Spring 1998 (6.1)

Commercialism and Human Values
When You Can't Stop for Lunch

Commencement Address delivered to graduates at the University of California at Berkeley Computer Science Division (May 25, 1997).

by Lotfi A. Zadeh

In 1965, Professor Zadeh, conceived of the idea that developed into what is now known as "Fuzzy Logic," a model for human reasoning in which everything - including truth - is a matter of degree. These principles have been incorporated into hundreds of computer technology applications which are particularly popular in Japan and which are gradually becoming more accepted in the Western world, especially Europe and the United States.

Born in 1921 in Baku, Zadeh's family moved to his father's native land, Iran, ten years later during Stalin's regime. During World War II, Zadeh left Tehran for the U.S. where he has lived ever since.

Professor Lotfi officially retired from the University of Berkeley in 1991 but still is a tireless contributor to the field that he created more than 30 years ago.
See Interview with Lotfi Zadeh, (Creator of Fuzzy Logic) Winter 1994 by Betty Blair, AI 2.4, Autumn 1994 and See Lotfi Zadeh Awarded Prestigious Japanese Prize Winter 1996).

On commencement days such as this one, it's customary to avoid touching upon issues which are contentious or in dissonance with majority-held views. I will take the liberty of departing from this tradition because there are contentious issues that have to be addressed and serious structural problems in our society that your generation is likely to be called upon to solve.

To put my views in perspective, I should like to note the obvious - I am not a native - born American, as most of you are. But I consider it a privilege to be a citizen of this great country - a country of vast expanse, immense wealth, great diversity, unmatched power and a world leader in almost every realm of human activity.

But to me what matters most is that the United States is a country in which human rights are taken seriously, governance is ruled by law, and the characteristics of decency, generosity and fairness are national traits.

Serious Social Problems in U.S.
But this does not mean that all is well. Our society is faced with serious problems that are visible to everyone - drug addiction, crime, homelessness, extremes of wealth and poverty, alienation and ethnic conflicts. But there are other problems which - though less visible - are likely to cause serious damage to the fabric of our society in the long run. My brief remarks will be focused on two related problems which fall into this category.

Life in Silicon Valley
Many of you will be taking jobs in Silicon Valley, the heart of our computer industry - the industry that is the driving force behind the economic boom that we are basking in now.

When I ask our graduates who work there if they are happy in their jobs, they usually reply that the pay is good and the work, interesting. But I always sense that an important element is missing. It's the feeling of security, dignity and collegiality. In Silicon Valley and, more generally, in the computer industry as a whole, the working environment is the environment of cut-throat competition. As they say, "In Silicon Valley if you make the mistake of stopping for lunch, you will be lunch." You are hired today but may be laid off tomorrow, with no farewell parties and no regrets. The bottom line is the stock price and not human welfare.

Something is deeply wrong with our values when the elimination of thousands of jobs is greeted with applause by Wall Street, causing the price of stock to go up and, not coincidentally, increasing the value of stock options of company executives. In such a climate, executives are not expected to spend sleepless nights when down-sizing leads to massive layoffs. Indeed, any company that puts human welfare above profits and efficiency risks serious damage to its competitive position and, possibly, its demise.

Profits as the Driving Force
It is a sobering thought that profits have become the driving force which shapes the dynamics of our society and that money may have become the determinant value by which we live. Perhaps, we should pause and ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing when we exert pressure on other countries to follow our example and abandon their traditions of protecting social rights in their quest for efficiency and stronger competitive position in the global marketplace.

There is a linkage between this state of affairs and the growing intrusion of advertising and commercialism into all aspects of our lives. A disturbing prospect is that as we move further into the information age and the multimedia, the linkage will become stronger and less amenable to control.

To many, advertising is the pillar of free enterprise. Up to a point, advertising serves an essential purpose, but like any good thing that is overdone, unrestrained advertising, with its high content of half-truths and untruths, is becoming a force which is corroding our culture and distorting our goals. The pervasive influence of advertisers on TV and radio programming substitutes the size of audience for genuine concern for quality of programs. Catering to the least common denominator leads to programming which focuses on violence, sex, sports, scandal and human interest stories. The amount of time devoted to serious news is declining and the media-driven by the quest for higher advertising revenue-is abdicating its responsibility to inform, educate and inspire.

Widespread Cynicism
In this climate of media manipulation and commercialism, it is not surprising that our young people have become cynical and materialistic. This calls into question our ability to serve as a positive role model for the youth in other countries and other societies. Indeed, it is alarming to observe the degree to which intrusive advertising and commercialism have led to a vulgarization of our culture and an abandonment of moral values that once led this country to greatness. The not-so-subtle control of our media by advertisers has led to the emergence of consumerism as the dominant influence shaping our culture, our values and our perceptions.

What is disconcerting to observe is that the pop culture programs which are mass produced by the TV, movie and music industries in the United States are displacing - in the marketplace of other countries - their own

products. As in the United States, low-grade programs, intrusive advertising and rampant commercialism have become the norm in TV programming in Europe and other countries as well. It was a prominent TV personality who in addressing a European audience had this to say, "We have succeeded in ruining our culture in the United States, and now we are going to ruin your culture."

I am touching upon these issues because they have a definite impact on the outlook and aspirations of the youth in our society. A telling statistic is that despite the rising demand for computer science graduates, the number of undergraduate degrees in computer science has dropped 43% from 42,000 in 1986 to 24,000 in 1994. What this suggests is that a declining number of students are entering those fields in which hard work is required. A visible facet of this trend is that pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is increasingly replaced by a quest for education as a ticket to a better-paying job.

I have used harsh expressions to make my points. The picture I have painted is darker than it should be. I have done this with deliberation to underscore that it is our collective responsibility-and especially the responsibility of your generation-the generation that will shape our future, to do whatever can be done in our democratic society to prevent the corrosive forces of commercialism and consumerism from encroaching on our culture and becoming dominant influences in defining our values, our beliefs and our morals.

From Azerbaijan International (6.1) Spring 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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