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Toward Robotic Milking Machines: OECD Reflections

I am sitting in the executive lounge for British Airways at Paris’ Charles DeGaulle airport. It is one of benefits of all the flying I do for work that I rack up enough miles to come into these places.  It’s quiet in here, unlike the terminal outside, and I need to decompress.

I have been all day at a meeting held by OECD to launch its new report, “Closing the Gender Gap–Act Now.”  I haven’t read the book yet, though they kindly gave me a free copy.  But I had a nice talk with one of the dataheads who worked on it and it sounds like this work will make a contribution.  More on that tomorrow, after my brain has bounced back.

Today, the emphasis has been squarely on how to help women be mothers so they can keep working their whole lives.  It is the “business case” that compels this sudden rush to inclusion: the developed nations are going to run out of growth if they don’t figure out how to include their women in a way that lets them also have children. This is also not to mention their fertility rates are going down the tubes (so to speak).

Mind you, if they can make a “business case” work for social justice, great. And I do think it is important for mothers to work, as well as to care for their children.  More on that later, too.

But there was so much today about childcare.  So many ideas for how we could keep mums tied to their work at the same time they are tied to their cribs.  This focus on motherhood represents the “upbeat” take on the gender situation (rather than focusing on wage discrimination or violence, for instance).

I was a single working mother of two myself.  I know in my bones that it is high time for society to start supporting mothers, in this way and many others. But I get a little tired of the “let’s fix the women” strategies that seem to abound these days–especially when there is no attention to the prejudices and power abuses.

And, really, the monovision on childcare at this meeting–along with calls for “professionalizing” all those other things women do, like the wash and the shopping–got a little weird.  I mean, who is going to do all this work? You got it: poor women.  God forbid the men should take any of this on.

This talk also put me in the mind of Brave New World, the Aldous Huxley futuristic novel where, among other things, motherhood has become totally automated and collectivized.

So, I’m sitting here in the lounge, having escaped to a quiet place to contemplate, and I pick up USA Today (ok, ok, not exactly contemplative material). And right there on page 4A, I find a story titled, “Robots fill need for dairy farmworkers.” It seems that, because the US government is waffling on immigration policy toward farmworkers, the dairy industry is shifting to robotic milking.  These machines are expensive, about $500,000 a pop, so farmers would rather have cheap Mexican labor, according to this article.

But, let’s face it, unmilked cows can’t wait forever. “Robotic milking machines involve very little human labor,” writes Brian Tumulty, “When a cow decides she needs to be milked, she walks up to a booth where a mechanical arm cleans her udder and attaches laser-guided couplers to each teat.”

“Eureka,” I shout (silently in order not to wake the other waiting passengers from their respective contemplations), “That’s it!  Robots!”

Now, of course, we already have electric breast pumps, but I imagine cows have some equivalent device, so these machines must be more special. Maybe we can have a kind of total care kiosk where you get your milk expressed while the machine manicures your toes and gives you a peptalk (lack of confidence being another major shortcoming of our gender, according to several experts today and at every other meeting anywhere on the topic).

And to really make this work (as well as further differentiate from ordinary breast pumping), this machine should also activate a lookalike android at the child’s end. She might not be quite as soft and warm as the real mum, but she could certainly be less frazzled. Perhaps she could be programmed to remember permission slips. (That was always my biggest failure.)

But when I try to imagine where these machines will be stationed, I realize that they will not initially be affordable to the rank and file, so will have to be used only on the highest-ranking udders (er, sorry, mothers), like any other new technology. Or provided institutionally, like ATMs, in places where early adapters are likely to pass by.  So, alongside executive clubs in high-end hotels, maybe.

Indeed the very place where I’m sitting, the British Airways executive lounge, would be perfect!  They could put one right next to the showers! Using the milk machine could become like high-end strollers–a status symbol.  All the yummy mummies would queue right up. Problem solved, right?   Call the OECD and tell ’em we’ve got it handled.

Postscript: Shortly after this entry was written, I boarded the plane, passing en route  one of those ubiquitous HSBC posters. But, like the article on dairy farming, this one seemed to be put there just for me. I am calling it A Sign. Here it is:

I passed this poster going down the ramp to my flight back to London.

I took a quick photo with my Blackberry, but I think you can still see/read it.  The headline says, more or less, “In the future, local demand will draw on global supply.” Please note the shape of the markings on the cow makes a map of the world (afraid this will be too blurry for people to notice).

So, now I am thinking about all those poor “global women.”  Perhaps we can enlist them into a massive Red Cross of Wet Nurses, so that more “First World” women can stay at work, racking up GDP for their countries and pushing up stock prices for their employers.

Or instead we start talking about the global gender situation as whole–a world system with serious problems as well as wonderful promise–and not just reduce the condition of women to a nation-level childcare challenge.


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