Society & culture

Zombies rising

We are becoming increasingly fascinated with the undead. Films over the past 40 years (starting with George Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead), TV shows and now computer games show our continued fascination with zombies. The Walking Dead, on AMC TV in the US, for example, attracted 5.3 million viewers on its first showing. This is 83% more people than watched the season 4 premiere of Mad Men.

Why are we so interested in something that can’t talk and doesn’t mind getting shot? Perhaps it’s not what these creatures are, but rather what these monsters represent. Maybe zombies represent a subconscious fear about the consequences of untethered scientific research. It’s to do with a fear of diseases such as SARS or H5N1 flu. (Vampires might equal HIV/Aids or, more likely, a loss of purity and innocence). Maybe it’s all connected to a fear about living too long or having to look after other people who do?

Maybe our fascination with the undead has nothing to do with our deep fears, but is simply related to how we feel about everyday life? Maybe Night of the Living Dead is analogous with working late at the office? You might even draw parallels between blasting 200 zombies with automatic weapons and rapidly deleting hundreds of emails in the office. You can spend all day doing this, but like the tweets and Facebook updates, they just keep on coming.

I think that’s it. On a superficial level there is pleasure in destroying things, but at a deeper level, these things represent the Internet. We are fearful about the Internet – and perhaps machines in general – consuming us rather than the other way around. It is about having our life and our souls being taken away from us by things that cannot be deleted, paused or ignored. Things that won’t talk to us and don’t seem to understand what it means to be human.
Ref: The New York Times (US) 3 December 2010. ‘My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead’ by C. Klosterman.
Search words: zombies, computers, emails, SARS, flu, HIV, The Walking Dead.
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Virtual vitriol

One of the most noticeable things about cyberspace is the amount of virtual vitriol and hatred that’s produced. Much of it is aimed at relatively harmless politicians, pundits, celebrities and even comedians. Contrast this with the heckling people receive at public events. The difference is anonymity. To heckle someone in public requires a degree of courage and there is risk involved, especially if the target of the heckling answers back. Online there is rarely any such danger.

Another reason for the vitriol is crowd behaviour or, more specifically, deindividualisation. Psychologists use this term to describe how individuals act in different ways when they are part of crowd versus alone. For example, in a classic experiment, trick-or-treaters entered an empty house on Halloween and found a bowl of sweets. Next to the sweets was some money. When individuals entered the house, only 8% stole the money. But when people entered as part of a large group, each individual seemed to forget who they were and 80% stole the money.

In other words, a mixture of anonymity (the thought of not being caught) plus crowd dynamics (everyone else is doing it) means our values sometimes slip. This also partly explains crowd behaviour at sports events, the behaviour of soldiers in wars and even, perhaps, how people behave in the ‘risk free’ environment of their own car versus public transport.

The problem is that Web 2.0 sites offer almost unlimited opportunities for moral holidays. First, anonymity is extremely easy. Second, the connective nature of the internet fosters a pack mentality. Third, arguments on the internet can go on forever because there are few practical constraints. There are exceptions of course. Wikipedia is possibly the most famous example, where an energetic hive mind has become highly productive in the most positive sense.

One of the main critics of mob behaviour online is Jaron Lanier, who argues that trolling and flaming (ie, hostile interactions and inflammatory material) are “the status quo of the online world” and that online communications exaggerate prejudices or tend towards polarising viewpoints. On the other hand, similar charges could be levelled against traditional media. He argues strongly that, for people to have meaningful exchanges, they need to be fully present physically in a manner similar to that in law where one has the right to view one’s accuser face to face.

So what’s next? In the short term, expect more crowd aggregation online. Whether this moves us to a utopia where opinion is diversified, is unclear. It may create a dystopia where groupthink and extremism are able to flourish. Central to this discussion is anonymity. Will things stay as they are or will people be forced to admit who they really are or be rated by others according to their online activities? One suspects that, if things of value do continue to move online, then people will be forced to put more of their real selves there too.
Ref: The Observer (UK) 24 July 2011, ‘The angry brigade’ by T. Adams.
Search words: mob behaviour, crowds, vitriol, politicans, trolling and flaming, deindividualisation, anonymity, risk
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Trend tags: Virtualisation

Too many people?

On 31 October of this year, the 7,000,000,000th person on Earth was born. If we knew where they lived, we could have thrown a giant party. Modern Malthusians would see this child as a curse not a blessing. According to the UN’s latest low scenario, the global population will reach 6.2 billion by 2100, while their high estimate is now 15.8 billion people by 2100. Where the number ends up will, to a large degree, define which nations are wealthy and which are not. Where the numbers are concentrated will also impact resource prices, innovation rates, pollution, climate change, revolutions and wars.

We should stress that, while the total number of people keeps growing, the rate of growth is slowing. This is why optimistic commentators are more concerned about declining populations than exploding ones. They may have a point. The pessimism around population numbers and finite resources started in about 1798 with Malthus (Essay on the Principle of Population) and took centre stage again in 1968 with Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb) and once more in 1972 with The Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth). So far none of these pessimistic prophecies has come to fruition, largely because we have been ingenious and society has been adaptive. India, for example, has grown from 350 million in 1947 to 1.2 billion, some would say largely without serious incident.

The bottom line is that large parts of the world continue to grow. Africa, for instance, is forecast to expand from 1 billion to 3.6 billion by 2100. In other parts of the world (notably Europe, Japan, China and Brazil) family sizes are declining. Why this is happening is unclear, as are the forecasts, which are based on a series of assumptions. For example, do fertility rates decline in response to education, health and income and, if so, what is the precise relationship and could any of these relationships shift?

Demographic Transition Theory is very confused about this. For example, it has yet to agree whether education or contraception is more important for development. The case of Iran would suggest it’s the latter. Furthermore, two of the greatest issues of the last few decades – the environment and poverty – have largely been attacked without reference to population or religious or cultural beliefs, which is odd. This debate isn’t really about absolute numbers, but behaviour and, in particular consumption.

It seems obvious that poorer countries are becoming fed up with being lectured at by Western institutions about reducing the very kinds of consumption they themselves have enjoyed for half a century or more. Most important, pessimists are missing one important historical lesson: when push comes to shove, mankind is smart. What’s missing in this population debate is the impact of technology and, more specifically, the enormous impact of a few ideas generated by just a handful of people across the world. If we want to solve many of the world’s forthcoming problems, such as food, energy and water, the more people we have thinking about these things the better.
Re: Prospect (UK) November 2011, ‘Just too many?’ by B.Madox. See also ‘Population Boom and Bust’, by N, Carn (same issue).
Search words: Population, fertility, education, contraception, Malthusians, Demographic Transition Theory, environment, poverty, United Nations, consumption
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Trend tags: Population

Is marriage becoming obsolete?

In the US, desire for short-term emotional fulfilment is clashing with the wish for independence to undermine the institution of marriage. That’s a little simplistic, but the ideal of an unfettered future does feature more strongly with men and women nowadays. To say that the institution of marriage is falling apart depends on how far back you delve. For many thousands of years, people were primarily married for economic or political reasons and individuals had very little say in their choice of partner. Moreover, it was not until the 1700s that labour was divided according to gender.

After the industrial revolution, men increasingly became wage earners and women increasingly stayed at home to look after the household and the children. Thus was created a society sharply divided between muscle and money, compassion and comfort. Things started to change in the 1970s but divisions, both economic and romantic, are undergoing further dramatic transformations, especially in the US.

In 1960 in the US, the median age for first marriages was 23 for men and 20 for women. Now it is 28 for men and 26 for women. The PEW Research Centre says 44% of Millennials and 43% of Generation X believe marriage is becoming obsolete. This may explain why 40% of children in the US are now born to single women and why the number of women in America who have never given birth has doubled since 1976. Some 51.4% of managerial positions in the US are now filled by women versus 26% in 1980, 50% of the US adult population is now single, and married households comprise only 48% of all current households (US Census Bureau figures).

So what’s behind these numbers? Clearly women are becoming more educated and this flows through into greater financial independence. Marriage, for financial reasons, is now an option instead of a necessity and many women are choosing to stay single. If you want children you no longer require a man either.

The rise of women is another distinguishing feature of the 21st century, but so too is the decline of men. Women are now more likely to go to college in the US and many are earning more than men too. Many new jobs being created in countries like the US, especially part-time service sector jobs, are going to women, while manufacturing jobs, the traditional domain of men, are on the decline. In the US, for example, a third of manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2010. This increasingly puts women in positions of parity, if not outright control. Having said this, remember that many of the new part-time jobs are poorly paid and often end up being more than part time in practice.

Where does this leave men and women in the future? In the romantic marketplace, there is a man shortage, or at least a shortage of ‘suitable’ men for well-educated women (this is sometimes to the advantage of badly behaved men). But what happens to men psychologically when they are no longer needed for their money or their fertility? As for women, they need to square two potentially incompatible positions –desire for autonomy and a longing for intimacy.
Ref: The Atlantic (US) November 2011, ‘All the single ladies’, by K. Bolick.
Links: Marriage, a history: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered All by Stephanie Coontz and Too Many Women: The Sex Ratio Question by Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord.
See also Newsweek (US) 5 June 2011, ‘Invasion of the bodybuilders’ by C. Lee
Search words: marriage, men, women, control, manufacturing, service sector, jobs, managers, autonomy, intimacy, industrial revolution, children, emotional fulfilment, financial, emotional.
Trend tags: Singletons

Time for a lunatic to run the asylum?

Desperate times can result in desperate men and desperate measures, but this needn’t always be a bad thing. An article in the Wall Street Journal (sent via Williams Inference) caught my eye in July and, with the turmoil in Europe and the Middle East, seems more pertinent than ever. The crux of the article is that, during stable economic and political times, sanity rules the roost. For example, Neville Chamberlain was a respected mayor and businessman when be became Prime Minister in Britain, before the outbreak of WW2. He didn’t last long once war broke out and was rapidly replaced by a temperamental, cranky, manic, bombastic and severely depressive Winston Churchill. Abraham Lincoln similarly suffered from melancholy, while Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both affected by severe depression.

Can mental illness enhance the effectiveness of leaders during volatile and uncertain economic and political times? Can leaders suffering from depression sense new risks and opportunities that other, saner, leaders cannot? Let’s consider the inverse. In predictable times, the role of leaders is usually to garner support and to extrapolate the future from the past. This role requires logic and patience. Interestingly, ‘normal’ leaders often possess what psychologists call ‘positive illusion’: they have a mildly distorted view of reality and believe they control most things around them.

Ironically, mentally ill leaders possess something useful when things get more confusing: a degree of clarity and realism. Churchill, for instance, saw the threat posed by the Nazis long before most other leaders. Depression has also been linked to empathy for others and creativity, while madness is sometimes correlated with genius (it’s a fine line as they say). Depression, in particular, seems to be associated with understanding other peoples’ points of view.

What appears to be happening with some depressed individuals is not the desire to win an argument, but a belief that they need to heal their opponents’ false understanding and beliefs. The key ingredients are an almost religious fervour and empathy. These leaders can see light when others can see only darkness and they are also able to ask new questions when everyone else is still stuck with the old answers.
Ref: Wall Street Journal (US) 30 July 2011, ‘Depression in Command’ by N. Ghaemi
See also Time (US), 6 June 2011, ‘The Optimism Bias’ by T. Sharot.
Search words: depression, mental illness, positive illusion, clarity, realism, empathy, turmoil, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi.
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Trend tags: Leadership, mental illness

The new underclass?

Have you noticed how at least half the top female tennis players in the world are attractive nowadays? One reason could be that sponsors like a pretty face, be it male or female. The true answer is TV ratings and, if you don’t believe this, ask yourself why so many female tennis players appearing on Centre Court during Wimbledon are not the same as the top female seeds. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to sports.

The same effect can be seen with the recent revamping of soap opera casts in favour of beautiful women and handsome men, the endless ‘hot or not’ magazine features, and the volume of body beautiful TV shows. The trend even applies to politicians in some countries.

Surprise, surprise. Good-looking people sell things more easily than ugly people and average-looking people would rather look at a pretty or handsome face than an ugly one. It is hardwired into the human species. At a very basic level, men prize fertility while women prefer protectors. Hence our idolisation of unblemished youth, physical strength and financial success. Interestingly, cosmetic surgery makes very little difference to these preferences, according to Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Austin, Texas. Pretty people can earn considerably more than ugly people but, going under the knife to improve your looks or economic prospects, doesn’t appear to recoup the cost of surgery and the law of diminishing returns applies too.

Even so, how people experience the world will differ according to what they look like. We are moving towards an increasingly visual culture (Facebook, for instance, could be seen as a giant dating site or model agency where people emphasise what they look like or how financially secure they are). But there’s possibly something else going on. We are entering a period of extreme uncertainly and vulnerability, so perhaps the shift to beauty could be interpreted as erotic capital. Could we then see a shift whereby ugly or plain looking people seek compensation from the beautiful ones? Could discrimination based upon looks soon sit alongside racism and ageism?
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK) (Seven) 18 July 2011, ‘Meet the new underclass: the ugly’ by W. Leith.
Search words: tennis, sport, beauty, discrimination, uncertainty, plastic surgery, youth, perfection, sponsors, body beautiful, TV soap operas.
Trend tags: Visual culture

2020 Vision: Britain in 2020 (or thereabouts)

Prospect magazine recently devoted its cover to a vision of what Britain might look like a decade hence. According to the journalist and author, Brian Appleyard, income inequality could result in a new “middle-class poor” linking to “Britain as an emerging market” of passive consumers. Especially vivid is his idea of “an atomised dystopia of connectivity and virtuality” – or Googleworld as he calls it.

Juliet Gardiner, a writer and social historian, wrote of a bifurcation of society not seen since the 1930s and a battle for resources waging between an older generation that feels entitled to some level of comfort and security versus a younger cohort worried about jobs, housing and the fact their future has a fixed 50-year term mortgage. More playfully, she mentions Belgium in 2021, which, despite being without any form of government, has managed to increase its GDP by more than the UK, Germany, France or the Eurozone as a whole (so we’ve still got the Eurozone in 2021?).

Another contribution comes from Maria Misra at Oxford University, who noted that history shows recessions can be innovative times for business and science. The 1930s, for instance, proved to be a far more productive time than the roaring 20s. She also said austerity can create a flight to quality in terms of culture and the arts. If people feel threatened or isolated, they often “seek solace in comforting old hierarchies of nation, ethnicity and gender”.

Other nuggets include a comment about consumers expecting more transparency from organisations (I’d add from individuals too), a desire for control, and worries about jobs putting a focus on immigration. Overall, an interesting read, although many of the visions seem little more than logical extrapolations based on current concerns. Maybe they need to look out a bit further to 2050 next time?
Ref: Prospect (UK) October 2011, ‘Britain in 2012’ (various contributors).
Search words: transparency, immigration, jobs, older generation, Belgium, society bifurcation, Britain, passive consumers, middle class poor.
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Trend tags: Prediction

Standing room only?

Only sixty one years ago, in 1950, the Earth’s population (2.5 billion) would have just fitted, standing up, on the Isle of White. This is a modest island of 881 square kilometres off the coast of the British Isles. By 1968, 3.5 billion people would have required the Isle of Man, a slightly larger British island. Nowadays, global population growth requires somewhere like Zanzibar, a 1,554 square kilometre island off the coast of East Africa. The growth is certainly significant - it took 1,000 years to reach the first billion, but only 12 years to rise from 6 to 7 billion. Nevertheless, we are not running out of space on planet Earth quite yet.

The issue is not people, but resources, especially food, water and energy. This will worsen as global populations and incomes rise, then hundreds of millions of people may starve or die of thirst unless they can physically move or fight to gain access to the resources they require. This is precisely why the World Bank has forecast that agricultural production will have to increase two-thirds by 2050 (from 2005 levels) just to satisfy growing populations and changing consumption habits.

This may sound optimistic, but from 1970-2010, yields increased by more than this. Furthermore, rather than being cast as a problem, rapid population growth can be seen as a gift economically. A study by Australia’s central bank found 33% of Asian GDP growth from 1965-1990 was due to favourable demographics (ie, rising populations). If you take this at face value, regions with the highest fertility rates will reap huge economic dividends in the years ahead, especially if they manage to tap into the resourcefulness and inventiveness of youth. Theoretically then, by 2050, Africa, India and the Middle East would become hugely significant economic powers, even without natural resources.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 22 October 2011, ‘A tale of three islands’. See also Prospect (UK) November 2011, ‘Investment Report: Population Boom and Bust’ by N. Carn.
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Search words: population, demographics, Africa, India, Middle East, agricultural yields, food, water, access, Isle of Wight, Zanzibar, fertility rates.
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A youth unemployment time bomb

Many people thought it would be the working class in Europe who would be most hurt by the relentless rise of automation and outsourcing. But it might be their children instead. Across Europe, and to some extent the US, a young generation is coming of age that has to face up to the fact that many entry-level jobs have now disappeared or gone elsewhere.

It can be argued that young people are becoming attitudinally and educationally unsuited for the available jobs, but perhaps this is a vicious spiral. If jobs are seen to be around, young people will study for them but, if not, why bother? Whatever the cause, many young people are becoming socially disengaged and are in turn rejecting many of the institutions that would once have provided a degree of support.

The statistics are certainly shocking. In the US, 17% of under-25s do not have a job. In Britain, youth unemployment is at its highest recorded level with 20% of those aged 16-24 without a job. In Europe, youth unemployment is 20.9%, but in Spain it’s 46.2%. This is very disturbing, but what if anxiety and disillusionment turns into rage, which opens up a fissure between young and old?

It’s unfair for the young to vent their anger on the old, because many structural shifts and austerity measures hit older workers and retirees hard too. Inflation is eating away at savings and food and energy costs are rising, so real wages are generally declining. Nevertheless, many young people in the West may feel betrayed, because the promise of prosperity following from globalisation, free markets and deregulation, has evaporated into the pockets of a financial elite that seems answerable to nobody.

So what’s next? One scenario is a kind of destructive nihilism, where daily life is continually obstructed and society grinds to a halt. If this sounds far-fetched, remember the UK riots in August where relatively few people managed to turn quite large areas of Britain into no-go zones. A second scenario is that younger generations join forces with older generations to create widespread populist anger. Again, this seems unlikely but, if the root cause of the Occupy Wall Street protests is individual greed suffocating societal need, and you expand this rage across classes and generations, things could explode. The most likely scenario (assuming the next decade is one of austerity in Europe and the US) is the unravelling of globalisation. Protectionist and nationalist impulses will kick in and it will be every nation for themselves. Quite where this would leave international relations is anyone’s guess.
Ref: Wall Street Journal (US) 2 September 2011, ‘A generation that can’t move on up’ by A. Cherlin and B. Wilcox. , The Economist (UK) 22 October 2011, Protests: Not quite together’ and ‘Rage against the machine’ (same issue), and The Week (UK), 20 August 2011, ‘The Riots: why did the young loot and burn?’
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Search words: prosperity, globalisation, financial markets, riots, unrest, Occupy Wall Street, austerity, protectionism, nationalism, youth unemployment, America, UK, education, young people, outsourcing, automation, working class.
Trend tags: Power Shift Eastwards, automation

Some highly innovative ageing projects

There was a large feature on ageing societies in the Financial Times magazine recently. It gave a list of some of the world’s most innovative and interesting projects aimed at helping those aged 65+: Mensheds in Australia – a charity working with seniors at risk of loneliness or isolation by building communal sheds. Fureai Kippu in Japan - a system of local alternative currencies aimed at getting people to care for elderly people. For example, one currency unit earned looking after an elderly neighbour could be spent on a volunteer visiting one’s own elderly relatives. The Good Gym in the UK is a gym that pairs runners or joggers with isolated elderly individuals – people do a run but pop in for a five-minute chat with somebody along the route. Finally, Aconchego, in Portugal - a project that links elderly people at risk (and with a spare room) with younger people, such as students who need a room.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) Magazine 23-24 July 2011, Special Report on the future of ageing by J. Crabtree.
Search words: innovation, over 65s, Mensheds, Fureai Kippu, The Good Gym, alternative currencies, elderly people, students.
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Trend tags: Ageing

A few final thoughts about Burning Man

The week-long desert festival known as Burning Man might seem like an odd place for Silicon Valley geeks and assorted artists and free spirits to unwind. Especially since their cell-phones won’t work, the internet is more or less unavailable due to dust storms, and business is outlawed. Yet, if you work alone the idea of physically mingling with 50,000 people is quite attractive. If you look at a screen all day then building giant sculptures (and often setting fire to them) does have a kind of primal attraction too. And if you work in a highly orchestrated corporation, then the idea of a week long ‘out of office’ jam session is quite contagious. Perhaps the real reason people enjoy this festival is a mixture of community and physical accomplishment overlayed with a joyous lack of technology and unwanted digital interruption.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) magazine, 17-18 September 2011, ‘Turn off your phones, techies. Welcome to Burning Man’ by A. Dembosky.
Search words: Burning Man, Silicon Valley, internet, screen, sculptures, jam, community.
Trend tags: Virtualisation, physicalisation, counter-trends