Society & culture

Thinking About Thinking

One argument about artificial intelligence that is rarely heard is the idea that instead of machines becoming smarter perhaps what will happen is that people will become more stupid, thereby making machines more intelligent by default. Some people are wondering whether this isn’t happening already. For example, have you noticed how attention spans are shortening? Perhaps you are starting to scan articles that you would have once read in their entirety. Or maybe you get fidgety and look for something else to do after reading a few chapters of a book. Indeed, if this weren’t short and written in the tight style of advertising copy would you still be reading it?Something certainly seems to be happening to how we read (and thus, one assumes, how we think), but what is it and why is it happening?The ‘what’ is uncertain but the ‘why’ seems fairly clear.

The Internet (and search engines in particular) is encouraging us to consume information and knowledge in short, snacked-sized bites. Our constant partial attention means that we skip or bounce from one source or site to another. Convenience, speed and immediacy are everything and the end result is that we are in danger of losing the ability to concentrate, contemplate or reflect. Thus we are shifting from an age where information is power to one where retaining someone’s attention is. Information overload, together with a culture of instant digital gratification, is also making us intellectually impotent. Our attention is being scattered far and wide and deep thought, analysis and memory are being diffused.

This is not necessarily a problem. It used to be thought that the adult mind was fixed but recent research suggests quite the opposite. The brain is ‘plastic’ and responds to external stimulus even when it’s fully grown. In other words, the brain reprograms itself according to external stimuli and experience. Thus, while the brain is nothing like a computer it could be that computers are now making it so. We are re-programming the human mind to behave like a machine. This idea is not new.Similar arguments were made when Guttenberg invented the printing press and anxiety has always surrounded how technology affects human thought all the way back to Socrates. Moreover, research that would once have taken days now takes minutes and we have access to information from around the world in an instant. We can also forget trivial information because this can be accessed again in seconds. Nevertheless, the nagging doubt remains that while machines are becoming more emotionally aware and intelligent we are slowly turning into machines, devoid of memory, emotion or empathy.
Ref: The Atlantic (US) July/August 2008, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
N. Carr.
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Search words: Google, search, intelligence, stupidity, machines, thinking
Trend tags: Intelligence, search

Why is Anger All the Rage?

Why is everyone so angry all of a sudden? Why is grim survivalism the current zeitgeist? To quote a leader in the Financial Times, it might be that “The ‘nice’ decade – for non-inflationary continuous expansion – may be behind us”. In other words we are entering a nasty period where economic anxiety is becoming a catalyst for all kinds of attitudinal and behavioural shifts. For example, the real issue might not be peoples’ anger per se but the increasing number of people and events that provoke this anger. This can range from traffic jams and bad customer service to falling house prices, increasing food and energy costs and the economic rise of China. If the economy really turns sour people in places like London and New York will therefore soon be screaming for protection from the likes of Dubai and Moscow. In other words, economic issues will bring nationalist attitudes to the fore much in the same way that racism and patriotism grew in the wake of the 1930s depression. You can see this anger already in the form of ‘Wrath Lit’ on the shelves of your local bookstore. But is the world really getting more angry or is it simply that the likes of camera phones and YouTube are making more of us aware of incidences of anger?

Put slightly differently, the way to create an epidemic of something like anger is simply to use the word in politics or the media. Another explanation for the rage trend is that in many societies anger is a badge of honour. It is seen as a virtue. It is the individual being true to themselves and expressing their feelings. Well bottle it up buddy because you are making the rest of us anxious.

In closing it is probably worth mentioning Elizabeth Kuber-Ross’s five point model of how people deal with death. Stage 1 is disbelief, stage 2 is yearning, stage 3 is anger, stage 4 is depression and stage 5 is acceptance. Is it possible that societally (in the West) we are looking at what we think is an abyss (i.e. economic recession, global warming, the rise of China and so on) and are reacting in exactly the same way as if we were facing terminal illness or the death of a loved one. We are currently in the collective anger stage, falling into depression. But soon we will adjust and accept whatever the new normality is.
Ref: Various including: The Financial Times (UK) 19-20 July 2008, ‘Live life with a flourish’ H. Eyres., UTNE Daily (US) November-December 2007, ‘All the rage’, A. Santella. , New York Times (US) 20 November, 2007, ‘Denial makes the world go round’, B. Carey. , South China Morning Post (China) 30 July 2007, ‘Distrust dominates in this inquisitional age’, J. Hoagland. See also Williams Inference on Anger (Thanks John).
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Search words: Anger, rage, mood
Trend tags: Anxiety

Drowning in Shallow Waters

In his 1955 book entitled The Sane Society, the author Erich Fromm predicted that man would move from being a robotic, all-consuming creature that was “well-fed, well-entertained…passive, unalive and lacking in feeling” towards“humanistic communitarianism”. Similarly, Maslow foresaw a world where humans naturally switched their attention towards intellectual, spiritual and existential questions and pursuits once lower level needs such as food and security had been achieved. Intellectual activity and spiritualism are flourishing in some parts of the globe these days but triviality, superficiality, vanity, passivity and indifference are generally stronger drivers of behaviour. So has Maslow’s Pyramid of needs collapsed or is it just that the sandstorm of materialism has temporarily obscured the view of various looming emergencies?

Part of the problem is that we have somehow conspired to allow politicians and others to turn us into the consumers of various products and services. Hence keeping the customer satisfied is the name of the game and denial and confusion are the chosen weapons of mass distraction. Scepticism and enquiry are thus brushed off to the edges of society allowing the mass of humanity to wallow in shallow waters. Some writers saw this coming a long time ago. In a 1957 essay called A Theory of Mass Culture, Dwight MacDonald argued that a “trivial culture that voids both the deep realities and also the simple spontaneous pleasures” would take hold whereby anything of substance would be repackaged to be either non-threatening, entertaining or ideally both.So is it all doom and gloom? I think not.It could be that what appear to be looming emergencies will turn out to be less of a problem than we think. Or perhaps we are naturally lazy and we are leaving our historical inventiveness to the very last moment. Perhaps the last word should be given to Carl Rogers who, in 1961, wrote, “when I look at the world I am a pessimist but when I look at people I am optimistic”. I couldn’t agree more.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 19-20 July 2008, ‘Triumph of triviality’, J. Schumaker.
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Search words: materialism, triviality, culture
Trend tags: meaning

In Cyberspace Everyone Can Hear You Scream

You’ve probably about Heather Mills, the ex Mrs Paul McCartney. But the real story in the Heather Mills case isn't about her allegedly sordid past, it's about the future of digital gossip and, in particular, how different generations view privacy. No form of digital communication or exchange is safe these days. In other words, privacy in our digital and hyper-connected age is dead. Generation Y knows this and doesn't seem to care. Generation X is either blissfully unaware or horrified. The problem, of course, is that in Cyberspace nothing dies, so if you upload something there is no guarantee that you will ever be able to get it back. It could be cut and pasted and appear on countless other websites and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Equally, while you might deactivate an account on a social networking site, there is no guarantee that personal information will be removed from the website's servers. So if, as a 19-year-old, you appear in a rather explicit amateur video it could stay up forever for prospective marriage partners or future employers to see. So far, legal cases concerning privacy online are almost unheard of but it's surely only a matter of time.

It's a tangled world wide web we are weaving. Maybe this bothers you. Maybe it doesn't. Your attitude towards privacy will probably depend on how old you are. If you are aged 40-plus you probably cringe at the thought of allowing the world to peer past your net curtains and into your life.But if you're younger you quite possibly can't see what the problem is. At its worst the Internet is mob justice on steroids. And don’t expect the law to help either. For example, in the US section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act specifically states that Internet Service Providers are blameless when it comes to spreading untruth or invading personal privacy. Contrast this with how liable they are for breaches of copyright. The Internet has removed many of the factors that limit our behavior offline so presumably as the internet and virtual life become more pervasive societal norms will shift.

This could in turn give rise to the emergence of technology refuseniks. In most cases these will be older people "unplugging" as a way of dealing with privacy concerns or information overload but many younger people will also move "off network" because the social pressure to be always online or collect digital friends will create a kind of Facebook fatigue or malaise. Similarly, people will use multiple online personas to protect their identity and reputation online. The good news is that all this digital connectivity should make individuals and institutions more transparent and honest but it will also mean much less privacy.
Ref: The Financial Times (UK) 13 June 2008, 'Cyberspace gossip is forever’, C. Caldwell. Also The Herald Sun (Aus) 30 March 2008, ‘Only Privacy Dies in Cyberspace’ R. Watson.
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Search words: Privacy, social networks, celebrity
Trend tags: Digitalisation, connectivity

Is Second Life Affecting Behaviour in Real Life?

Over at Stamford University there is a wonderful thing called the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL) run by Assistant Professor Jeremy Bailenson that studies how self-perception affects human behaviour. Specifically the lab studies how online activities influence real life. One of the lab’s key findings is that some of the key principles that apply in real life work in virtual worlds too and there is a significant ‘bleed’ between virtual experiences and real life attitudes and behaviour. For example, if you become increasingly confident in a virtual world this confidence spills over into the real world and vice versa. Does this matter? Almost certainly. 13 million people have visited Second Life and there are generally just short of 450,000 resident online in a typical week. Even bigger is World of Warcraft, which attracts 10 million active ‘users’, many of whom spend at least 20 hours each week inside the virtual world. Moreover, as these worlds become ever more lifelike through the addition of further sensory capabilities these virtual experiences will be experienced by more people and will thus become more influential.
Ref: Time (US) 12 May 2008, ‘How Second Life Affects Real Life’, K. Dell.
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Search words: Second life, cyberspace,real life
Trend tags: Virtualisation

The Future of Oil

In 1973 an oil crisis almost brought the western world to its knees. The problem was a supply issue caused by an OPEC embargo and the result was a 400% increase in the price of oil. This time around the price has gone up by 400% again (from under $30 a barrel in 2001 to over $130 in 2008) but this time it’s been caused by rising demand from countries like China. But why exactly is oil so expensive and what’s going to happen next? The cost of oil has certainly led politicians and the media in search of scapegoats. These range from speculators to profiteering oil companies, both of which are demonstrably untrue. Moreover, the claim that oil is costly because it has almost run out (the extreme peak oil scenario) is also rather far fetched. The problem currently isn’t a lack of oil; it’s a lack of refining and transport capacity. So will the price of oil go down in the future? In the short term the answer is possibly down, but longer term the price will keep rising until energy efficiency measures take hold in the West or demand is cut back in the East. Actually oil consumption has already started to fall in rich nations (it’s fallen for two years in a row and in ‘07 the growth in consumption was around 25% of what it was in ‘04).

Of course there are renewables but wave and wind power are never going power the global economy in my opinion. Solar technologies are looking good, especially if you add a shot of nanotechnology, and biofuels could be interesting too. However, these technologies are all years away in any meaningful sense so in the meantime oil, coal and nuclear will be what will power the future over the next twenty of thirty years. Ironically, of course, the rising price of oil will eventually reduce demand, which has happened before albeit in a slightly different way. In the 1700s Britain suffered from "peak wood". Land was being deforested for agriculture, and a growing urban population was putting pressure on the fuel supply. 

One can imagine that the doom merchants of the day thought they were in terrible trouble. It was a wood-based economy, after all. But the rising price of wood eventually led to the emergence of new fuels and the doom merchants were soon replaced with coal merchants. 

It's also worth remembering that in the first half of the 19th century, people used sperm whale oil for lighting, and in 1820 it cost $200 a barrel in today's money, so we have been here before.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 31 May 2008, 'Double, double, oil and trouble’, ‘Recoil’, ‘Pistol pointed at the heart’ and ‘Crude Measures’.
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Search words: Oil, energy, peak oil, 1973
Trend tags: Resource shortages, sustainability

Tween Trends

What do children want? The answer is what everyone else wants – to be loved, to be acknowledged, and, up to a point, to belong. In the case of Tweens (kids that are almost but not quite Teens) the list also includes being rich and to be famous.
One survey, by KidshopBiz(a US youth marketing firm) found that 45% of Tweens wanted to be famous, while a British survey found that 80% of 12-year-olds wanted to be rich. Even with kids that don’t want to be rich and famous there seems to be a fascination with people that are. Part of the reason for this could be the fact that the media is obsessed with these themes but it’s also probably because in an age of web 2.0 it is much easier than it used to be to become well known. Age is also less of a barrier to business success than it used to be (look at the founders of YouTube, Google et al). However, whilst the current generation of kids has more choice and material possessions than ever before their amount of experience is probably narrowing. They are organised and scheduled. Paranoid, success driven parents rarely let them out of their sight for more than a few seconds.

Parents are also around less than they used to be and this means that kids are less socialised than before. According to Professor Richard Layard at the London School of Economics “Young people live in a world with very little meaningful contact with adults” The result is a generation of anxious and remarkably unhappy kids that worry about what they look like and whether or not they’ll fail whatever that means. Moreover, underneath the superficial sophistication and worldliness lies an inner unease and insecurity, which is possibly why substance abuse, violence and self-harm are increasing. Then there is the issue of technology and in particular the affects of being constantly connected to peers and never being allowed to just quietly be themselves. Our current culture is fundamentally driven by technology and this means that everything needs to be fast and new. Technology is thus a means to an end but what we have forgotten to ask ourselves is what is the end that we are rushing towards? The danger here is that we are creating kids that are physically healthy but mentally undernourished. We are cramming their brains with the things we think they’ll need to succeed but we are not feeding their spirits or their souls.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 28 June 2008, ‘The Trouble with Tweens’, M. Hamilton.
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Search words: Gen Z
Trend tags: kids, teens, tweens

The Prosperity Paradox

Have you noticed how ‘Bling’ is booming in developing countries such as Russia and China whilst at the same time ideas such as frugality and sustainability are taking hold in other parts of the world? Well the reason is that consumption patterns change significantly as economic prosperity develops. A few years ago two economists called Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erik Hurst at the University of Chicago found that, all other things being equal, African Americans tended to spend more of their income on cars, clothes and jewellery. Now a new study has put a figure against this. Typically, an African American family will spend 25% more on cars, jewellery, clothing and personal care compared to a white counterpart, with the difference being made up by less expenditure on education, This isn’t just a lazy racial stereotyping either. Looking at countries similar patterns emerge with lower income groups spending lavishly on luxury goods. So what’s the explanation? According to the economists what’s going on is that poorer people spend on luxury goods to prove to others in their immediate peer group that they are not poor. Hence what a gold Rolex says is not “I’m rich” but rather “I came from a poor background and did well”. As individuals (and nations) get richer this spending shifts from ostentatious products to more discrete services and experiences. A shift also occurs towards spending on goods that are externally directed (cars and clothes for instance) to goods that are less visible to the outside world. In other words countries, like people, want to show off how wealthy they are but eventually this need wears off. This finding obviously has significant implications for luxury goods companies although one suspects that they know this already. As for what’s next, expect time and space to become the ultimate luxuries along with goods and services that are only available to a limited number of people that fulfil certain non-financial criteria.
Ref: The Atlantic (US) July/August 2008, ‘Inconspicuous consumption’, V. Postrel.
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Link: Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks and the Middle-Class Millionaire by Russ Alan Prince and Lewis Schiff.
Search words: Bling, luxury, status
Trend tags: Premiumisation

They Know Where You Are

Not many people realise it yet but we are on the cusp of a major boom in location-based services. Gartner, the technology research firm, claims that this market (which currently includes navigation and search devices) will grow from $485 million in 2007 to $8 billion in 2011. So what exactly are location based services?The point here is that GPS equipped devices such as mobile phones, car navigation devices and digital payments (the use of pre-paid cards, credit cards or contact less payments for example) are generating large volumes of information about where people are and, in some instances, what they are doing and this can be used to predict consumer behaviour and demand. An example of where this is going was a paper recently published in the scientific journal Nature that analysed data from 100,000 cellphone users in a European country. What the researchers found was that people generally follow set routines and this means that predicting where they’ll be at any given time is fairly easy. The problem, of course, is what to do with the mountains of information that these devices are producing. One firm that has an answer is a software company called Sense Networks in New York that uses complex algorhythums to make predictions or recommendations on various topics or questions. For example, billions of data points from a single city can enable supermarkets to locate stores in precisely the right place or allow traffic signals to be adjusted.Does this affect privacy? Yes, although most of the companies involved insist that it is anonymous aggregated data that interests them, not the precise tooings and froings of specific individuals. Moreover, in the future it’s not impossible that the individuals that generate this data could be compensated for the use of it, either directly with monetary payments or via the exchange of services for data.
Ref: New York Times (US) 22 June 2008, ‘Predicting where you’ll go and what you’ll like’, M. Fitzgerald.
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Links: Reality Mining (see What’s Next, 2008+ Trends report).
Search words: Location awareness, mobile phones, privacy
Trend tags: GPS, localisation

A New Form of Neglect

Poverty and neglect are usually thought of terms of limited access to certain products and services or else they are linked to income, education or healthcare. Moreover, neglect is generally thought of as a situation that affects lower income groups. However, a new form of neglect is emerging in developed countries such as Britain and the issue is tending to be a middle class problem. In short, parents aren’t interacting with their children as much as they used to and the result is a mixture of quasi-feral kids and mental harm. Why is this happening? The answer is a blend of economics (parents can’t afford to be at home as much as they used to) and philosophy (parents have become selfish pleasure seekers that put their own needs ahead of everyone else). The result is that parents are outsourcing their own children to various bought in services ranging from after school clubs to nannies imported from the former Eastern block. These kids may be safe but contact with parents is severely restricted and they aren’t doing much of practical use either. Add to this free childcare in the form of television and computers and the end result is a generation of guilt-ridden parents mixing with a generation of kids with a range of social problems that we won’t know much about until they grow up.Linked to this story is another about poverty in cities like London and in particular how cities are polarising between the very rich and the very poor. In London 50% of all children are still classed as living in poverty. This is a figure that has not changed since 2000. Meanwhile the superrich have moved in and the middle class are being squeezed out to the suburbs.
Ref: The Spectator (UK) 14 June 2008, ‘Even middle-class children are suffering from neglect’, R. Johnson.
See also Newsweek (US) 12 May 2008, ‘The Victim of Success’, W. Underhill.
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Search words: Outsourcing, kids, children, neglect
Trend tags: Polarisation

The Future of Suburbia

Cities have experienced a new lease of life recently with legions of new apartments being built. There are also claims that city living is ‘greener’ than living on the outskirts and this attitude is fuelling a race to the centre. Or that’s what people think. Despite what you might read, the growth of cities has not been at the expense of suburbia. For example, the city of Chicago added 50,000 new residents between 1990 and 2006, halting years of net outflow, but the outer suburbs of the same city grew by over one million over the same period. Indeed, by 2000 American suburbs contained more people than all US cities and the countryside added together. What is changing is who is moving to suburbia and why. US suburbans are now more racially and demographically diverse than at any time in history and are often more diverse than their metropolitan counterparts.

Ethic diversity has increased and whilst suburbs remain child orientated they are home to increasing numbers of older people. Furthermore, immigrants now frequently skip the urban ghetto stage and move directly to city suburbs whilst the cities themselves are becoming less not more ethnically diverse. Even gay couples are moving to the suburbs due to greater levels of tolerance and acceptance. However, the most important reason for the growth of suburban populations is economic – that’s where the jobs are increasing to be found. For instance, a report soon to be released by the Brookings Institution says that 45% of the jobs in America's largest urban areas are located more than ten miles from the city centres. In other words, an increasing number of Americans want to live and work in areas that look and feel like cities but are not. Nevertheless there are problems ahead.

First, many American suburbs grew physically on the back of cheap money and relaxed lending standards both of which have now come to and end, at least temporarily. Hence foreclosures are rising and house prices are dropping rapidly in the suburbs although the same can to some extent be said about inner city apartments. Something else that’s a problem is traffic, those rivers of anger than frustrate so many a suburbanite, and crime, which is also moving to the suburbs.However, perhaps the biggest problem is neither economic or security related. The ageing of suburbia means that older people are putting an increased strain of local services (especially health) and older people are fighting against tax increases to fund, amongst other things, schools, which they aren’t interested in. Does this mean that suburbs will soon be hotbeds of discontent? Unlikely. One thing that isn’t changing is the essential tameness of suburbia.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 31 May 2008, ‘An age of transformation’,
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See also The Economist (UK) 21 June 2008, ‘The Big Sort’.
Search words: Suburbia, cities, housing, population
Trend tags: Urbanisation

Big Ideas for 2008 and Beyond

It’s getting a bit late in the day to talk about big ideas for 2008 but a list of eleven and a half big ideas in a recent issue of the Atlantic magazine is worth pondering. Putting aside a few ideas such as Post-Partisanship, We Tortured, It’s Lonely at the Top, The Surge and the End of 9/11, which are probably a little US-Centric for non-American readers, the list, in no particular order, is; Mass-Market Atheism (i.e. the vogue for atheistic texts), the Return of Regulation (a response to mortgage-backed securities), Personal Geonomics (i.e. personalized and predictive medicine), Carbon Consciousness, Not Bombing Iran (the threat remains but our perception has changed), MySpace Politics and Renting (i.e. not buying). By the way the half refers to it being lonely at the top, which is a reference to the likes of American’s such as Eliot Spitzer.
Ref: The Atlantic (US) July/August 2008, ‘The 11 1/2 Biggest Ideas of the Year. (various writers).
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Search words: Trends, ideas, 2008

Are Trends Your Friends?

Should you pay attention to trends? Trends are useful because they give a sense of direction. However, you should always be suspicious. A trend is almost never forever and trends should not be embraced for reasons of popularity alone. Trends are useful but there is a tendency in planning circles to forget about cycles and to confuse something that’s familiar with something that’s certain. Organizations are also self-referential, which means that internal strengths may be overplayed and external events or competitors are underestimated. Moreover, there is a strong bias in organizations towards expecting that what has happened in the past will continue into the future. Trends are not ‘facts’ anymore than statistics are cosmic truth. Both trends and statistics can be manipulated by people with particular agendas or an interest in a specific future. Moreover, whilst trends can be useful in terms of brand maintenance or strategic evolution the future really belongs to those individuals and organizations that are able to loose sight of the shoreline and set sail into unchartered territory.Most organizations are so busy analysing trends that they forget that they can create or invent their own.
Ref: Various including American Thinker (US) 30 June 2008 ‘Lies, statistics and trends’, J. Gammon See also Salon (US) 29 June 2008, ‘I like to watch’, H. Havrilesky
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Search words: Trends