Society & culture

�Information overload

Feeling anxious lately? The reason could be a surfeit of information. Consequences could include the likelihood of you making critical errors. A study conducted by Angela Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University (US) has found that as information flow is increased, so too is activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the rain associated with decision-making and the control of emotions. Sounds good. It isn’t. If information flow is steadily increased, activity in this region suddenly falls off. Why could this be so?

The reason is that part of the brain has essentially left the building. When incoming information reaches a tipping point the brain protects itself by shutting down certain functions. The result is that decision-making is impaired. Other consequences include a tendency for anxiety and stress levels to soar and for people to abstain from making any kind of decision at all. Even worse is the impact on creative thinking, which research suggests requires periods of no information (i.e. incubation and reflection).

Coastguard Admiral Thad Allen was the incident commander during the recent BP disaster. He received between 300 and 400 pages of emails, texts and reports every day during the oilrig blow out. Nobody is making a direct connection between this data deluge and subsequent actions, but the possibility certainly exists.

The takeaway here is that Dimoka’s research suggests that being exposed to too much information is changing how we think and we should think carefully about restricting the flow of incoming (and outgoing) information and seek periods of down time.
Ref: Newsweek (US), 7 March 2011, ‘I can’t think’ by Sharon Begley.
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Search words: Too much information, information overload, disruption, peak attention, risk, thinking
Trend tags: TMI

Forensic phenotyping

A team of scientists from the University Medical School in Rotterdam (Netherlands) claims to have developed a way of creating accurate visual descriptions of criminals based on DNA traces left at crime scenes. The test, which uses a tiny sample of blood, can apparently predict height, eye colour and even age within a range of about eight years. Within a few years the test may also be able to predict hair colour. According to Mark Shriver, an associate professor of genetics and anthropology at Penn State University (US), in the more distant future skin pigmentation and perhaps even facial features could be forecast. In theory such tests would be far more reliable than eyewitness testimony, but there is the possibility of generating false results, which could be hard to challenge in court. So what’s next? One distant possibility is that scientists will one day develop a test that will predict not only physical traits but also behavioural characteristics, such as the likelihood to commit particular types of crime. Overlay some other predictive techniques – such as mapping likely crimes based on geographical data (where criminals are likely to live) or weather patterns (it’s already well known that certain kinds of weather result in certain types of crime) and we’ve not that far away from the Hollywood movie script in which a department of future crimes arrests people for crimes they haven’t committed yet, but will in the future.
Ref: Vancouver Sun (Canada), 1 January 2011, ‘DNA on verge of describing crook’s looks’, by D. Quann.
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Search words: DNA, forensic, prediction
Trend tags: -

Our obsession with self-expression

In June of last year Americans spent nearly 23% of their online time using social networks (up 43% on the previous year). At the end of 2011 around 50% of Americans are forecast to own smart-phones and there will be 2 billion digitally-connected individuals and 5 billion digitally-connected devices roaming the planet, all of which are likely to accelerate our exhibitionist and voyeuristic impulses. Presumably we will soon have Zuckerberg’s Law, which will state that there will be a doubling of the amount of information people share about themselves online every year. But is this all a clever trap? Is it ultimately anything more than an advertising model whereby our thirst for meaningful connection tricks us into giving away personal data about ourselves in return for nothing more than tailored coupons and communications?

According to the internet evangelist Clay Shirky, social has become the new default setting of the internet, which is now driven by ‘likes’ instead of links. Sites such as Groupon, Living Social and Bippy represent the future, we are told, because they either reveal to the world what individuals like you and I like or they group individuals that are like you and I together for mutual benefit. In other words, we share because sharing brings benefits. People can get attention, spread ideas, organise movements, swap advice and access personally relevant information and entertainment. Privacy suffers, in the sense of becoming collateral damage, but it is ultimately in our best interest to be as open and transparent as possible.

But this self-promotional madness is problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, why should commercial organisations be allowed to capture intimate details about our likes and dislikes (often without our knowing) and sell this on to other commercial organisations for profit? Should not we, the people, own this data and choose whether or not to sell it? And don’t think that we are merely talking about data about where people live or what types of music or cola they prefer. We’ve already got GPS that can track people down to the nearest metre, digital money that records the precise time and place of transactions and geo-coding that can put an image in a particular spot. Coming next there’ll be facial recognition that will reveal exactly who we are (and therefore where we are and where we are not) and technologies that can tell remotely what we are doing and our state of mind (sitting down, standing up or walking; relaxed or stressed). There is even emerging technology than can quite literally work out what you are thinking or what you are likely to do in the very immediate future.

Putting aside the thought that if everything is shared openly we eliminate mystery and serendipity, there is still the argument that human happiness is to some degree contingent upon people being left alone with their private thoughts and feelings. Last but not least, there is also the thought that the bet being made by various technologists and financiers in Silicon Valley is that universal connectivity will result in a flowering of empowerment, democracy and creativity. But what if they are wrong? What if instead we get a tyranny of the online majority, where people are constantly watched everywhere they go, and where everything that is thought, or bought, is captured, stored away and owned forever by faceless corporations and governments about whom we know next to nothing.
Ref: Inspired by Wired (UK), March 2011, ‘Your life torn open’, Essay 1: ‘Sharing is a trap’, by A. Keen; Essay 2: ‘Zuckerberg's next move’; by S. Johnson; and Essay 3: ‘Get over it’, by J. Jarvis.
Links: Digital Vertigo: An Anti-Social Manifesto by Andrew Keen.
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Search words: Social networks, online, digital, privacy, location, data
Trend tags: Digitalisation, virtualisation

The globalisation of superficiality

One of the things I like about Twitter (OK, it’s the only thing I like) is that it can expose the extreme triviality of some people’s lives. Take Peaches Geldof for instance (famous for being famous as far as I can tell). A few days after the Japanese tsunami she tweeted that ‘My thoughts go out to all those affected by the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the pacific.’ Nothing wrong with that thought. But one wonders just how far these feelings went when we heard, shortly afterwards, that she was also very concerned about ‘Why does the price of Lucozade (a soft drink) vary so widely from shop to shop?’ It could have been much worse though. The singer 50 Cent’s instant response to the tragedy was that ‘I had to evacuate all by hoe’s (sic) from L.A. Hawaii and Japan.’

But we can’t blame Twitter for all this. The internet was generally at fault. The handbag designer and shop owner Anya Hindmarch, for instance, added a message on her website saying: ‘To all our friends in Japan, we are thinking of you! x’, after which she added: ‘Shop now.’ Even the UK government is jumping on the bandwagon of banality. The British High Street retail sector is in crisis so what does the government do? It hires Mary Portas from TV’s Mary Queen of Shops to sort it out. She might do some good if anyone lets her have a proper go, but one suspects the issue requires more than a bit of window dressing. But that’s not really the point. What this decision shows is that the government is using celebrity to suggest that something is being done when it is not. The act of saying she’s been hired is in a sense far more important than her actually doing anything. And that is precisely the point. We have entered an era in which our collective forgetting allows individual institutions to deal in instant illusions rather than thoughtful and genuine ideas and actions.
Ref: The Observer (UK), 20 March 2011, ‘Japan’s agony? Just think about the celebrities’, by C. Bennett. and The Observer, 22 May 2011, ‘Don’t blame Mary Portas if she can’t deliver the coalition’s punchline’, D. Mitchell.
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Search words: Twitter, tweets, websites, social networks, superficiality, attention, thinking, celebrity, celebrities, shallow thinking, connection
Trend tags: Connectivity

The post-material economy: in search of meaning not money

Can technological change cause a fundamental shift in what people value? This is a question poised by David Brooks writing in the New York Times recently, who went on to observe that an industrial economy can mean that people develop a materialist mind-set whereby income and material well-being becomes confused with quality of life. Enter the post industrial, information age or knowledge economy in which people are starting to realise that they can dramatically improve their quality of life without increasing their income or producing more wealth. This can happen because many of the things that contribute substantially to people’s quality of life are no longer produced in the traditional monetised economy, but from people doing things for nothing. In other words, technological innovations mean that quality of life can now be driven, or at least be influenced, by doing things that cost nothing (or next to nothing) to produce.

This is a radical thought, not least because many of the activities that can create quality of life or happiness do not directly produce economic activity or jobs in the conventional sense. For example, it can be argued (not by me) that Facebook creates happiness, but Facebook only employs around 2,000 people. With Twitter it’s about 300. Even the creation of an iPod only requires around 14,000 people and could arguably result in net job losses if you take into account the job losses from record shops and CD factories.So what’s the takeaway here? One thought is that income and living standards are no longer synonymous and are possibly diverging. Another point is that if you look at happiness and experiences rather than wealth or material goods, many people are much better off than they think.
Ref: New York Times (US), 14 February 2011, ‘The experience economy’ by D. Brooks.
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Search words: Materialism, consumerism, economy, experience, meaning, jobs, post-materialism, GDP, growth, money, wealth
Trend tags: Happiness, meaning

How to delete the internet

One of the paradoxes of the digital era is that while we, as individuals, seem to be increasingly incapable of remembering anything (home telephone numbers, ATM passwords and so on) the internet is incapable of forgetting. Everything we do, increasingly, generates a trial of digital data and much of this (especially the material we post about ourselves or others post about us) attains a kind of digital immortality. So, for instance, if you do something rather silly one day, chances are that it will be captured visually and will remain online indefinitely. So what if we have a button that simply deletes such things? Tadayoshi Kohno, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington (US) is working on exactly such an idea. The project, codenamed Vanish, enables people to set expiry dates on emails, texts, Facebook postings and chat messages after which they simply disappear. At the moment the project is focussed on text but there is no reason why, in the future, the idea could not be extended to images or even sounds.
Ref: Vancouver Sun (Canada), 1 January 2011, ‘Delete button possible for internet’, by S. Proudfoot.
Book: Delet: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger
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Search words: Forgetting, digital immortality, forgetting, deleting, internet, memory
Trend tags: Internet

The end of mass migration?

It is the era of global forces, free markets and deregulation where capital, goods, people and ideas are at liberty to wander the earth in search of good opportunities. But could this era be coming to an end? This probably sounds a slightly ridiculous idea, but then again most good ideas are at first, otherwise there is usually no hope for them. For example, while many nations in the East are opening borders and bank accounts for foreigners in search of the good life, many elsewhere are closing them down. Austria, Hungary, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany are all starting to change their minds on immigration. This is partly due to the success of rightwing political parties in recent European elections, but the trend is evident elsewhere too. In Japan, for example, ultra-nationalists are openly targeting foreigners, while in the US the state of Arizona has recently passed a law targeting Mexican workers. In theory this could all be a temporary shift connected to the perilous state of the US and European economies, but it could also be linked to a rising middle class rage that stems from the realisation that things might be getting worse rather than better.

Globalisation is probably also to blame. Increased connectivity and global markets have brought many benefits, but they also throw the spotlight on cultural identity and can amplify any latent tribalism. Countries that once had a clear identity, or were in the ascendant economically, can fall back into general confusion and anxiety when faced with declining collective wealth or the threat of a rising external power. Again, this could be a temporary problem, but I suspect not. As the global population increases and the global middle class expands, there will be additional pressure on supplies of energy, food, water and other key resources and this is likely to result in rising protectionism and nationalism in some regions, which may in turn be translated into growing intolerance and a widening gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, because without ‘them’ our cities become less cosmopolitan, our ideas become more parochial and innovation and entrepreneurship decline due to a lack of diversity and external stimuli.
Ref: Monocle (UK), issue 39, 2011, ‘Shutting the gates’, by A. Begag.
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Search words: Migrants, immigration, Europe, US
Trend tags: Nationalism, tribalism, connectivity

What happens when rising expectations meet declining opportunities?

What’s behind the fall in living standards for so many people in the West? The recent recession seems to be over in many parts of the world, but the benefits of recovery appear to have only been distributed amongst a small section of society, largely the owners of capital rather than the workers. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK, for instance, says that corporate profits in Britain increased by GBP14 billion (US$22.7 billion) since the recovery started, but that median household incomes in Britain suffered their steepest three-year collapse since the 1980s. It’s much the same story in the US, where productivity has risen markedly since the 1970s but median real wages have failed to keep pace (an 83% increase in productivity between 1973 and 2007 versus a 5% increase in real wages among male workers). That’s not all either. Another feature of economic development over the past few decades has been a substantial increase in income inequality within nations. To some extent this is merely a function of global markets. Talent is in scarce supply and is able to move to areas where it is most rewarded. Technology (especially digitalisation and universal connectivity) can amplify this (i.e. the new efficiencies mean that the winners now win bigger) or it could all stem from the loss of trade union power. Whatever the cause it’s a worry, and politicians and central bankers alike should perhaps implement policies that benefit a greater proportion of society rather than feathering the nests of those working with money.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 26 March 2011, ‘Marx, Mervyn or Marios?’
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Search words: Expectations, opportunity, living standards, GDP, wealth, squeeze, household incomes
Trend tags: Debt, anxiety

The politics of envy versus the politics of fairness

It would appear that ‘we’ are still very much focussed on ‘me’. Despite the recession, few of our fundamental values or beliefs have been challenged. Individualism is still in the ascendant and while the internet has changed some of the dynamics of power, most individuals remain largely passive.The relationship between the market and the state has not altered and we still place faith in the former whilst giving almost unequivocal support for the latter. Although some people did suggest alternatives to capitalism and investment banking a few years ago, once the economy got off its knees, such ideas were quickly forgotten. Similarly, many voters lost faith in politicians and political process, but in most cases there is still no credible alternative, so all we end up with is hung parliaments. What is most interesting perhaps is that individualism, mixed with a rightward swing in global politics, means that post-crisis popular agitation has been largely inspired by envy of the super-rich, rather than sympathy for the super-poor. Even more interesting, potentially, is the thought that much of the rage that has spilled onto the streets (in the West at least) has not come from the working class but from an emerging middle class who fear the loss of many of the privileges and comforts (nice houses, good schools etc) that their parents and grandparents took for granted.
Ref: Prospect (UK), January 2011, ‘Wishful thinking’, by A. Kaletsky.
Links: Them and us by Will Hutton.
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Search words: We, me, individualism, rich, poor
Trend tags: Inequality

Old ideas

Globally, the number of people aged 65+ is forecast to at least double by 2050, from 523 million to over 1.5 billion. Politicians are all too aware of this, citing a looming healthcare or pensions funding crisis as the most immediate consequence. National debts could grow even higher as a result and many older people will have to face the fact that retirement will remain a distant dream. But, as always, there’s more than one scenario and the prophets of doom may have to make room for the thought that people remaining healthy for longer could result in an economic boom. For example, more people living alone independently (rather than in care homes) could result in a huge new market for remote monitoring, home delivery, personal mobility, lifestyle enhancement and other aged and wellness services. Traditionally, most companies have kept their distance from the grey market because they are worried that unfashionable oldies could be the kiss of death for products that are more usually associated with hip youngsters. But hip-hop might sell to seniors in the future alongside hip ops (sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Intel and General Electric are among the major companies developing technologies aimed at older audiences, but opportunities exist way beyond the traditional age-friendly healthcare, financial services and tourism. In 2009, baby-boomer households in the US spent around $2.6 trillion. That’s a big market.So to conclude, we need more blue-sky thinkers focussed not only on the boom in green products and services but the grey market too.
Ref: New York Times (US), 13 February 2011, ‘Readying for a greyer world’, by N. Singer
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Search words: Ageing, population, demographics, grey market
Trend tags: Ageing

Sloppy thinking

Geoff Kloske, a publisher, recently observed that: ‘More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of email and social media.’ I agree, and I also agree with the writer Adam Haslet who believes that we are perhaps witnessing the ‘death of the sentence by collective neglect’. Our endless tweeting, texting, updating, poking and liking is making language shorter and more factual but also less considered. We are publishing faster than we are thinking and we are losing not only meaning but colour and aural pleasure as well. Charlie Chapin once said that genius is editing, but I fear we may be taking this idea too far.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 22 Jan 2011 ‘The art of writing’, by Adam Haslett.
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Search words: Writing, sentences, social media, texting, attention, thinking
Trend tags: Digitalisation