants, with the United States having codified it as a melting pot.

Except we're not supposed to say "melting pot." Apparently, someone, somewhere decided the phrase was a trigger of micro-aggression, inciting feelings of racism or something like that. I know, it confuses me, too. How can a nation of immigrants be anything but a melting pot? No matter, I've never pretended to understand the whining of mediocre minds, but the concept does bring to mind an issue that probably should concern us all.

One can't venture past the breakfast table without inadvertently bumping into a victim claiming some sort of discrimination. It's become so routine as to become tiresome, numbing the population to the point where we really don't empathize with victims, especially when they lodge their complaints with an attorney at their sides.  I have noticed, however, that just about all of the complainants identify themselves with a peculiar punctuation: the hyphen. We have Afro-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and probably some Short-Fat-And-Hairy-Americans, too. 

Nobody seems to be a plain old vanilla American any more.  And that's not good -- for anyone in America.

The fact of the matter is that if you label a yourself a hyphenate American, you're not an American at all.  The whole point of this country has been, and continues to be, the new home of immigrants who have consciously forsaken their homelands in order to adopt another. Nobody comes to America to be come an African-American or a Japanese-American or a Mexican-American.  Assuming you come here legally, you're supposed to leave all that foreign baggage at the front door, because once you become an American, that's all you are: an American.

That's not to say all immigrants should immediately reject and abandon their heritage. Quite the contrary: it's the mongrelization of our society that makes America so great. We all borrow from each others' customs and practices, trying each one on to see how well it does or doesn't fit, and emerge healthier and stronger as a result. I love the fact that a blue blood WASP injects a little Yiddish into his oratory. I'm charmed by the way an Asian guy might describe a swagger as "having real cojones."  That's the brilliant part that adds sparkle to an immigrant culture.

But when you add a hyphen to your self-description, all of that goes away.  The hyphen loudly declares, "I'm not an American. I'm not like you. I'm another ethnicity who just happens to live here." And that, my friends, is not a good thing, because it turns those immigrants inward, to a self-segregated "safe space" where they begin to inbreed themselves out of the national fabric.  On university campuses across the country, various ethnic groups are currently declaring entire dormitories off limits to any group other than their own, claiming safe spaces that supposedly shield them from racism and other threats, imaginary as those may or may not be.  The truth is that those safe spaces are really nothing more than shelters for narcissism, prolonging a polarizing adolescence until graduation and the discovery that the country isn't such a bad place after all -- assuming you embrace it with as much welcome as it embraces you.

Hey, I'm not denying that racism and competition and hard knocks are out there. They are, and at the time of this writing, it's going to get a lot rougher before it gets any better. All the more reason to drop the hyphen and join your neighbor in a productive, supportive manner. You don't have to be best friends, you simply have to be curious and appreciative.

That's always been the American way.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Self-Driving Cars Will Kill You

At the time of this writing, there's a national election brewing in the United States, waves of  refugees over-running Europe and economic peril hovering over China. It is easily not the best of times, which is how a momentous incident recently occurred without anyone much noticing:

A few weeks back, General Motors invested roughly a half billion dollars into Lyft, the Uber competitor that's disrupting the transportation industry via hand held technology. If you've been asleep at the wheel, Lyft connects private drivers with passengers who need a ride, using an application consumers keep on their cell phones. Riders are connected to a driver who uses his own car to charge them for the ride. It's not only cheaper and more convenient than taxi cabs, it's also helping to put those taxi cab companies out of business.  But that's another story. More consumers use these services because it's cheaper than owning, maintaining and insuring a car. In fact, some industry analysts predict that private car ownership will eventually disappear altogether in favor of "rides as needed services."

Nobody seemed to care much about GM's investment in Lyft, because nobody seems to care about much anything these days if it isn't placed in front of their noses. In this case, however, one need only look slightly to the left of Detroit to see the real, potentially huge implications of GM's move. One has to ask himself, "Why would an automotive company want to hook up with a tech outfit?"  Here's one scenario:

Throughout history, car companies have promoted their products to the consuming public, but in reality, the big money has never been in individual sales, but in fleet sales, where one sale can move hundreds or thousands of units to one corporate customer. Rental car agencies, police departments, the military, taxi companies, delivery services and just about any other enterprise that recruits armies of drivers are sought-after customers.  They buy lots of cars with one stroke of the pen. 

Bearing that observation in mind, it would make sense for GM to get a foot in the door of Lyft if Lyft were planning on converting its model from private drivers to its own fleet of hired drivers.  And if vehicle ownership really is slipping out favor, GM would want to supply the fleets for whoever is left buying cars, like Lyft. In the tech world, total control of data is the brass ring, and by hiring its own fleet of drivers for its own fleet of cars, Lyft would be reducing the risk inherent in both, while ostensibly increasing the efficiency/profitability of each.  

But the fun doesn't stop there.

Assuming that scenario is accurate, it's not too far a stretch to imagine the day when Lyft dismisses all of its drivers and replaces them with its own self-driving cars -- with General Motors right there to supply them.  After all, if self-driving vehicles really are coming soon, and operations like Lyft are completely technology-driven, who really needs a human driver? Pretty scary, eh? It gets scarier. You think self-driving cars are cool? Think again. They're going to kill you. And here's how: 

First, realize that self-driving cars aren't really self-driving at all.  They're steered by interactive technology that responds to an infinite number of stimuli, ranging from consumer cell phones to Global Positioning Services (GPS) from satellites orbiting the Earth.  The only way the system can work is by maintaining a steady flow of data throughout the process.  Digital information which is archived and analyzed and never destroyed, which means you will be tracked wherever you go, forever, by a system that anyone can hack into or abuse.

The system also relies on electric power, so the day someone -- or some terrorist --  kicks out the plug from the wall, all those GPS systems will be rendered useless or worse: hacked to cause crashes and put passengers in real danger. This is one of those issues that nobody wants to acknowledge, like the water supply and the power grid, both of which are insanely vulnerable. If you don't think it can happen, remember the last time you couldn't get phone service or internet?  It's not exactly a rare occurrence.

But there are far worse dangers of self-driving cars that are affecting you even as you read this.  They're just one more way big tech businesses -- the ones that like to portray themselves as your friends -- are destroying humans' ability to provide for themselves. Brands like Amazon, Apple, Google and more aren't doing as much to enable your potential as they are destroying your self-reliance.  They're increasing your dependence on their services by requiring you to pay fees for something you can easily do yourself at no cost.  Instead of owning your music, you stream it. Instead of thinking through your decisions, you click.  Instead of educating yourself with truth, you Google it. Convenience undermines any need for critical thinking, replacing it with blind obedience. That's why nobody remembers your phone number; they have it on their speed dialer. 

Self-driving cars will continue technology's mission of atomizing society, further reducing human contact and estranging us all from one another. Autonomous vehicles reinforce the notion of "it's all about me" because you're not aware that someone else is out there in the lane next to you. There's not even a driver. There's just you. Alone. 

That may be good for Lyft and General Motors and Amazon and Apple. But it's bad for you, bad for your kids and bad for humanity.  If you really want to know why the world has become increasingly disconnected, look to the people who promoted connectivity in the first place.  You know, the same folks whose lack of conscience disconnects people's hearts and minds -- and keeps al Qaeda members up to date.