Society & culture

Selfies in concentration camps

We’re familiar with the observation that today’s teens are a bunch of screen-obsessed, self-indulgent narcissists. Maybe this is true. More likely, it’s technology and psychology fumbling around in the dark trying to find an appropriate balance. Even so, individuals of any age pouting in front of signs saying ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free) breaks new ground.

People taking selfies at funerals is inappropriate, but at least you can laugh at them for being so insensitive and shallow. But grinning or indulging in faux-seriousness in front of, and inside, former concentration camps is taking things too far. Are we outraged, confused, curious or all three? Is this just an example of ‘dark tourism’? Is it inevitable that solemn sites are turned into macabre museums and can absolutely anything be entertainment given enough time?

It's certainly not entirely the fault of technology. This is primarily cultural. It’s symbolic of a postmodernist vacuum where individuals refuse to be told what to do, how to behave or what to think. It is also perhaps indicative of failing education systems and parental influence - they haven’t been taught how to think, about history and especially about people.

The best reaction may be a mixture of ridicule and sarcasm.

Ref: New Yorker (US) 26 June 2014, ‘Should Auschwitz be a site for selfies?’ by R. Margalit.
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Search words:Selfies, narcissism
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The ultimate non-renewable resource

We’ve been sitting on this for a while, but it’s time to dust it off. In 1930 the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted “our grandchildren” would work “three hours a day.”

It was a logical prediction at the time. Working hours were shrinking and a suite of time-saving technologies had begun to appear. Nowadays, we have the opposite problem, even though people in developed countries tend to have more leisure time than they used to.

In the US, for example, men work 12 hours less per week than they did 40 years ago. But why does it feel as though we have less time? The answer is that time is money.

If you earn more, then your time becomes more valuable. People then stress about wasting time or not using it efficiently, although the richer we become, the more valuable our time feels, which creates urgency to make every second count. The more people are paid, the more work they do too, especially if the cost of housing, healthcare and education keeps rising along with uncertain employment.

As a result, society is split between people who are cash rich but time poor and those who are time rich but cash poor. Time pressure persists at both ends of the economic spectrum. Working mothers with small children tend to be the most harried, as they struggle to pass on education and skills, without much money.

The result is leisure time starts to feel less leisurely, especially when people waste time working out how best to spend it. There are now so many ways to spend time that it creates anxiety about whether or not we are spending our time wisely. Mobile technology also breeds impatience. Email and text etiquette demand instant replies while office culture insists a leisurely lunch is not productive.

To function properly, both physically and mentally, our minds and bodies need to rest. This point is often lost on managers who equate leisurely looking out of the window with looking for another job and leisurely rounds of golf with goofing off work. (It is no coincidence that golf courses around the world are trying to figure out how to shorten or speed up the game.)

Time famine is a modern problem and it is certainly a first world problem. But feeling that time is flying by has deep roots. The philosopher Seneca complained that people seemed to be terribly busy but wasteful of their time. In a sense nothing has changed.

We spend most of our lives running from one place to another and then spend what remains wondering what we were running for or to. One silly solution is time management. But a better idea is to start valuing time doing nothing, because this is time to wonder what we really are doing with our lives.

Time is the ultimate luxury, but also the ultimate non-renewable resource - we should think more carefully about what we are willing to exchange for it.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 20 December 2014, ‘Why is everyone so busy?’ See also ‘Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism’ by Judy Wajcman and ‘Slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed’ by Carl Honre.
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2050 – Village idiots and more

There’s a paucity of perilous prediction in this issue, so here’s a little future gazing by Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics and Cosmology at Trinity College Cambridge. What might the world look like in the year 2050?

His answer is warmer and more crowded, with between 8.5 and 10 billion human souls requesting recognition and respect alongside food, water, energy and shelter.

Biodiversity will probably have weakened, impacting on all of the above and interconnectedness will have risen, freeing markets and minds, but potentially creating a series of systemic risks. The easy transmission of ideas and identities may aggravate tensions between freedom, privacy and security. As Rees say: “The global village will have its village idiots and they will have global range”.

Robots will be more common and artificial intelligence may have evolved so a hyper-computer could be the last invention the human race ever makes. I think this is unlikely on this timescale and we should never forget Terry Pratchet’s words: “real human stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time”.

Most likely, in our view, machines will have become more like us and we will have become more like them, adding physical and digital upgrades to our own bodies in some instances. In other words, evolution isn’t finished and we are not the end product. There could be some nasty existential risks, especially global pandemics and space weather, but, on balance, I’d expect most of us to still be here.

Ref: New Statesman (UK) 5-11 December 2014, ‘The World in 2050’ by M. Rees.
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On the poverty trail

For investors, one of the best forms of commercial property may be so-called affordable housing. This is because a growing segment of society just cannot afford to rent a flat or a house. In the US, the trend is to invest in trailer parks, where 20 million Americans, or 6% of the population, now live.

Warren Buffet is one of the biggest investors in trailer parks. Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), owned by Sam Zell, sits at the top, with controlling interests in nearly 140,000 parks. Where the smart money goes, many small investors go too. Thanks to the Mobile Home University, founded by Frank Rolfe, small investors can learn how to do it – and even how to behave in a trailer park.

The first rule is not to make fun of the people who live there. The second is to put the rent up, as soon as you become the owner. The thinking is that nobody in a trailer park will be able to move so they will just take the increase. No tenant ever leaves a trailer park. (This is serious advice – we are not making this up.)

Apparently, it is good business sense to have sex offenders in the park too. This is because there is so much surveillance going on, it keeps the drug dealers away. In one park for sex offenders, it costs $325 per month to rent a trailer. If an owner divides this into three rooms, they can ask $500 per month per room. It is traditional in the trailer park industry to raise rents by 10% each year.

The irony of this story is that this is ‘affordable housing’. It is hard to imagine how anyone can afford a 10% rent increase every year, particularly when wages growth is running so low. But owners of trailer parks are clearly on to a good thing by creating a culture of dependence on them for a ‘home’.

Australia and Britain do not yet have anything like this number of people living in caravans. But we have heard many mature people speaking about having to spend their retirement in a caravan, and we do not think they are joking. Not all baby boomers are rich.

Ref: The Guardian, 3 May 2015, ‘Investing in trailer parks’. R Neate.
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Search words: poor, rich, trailer parks, poverty line, rents, trailer trash, investment, affordable housing.
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New boring is the old boring

The idea of what is or isn’t boring keeps changing, because – well - people become bored with it. It’s also generational. Under 30s are not old enough to have experienced many of the pasttimes their parents may now consider boring so it’s not even nostalgia. We see several boring trends among the young: to play bridge, take up knitting and crochet, grow handlebar moustaches, or listen to vinyl records.

What is behind it? One young commentator says the future looks bleak for 30-somethings and they need to take refuge in something safe and homely. Or they may be rebelling against their parents, who are too cool for words with their brand names – and they drink more too.

The so-called Boring Lifestyle means giving up alcohol, drugs or partying and going trekking in the hills for a holiday. It means leaving the iPhone at home because it doesn’t work in remote areas and talking to real people.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms Australian youth are better educated, more abstemious and less likely break the law than ever before. In the past decade, the group of 18 to 24 year-olds drinking every day has halved. In 2001, 28% of 14-19 year olds had ever used ecstasy, pot or amphetamines compared to under 20% in 2013. Smoking rates have tumbled too. Australian youth have become boring. says “we won’t call anything ‘smart’ when controlling a light bulb with a phone is not that big of a deal anymore”. Which seems to us to be saying that young people no longer think being drunk, stoned or in jail is that smart anymore. They’d rather be boring.

Ref: The Guardian, 27 May 2015, ‘I have become boring. And happy.’ R Nicholson.
Reckless beyond words? A data-driven look at Australian young people today
Speech to the National Youth Conference. Speech by local MP.
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Blessed are curators because they are the choice makers

Curators are today’s celebrities and it seems anyone can be a curator, if they have the charisma and the opportunity. To curate today is to choose for everyone else. In many cases, the curator is better known than the artists or musicians they are curating. This is the broad thinking behind David Balzer’s book, Curationism.

Just to give an idea of how rampant is curating, a university in Michigan has placed ‘curator’, ‘curated’ and ‘to curate’ on its 2015 list of banished words. It is often just a fancy word for ‘chooser’, ‘chose’, ‘to choose’. In fact, the stem ‘cura’ means ‘care’ and the curator historically has been an amateur rather than a connoisseur. However, influential curators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were dealers, artists and museum directors and today they are behind the trends for participatory and installation art and biennials.

Art, especially the avant-garde, has often benefited from having somebody there to explain it. The curator gives value to things but also offers their own value to an imaginary or actual audience. It is a kind of performance. Oprah Winfrey is a curator, whose book club gave a huge filip to sales of classic books. Superstar curators, like Hans Ulrich Obrist in the art world, make whatever they ‘touch’ popular, just because they have touched it.

Social media, because they are so public, make people hyper aware of what they choose and others like them (or not like them) are choosing. The Facebook ‘like’ is a risky public choice. Netflix and Amazon tell users what they might like, based on what they’ve previously liked, or similar others have liked.

What is the effect of widespread curationism? Does it make us scared to make our own choices? Are we losing confidence in being able to tell what is worth having and what is just drivel? Perhaps the ‘imparters of value’ have blinded people to other things that are just as valuable. Ultimately, everyone curates their own experience and shares with others what they consider worth sharing – and dumps the rest. It is our way of making sense of the too-muchness of life.

Ref: The Spectator, 18 April 2015, ‘Spoilt for choice: we are all curators now’
. J Castle.
Curationism, by David Balzer.
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Search words: curator, curationism, choice, art, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, Facebook, ‘imparters of value’, Hans Ulrich Obrist, connoisseur.
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The look down generation

The smartphone has turned us all into the ‘look-down generation’ and it takes a lot to get us all to look back up for more than a second. Looking up means, for one thing, the chance of meeting another’s gaze. It also means observing what is going on in the world, rather than inhabiting the safe, virtual world of the phone.

Simon Schama, the British historian, has curated a series of portraits called The Face of Britain for the National Portrait Gallery. (See our story above, Blessed are curators.) He claims the only way for great artists to achieve what they do is by looking up and carefully observing others. It is not enough just to represent a person, but to go right into their soul. Taking a selfie just doesn’t compare.

Schama says there is a transaction going on between the sitter, artist and viewer. It would be difficult for this generation to be part of this transaction unless they let themselves look up and engage with the painting. The same is true in life, where it is difficult to connect with anyone at all – on the bus, in the street – if you are continually looking down. We have lost the outward gaze. Yet the exchange of looks is an intense and satisfying human experience.

The selfie is quick and soon over. But art has the quality of endurance and it captures the essence of somebody, not just their appearance. As Schama says, a selfie does not really get to the real person, just a shallow representation of them in that brief moment.

When people look down at their mobile phones while in company, they are essentially saying virtual people are more entralling to them than the physical ones. As one writer wisely says, if the virtual people swapped places with the physical people, it is unlikely anything would change. Their companion would still be looking down. It is a way of keeping human interaction at arm’s length, or avoiding any possibilty of connection, intimacy or gentle flirtation.

What is the future of the outward gaze? Is it lost forever? Perhaps our story above, New boring is the old boring, offers some hope that one day looking down all the time will be considered very boring.

Ref: The Telegraph, 1 April 2015, ‘Simon Schama: stop taking selfies, start looking at strangers’. A Singh.
Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain, National Portrait Gallery, 16 September 2015 to 4 January 2016.
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Search words: Simon Schama, selfies, portrait, National Portrait Gallery, smartphone, engagement, gaze, stare, art, endurance, eyes, outwards, observation.
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