Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Other One Percent of One Percent

BBC News was probably right to call the results reported this morning of the direct detection of gravity waves "without doubt one of the most remarkable breakthroughs of our time." However, before we pop too many champagne corks, we may wish to consider the broader social context of the story. In many respects this is about another "one percent of one percent" that receives almost no attention, since that epithet is generally applied to the super-rich. However, today's results required considerable expense involving not only the hardware required to run the experiment but also the human resources without whom the experiment could not have been run. There is an old story about a janitor in the NASA Building in Houston. Asked what he did, he replied "I'm helping to put a man on the moon." Beyond that joke, however, we have to realize that this was the work of one of the most elite crews of experts in the world, working with a budget that may well have made a strong impression on the likes of Donald Trump. Thus, before we celebrate, let us take some time to think of all of those not-so-elite researchers in both the social and "hard" sciences, who can no longer do their research because they no longer have adequate funding (or, perhaps, a regular salary providing a living wage).

It's Not Just Infrastructure!

Elizabeth Drew's latest article for The New York Review of Books, "A Country Breaking Down," is a must-read piece, even for those who are already aware of the deterioration of infrastructure across the United States. As a writer whose primary domain is politics, Drew pulls no punches when it comes to presenting that deterioration as a consequence of a governmental system that, for all intents and purposes, is broken with little hope of repair in sight. (Even the supposedly neutral Judiciary branch has gone down the tubes as a result of the Supreme Court's preemptive strike against climate-control efforts.)

Nevertheless, the infrastructure problem is not just one of physical deterioration. It also involves the extent to which our government has decimated the public education system. The point is that the repair of infrastructure can only come about from the skills of workers who know how to repair them. While technology has improved the quality of the tools that can be used, it carries the corollary that skills must now be mental, as well as physical. Furthermore, it means that those involved with repairing the infrastructure need to be skilled managers of information regardless of the physical equipment they will be expected to operate.

This is where Nicholas Carr's chicken about Google making us stupid comes home to roost in full force. As I have previously observed, Google has made us, at the very least, downright lazy when it comes to reading and comprehending, simply because (and this is one of Carr's points), Google "predigests" content to make its search capability more efficient for users. The result is that many workers, desk workers as well as physical workers, understand the world only through how it is seen through some form of computer-based display. I was painfully aware of this yesterday when I discovered that the USPS Call Center could not tell me where a package that had been late in delivery was, simply because the Call Center agent's computer did not have access to that information. (It did not even have access to the location of postal facilities in San Francisco.) Until we can restore a work force that is capable of the most rudimentary forms of thinking through problems, neither project budgets nor an influx of powerful tools of all sizes will get us very far in restoring our country's infrastructure.