Society & culture

A new age of anxiety

It’s the end of the world. At least that’s how a few people are feeling at the moment. If it’s not a global financial crisis (GFC) it’s a swine flu pandemic, deadly earthquakes or terrorism. End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new but they do appear to be more common. But is such anxiety justified and where is this new pessimism coming from?

The reasons are various. Digitalisation means that news is now captured and disseminated in seconds, so there is little time to properly reflect. Global connectivity also means that there are now more elements rubbing together and this increases volatility. Experts and politicians are also under pressure from 24-hour news cycles, so even when there is nothing to say there is still pressure to react. But the real reason for our anxiety may have less to do with the explosion of information and more to do with our cynicism surrounding institutions.

Previously, people would put their faith in institutions, and experts and leaders were carefully listened to. Nowadays, the authority of both has been eroded. Moreover, a series of recent scandals ranging from WMD to Enron means that people have lost faith in the ability of institutions to tell the truth or give moral guidance. In short we don’t know who, or what, to believe anymore. The result is an atomised society where the individual reigns supreme. Too many voices compete for ideas. Scientists and politicians alike also seek to be populist and boil complex arguments down to sound bites and simplistic solutions. Furthermore, governments go to ridiculous lengths to reassure nervous electorates by overeating to events and by treating any exception as though it were a rule. As for pessimism, this is largely a defensive measure. If you fear the worse – or plan for it – then you will probably be pleasantly surprised (and not sued). Furthermore, recent events appear to have proven that being overly optimistic can get you into serious trouble. For example, the GFC was partly caused by overly optimistic young men having a rather rose-tinted view of future risk. The other contemporary apocalypse is obviously the environment and a series of recent wild weather events and occurrences have conspired to alter our view of the future. Usually human nature has an optimistic bias but recently this bias has shifted towards pessimism. Will things swing back? The answer depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
Ref: The Sunday Times (UK) 10 May 2009, ‘Apocalypse Now’,
B. Appleyard. See also The Sunday Times (UK), 19 July 2009, ‘Don’t make me laugh. It’s cool to be gloomy’, A. Leve.
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Search words: Fear, uncertainty, anxiety, panic, apocalypse
Trend tags: Anxiety

A thirst for understanding

According to some futurists, the book is dead, or at least dying. Only it isn’t. In what is supposed to be an era of simplistic sound bites, books still possess intellectual authority and substance. Moreover, the genre of ‘idea books’ is doing especially well at the movement. Why could this be? One reason might be that individual democracy means that more people now have a direct stake in the future. But I don’t think that’s it. Another reason could be near universal literacy. But I don’t think that’s it either. No, I think the reason that idea books are doing so well at the moment is because globalisation and connectivity have created a world that is a noisy and confusing mess. Serious times spawn serious books.Historically, meaning might have come from a common culture or a national purpose. But the decline of deference means that people are now looking elsewhere for compelling stories about what is going on or where we might be heading. Ultimately, people want to make sense of their lives and be given some reassurance that what they are doing has some meaning. What are some of the books that fall into this genre? Some are good and some are bad. In years gone by, idea books might have included works by Freud, Marx and Darwin. These days it’s books such as The Tipping Point,
The God Delusion, A Brief History of Time, The Black Swan and the End of History. That’s if you are lucky. Books like The Secret probably fall into this category too.
Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 19 July 2009, ‘There are no big ideas’, B.Appleyard.
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Search words: Ideas, books, understanding, meaning
Trend tags: Meaning

A Parrot-Fever Pandemic

If you aren’t nervous enough already, here’s something else to worry about. In December 1929, at the time of the Great American stock market crash, America suddenly fell victim to a pandemic. The disease, called psittacosis, had been known about since 1892, but such was the state of that fear that gripped the nation in 1929 that it’s existence and threat was blown out of all proportion. On 6 January 1930 a doctor that examined one of the first cases sent a telegram to the US Public Health Service in Washington DC that read; “Can you please supply parrot fever serum for our disposal immediately.” Further panic about contact with diseased birds then ensued. One US Admiral even ordered sailors to toss their pet parrots overboard, while the New York Times ran a front page that read: “Parrot Fever Kills 2 in this country.” There were 169 confirmed cases of parrot fever in the US and 33 Americans eventually died. So was America in 1929 a dangerous place or just a gullible one? Parrot fever exists today in the US (and elsewhere) and infects between 100 and 200 Americans every year. The only difference is that over-exposure to newspaper headlines is currently spreading swine flu and GFC anxiety rather than parrot fever.
Ref: New Yorker (US), 1 June 2009, ‘It’s spreading’, J. Lepore.
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Search words: Pandemics
Trend tags: Anxiety, volatility, connectedness

A surveillance society

In Norway there is just one city with CCTV cameras installed in public-areas. In Germany there are 30 and in Britain there are 500. So is the UK sleepwalking its way into a surveillance society, as Richard Thomas, a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, has suggested? It would certainly appear so. Last year the city of Cambridge used CCTV footage to check whether boating operators on the River Cam were using “illegal landing places”, while in the town of Poole the local council used CCTV footage to follow a family for 24-hours who was suspected of lying about an address on a school application.

These are trivial examples. But there are other far more serious ones. For example, anyone questioned in connection with a suspected crime in the UK has their DNA added to a database, where it stays, indefinitely, whether or not the person is found guilty of anything. There are currently around 1 million people on this database including, it’s thought, around 100,000 children.

Meanwhile, the UK government has sought to gain approval for another central database that would record the electronic communications of every individual in the country. That’s every email, phone call, Google search, credit card transaction and so on. This database wasn’t approved, but it is probably only a matter of time before another one is. A paper emanating from the Advisory Group on the Future of European Home Affairs, for instance, suggests monitoring: “Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go.” This could include tax details, employment records, banking details, credit-card use, health records, travel history and even membership of social networks. And don’t expect such digital snooping to be limited to the UK or Europe. In many respects what’s happening in the UK and Europe will be test cases for what eventually happens elsewhere. The rhetoric of politicians is generally the same. It’s that individual rights depend on collective security (an oxymoron if every there was one).

This means that identity cards and biometric passports are just the beginning. In the future, RFID tags might allow local councils to monitor dustbin usage, alerting them when incorrect (“illegal”) items are placed in the recycling bins and so on. As for CCTV cameras, there is actually very little evidence that they reduce crime. What they do seem to achieve is reassurance, both for citizens and for politicians looking for silver bullet solutions. Should we be worried? I think we should. Unless there is a full debate about surveillance there is every chance that future generations will inherit a world that is considerably less free than the one that we currently enjoy. By the way, it might seem like a silly question to ask why electronic surveillance is happening. One persuasive argument is that digital surveillance is less about security and more about a search for certainty and control in an age that is uncertain and complex.
Ref: Intelligent Life (UK), Summer 2009, ‘Taking Liberties’, C. Nevin,
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Search words: Digitalisation, connectivity, anxiety, crime, CCTV
Trend tags: Connectivity

Is God back?

It was once widely believed that God was Dead. For example, Max Weber predicted the secularisation of the world. Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin thought more or less the same. But religion’s impact on society has not abated. It has just changed. In 1900, 80% of Christians lived in Europe or the US. Nowadays, 60% live in the developing world. In Russia, for example, 86% of the population describe themselves as Christians, while in China there are 80 million active Christians, which means that the Christian Church is bigger than the Communist Party in membership terms.

So why does organised religion endure? Mainly because religion gives people meaning and purpose. Life is confusing and uncertain and religion offers a simple explanation of how things are and what will be. Moreover, from an organisational point of view, religion has some of the oldest and largest infrastructures around, so recruiting new ‘customers’ isn’t too much of a problem. A study by PEW in the US found a linkage between church attendance and income and this correlation has been steady for more than 30 years, so this could be another reason for endurance. There are correlations between religious belief and health and happiness too. In the US, 43% of Americans that describe themselves as “happy” attend church once a week versus 26% who attend “seldom or never”. There is also a study linking church attendance with low blood pressure, while other studies show that the link between faith and happiness is far stronger than links between wealth and happiness. Halleluiah to all that.
Ref: The Times (UK), 2 May 2009, ‘Spread the word, God is back’, J. Micklethwait and A. Wooldridge.
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Search words: Religion, church
Trend tags: Meaning

An age-old issue

As everybody knows, the world’s rich societies are ageing. This means that unless something totally unexpected happens, we can expect to see slowing economic growth, declining productivity and labour shortages in the fairly immediate future. Furthermore, age related costs, such as healthcare, will explode, meaning that taxes will almost certainly have to rise and people will have to save more and expect less. Indeed, a study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently claimed that the cost of ageing would dwarf the recent costs of the GFC by a factor of about 10:1. That’s unless massively increased immigration, technological advances or unexpected increases in fertility rates shift things in the opposite direction.

At the moment the ageing trend is slow moving and most people are ignoring it. By about 2020, however, ageing should be plain to see, not least because every one of the 2 billion people that will be aged 60+ in the year 2050 has already been born. Why is this happening? Simple. People are living much longer than they used to (ie, less people are dying). In 1900, average life expectancy globally was 30. The figure now is 67. Moreover, less children are being born and we are seeing the post-WW2 Baby Boomer generation leave the workforce and enter retirement in large numbers. Implications? Apart from changing spending and investment patterns we will see people working for much longer in order to pay for the cost of living. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. People aged 65+ that continue to work often switch to part-time work that they actually enjoy. Evidence of this includes the fact that retailers such as McDonald’s, B&Q and Wal-Mart report on how friendly and helpful older employees in customer service roles can be. So will the future be an age of grumpy old men and women or an era of happier employees and reduced consumption? Time will tell.
Ref: The Economist (UK), ‘A Slow Burning Fuse: A Special Report on Ageing’, 27 June 2009.
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Search words: Demographics, ageing, population, skills shortage
Trend tags: Ageing

An analogue politician in a digital world

Commentators have seized upon the recent expenses fiasco in the UK House of Commons as proof of the fact that politicians have become dangerously removed from the everyday lives of ordinary people. There is something much deeper going on here too. In short, the balance of power has shifted away from institutions towards the individual, and the new connectivity created by the Internet has accelerated the trend even further. The problem is that many people no longer look towards government for moral leadership, but at the same time the government is becoming increasingly autocratic and absolute in terms of its claims. Mix these elements together and what you get is a volatile and angry electorate that tends to react with hostility towards anyone that wears a uniform or claims to be in authority. Another issue affecting the UK government is a lack of leadership in a slightly different sense. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, has risen to the top because he was one of the people that managed to build consensus within his own party. But this is of little or no interest to most ordinary voters. What voters want is someone with a clearly articulated vision of the future, who also has humility – a man (or woman) of the people in the sense that they acknowledge doubt. The danger in the UK is that if people withdraw even further from political engagement, selfish individualism will triumph over the collective good. But if this happens the government will be even more able to legitimately claim that it has the right to do what it likes.
Ref: The Times (UK) 19 May 2009, ‘The little people no longer look up to the big’, R. Sylvester.
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Search words: Politics, institutions, trust, cynicism
Trend tags: -

The future of childhood

Why are parents so obsessed with providing happy and safe environments for their children? Nobody is suggesting that childhood shouldn’t be safe, or happy, but perhaps parents are taking things too far. A plethora of new books on the subject of childrearing gives some interesting insights. First, if we want kids to be truly happy the solution is quite simple: less time in front of screen and more time with family – ideally one that isn’t arguing, fighting or getting divorced. Oh and a bit of moral guidance here and there wouldn’t be a bad idea either. One book, Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit, by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, says that 90% of UK teens now have a TV in their room, as do 60% of 5 to 6 year-olds. Moreover, 25% of kids also have access to a computer in their bedroom with no adult supervision whatsoever. Kids have always enjoyed time away from adults but these days but what this largely means is time in front of a screen. There is also considerable pressure to grow up. One parent, quoted in the book, remarked, without any hint of irony, that her 11-year-old girl is “fed up with being treated as a child”. Are we all nuts? Is childhood now nothing more than a dress rehearsal for consumerism?

One very interesting observation is that it has been proven “with statistical significance” that children that are materialistic suffer from lower self-esteem than kids that are not. Why? One explanation is an excessive focus on the individual, rather than the group, means that there is pressure to be the best that you can be rather than contributing to the good of the whole. For example, another book, A Good Childhood by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, makes the point that a lack of spirituality means that kids no longer feel part of something that is better than just them, translating as a lack of meaning or direction in kids’ lives. The Idle Parent by Tom Hodginson, argues that by doing less for our children we would, in fact, be doing so much more. Since TV and computer games breed passivity, not providing them leads to free play, which breeds resilience and creativity. However, people should get too hung up about being useless parents. Another book, Growing up in England by Anthony Fletcher, makes the valid point that anxious parents have been around for at least a couple of centuries. Parents are hard-wired to always worry about something it seems.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 9 May 2009, ‘Leave them kids alone’, I. Berwick,
See also; Consumer kids by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, A Good Childhood by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik, The Idle Parent by Tom Hodginson and Growing up in England by Anthony Fletcher.
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Search words: Kids, children, childhood
Trend tags: Anxiety

Some wildcards for the future

A wildcard is an unexpected or improbable event that, if it were to happen, would make a huge impact. The Futurist magazine recently asked its readers to think up a series of wildcards. Here’s their list (not ranked) together with a wild list of my own (also not ranked).

1. A new spiritual paradigm takes hold, changing values and behaviour.
2. Climate science is proven wrong – the world is actually cooling
3. Mankind invents a new energy source comparable to oil
4. Cloned humans threaten the entire population
5. Intelligent life is confirmed (I assume in space)
6. There is a total collapse of the world’s food supply chain
7. There is a catastrophic weather event (hasn’t this already happened?)
8. There is a rapid political shift to the far right or far left globally
9. There is a widespread food (or water) poisoning incident
10. There is a backlash against fundamentalism
11. The Internet is disabled
12. A disruptive new business model emerges
13. President Obama is assassinated
14. China collapses economically or politically

My list
1.Chinese economic collapse
2.US economic collapse
3.Disintegration of EU
4.Global financial collapse (another one)
5.Energy price spikes (e.g. oil at $200)
6.Critical infrastructure attack
7.Rogue stakeholder
8.EMF radiation
9.Radical greening
10.Collapse of literacy
11.US/China conflict

Is anything on either list really likely to happen? All one can say with anything approaching confidence is that most predictions about the future turn out to be off the mark. For example, do you remember a book called The Population Bomb in the mid-1970s? This book confidently predicted that millions of people would soon starve to death. This didn’t exactly happen, certainly not as predicted. Some demographic and technological trends do eventually come true but if history teaches us anything about the future it is probably that predictions about wars, recessions, religions and ideologies are usually wildly incorrect.
Ref: The Futurist (US), May-June 2009, ‘Wildcards in Our Future’, C.Wagner and others.
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Search words: Wildcards, scenarios, future, predictions
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What energy crisis?

I spotted an amusing and uplifting essay by Julian Gough in Prospect magazine recently, which puts our current panic about any forthcoming energy crisis into universal perspective. The universe, you might remember, is made out of nothing but energy – so how is it possible to have an energy crisis? Our planet is bathed in high energy radiation for 12 hours a day, 365 days a year (give or take the odd cloud and early night) and raw energy pours out of the earth with such force that it creates mountains and destroys cities. And let’s not also forget that electricity plunges earthward in billion-volt thunderbolts. Even the energy from the moon manages to pull vast quantities of water onto the world’s beaches, twice a day, every day.

So why are we Earthlings so devoted to the creation of tiny explosions inside what are effectively giant tin cans, especially when these explosions are connected to tiny gears and axles that only manage to convert 15% of the available energy to power? Nuclear energy? All we use cracked atoms for is boiling kettles. And nobody mention the fact that 30 years ago we managed to float vehicles around space that relied on solar power and fuel cells. No, we must do better and a good place to start would be by building 100,000 km wires out of our Earth’s magnetic field smack bang into the Sun’s field to create a giant dynamo. These wires could also serve as space elevators drastically reducing the cost of space freight and if we ever came up with a better idea it could all be easily dismantled, no permanent damage done. Nature, as Mr Gough, points out, has been fun, but humans own the planet now and it’s about time we started to decorate it.
Ref: Prospect (UK), May 2009, ‘The life and opinions of Julian Gough.’ www.
See also Jude: Level 1 by Julian Gough.
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Search words: Energy, environment
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