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Chatting with my brother yesterday afternoon over our McDonalds luncheon, he mentioned a mini-debate going on in the opinion and letters pages of the not so venerable South China Morning Post concerning the horrific plight of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

The Kitchen Maid by Jan Vemeer The arguments roughly were: how hard they worked, how badly they were compensated, how harsh their employers were and how little support the got from the Hong Kong government or their own in ensuring that they were treated properly.

The rebuttal was that Hong Kongers as a whole generally work hard, for long hours, without much sympathy from their employers and the plight of our poor people is generally acknowledged to be abysmal. The Hong Kong government keeps saying it’ll do something about it but the Oligopolists that control most of our businesses don’t want it, and are far more influential then the collective remainder of Hong Kong’s people. The government’s not being mean to domestic helpers, it’s being mean to all of us.

A brisk summary, but it’ll suffice.

Our discussion got me thinking.

Hong Kong by night We, Hong Kongers, We, Indians of the middle-class, draw on a tremendous labour pool of the third world to act as our domestic staff. They provide the critical support services at strikingly cheap prices that allow us to gain the maximum efficiency out of our days by working extended hours and not having to do basic tasks, that are hard, time consuming, demanding, unrewarding but ultimately very necessary.

It is widely agreed, so don’t disagree just to be contrary, that we live in the most interesting of times, for both the right and the wrong reasons. I don’t want to list the wrong reasons, but any reputable newspaper ought to be able to give you a sufficiently complete picture of those.

One of the right reasons is the tremendous progress of technology of which we are all the beneficiaries. Antibiotics, Mobile Phones, Computers, Air Travel, the Internet and a whole host of other world changing technologies proliferate (rather like Nuclear technology does, but more legally). Our technology lets us solve unbelievable problems. It lets us solve problems that are beyond the scale of the human mind in terms of complexity, repetivity, accuracy and sophistication.

In this age, where people barely use a pen to write anymore, we are still compelled, to use humans to cook, clean, iron and all our other domestic tasks. Why has no automation at all really made it into the home lives of people? How come there isn’t one serious and viable tool for full automation of the domestic? Of course we’ve made it much more efficient, vacuum cleaners instead of brooms, but efficiency is a linear improvement inside the same paradigm. Where’s the radical change, the industrial revolution applied to the domestic sciences?

It somehow happens, that the most basic things we do every day, that we could probably use the most relief from and which would substantially improve the collective human condition for all people if we could get it delivered on a mass scale, is probably the one thing that seems the furthermost away in this age of improvement. In fact, it’s easier to calculate the cost of a flight from two cities I’ve never been to, via a third country that I’ve never heard off, then it is to find a machine that even looks remotely capable of doing my ironing.

Robots - that shite movieThe answer fundamentally may lie in that it’s too difficult. These things that humans can do with their lateral mind and their awkwardly shaped limbs pose fundamental problems that do seem beyond the ken of robots and mechanization. We built all the furniture, so we don’t find it that awkward to use, a robot might well disagree.

A Medeval SerfThe other answer lies in that it’s not worth it. People are fundamentally cheaper to use for tasks that are human specific. They know how to do it, they don’t require special knowledge, and can be taught the basics rather quickly even if they are unfamiliar. The complexity of human social and living habits can be explained to one person, who can and usually does keep track of multiple things without too much effort. The people are a better tool, at a reasonably cheap cost. The result is that it’s not worth developing a automated solution that would do domestic tasks, because it will be cheaper to put the available human labour to use.

Of course I don’t believe it’s impossible, or that it will always stay this way. Every day we learn new tricks, we develop new methods of solving problems that we thought were previously unsolvable, and we discover problems that appear insurmountable. Eventually someone, somewhere, will get around to solving this one.

It just hasn’t happened yet.


One Comment

  1. 1. You obviously haven’t heard stories of domestic workers abusing children, stealing from their employers, and lying about the grocery spending to keep the change.

    2. Technology is slowly making it into our living rooms. The Roomba is a good example.

    3. Why do you think Honda is developing ASIMO? It’s not just for shows. The Japanese population is aging and there are insufficient workers to take care of the elderly. It is hope that robots can eventually fill this gap, perhaps even make the old less lonely (hence the development of human-like androids).

    4. Isn’t “foreign domestic helper” a bit of an oxymoron?

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