Society & culture

Cultural Incongruities

HL Mencken once said that: ‘No one in the world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people’. This was probably once true but is it still? According to commentators, especially those writing about society or culture, things are in bad shape. Look, they say, at reality television or our celebrity-obsessed tabloid media. Dumbing down is everywhere. But perhaps this is just one part of a bigger picture. Maybe the market for intelligence is actually growing. The evidence is certainly starting to accumulate. For example, a recent Royal Opera House (UK) production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni was sold out to 2,200 readers of Britain’s top selling tabloid, the Sun (Headline: ‘Well Don, my Sun’). This isn’t new. In the 1990s the Three Tenors also found a mass audience for opera but the phenomenon is becoming more common and is affecting the whole culture.

The Hay on Wye Literature Festival (UK), for instance, expects to sell 165,000 tickets to its two-week event this year and the audience will comprise Tesco check-out-clerks as much as redundant investment bankers. Similarly, museum attendance in Britain is going through the roof. In 1999/2000 there were 24 million museum visits in Britain but in 2007/8 this had risen to 40 million visits. (This can be partly attributed to the change to free admission but the not wholly because the trend is also evident with fee-paying museums and exhibitions too.) It’s not just in the UK either. In Paris more people visit the Louvre than the Eiffel Tower and the New York Metropolitan Opera expects an audience of 1.2 million for its innovative program of showing opera in cinemas. Meanwhile the LA Times has suggested that we are living in a golden age for television drama and even sales of ‘difficult’ books are booming, or at least people will buy them if they are given half a chance. Other evidence for this cultural expansion includes the success of public lectures, such as Intelligence Squared in London, New York and Sydney, the Institute of Ideas in London, Classic FM (the UK’s largest non-commercial radio station with a weekly audience of 6 million) and something called The School of Life, in London’s Bloomsbury, which calls itself a ‘one stop shop for the mind’.

So are we less shallow than we thought and if so, what has happened? One reason for the growth of cultural products and events could simply be that economic growth and population increases mean that everything has expanded and there is more of everything. Moreover, much of this culture is consumed passively. Maybe, but there has to be more to it. One plausible explanation is that the Internet has enabled people with similar interests to find each other and also to find out what’s going on. Clearly the casual factors are complex and each of these explanations could be true in part. Perhaps the ‘elite’ itself has grown or perhaps cultural institutions have simply become better at selling their wares using style, simplicity or fun.

The most plausible explanation to my mind is that society getting both smarter and more stupid – but mostly getting smarter. This assertion can be backed up by the findings of some research done by the OECD that says that the number of adults with a university-level education has increased markedly over the past 40 years. 29% of people in the UK aged between 25-34 have what the OECD calls ‘type A tertiary education (essentially, from universities). But for those aged 55-64 this figure is just 16%. In other words, more people are going to university and there is therefore a latent demand for intellectual stimulation.
Other research has also proven that the higher an individual’s level of education the more likely they are to be interested in cultural events and current affairs. But here’s the really good bit. The market for intelligent information and entertainment is heterogeneous. Leisure activities used to be defined by age, class, money and so on but nowadays people flip from high culture to low culture and back again in the blink of an eye. People will read OK Magazine and listen to hip-hop one day and read the Economist and listen to opera the next. What a wonderful world!
Ref: Intelligent Life (UK), Winter 2008, ‘Smart & Smarter’, J. Parker.
See also ‘A flight to quality’ (What’s Next, media section, issue 21)
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Search words: Intelligence, culture, arts
Trend tags: Intelligence

Why the Future is Brighter Than We Think

As the sociologist Frank Furedi says: ‘It is not hope that excites and shapes the cultural imagination in the early twenty-first century; it is fear’. Since the millennium bug we’ve seen dramatic warnings about everything from obesity and eco-doom to global economic collapse and there is a general sense that the world is becoming more uncertain and unsafe. There has certainly been a heightened religious and cultural focus on fear and apocalyptic scenarios, with a disproportionate amount of media attention and public funding being given over to address these fears. Moreover, politicians have becoming adept at using the prism of fear to appeal to our irrational herd instincts. But are people really worried?

A global survey by the World Social Summit (WSS) has found that the vast majority of people (90.2%) admit that they have day-to-day worries (largely individual and local) but only 42.4% claim to have any serious anxieties. Meanwhile, 11.9% claim that are ‘overwhelmed’ by fear whereas 55.3% say that they have a positive attitude towards life and 24.3% say they are optimistic (and yes I know these figures don’t add up to 100%). These survey results are interesting, especially within the context of a recent gathering at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

Here a gaggle of physicists, sociologists, microbiologists and philosophers met to discuss ‘mega-catastrophes’ that could wipe out millions of people or produce the total collapse of civilisation (ie, things to really worry about). The conclusions are fascinating. Basically, we shouldn’t panic because most risks are covered and in the grand scheme of things we’ve never been safer. For instance, bioterrorism is becoming more unlikely because the industry is consolidating and anyone trying to do something stupid or ‘unusual’ will almost certainly trigger alarm.

Equally, the threat of nuclear war is less than it has been for 15 years, due to a reduction of nuclear arsenals. Similarly, the threat of nuclear terrorism has also fallen due to the removal of vulnerable material together with stronger security surrounding smuggling (did you know, for instance, that some cities have alarms that instantly warn the authorities if something sinister passes over a bridge or through a tunnel?)

How about cosmic threats? Well the threat of rogue asteroids is a non-starter. Scientists have mapped all the ‘rogue rocks’ that are out there so we are unlikely to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon. Similarly, the H5N1 strain of influenza virus is out there and an outbreak is possible, not least because of the stacked nature of urban populations and the connectivity afforded by air travel and migration. But worst-case scenario planning covers even this threat.

So are there any threats left? Yes, two. The first is nanotechnology. It is just too early to quantify the threats represented by tinkering with atoms. Equally, artificial intelligence is too far away in any meaningful sense to assess. As for things to look forward to, a by-product of the racial soup created by migration and interbreeding is that the gene pool is getting more diverse and evolution is accelerating faster than would usually happen. Thus it is entirely possible that an individual will arise within the global population that has unprecedented insight or empathy and he or she will use this vision to form a new scientific or political paradigm.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 26 July 2008, ‘Don’t panic, we’ve got it covered’, M. Brooks.
See also Spiked Online (UK), 21 October 2008, ‘How “Black September” will redraw the contours of fear’, F. Furedi.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Risk, threats
Trend tags: Anxiety

Helicopter Parenting

A survey by American Express has found that 39% of eight- to 15-year-old children in the UK are involved with academic activities after school. 12% are involved with at least four additional activities and 30% at least three. Why? The reason is primarily peer pressure. It’s a kind of social or educational arms race where parents, especially parents that are working, fear the guilt of not doing enough or fear the prospect of failure at school and subsequently at work. Parents are losing confidence about just leaving their kids alone. Once upon a time, kids were allowed to just mooch around and get bored. These days they have to be ‘busy’ with activities. Whether any of this does any good is a moot point but at least the parents don’t generally get involved with the activities directly.

Another trend that is becoming more prevalent, especially in the UK, is the helicopter parent. These are parents that will not let their kids do anything by themselves – parents are usually hovering in the background at all times. An example is university entrance. Two or three decades ago, university marked the break from parental interference. Individuals chose where they wanted to study and this was usually as far away from home as possible. These days, parents are increasingly involved with the selection of a university and even attend open days. As to location, it’s generally as close to home as possible.

Part of this could be attributed to financial considerations but a key reason is also the fact that parents want to keep an eye on things (their ‘investment’ perhaps?). This trend isn’t merely evident in education either. Parents are calling employers about job openings for their children. They are also trying to attend job interviews and attempting to negotiate salary and holiday entitlements. This is partly due to technology. For instance, the mobile phone (dubbed the world’s longest umbilical chord by one observer) allows parents to be in constant touch with their offspring. Another explanation is the infantalisation of modern society. Whatever the reason, there is reason to fear that young adults are becoming less able to look after themselves. They are schooled in a very narrow area of intelligence and lack the breadth and common sense that is necessary to really succeed in any chosen field.
Ref: The Times (UK), 22 November 2008, ‘The after-school rush hour’, H. Pozniak.
The Guardian (UK), 10 September 2008, ‘The helicopter parents hovering over their adult children’, K. Hilpern.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Children, kids, parenting
Trend tags: Anxiety

Privacy and Civil Liberties in a Computer Age

One of the most significant and pernicious technology trends to emerge in recent years is data-mining or reality-mining, and while people moan about the intrusive nature of CCTV cameras, this by-product of the computer age has so far gone almost unnoticed. The issue is that people are increasingly choosing to communicate with each other (and with organisations) through digital interfaces and these interfaces leave a digital trace. This is very significant because people can look closely at things that were previously unobservable. For example, the UK government has plans to centralise the records of the National Health Service and to allow social services to monitor every single child in Britain. In the future this could include looking at what parents spend their money on or how many portions of fruit a child is likely to be eating each day. Similarly, insurance companies may be able to monitor where people go, using location trackers in mobile phones or GPS in cars, and deny them insurance cover. According to one expert in data-mining, Narayanan Kulathuramaiyer, companies involved in the collection of such data are selling it to government agencies ‘at a level you would not even imagine’.

But is this really an issue? On it’s own possibly not, but this is just the tip of an iceberg. In 2002, the Pentagon in the US sought funding for a program called Total Information Awareness, the aim of which was to identity ‘suspicious behavior’ using data-mining techniques. Funding was refused but parts of the project have survived with classified funding. The UK, China, France, Israel and Germany are thought to have similar programs. Similarly, Internet service providers (ISPs) across the EU are now legally bound to keep records of all website visits and phone calls for up to two years in case they are required. Again this might sound innocent enough but the fact is that buying certain books using digital money (eg, a credit card) could bring you to the attention of the authorities, as will visiting certain websites or blogs. Even changing your appearance on a regular basis (there are face recognition cameras nowadays remember) can raise your ‘suspicion score’ although what really gets you on a watch list are patterns of behaviour and language.

In theory this could all be a good thing and most people seem eager to give up a little liberty in return for the promise of greater security. However, governments have a terrible record of keeping records secret and once a new technology is in place, its uses tend to multiply. Equally, there is the danger than once an innocent person is placed on a watch list they will remain there indefinitely. For example, the FBI holds details on 900,000 ‘persons of interest’, while in the UK the police have a DNA database of 4 million people (including one-third of all black men in Britain).

Again, you might not see this as a problem but once your DNA is taken when you are arrested it stays on the database, even if you are never charged or subsequently cleared. Add to this the UK government’s forthcoming national ID card scheme, which will feature fingerprints and biographical details on every person in the country, and you start to wonder if there is any privacy or civil liberties left.

Alex Pentland, a Professor at MIT’s Media Lab, has proposed a set of three rules to deal with this avalanche of data and surveillance. First, individuals should have ownership rights relating to data about themselves. Second, individuals should be able to control how data about themselves is collected and, third, individuals should be able to remove or destroy their data as they see fit.
Ref: New York Times (US), 30 November 2008, ‘You’re Leaving a Digital Trail: What About Privacy?’, J. Markoff. See also The Economist (UK), 27 September 2008, ‘Data Mining: Know-alls’, and 21 June 2008, ‘Civil Liberties: Mary Poppins and the Magna Carta’.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Privacy, intelligence, data, digitalisation
Trend tags: Collective intelligence

The Future of Reputation

One of the great things about the Internet is that anyone can, in theory, reach a global audience. But what happens when something that’s private reaches a global audience? A good example of this problem was a video of a 15-year-old kid who shot a film of himself pretending to be in Star Wars. Unfortunately some other kids got hold of the video and posted it on the Internet. Worldwide ridicule followed and the kid dropped out of school and entered counselling.

The Internet clearly creates threats to privacy but it also means that it is increasingly difficult to maintain a firm hold of your reputation. For example, you do something stupid and it stays online for life or perhaps others may spread untruths or distribute material or information that you would rather restrict.

Some people don’t see this as a problem. Privacy is dead so get over it. But reputation is essential to the proper functioning of society. Moreover, the issue is not generally about total secrecy but the accessibility of information. For instance, back in 2007 Facebook launched two features called Social Ads and Beacon. With Social Ads the site used positive comments made by users about a particular product or service to send ads to their friends as though they had agreed to endorse these products or services. With Beacon Facebook shared data with other sites with the result that information such as ‘X bought tickets to movie Y using site Z’ appeared on a users public profile. Not surprisingly most users were furious. After all, it is one thing to tell a friend something but quite another to have your words or actions turned into an advertisement or a publicly broadcast message. It’s a similar problem to writing an intimate letter to a lover only to find that the letter is scanned and posted on a website for the entire world to see.

So what’s next? According to Daniel Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University and the author of a book called The Future of Reputation, society urgently needs to develop a set of more nuanced definitions of privacy and reputation, especially regarding how certain types of information can be used or shared. There is some protection in law already. For example, individuals might use an appropriation tort to deal with the unauthorised use of their image to sell a product. Another option is a breach of confidentiality tort, which might be used to stop individuals from disclosing certain types of confidential information. Let’s hope that the law catches up with the technology sooner rather than later.
Ref: Scientific America (US), September 2008, ‘The end of privacy?’ D. Solove.
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Search words: Privacy, reputation, social networks, connectivity
Trend tags: Privacy, reputation

The Future of Africa

Before the recent global financial crisis Africa had something to be happy about. In 1990, 47% of Africans lived in poverty. By 2004 this figure had dropped to 41% and it was predicted that the figure would fall to 37% by the year 2015. Moreover, between 1990-94 annual African GDP growth was 0.9% but more recently this figure had jumped to around 5%. Meanwhile, foreign investment and loans to Africa jumped from $11 billion in 2000 to $53 billion last year according to the IMF and the world was starting to beat a path to Africa’s door to buy its oil and minerals. China and India are among the new deal makers in Africa but the Gulf States and the US aren’t far behind. The US in particular is interested in African oil and hopes to source 25% of its oil from Africa within ten years, thereby lessening its dependence on the Middle East.

Clearly there are still problems – serious poverty, mass starvation, a lack of clean water, widespread corruption, a lack of political freedom and Zimbabwe’s 11 million per cent inflation rate to name a few – but overall things have been looking up for the 800 million plus people that live in the 48 countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa. Whether this situation lasts is another matter. In the immediate future the global downturn is certain to take the shine off the African resources boom and beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. So what are some of the possible scenarios for the future of Africa?

Scenario 1 might be that the private sector is boosted, corruption is reduced and political freedom and democracy flourish throughout the continent, which would lead to further inward investment, jobs and stability. In this instance Africa could very easily become the workshop of the world, providing everything from call-centres and IT support to manufacturing.

Scenario 2 might be that progress is patchy, with huge differences emerging between those African countries with access to resources and those without. A third scenario could be that increasing population, together with joblessness, encourages millions of Africans to take to the streets demanding change. This could scare off foreign investment and lead to further authoritarian crackdowns, which would turn into a vicious and violent circle. For example, some observers estimate that the unemployment figure for young men in Ethiopia is already 70% and all it would take is a random spark to set resentment alight.
Ref: Various including The Economist (UK), 11 October 2008, ‘There is hope’ and ‘Opportunity knocks’.
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Search words: Africa
Trend tags: -

Rude Cards

Not a lot of people know this but Britain is the world’s #1 market for greetings cards, with people, on average, sending 55 cards per head per annum (the figure in the US is half this amount). But something strange is happening. What used to be sentimental tat (smiles, hearts, flowers, cuddly teddy bears) is becoming increasingly rude. Cards are now covered in four-letter words. Does this mean that British culture is coarsening, or is it simply that the language is changing? The answer is probably a bit of both. First communication has become informal and secondly, the use of swear words has become more common in the media (especially on television and on the Internet).

Hence these cards are a reflection of this cultural shift. Moreover, the idea of a ‘saucy’, crude or innuendo filled cards is nothing new. Just think of English seaside cards from the 1920s or 1930s. What’s changed is simply the language. Another possible reason for the resurgence of childish humour is that urban individuals are growing up much later. As a result cards are becoming younger in their humour. The TV show Little Britain is a good example of this kind of humour.

Regardless of the reason, these cards are hugely popular (2 million were sold in 2007 alone) and in a sense they are not offensive because they are only sent to friends. Indeed, words that were once synonymous with violence and aggression now represent intimacy and fun. In other words, they are more to do with exuberance than shock. Not everyone is happy with these developments, of course. The two largest card companies in the UK (Hallmark and UK Greetings) do not sell these types of crude cards but most of the shops that do are family shops. Hence children can come into contact with this language, which some commentator’s feel brutalises society.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 29 September 2008, ‘On the offensive’, J. Rogers.
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Search words: Cards, greetings, rudeness, shock, language
Trend tags: -

The Changing Landscape of Love

Here’s some interesting research. A survey by the Nikkei Research Institute of Industry and Regional Economy in Japan has found that younger people are more interested in traditional culture and cuisine than their older counterparts.
The study also found that younger people do not see the point of dressing up for special occasions. Most interesting is the finding that while keeping in touch with friends is seen as ‘very important’, dating is becoming less important. 28% of individuals in their 20s felt that it was ‘bothersome and burdensome’ to be in a relationship. Go figure.
Ref: Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 10 November 2008, ‘Romance fading among the young’, T. Yamaoka, www.
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Search words: Love, dating
Trend tags: intimacy