Current Issue #488

Third Age: Bye bye, Santa. Hello, robots.

Third Age: Bye bye, Santa. Hello, robots.

It’s that time of year, but Shirley Stott Despoja wonders, is it time to let go of Santa? Meanwhile, an algorithmic revolution rolls on and, like it or not, complex robots are on the way.

Christmas music… wonderful. Nativity plays at kindy, with kids in sheets and halos (habitual nosepickers discreetly at the back)… happy tears in parents and grandparents’ eyes… yes! Christmas food, bonbons, old friends turning up, old jokes, too… great!

Children trying to stay awake to hear reindeer hooves. The cat trying to destroy the silver balls, giving everyone a laugh. More memories, yes! Sending cards to friends far away so they know you are still alive. Kids and adults alike, snooping around the tree hoping Uncle Amazon has done the right thing… yes! Christmas forever, I say.

Santa Claus… well, no.

We can do without him.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about Hallowe’en overtaking Christmas in our hearts and minds. Wrongly, some people choose to blame aggressive commercialism and the US, but Hallowe’en goes back a lot further than both, and is probably more wide spread around the world than Christmas. I think it’s a heap of fun and so do most parents I know. Kids in groups for safety, knocking on doors that show they’re welcome. Easy to dress up, little party afterwards (no parents driven to distraction, no tears of exhaustion) and it’s over!

What’s not to love? It’s not competing with Christmas; it’s just a little fun break before the end of year drama begins.

Best of all, no Santa.

It’s not just that some Santas have had evil intentions and parents worry about this as they wait in mindless queues. It’s that he is a gross figure in his musty uniform and no longer serves a purpose.

Ask most people who he is and you will hear some ums and errs. The image of reindeers, a sleigh loaded with presents to put around the tree, is pleasant. But not Santa creepy-crawling around the house, thank you.

He’d be easy to lose. Replace him with the head reindeer. In one Christmas he’d be forgotten, along with those edgy debates over his weight.

Bye, bye, Santa.


The Boyer lectures this year were a stern command to sit up and take notice about what is happening in our digital world. Australian professor Genevieve Bell has returned to her home country after 30 years as a pioneer futurist researcher in Silicon Valley to tell us how to build our digital future. If you are afraid of things like algorithms, her lectures will take you by the hand and lead you to understand what they are and more importantly, what they can do. And why Australia needs to catch up with the rest of the world.

I’m not saying she will make you less afraid.

I am, like you, getting old, a bit lazy and often ready to excuse myself from thorny issues, but we can’t afford to be. With many decades behind us as witnesses of how humanity behaves, we need to be part of Professor Bell’s conversations. Will robots, or whatever they are eventually called, created with algorithms, be in our own image, or will they be better?

Only this week I read that a robot had been granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. “Apparently she (the robot) has feelings, a sense of humour and is the only one of her kind in the world.” Somehow I doubt the latter claim. It’s all happening, and Professor Bell tells us what it means and why we must sit up and take notice.

Are we even half-way sure, in the 21st century, that we know what being human is? This has been the business of poets and artists since Eve was a girl. (Incidentally, Geoffrey Chaucer, father of English literature, used the word algorithm — or something very like it. I tried to look it up — in The Miller’s Tale, I think — but my fat old Chaucer fell to bits in my hands. Libraries get old, as well as their owners.)

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