Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

It is fallacious to argue that because no one is storming the castle, no real injustice exists. But maybe income inequality isn’t really a problem. “Overall material well-being” should be our lodestar, the Cato report reads, and an individual’s lifetime level of consumption is a better proxy for material well-being than how much money he makes in a given year. While our incomes vary wildly from youth to adulthood to retirement, our level of consumption wanders up and down in a much narrower range. We might borrow money or draw on our savings to maintain a pattern of consumption in lean times, while prime-earning years afford opportunities to build a nest egg. This “consumption smoothing” renders year-to-year income inequality data all but meaningless, some say. Conservatives then attempt to pooh-pooh rising income inequality by pointing out that inequality in how much peopleconsume, the figure to watch, is growing much more slowly.

Recent data shows, however, that consumption inequality is hardly insignificant. In a 2012 paper, Orazio Attanasio and two colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Researchexposed measurement errors in earlier research. They found that previous studies had seriously underestimated the extent of consumption inequality. “The well documented rise in income inequality during the last thirty years,” the report reads, “was accompanied by an increase in consumption inequality of nearly the same magnitude.” That goes for food and entertainment spending, home appliances and car purchases—the works.

But leave aside that data for a moment. If we grant that the poor tend to have refrigerators and air-conditioners and cell phones and are objectively better off than their medieval peers, there is still good reason to worry about the rich-poor gap. The trouble with inequality isn’t primarily about consumables. As Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, pointed out a few years ago, public goods must be considered as well. The more inequality, the less rich and poor citizens tend to see eye-to-eye on these common benefits:

As economic inequality increases, the better off perceive fewer and fewer shared interests with the less well-off. Because they buy many critical goods—health insurance, education, security services, transportation, recreation facilities—individually from the private sector, or pool the provision of these goods within private gated communities or municipalities governed by zoning regulations designed to exclude the less well-off, they tend to oppose public provision of these goods to the wider population.

This is why Mr Obama calling inequality the “defining issue of our time” has moral resonance. It has nothing to do with the rabble envying Sub-Zero refrigerators. It is not about the iPhone/cheapo-cell phone gap. Inequality is problematic not because it makes some people jealous of others but because it effectively locks millions of people out of opportunities to improve their lives. Ms Anderson put it well: “To live in a low-crime, orderly, unpolluted neighborhood, free of run-down and abandoned property, graffiti-marred buildings, open drug dealing, prostitution, and gangs; to have access to public parks where one’s children can safely play, to well-maintained sidewalks and roads, to schools that offer an education good enough to qualify one for more than menial, dead-end jobs: how many cell phones and athletic shoes is that worth?”

So why are the lower orders twiddling their thumbs while the plutocrats continue their ascent? Maybe the lesson of Occupy Wall Street is that drum circles and pithy slogans accomplish little, in the end. Maybe the underclass is taking their relative plight in stride because they have decent refrigerators. Or maybe the gradual demise of the labour movement and the power differential between rich and poor Americans make it unlikely we will see a raid on the barricades any time soon.

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
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14 Responses to Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

  1. There is in the modern world this thing called media that keeps people entertained into being zombies.  It is the case in the article that a cheap appliance and a high end appliance serve much the same function, which means the gap in living is not as great.  The main difference though between being rich and poor is between security and angst.  If you are poor you live in constant fear that tomorrow might bring disaster, while if you are rich you do not have quite those fears.  With media though the poor can mollify their concerns by playing video games or watching programs that direct their minds elsewhere.  The media is the biggest social-psychological control system in history.

    LC 

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  2. The really pernicious difference, as mentioned in the article, is the attitude toward public goods. For example traffic congestion – it doesn’t matter to the uber-rich, they just helicopter over it. But it adds hours to everybody else’s work day. Pollution, the rich go to their ranch in Montana – no pollution there. Higher education, no problem they can afford Harvard and Yale; let the hoi polloi borrow the money. And because the uber-rich have so much political power there’s no investment in these public goods.

    Brent

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  3. I remember when we read Brave New World and “1984” in high school, and again in college, there was a big discussion afterwards over which dystopia our modern world most resembled (this was in the ’70’s). Both times there was general consensus that we were much more like the consumerist hedonistic society of BNW than the soviet-style war-state of 1984 (though perhaps some societies, like North Korea are closer to the “1984” model). A couple of decades ago Aldous Huxley wrote “Brave New World Revisited” and examined the ways that the late 20th century had become like the world he predicted. I recall he said that antidepressants came close to being like “soma” and that test tube babies were the precursors to bottled designer babies from the lab and that TV was the “telescreen” and that the advertising business with its endless jingles came close to the mind-conditioning of BNW. The entertainment industry, melded with the news media, also contributed to a jingle-like shallow understanding of what was going on in the world.

    Today there is also the difference in re-makes of old movies, which are virtually all special effects with hardly any plot or character development (Compare the brilliant 1950’s version of the Titanic “A Night to Remember” with the goofy brainless version in the ’90’s or the eerie ’60’s version of the Haunting of Hill House with it’s mind-numbingly monotonous ’90’s version; “The Haunting” or (worst of all) the fantastic ’30’s version of King Kong with the increasingly pathetic versions in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. ) Today’s re-make movies are on their way to being the “feelies” in BNW — all special effects and sensationalism, moronic plot and cardboard characters.

    I’m trying to think of whether any SF writers anticipated the internet. In “1984” communication was done through sending letters in a canister through a network of pneumatic tubes (which must be where that American senator got the idea that this was how the internet worked.) In 2001, the astronauts were able to communicate with their families through some kind of live video conferencing and in Rene Barjavel’s “The Ice People” people sent each other video cassettes instead of letters. I can’t think of any SF author who anticipated being able to communicate at the speed of light or live through typing, which is odd considering that telegrams and telex machines were already in existence and it wouldn’t have taken much to extrapolate from there and imagine everyone having their own private telex, so to speak. Star Trek anticipated cell phones — sort of — although there were already walkie-talkies (if that’s what they were called) in the ’60’s.

    I know that I have become “dumbed down” over the last decades since I find it very difficult to read books, especially fiction. The stories are too long and I don’t like having to hold the book. And the type is too small and not lit up which means I have to wear reading glasses. Don’t have this problem on the computer. The answer is not e-books since you still have to hold them and the stories are too long. I mostly refer to just read short items on line, or watch the movie.

    There certainly are some aspects of “1984” in our present world, with endless wars that are fought far away with various enemies, and the rabble (the low information rightwing bots) screaming for the blood of today’s enemies and worshiping the hero soldiers who are mostly unknown to them personally. But overall I think we’ve come a lot closer to Huxley’s dystopia than to Orwell’s.

    One place where the poor *are* storming the barricades is in Europe, where growing and increasingly desperate crowds of refugees from West Asia and Africa are trying to migrate and European governments are trying to shut them out.

    Anne

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  4. Remember that Orwell’s “1984” is really a treatise on the social psychology of totalitarian rule. “Brave New World” explores how technology and consumerism can play into authoritarian power. The two books then in effect serve somewhat different purposes.

    Big Brother in “1984” is any archetype of a powerful figure, and given the mysterious nature of BB he can represent everything from God, Stalin, a mafia don, or the boss from hell at work. Orwell illustrated how fear and hatred are employed to control people, and on top of it how to capture the loyalties of people. Remember, at the end of the novel Winston Smith loved Big Brother. It sort of gives one an insight into why it is the North Koreans have such affections for their Kim (***) dictators.

    “Brave New World” displays a world of constant distraction and entertainment that keep people in line. It also had the whole bit about people who were alphas, betas etc through genetic engineering. There may be in the future some elements of that, such as GATACA. We do have elements of BNW around us, and it is the reason the poor do not batter down the barricades. The market oriented media fragments us into the individual, and now people walk around like zombies looking down at little screens. It is also meant to plug into people’s wants and desires, and it is not possible to organize resistance when people are behaving that way.

    The 21st century will see hybrids of Orwell and Huxley. The world does not have the resources to provide a complete Huxley BNW, which implied hyperconsumerism. There will be scarcities and problems, and the disparity in economic wealth means that people closer to the bottom will experience privations. This means there will have to be some of the fear aspects to social control. If the world’s resources begin to seriously play out I suspect that Orwell’s vision will emerge as more dominant. Of course on the other hand, given the economic experience of people it will not happen that suddenly there will be an Orwellian system imposed. As a result I think a sort of hybrid of the two distopian visions is likely to materialize.

    LC

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  5. Or maybe we will solve our problems and life will continue to get better for more and more people on the planet as it has done throughout human history.
    Bob Zannelli

    That would be nice, but some recent events have me suspicious about this. The most recent thing I heard illustrates how it is possible that some of our instinctive programming conflict with being an intelligent life form. It is almost universal in animals that during a time of scarcity there is intensive behavior to “grab everything you can,” and to do it as fast as possible. I was reading a report a while back about almond farming in the San Joaquin valley. Farmers are scrambling to put in more almond trees because these make the most money and there is a premium on using what water is left to make the highest profit. This sounds crazy, for it would make greater sense to plant things that use water lightly, but exactly the opposite is happening. If you think about it this is rather common, and it leads inevitably to the worst possible outcome. The behavior is fine for most animals seeking to maximize their fitness to spread their genes. For an intelligent life form that has such control of their environment this is a disaster.

    In the end we may face more than peak oil, or peak water, or even peak environment. This last one is where we run out of possible environment that serves as a life support. It is that we face peak brain. We will not likely “solve all our problems,” any more than we have really any of the problems I remember when I was a child. We had problems of protracted war (Vietnam), pollution, drugs, crime, urban decay and … , and these are all with us still. In the case of protracted war the name changed from Vietnam to Iraq or ISIS etc, pollution has changed from words like smog to global warming and plastics in the ocean and so it goes. We have in fact not really fundamentally solved a single problem facing our species in my lifetime. The level of complexity with these problems is also growing, and it leads me to suspect eventually we may no longer be able to manage anything.

    LC

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  6. jim.wyman
    Aug 26

    Re: BNW or 1984? (was:Fw: Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

    Shut off the goddamned TV, push away from the effing computer, get your head out of the past and get out into the world.

    Nobody knows their heroes? They’re all around you, you just have to notice them. They’re “unsung” because you and I didn’t sing their praises loud enough.

    You see a problem? Join a group and get to work on a solution. Closest to the problems is where you’ll find your missing heroes.

    If there isn’t a group, form one. There have never been more tools to organize and communicate. There have never been so many resources available at hand, and never so many hands around to help. And while you’re working, there will always be a few of the Crybaby Permanently Disgruntled standing around the edges criticizing everybody and everything – but that’s OK, we need critics too.

    I read all the same books cited here. My mistake was poring over the last one of that bunch – the Whole Earth Catalog.

    j

    Sent from my iPhone

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  7. In a time where a sociopathic billionaire and reality TV show host is leading the pack in a race for the Presidency I can only conclude that we are probably in the long run washed up. I also suspect that it really doesn’t matter, and that things will be better without us.
    LC

    Now if you act on the logical conclusion to that, or act on my question “why don’t you act more like a Samurai?, or a leader, showing us all the way ahead by example?”, the authorities will arrest me for being an accessory to your suicide.

    To quote Stephen King’s character in his ‘Shawshank Redemption’, Lawrence “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

    j.

    If the universe and life are absurd, then there is no point in doing as you say. In fact if existence is absurd, I am liberated from the burden of having to convince people of things, or “save the world,” or from having to convince you or anyone else of my position with respect to how the world is to be saved. This is made particularly so since there are millions of people with these idea and most of them are contradictory. I am in fact liberated from the burden of having to convince people of any grand moral principle, or even why we should do anything to “save the world,” and because of that I am free to pursue other things that are of greater interest and I think of greater profound nature — even if in the end it is all absurd.

    LC

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  8. hannibal.crisp
    Aug 26

    RE: BNW or 1984? (was:Fw: Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

    Well,in my own modest way, I’m trying to do that. However, I essentially believe, that the efforts I make are doomed to failure and ultimate destruction by global events that are arguably now beyond anyone’s control. In much of Ethiopia the rains have come too late this year for the farmers to achieve anything like sustainable harvests. I am no more certain than anyone else that this is specifically an outcome of global warming, but I am fairly convinced that 30 years or so down the road it will be the norm across much of sub-Saharan Africa (as well as other parts of the world). This means that the children of the people I work with are either destined to die of thirst or starvation or in some desperate attempt to migrate to some more fortunate part of the world where they will be loathed and despised – a fairly respectable and widely read social media commentator in the UK recently described the migrants trying to get into Britain as “cockroaches”, the compassionate British Prime Minister spoke of “swarms” of migrants. I’m a Brit, and your kind of gung-ho, can-do, pollyanna positivism is beyond my range, and often, in my belief a form of whistling in the dark. As social beings we have evolved to feel good about being part of a group committed to some larger purpose, but it is too easy to kid ourselves that our efforts make any difference in the face of natural or anthropogenic forces that may have been in play for millennia, if not since the Big Bang. Somebody here will probably chastise me for mixing my physical metaphors, but the combination of inertial and kinetic forces is such that the likelihood of reversing them is vanishingly small.

    I’m not sure there is much comfort to be gained from Lawrence’s view that the human race is a virus that is in the process of inefficiently destroying its host, and therefore the conditions of its own survival, and that therefore the host will be cleansed by our absence. I think that the human adventure has been full of glorious achievements and that the universe will be the poorer for our disappearance, but it would seem that our much vaunted ability to learn from the past is simply a delusion. It may be that your search for “local heroes” will leave the remnants of some kind of survivalist, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max human society, but the kind of efforts currently being made by ISIS to erase the past in Palmyra seems symbolic of what our species is doing on a global scale. I was brought up on the stories my mother told about her childhood in prewar Poland, the games she played with her brothers and sisters, the friends she brought to life with her anecdotes – and when I asked her where all those people were, she would smile and tell me how they died: in prison camps, by execution, by gas, by suicide, by starvation, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by naivete… Nothing has changed except our increased capacity for destruction and self-destruction.

    The “hero” is a very popular American meme, a revival of the Homeric past where titans toppled topless towers, where fallible gods moved their human pawns around parochial chessboards. Those gods today are the likes of Donald Trump, toupéed and bombastic, or tricksters of every ilk, like the UK’s oh-so earnest Blair, the “aw shucks” morons of America from Reagan to GW, the “wrestle a bear” parody of Putin… They have always been the same. Local heroes are the protagonists of the brief “little man” era, and of course much propagated through modern social media, but their essential role is to comfort us in the thought that we are still okay, that however contemptible the “gods” are, down at the bottom here there is still something worth valuing.

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  9. “Liberated” implies you were enslaved. But this is a misconceiving ethical obligations as moral ones. Whether you want to do anything to save the world is a moral choice, entirely up to you. But if your choice may well influence how others regard you and whether they are willing to cooperate with you. I don’t think there is any objective (human independent) way of saying the universe if absurd or not. But there is a subjective way, and it’s up to each subject.

    Brent
    “It does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter.”
    — Thomas Nagel

    Like

  10. Chris Savage
    Aug 27

    RE: BNW or 1984? (was:Fw: Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

    1/ All of us are going to die.

    2/ All of our children are going to die.

    3/ All of their children are going to die.

    4/ Etc.

    The above statements have been true for all people, ever. They are going to be true for all people, ever (barring science-fiction-y immortality schemes we can ignore for now).

    If they are a sufficient reason to be miserable and depressed – that is, if mere nihilism, or fatalism, or realism, about the bare fact of mortality is enough for depression and misery – I guess that explains why so many people convince themselves to believe in an afterlife, souls, etc.

    To me one of the challenges of life is finding ways not to be depressed and miserable even though I know that I’m going to die, my kids are going to die, all the cute little baby animals are going to die, etc., etc., etc.

    The first step (for me) when confronted with those facts is to ask, “So what? Does that mean I have to be miserable before I die?”

    The answer, of course, is no.

    So then the question is, what can I do/think/experience that will cause me to be happy, fulfilled, interested, joyful, etc., notwithstanding the fact that we’re all doomed.

    On a purely selfish level, doing things that are interesting in the short term makes me happy. On a slightly more other-directed level, taking care of my family (emotionally and materially) makes me happy. On a much more other-directed level, doing things that at least by my lights move “the world” in a better direction makes me happy.

    But of course no matter how effective I am, it doesn’t change the fact that I, my kids, their kids, the cute little baby kittens, etc., are all going to die.

    The fact that from that perspective “none of it matters” is actually orthogonal to the question of living a happy and fulfilled life, it seems to me.

    Chris S.

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  11. Ideas concerning the salvation of man, the world etc usually track the power systems I have mentioned: statecraft, priestcraft, warcraft and tradecraft. In the case of priestcraft the idea is that God will come to rescue us, whether that be the birdman cult of the Easter Islanders or the return of Jesus. In the case of warcraft or statecraft the idea is that our purpose or meaning is found in the larger system that we must patriotically fall in line with, and curiously tradecraft in the recent ideology of the market and capitalism has suggested its “plan.” Each of these are systems we are enslaved to, in particular we are enslaved within our mind. That is the most powerful way that a person is enslaved; they are enslaved by some narrative they play in their mind.

    LC

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  12. John….you swat flies and kill millions of bacteria, even cut off pieces of yourself and never blink when you murder those cells.

    Yet you and I decry when Nature doesn’t send rain to take care of “Her children” in Ethiopia, and doesn’t blink, or send a warning, or weep (literally or figuratively).

    And frankly, it doesn’t matter that your opinion of my positivism is insulting or reductionist or “Pollyanna”, or whistling in the dark.

    Every individual human is going to die. That doesn’t mean we flop down and stop eating and drink our tears to speed up the process.

    We have a brief time of health and sanity on the stage, and it’s more fun and fulfilling to work with what you have, and add a dash of panache and a tell joke while doing it.

    If the flood is coming, start filling sandbags, whistle while you work, and yes…every so often take a break, pull out a sheet of paper, and do some cipherin’ to see if you can find or build a better way, then get back to work.

    If you want to know what gets me up in the morning, it is a very simple picture burned into my brain.

    In 2005, to prove to our military bosses that the concrete we were pouring on Camp Lemonier was sound,

    we drove once a week to a “real” (IBC everything, serious money) construction project 10 miles from the base…the oil terminal on the other side of the wadi leading into Djibouti City.

    The real construction site there had a lab where they could do controlled conducted breaks (7-day, 28-day, etc.) and issued lab reports.

    Many, some would claim most…young men in Djibouti scraped together whatever money they could and bought $5 bunches of khat from roadside stands (the president’s wife owned the khat concession, and flew in a plane of the fresh stuff from Ethiopia every day.) They’d stuff the leaves into big masses in their cheek, let themselves relax into a stupor, then sit with their backs to any convenient wall and wait for the heat of the day to go away, immobile and high the whole day.

    The road to the lab was filled with horrendous potholes almost all the way.

    One over-crowded spot in the road was a chaotic intersection, and there is where I saw the world’s smallest entrepreneur.

    He had three articles of clothing: a pair of shorts and two flip-flops.

    He carried a yellow plastic Prestone oil bottle cut so that it made scoop with a handle.

    Over and over he gathered up loose dirt from the side of the road, carried it to a pot hole in the roadway, poured it in, and stamped on the pile until it was smooth.

    He went back and forth as fast as he could walk, smoothing the road even if only for a few passes.

    Occasionally a hand would reach out of a car or truck window and give him money.

    And _that_ man gets me up every morning.

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  13. As social beings we have evolved to feel good about being part of a group committed to some larger purpose, but it is too easy to kid ourselves that our efforts make any difference in the face of natural or anthropogenic forces that may have been in play for millennia, if not since the Big Bang. Somebody here will probably chastise me for mixing my physical metaphors, but the combination of inertial and kinetic forces is such that the likelihood of reversing them is vanishingly small.

    I’m not sure there is much comfort to be gained from Lawrence’s view that the human race is a virus that is in the process of inefficiently destroying its host, and therefore the conditions of its own survival, and that therefore the host will be cleansed by our absence. I think that the human adventure has been full of glorious achievements and that the universe will be the poorer for our disappearance, but it would seem that our much vaunted ability to learn from the past is simply a delusion. It may be that your search for “local heroes” will leave the remnants of some kind of survivalist, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max human society, but the kind of efforts currently being made by ISIS to erase the past in Palmyra seems symbolic of what our species is doing on a global scale. I was brought up on the stories my mother told about her childhood in prewar Poland, the games she played with her brothers and sisters, the friends she brought to life with her anecdotes – and when I asked her where all those people were, she would smile and tell me how they died: in prison camps, by execution, by gas, by suicide, by starvation, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by naivete… Nothing has changed except our increased capacity for destruction and self-destruction.

    …and YOU are still alive. You are so fucking lucky. And what are you doing with the gift she gave you, they all gave you? Whining?

    Like

  14. “It is almost universal in animals that during a time of scarcity there is intensive behavior to “grab everything you can,” and to do it as fast as possible. If the universe and life are absurd, then there is no point in doing as you say. In fact if existence is absurd, I am liberated from the burden of having to convince people of things, or “save the world,” or from having to convince you or anyone else of my position with respect to how the world is to be saved. This is made particularly so since there are millions of people with these idea and most of them are contradictory. I am in fact liberated from the burden of having to convince people of any grand moral principle, or even why we should do anything to “save the world,” and because of that I am free to pursue other things that are of greater interest and I think of greater profound nature — even if in the end it is all absurd.”
    “1/ All of us are going to die.

    2/ All of our children are going to die.

    3/ All of their children are going to die.

    4/ Etc.

    The above statements have been true for all people, ever. They are going to be true for all people, ever (barring science-fiction-y immortality schemes we can ignore for now).

    If they are a sufficient reason to be miserable and depressed – that is, if mere nihilism, or fatalism, or realism, about the bare fact of mortality is enough for depression and misery – I guess that explains why so many people convince themselves to believe in an afterlife, souls, etc.

    To me one of the challenges of life is finding ways not to be depressed and miserable even though I know that I’m going to die, my kids are going to die, all the cute little baby animals are going to die, etc., etc., etc.

    The first step (for me) when confronted with those facts is to ask, “So what? Does that mean I have to be miserable before I die?”

    The answer, of course, is no.

    So then the question is, what can I do/think/experience that will cause me to be happy, fulfilled, interested, joyful, etc., notwithstanding the fact that we’re all doomed.

    On a purely selfish level, doing things that are interesting in the short term makes me happy. On a slightly more other-directed level, taking care of my family (emotionally and materially) makes me happy. On a much more other-directed level, doing things that at least by my lights move “the world” in a better direction makes me happy.

    But of course no matter how effective I am, it doesn’t change the fact that I, my kids, their kids, the cute little baby kittens, etc., are all going to die.

    The fact that from that perspective “none of it matters” is actually orthogonal to the question of living a happy and fulfilled life, it seems to me.”

    My answer to all these deep, true and in some sense tragic thoughts is:

    It is not important that we will die. The most important is the information we have received and have to pass to the next generations. They don’t know it, they do feel it as ‘their’ knowledge but in fact it is our (human) knowledge and heritage. The knowledge we have received in the same way – not feeling that these others are living in us. But this (for the time being) is the only aspect of our immortality. The most important aspect formulated by Carl Sagan: “We are the way the Universe is trying to get conscious of itself”.

    I deeply think that this is the most important task, sense of life and responsibility for every thinking human being. Will we manage to rise over our primate origin and heritage? In any case, this is the task, responsibility and sense. Greater one is not possible.

    It is possible that ‘if current technological developments, especially Moore’s Law, continue at their current pace, a conscious machine may be within the realm of engineering possibilities.’

    (Lyle N. Long, and Troy D. Kelley, The Requirements and Possibilities of Creating Conscious Systems,

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/lnl/papers/aiaa20091949.pdf),

    After that we will transfer our consciousness to intelligent machines. This promises longer individual lives, behavior and solutions closer to reality. This promises survival on a bigger scale.

    Of course, if the Moore’s Law…But, in any case, we have to and we can try … to do anything possible. Imants Vilks

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