Innovation or Exploitation?

Three Italian entrepreneurs think they have the answer to finding a parking place on a busy city street, something all of us know is hard to find. They developed an app that allows the person who occupies the space and is about to vacate it to signal that to other motorists who then bid on it. In essence the app allows the holder of a public parking space on a public street to sell it to whoever bids the highest. Not surprisingly some cities are fighting back. A few months ago San Francisco’s city attorney issued a cease and desist order to these apps. His basis was a police code that prohibits the buying, selling or leasing of public street parking spaces. The entrepreneurs’ next targets are Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, although their city councils have voted to ban the exchange of a public parking space for any form of compensation. And in Los Angeles, although the app is not yet available, the city council has preempted it by outlawing it. Obviously in any number of cities parking is a problem that requires solutions. What struck me about these apps was not they were attempting to solve a problem, but how. I find them opportunistic and exploitative. The idea of selling space that does not actually belong to the seller, that in fact belongs to the public, sounds nothing short of chutzpah. But there’s a larger issue here, of the use of technology. These apps remind us that just because something is possible, does not make it constructive, useful or desirable. As I understand their use, such apps do not serve the cause of innovation nor do they advance progress. But they do send us a signal: In a culture where freedom of thought is paramount, the onus falls on us to learn to reject such negative applications of technology.

Hope After All

I just read about the consolidation of hospitals and medical practices, placing health care in fewer hands. Of course Comcast is set to take over Time Warner Cable, and we hear a lot about Amazon getting too big and throwing its weight around. Housing prices are above what the average earner can afford; it is becoming harder for average workers to qualify for loans or save for a down payment, so many houses that might otherwise be bought by those aspiring to be middle class now go to a variety of entrepreneurs and speculators who can afford them and do with them what they will. In politics money is more and more at the center of campaigns, and that in great part fueled by recent Supreme Court decisions. It seems that in any number of fields, we keep moving into perilous territory, one where only those at the top of the economic ladder can prosper. Here and there, there are signs the trend is being noticed, but too often talk of remedies centers around hot button issues like the 1% or the agenda of the extremes of the political parties mouthing whatever they think will gain attention. Politicians speak of helping the middle class, although helping the middle class may not be possible without addressing the concentration of financial power. Just as I was feeling no one was addressing the problem as a whole, I read an article about capitalism being in crisis and talking about the new buzzword “inclusion.” In the world’s convention centers and auditoriums where bankers and politicians gathers, inclusion refers to what Western industrialized nations seem to be losing, the ability to allow as many as possible to benefit economically as well as participate in political life.

Looks like there’s hope after all.

Being Stateless

Imagine not being able to have a birth certificate, or official registration that you were actually born, or even have any legitimate proof you exist. You would be hampered throughout life, each time you needed to show your identity, for school, health care, any number of services and activities. It’s one thing to follow through on John Lennon’s words, “Imagine there’s no country”, but it’s another not to belong to one in today’s world. In Nepal and Thailand thousands are believed to be stateless and not recognized by the state. Worldwide, some 10 million people are stateless, and the number is swelling in refugees camps like those of Syria, where thousands of births are not being registered. In the past 10 years some 4 million people were granted citizenship, and in 2008 Bangladesh formally recognized thousands of Urdu-speaking Biharis. Despite occasional efforts such as those, in human terms the consequences of statelessness are devastating. On a larger level experts say the overall numbers could be destabilizing, meaning that as those who are undocumented and stateless keep increasing, their number, some believe, could lead to a refugee crisis. The UNHCR (The UN refugee agency) held a forum in The Hague recently to draw attention to the issue and to help find solutions and will soon launch a global campaign to end statelessness—A welcomed effort underlining there’s a long way to go.

Pushed to Ponder

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria that Russian President Vladimir Putin bears at least some responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. “I think if there were any doubt it should be gone by now, that Vladimir Putin, certainly indirectly—thorough his support of the insurgents in eastern Ukraine and the supply of advanced weapons and, frankly, the presence of Russian Special Forces and Intelligence agents—bears responsibility for what happened.” Even without too much parsing, her words look more than just a statement, they hold profound implications. They point to the idea that indirect responsibility is valid. Wouldn’t that mean that manufacturers, suppliers, and other intermediaries in the chain of any weapons of war and destruction bear responsibility too? Jan Oberg of Sweden’s Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research thinks so and highlighted it in one of his TFF Press Info communications.

It’s quite possible Hillary Clinton didn’t mean to go so far when she declared Putin indirectly responsible. Whether she meant to draw attention to the implications or not, the statement would have to imply that the U.S. holds responsibility when it supplies arms to groups such as the Syrian rebels or the Israeli military. It’s quite doubtful Mrs. Clinton meant to engage in a philosophical discourse on the morality of the war machinery, but one has to be grateful she did. It pushes us into pondering it.