Archive for the ‘society’ category

Transport and social mobility

August 6, 2018

As we head into the next wave of technology-driven social and economic change, it is worth asking whether we always focus on the most important elements of such change. Looking at at the impact of previous and current industrial revolutions, it seems to me that the key drivers of change have always been information and mobility. The printing press opened the previously closed world of scholarship and learning to a much wider social group – potentially to everyone – while the railways introduced physical mobility, thereby effectively ending the feudal system. In particular, mass transport introduced the growth of urbanisation.

As we survey the momentum of change associated with big data, robotics and automation, we sometimes forget that transport and mobility will also be key drivers of social and economic change in this next industrial revolution. But government planners are remarkably unimaginative about this: generally it is planning around faster trains, bigger airport runways – essentially improvements in existing frameworks of transport infrastructure. Other preoccupations are, understandably, focused on technology to reduce or remove polluting emissions.

But if the 18th and 19th century railways enabled people to make more autonomous choices about where they would live and work, and if that was a key to economic re-positioning at the time, what will be the equivalent in the next phase of human development? To get to the right destination, we need to do more than just tweak or slightly modernise the systems we have now. We need to ask questions of social policy, about what kind of mobility will enhance the quality of life and the generation of fairly distributed wealth, and how that can be delivered. More importantly, we need to decide what social and technological research should start now to make that possible in the near future.

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The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

The skills debate – an intervention from South-East Asia

June 26, 2018

In a recent post on this blog I looked at the developing discussion around skills, and how universities should respond. In the meantime, Singapore’s Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, has suggested that the city state should have a multi-pathway model of post-secondary education and training. Part of this will be run through a new state agency called SkillsFuture, which is offering high-potential qualifications not involving a university degree.

There is an additional point to be observed in Singapore’s approach. The Minister wants schools to stream pupils ‘according to their inclinations’ regarding science, creative arts or IT. The idea behind the Minister’s approach is to stabilise careers. The general assumption is most developed countries is that those entering the labour force in future will not remain with one employer but will have a ‘portfolio’ of careers. The Minister does not want this for Singapore’s workforce.

All of this indicates again that the debate about skills, education and training has really only just begun, and governments, their agencies and educational institutions may not all be making the same assumptions and pursuing the same pedagogical goals. Indeed whether this matters is not yet clear either.

Call the doctor

June 18, 2018

In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.

A brief history of hate

June 4, 2018

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
       Robert Frost, 1920

As a fairly regular user of Twitter, I frequently encounter contributors whose main motivation is clearly a desire to express their hatred of someone or something. They are not of course blazing some new trail. The Bible, classical Greek history, the Middle Ages – all are full of tales of hate and revenge, of senseless feuds and vendettas. Hatred is a recurring theme of Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed the literature of most countries. It came to define a key part of the last century.

Hate is not new. But what has changed is that it has found a much more accessible platform in today’s social media and it is changing who we are, just a little. It motivates voters, it frames argument (even intellectual argument), it feeds conspiracy theories, it destroys reason.

I’m not sure Frost is right, however; at least not about our current age. The hate of the 20th century may have been ice cold, but today’s burns with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness. In the academic world, we would do well to keep alive the flame of reason. It is what we are there for.

You say you want a revolution…

May 7, 2018

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.