Society & culture

The Future of Men

Is there is a crisis of masculinity in the West? We’re not suggesting it’s the end of men, but there’s a crisis with being a man. The problem is twofold. First, men were made to hunt animals outside with spears. It’s in their psychology and their genes. But there aren’t too many hunting opportunities these days.

Men’s work and home lives have been health and safety checked, sanitised and most recently, feminised. Men now spend a third of their lives indoors, sitting in offices looking at screens. And when they’re not doing at work, they are sitting at home looking at screens. (This is true for women too.)

Many outlets for aggression and testosterone no longer exist. (But see our later article on rage cages). Daily rituals and physical places where men used to socialise with other men have been knocked down or renovated to become female friendly. Men do not go to the pub as often as they once did. Even sport is generally consumed on a screen at home alone or with a partner.

The evidence for a masculinity crisis is all around. 95 per cent of the UK prison population is male. Men on average develop heart disease a decade before women. 80 per cent of homeless people are men. Unemployment has hit men hard. Physical work is disappearing quickly and so are many craft skills.

As a result, many men are struggling to find a role or purpose. It is positive there are fewer wars or murders. But have they been replaced - with much of the damage now on the inside, mental instead of physical damage? Perhaps we should reconsider masculinity, feminism and equality.

So, what’s the solution? One idea we've had is Manual Mondays. This is where men would be encouraged to get out of the office and away from screens and spreadsheets one day a week (or once a month) to learn a physical skill or make something with their hands that perhaps benefits the local community. If this involves interacting with nature rather than talking to their phone, all the better.

This idea could be applied to education too. Boys are not good at sitting quietly all day behind a desk. Young boys are 600 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficient Disorder than girls and perhaps this is linked to nature deficient disorder. It’s now so bad that in the UK, the average prisoner now spends more time outside than the average child.

(Interestingly, the growth in ‘manspreading’, where a man sits with his legs apart in public places and takes up too much space, may simply be the way men are trying to express their desperation to get more attention in the world. Maybe the trend for men parking huge cars across two supermarket parking spaces is similar? (Not always men btw, so maybe this is just selfishness or solipsism?).

The Sunday Times magazine (UK), 8 May 2017, ‘How to be a 21st-Century caveman’ by M. Rudd. See also Who stole my spear? by Tim Samuels.
Search words: men, crisis, nature, testosterone, manual, practical, screens, manspreading
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We Are Me

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Venice, there’s an image of a blonde woman looking at herself in the mirror. The painter Michelangelo uses this image to represent human vanity as a perilous human weakness. Or at least it used to be. Vanity is now a global epidemic showing no sign of weakening. Why has the collective ‘we’ been transformed into the individual ‘me’?

The answer is ease and convenience. We have always been interested in capturing our own image – the painter Rembrandt did so more than 50 times himself. But what was once hard and laborious has become easy and instantaneous, thanks to camera phones and, in particular, the mirror function on these cameras.

As a result, everyone is at it. Heads of State do it (David Cameron and Barack Obama), astronauts do it (Akihiko Hoshide), even grinning passengers on board highjacked planes do it (Ben Innes). Of course, the Kardashians don’t know how to not do it.

Why now? The original reason for self-portraiture was to record the passage of time and the brevity of life. It was a record of youth, entropy and decay. The modern equivalent may be that too, but it’s also an attempt to become famous. Nevertheless, these images are ultimately evidence we too were once here (or there or somewhere else).

Selfies have also become a form of digital currency (I was here but you were not – back to the holiday postcards of old). These images are also lies we like to tell ourselves. They are fake news we produce to prove to ourselves and others we are happy, secure and fulfilled.

Ref: The Sunday Times magazine (UK), 22 January 2017, ‘Here’s looking at me’ by W. Januszczak.
Search words: portrait, selfie, fame, vanity
Trend tags: Culture of me

Nothing is True and Truthiness is Possible

The phrase “post truth” was word of the year in 2016. In the past year or two, a strange alternative reality has emerged where facts no longer bear any relation to reality. President Trump, for example, famously says things that are blatantly not true when they are and gets away with it regardless, because his supporters follow feelings not facts.

The American comic Stephen Colbert has a word for this: truthiness. This is the idea that whatever feels right should be true. Provenance is more important than accuracy in this context too, so Mr Trump can get away with statements such as “A lot of people are saying that…”

Faking news is nothing new, of course. Russia was an early proponent and continues to manipulate news and events. We’ve had conspiracy theories and their believers for decades too, with the US still leading the field. People have always cherry picked evidence to support their worldviews and, with internet-based news it’s never been easier to do this. Whatever you believe there’s something online somewhere to support your belief.

In fact, we do not automatically seek the truth. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel winning psychologist and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, uses the term “cognitive ease”. This describes the way humans have a tendency to accept what’s easiest to believe at the expense of fact checking, which is time consuming, confusing and brain exhausting.

One reason for the rise of fiction in politics and elsewhere is new technology, specifically social media. People have always coalesced into groups with similar views and, in an age of social media, this has never been easier.

A second reason is the general decline of trust in institutions and experts. This is at an all time low in most developed countries. Less than half the population in developed societies typically trusts politicians, economists, scientists and business people. This is hardly surprising given how wrong all these groups have been in recent years. To a greater or lesser degree, these people used to be the gatekeepers of truth - nowadays they just contradict each other. This to some extent explains the popularity of non-expert and ‘authentic’ politicians like Trump who ‘tell it how it is’.

Linked with this is there is no longer a hierarchy of information and news sources. Almost two-thirds of adults in the US get their views from social media, few of whom care about the source. Worse, social media filters actively eliminate dissenting or opposing points of view.

In other words, we inhabit self-referencing communities and search algorithms further reinforce this isolation. Algorithms generally feed news to individuals based on previous likes so they get a giant echo-chamber where fiction can easily appear as fact. For example, during recent referenda and elections, pro-Trump and pro-Brexit groups largely saw news that reinforced these positions and vice versa. People tend to think something familiar or popular is true.

So, what’s the solution? The use of AI has been suggested as a way to spot fake news. A better idea might be to force news and information sites to cite their sources, including whether something was generated by a human or a robot (many Twitter accounts, for example, are actually ‘bots).

We could also publicly name and shame chronic and consistent liars. And perhaps we should treat companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook as media companies rather than tech companies, which would subject them to journalistic responsibility.

Ref:The Economist (UK) 10 September 2016, ‘Yes, I’d lie to you’, Anon. The Conversation (Aus) 15 May 2017, Navigating the post-truth debate: some key co-ordinates by N. Enfield. See also The Economist World in 2017, ‘A crisis of trust’ by R. Edelman.
Search words: media, fake news, Trump, responsibility, lies, trust, social media
Trend tags:Truth, trust, realness, authenticity

A Stifling Culture of Self-Censorship

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford and expert in East European communism and its secret police, made a controversial claim. He said Jesus wouldn’t be allowed to speak on campus nowadays, such is the climate of fear and hostility towards anyone with a viewpoint that remotely diverges from the norm.

Part of the problem is new government legislation that encourages universities to block extremist speakers, including non-violent thinkers. The definition of extremist is vague but, if they were still alive, universities could exclude the likes of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Jesus Christ.

However, the problem isn’t really state censorship. The nub of it is individuals and small groups who claim certain people and ideas offend them. For example, there is growing pressure for transgender women to be allowed access to future womb transplant technology, possibly funded by the NHS. Anyone arguing against such ‘freedom’ is likely to be banned from any platform on campus.

If people don’t wish to hear alternative or radical viewpoints, that’s arguably their business. But the trend is towards groups of individuals arguing that institutions should prevent such views from being heard by anyone. Worryingly, academics are automatically siding with groups who demand these restrictions.

Some people see this as empathetic censorship (for our own good) but it’s ideologically based and extends well beyond speaker platforms. For example, there is increasing pressure to create ‘safe spaces’ for groups, especially minorities, where certain topics are not discussed. Totally safe spaces are complete fiction and is akin to airplanes banning nuts on board because a single individual has an intolerance.

Another trend is the growth in ‘trigger warnings’. This is where writers, film makers and TV broadcasters alert potential audience members to anything that might offend them or trigger bad memories. Such warnings are a kind of intellectual homogeneity, and hardly conducive to open minded discussion or mental resilience.

The current mental health epidemic among young people is a tragic problem, but making classrooms and syllabuses devoid of broad content and open discussion is hardly the right answer. If we go down this path, we can expect a future devoid of risk taking, creativity and experimentation where the consensus is to sit still and play it safe.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 1-2 April 2017, ‘Censors and sensitivity’ by A. Scott. See also Daily Telegraph (UK) 31 May 2016, ‘Jesus “could not speak on campus in new climate of censorship”, by H. Furness and Daily Telegraph (UK) 23 November 2016, ‘We need to relearn the art of giving and taking offence’, by A. Pearson.
Search words: Equality, free speech, censorship, trigger warnings
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Why Computers Can Persuade You

Have you ever wondered why your iPhone is addictive? It makes you release dopamine. Your phone has been deliberately designed so you cannot physically leave it alone. The apps on your phone - Instagram, Fitbit, Netflix – are even worse. Remember when you used to watch a TV show, enjoy it, and that was the end? Nowadays you watch House of Cards and when you’ve finished, the next episode starts instantly.

Technology design makes it harder to stop than carry on and users have little or no awareness of what’s being fed to them. The aim is to create habit-forming products containing emotional mini-highs. These highs come from instant playing of yet another episode or accumulating as many followers, likes or votes of approval as possible.

What’s at the root of all this? The answer is basic human needs for connection, approval and affirmation.But is it ethical for unknown third parties to design our attitudes and behaviours? In the early days of the internet, there was information and to some extent, enlightenment. Now it’s the commercial imperative to compel and seize the attention of the masses.

Facebook is particularly guilty of attention crimes. Its business model uses our unconscious impulses to compel attention, which is then sold to advertisers for cash. Is it ethical? If you essentially control the psychology of one eighth of the planet, is it responsible?

In Las Vegas gambling machines are designed to ensure people spend as much time as possible on them (known as ‘time on device’). Everything about the way the machines operate is deliberate, even the angle of light emitted from the screen. Gamblers can order food and drink on the same screen without even standing up.

Is the future a world where we never leave home, chronically addicted to screens? Digital technology designed by a small slice of society may be diminishing our capacity to make free choices. It is even removing us from the people whose love and approval we need. Time to switch off. They say that the way to beat addiction is to find an alternative activity.Maybe that's what we need today - good, alternative activities or an all-consuming purpose.

Ref: The Economist 1843 (UK) October/November 2016, ‘The scientists who make apps addictive’ by I. Leslie.
Search words: iPhone, addiction, screens, Facebook, gambling, approval
Trend tags:Addiction

Rage Cages

It sounds like something from the Westworld mini-series, but late in 2016 saw the opening of the UK’s first ‘rage cage’. A rage cage, in case you don’t know, is a room where people go to smash things, especially old computers, office phones and china plates, to relieve their anger, anxiety and stress.

Ironically, the businessman who opened the rage cage in Nottingham almost went to jail, for brutally battering his disabled stepfather outside a school. Rage can cascade and be transmitted too it seems.

Ref: The Times (UK) 10 December 2016, ‘Glass, pottery and an array of blunt objects: let it all out in the rage cage’ by V. Low.
Search words: rage, stress, smashing
Trend tags:Anxiety, anger

Sex Becomes Just Another Shopping Experience

One of the great unchanging truths is scarcity creates value. It’s possible that lack of sex can increase its value. But if you can use a mobile to find someone to have sex with in an instant, does that mean sex starts to lose its attraction?

A study in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour (US) found more adults than in any generation since those born in the 1920s, are remaining virgins. Moreover, of those aged 20-24, about 15 per cent had not had a sexual partner since they were 18. In the 1960s this figure was 6 per cent.

Why is this? Apart from being instantly available, which makes the experience a kind of shopping trip, people may lack confidence. Perhaps they are becoming shyer and unable to make the intimate connections that are needed for fulfilling sex. Perhaps the ubiquity of online pornography has encouraged unrealistic expectations of sex. Or the emotional and financial cost of divorce has made people wary of starting relationships.

One development within online dating is segmentation. Some users (let’s be honest here, it will largely be men) use different dating sites for different needs, much as they might use different supermarkets. One user, for example, likens one dating app to Lidl while another is Waitrose.

Ref: The Times (UK)b 6 August 2016, ‘Millennials find sex on a plate (or app) can be a real bore’ by L. Bannerman.
Search words: sex, intimacy, fear, online dating, segmentation, scarcity
Trend tags: Intimacy

An Emotional Future

Schools around the world have started to teach children computer coding on the basis they will have to program computers at work. It’s a logical but somewhat flawed idea.

First, although few people know it, there are already computers that can code themselves. Code that writes code. We will still need highly skilled top-level human coders in the future, but we might not need that many.

Second, teaching people how to think logically like machines is illogical given what computers are likely to be capable of one day. We should be doing the exact opposite. We should be teaching people how to behave totally unlike sterile number-crunching computers.

In 1983 Arlie Hochschild, sociologist, named invented the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe work that required a high level of emotional intelligence. For example, airline crew know how to deal with nervous or disruptive passengers. In 2015, a study by David Deming, an education economist at Harvard, discovered almost all new jobs created in the US from 1980 to 2012 required relatively high social skills.

AI and machine learning will edge into more routine, repetitive and logical work previously done by people. But human work will move further into areas that require empathy and perhaps some imagination, inspiration and persuasion. Machines are good at solving problems, but not especially good at inventing them and are almost useless at managing people or providing inspirational leadership.

Any job that involves caring for people, getting people to trust you or persuading people to do certain things they normally resist will be difficult to automate. Doctors, teachers, law enforcement officials and top-flight lawyers, for example, might be able to relax a tiny bit.

Even so, we don’t celebrate these kinds of jobs as much as we could. Caring is generally undervalued and underpaid in developed societies. Nurses, childcare and aged care workers often earn very little for their efforts. Indeed, most of the emotional work done in society is done for free, often by women and isn’t even regarded as real work. It also fails to count towards GDP.

We are on the cusp of machines that can give the appearance of being empathetic. Affective computers judge a user’s emotional state using biofeedback and adjust themselves accordingly. This could work, up to a point, but these machines will surely lack nuance or a deep understanding of human nature. Only a person can truly grasp how another person might feel, at a deep level.

This all offers a huge economic opportunity. First, we should start to recognise the true value of emotional work, to the economy and to society. Second, we should refocus our education systems away from teaching things that smart machines are already capable of (IQ) and towards the things they aren’t (EQ).

Empathy would be top of the list, although invention and inspiration wouldn’t be far behind. Educators and employers should place less emphasis on rote learning, short-term memory and exam success, and spend more time considering how to expand personality, persuasion, compassion and moral character.

Ref: Aeon (Aus) 22 June 2017, ‘The Future is emotional’ by L. Gershon.
Search words: school, coding, EQ, IQ, machines, empathy, care, emotional work
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