News, media & communications

Oh Grow Up

Colouring-in books have been around for ages - for children. But the Japanese craze for colouring-in books for adults has now expanded globally. In February 2017, half of the books in Amazon’s top 10 bestsellers in the UK were colouring-in books.

If this isn’t odd enough, Publishers Weekly says over half of young adult fiction is now bought by fully grown adults, well, people over 18 at least. To some extent we can blame Harry Potter for this. Then it was Hunger Games. So why can’t adults grow up?

Some people argue this is just harmless fun. Others blame the stress and anxiety about the modern world. Both are probably true but it’s worrying to see what counts as creativity these days. Even more worrying is our culture offers so few models of adult behaviour that are even remotely appealing to anyone with half a brain. It’s all dumbed down, self-indulgent entertainment.

Perhaps the forces that govern our consumerist culture do not want fully grown adults. The masses are just so much easier to manage when they are constantly distracted by titbits. Who needs censorship when you’ve got Twitter and Snapchat. Why worry about revolutions when people are flooded with so much trivia they can't even think straight?

The easiest way to make money is to appeal to our basest instincts and the best way to avoid difficult choices is to make people so busy they can’t stop to question. So put down your boxed sets, your colouring books, your graphic novels and your lifestyle magazines - start filling in your own life.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 7 May 2016. ‘Isn’t it about time we all grew up?’ by S. Neiman.
Search words: colouring-in books, stress, adult, indulgence, dumb
Trend tags:Kidults, intelligence, dumbing down

A Stay at Home Generation

Is it curtains for cinema? Hollywood has always been squeezed between the ocean, the desert and one of the world’s largest earthquake zones, but an apocalypse may be nigh.

In 2015, half of America did not visit a movie theatre and the half that did go only went once or twice. This might not be a bad thing. If there were fewer cinemas the ones remaining could potentially be enlarged and become more pleasant places with bigger screens, comfy seating and quality food and drink.

Another scenario is that people just stay at home and consume boxed sets. Or maybe Sean Parker’s idea of an on-demand video system that screens movies the same day they are released in cinemas will see a blend of the two futures.

Let’s not forget we’ve been here before. VHS was supposed to kill the cinema in the 1980s. It didn’t. Then the bogey man was 3D films. In fact bad films did the most damage.

As screens expand and TV budgets grow fatter, the distinction between the screen at home and the screen in movie theatres will surely start to erode. Watching films at home is more convenient and usually cheaper too. But there’s one thing cinemas will always have that TV sets don’t - people.

The actors and actresses we find on movie screens tend to be bigger physically and metaphorically - we feel more about film stars than we do about people on TV. But the biggest difference of all is the audience. At home we sit alongside one, two or perhaps three other people. In a large cinema it can be hundreds of other people. Hundreds of people acting human, being social and laughing, crying and screaming at the same time. That’s a pretty tricky thing to digitalise.

Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 22-22 May 2016, ‘Is it curtains for the big screen’ by T. Shone.
Search words: cinema, Hollywood, VHS, screens, celebrity, audience
Trend tags: Convenience

Too Hard to Do Nothing

Philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked: “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. Technology seems to offer the ultimate solution to that fear of being alone. Yet the arguments against digital technology and the ‘always on’ culture are getting louder.

Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive, focuses on sleep deprivation, low attention spans, diminishing empathy and wasted time. Meanwhile, Adam Alter’s book, Irresistible, charts how digital devices and apps are deliberately designed to appeal to our deepest subconscious needs and desires. This is what makes them addictive.

Tech companies are well aware that ‘likes’ are like crack cocaine. We crave them because we crave attention and long to be loved. The chemicals in our brains conspire to make sure we can’t put these devices down. Will anyone like this? Will they send me something in return? Did everyone look at what I just did?

However, we have always had chemicals in our brains and they are not the problem. The problem is our reliance on these chemicals to self-medicate against psychological states such as loneliness, boredom and anxiety.

In a startling 2014 experiment, students were told they could sit quietly alone for up to 15 minutes in a bare room or do the same and give themselves electric shocks. Most participants chose the shock treatment! The conclusion was most people prefer to do something rather than nothing. Technology offers them something rather than nothing.

Different media play to different human frailties. Some give out digital praise in the form of flashing lights, points and prizes. (See our story, A good listener but not a friend.) Others pander to laziness. Tech companies and entrepreneurs are smart enough to know how this works. Far from building a better world, many are pushing products to customers that they would not even allow their own children to use.

Ref: The Times (UK), 25 February 2017, Social media: how to fight back’ by J. Turner.
Search words: do nothing, entertainment, chemicals, Thrive, Irresistible, laziness
Trend tags:-

A Global Epidemic of Attention-Whoredom

With the notable exception of the TV series Black Mirror, it’s interesting how most television, film and fiction has missed the internet and social media in particular. There are other exceptions too.

Jarett Kobek’s novel, I Hate the Internet, makes the timely observation that the internet is a colossal scam, a “bad ideology created by thoughtless men” and “a computer network which people use to remind other people they are awful pieces of s***t”.

Werner Herzog’s documentary outlines how the sci-fi imaginations of a handful of techno-optimists in Silicon Valley is unravelling and Dave Eger’s 2013 novel, The Circle, evokes the totalitarian creepiness of digital technology. Add to the list the writings of Jaron Lanier, Evgeny Morozov and Andrew Keen and there are perhaps the makings of a backlash. Even Zadie Smith, not known for her technological themes, comments that, when humans become data, everything from character to friendship and language shrinks.

So, what’s next? It’s generally assumed the internet is here to stay, but why? Surely online fraud, invasions of privacy and theft of intimate data that ultimately belongs to users could bring the show to an end or, at least, create some powerful counter-trends?

One interesting recent development is the fact not only old people are starting to question the utopia that was cyberspace. Younger people are now starting to question the motives of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon and even Apple is looked upon with suspicion.The internet could yet become a failed experiment.

It is also dawning on people that, with the exception of Apple, Big Tech is actually in the ad business. That’s their model. They collect data, profile users and sell this information or ads around the information. They are, with some exceptions, not saving the planet or even making us nicer people - just selling ads. Worse still, many of these companies are employing their users or customers as unpaid workers.

We are the ones creating the content, but all we get in return is some personalisation and some ads. Moreover, the techno-optimistic myth that hardware and software are neutral is being debunked. Most of these websites and apps are deliberately designed from the get-go to hook people They are designed to be addictive and stealing our mental and physical health. We surrender information without questioning what it might be used for, and even worse is our whorish desire for it.

We want to be famous and adored and think that, by posting meaningless and inconsequential bits of information, our lives will be transformed.

As for Big Data, be very afraid. There are good uses for data, but also bad uses. Because clicks are the only measure that matters, we are in a frantic rush to the lowest common denominator. All that matters now is how popular or how recent things are. Good things, great things and especially old things are seen as irrelevant or even dangerous.

The Internet is becoming a giant echo-chamber, an endless recycler of well-worn formats, cliches and templates. Anything remotely original or creative is ignored or re-crafted until it fits these templates or, as writer and activist Naomi Klein puts it, the internet promotes “changeless change”.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 8 January 2017, ‘Not OK computer’, by B. Appleyard.
Search words: internet, cyberspace, utopia, Big Data, echo chamber, addiction, fraud, backlash
Trend tags: -

Why Dumb Phones are Smart

Why is a phone last seen in 2000 – the Nokia 3310 – being updated and re-released by Nokia? Many original versions of the 3310 are selling for high prices on eBay. (See our story, The engaging nature of dumb phones). One reason is that nothing is becoming less sexy or less of a burden than the latest smartphone.

Some phones that disappeared over the last decade or two did so for good reasons. The Blackberry and Palm failed to move away from their business user bases and the companies behind them fatally misjudged the importance of physical keyboards. In contrast, Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007 and got design and usability right - but the cost was high, especially for a device that had to be replaced every year or two due to endless updates or fashion.

Putting aside the high purchase cost and low battery life of these smartphones, users have started to wake up to the fact that most apps turn out to be unnecessary.

Enter the era of the low-cost dumbphone, with many costing as little as $25. Such phones were originally designed to appeal to poor users in Asia and especially Africa. They now appeal to people seeking a cheap phone that won’t get stolen, won’t break if dropped, won’t act as a tracking device and won’t run out of battery life in an emergency.

The Nokia 3310 isn’t the future, but it is part of the longing for simplicity. It’s one species within a complex ecosystem of technical diversity.

Ref: The Atlantic (US) 28 February 2017, ‘The wisdom of Nokia’s dumbphone’, by I. Bogost.
Search words: Nokia 3310, smartphone, dumbphone, simplicity, eBay
Trend tags: Simplicity