by Phil Johnson

Boeing Company is “sorry.” It’s proper for Boeing to apologize for the death of hundreds in its planes that malfunctioned and crashed. British Petroleum was sorry for what went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s rare,” these people often say. Rare? How about never? Can they guarantee that? I think it’s a sure bet that along the way we will hear again, “Sorry. So, sorry.”

Isn’t it becoming clear that we cannot rely on high tech systems for flawless safety? That trusting corporations and money people to lead the way is foolish? That it’s the old fox in the hen house trick? Isn’t it clear that the stakes are raised because of continuously increasing speed and mass reliance on huge systems? Can we in common sense ignore the vulnerability of our dependence on them? Do we think, for example, that driverless cars are never going to fail? That it is impossible for their systems to be hacked? “We apologize for this rare breakdown,” they will say. It was a “low risk.” Low risk when hundreds and more are killed, and the damage done is in the billions with untold ecological consequences when such “rare” breakdowns occur?

But we can pretty much count on an apology when it happens. Who is kidding whom? Who is behind these huge risks?

Big backers are many. Profit motive is vigorously active. At the front of the line are oil companies. “Stop this business of efficient cars. You need to use more gas to keep us rich,” they might as well say. I wonder if they say it out loud. Oil people are in a league with other corporations who relentlessly drive to make money no matter what the cost to others, to humanity and to the environment. The mining companies and oil diggers regard environmental concerns as obstacles, which indeed they thankfully are. Still our country has many money-makers who have leeway to do as they like while the government and many of the rest of us, ignore the protection of public interests.

I’ve been thinking such things for a long time. Perhaps you have, too. There are writers like Bill McKibben, friends like many of you, and other thoughtful people who share the same understanding. We are concerned that we are heading for disaster if we don’t do something, if we are not more careful, if we don’t use the brakes properly.

Who gets to decide how things will be? Virtually everyone says the robots are here to stay and what’s happening now is just the beginning. So, is it the people who make and sell robots who decide? Nearly everyone says that driverless vehicles are inevitable. We won’t need truck drivers, taxi drivers, ambulance drivers, etc. Are we forced to let that happen? Is that wise? In our democratic commonwealth should it not be different? Why aren’t technological advances aimed at genuinely assisting the driver rather than replacing him or her? We are talking about a lot of good jobs. Is it fair to the people who perform them currently to simply replace them and send them scurrying for employment?

It is in our interest to preserve what we can of our professions, jobs, and careers.

The difficulty seems many-layered. Speed, to start (going too fast before the hazards of the higher speed are known—a plane going 500 mph can’t turn on a dime); quantification as the ultimate measure of importance and value (thus the pervasive power of the “bottom line” in nearly everything); and the vortex of convenience that is largely fueled by our desire for comfort.

One number that sums all this up is the Gross National Product. We read, as presumed good news, that the Gross National Product (the GNP) has grown by 3%. Therefore, the economy is healthy. But it’s actually bad news according to some who argue convincingly that the earth cannot sustain compound growth of 3% a year. Short-term, bottom-line profit, immediate stock growth, and returns for investors are clearly powerful forces within corporations, forces that are shaping society and provide justification for short-term strategies and provide grounds for continuing in reckless ways. The CEOs and PR folks will say, “We are sorry,” when something goes off the rails.

Consider the power of convenience. Aren’t most of us drawn to convenience and comfort? Nothing wrong with either. Moral judgements will not help. Reckoning clearly and thinking things through does help. We need on-going common sense and intelligent pragmatism.

Convenience and comfort are good things. But not indiscriminately. Haven’t we been heedless of the forces that are displacing us? What is it we think we will do or be when need for us humans has been eliminated? Whatever work there is to do will be done by robots and machines. Maybe some of us will get jobs turning switches off and on. Remotely, of course. Sound fun? Healthful? Who is going to have the money? Won’t the rich get richer?

Individuals like ourselves do not have power over these huge forces, these principalities and powers, but we can still choose to resist the demons hidden under the cloak of convenience and comfort, perhaps like detectives, and use our common sense. Can we escape the tyranny of the bottom line? It’s not easy, yet to do so is vital. Can we get in touch with our genuine self-interest? Can we invigorate our public servants?

Well, it’s a good thing we are bodies—a great thing that play and music and dancing are going on all over the world all the time, right now. There are powers that are equal to an enslaving bottom line, such as the power of play, the joy of love, of doing things for fun, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the limits of human mortality.

It would be a tragedy to smother ourselves and the rest of creation. Then who will be around to say, “Sorry.”