Society & culture

Growing Up In a Cotton Wool World

If you ask someone over the age of 40, or even 30, where they most liked to play as a child they will invariably answer that it was somewhere out of sight from adults and their parents. But ask someone younger and you’ll probably get a different answer. The reason is that our notion of childhood – and specifically the risks associated with childhood – has shifted. These days we micro-manage our young, filling their every waking hour with ‘useful’ activities. We also adopt a zero-risk attitude to play that infantilises children (if that’s not an oxymoron). In other words there is now a deep protectionist and interventionist impulse in society that runs totally against the old idea of benign neglect. And if you think this is bad now, it’s going to get worse in the future. We are already tearing up old playgrounds and replacing them will sanitised soft play areas. But what appears safe may actually be harming our children because they give us – and them – a false sense of security. Moreover, the idea of safe play is a total fantasy. This cotton-wool world is eroding independence and removing resilience. In other words, we have been caught up in a myth of protection that is actually harming us.

But what is actually driving this trend? The answer, according to some, is that families have become more isolated. We no longer share as many communal spaces. We are also, in my opinion, isolated by a global media that exports fear from around the world, magnifying anxieties and banishing reality. Oddly, most statistics show that that the world is a much safer place than it was 20, 50 or even 100 years ago. However, we have lost our innocence and also our ability to cope with uncertainty and discomfort. As a result, our learned helplessness means we tend to view worst-case scenarios as most likely outcomes. We view the world through the eyes of the unluckiest. Fortunately, the success of books such as The Dangerous Book for Boys shows that some people instinctively understand what’s happening. Moreover, there is a new school of thought that says that boys in particular have a biological need to get out and about. They should be outdoors climbing trees, fashioning crude weapons and even playing with toy guns. And if they don’t they will suffer in terms of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, Such a view would have been heresy a few years ago but things might slowly be changing.

By the way, if you think I’m exaggerating about this risk aversion consider this. Recently my son brought part of his packed lunch back from school because his cheese and biscuits snack is now a banned foodstuff along with yoghurt and Kiwi fruit. The reason is that on the pack it says that the snack was “manufactured on equipment that also processes nuts” and the school isn’t prepared to take a chance. In other words, the school is saying that any kid with a nut allergy (and there isn’t one by the way) doesn’t need to take responsibility for their own actions in terms of what they eat. Instead responsibility is forwarded to everyone else in the class. Yet the very same day the headmaster of the school was talking to children and parents about the importance of resilience and risk taking in assembly. Nuts? I’ve got a few other choice words I could use.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 3 November 2007, ‘Interview: Tim Gill’, D. Aitkenhead. See also No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society by Tim Gill and Also the Sunday Times (UK), 18 November 2007, ‘Boys must be boys – for all our sakes’, S. Palmer.
Search words: Risk, risk-taking, children, childhood, education, schools
Trend tags: Litigation, risk-aversion
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Social Aspects of Computing

One of my favourite subjects is the unintended consequences of technology. Linked to this is what some people call the social aspects of computing.Internet-users now have to strategise how to convey themselves in cyberspace –something called ‘impression management’. The issue has become complex because people tend to have an array of digital personas and personalities and these need to be tailored to different audiences ranging from co-workers to family and friends. In other words, how do you edit your online identity? People have been styling themselves for multiple audiences for years, but the issue has become more urgent and complex due to the growth of social networking sites and online dating sites like Facebook and Additionally, the Internet age is relatively new and people are struggling to understand what is acceptable and what’s not. One intriguing finding, for example, is that the attractiveness of your friends on sites like Facebook directly affects the way that other people perceive you, according to Joseph Walther, a professor of communication and telecommunications at Michigan State University (US). Other studies have found that the length of email messages can be a cue as to how desperate someone is, as are the number of times people log onto sites (too often is again seen as desperate). The time that email messages are sent also indicates something about the personality of the sender. As to whether or not people lie about themselves online the answer is ‘of course’.For example, in the UK a photo chain called Snappy Snaps has reported a 500% + increase in requests for retouching services recently. The reason for this, apparently, is that people want to look as good as possible on online dating and social networking sites. So is this deceptive or nefarious practice doing anyone any harm? Probably not. Most people are just trying to stand out from the crowd and any gross misrepresentation will more often than not be found out by close friends or co-workers that frequent the same sites. Future predictions? One thing we might see is the development of companies that help create, maintain or delete online personas. Equally, these digital providers could act as some kind of trust mechanism, vouching for the authenticity of some digital people while conducting ‘truth checks’ on suspected cyber frauds.
Ref: New York Times (US), 3 January 2008, ‘Putting Your Best Cyberface Forward’, S. Rosenbloom.
Search words: Internet, truth, cyberspace, friends
Trend tags: Authenticity, digitalisation, virtual worlds
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Multi-Tasking Mayhem

In 2000, referring to the merger between AOL and Time Warner, the President and Chief Operating Officer of AOL, Robert Pittman, allegedly said: ‘This is the perfect “one plus one equals three” opportunity’. In other words, around the start of the new millennium we collectively decided to ditch the basic principles of physics and economics and attach ourselves instead to a new idea that was called ‘dream it and you can make it happen’. It was a period of over-leveraged, over-extended and unsustainable growth that looked good on paper because things still went up but no longer came down. Even the concept of human freedom was redefined by linking it to notions of speed, convenience and mobility rather than with the old idea of acting with minimal interference from others. Microsoft, for instance, ran a campaign with the slogan ‘Where do you want to go today?’ But it’s turned out that this was not a question but an instruction. The question implied that there was an endless array of destinations and where you went was totally up to you. As big fat lies go, this turned out to be a whopper. Sensible answers to the question might have included; ‘Back to bed’, ‘What business is it of yours Bill?’ and ‘Nowhere, I’m happy where I am’. Instead we got seduced by speed and connectivity. We started to view ‘things’ like documents; videos and screens as ‘places’ and we stayed awake half the night doing things that should have been done during the daytime. This new freedom was intoxicating. We were free to work at home. We were free to be busy, juggling our various electronic lives and personas all of the time. But a slowdown has begun.

Evidence is forming to confirm what many of us have suspected for years: multitasking, together with complexity and constant connectivity, is sliding us towards stupidity and making us slightly mad. Our frenzied lives, the pressure to be ‘friends’ with people we hardly know, all points to the inevitability of some kind of ‘correction’ or counter-trend. Scientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, have found that the constant ‘switching’ required to multi-task effectively is damaging some of our higher-level brain functions, especially those related to memory and learning. In other words, we can cope with doing two things at once but we often can’t remember what we’ve done or how we did it. Worse, some studies suggest that multi-tasking increases stress-related hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prematurely age our bodies through what’s called biochemical friction. Time, then, to stop picking Blackberries and to start multi-quitting.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), November 2007, ‘The Autumn of the Multitaskers’, W. Kirin. Links: Constant Partial Attention (Linda Stone),
Search words: Information, Too Much Choice, Connectivity, Digitalisation, Globalisation, Muti-tasking
Trend tags: Busyness
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Our Post Human Future

Despite the fact that you are reading what I have written, it’s not immediately obvious whether I can actually write. Spelling and grammar checks have the ability to cover a multitude of sins. There are even software programs such as that teach writers how to create characters and plot structure. Software like Auto-Tune does much the same thing for singers, including singers that can’t actually sing. In other words, we have entered a world where talent can be enhanced or totally manufactured through technology. And you ain’t seen nothing yet. The question of natural and authentic versus manufactured and created talent is perhaps most visible within the arena of sports where individuals have been altering their bodies in subtle ways for centuries. Here pills are regularly popped to enhance performance and we are on the cusp of some interesting ethical issues relating to gene doping and surgical enhancement. Part of this debate is about technology. In an age of genetics and robotics what constitutes cheating – in sports but also at work and in relationships – is changing. But this is only half the story. Not only are we entering a world where enhancement is possible and readily available, we are also entering an age where it’s more or less expected. One emerging cultural trends at the moment is the idea that everyone is special and everyone can do anything if they put their mind and money towards it. Does any of this matter? I think so.

Currently, genetic testing is able to reveal beneficial traits, for example, which sports you may be good at. In the future such tests will become lifestyle products. They will tell parents what their unborn children will be good at, which obviously has all kinds of implications – including that people with enough money may be tempted to create and manipulate talent. This will undoubtedly change the way we define talent but it will also mess with what’s real and what’s not. However, this isn’t new. For instance, the famous guitar solo in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven doesn’t really exist. Jimmy Page couldn’t play it. It was created through the use of technology – a recording of half-a-dozen or more edited guitar solos. The bad news? According to Michel Sandel, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, we owe a debt of gratitude to God, luck or nature because one or all of these powers means that we are not wholly responsible for how things turn out. But remove such elements of chance and we become burdened by the rather lonely thought that we are the drivers, and therefore responsible for everything.
Ref: Various including: Vogue (Aus), April 2007, ‘Talent Quest’, S.Walker. See also Scientific American (US), July 2004, ‘Gene Doping’, H. Lee Sweeney and The Atlantic Monthly (US), April 2004, ‘The Case Against Perfection’, M. Sandel. www.the
Search words: Truth, authenticity, cheating, talent
Trend tags: Authenticity, enhancement
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Green and White Cities

According to some reports, the City of Los Angeles is giving serious consideration to the idea of painting some or all of its roads and buildings ghostly white in an attempt to combat global warming. It would certainly make the City of Angels live up to its name. Back in 1936 a Swedish chemist called Svante Arrhenius came up with the idea that the carbon dioxide created from burning coal would fuel a greenhouse effect that would warm the Earth. Fast-forward to 1979 and the US National Academy of Sciences warned that waiting for further evidence of global warming might mean that it would be too late to do anything about it. And onwards to 2008 and it’s more or less business as usual. There’s lots of talk but so far precious little real action. For example, only 1% of airline passengers offset their air-miles when they fly and the record of carbon trading schemes has been shameful. The result is that if we all switched to electric cars and renewable energy tomorrow, total emissions would still be unlikely to fall in the foreseeable future. The best scientific estimate to date is that temperatures will increase by two degrees globally over this century or thereabouts. This will reduce the amount of land that people can live on and also reduce the amount of land that’s available for agriculture – either because it’s too dry or too wet. As for more specific consequences and what we should be doing about them, there appears to be little agreement. On one extreme are those who say we’re all doomed. Others argue that it’s all a giant hoax. Somewhere in the middle is the argument that it’s manageable, especially through the use of new energy technologies and emission reductions.

The former could include nuclear power (especially ‘pebble-bed’ reactors), undersea power stations and zero-emission industrial power plants. The latter includes ideas like air scrubbing, carbon sequestion and other giant engineering projects. But even the green movement itself is split as to where we should be going and how we should get there. One group of greens support what’s termed a ‘sustainable retreat’. This is where mankind frees the land from human interference and retreats to energy-efficient cities. The country is left to turn itself into wilderness – which will preserve various living systems – and the cities themselves will be built along green principles and would include, for example, ‘vertical agriculture’ – literally tower blocks of urban farms that harvest their own power and water and grow food and animals up to 1,000 feet in the air. The other group of greens are what’s known as the ‘pastoral greens’. The idea here is that our problems can be resolved by the widespread adoption of renewable energy: mankind does not have to retreat but lives more in harmony with nature. Conclusions? Both sides seem rather idealistic and unrealistic to me. But what really stands out is that low-cost goods are unsustainable. We are demanding that things are produced cheaply but at the same time we are arguing that environmental and social issues should be seriously addressed. I don’t know about you but these two ideas seem to be totally contradictory. Something’s got to give.
Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 4 November 2007, ‘We Have The Power’. B. Appleyard.
Search words: Climate change, global warming, energy
Trend tags: Sustainability
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New Trends for 2008

1. The rise of N11 Countries.
Just getting to grips with the BRIC nations, ‘Chindia’ and the CHIME countries? Well prepare yourself for N11 – a term created by Goldman Sachs to describe the 11 countries just behind economic powerhouses such as China, India, Russia and Brazil. The 11 specifically refers to: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam.
2. Reverse migration.
The next few years will witness the beginnings of a ‘reverse knowledge migration’. This term, coined by Paul Saffo, refers not only to well-educated Asians living in Europe and the US moving back home to countries such as China and India but also to ‘cyber-gypsies’ – Western talent rushing to make their fortunes in the East.
3. Renting not buying.
Almost ten years ago US-based futurologist Jeremy Rifkin argued that we were moving from a culture of acquisition to one of temporary ownership and rental. It’s taken a few years to take off but his prediction finally seems to be flourishing. Examples include FlexPetz (timeshare pet ownership) Bag, Borrow or Steal (handbag rental) and NetJets. This trend also links to ideas such as ‘fractional ownership’ and ‘fractional luxury’ (or plain old syndicates to you and me).
4. Facebook Suicides
This is an interesting one. We are currently living in an age of digital exhibitionism where there is tremendous social pressure to collect digital friends and have multiple digital personas. At some point this will become too much for some people and they will pay people (perhaps virtual identity managers?) to clear up their digital mess. Alternatively, people may kill off their avatar alter-egos, sometimes in mass digital suicide rituals.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 19 December 2007, ‘The shape of things to come’, J. Harkin. See also Big Ideas; The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking by James Harkin.
Search words: Trends
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Consequences of Constant Connectedness

Here’s random list of websites, concepts, gadgets and services that are in some way related to our newfound connectedness. Some will undoubtedly flourish while others will die but they all surely say something about where we are now and where we’re heading in the future. Buckle up folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
1. Micro-blogging.
You’ve probably heard of Twitter by now but if you really are obsessed with sharing the most inconsequential details of your daily life with others then check out some other micro-blogging sites likes Pownce and Jaiku.
2. The Chumby.
This is a wireless Internet device that uses widgets to display almost any information you fancy all of the time.
3. Everyblock.
Still in development, this hyper local news site is the latest idea from Adrian Holovarty, the brains behind
4. 23AndMe.
This site allows users to unleash their genetic history (and probable future) for just US$1,000. Simply send in a sample of your DNA and the site will send you back a log-in that allows you to explore who – or what – you’re connected to.
5. Peer-To-Peer Lending.
You probably know about Zopa, Prosper and iGrin but how about This micro-finance site allows people with money to invest it in others – especially small entrepreneurs in developing regions.
6. Mob Rules.
Sometime towards the middle of 2008 every second person on Earth will have a mobile phone. In other words within the space of about ten years we’ve gone from 50% of the world never having heard a ringtone to 50% owning a phone. The mob in question refers to the fact that we are becoming connected as never before – and this connected and somewhat unpredictable ‘mob’ has the potential to be faster, smarter and more powerful than anyone or anything else on the planet.
7. Guerrilla Wi-Fi.
What once cost lots of money will be increasingly free in the future. For example, Meraki is a company that provides cheap or free Internet access; especially to people that believe free Internet access is a fundamental human right.
8. World Community Grid.
What happens when you connect the unused computing power of thousands of idle computers? The answer is distributed computing. The Seti@home project is a good example.
9. Loopt.
A site that allows your friends to know where you are, thanks to the GPS.
10. One Laptop Per Child.
A brilliant philanthropic venture or a doomed attempt at imposing western culture and values on children in the developing world. You decide.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 1 January 2008, ‘Ten things that will change your future’, N. Galvin.
Search words: Trends
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Back to Basics

I’m in the market for a new mobile phone. Ideally I wouldn’t have a mobile at all. I coped perfectly well before I had one and I’ve only ever received one phone call that was so urgent it couldn’t be left as a message either at home or at the office. Most people probably regard buying a new mobile phone like buying a new car but I have to confess that it feels more like going to the dentist. First there are the inevitable questions: ‘Do you want a phone with GPS?’ ‘Why?’ ‘So you don’t get lost – you can use it in the car you know’. Well first, I like getting lost and second if I look at a tiny screen while driving I’ll almost certainly crash. ‘Well how about a phone with a camera?’ ‘Well I’ve already got a camera’. ‘Video? – You can shoot movies with phones now you know!’ ‘Of what?’ I have as much interest in shooting movies with a phone as I do cooking my dinner in a washing machine. However, there’s some good news on the horizon. According to a newspaper report, some entrepreneurs are selling reconditionED phones such as old Nokia 6310s on eBay. So what? The phones can’t do very much. They are ten-year-old technology. They just make calls and send text messages. Perfect! On a related note, research conducted by D-Code/Headlight Vision in the UK says that there is a backlash building up against the always-on nature of modern communications. Young people are under so much pressure to be always available online that they are suffering from multi-media meltdown. As a result, some people are shifting their attention to low-tech products or are embracing retro design and experiences. There. What did I just tell you?
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 2-3 February 2008, ‘Phone with no features comes back in vogue’, R. Tellzen.
Search words: Mobile phones, cell-phones, technology, simplicity, nostalgia
Trend tags: Nostalgia, simplicity
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