The world in 2014: six shocking trends to keep watching

SixShockTrends_BlogPicIn a recent blog post, I looked back on 2013 in optimistic terms. Good things happened last year, and positive trends were strengthened, despite the obvious shadows and sorrows that appear in the nightly news.

Now I turn my attention to the year ahead. I take for granted that most of those good things (e.g. lengthening life spans, rising education levels) will keep happening. As a veteran sustainability watcher, I am also unsurprised by both the bad news (global warming) and the good news (living wage programs) that comes with that territory. I doubt that you would be surprised either.

So to make this interesting, I’m taking another tack.

Below I have identified six trends that I observed in 2013, that appear set to continue and probably grow stronger in 2014, and that I find truly shocking. By “shocking,” I mean that they caught me by surprise, and that I am still struggling to understand them.

Your list might be different. I’d be happy to hear about that. Send me feedback, and if I get enough good material, I will summarize what I hear from you in my next column (with attribution, of course)

Here we go …

1. The slow-motion debate on the surveillance state

This is the issue that dominated headlines and awakened strong emotions and uncertainties around the world in 2013. The surveillance itself is old news. But it feels as though the broader social debate is barely getting started, here in 2014. That’s what’s shocking.

On 1 January 2014, The New York Times published a lead editorial calling for clemency in the case of Mr. Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on what federal judges in the United States have declared unconstitutional prying into the private lives of US citizens. (Prying into the lives of citizens in other countries is apparently legal, under US law.) Others see Snowden as a traitor, and he is wanted in the US for espionage, charges which he is famously avoiding by hiding out in Russia.

Hundreds of people logged on to support the Times editorial, which noted that there is no evidence that this broad-based data collection and invasion of our privacy has stopped any terrorist activity. But hundreds also  logged on to excoriate the editorial writers.

Several world leaders who were the target of NSA and other agencies’ spying techniques have been very publicly angry about having their private phones tapped, by supposed friends. A few US congressional actions grab a headline now and then. But “muted” is perhaps the best description of the overall public reaction — at least, compared to the scale and importance of the issue (in my view).

Even academics, medical professionals, lawyers and others for whom the preservation of privacy and confidentiality should be a big issue have been surprisingly quiet, in collective professional terms, though recent revelations about broken encryption codes have awakened some of them from slumber.

I noticed that even among friends, people were often uncomfortable talking about this issue. Why? And why has the public been relatively quiet, up to now?

My theory has two parts. First, most of us are just a little afraid. The NSA and the other spy agencies are scary. Second, most of us have probably assumed the worst all along: that everything we do on the Internet can be monitored. The loss of privacy is part of the price of all those cheap or free Internet services. It’s a trade we feel willing — or perhaps forced by the times — to make.

Imagine if, fifty or even just twenty years ago, information surfaced that every letter in the postal system, every phone call was being reviewed by government authorities. Would we have been as complacent?

We seem to be stumbling into a George Orwell-style future, at least where our private lives are concerned. Our shocking quiet on this issue one trend to keep watching in 2014. Will it persist? Will we just accept the fact that government authorities can, if they want to, monitor our every move and every publicly-expressed thought? Or will the discomfort grow?

2. The shale gas revolution and its impact on global geopolitics

“Nobody saw this coming” is a frequent phrase heard in connection with the rise of shale gas and “fracking.” According to its Energy Information Agency, as of late 2013 the United States — dependent for decades on the oil of the Middle East — is now a net exporter of fossil fuels.

Meanwhile Japan is leading the hunt for new methods to harvest methane hydrates, a vast new reserve of energy previously locked into ice crystal at the bottom of the sea. South Korea and others are following suit. Success in turning these and other “unconventional” sources of oil into home-grown mega-businesses that reduce the need for imports seems to be just around the corner.

In a long article in The Atlantic published in May 2013, political writer Charles C. Mann put journalistic words to the thoughts that had been haunting me for a couple of years: what are the other, non-climate-change related side effects of this transformation?

The world has been enjoying decades of relative international stability. Stable does not mean unchanging: change has been constant and fast, such the rise of China and India and other “emerging markets.” Stable also does not mean conflict-free, as the “war on terror,” NATO’s (dwindling) presence in Afghanistan, and the current horrors in Syria currently attest. But the gradualness in shifts regarding the global balance of power (which underlies and shapes both trade relationships and security) has assured some predictability.

That predictability is quickly being shattered. The unexpectedly sudden shift in terms of who controls, sells, imports and exports the world’s primary source of energy is a truly shocking development. Countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela may be staring at a future where they have much less geopolitical leverage, or at least a much less predictable playing field, not to mention falling export revenues. What will they do then? Whose aircraft carriers will, for example, ply the Straits of Hormuz? What will Russia do when the threat of shutting off gas exports no longer causes much worry to anyone? This is certainly a trend I will be keeping my eye on in 2014.

3. A growing flood of refugees is being met with a rising tide of meanness

Here in Europe, right-wing, anti-immigrant (as well as anti-Europe) groups are still on the upswing, grabbing headlines and parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, dead bodies were washing up on the shores of Europe’s southern-most islands with horrifying frequency last year, the result of overcrowded boats ferrying enormous numbers of desperate people. They came seeking not just better lives, but any worthwhile life at all, and many died looking.

More insidious than these highly visible news stories are the shocking cases of people from Africa or the Middle East turning up in Europe, seeking asylum, having their applications legally rejected, and being forcibly sent home. According to Swedish Radio report I heard recently, over 300,000 people were sent home in this way from Europe last year, packed into special deportation planes like sardines. Some of them scream and wail so much at the thought of returning to the hells from which they have just escaped that immigration officers tape their mouths shut.

Or, they put muzzles across their faces.

Or, occasionally, they kill them.

By accident, of course. But a number of deaths have occurred, e.g. from asphyxiation. One horrific story involved a man being deported from the UK, having his hands tied behind his back and his face shoved between his knees (on the special go-back-to-Angola airplane), until he began to suffocate and then died of a heart attack. No one, said the radio news report, has been punished or reprimanded in connection with this incident. “I am still waiting for justice,” said the man’s destitute wife. (Source: Sveriges Radio)

These stories from Europe are of course similar stories from the north shore of Australia or the southern border of the United States. People are on the move, in increasing numbers. It’s perfectly natural: I’ve often thought that if I woke up one day, and found myself magically transformed into a Somali in a war-torn, destitute part of that country, the first think I would do is start walking north.

What’s shocking about this trend of increasing illegal migration, fueled by poverty and conflict and climate change, is not that it’s happening. What’s shocking is how the world’s most advanced countries, all professing a commitment to human rights, are treating so many of these people with such meanness. I will be paying more attention to this trend in 2014.

4. The problem of violence against women is finally getting (somewhat) more systematic attention

In its yearly round-up of big stories and important happenings in 2013, the esteemed journal Nature included this shocker in a “top 10” list: women researchers on anthropology and other field studies are often harassed or molested by the men they work with — not by hired workers, but by professors and post-docs. In other words, by their professional mentors and colleagues. It took a brave researcher (Kathryn Clancy), armed with scientifically conducted surveys, to surface a widespread problem that everyone had previously kept quiet about.

Meanwhile, the frequency of international news stories about group rapes or public molestation events in various countries is starting to compete with bus crashes and train wrecks. To me, hearing about a bus going over a cliff in another country is far less shocking than hearing about a young woman whose life was destroyed by six or seven evil — there is no other word to describe them — evil men. Newspapers specialize in shocking stories. And yet I only started noticing such news stories begin appearing with regularity during the last year (another one appeared in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter as I was writing this).

The year 2013 was also the year when the United Nations saw fit to create an International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on November 25. I am ashamed to say that I did not notice it. And it is shocking to think that these problems are still with us, systematically and horrifically, in 2014.

I for one plan to pay closer attention next year, not just on November 25, but every day, to one of the most troubling trends to continue its emergence over the world’s horizon of consciousness in the previous year. And I add my voice to the call for all nations, all professional associations, all similar authorities to take the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (issued in 1993) more seriously to heart.

5. We are outsourcing our minds to the Internet

Evidence is piling up that our reliance on Internet-based digital appliances and functions, such as the search window on your smartphone, affects not just the way we live; it affects our ability to think.

A new article in Scientific American summarizes recent research about an issue that deeply worries some (like Nicholas Carr, author of 2011’s The Shallows), but causes others to roll their eyes with exasperation and remind us that previous revolutionary inventions did not turn out so bad. Writing took information that was previously committed to memory and passed down orally, and created records that could be passed down over centuries. The printing press spread writing to the masses. Both technological innovations seem to have contributed to advances in human consciousness, not declines. The Internet, say the optimists, is just the next phase in our evolution.

And yet, “the Cloud” does seem to be clouding up our brains. The effect is real, measurable, and, well, shocking. Scientists have learned that we naturally divide up memory and other mental tasks within our social group, relying on other people to remember things for us. Now, the Internet has become something like a universal, all-knowing nerdy classmate who gives everyone all the answers on all the tests. People don’t remember things as well, because the InterNerd remembers everything for everybody.

Research shows that even just knowing that a certain piece of information is available with a few clicks on a keyboard dramatically reduces our ability to store and recall that information — even when we are trying to commit it to memory.

Thinking is, in part, about finding new associations among the things that we remember. This kind of thinking gets harder to do if we don’t remember anything.

The smartphones appearing in the hands of younger and younger children, the rise of more integrated digital appliances such as Google Glass, and the new iThink brain implant from Apple (okay, I made the last one up, but it seems rather inevitable, don’t you think?) will only accelerate this trend.

Where will it lead?

Search for “impact of Internet on human mind” at the end of 2014, and see what comes up. If you remember to think about it.

6. We are all becoming “brands”

I read with interest a review in Science of the new book Status Update (access requires subscription), by Alice Marwick, which documents her research into the social world of the social media moguls. (The review in Science seemed fair, balanced, and mostly positive, whereas the New York Times dismissed it savagely. That’s why I plan to read the book myself.)

The review, at least, helped convince me that something very strange — possibly shocking — is happening to our culture. I have experienced it myself, in web-based fora like these:  to be noticed, one must be on social media. And to be noticed on social media is to participate in a great, global game of personal branding.

Previously I have chalked off my discomfort with social media to the general problem of being an author/consultant/songwriter in a world flooded with information. Participating on Twitter and Facebook is partly driven by the pleasure of connecting with old friends … but the main reason I justify spending time  there is marketing. There is no point in writing books that do not get read (or music albums that don’t get listened to). To get read or listened to, things have to be noticed. In today’s world, that means I, the author and creative content generator, have to be noticed.

And “noticing” increasingly happens on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

I further notice that I am more often clicking that little button on Facebook that says “Boost” for a post that I actually want people to read, such as an announcement about my book Sustainability is for Everyone. That is, I’m paying Facebook to get people to notice me. I also check my “Klout” score, and I watch the click rates on my blog and my newsletter. I’m happy when they go up, worried when they go down … despite my attempts at ironic detachment.

Moreover, I notice that more and more of my social media “friends” are more and more predictable. Others, like me, have learned to post in a certain way that consistently telegraphs who they are: their personality, their interests, what you can rely on them to provide (e.g., certain kinds of photographs, daily Buddhist quotes, best loved poems, karaoke moments, etc.). They have learned what kinds of posts attract the “Likes” and attention of other friends, and so they do more of that. They may not feel the edge of marketing competitiveness that I here admit to, because they are not trying to sell anything. But they are playing the branding game, nonetheless.

Marwick’s point (according to the Science reviewer) is that the “socialistic” dream of the Internet — where people contribute to the common good willingly, in a sea of Wikipedias — has given way to the “capitalistic”, neo-liberal, young-male world of competition for points and attention, à la Mark Zuckerberg in the movie Social Network. And that constant “notice-me” branding is becoming the modern world’s social currency.

If true, I think this trend is also shocking: that we have let ourselves be pulled willingly into controlled, online environments that are essentially big Skinner boxes, training us to click and like and find new ways to gain and trade attention. And we do this while allowing our information to be sold to advertisers. Hm.

If you agree that this is at least a little bit shocking, please Like me on Facebook, Link with me on LinkedIn, Follow me on Twitter, etc.

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What did I miss? If you think I neglected climate change, water crises, and other classic global problems, I assure you, that was strictly on purpose. Melting ice, acidifying oceans, overfishing, rising coal use in Germany and Japan, and other worrying dilemmas are not shocking any more. Indeed, not even the low priority given such issues by global decision makers is shocking any more. What is shocking, perhaps, is the way we’ve become accustomed to ignoring, collectively, a very real and pressing planetary emergency.

But I am curious to know what you think. What do you find shocking, here in these early days of 2014? What do you plan to pay more attention to, as they year progresses? Drop me a note (in the blog comment line, or by email) and I’ll summarize your answers in a future piece.

Meanwhile, despite my obvious worries, I also note that it is positively shocking how sustainability has become so much more accepted and so normal a part of doing business these days. But that trend was not shocking enough to make my list.

At least, not yet.

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