Society & culture

Lost connection

The world is more talkative now than at any time in its history, but this is increasingly at the expense of meaningful conversation. We are talking at, rather than to, each other. At least that’s the view of Sherry Turkle, a Professor at MIT’s Media Lab and author of the book Alone Together.

Mobile devices, especially smartphones, have invaded formerly quiet or private spaces and we spend more time looking downward (at screens) than outward (at each other and our environment). Friendship and even love are increasingly mediated and filtered through screens and the real world is being looked at secondhand.

In an article in the Huffington Post, the photographer Babycakes Romero points out there is a “certain symmetry” to individuals on mobile devices and these individuals are: “locked simultaneously yet separately into the same action”.He also comments on: “sadness to the proceedings”. Some individuals remove themselves still further, wearing headphones to cut out auditory distractions or virtual reality headsets to remove reality altogether.

To some extent individuals use smartphones and other devices much as they used to use cigarettes - to pass the time or hide social awkwardness. But perhaps it is the devices themselves that are causing the awkwardness. You might argue that, in a culture dominated by individuals and personalisation, there is less common culture available to identify with and talk about. Perhaps we are using these devices to hide fundamental loneliness or insecurity, hence our endless quest for validation and approval.

Our devices induce silence, yet we have simultaneously become less able to deal with genuine silence. We have lost - or are losing - both the ability and the desire to be alone. Hence, our mobile devices provide an excuse for people, especially couples, to withdraw rather than engage in conversation and to keep the world (and each other) at a controllable distance.

Whether or not there is an emerging etiquette for mobile device use is uncertain. A few years ago the answer would have been absolutely not. For example, using mobiles in certain situations, such as important meetings or weddings, was fair game. But things may be slowly changing and what was once seen as OK is now considered rude or awkward by some. Using phones during funerals (“RIP, innit”) is perhaps slightly more frowned upon than it once was.

Babycakes Romero also observed that, when people are engaged with a mobile device, they don't seem mentally present or able to enjoy the moment or the person they are with. This is especially apparent in restaurants where the “dining dead” (his phrase) can hardly look at each other, such is the pull of possible incoming information.

Clearly we are saying I like or love you, but you could be trumped at any moment by something or someone else. This can hardly be good for our self-esteem and, in an ironic twist, people are more likely to turn to mobile devices and cyberspace to satisfy their hunger for connection. This creates an endless cycle of disconnection and connection.

A final, but important, point is that, when we do present ourselves through mobile devices, and social media in particular, our identity is contrived. It is rarely the real us. Instead we use a fake identity, which is consciously manipulated and manicured. Through our screens we appear happier, more optimistic and more successful than we really are. The nature of these on-screen conversations also favours showmanship and extroversion.

As a result, our connections are partly based on false information, and we end up believing our own false PR. This situation can endure for a long time, but at some point we will be inevitably be mugged by reality.

Ref: Huffington Post (UK), 27 October 2014, ‘Photographer Babycakes Romero captures the death of conversation due to smart phones’ by P. Bell.
See also ‘The flight from conversation’ by S. Turkle, New York Times (US) 21 April 2012 and ‘Saving the lost art of conversation’ by M. Garber, Atlantic Monthly (US) January 2014.
Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle, Professor at MIT’s Media Lab
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Search words: connection, conversation, awkwardness, silence, PR, mobiles, distraction, Babycakes Romero, screens, loneliness, identity.
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Oil shock (but not the way we expected)

Analysts at Deutche Bank in 2009 predicted that oil would reach $US175 a barrel by 2016. With the current price hovering just under $US50, this is starting to look a bit silly. Before that, the futurologist Ian Cochrane was predicting oil at $US30 a barrel, and he sounded like a lunatic at the time. Now it’s the other way around. As a former CEO of BP once commented: “the price of oil will go up and down”, which is a far sounder forecast.

How might the (currently) collapsing price of oil impact geopolitics and the global economy? First of all, let’s get this into some perspective. Since July 2014, the falling price of oil has transferred a staggering $US1.5 trillion a year from oil producers to consumers. This is startling and easily equivalent (but in reverse) to the 1970s oil price shocks. In theory the result is good news. Lower oil prices mean more money in the pockets of companies and consumers alike. The decline of income in Gulf and Russian states also means fewer oligarchs in London and less asset inflation, especially for prime real estate.

But there’s a set of darker scenarios too. Plunging oil prices might indicate a major slowdown in the Chinese economy (China moving out of its oil intensive phase of development) that could negatively hit global growth. Falling oil prices in the Gulf (largely caused by OPEC refusing to cut oil production to destabilise the nascent US shale gas industry) could topple various Middle Eastern regimes, with devastating consequences for global security.

The same is true in Latin America. According to Ian Bremmer, Chairman of Eurasia Group, writing in Time magazine, Venezuela balanced its budget for 2014 at $US142 a barrel. As for Russia, a humiliated Putin might lash out (extending Russia’s borders once again) to cement support internally and/or to react to what he sees as a Western conspiracy to destabilise his country.

Overall, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. We might ask whether the plunging oil price is cyclical or tectonic and whether it is a response to demand or supply-side forces. See our story this issue, The global effects of cheaper oil.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK) 12 December 2015, ‘Why the failing oil price is a troubling sign’ by J. Warner See also Time (US) 29 December 2014 -5 January 2015, ‘An uneasy path abroad’ by I. Bremmer.
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Search words: oil price, Latin America, Russia, China, growth, shale gas, Middle East, OPEC, Deutsche Bank, global economy, producer, consumer, supply, demand.
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Does how we read influence how we think?

We may be reading more than we did 35 years ago, and arguably writing more too, but is the way we read and write starting to affect how we think? In theory, having instant access to the world’s information should be making us smarter and negative concerns about technology have a long history. Some 2,500 years ago, Socrates worried that writing, instead of remembering, would erode knowledge. More recently, people thought digital calculators would kill mathematical ability.

It’s still early days, but the fact so many schools are rushing to take strong positions on technology based on so little evidence is a genuine concern, especially for parents. Some existing studies (and there aren’t many) do seem to suggest that paper and pixels are different. This shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that one technology is good while the other is bad. We need to work out the strengths of each and then choose the best –pens and paper or Kindles and iPads – for the task at hand.

Screens can dull our attention and work against deep, sustained reading, which in turn impacts understanding. One study of students who took notes by hand versus students who typed notes on a screen found the hand-writers usually understood the content of lectures better.

This could be partly because screens are internet-connected and there’s the temptation to do something else. The physical architecture of books (and magazines and newspapers) also seem to give readers physical clues as to where they are in a story or argument, which aids recall later.

Does it matter whether you remember anything if you can Google it? Moreover, perhaps the question isn’t whether reading or typing on a screen is different to reading or writing on paper, but what are the effects of habitually doing so? The answer to this question is still unclear. More studies are being conducted that seem to undermine the arguments of screen evangelists. Also of interest is the ‘slow reading’ movement, which acts as a counter-balance to the culture of immediacy and being always-on.

See also this issue, Reading, technology and culture.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 1 November 2014, ‘The writing’s on the screen?’ by T. O’Callaghan.
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Search words: reading, writing, connection, screens, recall, understanding, students, schools, parents, paper, computer, iPad, Kindle.
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Are we evolving to be stupid?

We know human intelligence has been increasing, thanks largely to higher standards of public health, public education and social conditions. In Denmark, for example, a standard IQ test, used from the 1950s-1980s to assess the intelligence of potential military recruits, clearly shows IQ levels have risen. Other data confirm this effect. However, since 1998, something strange has been observed in developed countries such as Denmark, the UK and Australia. IQ levels have not just leveled off – they are actually declining.

Evidence to date is thin and it’s quite possibly a blip. But it could also be real and based on cultural or even nutritional factors. A steady diet of processed foods or a diet of television and computers or so-called educational ‘reforms’ might not help. You might even argue that human beings are reaching the limit of natural genetic gains, much as height has now plateaued.

A controversial view is that, since the most intelligent people tend to have the least children, then we might be slowly breeding out intelligence and, as a species, we are evolving to be more stupid. This could be true, but we’ve had these arguments before and the outcome last time (eugenics and forced sterilisation) wasn’t pleasant. Perhaps as a species we are still becoming more intelligent, but in ways that traditional IQ tests either don’t measure or ignore completely.

So what’s next? Given our limited understanding of the genetic basis of intelligence, it will be a long time before we can tell what, if anything, is really going on and probably longer before we hack our own genes to improve our intelligence. In the meantime, there’s a fairly straightforward solution: education, education, education (possibly without the meddling, meddling, meddling).

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 23 August 2014, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ (leader) and ‘Stalled’ (cover story) by B. Holmes.
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Search words: intelligence, IQ, IQ test, education, children, stupid, military, Australia, US, Denmark, genes.
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Broken spirits

There is an epidemic emerging across many parts of the world, but the culprit isn’t Ebola, HIV or Swine Flu. In the UK, 25 per cent of the population will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in their lives, but less than a third of them will receive treatment.

Mental health problems cause more suffering than physical illness, poverty or unemployment and, according to the King’s Fund (a UK think tank), costs the NHS about 8-13 billion pounds annually. Economic costs are even higher – over 100 billion pounds annually, according to the Centre for Mental Health - so there is a huge economic incentive to address the issue.

Moreover, while NHS budgets have been cut across the board, mental health services have suffered the most. NHS beds for mental health patients, for instance, have been cut by a third over the last decade. Part of the problem is that physical and mental health are funded and staffed separately in the NHS and, to some extent, mental health has been lower priority and partly hidden.

The future promises many medical marvels, especially in genetics and advanced treatments for physical conditions, but as societies age and more people end up living alone, loneliness and anxiety related to social and technological change, could dominate. To some extent technology can offer us solutions, but many of the most effective treatments might be the oldest and the simplest. Keeping people in work, for instance, would have huge benefits, or reconnecting people with nature and, most of all, with each other.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 23 August 20014, ‘Body and soul’.
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Search words: aging, social change, treatments, NHS, Centre for Mental Health, mental health, economics, funding, King’s Fund.
Trend tags: Isolation, loneliness

Don’t worry, be happy

With wars in Syria and Iraq, conflict between Israel and Palestine, the rise of ISIS and the spread of Ebola, you might think life is getting worse or at least becoming less safe. You’d be wrong. On almost every measure that matters, life is becoming safer and, for most people, things have never been better.

Three plagues of the poor – malaria, Aids and tuberculosis – are all in retreat. Premature death among children under five “roughly halved” from 1990-2012 according to UNICEF, literacy rates and extreme poverty are improving and humans are living longer. Even war is safer than it used to be, says Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker.

During WW2 the death rate per 100,000 of world population was around 300. During the Korean War it was 30, during Vietnam War it was in the low teens and this century it is about one. Even with Syria, it is still only slightly above one death per 100,000.

If things are generally getting better, why do so many people feel so anxious? The reason is possibly global media. The adage “if it bleeds it leads” sums up the situation perfectly - the nature of news is to accentuate bad news over good.One solution might be to stop reading or watching it. Another, more practical proposition, might be to separate news and events from longer-term trends and global forces. Or perhaps the solution simply lies in worrying only about things close to home, although how then would we solve many of the world's problems?

Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK) 20-21 September 2014, ‘Why the world is getting safer’ by S. Kuper.
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Search words: war, deaths, global media, news, ebola, AIDS, poverty, malaria, conflict, anxiety, fear, safety.
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What’s Next for 2015?

Being the start of a new year, it’s obligatory to produce a list of trends for the coming year. Most lists are actually historical, looking backwards at what was bubbling the previous year and projecting trends forward. They also tend to be niche trends observed and experienced by small media-focused elites living in a handful of major cities. But Shoreditch, Brooklyn and Redfern aren’t Corby, Des Moines or Wagga Wagga.

So what are some of the more ridiculous micro-trends for the year ahead? The list is long, but includes: razors, coffee or even bespoke beauty samples by subscription (is there a subscription trend here?), denim suits (that don’t look like denim from a distance), discussion about how diet impacts mood, artisan toast bars (presumably from the people who tried and failed with breakfast cereal bars), condoms by post (subscriptions again), luxury socks (you guessed it, by subscription) and high-tech timepieces.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 3-4 January 2015, ‘The next big things’ by G de Bono and B. Hodgkin.
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Search words: subscriptions, razors, coffee, beauty, denim, food, mood, artisan toast, condoms, socks, timepieces.
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