Society & culture

Is 10 billion too many?

In the 1980s, when there were two and a half billion fewer people than now, there was an active debate about overpopulation. Thirty years on and our primary concern is climate, not people. The idea that there might be too many of us is sometimes seen as retrograde or even anti-human. Instead of debates about population numbers, we have debates about resources and income distribution.

Of course, the idea that humans might be reproducing too quickly is hardly new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote his famous essay arguing (correctly) that the number of people was increasing at an astonishing rate and food production was struggling to keep up. His conclusion (incorrect) was that mass starvation would result. Paul Ehlich in the late 1960s and then the Club of Rome in the 1970s argued about the limits of growth.

The newest pessimist on the block is Stephen Emmott, who has written a book arguing there is a mounting risk of mass famine caused by burgeoning population. He has a point. If 6 billion plus people wish to consume like the top 1 billion, we could indeed be in trouble and there is currently little evidence of any major desire for radical behavioural change.

Geo-engineering might be a planetary fix for climate change and pollution, but this would do little or nothing to increase the availability of food or water or to offset biodiversity destruction. Emmott’s conclusion is essentially that we are reaching a catastrophic tipping point and “an unprecedented planetary emergency”.

In the short term, things could get nasty, especially if climate change adversely impacts food production. But further ahead, we may well have the opposite problem. As Danny Dorling points out in another book about population predictions, 10 billion is the most we will ever be. After 2050, the global population starts to decline significantly due to falling fertility rates and, by the 2300s, could be as low as 2-3 billion. At this point, young labour would be the most valuable resource on the planet and energy, food, water and even housing would be readily available and very cheap.

It is possible that fertility rates will reverse their decline and, once again, being married and having large families will be fashionable (or necessary economically). But this seems unlikely given the continued emancipation of women and the growth of education globally (both of which are tied to women having fewer children).

In conclusion, both the optimists and pessimists are probably right. Over the shorter term (the next 20-30 years) we will be heavily squeezed by a bottleneck of growing populations converging with growing incomes and resource use. After this period, however, people could be living in better, calmer and less polluted times.

Ref: Guardian (UK) 15 June 2013, ‘Ten billion reasons to be cheerful’ by D. Dorling. Sunday Times (UK) 20 January 2013, ‘Stretch out, the human crush is almost over’ by M. Hanlon.
See also The Observer (UK), 30 June 2013, ‘Why our planet is doomed’ by S. Emmott.
Book links: Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott (Penguin Books) Population 10 billion: The coming demographic crisis and how to survive it by Danny Dorling (Constable Books).
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Search words: population, starvation, fertility, geo-engineering, education, climate change, women, food.
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Demographic transitions

Many observers believe demographics can be destiny. Studying the numbers of births and deaths can provide an invaluable insight into the future fortunes of countries – and their relative tranquillity. In demography, the term ‘demographic transition’ refers to significant changes within the birth and death rates within a country (from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates).

Countries go through a demographic transition when large cohorts of infants reach adulthood and, again, when they move into older age. These transitions are typically accompanied by urbanisation and the spread of infrastructure, especially relating to healthcare and education. Broadly speaking, a growing youthful population links to economic growth and young people become a valuable resource by expanding the workforce and consuming more goods and services.

As a country ages, productivity generally declines and pressure is put on infrastructure, especially pensions and healthcare. This process of ageing is happening in Japan, Korea and most of Europe, and China will soon follow suit, eventually followed by India. This leaves sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East as the locations for most of the world’s youth.

Most economists see ageing as an economic threat, but it also provides a peace dividend. Older people are less likely to fight each other and tend to be more conservative in their views. Older societies tend to be more democratic too.

In contrast, nations with higher percentages of young people can be more turbulent. When large groups of reasonably well-educated young men coincide with high unemployment, censorship and corruption, this can be a recipe for revolution, especially if one adds rising food prices and easy internet access. For example, in Afghanistan the median age is just 15.6, in Syria it is 21.9, and in Egypt it is 24.4. Contrast this to a median age of 37.1 in the US, 39.8 in the UK and 44.9 in Japan.

The correlation between youth bulges and political turmoil is far from perfect and history and other factors have a role to play. But simple demographics suggest the Chinese economic miracle may soon turn sour and the Middle East and Africa will continue to be tumultuous. Yet by 2050, when the population is smaller, the world may be a much quieter, slower and more peaceful place (see Is 10 billion too many?, above).

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 20 July 2013, ‘Youthquake’ by F. Pearce.
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Search words: ageing, youth, demographics, Middle East, China, turmoil, education, Africa, infrastructure, peace, urbanisation, median age.
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Predictive policing

Automatic vehicle licence-plate recognition systems have been operating in the UK since the mid-1970s and have become common since 1979. Cameras to monitor bus lanes and speeding soon followed and, in the Netherlands and Australia, fines are regularly sent out with no human oversight or intervention whatsoever. This is automated policing. It’s about to become even more automated and far more widespread, thanks to developments in technology.

For example, PredPol, based in the US, looks through mountains of data about historical offences, weather patterns, demographics and so on and produces crime maps. These maps predict not only where, but when, future crimes will occur, allowing the police to shift physical patrols to these areas.

Developments in technology bring the ability to monitor and punish human behaviour and events on an unprecedented scale. For example, it’s possible already to install cameras to catch public drunkenness. They use ultra-efficient algorithms to analyse body movement or remotely analyse body temperature and blood flow to the face. Even cyclists and pedestrians can now be caught by using facial recognition technology, matched with social media images.

As well as catching more people and raising more money through fines, what could other implications be? In the early 2000s, Derek Bond was wrongly held for 3 weeks when his name was mistakenly flagged at passport control in South Africa. Predictive policing algorithms can get things badly wrong.

Unfortunately, the logic behind these algorithms can be proprietary (secret). This has shades of Kafka. Even more serious, what happens to a culture where even the most minor infringement is enforced and where human intervention, discretion or appeal is not available? For algorithms, everything is a binary decision. There are no grey areas.

One possible future is a citizenry that is more cautious and contrite. It’s also possible we could see a society that is less autonomous and experimental, less likely to voice opposition to the government, police and popular opinion. I think it highly likely we will see a lot more anger, rebelliousness and anarchy. People here are sick of being treated like children and criminals for minor ‘offences’. Moreover, predicting crime and catching criminals does not solve the causes of crime or understand why some people commit the crimes that they do.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 7 September 2013, ‘Penal code’ by K. Moskvitch and the Economist (UK) 20 July 2013, ‘Don’t even think about it’.
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Search words: PredPol, predictive policing, automated policing, algorithms, Kafka, passport control, drunkenness, crime maps.
Trend tags: Big Data, automation, predictive systems.

Changing families

Society is changing right under our feet. For instance, since the 1980s, marriage has collapsed to Victorian levels in the UK and divorces have risen from 16,000 annually in 1945 to 117,000 annually now. In the 1980s, around 20% of UK children were born out of wedlock. Today the figure is almost 50%.

The traditional nuclear family is dying and families containing a male breadwinner, non-working mother and two children are now practically extinct. However, there are some surprises emerging, with a number of well-established trends slowing or changing direction.

The number of marriages that dissolve rapidly has fallen to 1970s levels. The number of single parents has fallen from 27% in 2002 to 22% now and the number of children born outside formal marriage is slowing too. Even the fertility rate is recovering from a 1990s low, thanks to migrants.

This doesn’t mean that the traditional family is back - far from it - but it does mean family types are splintering. The three main groups are now: university-educated professionals, native working classes and migrants.

The former are holding on to what might be termed ‘traditional family values’ while the middle group are moving in the opposite direction. Interesting, within this middle group, men are generally earning less in real terms and women are less dependent on male income, which can create tensions.

Migrants seem to be slowly converging with traditional British norms. Foreign-born women make up 25% of new mothers in the UK (over 50% in London) and migrants are more likely to identify with being British than people born in the UK (who increasingly identify as English, Irish, Scots or Welsh).

Ref: The Economist (UK) 16 March 2013, ‘The post nuclear age’.
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Search words: marriage, divorce, children, migrants, professionals, working class, nuclear family, family values, incomes, British.
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Why fortune doesn’t always favour the bold

The expression, ‘Don’t be shy’, is common from the lips of parents and teachers and reflects a culture where getting ahead means being loud, confident and assertive. However, a study by the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast (seriously!) suggests shyness is a dominant characteristic in the animal world. Moreover, shyness has its uses from an evolutionary perspective, although no single personality type is advantageous in all situations.

Imagine what life would be like if everyone behaved as extrovertly as Lady Gaga! In the quest for food and sexual partners in the animal kingdom, it appears that the extroverts are gobbled up, rather than their less exploratory counterparts. In rainbow trout, for instance, shyness can be linked to better long-term memory, which allows for better risk assessment and survival.

However, each personality trait along the shy-bold continuum has distinct advantages. Research from the University of Arizona has found that, during boom years, bolder and more aggressive western bluebirds can be highly effective at colonising territory. As an area fills up and resources become scarce, shyer birds have the edge because they are better fathers and raise more offspring.

Interestingly, older birds tend to be more aggressive than younger siblings and mothers can to some extent tailor their young according to conditions: males are produced when resources are abundant and females, when they are not.

The big question here is to what extent, if any, these findings are analogous with human beings and perhaps economic conditions. Research by Daniel Nettle at the University of Newcastle (UK) suggests human introverts have fewer accidents than human extroverts and have fewer sexual partners too. Another study found shy types are less prone to post-traumatic stress (Yair Bar-Haim, Tel Aviv University). Probably, as with animals, human personality types represent alternative ways of dealing with different environmental conditions and neither way should dominate.

The problem is that shyness in the human context is given a hard time and even made a medical problem in some instances. It may relate to the influence of America, which made assertiveness a virtue when it made sales and marketing popular. It made it OK for women to be assertive, for instance. Countries where women are traditionally shy, like Thailand or Japan, have also started to adopt western ways, and modern means being assertive.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 20 April 2013, ‘Survival of the shyest’ by L. Evans Ogden. Book link: Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain.
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Search words: shyness, animals, extroversion, birds, survival, evolution, assertiveness, memory.
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Media multitasking

According to a study by Ofcom, a UK communications watchdog, families are once again converging in a single room to watch television at night but this time, each individual is bringing with them at least one digital device. Television rooms are morphing into digital entertainment hubs where each individual is more likely to be doing their own thing and has a slightly different viewing experience as a result.

In terms of tablets 25% of UK households now have access to such devices (double the number from 12-months ago) and half now own a smartphone.

The study says more than half of UK adults now shop, tweet, post or text while watching TV. Many viewers use second screens to enhance their viewing experience, either by posting comments about the programmes themselves or by communicating with friends and family about what they are currently watching. (This happened before the internet, but was largely confined to gossip in schoolyards and workplaces the flowing day).

Surprisingly, television-viewing figures have risen recently, and the average person in the UK watches 4 hours of TV per day (up 18 minutes per day since 2004). For younger adults, TV viewing and listening to the radio have declined overall. Another noticeable shift is a clear trend towards households having only one (very large) television.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 1 August 2013, ‘The Living room is back – with a difference’, by J. Garside. Daily Telegraph (UK) 1 August 2013, ‘Multi-tasking families make living room a digital hub’ by S. Hawkes.
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Search words: Ofcom, television, family, digital devices, radio, youth, multitasking, tablets, screens.
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Vampire funds

During the first quarter of 2012, total hedge fund assets rose to $US2.4 trillion. The private equity industry is even bigger, with assets under management of $US3.2 trillion in 2012. Some estimates say private equity owns as much as 5% of the UK economy and almost 10% of all UK corporate debt.

Yet objectively, private equity firms and hedge funds are shockingly inconsistent and shockingly bad at making money for anyone but themselves. This is supposed to be an open secret in the City of London. So why do so many pension funds rely on these firms to look after and grow money for their clients?

First, we need to understand what these firms do and how they make their money. Private equity firms and hedge funds take money from outside investors and invest in various assets, charging a fee of 2 per cent of total assets under management each year (so they make money even if the value of these investments falls). They also charge around 20 per cent of any profit made from these investments annually. This is known as “2 and 20” and, in many cases, the resultant fees can be enormous.

The key difference between private equity and hedge funds is what they buy with ‘their’ money. Private equity firms make bets on a handful of companies and often end up with a controlling interest in them. They shake these companies up (or tear them apart, according to your viewpoint) and sell them on later on for a handsome profit.

Hedge funds are somewhat different. They tend to take short-term positions in liquid assets and move these on rapidly, sometimes in just seconds. This activity is more speculative and hedge funds can make money by shorting these assets even when the value of assets goes down. So what is all the fuss about (apart from huge fees and salaries)?�

The answer is precisely how firms make their money and how they explain their returns to investors. One dubious method is the annualised internal rate of return or IRR. This sounds innocent enough, but the IRR can make a modest performance sound extraordinary.

For example, if a company buys a share of a firm for $US88 million and then sells it on for $US252 million seven weeks later, that’s an excellent return of close to 200 per cent, net of fees. But if you then annualise the return, you get a whopping 6,638 per cent IRR. This is what lures investors.

Such financial smoke and mirrors is a concern but the fees these funds charge can be simply enormous. Simon Lack of SL Advisors, for example, found that, using one form of measurement, between 1998 and 2010, investors received $US9 billion from hedge funds, but the hedge funds themselves took $US440 billion (or 98% of the returns).

This is not to say they are all doing it, but many are clearly fooling their investors. There is a huge cost to society from many of these deals too. First, if the brightest brains are sucked into finance rather than engineering or medicine, say, society is worse off.

Most investments these firms make are not in exciting new ventures, but in existing companies that are having a rough time. Funds buy these companies for their juicy cash flow and financially engineer them to extract profits for themselves. This can be done by firing people, selling assets, stiffing creditors or worming out of pension or union agreements.

However, the most profitable way is to engineer a new financial projection and use this to borrow against. Best of all, these funds use the company’s money, not their own. They then take fees from these borrowings and leave the firm saddled with debt and a demoralised workforce and society more indebted, more unequal and more divided as a result.

Ref: New Statesman (UK) 28 June – 4 July 2013, ‘The zombies of Mayfair’ by N. Shaxson.
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Search words: hedge funds, private equity, internal rate of return (IRR), investors, greed, debt, inequality.
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Interruption science

Gloria Mark, University of California (Irvine), says the average office worker in the US is interrupted every 11 minutes and it typically takes 25 minutes for a worker to return to their original task once interrupted.

An experiment by IT professor, Alessandro Acquisti, and psychologist, Eyal Peer, (Carnegie Mellon University) looked at what happens to brainpower when an individual is interrupted. A cognitive skills test, with 136 subjects, found an interruption combined with anticipation of an interruption, made test-takers 20% more stupid. It means enough to transform a B-minus student (80%) into a failure (60%).

However, it’s not all bad news. Using a series of further experiments, Acquisti and Peer also discovered individuals can learn how to deal with interruptions. Nevertheless, according to Clifford Nass, a Stamford sociologist and one of the early pioneers of multitasking research, some people simply cannot ignore the lure of doing more than one thing at once and evidence shows it definitely steals some of our brainpower. Why not tweet that while continuing to read this?

Ref: New York Times (US) 3 May 2013, ‘Brain interrupted’ by B. Sullivan and
H. Thompson.
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Search words: office, interruptions, cognitive skills, multitasking, brainpower, adaptation.
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Privacy in the spotlight

When introduced by Google, Street View inflamed the debate about privacy (I can be seen with no shirt on putting out the bins outside my old house in Sydney). The debate settled down, but Google’s introduction of Google Glass in 2014 is sure to stir things up again. Along with the driverless car, Glass is one of Google’s boldest steps into the unknown and markets that could be worth more than half a trillion dollars a year, according to some.

The problem with Google Glass is anonymity combined with the lack of it. Users can photograph or record individuals without their knowledge and by applying face recognition technology could, in theory, blow the cover of all kinds of people in dodgy situations. Some early adopting extrovert types will doubtless see this as a positive development, while assorted technologists and futurists will see it as the first step towards implanting technologies directly in our bodies.

Yet there are signs of moves in the opposite direction. For example, Frog Design’s list of trends for 2014 includes ‘Disconnecting’ and ‘Consumers owning their own data’ while JWT’s list of trends includes ‘Rage against the machine’. There is also a swell of opinion emerging that organisations such as Google should be forced to allow individuals to see what information is held about them. This would include written information and images.

Linked to all this is the idea that we may be nearing the end of a golden era: the free internet.

A number of experts are now openly talking about balkanisation (dividing up into small units) of the internet where national governments exert much greater influence over what can and cannot be seen or done online. Instead of a flat, free and open internet, we may be faced with one that is more fragmented, controlled and censored. Is this another example of creeping automated policing? (See Predictive policing, above).

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 12 May 2013. ‘Google close to the creepy line’ by S. Duke. Financial Times 15-16 June 2013, ‘The net rips apart’ by R. Waters, J. Fontanella-Khan and G. Dyer.
Book links: The future of the internet – and how to stop it, by Jonathan Zittrain (Yale University Press).
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Search words: Wearable technology, wearables, internet of things, Google, privacy, anonymity, balkanisation.
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The empire strikes back

Britain is becoming a godless and uncivilised society according to some and, since many of their congregations have migrated there, African missionaries have started coming to Britain. It turns the work of early missionaries to Africa on its head.

In 2001, London was 59.8 per cent white. Today the white majority has become a minority - 44.9 per cent. Outside London, the change in some towns is even more dramatic. Despite major problems early on (not so long ago racist football fans threw bananas onto the pitch when black players walked on) multiculturalism has worked well in Britain. But perhaps the reason is that the whites always remained a majority.

Now the speed and scale of demographic change (both real and perceived) is starting to worry some people. They are not concerned about people from the former British Empire or colonies, but arrivals from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, many of whom are Muslim rather than Christian. The flow of these people is unlikely to reverse over the longer term, especially if climate change or geopolitical turmoil intensifies. So how will white Britons react?

Unease is only apparent within small sections of the community. But one consequence could be ‘white flight’ away from certain towns or regions, which may not be a problem. However, it’s equally possible that these demographic tipping points could fuel extreme right-wing violence. It reminds me of what happened in South Africa and how many South Africans left the country. Could this happen in Britain?

Ref: Prospect (UK) February 2013, ‘White flight’ by D. Goodhart.
Daily Telegraph (UK) 18 January 2011, ‘Missionaries flock to Britain to revive passion for church’ by V Coombe.
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Search words: secular, Africa, missionaries, muslims, Christians, white, ‘white flight’, violence.
Trend tags: Migration