Society & culture

Are We Afraid of Nothing?

About a year ago I was sitting in a focus group for a media company listening to a 25-year-old complain about McDonald’s. ‘You go in, order a Big Mac, fries and a Coke and you wait and wait … and wait. Sometimes it takes almost a minute’.We have become bored of waiting and we no longer wait to become bored. We are developing attention spans that can be measured in seconds and newspapers to sports, for example, are responding with shortened versions of everything from novels to cricket. Digital distraction is everywhere. Indeed, as the writer Carolyn Johnson so succinctly puts it ,’Distraction isn’t merely available it’s unavoidable’. You can see this first hand when people rush to switch on their mobile phones the second their plane lands. This is why companies such as Motorola now use phrases like ‘microboredom’ as an opportunity for product development. Or how about the way people now jump between songs on iPods, barely able to listen to a single song, let alone a whole album. The result is a digital culture in which there is always something to do although, ironically, we never seem to be entirely satisfied with what we end up choosing. We have become fearful about nothing – literally. The thought of leaving home without a mobile phone is frightening to a great many people. So is turning off such devices at night (many people don’t) or on holiday. Indeed, dropping out of this hyper-connected world for even a week seems like an act of eccentricity or digital defiance. How could you? Why would you?

But what is this hyper-anxiety all about? What is so frightening about waiting or doing nothing? I think the reason is that we have become constantly anxious and constant connectedness soothes our anxieties through the illusion of control. But what are we losing as a result? To be bored is a good thing. Rumination is the prelude to creation. Not only is doing nothing one of life’s few remaining luxuries it is also a state of mind that allows us to let go of the external world to explore what’s inside our own heads. Reflection creates clarity and is a ‘prelude to engagement of the imagination’ according to Dr Edward Hallowell, author of a book called Crazy Busy. It is a useful human emotion and one that has historically driven original thinking. It hurts at first but once you get through the mental anguish you can see things in their proper context or in a new light. Technology, and mobile technology in particular, negates this. If you are trying to solve a problem it is now all too easy to give up and move on. But if you persist you might just find what you need. If you keep going beyond the boredom you will think of a new ways of doing things. This is how most artists and writers, faced with blank sheets of paper or canvas, think. Stick that thought in your iPod and set it to ‘random’.
Ref: The Boston Globe (US), 9 March 2008, ‘The Joy of Boredom’, C. Johnson,
Search words: Boredom, instant gratification, anxiety, queuing, nothing
Trend tags: Anxiety, Speeding-up, instant digital gratification
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Links: In Praise of Boredom by Jospseh Brodsky

The New Narcissists

In Australia and elsewhere there is a trend for parents to treat their offspring as though they are gifted, to the point where this adoration backfires. Unlimited praise creates unrealistic expectations and a generation of dysfunctional narcissists. According to some childcare experts, the issue is that parents never say no. This is partly because adults don’t want to put their children into difficult situations where they might fail or hurt the child’s feelings. This creates an ‘empathy bypass’ in children. It also creates a society in which adults are afraid of their own children and one in which self-esteem is seen as something that is given rather than acquired. In other words, if you give children high self-esteem they can achieve things. But surely it is the other way around? Surely self-esteem is the result of doing hard things and is won not bought. If you want to grow resilient kids you need resilient parenting but this seems to be too hard for most adults. Hence, kids are micro-managed, outsourced and over-scheduled for fear that they might get bored. They are shuttled everywhere and firm rebukes and boundaries are almost non-existent.

Our personalities have always mirrored the times in which we live so what kind of world could we be building here? According to some studies by US psychologists (for example, 'Inflated Egos Over Time') children and young adults are displaying worryingly high levels of self-importance and this is increasing.Kids naturally go through periods of self-absorption and egocentric behaviour but new technologies like social networks are extending this. For example, it is now easy to measure how popular you are by the number of friends you have on sites like Facebook. Other sites promote a level of exhibitionism, vanity, conceit and entitlement that was unknown to previous generations. A good example is a site called This is a dating website where membership is determined wholly by what you look like. Members vote and those that are rejected presumably rush straight into the arms of the nearest scalpel wielding cosmetic surgeon. The media, and particularly the Internet, are certainly part of the problem.Last year Time magazine’s ‘Person of the year’ was ‘YOU’. What the magazine either forgot or decided not to mention was that chances are YOU (we) are not that interesting. Of the 120,000 blogs created daily 50% are about the same thing – the author. If you went into a bar every day and described in intricate detail you daily life, nobody would listen after a while. But in cyberspace (or on Twitter) there is nobody to tell you to shut up. Where this all goes nobody knows but the current consensus seems to be a world of ever shortening attention spans and instant digital gratification where extended physical relationships become increasingly difficult.
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 19-20 April 2008, ‘Backfire of the vanities’,
S. Lunn. See also Esquire (US),
January 2008, ‘Me Me Me’, S. Manzoor,
Search words: Narcissism, social networks, children kids, no
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Keep Calm and Carry On

In London, an old government poster from WW2 featuring the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is making an appearance on everything from T-shirts to mugs. Is this pre-apocalyptic irony?The English middle classes have, it seems, reached breaking point. They are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Of course, being English, this anger is hidden. They aren’t actually revolting – not just yet anyway. They are drinking tea in the aforementioned mugs to vent their anger instead. But things could change.Being middle class surely means having a comfortable income and being able to afford a middle class lifestyle. Historically this has meant living at least as well, and hopefully better, than your parents. But for a majority of English middle class households this is now just a far off dream. They can no longer afford to live in the same size house in the same neighborhood as their parents. They can no longer afford to send their children to the same private schools that their professional income previously allowed and heaven forbid that they or their children become sick because private healthcare is increasingly out of the question. It’s not too dissimilar in America. The New York Times recently reported that ‘signs of physical and social disorder are spreading’.

Everything, it seems, is more expensive or in shorter supply unless you are a Russian oligarch, a hedge fund manager or an investment banker. At least that’s how some people feel. Families in the UK now spend GBP 14,800 per year on household bills. Five years ago the figure was GBP 8,000. The cost of eggs has risen by 40% in 12 months. Petrol is up 20%. Sliced bread is up by 9%, milk by 21% and peas by 40%. And we all know what happens when people are told to eat cake instead.This dissatisfaction is to some extent misplaced. One reason that interest rate rises hurt is that most people are living on the edge. The idea of putting something away for a rainy day has become an alien concept. Equally, at a deeper level, we have equated liberty and freedom with the right to choose. Progress has been measured by what you own or consume. No wonder people are unhappy.
Last year the UK Ministry of Defence produced a report called The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme. This looked at various strategic challenges and opportunities for the years ahead. Buried towards the end of this document was a section on potential strategic shocks. One possible shock is ‘The Middle Class Proletariat’, which speculates that the middle class might unite and become a revolutionary class, a role that Marx imagined for the working class. All of a sudden this isn’t looking like such a wildcard after all. What people really want, I feel, is someone to articulate this rage. But until such a person shows up people will just have to make do with a nice cup of tea.
Ref: Spectator (UK), 29 March 2008, ‘We live in a state of emergency and we are getting angrier’, D. Selbourne The Daily Telegraph (UK), 8 March 2008, ‘Alistair, darling, show us the money’, A. Gimson New York Times (US), 23 February 2008, ‘Suburbia’s March to Oblivion’, D. Mitchell,
Search words: scenarios, middle class, anxiety, fear, anger, fashion, slogans
Trend tags: Anxiety, fear
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Climate Change Not a Load of Hot Air

A regular readers will know, I am something of an environmental sceptic. This does not necessarily mean that I think that climate change or global warming is the new Y2K but it does mean that I am unconvinced about the irrational panic and apocalyptic reaction or indeed the rather tokenistic, simplistic and opportunistic solutions that are being put forward. But things might be changing. A year ago anyone arguing that ‘it isn’t our fault’ would be virtually lynched. 52 weeks on and a stance of eco-cynicism or eco-exhaustion (see my 2008+ predictions) is looking decidedly ‘on trend’. NASA’s Roy Spencer, Bjorn Lomborg and other public figures are openly questioning conventional wisdom. In late April of this year (2008)’s top three books about the environment were all sceptical about climate change. So what’s changed? As of 2007, global temperatures started to fall and it is now the exact opposite – global cooling – that is starting to look like a real possibility. And while nations can probably cope with a slight temperature increase, a temperature decrease of minus 12 degrees C could bury many parts of the world under 1.5 metres of ice. Furthermore, this could happen in as little as 20 years time.To put this all into perspective, this scenario is unlikely but it is a possibility. It has happened before (the years 1100-1850 for example) and some would say that we are well overdue another ice age. Temperatures actually fell by 0.7 C in 2007 across the world and this roughly takes us back to where we all were in the year 1930. Countries such as Australia will largely be immune to this cooling but the movement of millions, if not billions, of people to ‘safe havens’ like Australia may mean that even if the ice doesn’t get you something else will. Indeed, in an ironic reversal, it is possible (but still unlikely) that we will soon be destroying snowfields and glaciers in an attempt to reduce reflectance rather than trying to increase it. This is all conjecture, of course, but it is rather ironic that politicians who have been jumping onto the global warming bandwagon may soon have to do a U-turn in Main Street in full view of their rather quizzical voters. It is still too early to jump to any hard conclusions so as J. M. Keynes would say, ‘When the facts change I’ll change my mind’.
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 26-27 April 2008, ‘A cool idea to warm to’,
C. Pearson. See also the Bjorn Lomborg
Search words: Climate change, global warming, environment, temperature, cooling
Trend tags: Climate change
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All The Lost Souls

Lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride. They were the seven deadly sins. But things have changed. After all, the notion of hell and eternal damnation is rather final isn’t it? Moreover, in our new touchy-feely, nothing is ever my fault, world surely we should be allowed a little bit of latitude. Moral entrepreneurs in the Catholic Church have decided that the seven deadly sins shouldn’t be quite so deadly after all. Moreover, there are a number of equally bad things that should be placed in the list, among them are new sins of genetic manipulation, excessive wealth, drug trafficking, the infliction of poverty on others and violation of human rights. Bless. This is public relations at its worst and the shrinking (or is that expanding?) list of mortal sins says more about the declining moral relationship between the church and society than it does about human degradation. I mean, gimme a break. The aim of religion – any religion – is surely to give guidance about how to live a good life not to respond to focus group findings in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. For example, the old sin of lust has now been ‘re-branded' as sex addiction (not my fault) while gluttony is re-positioned as an eating disorder, presumably so as not to offend any overweight church goers. Equally, envy and avarice are now the inevitable outcomes of a modern consumer society (its not our fault again). Likewise, shopping addiction, virtual reality addiction and compulsive gambling addiction all are now simply the result of the way we now live. Even sloth is apparently not our fault. Sloth is simply a reaction to our over-worked, constantly-connected hyper-mobile society. It is a natural by-product of busyness. And guess what, pride (an original sin) is now cast as a prime virtue. Sin has been vanishing for a while and so, some might say, has conscience. Just look at the list of greedy, treacherous, egotistical, selfish celebrities, politicians and business people that have ‘made a mistake’. You apologise in front of your maker (the media) and all is now forgiven. Why? Because they are all victims and cannot possibly be made responsible for their actions. And that is surely an original sin if ever there was one.
Ref: Spiked (UK), 12 March 2008, ‘The Seven Deadly Personality Disorders',
F. Furedi.
See also The Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 21-23 March 2008, ‘Off the sin wagon’, B. Zwartz.
Search words: Sin, sins, church, fault, religion
Trend tags: Individualism
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It’s Not the End of the World

Doomsday scenarios are fashionable at the moment. We’ve got nuclear terrorism, rogue asteroids and pestilence. And of course, global warming, which is especially hot at the moment. According to James Lovelock (he of the Gaia theory) 80% of the human race will be wiped out by the year 2100. Apocalyptic visions and end of the world fever are nothing new. In 1826 Mary Shelly (of Frankenstein fame) wrote a novel called The Last Man about, you guessed it, the last man on earth. The recent film I am Legend is a sequel to this and so too are a whole host of other last man standing stories. The list includes Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a Nine Inch Nail concept album called Year Zero, the TV show Jericho, the movie 28 Days Later and even a Disney film called Wall*E about the last robot on earth. There’s also the Book of Revelations. So what’s with all the long faces all of a sudden? The sense of impending doom is especially strange because on many levels, apart from the environment, the world is in better shape than it has been for ages. Serious poverty has fallen, life expectancy rates are up, literacy levels are improving and, believe it or not, there are actually less wars happening now than in recent memory. But still we worry. Why? The answer is probably something to do with the level and speed of change and especially the feeling that we’ve messed things up and now we’re going to pay for it. Thus these stories are cathartic. Apocalypse means initial destruction, but once mankind is out of the way things can return to ‘normal’ and this can be quite beautiful. It could also be something to do with a fantasy of cleansing and regeneration – a chance to start over. And look on the really bright side, if it does happen, at least you wouldn’t have to worry about the mortgage.
Ref: Time (US), 28 January 2008, ‘Apocalypse Now’, L. Grossman.
See also Intelligent Life (The Economist), Spring 2008, ‘Teotwawki (The End Of The World As We know It)’. A. Miller., Guardian Weekly (UK), 28 March 2008, ‘Cheerful in the face of Armageddon’, D. Aitkenhead., The Economist (UK), 26 January 2008, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
Search words: Anxiety, apocalypse, doomsday, fear
Trend tags: Anxiety
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A Balance of Financial Terror

China is currently sitting on US$1.4 trillion of cash that has been accumulated over the past 25 years. This figure increases by around US$1 billion every day and represents the largest foreign currency reserves in the world. Where this money has come from is pretty obvious but perhaps what they’re been doing with it isn’t. Essentially China has been buying American debt (T-bonds), which has the effect of artificially supporting American living standards while simultaneously keeping down standards of living in China. Put bluntly, China can theoretically hold the US to ransom or destroy the American dollar simply be selling this debt or deciding not to buy more of it. Would the Chinese ever do this? In theory, no. The Chinese need stability, particularly with regard to the US dollar, but a misunderstanding over Taiwan, Tibet or North Korea, for instance, could trigger a whole host of trouble.To put all this into context, China’s savings rate (the net share of output exported, or saved for future use) is an extraordinary 50%. In contrast, India’s is 25% and America’s floats around zero. So why is China doing this? A key point is that these savings are not voluntary but enforced – to keep Chinese exports cheap and keep Chinese factories busy – which, in turn, keeps the Chinese economy growing in a measured manner and prevents the risk of runaway inflation (there is an interesting sidebar here – China is in a race to get rich quick before its gigantic population gets old). Some Chinese are wise to this situation and have made the connection between exporting cash and certain internal social needs that the Chinese government has not addressed. Could US/Chinese relations stand a very large financial shock? Nobody knows but it would seem prudent to prepare for such a scenario.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), January/February 2008, ‘The $1.4 Trillion Question’,
J. Fallows.
Search words: China, US, scenarios, debt, connectivity
Trend tags: Connectivity, debt, CHIME, BRIC
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The Rise of the Chinese Intellectual

In Britain there are a few dozen think tanks employing possibly several hundred people. In Europe the number of people actively involved in think tanks might be a few thousand while in the US this figure is probably somewhere in the region of 10,000. In Beijing, a single think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) employs a staggering 4,000 researchers. In other words, there is a hidden world inside China consisting of intellectuals and social activists, few of which anyone outside of China can name, that could reshape not only China but the rest of the world too. To some extent this intellectual class exists in China precisely because there is no open debate elsewhere. Politicians in China do not publicly disagree with each other, so these think tanks have become a surrogate for Western style political debate. Interestingly, while the written word is heavily policed, private verbal debate isn’t. Having said this educational and intellectual life is very different than in the West. The education system is heavily based on rote learning and intellectuals focus on practical ideas that will improve national life. Hence debates about low-cost healthcare, green development and property rights are common. However, the key difference between Western intellectuals and their Chinese counterparts is the fact that Chinese intellectuals do not suggest that political reform is necessary and neither do they question the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. There are even a few intellectuals who question the need for, or utility of, elections.Across other parts of the world, electoral turnouts are falling, trust in politicians is evaporating, party membership is declining and both populism and nationalism are on the rise. Multi-party elections are still an essential element of Western democracy but we are beginning to see Western political leaders bypassing elections to connect with people in other ways. China is similar. Here leaders are using expert consultation and public discussion to shape policy in a way that is a nod in the direction of the original Athenian ideal. So could China actually be ahead of the rest of the world here? Maybe what we are seeing in China is the development of a model that will eventually be adopted elsewhere. Perhaps multi-party elections are unnecessary and people are happy to give legitimacy to authoritarian regimes just so long as economic growth and living standards are maintained.
Ref: Prospect (UK), March 2008, ‘China’s new intelligentsia’, M. Leonard.
Search words: China, debate, intellectuals
Trend tags: Power shift eastwards
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2008 Trends

Here’s a snack-like review of new trends for 2008:
1). Snack Culture: Products, services and experiences that cater to the superficial needs and instant gratification of people that don’t sit still or think.
2). Eco-Ironic: Products and, to some extent, services and experiences that respond to our need for an environmentally-sustainable lifestyle. This started as eco-chic (things that looked good and did good too) but is now embracing things that look bad but do good (aka ugly is the new beautiful).
3). Privacy: Digital intrusion is becoming a big issue.
4). Free: There is now such a thing as a free lunch
(See ‘Something for Nothing' in 2008+ Ten Trends: Predictions and Procations -
5). Lightening up: Leave the laptop behind and rely on other mobile devices instead.
6). More science in management: More measurement, data mining and ROI.
7). Crowd mining: Co-creation, co-consumption and crowd-sourcing.
8). Customers not competitors: Customers as the new focus for corporate strategy.
9). Global outsourcing: Tap into the best talent regardless of location.
Other trends (and buzzwords) in no particular order include: Status Sphere, Premiumization, Online Oxygen, Brand Butlers, Make it Yourself, Innovation Consolidation, B-Schools go D-school, Creative Growth, One Laptop Boomerangs, and Unfriendship (gated friendship communities).
Ref: Experiencematters (US), 8 January 2008, ‘Trend Watch 2008 Wrap-Up’.
See also The Economist (UK), ‘The World in 2008’, McKinsey Quarterly (US), ‘Eight Trends to Watch in 2008’. Advertising Age (US), ‘Trends to Watch in 2008’, Business Week (US), ‘Innovation predictions 2008’ and, ‘8 Important Trends for 2008’.
Search words: trends 2008
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