Society & culture

Brief encounters and temporal experiences

You don’t get to write headlines like this one too often. And you don't get to write about articles written over three years ago either, because we somehow equate new with value whereas old seems rather out of date and even worthless. But sometimes the oldies are the goodies and many more recent articles aren’t up to much.

A professor of American art history at Harvard University has a few things to say about time, patience and immersion that may be pertinent to our accelerated and increasingly instant, digital culture.

Her view is that deceleration, patience and what she calls “immersive attention” are sadly lacking in our modern culture – or “nature”, as she calls it. She says spending a painfully long time looking at a single work of art can pay dividends.

How can you possibly look at a painting for three hours? Is there enough to see? Such questions rather miss the point. But it’s an easy point to miss because we assume there’s nothing much to be said about looking or seeing, just because it’s so easy and so innate. That’s possibly why we generally don’t look at things for very long.

Apparently, the average time visitors to the Louvre Museum in Paris spend looking at the most famous painting in the world (the Mona Lisa) is 15 seconds. Another museum reckons visitors look at less famous paintings for less than two seconds. What are these people seeing? More importantly, what might they be missing?

First, there is often an enormous amount of information in a painting. Older pictures, in particular, are ‘time batteries’. But much is hidden to the casual and impatient observer. Second, it is often assumed that vision is immediate and the only things worth seeing or knowing - about anything - are immediately obvious and observable.

But this is clearly untrue. Just because you have seen something doesn’t necessarily mean you have looked at it. Looking at art critically teaches us the power of critical attention and patient investigation.

Third, delays are not always negative. Insight can arise from extended periods of delay or apparent nothingness, much the same as ideas often spring from apparent idleness. Therefore, periods of disconnection from the modern world, along with variations in the pace that information is consumed, can pay rich rewards for our productivity.

All of this, of course, is an old idea. The idea that patience is a virtue or that time is directly related to the mastery of skills sounds almost quaint. Suggesting that access or, heaven forbid, ‘entertainment’ is not synonymous with learning sounds like suffering or even loss of control.

But what if we flipped all this on its head? What if we started to see disconnection, waiting and Zen-like patience, in particular, as the ultimate form of control? What if we started to teach patience as a strategic art? How long does it take to look at a work of art? In some cases, it’s a lifetime.

Ref: The Harvard Review (US), November-December 2013, ‘The power of patience’ by J. Roberts. Also, Huffington Post (US), 8 November 2010, ‘How long does it take to look at a painting?” by J. Elkins.
Search words: Art, painting, seeing, looking, instant, immediate, time
Trend tags: Slow, deceleration, disconnection

Why the future needs more people in it

Last year, Facebook launched a virtual assistant. It was called Moneypenny, after the secretary in the James Bond books. Yet again, a vision of the future was from the past, possibly with a nod to Walt Disney’s Tomorrow Land in the 1950s. Is this sexist or just a natural outcome of more than two thirds of Facebook’s employees being men?

Whatever the reason, the future is generally shaped by men: usually white middle-aged Americans. The majority of the World Future Society’s members are white men aged 55 to 65 and when it comes to the media’s go-to guys for discussing the future, they’re men too.

Visions of the future are overwhelmingly created by, and to some extent shaped for, a tiny slice of society, one usually employed in science or technology, and has not had to struggle too much. This is perhaps why technological advances usually define the future and why portrayals of the future are almost always optimistic scenarios where technology will solve all of mankind’s problems.

In the future, for example, we’ll all live far longer, which is fine if you have enough money, but not so fine if you are already struggling to survive in the present.

Is this a problem? You bet it is. First, lack of diversity among the people imagining the future means that we miss out on vast networks and frameworks of perspectives, experience and imagination. Second, by focusing on technology, we miss out on the social and emotional sides, not to mention the politics of futurism.

Scientists and technologists are essential to explore what’s possible in the future but, as Alvin and Heidi Toffler pointed out in their book Future Shock in the 1970s, we also need people from the arts and humanities to explore what’s preferable.

We need ethical code alongside computer code. Currently a tiny minority of people have hijacked the future – less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s population perhaps. It is up to the remaining 99.9 per cent to urgently reclaim it and especially add a softer and more human perspective to the discussion.

Ref: The Atlantic (US) July 2015, ‘Why aren’t there more women futurists?’ by R. Eveleth.
Search words: Future, futurism, futurology, scenarios, prediction
Trend tags: -

Out of the ashes

There’s always a danger of overstating a trend, but could an interest in chopping, stacking and drying wood be linked to an emerging crisis of masculinity? Probably not, but the fact a book about this subject was a surprise bestseller last Christmas, surely says something about the Zeitgeist.

So what’s going on? First, the book sold well in Norway, which isn't too much of a surprise. In Norway, a pile of firewood isn’t just a lifestyle accessory, but can be a matter of life and death. Indeed, regulations state you must have a secondary heating source in case you lose your electricity supply. If it’s minus 35 degrees outside in winter, you clearly need a heat source.

But sales of wood-burning stoves have risen by 40 per cent over the last 5 years in the UK, a country with few hard winters of late. To some extent this is nostalgia. British TV shows about baking, making clay pots, dancing, and singing - all traditional pursuits to a greater or lesser degree - are all huge hits. Perhaps they are an antidote to the accelerated digital world.

But wood, and fire in particular, could also express man’s relationship with technology, nature, land, manual labour and even fear. Technical advances have obviated the need for fire-making skills but, in a world that feels increasingly uncertain and out of control, the need to keep your family warm and safe has not gone away and maybe even intensified.

Knowing how to harvest, store and set fire to wood is also a tradition that can be passed on from father to son, an emotion that men may like to connect with. A woodpile is also testimony to physical effort. A day spent sorting, cutting and stacking wood is somehow more of an achievement than one spent filling in Excel spread sheets.

So what’s next? Expect more nostalgic TV for one thing, but also more of an interest in local crafts and traditions.

Ref: The Times magazine (UK) 29 September 2015, ‘Norwegian Wood: Chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’ by Lars Mytting.
Search words: Wood, fire, wood stoves, men, heat
Trend tags: Nostalgia

Vinyl revival

The writer JG Ballard once said: “If enough people predict something it won’t happen.” There’s a parallel argument that whatever enough people want, eg, self-driving cars, will get eventually get invented, but both positions can be true simultaneously.

Certain objects that were supposed to be dead or dying seem to be enjoying something of a revival, for example, vinyl records. Instead of throwing away the machines used to make vinyl records in the late 1980s and early 1990s, GZ Media, in the Czech Republic, kept a handful.

They are now reaping the rewards, partly because so few of these machines still exist. In 1994, the firm cranked out 300,000 albums to a few enthusiasts. But by 2014, this figure had risen to 14.5 million. Why?

This is a classic example of a counter trend, but it’s probably linked to demographics too. A large cohort of baby boomers appreciates the warmer sound that vinyl produces and this transports them back in time. There are ritualistic aspects to purchasing and listening to vinyl albums. History can play a role too, especially in countries like Czech Republic, where some vinyl records were once banned and became totems associated with the cultural underground.

Is this trend simply the last gasp of an out-dated technology or does it represent something more significant? Our feeling is that vinyl - like Aga ovens, analogue watches and fountain pens - demonstrates a human need for sensory objects and experiences that enhance us as feeling human beings, rather than diminish us.

It also shows, perhaps, that digital technology isn't always binary. Just because we invent more convenient, cheaper or more mobile formats, doesn’t necessarily imply the death of other older formats. You might argue this is what’s happened with retail banking. Phone, internet and now mobile banking haven’t completely destroyed our desire to visit physical bank branches sometimes.

In short, when it comes to the future, it’s very often a case of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’.

Ref: International New York Times (US), 7 August 2016, ‘With vinyl’s return, Czech firm has a hit’ by R. Lyman. See also Financial Times (UK), 6 November 2016, ‘Out of the groove’ by R. Shrimsley’.
Search words: Vinyl, records, music, formats, sound
Trend tags: Nostalgia

A sudden outbreak of restraint

In 2002, only 13 per cent of German teenagers had never tasted alcohol. By 2012, this number had risen to 30 per cent. In the UK, the number of children aged 10-17 given a police caution fell from 111,000 to 28,000 between 2007 and 2013. What on earth is going on here? Aren’t teens supposed to be out of control? Quite the opposite it seems, but why?

One explanation is demographic. There are far fewer teens than there used to be and, according to an EU study, over half of young people in Europe now live with their parents.

There’s less disposable income around than there was and more pressure to stay in education. There's also the thought that migrants have brought with them a culture that abstains from alcohol. Government initiatives on teen pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse have had an impact and parents are devoting more time to childcare than they used to.

There’s also parental paranoia - partly because having fewer children means they have less tolerance for risk - and media paranoia about good parenting and ‘stranger danger.’ You could even blame, arguably, the internet. In 1994, around 70 per cent of lone parents had no idea where their kids were after 9pm, roughly double the figure reported by nuclear families.

By 2005 the figures for lone parents and nuclear families had roughly converged, partly, one assumes, because kids tended to be inside on mobile devices rather than outside doing heaven knows what. This all sounds good for parents and possibly for society too, but what are the longer term consequences for teens and young adults?

More than ever before, this new generation is watched over, spends less time outside and spends less time interacting physically with friends and co-workers. Education is generally expensive. Good jobs are becoming harder to find and less stable once you’ve found them, perhaps one reason why depression and anxiety in this age group are commonplace. Self-harm and suicide rates are also up and trust of others is down.

Research by PEW in the US, for instance, found only 19 per cent of Millennials agree with the statement: “Generally speaking, most people are trustworthy.” Among baby boomers the figure was 40 per cent. We think this is a ticking time bomb.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 12 July 2014, ‘Oh! You pretty things’, anon.
Search words: Youth, Millennials, teenagers, teens, stress, anxiety, moderation, conservatism,
Trend tags: Anxiety

Stressed and unhappy

One apparently counter-intuitive trend is, as the world becomes more connected, the more we feel alone. In the words of the singer/songwriter James Blunt: “Seems that everyone we know is out there waiting by a phone wondering why they feel alone.”

The UK child helpline, Childline, recently reported 35,000 calls in 2015 about low self-esteem and unhappiness, and 26,000 calls about cyber-bulling. One of Childline’s volunteers, Colin Butler, who has been working with the charity for 30 years, says children are now lonelier, unhappier and far more likely to hurt themselves than three decades ago:

“The amount of distressed youngsters is horrendous. Young peoples’ mental health is a car crash. They’re under so much pressure to achieve, they’re stressed to death.”

He goes on to suggest that mobile and personal technology has made it much easier for children to make contact with the charity, which is a good thing, but it’s now much easier for abuse to find them 24/7 too.

Part of the problem is it’s now much easier to see how everyone else is doing on sites like Instagram or Facebook. However, children obviously don’t realise that much of what they think their friends are doing is actually a misleading edit of reality. Children aren’t equipped emotionally to deal with this.

For older children worries about school grades and future employment prospects also loom large. In 1986-7 the top five reasons for calling Childline were: sexual abuse, family, physical abuse, pregnancy and friend problems. In 2014-15 the top five reasons were: family, low self-esteem/unhappiness, bullying/cyber-bullying, self-harm and feeling suicidal.

To quote James Blunt again: “She's another victim of life, we've come to know, technology, celebrity, all the things you cannot hold. She's from a long lost tribe looking for the light. Or a friend to hold her hand.”

Ref: The Times (UK) 9 January 2016, ‘Cyberworld creates sad and lonely children’ by L. Bannerman. See also
Search words: Happiness, unhappiness, suicide, bullying
Trend tags: Anxiety, global connectivity

Big Data: Something that’s truly different

For all the hype about social media and the internet, most of what these things can do could be done before. All we’ve invented of late are faster or more convenient ways of doing things. There are significant exceptions to this, of course, and one of the biggest is Big Data.

Big Data has been so hyped of late that some people could be bored with it or at least, disillusioned. This would be a big mistake. Big Data is important because it’s a new tool that allows us to observe things that were previously deeply hidden, private or unobservable.

For example, if Google holds billions of search queries, it can make certain correlations, not by using some of its data but all of it. Similarly, a New York housing authority can work out which of its apartments are illegally subdivided, not by knocking on all doors, but by using software to search through reams of old data. Old data can reveal hidden correlations between many variables from recent refurbishments to rent payment delays.

The real news, though, is billions of us are now walking around with mobile devices. These continually emit data about location, searches we do and even payments we make, which can be correlated with more and more other data. With the growth of smart sensors, wearables and perhaps eventually devices embedded in our bodies, Big Data is set to explode.

With this explosion in Big Data is the ability of some to predict what individuals, groups or even events will do next.

This leaves us with one big problem, and it could potentially derail both Big Data and the Internet of Things. This is the loaded matter of who owns the bits of data emitted by individuals and their right to privacy. To date this issue is barely on the radar of legal firms, let alone society at large.

Ref: Top strategic predictions for 2016 and beyond: The future Is a digital thing, by Gartner. See also Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think by V. Mayer-Schonberger and K. Cukier.

Connections between science and science fiction

Technology companies, especially in California, seem to be turning to science fiction for inspiration. Oculus, the maker of virtual reality devices, hands out copies of ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernst Cline to new hires and recently gave out 3,000 copies to attendees at its developers’ conference.

According to Neal Stephenson, author of sci-fi classic ‘Snow Crash’, this is because: “Science fiction can actually have some value in that it gets everyone on the same page without the kind of expensive and tedious process of PowerPoint.” Or as designer Ralph Osterhout says: “Science fiction, in simplest terms, sets you free.”

Ref: International New York Times (US) 18 February 2016, ‘Technology companies turn to science fiction to prepare for the future’ by N. Wingfield.
Search words: Sci-fi, science fiction, futures, scenarios
Trend tags: -

Income inequality extends to life expectancy

Income polarisation is turning into lifespan polarisation. The gap between rich and poor in life expectancy in the UK has widened for the first time since the 1870s. For example, the richest 5% of men in the UK live 96.2 years on average, 34.2 years longer than the poorest 10%. The richest women live to an average of 98.5 years, 31.5 years longer than the poorest 10%.

The main reason for this divergence appears to be lifestyle choices, but education and income play a part too. Nowadays most people in the UK die from chronic rather than infectious diseases, according to Les Mayhew, author of a recent study on public health.
Most of the poorest groups are still living longer than they used to, but the difference between the richest and poorest groups is generally increasing.

It would be easy to simply blame obesity but the real culprit appears to be decades of unhealthy living, especially tobacco and alcohol misuse, and lack of physical exercise. However, it’s also related to access to healthcare and education. In the UK, healthcare is still provided at no cost, but those willing to pay generally have access to faster and sometimes better treatment. Education plays a role because healthy behaviour tends to spread faster through networks of educated individuals.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 21 February 2016, ‘Rich buy time as lifestyle divide widens’ by N. Hellen.
Search words: obesity, lifestyle, education, polarisation
Trend tags: -

Trend with an edge

Here’s a slightly different example of our story, Out of the ashes. In a small workshop in Peckham, South East London, three young blacksmiths are forging artisan knives by hand.

Again, this feels counter-intuitive. The blades take a long time to make and aren’t cheap either. The business, which started in 2013, borders on the obsessive. Metal for the knives is heated to around 2,000 C and is then beaten and folded 300 to 400 times before being ground into shape. Then handcrafted handles are added from native materials, such as apple, oak and walnut.

Most of the knives are practical utensils to be used in the kitchen, but each object also represents something far more important.

As the world becomes more global, virtual, homogenised and accelerated, there’s a counter-trend for craft-based things emerging. In other words, these are objects and techniques that are local, slow, unique and physical.

Financial; Times (UK) 7-8 November 2015, ‘Knife making at the sharp end’ by J. Foyle,
Search words: Knives, knife making, forge, blacksmiths
Trend tags: Local, slow, craft

Predictions for 2016 (predictably late)

What’s coming in the rest of 2016 and beyond? According to Prospect magazine there are 12 trends, including: growth of the Anglo sphere and decline of the BRICs, end of gender, return of the (physical) book, Alzheimer’s economy, return of the pay rise, redrawing borders and the Great Default (strong and rising threat of a Chinese emerging market and global recession).

Our favourite here at What's Next is, predictably, the return of the physical book.

Apparently, sales of e-books slowed in 2015 and the segment of people in the US reading books primarily on digital formats has fallen from 50 per cent in 2013 to 32 per cent now. Waterstones, one of the UK’s largest book chains, has stopped selling Kindles and reports a rise of 3 per cent in physical book sales during the first two quarters of 2015.

Is this a blip or are readers, saturated with digital media, returning to slower and more immersive formats?

Ref: Prospect (UK) January 2016, ‘The Big Ideas of 2016’, Anon.
Search words: Trends, predictions, 2016
Trend tags: -