Society & culture

Privacy in the digital age

Federal law now dictates that every new cell-phone sold in the US contains a GPS device so that users can be traced if there is an emergency. At the moment, federal law prohibits phone companies from disclosing this information to companies. This rule also applies to government agencies, unless, that is, the user is under criminal investigation and ‘probable cause’ can be argued in front of a judge. However, in a recent case the US Department of Justice successfully argued that ‘tracking’ was necessary in order to build a criminal case. Phone forensics is a growth industry and according to some sources there is hardly a criminal case in the US or UK where ‘phone evidence’ is not used. No idea what I’m talking about? Cell phones (mobiles) contain a host of digital memories that can help law enforcement and security agencies piece together who you are, who you know, where you go and even what you think. They are a treasure trove of emails, contact lists, photos, text messages and voice messages, none of which ever really disappear, even if you phone lies at the bottom of a lake for 12 months. Indeed, merely having your phone switched on leaves a data trial that is accurate to a few tens of metres and in the future this will be narrowed to a metre or less in some urban areas. There is also traditional forensic evidence ranging from fingerprints on SIM cards to DNA in the microphone and earpiece recess. Should you be worried? In theory, no. If you aren’t doing anything wrong this data will remain confidential but ‘function creep’ could potentially mean that your data is shared with others without your knowledge.
For example, teens could be tracked by their parents without their knowledge (they already are) and there are already a number of commercial companies already offering services that range from employee tracking (via mobile phones) to teen tracking (via technology inside automobiles). To some extent privacy is already dead technologically and younger people are starting to display a shift in attitudes towards digital or online privacy so perhaps this really isn’t a big deal.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 7 July 2007, ‘We know where you are, your cell phone told us’, M. Reilly.
Links: Connectivity, tracking
Search words: Privacy, forensics, mobile phones, cell phones, crime, data, tracking
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Anxiety about the future and misery in the present

According to various profits (sic) of doom, climate change is the most important issue facing humanity and we have only a decade or so to reverse the damage that we have carelessly inflicted on planet earth. Climate change is undoubtedly a big problem, but is it really the most urgent issue that we need to tackle as Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers) and others argue? Indeed, why are we so fixated all of a sudden on trying to solve a difficult and complex problem when there are so many simpler and more immediate problems that we could tackle instead? Of course, merely asking this question will raise the hackles of a great number of people, but this merely demonstrates how hot the topic of global warming really is. Why, for example, do we focus on the prediction that 2,000 people will die of heat-related deaths in the UK in 2080 when correspondingly it is predicted that there will be 20,000 fewer cold-related death in the same year? Equally, why are we so consumed with collective rage about what climate change may do in 20 or 50 years time when hundreds of millions of people are dying from perfectly preventable diseases such as HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis or malnutrition right now? Perhaps the answer to this question is that climate change is a kind of public display of belonging. It is our generational mission. It is an issue (and it could be any issue) that unites people when there is little else in society or its values to hold people together. In other words, the shared suffering and anxiety surrounding climate change is real enough but the authenticity of our emotions is ultimately not.
Ref: Various including Spiked Online (UK), 5 July 2007, ‘Let’s improve life in the present, and the future’, B. Lomborg.
Search words: Climate change, panic, risk, global warming
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The Future of Boys

One thing worth watching as an indicator of social change is book sales. Specifically, what are people reading right now and why might this be so? A good example of this is a book called The Dangerous Book for Boys by Colin and Hal Igguiden. The book is a best seller in many countries, spawning countless ‘me-too’ versions. But why is the book successful?The reason, I think, is that the book is a nostalgic celebration of childhood past, from fossil collecting and snake identification to methods of building go-karts and tree houses. It is unashamedly about the timeless qualities of the ideal young man: curiosity, imagination, bravery, persistence and respect. It is thus a backlash against books about what boys do badly and why boys do badly. For example, in 1998 a Harvard Psychologist published a book called Real Boys, claiming that boys were ‘scared and disconnected’ and ‘severely lagging behind’ girls in achievement. If a lack of self-confidence wasn’t true, it probably was by the time books like Stiffed by Susan Faludi, The War Against Boys by Elizabeth Gilbert and the Last American Man were published soon afterwards.
The Dangerous Book for Boys also taps into a growing anxiety about how we are raising out children and whether we are raising them right. According to Christina Hoff Sommers at the American Enterprise Institute, boyhood is increasingly seen as ‘toxic’ by society. This may be true in the sense that it is not girls shooting up American High Schools and filling up US prisons, but an increasing number of writers and academics are now arguing that the ‘boy crisis’ is largely a myth. Certainly the numbers didn’t look good a decade or two ago, but it appears that the downward slide is now levelling off and boys are achieving more than they ever have before. For example, the number of young American men aged between 16 and 19 that are neither in education or work has dropped by around 25% since 1984. Indeed, our current anxieties are merely part of a pattern.
John Stuart Mill, writing at the start of our industrial age, was concerned that development – with its speed, stress and shorter attention spans – would cause ‘moral effeminacy’, while a short while later figures like Robert Baden-Powell and Pierre de Coubertin were so worried about the ‘male malaise’ that they invented the scouting movement and re-invented the Olympics as cures. The not very dangerous idea contained within the Dangerous Book for Boys is probably that boys need mentors and structure. They also need freedom to experiment and fail.The book is old-fashioned in the sense that it promotes quests, competitions and brotherhood, but above all, perhaps, it celebrates idleness and risk, both of which our overly-structured and litigious societies shy away from. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that it is not children that are anxious but their parents. As for implications, expect to see an increase in back to basics activities like camping and a surge in membership for organisations like the boy scouts over the years ahead.
Ref: Time (US), 6 August 2007, ‘The Boys are All Right’, David Von Drehle
Search words: Boys, men, anxiety, education, books, trends, risk
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Population trends in Japan

In Japan, the percentage of elderly people in the population will increase to 25% by 2015. Given that the percentage was 5% just after WW2 this is a staggering increase.Similarly, life expectancy in Japan was 50 in 1947 but now stands at 82, while the birth rate now strands at 1.32 children per couple compared to 2.1 in the 1970s. If these trends continue – and there’s no reason to suppose they won’t – the total Japanese population will reach 95 million by 2050 with 40% of this total being elderly.
Conversely, there are presently 16 million Japanese in their 20s but this number is expected to decline to 13 million over the next ten years. This is all clearly very bad news from a workforce perspective, not least because there won’t be enough Japanese workers to pay for the number of Japanese retirees. By 2030 Japan will have only two workers for every retiree, but already 20% of workers are refusing to contribute to the fixed portion of the state pension scheme, presumably because they think that the scheme won’t exist by the time they retire, so why bother? One solution to this worker-retiree imbalance is clearly the abolition of mandatory retirement, but in Japan a system based on merit rather than age is a revolutionary idea. So what’s the take-away here?
The first thought is that as societies develop, the rate of population growth slows.In Italy, for example, there will only be two workers per retiree by the year 2030 and this figure will reverse to three to two by 2050. According to the UN, the average global fertility rate will fall below the replacement level of 2.1 by the year 2025 and thereafter will go into decline, peaking at a world population of around 10 billion. Thus our short-term panic about skills shortages, food production and resource scarcity is perhaps a temporary problem. Europe and US workforces are growing again after years of decline and the reason isn’t simply immigration. Linking salary to performance and productivity rather than age, and encouraging more women and minority groups into the workforce with flexible contracts and equality programs are also part of the reason.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 28 July 2007, ‘Cloud, or silver linings’
Search words: Japan, ageing, demographics, retirement, population trends
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‘Fur kids’ in Japan

In Japan the average women gives birth to 1.3 children – a figure well below the replacement rate. However, some populations in Japan are booming. According to Japan’s Pet food Manufacturers Association, there were 24.5 million cats and dogs in Japan last year (2006) and this figure represents a rise of 37% in a decade. Moreover, expenditure on these furry friends is increasing. Why is this happening? One reason is that pets, and small dogs in particular, have become fashionable. However, a more credible explanation is that furry friends (or ‘fur kids’) represent a practical substitute to real children or marital partners. This pet boom is leading to a furry flurry of innovation, which includes pet hotels at Narita airport (170 ‘rooms’ from US$33-$170 per night) to pet funerals (including a ‘with pet’ option that allows owners to be buried alongside their pets). There are also remote-controlled feeding machines operated by PC or mobile phone that allow owners to ‘visit’ their loved one via video link, and even pet spas featuring pet massages and mud packs. Crazy? You bet, but even blue chip Japanese manufacturers are sitting up and paying attention with the likes of Honda designing automobiles for dog owners that feature things like stain resistant seating and odour eliminating fabrics as standard features.
Ref: Business Week (US), 8 June 2007, ‘Japan’s Pampered Pet Set’, H.Tashiro, I. Rowley.
Search words: Japan, demographics, pets, population trends
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Malthus back on the menu

In 1798 Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principles of Population, in which he argued that while population increases geometrically, subsistence increases arithmetically. In other words we are far better at reproducing ourselves than feeding ourselves and this simple fact would lead to starvation on a mass scale. Only it hasn’t. World population has grown by more than 600% since his essay was written and now stands at over 6 billion. But food yields have increased by 120% per hectare and the amount of land under cultivation has expanded by approximately 11%. In other words food has become abundant in most regions to the point where obesity, not starvation, is the issue facing most countries. According to Niall Ferguson (Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University) this could all be about to change. The problem is that our ability to increase food yields doesn’t actually disprove Malthus and while people are now starting to worry about peak oil, peak food could actually be a bigger problem. Part of the issue here is that because of peak oil we are beginning to switch agricultural production away from feeding ourselves to feeding our machines through the development of bio-fuels made from plants. This in turn is starting to fuel food inflation, which the International Monetary Fund has observed increased by 23% worldwide over the past 18 months. Nationally this price inflation is often disguised because many core consumer price indexes exclude the price of food but the trend is real. Should we worry? About price inflation yes, and there is some concern that scarcity and prices will trigger starvation in certain parts of the developing world, but again this is yet another example of something that is solvable. What Malthus is correct in highlighting though is the question of whether mankind ‘shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery’
Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK), 1-7 August 2007, ‘Worrying about bread … and Malthus’, N.Ferguson.
Search words: Resource scarcity, food production, raw materials, starvation, malthus, population trends
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Health, wealth and happiness

Ever since social researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (US) found that American millionaires were no happier than African tribesmen living in mud huts, there has been a steady stream of studies ‘proving’ that money can’t buy you happiness or satisfaction. However, several new opinion polls cast some doubt on this hypothesis. One poll – the World Poll by Gallup – covers 130 countries. Similarly, the World Values survey by the University of Michigan (US) spans 80 countries. Both studies ask people broadly the same question: ‘Are you satisfied with your life?’ The answer is that people in rich countries tend to answer ‘yes’ while those in poorer countries typically answer ‘no’. So what’s going on? First of all, there does appear to be a correlation between GDP growth and optimism about the future. Hence people in China and India are relatively poor but expect to be relatively rich in the near future. In countries like France, Germany and Italy, it’s the opposite. To be fair, earlier research never claimed that there was no link whatsoever between income and happiness, merely that once a certain level of income is reached the happiness starts to tail off. However, the new surveys do seem to point to the conclusion that this ‘happiness threshold’ is non-existent. In other words, generally speaking the more money people have – or expect to have – the happier they tend to feel. Nevertheless, this would be a simplistic conclusion. First, context is important. In some countries ‘happiness’ may be a proxy for something else like health or safety. Another point is that collective memory may play a role. For instance, anxieties in Ex-Communist States may feel worse than they actually are because of historical full employment or health coverage.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 14 July 2007, ‘Where money seems to talk’,
Search words: Happiness
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