The tech shift: Push politicians for answers, and develop your digital literacy

Tech is rising and America's middle class is vanishing. Here's what to do.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: In the United States, we're in the middle of an election season and as a voter in the United States I would ask our candidates to actually acknowledge and provide proposals that are realistic about how they are going to take care of workers and the middle class in the midst of these massive economic transformations that are aided by private, corporate-run technology that we're witnessing all around us. I would ask our candidates, again, in the United States election, to explain to us how they are going to maintain economic security in a country that becomes more and more economically unequal. How they are going to ensure that technological transitions are ones that benefit all of us. And how they can introduce work of the future where the digital economy actually works for everybody.

For technology users and workers of the future, there are a number of different steps that we can take. They aren't sufficient to overcome these inequalities that I'm writing about in Beyond the Valley but they are really important, nonetheless. First of all, one of the most powerful aspects of the internet which still exists is the ability to learn from lots of different streams of content. And I, as a university professor, a bunch of the places I went to university at, both my undergrad and graduate degrees, offer free online and open courses—completely free, taught by professors at Stanford, at MIT. And it doesn't have to just be those universities. It could be almost anywhere. So I would really encourage everybody to take, you know, no need to be scared about the technical side of things, but to take the right types of classes on data literacy, technological literacy, artificial intelligence and ethics. Not because you have to be a geek or you want to become a techie but because these are the new languages by which human possibilities and actually human sociality, like our ability to communicate, are being expressed as we've spoken about before. So that's part one, like take advantage of the open internet.

But part two is be really, as much as possible, try to be critical. Play with different kinds of platforms. So what if you use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. How would the results be different? What if you deleted—just play—what if you deleted your cache in your search history? Would that impact anything on Google? Develop a literacy through playfulness. Try to understand in a more relational or experiential sense what digital pathways might look like. That's a second point.

The third I would say is there are a number of good books and writers and talks and TED talks, et cetera. I hope I'm one of them with my book Beyond the Valley, but there are a number of others who are writing for a completely mainstream public about these digital transformations. And I would really encourage everybody to look at some of these books and I'd be happy to suggest some as well. Cathy O'Neil. She's pretty incredible. She wrote a book called Weapons of Math Destruction—it's a really cute title—and it's just a really, really good book and it's an important book. But there are other books as well that we can consider.

And last, and I think very importantly, is to look at the right journalistic sources that are also reporting on these issues. ProPublica has done great work on this. The Intercept has done some work on this. The Guardian has done some work on this. There are a lot of different kinds of platforms. Wired, of course, had done great work on this. And more than anything we need to pressure our companies that are making labor and work obsolete in the interest of "innovation"—it's innovation for whom, is really the question—we have to ask them for all the jobs, for all the economic security you take away, you need to provide us with something, too. And here are all these different possibilities we can engage with, from thinking about universal basic income ideas to worker-owned cooperative ideas to regulatory ideas to competitive market ideas. There's a lot out there and I ask us all to maintain a little bit of optimism but push. You know, we've got to push on all fronts.

We are at an inflection point when it comes to top-down control over very many different aspects of our lives through privatized corporate power over technology. We can work with these guys and try to push them to make sure that they restore balance in our lives.

  • The rise of new technologies is making the United States more economically unequal, says Professor Ramesh Srinivasan. Americans should be pushing the current presidential candidates hard for answers on how they will bring economic security and how they will ensure that technological transitions benefit all of us.
  • "We are at an inflection point when it comes to top-down control over very many different aspects of our lives through privatized corporate power over technology," says Srinivasan. Now is the time to debate solutions like basic income and worker-owned cooperatives.
  • Concurrently, individuals should develop digital literacy and get educated on the potential solutions. Srinivasan recommends taking free online and open courses from universities like Stanford and MIT, and reading books and quality journalism on these issues.


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    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

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    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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