The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Automating Poverty

Posted on February 19, 2019

Most of us remain thankful for modern technology and how it has speeded up processes and transactions, mostly by letting us carry out such procedures online and at home. Nevertheless, we are more than aware that something human got lost along the way to such efficiencies.  

So it is with those struggling through poverty in all its many forms.  Recent studies are showing that many in low-income situations are seeing less and less of human caseworkers and more and more of online forms, lengthy wait times to reach someone on the phone, and a lengthy array of paperwork just to get through the process of getting assistance.

It’s even the subject of a compelling book.  In her Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor, author Virginia Eubanks talks about the unfeeling impacts of automated decision-making in those public services designed to help those on social assistance, the homeless and those struggling with mental health issues.  Through lengthy studies of three different real-life situations, Eubanks cogently reminds her readers of how poverty – one of the most demeaning and detached situations in life – is made even worse by the new technologies than it was through the non-digital human contact of the previous era.  As one reviewer says on the book’s cover:

“Eubanks illustrates incisively how these views are being embedded in an increasing number and variety of new tech tools, drawing them together to conceptualise a ‘digital poorhouse’ of the twenty-first century.” 

What is telling about the book is the author’s conclusion that such technical arrangements in dealing with the overwhelming challenges of those in poverty actually reverses our traditional idea of social movements to draw attention to the marginalized in ways that are increasingly human.  Instead, they become numbers or statistics, reachable mostly by electronic means.  In other words, like most of us relegated to seeking service through pressing a number and enduring lengthy minutes of boring music or repeated advertisements saying how important we are to those we are calling, those who are struggling through a less personal world feel even less human.

As politicians, corporate leaders and policymakers refuse to tackle the roots of an emerging poverty class, high tech tools only serve to exacerbate the inequalities slowly infesting our modern societies.  The problems then become all too common – lack of access to doctors, decision makers, caseworkers, program leaders and, ultimately, hope.  Life now is about lengthy wait times, privatized call centres, online forms, endless of use of transportation services and the increasing sense that one doesn’t matter in such an alienating system.

We all know what this is like, whether waiting in an emergency room or spending hours on the phone attempting to process an insurance claim.  For those with low-income, their meaningful world slowly starts moving further off as their lives in scarcity become managed not bettered. 

And for those attempting to manage the poverty of others because of the slow withdrawals of government funding, they are all too often forced to rank those in need in terms of deservedness.  Triaging of human need becomes essential because of a lack of resources.  It’s demeaning.  But the greatest problem is that all this technology does nothing to alleviate the conditions that create poverty in the first place.  National, even global, economic decisions are geared toward those capable of purchasing their way out of their problems.  But work is becoming either highly selective or automated.  Politics ends up being more about trying to do less while promising more.

This is the life of the economically oppressed and no cell phone, case number or algorithm is going to fix it.  In no way can it enhance dignity, expand humanity, develop deeper understandings or provide answers to poverty itself.  It is the modern life of the poor, and in a world with so much wealth, it is a travesty.  It turns out that we have less human resolve to alleviate suffering than we believed. As writer Jay Ash put it in one of his novels: “A lot of us cared, just not enough.”

The Other Path

Posted on February 17, 2019

In 1950, the year of my birth, a wide-ranging Gallup poll in America asked high school seniors the simple question: “Do you consider yourself to be a very important person?” Only 12% of the respondents answered in the affirmative.  Gallup asked senior students the same question in 1990 and that number had risen to 80%.  Three years ago (2016), it had risen to a staggering 94%.

Clearly how people see themselves has been going through a not-so-subtle transformation.  Much of this is due to the phenomenal rise in the youth culture and its ability to capture the attention of the corporate world and the selling of products.  The entertainment industry has mastered the market on superheroes, iconic rebel figures and music celebrities with entire worlds built around their talent.  The growing pantheon of sports titans adds to the illusion that the individual easily transcends the collective.    Even young teens, through the advent of social algorithms and platforms, can built complete communication flows around themselves and their own interests.  The desire for fame and to be seen as special is now epidemic.

But there is another path, an alternative way forward, that some pursue that enjoys deep historical roots and practices.  Most refuse to pursue it or even forget that it exists, yet our society is still infused with the quiet influencers who seek the road to humility instead of greatness. To each their own, of course, but frequently when people encounter those taking such a course they give a grudging respect, a nod to the greater good, where one person is merely a part of something larger, more mystical, called humanity.

You encounter such people frequently in public service, in fighting for this historical cause or that pressing issue, yet there is no show, little ego-centrism, and an overall life of sacrifice.  Though their ranks are thinning, such individuals leave a quiet but powerful trace of their presence in their actions instead of mere words or Facebook posts.

In an age of information overload, there is a pressing deification of knowledge above most other pursuits.  In part, that is because it is so easy to come by.  The Google Age is the era of countless bits of information coming onto your screen instantly upon our simply typing a question in a search box.  It is an amazing development that brings incredible amounts of information to the average person, all for the asking, and, financially at least, at no cost.

The problem is that the possession of such mountains of facts is that it leads us to think we’re smart. All this leads to more opinions and a kind of braggadocio, which Webster’s defines as, “empty boasting” or “arrogant pretension.”  None of us serious about life wish this for ourselves, naturally, but it becomes inevitable when the world becomes more about us and knowledge becomes more about our opinion.

Philosopher Michel Montaigne once noted that, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.”  It’s understandable.  Knowledge is a body of information, but wisdom is how that information is filtered through one’s personality, set of values, experience and insights.  In this sense, wisdom contains a moral or ethical quality since it is filtered through humanity.

The important, the vital, distinction between knowledge and wisdom is that the latter deeply understands that it doesn’t know everything and is humbled by that awareness, whereas with the former one simply wishes to acquire more knowledge and gains a sense of superiority because of it.  This is what results in what might be called the “hypocrisy of knowing.”  It is easily possible to thirst for information and facts that eventually do little to affect the personality.  We all know people like this – always flaunting their smarts while also exuding a certain arrogance about the things they know. Sometimes we, too, fall into the same trap.

Along with the “hypocrisy of knowing” comes a tried and true habit of “intellectual humility” – using what is learned to apply objectively to oneself instead or to others.  It is rare in human relationships these days, but when it is revealed, it elevates the spirits, and minds, of those around that person.

There are those who only wish to know new things – the old stuff bores them.  But it is precisely the “old” wisdoms pertaining to humanity, to respect for others, of forgiveness, willingly learning from others who are mentors.  Such lessons survive for millennia largely because they are enduring principles of human behaviour and learning.

Every generation develops its own methods for self-examination as a way of dealing with life’s many challenges, and our present world merely continues on with that practice.  But along with the desire to find how special each of us are, how we are unique and worthy, must come the recognition of how we are prone to failure and flawed just like every other person throughout history.  The path towards that realization is rarely taken because so few have an inclination in that direction and have developed a deep distrust of those institutions that call for it.  The truly meaningful life is the one that permits an individual’s uniqueness to emerge at the same time as it focuses on the path to deeper wisdom of the precarities of humanity and to deal with them through humility and a growing respect for those things we don’t know but need to understand if we are to grow and find our place in the broader world.  

Both paths are important components of our journey; it’s just that one is overcrowded while the other is nearly empty.

Love Hurts

Posted on February 14, 2019

“Sometimes I can’t see myself when I’m with you.  I can only just see you,” wrote Jodi Lynn Anderson.  And then come those awful moments when you can’t see the person at all. The visitor known as “Death” has come and now all you can see is yourself.  Love is at its most tragic in such moments and when Valentine’s Day shows up on the calendar, it forms a kind of symphony to accompany your pain.  You dread it yet realize in the most meaningful of moments that it is the pain of losing that forms the basis of love – your affection and all that it has done to define you.

Such is the anguish of Valentine’s Day.  In some ways it’s only fitting.  Its observance first came into being centuries ago as a way of honouring martyrs who died for their love of their faith.  Soon enough it became more secularized, more immediate, more romantic.  As such, people all around you start sending paper hearts, red mostly, and talk of imagination, togetherness, tenderness, passion and, above all, love.  They are so bright and colourful about it that it’s all too often blinding to the person who can’t share in it.

How can they know, as they watch you in your quietness, of your withdrawal, your pain?   Could they possibly understand the deep and true love can’t possibly end and therefore the grief of its loss can’t either?  And, so, they try to draw you in, to celebrate, to drink, or be happy, when, in fact, you can’t because you’ve lived through both sides of great love – having it and then losing it to death.  It’s a curse so exquisite, since its very presence is a reminder of just how alive you were when your love was with you.

And so you go on, on this Valentine’s Day, a testament to both the joy and the grief of great love. Others wish you to just move on from it on this day, little realizing that there is no time limit to such a thing because a grieving love is never concluded.  Just because they can give some time to in the season of death, like at a funeral, doesn’t mean that know how to make room for a grief that just goes on and on.  It’s Valentine’s Day, and today of all days, they want you to think of love and relegate your grief to the corners of your life, just for a time.

And how will you do that? How can you?  Your pain of loss can’t be placed in the compartments of your life.  Like incense, it infuses every part of your world.  You are patient because you know they could never understand.  And yet maybe some around you can – hurting hearts that have their own agonizing that they bear but which they have accommodated into the routine of their day so that its unrecognizable.  By your unwillingness to take that easy road reminds them that grief isn’t an episode of life – it islife, the very essence of it.  Seeing you, they pull the veil away from their pain and show the world their own love once more.  You become a balm, a healer, an understanding heart that gives permission for others to let out their anguish and live with it in the open once more, on this Valentine’s Day, just as they did after the days of their own loss.

To live through Valentine’s Day bearing the grief of loss that no one can truly comprehend is hard. The grief of this special day is without adequate words or full expression.

But it does serve a purpose – a grand and romantic reminder of what life is.  It acknowledges that it is possible to hold the grief of lost love while yet celebrating it in all its meaning because it remains with us.  It exists suspended in the human heart in a way that creates the tension of love that can still elevate, inspire, forgive, and, yes, go on.  The very vulnerability of that love was what it made more like a rare orchid than something forgetful.

Of course, Valentine’s Day – this day – is our chance to make room in our lives for the fun, passions, life and glory that is romance, but it also calls on us to carve out space for caring for those who bear the glorious scars of a great love now gone. Love is precisely so powerful because it outlasts death and in so doing moves into the realm of grief.  And since grief is simply love with nowhere to go, perhaps we can make room for such hurting hearts in the middle of this joyful day. 

The Journey of Forgotten Memories

Posted on February 10, 2019

I opted to release the chapters of my latest novella – Life Among the Stones– as sequential blog posts to help draw attention to the rapidly evolving world of Alzheimer’s disease.  As people live longer, the occurrence of Alzheimer’s and dementia have mushroomed, causing many observers to note that we might be on the verge of an epidemic.

Life Among the Stones is a fictional account of a remarkable woman – 81-year-old Alberta Alexander.  The novella opens with her seeing her dead husband’s face in an elevator as the doors close.  Thus, begins her complicated and revealing journey into Alzheimer’s.  With her two adult children fully signed on as caregivers and a long-lasting friend as her physician, Alberta moves into the process determined to retain her inner core of dignity, resolve and love.

Along the way, she discovers she is but one of millions who are watching their memories disappear and their lives along with them.  To the amazement of those around her, hidden treasures of personality and revealed. And Alberta has one precious secret hidden in her garden – a secret telling of a remarkable life.

Life Among the Stones  is now available in paperback for $5.50 here and as a free digital download here.  A special thanks to all those who have written and told of what they learned through Alberta’s journey. Here’s an excerpt:


Now her mother turned fully to face her.  “I know what you’re doing, you know?  But I want to journey back there – to Edinburgh, my relatives, the beach, the marvellous castle. I was happy there.  It was a childhood interrupted, to be sure, but we hardly heard of the war or the killing.  We pretended to build castles in the sand, even on the cold days.  We went to the Firth of Forth and watched the great train bridge and waited for the steam engines to trundle over it.  I missed my parents, but they were always writing me. I would be the first to meet the postman.”

It was quiet for a moment. Jennifer felt remorse for her actions but, at the same time, wanted her mother to stay in the moment.

I’m sorry, mother. You remember what Elizabeth said, don’t you?”

“I remember very well, and my friend was wrong.”

The words were out, and both women were startled by their candour.  For the briefest of moments, Jenny thought her mother angry.  Seeking to deflect it, Jenny said, “The research has said that we won’t be able to alter the outcome of the disease, but we could build supports around you that could change the journey.”

Silence was followed by more silence.

“Mom.”

It is my journey, honey, not science’s.  I don’t wish to change it.  I want only to be respectful in my decline and to not purposefully hurt anyone, especially you or Robin.  But there is magic and wonder just outside of our reality.  I can feel it and my mind, with all its troubles, embraces it.  There is imagination, enchantment, spellbinding things in my youth that might not even have been real, but they were real to me at the time.  And they were peaceful, safe, loving, and rapturous.  I shan’t be hurt by going there, especially when the reality here is defined by decline and my end.”


Our Bridges Are Burned

Posted on February 8, 2019

I was in a car accident during a bleak snowstorm last week and as I worked my way through the process that always follows those in such situations, I took more time than normal to look through social media.  It was a mistake.   I’d always vowed not to fall into that rut … and then I did.  

There was much to learn from those hours spent on the digital frontier, but little of it was edifying or even instructive.  What there was instead was a lot of shooting, manufactured mayhem and average citizens left hiding behind their doors and peering out their windows.  It wasn’t literal, of course.  The shooting involved enflaming words not bullets.  The mayhem wasn’t a melee of violence, but opinionating on anything and everything using Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.  And the citizens hiding out?   I used that more figuratively than anything else.  So many have grown disenchanted with the era of constant attack that they increasingly refuse to open their digital doors and venture out into the mainstream.

 Most of us believe in our community and seek to enhance and build it.  But we also wish to be recognized as important members of that community and briskly pursue “likes” and “retweets” in order to validate our worth.  In order to keep numbers up, we retweet or share numerous bits of information that, when added altogether with everyone else doing the same thing, actually numb the minds of readers.

And it gets worse. Everywhere, people think others are idiots or ignorant, just as those opposing them think the same in return. Politics is the worst for this. People who believe that poverty is a bad thing nevertheless disagree on how to alleviate it and vent their anger as a result.  And their need for more followers means that they will broadcast their invectives as publicly as they can so as to gain attention.  The same goes for every other subject of meaning – immigration, economy, housing, drugs, race and equality.  We have expressed our enraged opinions and have little left to show for it. As Jane Austen reminded us in Pride and Prejudice, “Angry people are not often wise.” Or, as Mark Twain was once heard to comment: ““Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” 

I have been guilty of such things myself at times, but came away from those experiences feeling grimy and demeaned.  In my desire to fight for what I believed in, I might have ended up destroying the very trust and respect required among citizens to build a better future.  

Because so many aren’t in positions of leadership or able to make significant collective decisions, they have found in social media the ability to vent in ways that make them feel equal to such people.  But they’re not – most often through no fault of their own – and the brushfires their accusations and veiled attacks have ignited most frequently drive the community they care about into hiding – worse, into fear and isolation.

My days wandering on the frontier taught me that tweeting, retweeting or sharing our angry opinions, though mostly well meant, have in fact reduced us, balkanized us, and duped us into thinking we’re activists when in fact we are somewhat more like digital arsonists. By the time we’re all done blustering, every bridge will be burned and destroyed.  The true tragedy in all this is that someday, if and when we come to our senses looking out over the desolation, and we feel the urge to reach out and come back together, the very bridges of trust, respect and necessity we will require to build again will be piles of ash.

To realize that we were unproductive, even mean, in how we treated others with whom we disagreed will be a moment of reckoning.  But with every reckoning must come reconciliation if that awareness is to mean anything.  One person in such a situation disclosed to me this week that, in weaponizing his language, he had become like the very trolls he despised.

We are all people of differing opinions and solutions – human, natural and essential.  But a community is more than that.  It recognizes that out of all these insights we must cobble a life together requiring reasoning, patience, debate and comprehension, and should that fail, everything will fail.  We require bridges – solid ones of durability and yet flexible enough to handle our collective distinctions.  But we need pathways across our divides if we are to carve a compassionate community out of a vengeful frontier.  One can only hope that there are enough bridges remaining to assist us in passing over to each other.