Society & culture

Slowing down

Every so often a trend stands out so much, makes so much sense or is written about so often that you can't ignore it. Going slow is such a trend. Like many trends the idea has been around for a long time. Downshifting has been around for a while but, it took a word (slow) and the publication of a book (In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré) to turn anecdotal evidence into a coherent argument and idea. Other books like Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende plug into similar ideas and there are plenty of other examples too - like the popularity of Yoga and the growth of the Slow Food Movement. What's fuelling this movement ? In short technology and convergence. The Internet, email and mobile telephony are speeding life up. Linked to globalisation they're also making us work harder and longer and transferring work values into every aspect of society. The result - a series of counter trends. If people are stressed out and anxious the past starts to look like a nice place to live. Hence the boom in nostalgia. If things are speeding up, slowing down starts to appeal. Hence the boom in everything from nature tourism to the trend for rustic simplicity in interior design. In France there's even a trend for going to sleep (see The Art of Doing Nothing by Catherine Laroze and On Sleep and Other Pleasures by Jacqueline Kellen).One of the most interesting aspects of the speeding up trend has been the claustrophobia caused by 24/7 availability. This removes the traditional work life divide and leads to early burnout. There are obviously some problems with this book, like how does one define a 'movement' and when (and how) does a movement turn into a revolution. These questions are not really answered but the core ideas are solid: Life is not a race and good thinking requires periods of slowness and doing nothing.

Ref: Various including Japan Times (JP), The Economist (UK), The Australian (AUS), Washington Post (US), AFR Boss (AUS). In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré See also The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind


I haven't tried it because I know I won't like it

Personalisation and location sensitive technology are significant trends and they may be breeding homogenisation, risk aversion and loneliness. Part of the reason for this is the illusion of choice offered by devices such as TiVo and the iPod. Lack of time means that people are now drawn to products that allow users to fine tune choices. People are less willing to make mistakes so they are excluding anything that does not fit with pre-conceived notions of 'rightness'. This generally means the endless re-cycling of safe bets and the rejection of anything random or new. Tiny worlds dominate peoples lives and the big picture is filtered out along with serendipity and cross-fertilisation. In other words, personalisation is creating conservatism and ultimately social isolation as individuals choose only to interact with other people like themselves or reject community altogether. It is also developing a culture in which general knowledge is on the decline and a society that knows more and more about less and less.

Ref: Cox News Service (US) 23 May 2004.

The 1990s are back (already)

We're written about nostalgia before and no doubt we'll be writing about it again (although of course it won't be as good as the first time we wrote about it). Believe it or not, the decade that only ended 5 years ago is back. Clubs and fashion labels are recycling the nineties to a generation of twenty and thirty something who are keen to recapture their lost youth ≠ which in some cases only ended a few years ago. Some commentators have even linked to rise of Hillsong (an evangelical church attended by young people) to the boom in nostalgia. So what's going on? As with previous generations, the trend is fuelled by fear, anxiety and insecurity. If there's not much to look forward to people tend to retreat into eras that denote simplicity, certainty and warmth. Terrorism plays a part in this but so too does the paucity of new ideas in politics, disenchantment with corporate life and the lack of moral values and community. To some extent this is cyclical. The past is always present when people are confronted with periods of rapid change and the future is uncertain. As for the popularity of nineties music this could be a reaction against the rise of manufactured pop acts (i.e. Pop Idol).

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (AUS) 12 October 2004.

A gender gap that's closing

The rapid rise of men's lifestyle magazines, together with the growth in male grooming products, has created a problem previously associated with women. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a condition where men feel unhappy with their body shape and appearance. This in turn can trigger a number of eating disorders such as anorexia. Evidence is sketchy and largely anecdotal but the condition does have certain parallels with female anorexia twenty years ago. The onslaught of 'perfect' media images of men together with a plethora of products and services catering to every narcissistic whim certainly makes some men feel insecure. The latest includes male only spas (70% of customers are heterosexual) and various surgical 'enhancement' procedures. Nevertheless, whilst the problem almost certainly exists, the amount of media attention given to the subject could be more to do with a willingness by men to talk about the problem, rather than a large incidence of cases.

Ref: The Times (UK), 19 June 2004.

Automatic child finders and minders

The board bug is a baby monitor that looks like a watch. One 'watch' is worn by a parent and the other by the child. You can set one of three safety distances and if the child wonders off too far an alarm sounds. There's even a 'find me' function to locate your loved one. Legoland in Denmark has introduced a service based on this technology called Kidspotter. For US $5.00 parents can rent a bracelet that's worn by the child and helps parents find them when he or she gets lost. Meanwhile, the 'Wherify watch' has gone on sale in the UK that allows parents to track older off-spring 24/7. The device uses GPS technology and can work over a distance of several hundred miles. According to a survey by The Future Foundation 75% of parents are in favour of such technology. 41% would also favour video links to school classrooms. Red Herring magazine calls such products evidence of a trend called 'instant digital gratification'.

Future scenarios for ageing populations

One of the biggest issues facing Western countries is the future cost of living - the cost of supporting rapidly ageing populations with pensions, declining fertility rates and rising healthcare costs. However, whilst trends like rising life expectancy and falling fertility rates are real enough, reactions may be unnecessarily alarmist. People are living longer but they are also living more healthily than before. The problem is really the cost of dying and some evidence suggests that this actually falls with age. There is also the possibility that market forces will respond to the ageing opportunity with a plethora of new innovations to keep people healthy for longer or reduce the cost of dying. Technology may also produce economic surpluses to pay for ageing populations around the world.

Ref: Spiked Online (UK) 15 October 2004. Also see The Imaginary Timebomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not A Social Problem by Phil Mullan.

An indifferent generation?

One of the key differences between soldiers and terrorists fighting the war on terror is that the terrorists are willing to die for their cause. In the West dying for one's country (or for an idea) is seen as a slightly old fashioned notion. If conscription was brought back chances are that it would have to fit in with career plans to really work. In the West the great battle of ideas has been fought and won. So why risk your life trying to prove a self-evident truth? This is also a problem in ordinary life. There is a feeling amongst a large section of young people that everything has been done by previous generations. Everything is also available and acceptable with the result that there is no longer any avant garde or anything to rebel against. Hence the focus on material self-gratification and getting on with life in the form of study and careers. However, whilst things might look calm on the surface tensions are building up beneath. The mental health of young people has declined in the UK with conditions like depression and anxiety up by 70% according to the latest research. The survey, Time Trends in Adolescent Metal Health, echoes a report by the World Health Organisation in 2003 which said that teenage mental health was the fastest growing problem in Western societies. So what's the cause? Interestingly the trend cannot be explained by the increase in divorce and single parents. A more likely explanation is societal pressure for qualifications and careers.

Ref: Various including; Spiked Online (UK) 13 September 2004. The Guardian (UK) 13 September 2004. Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health by King's College London and the University of Manchester - reviewed in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (November 2004).