All posts by Malone Mullin

Associate Features Editor 2014–2015

Is this the radical road to prosperity?

It’s early evening on the first of July. A scraggly group sits in an east end Toronto living room, calling to allies with a hand-scrawled sign taped to the front door. “Basic income meeting — knock HARD,” it reads, and I do. I’m aware, after all, that the people inside are busy demanding revolution, and they might not hear me over the roar of optimism ringing in their ears.

Though pushing for major economic reform, these folks aren’t neocon lunatics or black block anarchists. Some might call them socialists, but that’s not right either; Milton Friedman, a notorious anti-socialist, once advocated the same policy this group pushes for. Subversive they are not.

Yet their solution to poverty, debt, and unemployment is still indisputably radical, at least in terms of how we tend to structure free market democracies. The people here tonight believe every Canadian, regardless of occupation or net assets, has the right to a basic living allowance, an annual stipend for each individual to spend as he or she pleases. In other words, they claim that giving away cash — no strings attached — could eliminate Canada’s poverty woes for good.

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Meeting the movement

Just six of Basic Income Toronto’s members have assembled tonight in this makeshift headquarters. Unlike more established branches of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) — a global nexus of municipal collectives — the fledgling Toronto division is just beginning to assign executive posts as I walk through the door. I encounter postcards, petition sheets, and passion, but that seems about as far as they’ve gotten.

Jon Sanderson, the jovial 30-something responsible for founding the group only months prior, shows me to a loveseat facing a pair of ‘deadheads’ looking like they just stepped out of a Volkswagon microbus. Surreal, I think, sandwiching myself between a soccer mom and a young man glued to his laptop. It seems I’ve landed on an unnervingly political misfit island.

“It’s not like Toronto doesn’t care about poverty,” says one of the group, earnestly trying to figure out how to represent basic income to city council. “Toronto absolutely does.”

Sanderson agrees. “What’s happening right now isn’t a lack of compassion towards solving poverty,” he chimes in.

“It’s just a lack of ideas.”

Their particular idea has yet to infiltrate the mainstream. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know about this,” says one of the deadheads, clad appropriately, given the date, in a denim suit. “The lead investigator on CBC’s Marketplace, we were talking to him. He didn’t even know what basic income is. He’s the lead investigative economic journalist in Canada.”

The discussion continues, touching on everything from strategy to philosophy.

As I find out, basic income groups across Canada think economic vulnerability shouldn’t be tolerated in a country that can afford to spread its wealth around. Yet many of us remain on the margins. In Toronto, the situation creeps toward critical mass: 44 percent of all jobs are considered ‘precarious’ according to a recent study by United Way Toronto and McMaster University. That’s almost half of our workforce living day to day without security, benefits, or assured wages.

An allowance of $20,000 a year, the common suggestion, could make life substantially easier for many and only slightly worse for the richest few. Yet a basic income might intuitively seem like a costly alternative to the public aid systems already in place, such as Ontario Works, which assess a recipient’s need prior to handing out cheques. The justification for this is that those in dire need receive assistance, and those with a livable income don’t leech off others. But within the hope-laden homily of Sanderson’s living room, it’s possible to hear the beginnings of a rational argument, one that points out the absurdities inherent in the current welfare state.

That noise, the roar of burgeoning activism, isn’t just the eager clamour of a ragtag collective trying to save the country. It’s the new language of liberalism, and as they frame it, it speaks for us all.

The case for a revamped welfare state

I first met with Sanderson in the basement café of U of T’s Hart House. I’ve sat at that same table many times in the last four years, sometimes eating a frugal meal or splurging on a latte, but mostly just nursing a coffee and cowering at the prospect of post-graduate existence.

Like so many of my classmates, I envisioned life as an endless promenade of mediocre day jobs, my nights spent exhausted and struggling to eke out a career in the shadow of overdue loan repayments. My future, I suspected, would be one of debt and toil.

Today, sitting across from Sanderson, I listen to him opine on everything from Harperian economics to the history of money.

Beside him sits Sheila Regehr, an equally genuine retiree of the National Council of Welfare — though “retired” does not exactly describe her. After spending 29 years working with social assistance programs, she’s now the chair of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN), a patchwork of local groups just like Basic Income Toronto, all of them busy lobbying for welfare restructuring. Over the course of three hours, I listen as Sanderson and Regehr engage in a kind of rhetorical dance, weaving for me a persuasive tapestry of socialist optimism. Between them, a clear narrative of our collective future unfolds.

The next twenty years, they say, will look much how I fear they will, barring serious policy overhaul. According to an oft-quoted 2013 study by Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne, the near future could see a developed job market shrink to half its current size. Intelligent machines are to blame for the occupations at risk, which range from cashiering, to programming, to journalism. It’s already happening; the future stares us in the face every time every we use a self-checkout machine, and it won’t be long until we’re summoning driverless taxis.

Sanderson and Regehr see basic income as the single most plausible way for society to move gracefully past the ills inflicted by a projected upsurge in unemployment. “If we don’t respond to this rationally, through a basic income, we’re going to suffer some pretty serious social consequences,” notes Sanderson from across the table.

Regehr, sitting to my right, nods emphatically. “If you look at countries around the world that have high unemployment, huge steep inequality gaps, you have trouble,” she says. “History shows that you don’t really want a lot of young men hanging around with nothing to do.”

In her committed manner, Regehr tells me about a colleague whose company actively puts employees out of work, gradually swapping people for programs. “He’s worried about it,” she says. “He believes in the technology – he says there are things that technology can really do better than people can, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. But if it’s replacing human activity then you really have to think about what our social structures look like.”

The most successful structure ever developed looks much like the basic income proposal, contends Sanderson. “In the Middle Ages the economic system was this,” he says. “The king had a stick. It was called the tally stick, and it had a series of notches in it. Those notches corresponded to another series of sticks, which he would distribute to the peasantry to [trade] however they wanted.

“The king then took the tally stick, shoved it into a lockbox, and put it away for a year. And every year they had a day where everybody got together, sticks in hand, and gave them back to the king. He tallied them up to make sure nobody had counterfeited any, and if everything was fine, then he would take them and redistribute them evenly amongst the populace again.

“That economic system lasted for 750 years,” Sanderson adds, smiling wryly. “No bumps, no booms, no busts.”

A redistributive scheme like the one Sanderson and Regehr describe may constitute a system for real life, one that allows us to have kids when we want to, take entrepreneurial risks, stop working entirely to care for sick parents, or go back to school. Our current institutional safety nets, in contrast, fall short of bridging the gap between security and destitution. If you’re receiving social assistance, you have very little wiggle room to adjust to life’s challenges. “Our systems don’t allow anybody to adapt to real life,” explains Regehr.

Thus the present system, says Regehr, does little for personal or public growth. “It’s humiliating, it’s demeaning, it strips you of assets, it treats you like a child — that part, I think, does the longest term damage to people,” she tells me. “And it’s ridiculous to pay money over and over again, year after year, to sustain people that way and never give them the chance to get ahead.”

“That’s the great absurdity, I think,” adds Sanderson. “The response we often get when we talk about basic income is ‘well, people are poor, people are homeless because they’re lazy’ …it’s a total delusion that people fall under because they seem to think that there are infinite jobs out there to be had.”

Yet there are always more people than jobs, Sanderson says, and that simple fact generates a responsibility, currently shouldered by the welfare state. “Even the wealthy admit that we can’t have people starving,” he continues. “That’s not acceptable. But you also can’t allow people to have freedom from a system — from wealth. The populace ultimately has to be answerable to the whims of the upper class. And so they’re willing to put a person in a state where they can have food and shelter, but they actively want it to be as uncomfortable as possible to incentivize people to get back into the workforce.”

The table goes quiet, thoughtful. “We live in a society where the wealthy have the right to withhold food and shelter from a person in exchange for their labour,” adds Sanderson, speaking gravely. “That’s a condition that I call wage slavery. And to me, you can’t say you live in a civilized society if you exist in those conditions.”

Punks on the dole

Walking towards the Queen streetcar on my way from headquarters, I happen to pass a three-storey house filled to bursting with young occupants living almost solely on welfare cheques. Peals of laughter precede the mob, gathered in mismatched benches and rocking chairs on the veranda — from the sounds of it, despite their robust poverty, these kids have found a reason to smile.

I sat on that porch only two weeks prior to interview my old friend Kayla*, who lives here with six other tenants, all of them making efficient use of their marginal space. Between them, they’ve got rent down to a manageable two-thirds of their respective monthly incomes. The girl sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs, I’m told, helps immensely.

When I inquire about life on the dole, Kayla answers with a surprising amount of affection. “The system itself is dehumanizing but in the end I’m thankful for it,” she says. “It’s saved my life.”

Yet problems with the provincial welfare system crop up during our conversion. Kayla explains that OW pays recipients like herself only $200 a month for ‘basic needs.’ A further $400 is allotted for rent expenses upon proof of tenancy. We laugh weakly at the pittance, but it’s not really funny.

“I make $12,000 a year, and I get by with that. But that’s only because I earn extra income through busking,” she says.

“And not everyone’s musically inclined,” chimes in Brian*, her housemate and a musician himself. Brian volunteers his spare time at the welfare office, teaching kids to play punk rock guitar solos.

“Yeah, and if you earn any money by working, they make deductions. It’s this really convoluted system. It’s not very motivating to get a job, especially if you can’t find gainful employment,” she adds. “It makes you feel like your time is worthless.”

Undeterred by these misgivings, Kayla remarks on the usefulness of OW’s health benefits and training programs. Any system replacing the one we have, she thinks, needs to include support mechanisms like these. Yet she stresses that OW does need revamping, both in terms of increasing provisions and updating eligibility rules. “When I went back to school they cut me off completely,” she says. “I was nearly homeless because I wanted to get an education.”

There’s another reason I came to visit Kayla. I’m curious about how individuals accustomed to bare-bones welfare income might use an unconditional grant — especially this odd group, obscured by tattoos and drinking beer at noon on a Tuesday. So I ask them what they’d do with $20,000 a year.

Brian snorts. “Oh Jesus. That’s a terrible question to ask a bunch of welfare punks,” he says, grinning. “I’d probably blow it. Nobody taught me how to budget — and welfare doesn’t teach you because they don’t give you enough to budget anyways,” he laughs.

But then he gets serious. “There needs to be a support network for people who don’t know how to handle lump sums,” he continues. “Addicts, too — you give an addict 20 grand and it’s gone. Like me, for instance. I drink a shitload. When I get my welfare cheque I pay rent and get fucking beer. It’s not enough to just give someone money and cut your losses — people who aren’t fiscally responsible will need help.”

Though Brian’s inclination doesn’t extend to the rest of the group. “Personally, I’d save up to buy property,” Kayla says.

Her partner and housemate, who works near full-time hours at multiple jobs, nods. “I’d budget out rent and living expenses. Then save as much as I could for rainy days,” he says.

Despite their insistence on the benefits of welfare services, the three of them agree that a universal grant would alter their lives for the better. With a basic income, “you’d be able to feed and take care of yourself without worrying about panhandling or squeegeeing,” says Brian. “Living like that — it’s fucking depressing.”

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Money for nothing

Not everybody thinks a basic income feasible, despite the fact that it has promise. The most common rebuttal I hear, when pitching the idea to friends and family, involves the notion that handouts disincentivize work — that same McCarthy-era objection to any and all socialist policies. If you’re granted handouts, after all, why bother getting out of bed for a day of drudgery? There are jobs that need doing, the argument insists, and nobody to perform them unless they need the money to live.

The work disincentive obstacle persists despite studies indicating that income supplements have no negative effect on economic production. In the 1970s, a five-year trial in the city of Dauphin, Manitoba gave 7,000 residents a guaranteed minimum income — or ‘mincome,’ for short. The data show an increase in ‘work reduction,’ seemingly pointing out the shortcomings of giving away free cash. Some people stopped going to work. As the incentive to hold a thankless job dissipated, so did the rate of occupation.

But, as analysts eventually realized, the original work reduction data included individuals who left the paid labour force to take on unpaid, largely domestic work. Lumped into the ‘unproductive’ group were mothers able to quit their jobs to look after their families and older children who could return to school. As Regehr mentions during our chat, that’s not a true drop in productivity. All the mincome data showed was a shift from paid jobs to ones without wages.

Then there’s the laziness argument: the idea that able individuals will choose not to work at all — even domestically — in favour of unproductive activities such as television watching. “Some people might say, ‘why should I work when my taxes go to pay for some couch potato?’” says Dr. Toni Pickard, professor emeritus at Queen’s Faculty of Law and herself a basic income activist. “But that attitude is based on a misconception about who is on income support and what they do with their money. It’s a form of poor bashing, that’s all. The mincome experiment showed no work disincentive.”

Regehr also denies that there is any to the disincentive rhetoric. She thinks we need merely glance at human nature to shrug it away, a belief she insists upon during our Hart House meeting. “If you look at the way human beings are wired, physiologically, we are wired to work,” she says. “We are wired to be social creatures. We are wired so that status matters. You might have somebody who thinks he might want to just sit around and play video games and do drugs, but he very quickly realizes he will do whatever it takes to get status in his community.”

She smiles gently, continuing, “If you want a date, you’re going to be motivated to do something about that. You will be motivated to not upset your grandmother by doing something. We are subject to social pressure because we are social beings. That’s what being human is.”

Sanderson agrees, and proposes that basic income prototypes actually forecast an increase in productivity. “When people are involved in something they care about and they see a benefit for themselves and for society, and it’s not simply a drudgery that they’ve been inflicted with because they have to, then they’re going to work harder at it,” he says. “Those who walk around saying ‘people will just be lazy’ — I don’t think they even understand what humans are, yet alone what they’re even talking about.”

A World Bank study, conducted in 2014, backs the idea that welfare has no affect on unproductive activity. It showed that the tendency to buy “temptation goods,” such as drugs or alcohol, fell as income support rose. “They found that cash transfers have absolutely no impact on the purchase of temptation goods,” says Pickard.

It would seem as if a rise in self-sufficiency, such as that caused by a guaranteed income, eliminated the need to medicate for destitution, to find relief in a bottle of booze or pills.

Yet another study, conducted in the US in 1994, shows an increase in adverse social consequences when income rises through cash transfers rather than parental wage earning. Jonathan Rhys Kesselman, an economist at Simon Fraser University, published a critique of basic income in Inroads journal in 2013 citing that data. He points out that children who grew up in impoverished families were more likely to drop out of high school, give birth in their teens, and fail to find steady employment if family income rose due to public cash benefits. The study seems to suggest that parents with jobs produce more stable families than those who get money for nothing. “A dollar of transfers,” he writes, “is not fully equivalent to a dollar of earned income.”

The right support for the system

Kesselman’s objection represents a data-backed hurdle for basic income. Yet its proponents exist all along the political spectrum. So fundamental are the potential benefits of an income floor, that even conservative economists have embraced a similar idea. In the 1950’s, Milton Friedman espoused the advantages of a “negative income tax,” which would redistribute tax funds by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Unlike a basic income, the wealthy would simply pay into the grant fund, while only the underprivileged received the cash.

“There’s a huge amount of cost associated with welfare programs,” explains Dr. Jack Carr, a Rotman Commerce professor who studied under Friedman. “Friedman thought the government didn’t trust poor people, and thought we should let them spend [the negative income tax] the way they wanted, rather than having expensive social workers to monitor welfare recipients. Instead of having welfare and employment insurance we could have a series of transfers.”

However, Friedman also advocated for a system of privatization, wherein public goods such as education would need to be paid for by those who wanted to use them. “Friedman thought that we should give everybody a limited number of vouchers to purchase social necessities,” says Carr. But this didn’t sit well with unions, he says, who “nixed” Friedman’s plan.

“Friedman’s idea is  not churlish,  but stingy and unrealistic,” contends Pickard. “And he believed you have to keep the work incentive in there by keeping the grant level quite low.”

Despite the similarities, basic income advocates today disagree with both Friedman and Carr, arguing that public goods must remain untouched and grants handed out universally. “Basic income, boom there you go, everyone gets it,” says Sanderson. “Negative income tax has more of a scaling effect.”

I point out the apparent redundancy of giving a rich person money only to take it away again.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘why even bother giving a basic income to someone who makes a million bucks a year?’” Sanderson replies. “I think there are philosophical reasons why it’s a good idea. It’s solidarity-building. Even a millionaire gets this thing — then he can’t throw it back at anyone.”

Another bite to basic income concerns minimum wage protection. It’s an objection advocates often hear from left-leaning critics. “One of the biggest dangers of a basic income is that conservative forces may try to claw back minimum wage,” says Sanderson. “I won’t be surprised if it becomes an either-or proposition: ‘we’ll give you a basic income if you eliminate the minimum wage.’ As if this is something we’re willing to concede.”

Yet that fear, Sanderson thinks, is no reason to reject basic income. Conversely, he suggests that basic income could ultimately have an empowering effect on minimum wage workers. “Companies are going to fight tooth and nail against basic income, because it means they either have to shut down their operations or they have to start paying people reasonably, at the rate they’ll actually do the work for,” he says.

“I think some corporations will have to work a little harder at retaining people, at paying people better and improving employment conditions,” adds Regehr. “If you get your basic income and have a job, then it gives you more leverage with your employer. You would be able to say ‘I don’t want these crazy shifts, so why don’t you give me two days in a row and not three hours at a time?’”

But the elimination of hard-fought labour rights programs — like Friedman’s plan to take away employment insurance or pension plans — constitutes a terrifying prospect for the working class. The contemporary revival of mincome, whatever the specifics of its format, often encounters resistance from unions due to anxieties like these.

“[Labour unions are] worried about protecting workers’ rights and labour market fairness,” Regehr tells me. “There’s fear that more right-leaning people might see a basic income as a replacement for all kinds of other things, which is certainly not the way any of our proponents envision this. This is simply a basic income floor — it’s only about income. It doesn’t mean that you don’t absolutely need labour regulation and public health and education.”

As if reading my mind, Regehr pipes up again. “It’s not Milton Friedman,” she adds, laughing.

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From pipe dream to policy

In the 1700s, an English rope maker named Thomas Paine moved to America. After a stunning revolutionary career, he went on to write a short essay called “Agrarian Justice”, which argued that all people have a right to land and resources that others habitually claim for themselves. Upon reaching the age of maturity, he suggested, young men and women should receive a one-time stipend, a small amount to offset the loss of property once held in common.

The idea never took off, and though it sees a rebound in activist circles today, obstacles to its implementation persist. Perhaps the largest roadblock to realization is the sheer cost of such a policy. Though advocates believe there’s more than enough cash to fund a basic income and maintain the public services we now have, critics disagree. Even a modest basic income could incur “gargantuan” costs: Kesselman, for one, puts the figure at $350 billion. Moreover, he says, this money would need to be taken in part from other social services, which would be “crowded out” of the budget. Saying hello to free cash might mean letting go of public housing, subsidized day care, mental health services, legal aid — the list goes on.

But advocates contest Kesselman’s cost argument, as I find out inside Hart House. “At the end of the day you’re looking at about five per cent of the GDP to fund a basic income,” Sanderson says.

Regehr interjects. “There are lots of places to find the money — there’s a lot of room in what we’ve already got. Harper has given away more than $40 billion in tax revenue …mostly to silly things that benefit rich people,” she says.

They throw funding suggestions at me. Updating the tax system by tying it to inflation, they say, is a must, as is a redefining of  tax brackets. “If you make $150,000 a year you’re paying the same as somebody who makes a million,” says Sanderson, pointing out the tax revenue lost on higher incomes.

Likewise, a small raise on the corporate tax rate could rake in substantial sums. Implementing inheritance taxes, something most developed countries already do, is also a no-brainer. And rejigging the current tax credit system, lumping together the current benefits into a single annual sum, could also contribute to the basic income bank.

They even suggest a penny tax on the financial transactions of private entities, a gesture that could raise millions for any government, according to the research of Edgar Feige at the University of Wisconsin. These many small levies, scattered about, would start closing the great disparity between the highest and lowest echelons.

“Then,” says Pickard, “we can look down the road. Basic income is going to reduce healthcare, justice, illiteracy, and other costs. It’s going to reduce what’s lost in productivity and tax revenues because people are too poor or sick or done in by poverty.”

In Brazil, a grant called the Bolsa Familia reaches 50 million people. It’s currently handed out to families with children, but aims eventually to shake that condition and bestow every person in the country with a solid income floor. Surprisingly, the IMF and World Bank actually helped design the system.

“These major financial institutions are learning that poverty impoverishes the whole economy,” comments Pickard. Too many low-income earners constitute a real threat to the future of capitalism. If we don’t devote measures to counteract technological unemployment, she says, there will be fewer consumers, and thus nothing stimulating the cycle of supply and demand. “After all,” Pickard quips, “robots don’t eat much.”

Two hundred years after the release of Paine’s radical pamphlet, it seems you don’t need to be a revolutionary to support his idea. “Basic income would benefit a unionist, a capitalist, a socialist; I don’t care what your ‘-ist’ is,” Sanderson says, one of the last remarks of our interview. He’s giving me a farewell pep talk, the crescendo of this diatribe, spoken just before we stand up from our tiny Hart House table. Our knees creak and our bottoms ache, but I’m so dazed with this influx of ideas that I hardly notice. My mind swirls.

And despite the barriers, I’m hopeful.

“There’s not a single person who wouldn’t be better off with a basic income,” Sanderson says. “And so it’s time for us to stand up and demand it.”

*Names changed upon request

A new reality

Dr. Martin Labrecque’s startup, tucked away on the fourth floor of the University of Toronto’s Best Institute, isn’t like one I’ve ever seen. It’s not flashy. There are no haute graphic posters making audacious use of negative space. The furniture isn’t accented in chrome. But for what Labrecque’s company, BreqLabs, lacks in corporate pizzazz, it more than makes up for in its robust vision.

For the past two years, Labrecque has been hard at work bringing to life the ExoGlove. Essentially a wearable mouse, it can be used to interact with laptops, gaming systems, and virtual reality headsets. Given the right applications, it could change the way users manipulate any object that contains a computer chip. Based on current trajectories, that might very well be everything.

TOUCHING THE FUTURE

Like the aspirations of his startup, Labrecque’s knowledge is expansive. In our hour-long talk, he brings up everything from retinal projectors to the difficulties of finding a seamstress willing to work with him on the intricacies of his new design.

He shows me various models of the ExoGlove; the earliest is bulky, like a winter garment. A later incarnation is primarily mesh. My favourite model reminds me of the robotic arm in Terminator 2, its spindly fingers designed to creep over the back of the hand. “It has to be fashionable,” he says, or nobody will want it.

EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY
EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

But despite its tentative outward appearance, Labrecque says the ExoGlove “does exactly what it’s supposed to.” Gesture-based interfacing is not a new idea, but most technologies, such as Oculus Rift, incorporate optical tracking rather than a wearable sensor, meaning that the user’s hands always need to stay where the stationary camera can see them. “We want to make it more immersive by bringing in a greater range of movement,” Labrecque says. “If I have to stick my hands in my face, does it really work well?”

In a possible near future, when computer displays transcend their current glass-monitored prison — think Tom Cruise’s wall-sized, holographic computer screen in Minority Report — the ExoGlove will reach its full potential. Likewise, if the imminent “Internet of Things” vision pans out, then the ExoGlove could act like a remote control for everything from the front door to the thermostat. A simple flick of the wrist could turn on the lights; a come-hither gesture would summon a robotic assistant.

Alternately, if Microsoft’s HoloLens gains traction, the ExoGlove could control virtual objects with the extra benefit of allowing us to feel whatever we’re picking up or pushing aside. Wearable interfacing adds a dimension of touch, an extra sensation that augments virtual reality. This “haptic feedback” could allow the user to feel the fur of a digital pet or the weight of a baseball bat. Whatever the specifics, the human environment of the future will be ambiently intelligent, and the ExoGlove is a useful way to access and control that intelligence.

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EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

 

But that future is distant enough to keep Labrecque working in the present, steadfastly building his company and ironing out the kinks. Initially, his idea for the ExoGlove was based on user accessibility: the elderly and differently-abled, he noticed, were left out of the digital realm, unable to control track pads and computer mice with shaky or paralyzed hands. The ExoGlove would give these users access to devices that most of us take for granted.

Within such a comparatively small market, however, funding is scarce. Labrecque was forced to market the ExoGlove as a suitable controller for gaming systems, particularly those based in virtual reality. With dual applicability, he hopes, the ExoGlove will get the financial support it needs to become a tool for every user.

“We have a patient now we’re working with, and he can’t move anything except for a small movement with his hand. So we translate that little movement into something useful,” he says.

Inventing the ExoGlove hasn’t been motivated by a desire for renown or wealth. Labrecque just seems to want a hand in making a better future. Walking out the doors of BreqLabs, I couldn’t help but be sorry that it’s only 2015. My childhood dreams of being a superhero with telekinetic powers were revived. But since these were the days when Kid Pix was the most exciting computer app in existence, it was difficult to imagine that the near future might let me communicate with distant objects — real and virtual — by slipping on a simple glove.

SOMETHING FROM NOTHING 

Most students aren’t aware of this, but within its Mordorian ramparts, Robarts contains a high-tech laboratory staffed primarily by excitable PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.

I follow the signs up to the seventh floor, where I’m directed to the Semaphore Research Cluster on Mobile and Pervasive Computing, which sounds sinister enough. Despite the lab’s ominous moniker, however, Dr. Isaac Record, an engineer and philosopher who works in the emerging discipline of Critical Making, gives a warm greeting. He’s tasked with determining how the future will unify its many disparate technologies, and what problems individual users will use these technologies to solve.

Record leads me into the “fishbowl,” a glass-walled room containing three large additive printers — one of them suspiciously named Hal—and other machines that complement the lab’s “Making” ability. Their setup is simple and efficient: brainstorm at one table with paper and markers, digitize and model the ideas at the next table on computers, and then send the information to one of the printers.

EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY
EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

I’m shown an array of objects the lab has manufactured. Record has a replica of himself austerely reading a book, made with the aid of the human-scale 3D scanner in Semaphore’s lobby. Dan Southwick, one of the lab’s PhD students, shows me a mesh-bodied creature akin to a hippopotamus, inexplicably adorned with orange antlers — I’m told later that it’s actually a bird feeder, strong and lightweight, and the antlers act as perches. It was made through a “fused filament fabrication” machine, a type of 3D printer that works much like a very adroit glue gun.

MORE THAN PRINTING

But Semaphore is not just a place for techies to make toys. The U of T–funded research cluster studies how divergent social groups use emergent technology. It’s a social sciences approach to the purposes for our ever-smarter machines. As Southwick puts it, “our focus is on the meta.”

One of Semaphore’s mandates includes studying the personalization of design. Participatory manufacturing allows individuals to express their own needs and desires, like when Record co-designed a tennis ball for the visually impaired with members of the Toronto Blind Tennis Club, or the lab’s foray into printing customized prosthetic limbs.

EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY
EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

Any student at U of T can use the lab, and on Friday mornings the fishbowl even welcomes the general public — much to the delight of over-the-shoulder peerers Record and Southwick, perpetually fascinated as they are by human-machine interaction.

Ultimately, additive manufacturing will permit us to express ourselves within a framework of self-directed fabrication. No longer limited by the expense of small production runs, custom parts can be printed cheaply, allowing engineers — Labrecque included — to invent new technologies without the traditional manufacturing restrictions on time and output.

As for the future of additive printing, I can’t help but ask if it’ll one day become the revolutionary Trekkian fabricator we all hope it will be. Record is skeptical.

EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY
EVAN LUKE/THE VARSITY

“Maybe in the very distant future everybody will have a vat of protons that gets turned into stuff,” he answers. “But that would be such an energy consumptive process that I’m going to say it’ll happen after fusion.”

The lab has worked around the technology for long enough that, despite its paradigm-shifting benefits, they can see its limits. As Southwick mentions, “We just don’t want any more plastic crap in our lives.”

“Do you really need it in your life all the time? That’s a question we’ve dealt with. We don’t have an answer to it,” he adds.

MOVING FORWARD 

The field is far from having all the answers. Whether ambient intelligence, wearable devices, and pervasive computing will ultimately change the world for the better remains to be seen.

What is certain is that we have never before been so intimately connected with our tools — after all, it’s difficult to maintain rapport with a wood axe. But, this intimate relationship also impacts our autonomy in a culture defined by invasive corporate interests and powered by Big Data.

Ensuring that our devices do not become a vehicle for ulterior agendas poses a major challenge to users, one that labs like Semaphore actively work to resolve. Keeping a critical eye on what the future holds will give us a chance to leverage these tools appropriately, in order to express ourselves in extensive and formidable ways. From what it seems, the possibilities are endless.

The dilemma of experience

When I started researching this article, I asked a classmate, who is 38 years old and in the first year of their undergraduate degree, to share their story about what some might call an unconventional situation.

“It’ll be a good thing,” I said. “You’ll let other older students know they aren’t alone.”

They agreed that talking about their experiences would probably help other mature students, some of whom undoubtedly feel a common sense of alienation in a school dominated by young adults. But they declined to have their story publicized out of concern that it would only exacerbate the difficulties of integration. It was hard enough to make friends already, they pointed out.

Navigating the trials and intricacies of university is harrowing as an 18-year-old, but can be even more difficult for those in their late twenties and beyond. Starting university at a later age comes with a host of unique obstacles.

STUDENT POPULATION GROWING YOUNGER

Generally, the University of Toronto defines a mature stuhdent as anybody over the age of 25. The Mature Students’ Association (MATSA) extends the definition to include students who have several years of work experience or took time away from formal education, or who have “family responsibilities that the average undergraduate student doesn’t have.” 

In 2012–2013, approximately three out of four students enrolled at University of Toronto are between the ages of 18 to 24. Yet despite the approximately 13,000 students who are 25 years and older, the median age of full-time undergraduates is dropping. In 2003, the median age was 21.2; 10 years later, that number had dropped to 20.9. 

For part-time undergraduates, the drop in average age is dramatic: students had a median age of 28.1 in 2003, but a decade later, that number had plummeted by five years to 23.1. 

Dr. Thomas Socknat, academic director of the Academic Bridging Program — a program that aims to reintroduce mature students to formal education — agreed that students over 25-years-old may find returning to school daunting due to the prevalence of younger peers. 

“Returning to education when one is over 25 years of age has its own set of issues,” he says, adding that there’s a “lack of confidence to compete with younger students fresh out of an educational environment,” such as high school.

Susan Murray, a mature undergraduate and treasurer of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), knows what it’s like to compete with students who are used to being students. 

“One of the more challenging aspects of being a mature student has been to compensate for the lack of foundational knowledge that most of my classroom peers possess,” she says. “This requires additional prep time for assignments and tests, along with very intensive study and reading.”

UNIQUE RESPONSIBILITIES 

Another life circumstance that is often relevant to mature students is a high degree of family responsibility — whether it involves caring and providing for an aging parent or young children. 

“Students who are parents face many challenges,” says Dr. Amy Mullin, vice-principal, academic and dean at UTM. “One of those challenges is financial, because we live in a society where it is typically assumed that parents should bear the overwhelming majority of the responsibility for the costs of their children’s care, at least until those children reach school age,” she adds.

Raising children while on campus is expensive, and perhaps in many cases, cost prohibitive. Mullin points out that there are often waitlists for subsidized, city-run daycares, while childcare centres run by U of T, such as the Childcare Centre on Charles Street West, can charge up to $1,989 every month for infants. And even though the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) provides loan funding for childcare, Mullin says, “the amounts it recognizes are considerably lower than the child care costs many parents must pay.”

“Changes to OSAP to more fully account for average costs for paid care for children at different ages would be a very important way of making it possible for more parents to pursue higher education,” Mullin adds. While on-campus childcare fees at Early Learning Centres are subsidized by levies on tuition — lowering the out-of-pocket cost to $12 per hour for one child under five — Mullin believes that, given declining per-student provincial funding, “governments are the most appropriate source of funding for student parents,” not universities. 

The issue of devoting time to family life is also one that is often encountered by older students. Writing papers requires time and concentration, and as Mullin acknowledges, “children’s needs can be unpredictable.” Mullin encourages students to request flexible deadlines if a dependent becomes ill or requires other assistance, but warns that this initiative might be met with resistance.

“Some faculty and students might assume that most of the people taking classes at the university are young, supported by their parents, and do not have considerable family care obligations of their own,” she says.

Since this kind of alienation exists — which leaves student parents “feeling invisible and alone,” as Mullin states — it can be a challenge in itself, and Mullin encourages students to reach out and share their experiences, especially with other student parents.

The Family Resource Centre provides a venue for families at U of T to interact at no charge, and can be a valuable support network for student parents. Students may also consider part-time studies to accommodate family needs, using facilities such as APUS to stay connected with peers.

MAKING THE MOST

Even for those mature students who do not have significant family-based demands, the age disparity itself can result in feelings of isolation. There are no university-run centres for mature students, and the student-run MATSA is not equipped to provide the resources and infrastructure necessary to facilitate a smooth transition for mature students struggling to make connections on campus.

A potential age gap should not necessarily deter one from taking advantage of the 800-odd clubs here at U of T. One of the best things a mature student can do, according to Murray, is dive into a variety of extra-curriculars.

“My academic experience has been greatly enhanced through volunteer involvement with campus clubs, societies and as a part-time student representative on Governing Council,” she says.

Murray elaborates that socializing outside the classroom is key to avoiding feelings of alienation. “It is through my campus life experiences where I have strengthened relationships with other mature students and student parents,” she says. “I have built new invaluable skills in the process.”

Murray went back to school at the same time as her adult son — both are enrolled at Woodsworth College. She believes Woodsworth has helped both of them adjust to student life. Although her academic experience has been challenging at times, she says, working towards her degree in art history has been largely rewarding. 

“I am fulfilling a significant personal goal,” she says.

Socknat echoes this sentiment explaining that the reasons that compel a mature student to return to school are mostly personal, rather than financial or social.

“Most mature students embark on a general arts and science degree because they want to improve themselves and feel they have missed out on something and crave the learning experience,” explains Socknat. “And sometimes they have their heart set on a specific career that isn’t accessible with a college diploma and feel ready for that commitment.”

“It is about quality of life and not quantity of financial reward,” he adds.

For many, returning to school is an opportunity for personal enhancement and a chance to build a new set of skills, perhaps in pursuit of a career change or other long-time goals. I asked Socknat whether he thought a university degree would increase the employability of older students compared to their younger peers. 

“Yes,” he says, “an undergrad degree does help mature students achieve their career goals and perhaps, depending on the individual and circumstances, they may be more employable than younger students because of experience.”

“In fact, most mature students would probably agree that the university experience changed their lives,” Socknat adds. 

Murray agrees. “I have faced many serious personal challenges in my quest for a degree,” she says.

Despite the difficulties, she adds, “there is no other place that I would rather be at this stage in my life.”

The currency of concepts

When I visited the Guggenheim Museum last summer, I was expecting Pollocks and Picassos. What I got instead was James Turrell’s Aten Reign — a piece that consisted entirely of a vacant rotunda illuminated by some lights that changed colours.

I’ll admit I was less than impressed that the Guggenheim’s permanent collection had been eschewed for a glorified light show. At the time, I just wanted my $18 back. Upon reflection, however, I realized that the glowing chamber did affect me. I had a distinct reaction to it — anger and frustration for wasting my time on an exhibit I didn’t think qualified as real art.

Turrell envisions viewers of his art “seeing themselves seeing.” Abandoning materiality altogether, Aten Reign had no specific message for spectators to discern. There were no nude women, no transcendent landscapes, no curious marble forms or Cubist still lifes to contemplate — leaving the spectators to create the value and meaning of the piece as they experienced it.

 

Managing through observation

Historically, an authentic artwork has been prized as a bastion of technical expertise and representational capacity. By embodying these ideals, however, a work also becomes conceptually fixed. There may be competing interpretations of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, for instance — some claim she’s writhing in the midst of sexual climax; others contend she’s simply happy — but the artist’s intention is chiselled in stone.

Relational aesthetics in art attempt to subvert the notion that art must disseminate ideas held by the artist in order to qualify as authentic. It acts as a blanket-term for art that is relative to individual experience, in contrast to a notion of art as a vehicle for absolute themes and morals.

Relational art trades in the currency of concepts — its usefulness lies in its ability to create a space for critical engagement with an idea. The artist is merely a catalyst, presenting participants with a concept that permits each individual to create artistic meaning for themselves. Passive consumption is replaced with active contribution as the observer’s experience determines what the work becomes.

At a recent OCAD University furniture exhibition, artist Alex Beriault waded through a crowded gallery in order to have a meal served to her.

Beriault enjoyed her dinner atop a self-crafted table made purposefully without legs supporting it. The heavy oaken slab, about six feet long, rested on the thighs of Beriault and her date, their tottering glasses of red wine balanced perilously near the edges. The mundane act of eating wasn’t the artwork. Rather, the artwork was generated by the ways in which the audience interpreted Beriault’s disruption.

Some found it amusing, challenging the diners by taking up all their elbow room and holding cameras only inches from their impassive faces. Others, like myself, were less sure of where we should place ourselves in proximity to the performance. Because Beriault didn’t acknowledge anybody in the room, the act of watching the piece felt inexcusably impolite, as if I was gawking at an intimate dinner.

The surprise performance was an attempt to challenge social convention, designed to transform the gallery into a space as socially uncomfortable as a hospital waiting room.

“Even though what we did was risky and rude, I had a feeling we’d be accommodated… It’s interesting to be able to use artistic performance as a vehicle for exploring social boundaries,” she says.

 

“All brand, no hand”

This real-time experience of art as transitory and malleable is in direct opposition to the idea of commodity art. Damien Hirst, reportedly Britain’s richest artist, may best exemplify the popularity of mass-manufactured art objects.

Hirst is known for his capacity to produce ample paintings. In reality, however, his design firm is responsible for this reputation — Hirst merely adds his signature to their paintings in order to authenticate them.

It could be argued that the signature alone is what gives the images their extraordinary value, since many of them, though they’re aesthetically pleasing, aren’t exactly revolutionary. Take, for example, the “Spots” series — a sequence of paintings consisting of variable configurations of multi-coloured circles. Genuine spot paintings sell for anything from $53,000 to upwards of $3 million.

While this factory-style production of art has been around for centuries, Hirst has taken the manufacturing aspect to a whole new level, churning out spot paintings en masse without ever touching brush to canvas. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker predicted that Hirst would “go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.”

Given that Hirst didn’t actually paint most of his own paintings, it seems strange that collectors are willing to pay so much for them.

This may be due in part to a more conventional definition of authenticity in the art world. Journalist Nick Cohen dourly commented, “The price tag is the art.” It’s what signals that a commodity is accepted as valuable, even if the artwork appears devoid of conceptual content and is created by a process widely divorced from traditional craftsmanship. As a friend of mine joked, Hirst’s work is “all brand, no hand.”

Perhaps because consumer goods are so readily available, the value inherent to material things in general has diminished, and hence there is burgeoning interest in participatory artwork.

“Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities…” says critic Jacques Rancière, “but to a lack of connections.”

When art itself becomes an excessive commodity, as in Hirst’s paintings, the natural counter-response is to divest art of anything vulnerable to commodification. Through this mentality, art is viewed as something not to be passed hierarchically from maker to watcher, but as something to be experienced without guidance from an authority — or, for that matter, a price tag. Relational aesthetics thus uses the object only instrumentally. It is a means to art, not the end in itself.

It’s tempting to consider that the mockery pop art once made of commodity culture led somehow to commodity art — that we now have the likes of Hirst in galleries worldwide because his art speaks so resonantly to a listless postmodern culture, unfrightened and anesthetized by the superficial ease of Hirst’s pretty pictures.

After all, it’s unnerving to have art single you out and challenge you to think about it. I should know — I’m one of the participants who politely, if not incredulously, stepped aside for Beriault as she calmly ate her dinner.