Welcome to New World Same Humans, a new weekly newsletter by TrendWatching’s Global Head of Trends and Insights, David Mattin.
The great English scientist and visionary James Lovelock is 100 years old. Last summer he published a book, The Novacene. I read it a few weeks ago, while planning the launch of this newsletter.
It is, among other things, a window on to a remarkable life. At one point Lovelock remembers visiting the home of a Dr Hawking in the 1940s, when the pair worked together at London’s Institute for Medical Research. Asked to hold the family’s newborn baby for a moment, he briefly cradles an infant Stephen Hawking in his arms.
At the heart of The Novacene, though, is an argument about a transition from one geological age to another. Lovelock believes that we humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe (read the book to discover his reasons). But, he says, the intelligence primacy we currently enjoy is about to end. We’re moving from the Anthropocene into what he calls the Novacene: the age of inorganic intelligence:
The revolution that has just begun may be understood as a continuation of the process whereby the Earth nurtures the understanders, the beings that lead the cosmos to self-knowledge.
Cosmic self-awareness: ideas don’t come much bigger.
This newsletter won’t always pitch itself at the heights of Life, the Universe and Everything. But when I sat down to write the first instalment of New World Same Humans, Lovelock’s book seemed an apposite place to start. I think that’s because it taps into a sense that many of us share. That is, that we live at a moment of beginnings and endings. An ongoing technology revolution is reshaping the world around us. We face a climate emergency. Liberal democracy – not so long ago declared the final answer to the riddle of history – looks tired, while an unprecedented techno-social experiment is taking shape in China.
NWSH will explore the key trends reshaping our world in the 2020s and beyond. It’s a chance to look in at the social and historical forces, people and ideas behind the trends we track at TrendWatching: from the emergence of virtual worlds as domains of meaning and status, to the ongoing transparency revolution, to the search for a more ethical, sustainable consumerism, to name a few. This newsletter will be interested not only in what is happening, but in the implications of these changes for business, government and society.
In short, if you’re interested in where we’re are heading, what that means for us collectively, and how you should respond, this newsletter is for you.
Status and Shame at Davos
Like drunken bees reconvening at the hive for one last blow out, the global elite gathered at Davos this week.
After taking a kicking last year, they were determined to prove they get the message. So this year’s theme was Stakeholder Capitalism, which was defined as the idea that corporations have responsibilities beyond the enrichment of their shareholders – including to workers, society at large, and the planet. (Full disclosure: I sit on a WEF council about consumerism, so when I make fun of the WEF I do so from the inside, like a minor, inconsequential relative making fun of the elderly family patriarch).
Davos Man and Woman have two eyes to see. Last year, along with the rest of us, they saw the largest and most widespread climate-related protests ever, in the form of the Global Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion. Meanwhile, two candidates for the Democratic Presidential nominee for 2020 are committed to the reform of American capitalism; Elizabeth Warren has just been endorsed by the New York Times, and Bernie Sanders is leading in the polls according to CNN.
The first priority of an elite is to preserve its own elite status. The Davos hivemind now believe they’d better reform themselves, before they are violently reordered by an upswell of public anger and government regulation. Just before Davos, Microsoft announced that by 2050 it will remove all the carbon it has ever emitted since its foundation in 1975. A few days ago, Starbucks announced aims to become ‘resource positive’ when it comes to carbon, water, and some other natural resources.
Launching the new Davos Manifesto on Stakeholder Capitalism, WEF chairman Klaus Schwab cited The Greta Effect: ‘The young Swedish climate activist has reminded us that adherence to the current economic system represents a betrayal of future generations, owing to its environmental unsustainability.’ In other words: ‘we’ve been rumbled; the party is over.’ Recent findings seem to confirm that idea: in the UK, 25% of people now say climate change is among the top three issues facing the country – the highest level ever.
So what is at the heart of emerging attitudes when it comes to business, consumption and the planet? We’ve been writing a lot recently about the shift from status to shame when it comes to sustainable and ethical consumption. Across the last decade or more, eco-consumption has been primarily a badge of status: ‘look at me in my Tesla; am I not enlightened?’ But more widespread awareness of a climate emergency combined with the mainstreaming of eco-products and services now means sustainable consumption is less about the status of opting in and more about the shame if you don’t. When the eco-alternative is affordable, available, and as good as the legacy option (see the Impossible Burger, for example), why wouldn’t you choose it?
The avoidance of social shame is a powerful driver – perhaps the most powerful? – of behaviour change. For many consumers, flysgskam (flight shame) is now evolving into köpskam: a shame associated with any kind of consumption. This is an epic shift, and one that poses a vast challenge to the incumbent business-economic-political elites. Consumers are going to have to change; but they won’t do that without demanding loudly that the legacy organizations that have enabled them make far-reaching changes, too. In the 2020s, a key question for any legacy business will be: how must we adjust to a world of consumption shame?
The irony is, legacy brands are full of people who believe deeply that change is needed. Indeed, sit down with any individual Davos Man or Woman and they’ll almost certainly tell you that the system is broken. But large organisations, and indeed social classes, have a knack for behaving collectively in ways that do not align particularly well with the beliefs of any of the individual members. The system has its own logic. We’re about to find out if, in the 2020s, that logic can be rewritten.
What Trust Crisis?
A quick one. It’s commonplace to talk about a crisis of trust: in big business, public institutions, politicians and more.
Late last year Ipsos MORI released a report that demonstrates the truth is more complex. There is no acute trust crisis; though trust in major institutions and business is often found to be lower than it was half a century ago. Politicians are not very trusted, but they never have been.
In a similar vein, see this new study showing that US Democrat voters hate Republican voters less than the Republican voters typically believe, and vice versa. It raises the hall of mirrors-like possibility that widespread overstatement of US political polarization is one of the root causes of the very polarization it seeks to describe.
The whole thing reminds me of Steven Pinker’s exhortation that we bring more counting to our thinking about long-term social change.
The Clock Strikes 13
You probably saw this long New York Times investigation of Clearview, a facial recognition platform that’s scraped a database of more than 3 billion images from Facebook, YouTube and other sites. Upload a picture of someone to Clearview and it will come back with other public pictures of that person, and accompanying information.
More than 600 law enforcement agencies and a number of businesses are already using the service. Most know nothing of who built it, but were sucked in via a free 30 day trial. The startup is developing a version that will work with augmented reality glasses.
No wonder the EU is now considering a temporary ban on facial recognition in public places, lasting from between three and five years.
So where is all this heading when it comes to the liberal democratic west? A timely anniversary fell amid these stories of surveillance, privacy and power. George Orwell died 70 years ago this week. Constant surveillance, of course, played a key role in his nightmare vision of 1984. But insofar as that novel was intended to be a forecast of the future, Orwell’s mistake was to believe that this surveillance would be imposed by a totalitarian monolith. So far, as others have pointed out in this context, it hasn’t been like that. Instead, western citizens have proven enthusiastic enablers of their own surveillance.
It’s becoming clear that the challenge posed by facial recognition is about a collision between a set of conflicting human needs and values. Foremost among them is privacy.
Privacy is a value that supports individual liberty against the state, and is therefore deeply intertwined with the liberal worldview. The standard liberal analysis of facial recognition would be that if we allow its unchecked proliferation then we are being poor guardians of our own liberty: a sin of omission.
The more difficult truth for liberals to process might be that many people are deciding – albeit in most cases without articulating that decision to themselves – to prioritize other values, such as convenience, distraction, or personalization, above liberty. Ask many consumers if they’re concerned about new, tech-fuelled incursions into their privacy, and they’ll often give some vague assurances that they are, or should be. Give them the chance to search by face on their favourite social platform, though, and those concerns tend to fade into the background in the face of a better, faster, more convenient experience. Look at the amount of privacy billions of people have already voluntarily given up to Google, Facebook and other Big Tech icons. Despite numerous scandals, there has been no en-masse desertion of those platforms.
At the heart of everything we do at TrendWatching is a single idea: that meaningful new trends emerge when a changing world collides with fundamental, unchanging human needs and values. That idea gives this newsletter its name. But it should be seen in the context of another truth that does much to shape human life: fundamental human needs and values are often in conflict with one another.
That conflict is clearly visible today when it comes to the challenge posed by facial recognition. Yes, people value control over the boundaries between public and private. But they also value security, convenience, and entertainment – all things that facial recognition technologies can help provide, at the expense of their privacy. So when it comes to the choices we make about this new technology, we can opt to maximise privacy or, say, convenience. But not both.
There’s no right answer; no judge can offer ultimate arbitration on which of these human values is the more important. It’s simply a judgement call. In the end, as with so many of the questions at the heart of our collective lives, the settlement we reach on facial recognition will have to a be tradeoff between ultimate and irreconcilable human values.
That’s enough from me. If you want to smile, read this piece on how intimacy-starved tech professionals are now attending ‘non-sexual cuddle parties’ in Silicon Valley.
Strange times. Until next week,
P.S: thanks to the amazing Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustrations in this email.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.