Not the future the Jetsons had in mind

Opinion

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Carl Nyberg

Setting aside nostalgia for youth, there's a strong case that the modern world has become a disappointment.

ABC premiered The Jetsons in 1962 (New episodes were produced until as late as 1985). The show depicted a future where technology would improve the lives of ordinary families. But in the modern world technology hasn't live up to the promise depicted in The Jetsons.

I was invited to march in the Bud Billiken Parade as a member of the Chicago Chapter of Veterans for Peace. The parade started at 11:00 a.m. But at 1:15 p.m. it had been raining a while and I estimated the VFP group wasn't going to step off until at least 4:00 p.m. I decided to go home rather than continue to wait in the rain.

When I arrived at the Indiana Green Line station the machine for adding value to fare cards was rejecting wet money. This was a problem for everybody, especially men without umbrellas.

I only had a five and a ten. There was no CTA employee, only a private security guard. She told me to get someone to trade money with me. Amazingly, nobody in the station wanted to trade for money rejected by the machine.

Consider my experience as an interaction between four entities: the CTA, the machine, the customer (me) and the security employee. The system where customers pay the machine has been a great success for the CTA. In the first quarter of implementation the machines netted millions of dollars that the CTA assumed was being pocketed by CTA employees.

So the machine works for the CTA. They make more money.

But how does it affect the lives of the customers and the employees?

While starting pay for the security guards is slightly higher than for CTA employees, the machines disempower the people working at the CTA stations, whether security guards or other employees.

They don't even have the final say as to whether to let someone on the train. The machine does. There's a reason movies that depict a war between humans and machines (e.g. The Matrix and The Terminator) resonate.

From the customer's perspective the machine was not convenient at all. Even customers with dry money had to wait considerable time as other customers tried each bill multiple times.

So the technology being implemented works to decrease convenience for customers that don't charge their fare cards online. This isn't exactly what The Jetsons promised, is it?

But the technology does work for the powerful. The powerful determine the research priorities and the powerful determine what innovations get implemented. The economic forces tend to make new technology as a tool for centralizing power and control.

How do these technological advances make people feel about society?

In general, people have become angrier. The Depression and World War II created a strong sense that Americans succeed and fail as a society. It was worth making an individual sacrifice for the greater good because individuals could see how it benefited their families and communities.

Now, it's not clear that a rising tide does lift all boats. CTA executives see their pay go up while using technology to disempower people working in the stations.

Technology and a global economic system that is less-and-less accountable through democratic elections have created a world where individuals feel anxious. Modernity seems to be a hostile force.

If modernity is the problem, what's the solution? For many around the world, fundamentalist religion fulfills a longing to return to an age of simplicity.

What do fundamentalist religious interpretations have in common around the world? They all prescribe narrower rolls for women in society. They all involve women giving up rights: economic, reproductive or other. The implied message for men is that if they can't control the technology (or their livelihoods) like their grandfathers at least they can control their women.

Also, fundamentalist religious interpretations contribute to sectarian conflicts.

As a society, we need to make technology work for regular folk, not just the powerful. We also need to create an economic system that is accountable to the citizenry instead of faceless bureaucrats at the WTO, World Bank, IMF and courts sanctioned by trade agreements like NAFTA.

The alternative is a society that gets angrier and angrier. I know I was plenty angry at the security guard at the el station. But in the big picture, she wasn't the one jerking me around.

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