Frank Domenico Cipriani

Technology and social justice

October 18, 2011

beheadingPowerlessness. It’s a terrible feeling. Sometimes I look at my own house and wonder what the secret is to maintaining order and keeping things clean. Sometimes I want to pack everything away and live in a blank space, preferably with padded walls and kind attendants to bring me trays of gelatine and small tins of peaches.

Systems unravel and become messy. This is true of homes as well as governments. I know I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: How can one hope to change the world if one cannot even clean a closet? Around these parts, the most efficient, quickest, even the most economic way to clean house consists of one simple step-

Hire a Mexican. Wonderful concept, but not one I can afford, even at $60 for the day. Even though the work is way better when we illegally hire one of the many Mexicans who stand on the local streets in the early morning hours looking for a job, we have to do the cleaning ourselves.

BANGLADESH-AVIATION-MIGRATION-LABOURSo, enter the Spring Cleaning. That wonderful annual ritual wherein each room gets aired out in joyous anticipation of the coming summer. The windows are thrown open, the purifying breezes carry the stale winter air out, and the house is fresh and new. Only problem is, Spring is six months away.

The Arab Spring started as a Spring Cleaning of sorts. In Egypt, That stale air of the Mubarak regime was supposed to have been cleared out to make way for a new path. Now, a week after 26 protesters were killed by the military, it seems as if the cobwebs of the Mubarak days have not been completely expunged, and it makes me wonder if one type of evil has simply been traded for another.

The problem with us vs. them, Liberal vs. Conservative, BNP vs. AL, any dichotomy, is that it keeps the polemic in place. No one questions the root cause of the polemic, but rather jumps on one bandwagon or the other, when the truth is that the conflict between two opposing forces is often the justification that each side needs in order to survive. In other words, there could be no BNP without an AL and vice-versa. Similarly, here in the US, the left would collapse in on itself without the right to rally against.

All over the world, people are clamouring for change, and technology is making older forms of communication obsolete. But technology should also be changing the questions we are asking. If we look at the long march of history, we see that the constant is that technology allows for individuals to be able to control their own destinies to a greater extent, given access to that technology itself.

6a00e54ed2b7aa883300e55227d6b38834-800wiIn the 1970’s, my grandmother declared that labour unions were “tempi pasati”, yesterday’s news. I have seen their demise here in the US and few mourn their passing. In their place, “piecework”, payment for a given product, piece by piece, instead of an hourly wage, has benefited the industrious worker and the small entrepreneur. In my country, no greater piece worker exists than the undocumented labourers who come from Mexico to work in our farms. State governments, eager to “protect” themselves have, in some cases, enacted draconian laws against the immigrants, including deporting parents away from their US born children.

States like Alabama have discovered that as a result of these strict laws, many small farms and contractor businesses are failing. The American worker simply lacks the work ethic of his Mexican counterpart. Alabama’s laws allow for a policeman to ask for proof of legal status to anyone that law enforcement might have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an alien. If the person is found to be an alien, he can be deported, despite the legal status of his underage children. Small farmers and contractors have been hit hard. The law will force family farms to cut production by 33 to 75 percent, according to CNN. And the customers, many of whom are the migrant workers themselves, must now leave the state for greener pastures. In tough economic times, these are losses that a state can ill-afford.

Why mention this in a paper that is focused on Bangladesh? Simply because, in many Arab states, Bangladeshis face similar problems to those faced by Mexicans in the US. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the politics are shifting, and it seems to me that immigrant workers in the Arab world will be deeply affected. According to The Economist, at least six million Bangladeshis work abroad, with Saudi Arabia and Libya being two important sources of economic remittance. According to the same source, labour remittances from the Middle East to Bangladesh account for 12 percent of the GDP. Like many immigrant groups, Bangladeshi immigrant workers are often praised as uncomplaining, hard-working and possessing a better work ethic than the local population.

As economic opportunity evaporates, as the Arab Spring begins to preoccupy the monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East, we may see the trend of executing foreign continue to rise. To date, number of beheadings in 2011 has increased by nearly double. Of these beheadings, almost half the convicts have been foreign nationals. The move is cleverly calculated — the Saudi government gets to claim it is protecting its citizens from foreign scoundrels. When foreign governments complain, Saudi Arabia punishes that nation by limiting the number of labourers allowed to work within its borders.

I read one account of the recent beheadings that indicated that once the decapitations occur, it is immigrant labour that is used to hose down the blood and clean up the plaza for the next execution.

One day, an enterprising Bangladeshi grad student will invent a “virtual labourer”, one that comes in a box and is operated remotely by an unskilled labourer located in Bangladesh. The virtual labourer, a robotic rover, will perform all the functions that I would love to hire a Mexican to do, namely work hard at cleaning house for wages that host nationals would never accept. Then, social justice could prevail. You can’t behead a robot in Saudi Arabia, or separate a robot from its children, in the case of the US.

The revolution that will bring social justice to immigrant workers is a revolution in technology, and it is one that will happen in some garage, some workshop, or some small building in a trailer park somewhere in the world. I’m betting that one of you all out there, among the grad students and tinkerers will invent it.

And no one will realise what you have done to bring social justice to the world. I ask the question yet again. How can I hope to change the world if I’m not even capable of cleaning my own home? On the other hand, given the tremendous social advances that recent technology has inspired, how can you NOT change the world if you can invent some piece of technology capable of cleaning house throughout the world?

Powerlessness, on a local and on a global scale doesn’t last as long as technology marches forward.

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Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.

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4 Responses to “ Technology and social justice ”

  1. Ali on October 20, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Thanks! Indeed, technology helps accelerate and bring relative transparency to different activities that affect us all, especially in the third world. When, if ever we can, obtain such ‘hi-tech’ we shall never ever think of KSA!

    I have been touched so much that I got carried away, perhaps. Fact remains that ‘fabrication’ and insincerity prevails in dealings. More so, when it comes to the poorest lot!

    To them in the ME, our life is cheap, because we do not have oil wealth to display as arrogance. But times are changing! Now Gaddafi is GONE, tomorrow others are to follow. Are we seeing a Global Spring?

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani on October 23, 2011 at 7:26 pm

      I like your idea of a global spring. With seven billion people now on the planet, the importance of social justice is more important than ever, especially in developing nations, where, as you imply, life is perceived by those in the wealthier nations as cheap. As new technologies allow us to produce energy in different ways the paradigm will inevitably shift, but it cannot happen fast enough for those who are being thrown under the bus to keep the current system intact.

  2. Syed Imtiaz Ali on October 19, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    All said and done, the beheading of 8 Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia, etc., your wish for a future tech wizard of BD origin will invent a robot to replace humans with neck and head so that no beheading can take place! They might even try that as per Sharia.

    Well said. But can justice and fair play and norms of the civil society wait for eternity?

    Thank you for your musings. Nice read. But how do you assess the justice of beheading? Please enlighten your readers. It is beyond common wisdom: one Arab = eight Bangladeshi miskeens; death without defence.

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani on October 20, 2011 at 12:24 am

      What I believe is that it is a slow curve upwards. An article in the NY Times speaks of how violence has declined decade by decade. I hope that justice has followed a similar upward curve. I think technology helps, because it makes it harder to fabricate stories, or buy justice. But we have a very long way to go still, unfortunately, and when it comes to poor immigrant labourers, unfortunately many people think life is cheap.

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