Society & culture

Talking about my(space) generation

If the Internet was originally a vast library, it is now a giant conversation. Everyone, increasingly, is connected and everyone can contribute. And while adults still go online to find things, under-25s go online to find themselves. It is a web of self-expression. As a result the boundaries between online and offline are becoming heavily blurred and it’s happening in front of our eyes. MySpace has just registered its 100-millionth user and Bebo has notched up 25 million members since last July, which rather indicates that social networking is more than just a passing fad. Meanwhile, Technorati is monitoring 51.3 million blogs and 75,000 new blogs are being created every single day. That’s roughly one new blog every second or a doubling of the blogsphere every three months. So how is all this interactive activity changing real-life social attitudes and behaviour? Nobody is quite sure. One the one hand, studies claim that the Internet is making people more social, extrovert and happy, while other studies say that it’s making people withdrawn and introverted. But perhaps the question itself is flawed because it makes a distinction between the real and the virtual that is no longer true. In other words, an online social life does not detract from a real life one. Moreover, as mobile devices become the primary portals of connectivity, this distinction will sound even sillier – although it will give rise to rather delicious existential questions like whether people will really exist if they are not online and whether you can have a real-life experience if nobody is watching online. So where do things go from here? In terms of social networking the answer is segmentation. Rather than joining one giant social networking site like MySpace, individuals will join several according to their particular interests. For example, bookworms can already join LibraryThing to list their entire library and view the libraries of people with similar books and interests. Then there will be a meta-network linking all the networks and from which an individual’s identity can be viewed from all sides. This in turn will create a new sense of self, although whether the new self will be a good thing is open to debate. The sociologist Sherry Turkle, for instance, believes that our newly forged intimacies with machines are reducing individual autonomy. For example, we are creating a culture that is increasingly complex but at the same time we are creating one that is reducing the amount of time that is available to understand what is going on. We are being so conditioned to scanning and rapid responses that we are missing the bigger picture. In other words we no longer have the time to sit uninterrupted and think. More worryingly, we are creating a culture of collectivist validation where people do not express an opinion until they know what everyone else thinks – at which point we choose sides rather than think for ourselves.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 16 September 2006, ‘This is your space’ A. Gefter; and ‘I’ll have to ask my friends’, L. Else.
Search words: myspace, online, virtual, Internet, understanding

Positive consequences of peak oil

According to Richard Heinberg, an American academic and author of several books on the end of cheap oil, we should all be planning for another 1930s-style depression. A recent report produced for the US Department of Energy also says that when peak oil hits (how will we really know?) we will experience ‘abrupt and revolutionary’ change.Peak oil is predicted to occur somewhere between 2005 and 2015 and will be followed by peak natural gas and peak coal according to Heinberg. The world’s appetite for oil is certainly insatiable. Over the last 24 months the price of oil has increased by 300 per cent but demand has not declined at all. Indeed demand for oil is predicted to rise by 50 per cent between now and 2025. This is partly because countries like China are voracious users of energy but it’s also because developed nations like the US are still in denial about future availability. And if it does run out we will certainly be in for a shock. Higher fuel prices could lead to higher inflation and interest rates, which could cripple the global economy, and globalisation could come to an abrupt halt because perishable goods like food could not be transported cost-effectively around the world. But every cloud has a silver lining. This would lead to a renaissance in local manufacturing and consumption and even potentially to an end to the obesity epidemic. If you think the last point is a bit farfetched consider this. In Cuba the average adult lost 9 kg after 1992 because the collapse of the Soviet Union increased the severity of the US oil embargo and the country had to rely on just 10 per cent of its pre-1992 oil supply. As a result Cubans started to use gearless Chinese bicycles to get around and this increased the fitness of the entire nation. Will all this really happen? The answer really depends on human ingenuity and whether or not technology can provide an alternative to crude oil. Personally, I think there are tough times ahead and we will have to get used to consuming less of everything, which may not be a bad thing. Reverse globalisation (or re-localisation) would re-energise local communities and people would become more self-reliant and more used to maintaining things rather than just replacing them – just as they did during and immediately after World War II. There is a strong possibility of an energy bottleneck to pass through first but ultimately I believe future generations will be better off, not worse, once the oil starts to run out.
Ref: Sun Herald (Aus), 27 August 2006, ‘Fuel’s paradise’, S. Webster.
Search words: oil, peak oil, sustainability, globalisation, localisation

Where have all the real men gone?

Remember tough guys? Men like Steve McQueen and John Wayne – strong silent types that got the job done. Recently we’ve had SNAGS – Sensitive New Age Guys, Metrosexuals and Ubersexuals  – men who are fragile and flawed. These guys have been feminised by society. Their hands are manicured, they cry and don’t know how to fix a car when it breaks down. Indeed, the only solid things about new age guys like Johnny Deep and Leonardo Decaprio are their hair-care routines. Admittedly there’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone but these guys are maniacs and they’re all getting on a bit. Stallone is 60 and Clint Eastwood is 76. Perhaps the reason that real men have disappeared – or that society has become gender neutral – is that real men scare the pants off us. Feminism says that women can do anything that men can do but according to Harvey Mansfield, a US conservative theorist, this is patently untrue. According to Mansfield, men are far more likely than women to stick their necks out for an idea or a cause and men have a far greater taste for physical and intellectual combat. This means that men are far more likely to start wars and torture people but it also means that they are more likely to invent things or knock ideas down that don’t make sense. Whether you agree with this or not, it’s certainly an interesting area for debate. Moreover, I think there is a battle to be fought in societies where women are behaving more like men and men are acting more like women. Some people would like to see this situation partially reversed with women returning to a level of female modesty and men becoming stronger and more gentlemanly.
Ref: Wall Street Journal (US), 3 March 2006, ‘A lady’s lament: where have all the hunks gone?’ K. Strassel.
Boston Globe (US), 12 March 2006, ‘The manly man’s man’, C. Shea.
Search words: men, women, gender, behaviour

The Baby Insurance Business

Baby Einstein is a company (now owned by Disney) that sells the pursuit of advantage to the paranoid parents of small children. One in three American children has now seen a Baby Einstein video, which in a sense is indicative of the high level of competition in society in general and in education in particular. Ironically, Albert Einstein was something of a late developer and didn’t speak until he was three. Nevertheless, economically-anxious parents cannot get enough of this ‘baby insurance’ that they hope will ensure their children go to the best schools and get the best jobs so that they can look after their parents in old age.  It is also a way to deal with status anxiety and aspiration, in that while as a parent you might feel that you have failed in life, there is always hope coming from the crib. Success can be made by proxy. Sale of so-called ‘educational’ toys like the Baby Einstein series have risen by 19 per cent in 2004 and the market is now worth close to half a billion dollars in the US alone. But do these ‘toys’ work? The answer seems to be no. In 1993 researchers in the US played a few minutes of Mozart to a series of college students and found that their paper-folding and cutting abilities (seriously) increased as a result. However, the test has never been successfully replicated and there is absolutely no scientific data to suggest that early exposure to art or music has any affect on future intelligence. Indeed, the idea of ‘critical’ periods for brain development is overstated and there is even evidence to suggest that children aged under-two shouldn’t be watching any television whatsoever (which is the advice of the US Academy of Paediatrics). Indeed, if the ultimate aim is to create children that are creators rather than mere consumers then they should be left alone. They should be outdoors as much as possible and a pair of keys is easily as stimulating as a baby video. Moreover, boredom is seriously underrated.  Periods of nothingness that are devoid of constant stimulation and activity are also important for the development of young minds, which is something that adults keen to give their children an early ‘edge’ before they reach kindergarten should remember as they rush from one activity to another.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US). July/August 2006, ‘Extreme parenting’,
A. Quart.
See also The Myth of the First Three Years by John Bruer.
Search words: children, kids, education, videos, Einstein, competition

No time to sleep – or think

I’ve written about ‘busyness’ and the consequent lack of sleep in modern society before but here’s a quick update. Sales of sleeping pills have risen by 60 per cent in the US since 2000, which is causing some experts to worry about oversubscription. The rise is said to be a result of an overworked and overwrought society and is most prevalent in 20 to 44 year olds although the use of sleep aids has also increased dramatically among 10 to 19 year olds.Part of the reason for this is work. Most American workers say that they now feel rushed and are getting less done than they did ten years ago. Perversely, the main reason for this is the increased use of technology. Americans now spend 16 hours on a computer at work per week verus 9.5 hours ten years ago. Other reasons for the drop in productivity include the increased volume of emails – almost 50 per cent of which are unsolicited – longer commutes to and from work and companies that have moved to 24-hour operations.On related note, a professor at the University of Queensland (Aus) says that Australians are becoming angrier. The reason for this is a lack of time which means that people are rushing to get things done and can thus snap when they think someone – or something – is holding them up or getting in their way. This has many implications ranging from a less civil and tolerant society to people being less willing to stand in supermarket queues or wait for websites to load.
Ref: Various including Yahoo News (US), 23 February 2006, ‘Americans work more, seem to accomplish less’, E. Wulfhorst.
Sunday Mail (Aus), 4 June 2006, ‘We’re A Cranky Lot: Queenslanders are angrier than ever’, L. Robson.
Search words: sleep, busyness, work, stress, angry, anger

Are we getting more miserable?

Most of the recent ‘happiness studies’ have concluded that we are becoming less happy, which seems to fit with studies suggesting that we are becoming angrier and more stressed. However, a US study now claims that, in the US at least, the level of happiness has actually been a flat line since the early 1970s. The research, by the Pew Research Center, says that around 50 per cent of Americans describe themselves as ‘pretty happy’ with 30 per cent saying ‘very happy’ and 15 per cent ‘not too happy’. Moreover, each of these responses has remained more or less constant despite increasing incomes and the recent growth of terrorism. This is consistent with studies of suicide rates in the US that show that the per capita the suicide rate is the same as it was in 1900, while in the UK the rate has actually fallen over the same period. Interestingly, men and women are happy in approximately equal numbers and, reassuringly, dog owners and cat owners are both roughly as happy as each other too. Conversely, the New York Post reports that a course called ‘Positive Psychology’ is now one of the most popular courses at Harvard University, which is perhaps not surprising given that depression rates in the US are ten times higher than they were in 1960 with the mean age of depression dropping from 29.5 to 14.5 over the same period. Go figure.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), ‘Primary Sources: The more things change’. See also ‘Are We Happy Yet?’ Pew Research Center 2006.
Search words: happiness, sadness, depression

Keeping up with the Jones’s

We are in the midst of an international epidemic of depression but it is still unclear what makes people happy and unhappy. According to research released last year, one of the main culprits for unhappiness is comparison. For example, it’s not absolute wealth that makes people happy or unhappy but the perceived wealth of their immediate neighbours. If there is an imbalance, people are more likely to be unhappy. Equally, it is not the possession of goods that makes people happy but the acquisition of goods by others that appears to make people unhappy. Happiness is creeping up the agenda in national politics and the King of Bhutan has recently created something called the Gross National Happiness index to measure the happiness of his subjects. A similar attempt to capture or categorise happiness – Guidelines for National Indicators of Subjective Well-being and Ill-being – has been produced by Edward Diener from the University of Illinois and is currently circulating on the Internet. However, most of these well-intentioned studies and guidelines seem to miss the point. Part of the reason that there’s an epidemic of depression is that there’s an outbreak of perfectionism. There is a general belief – largely created and propagated by advertising and the media – that there is one true path to happiness and this involves perfectionism in everything from how we look to what we eat.This in turns leads to pessimism that creates unhappiness. So what’s the solution? A famous study of nuns once found out that optimistic nuns lived on average ten years longer than pessimistic nuns. The trick to being optimistic is gratitude for the hand you’ve been dealt and a tolerance for imperfection.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 27 May 2006, ‘How to be happy’, O. Burkeman. Financial Times (UK), 19 January 2006, ‘The hippies were right all along about happiness’, A. Oswald.
Search words: happiness, pessimism, perfectionism, imperfectionism