Monday, 22 February 2010

Absolutely Zeke

“The way I see it Brad, somewhere between the puritanical practice and the hedonistic gullibility is the fusion of permanence and change, madness and cool reason.”

I may march fearlessly into the future if I am confident it will be better than the past. Whither such confidence? Perhaps I have simply been lucky thus far and the story that I tell myself of life is imbued with positive expectation. Perhaps I am a member of a class that has control over the means of production, or a profession that has erected barriers to entry, and I envisage my control continuing. Perhaps I live in a society in which material and cultural changes have within living or recent memory lifted my forebears from penury and ignorance, so I find it straightforward to believe that this will persist into the future. Perhaps I have been inculcated with the Enlightenment orthodoxy of ‘progress’; or I am persuaded that neo-Darwinian processes of change, whether smooth or punctuated, are inevitable and if met with positive intent will culminate in positive outcomes; or perhaps the tenets of my faith – Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist - supply a psychological shield of hope or serenity.

In the absence of such confidence, if I do not have these various protections, I am fearful of change and I shall resist it if I can. I foresee the loss of income or status: I shall fight for my job. I dread the collapse of my community: I shall march with my brothers and sisters to defend our tradition. I have lost faith in my leaders – their gods and their policies – and I shall blame immigrants, I shall seek vengeance, I shall use violence.

Afraid of the future, unable or unwilling to countenance changes to my life that are beyond my control, I shall hunker down, I shall look the other way, I shall take refuge in trinkets and mysticism. I shall, like a child, hope that it will all go away. My resistance shall, if all else fails, be passive and stubborn.

Entreaties may be made to me. I do not trust them. These people – these politicians, these scientists, these journalists – the people have lied to me before. Me, my family, my neighbourhood, my class – we have suffered before. You – the confident, the prosperous, with the control and the power – you will be fine. Again you seek to assuage us. Your philosophies and your theories and your models mean nothing to me: I believe only the practical, the manifest, the real.

Don’t tell me, show me.

* * * * * *

Professor Richard Sennett gave the closing address at the Compass annual conference in 2006. Sennett’s theme was trust. In those dog days of the Blair administration, Sennett was concerned, in particular, to explain the processes that shape the degree of trust between citizens and their elected representatives. Blair had, post-Iraq, achieved an acutely refined condition of being distrusted, not least by those comprising Sennett’s audience, which had indeed spent its day in various apoplectic states of dismay at the way in which Blair had traduced, misled and generally betrayed them. Sensing the mood, Sennett (a gifted lecturer) abandoned his prepared speech and sketched the bare bones of an alternative talk whilst sitting in an anteroom only minutes before he took the lectern (a truth to which I can testify because I had the privilege of sitting next to him on a bench as he did it). His principal assertion was this: that trust is grounded not in conviction, but in consistency (the unfinished sixth of Calvino’s memos).

Sennett invited his audience to reflect on the superabundance of policies and initiatives that had characterised the Blair years (a character that has hardly subsided since). Barely was the ink dry on last year’s initiative when this year’s arrived. What is the citizen to make of this? It would seem to indicate that last year’s initiative could not have been much good, else why would they need a new one this year? And this new one – well, we should probably expect another one next year, should we not? Not much point in changing everything to cope with these latest initiatives if we’ll have to do it all again next year; and no point at all in investing any trust in the people responsible, since they clearly have no idea what they are really doing.

The most trusted politician in Europe – Sennett intoned – is someone most of you will never have heard of. He is Matti Vanhanen. He is the Prime Minister of Finland. He is well known in Finland for not doing very much. He is not especially liked (he doesn’t smile much in public and is considered boring). But he is very highly trusted because when he does say he’s going to do something, he does it. He doesn’t do much, but what he does do, he does.

Trust comes from consistency.

* * * * * *

One can see the dilemma. Governments are elected to ‘do’ things and so that’s what they do: create new crimes, reform education on a continuous basis, overhaul the organisation of the health system at regular intervals, and so forth. It is hard to imagine a form of politics in which one might hear a statement such as: “It is important that recent changes have the opportunity to bed down and for everyone to adjust to the new rules. I am therefore announcing a moratorium on new initiatives of at least twelve months.”

All change brings uncertainty, and the majority of us who do not have the resources to defend ourselves against the anxieties that may be prompted by such uncertainty look to particular people or particular organisations to reassure us, to help us. For that reassurance to be useful, for it to have the necessary resilience and strength to do its work, we have to have trust in the individual or organisation to which we look.

This, for example, is how – and why – a brand like Marks & Spencer is able to initiate a programme such as Plan A, a programme that is, in the words of its Chairman Sir Stuart Rose, ‘half a step ahead’ of its customers. M&S customers ‘know’ that their food and clothing needs to be produced in a more sustainable way: they know, too, that, as individuals, they cannot possibly attend to the full gamut of environmental and ethical and supply chain and pricing and other issues implied by sustainability; but they trust M&S sufficiently to be guided by them towards sustainable choices. M&S is just ahead, leading, but not so far ahead that we get lost.

We need the same of our politicians. Only when they have regained our trust – by slowing down, by speaking clearly and directly and, most of all, by being consistent – only then will they be able to lead us towards the sustainable lifestyles we know we need.

And if they can’t do it, then we’ll get new leaders.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The future of fun

Two contrasting visions for the future of leisure collided for me this week. Both, curiously, come from the past. Both, less surprisingly, refer to the behaviour of human beings in circumstances of excess.

The first vision dates from 1985 and it came to mind following a discussion about business cards.
Brook Lyndhurst is shortly to move office and amid the seemingly innumerable minutiae associated with such an exercise arises the opportunity to reconsider the corporate stationery. Despite the fact that this is inherently dull – or perhaps because it is - a vigorous management debate was prompted by a colleague’s bold proposition that we should adopt a dramatically new kind of business card, recalling a sequence of scenes in the movie ‘American Psycho’. In the arms-race for status that characterises the relationships between Patrick Bateman (the eponymous psychotic yuppie played with splendid menace by Christian Bale) and his fellow financiers, business cards assume a bloated symbolism. Both we the audience and Bateman the character know that, truly, it is just a business card; but as successive colleagues’ superior cards appear in successive scenes – embossed type, finer paper, more elaborate calligraphy – the close-up sweat on Bateman’s brow signals his progression towards the extremes that will soon be unleashed, whilst warning us, the viewer, of our own habits of focusing upon the incidental and the anecdotal at the expense of the strategic and the general.

It was American Psycho that brought author Bret Easton Ellis to the attention of the mainstream media, but it was his first novel ‘Less than Zero’ – written when he was just 21 – that signalled his ability to detect and report upon the warning signs. Less than Zero, published in 1985, follows a group of white, prosperous and disassociated Californian teenagers as they descend into the dark spaces created when ennui and affluence collide. Freed not merely from any financial constraints but from any folk memory of such constraints – neither their parents nor their grandparents have ever known austerity – Ellis’s characters are loosed from the material moorings that anchor the rest of us. What is there to do when there is no need to work? The very wealthy – or, perhaps more precisely, the children of the very wealthy – have been exploring this question for several centuries, but Ellis presents the answer on the first occasion it applies to an entire cohort.

In either case, the answer seems remarkably similar: when the tethers are cut, it is hedonism rather than artistic endeavour that seems to flourish. In the west coast case described by Ellis, two mutually reinforcing effects are also unleashed. On the one hand, the human capacity for adaptation means that, as time passes, ever more extreme behaviour is required to produce the same psychological high; and, on the other, the conduct of this behaviour in a social setting initiates a self-propelling social norm, numbing yesterday’s doubts and fostering tomorrow’s darker imaginings. Drugs and alcohol pave the way for orgies and rape; orgies and rape lead to torture and murder; torture and murder beget snuff movies and abasement. Financial excess, Ellis warns us, reverberates throughout and beyond the merely material. Untethered, we may become unhinged.

Though reporting on a California that could credibly have been said actually to exist in 1985, Ellis was sending the rest of us a message about the future. California is the frontier par excellence, in physical, cultural and psychogeographic terms. It is also ahead in economic terms: depending on how you calculate it, the UK is about 20 years behind California. Roughly speaking, it wasn’t until 2005 than average wealth in the UK reached the levels that had prevailed in California when Ellis wrote his first book. In a sense, Ellis sketched a possible future for the UK and the rest of the world: look what might happen when the rest of you reach this level of affluence…

A second vision of future leisure is implicit to the various prognostications associated with the low carbon economy, whether of the more mainstream form exemplified by the government’s low carbon transition
plan or Nicholas Stern’s ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’, or the more radical form such as Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’. These and other similar sources are at one in referring to the fact that ‘lifestyles’ will need to change in the future, but the detail of what this means in practice is either ignored or is treated in terms of inputs. That is to say, there are propositions for (say) reducing the energy consumption in our homes, or reducing the amount we drive, or reducing the embodied energy in our food or even reducing the amount we fly, but conspicuously absent is an analysis from the other end of the pipe. What are the activities we are actually undertaking when we consume these energies, when we eat these foods, when we make these journeys? Some of these activities may be more resistant to change than others, for example. There may be an important distinction to be made between emissions associated with certain basics of maintenance – keeping warm, eating food, interacting with other human beings – and those associated with more discretionary activities.

If we treat ‘leisure’ as what we (are allowed to) do with our discretionary time (after all the income earning, bodily maintenance and
shadow work has been done), and if we were to consider the carbon emissions associated with that leisure time, it might throw rather different light upon the challenge. At present, for example, leisure activities include: going on holiday, watching television, playing computer games and going shopping. They also include going for walks, riding bikes, gardening, angling, reading books, watching sport, playing sport, knitting and painting.

Data are readily available on how
many of us do these things, how long we spend doing them and how much of our money we spend on them. (Television comes top.) The distinctive feature, from our current perspective, is that the first list is characterised by the spending of money. These are the activities of technology and modernity, they are exciting and thrilling, they change from year to year – this new game, this new piece of technology, this new holiday destination – and we chase the hedonic treadmill in order to ‘belong’ to modern society.

The second group, by contrast, consists of the
slow, the free, the lo-tech; these are activities that have been feasible for generations, they tend not to follow the vagaries of fashion, they tend not to require continuous investment.

The first group is ‘high carbon’; the second group is ‘low carbon’. The first group serves the interests of organised capital, and is promoted to us daily by the emissaries of that capital. The second group serves the interest of none but those participating and is rarely suggested by anything other than earnest campaigners or – more effectively – word of mouth. The first group is forward-looking, commensurate with ‘progress’, engaged with the future; the second group feels backward looking, rather quaint, a throw-back to pre-modernity when our choices were limited.

And there’s the rub. When those of us who are persuaded that society needs to move to a low carbon life speak of such matters, a majority of people hear that we are telling them to give things up, to forgo modern pleasures, to go backwards in time. They hear that we would like them to give up their lovely televisions and read a book instead; they hear that we would like them to go for walk rather than buy a new electronic gizmo; they hear that we would like them to take up fishing or knitting rather than holiday somewhere warm and sunny.

In short, they hear that the future of leisure is the past. But who wants to go backwards?

On the other hand, if the future of leisure bears any relationship to the dystopia of Less than Zero, who wants to go forward?

We have an interesting quandary. Humans need to have fun, to
play, and as we become more prosperous we tend, on the whole, to have a mix of more time and more money to expend on our pleasures. So far, however, we seem not to have developed the rules of moderation – or what Schelling would call commitment devices – to protect either ourselves, those around us, or the planet.

Some hard work ahead, methinks, if we want to have fun that lasts.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The infinite flavours of yoghurt: on this occasion, six

Standing once again before the countless yoghurts I genuflected briefly to the retail miracle delivering such abundance. For a moment I stood as the perfect consumer, free to choose and ready to buy, means and intention aligned, my latent demand a mere muscle movement from expression.

Instead, the instructional salvos in my skull exploded down an avenue of memory not motion and I was plunged into a Gestalt of which Sebald himself would have been proud. Would that I could use some total technology to convey its completeness in a similar instant of experience! Or that I could capture on a single canvas the full texture and complexity of my vision; or create an unfathomable chord summoning every element.

The words will do: linear, perhaps, but, as Wittgenstein explained, they play the game as well as any and are as suited as any to estimating the cocktail of what transpired.

#1 – Loganberry. quince and elderflower

It is possible, I’ll concede, that half way through the act of eating a yoghurt you might discover that you are full, in which case the remaining yoghurt may well find its way into the bin; but I’ll wager that among the majority non-bulimic population a yoghurt is rarely an especially filling item. Barring the tediously inaccessible residue that seems inevitably to cling to the sides of the mainstream plastic yoghurt pot, there is little yoghurt in what the technicians delightfully refer to as the ‘waste stream’ that is there because consumers said “Hmm, I think I’m full now, that single teaspoon of virtually weightless material will just have to be thrown away.”

In practice, all the yoghurts you might find in the waste stream are there either because someone decided they didn’t like the taste, or because they decided, on the verge of eating it, that to do so would be dangerous.

Remarkably, this previously hidden area of human behaviour has been revealed to us through the good ministries of Wrap. We now know – that is to say, detailed survey work has revealed – that we in Britain throw away approximately 67,000 tonnes of yoghurt per year. This equates to a little over one million individual yoghurts every day.

Mull it over for a minute.

Something profoundly peculiar is happening here. In order to throw away a million yoghurts every day, quite a few of us must routinely be buying yoghurts that we, or those for whom we buy the yoghurts, don’t actually like. What kind of behaviour is that? Occasionally, yes: buy a new kind of yoghurt in a frisson of experimentalism, discover you don’t like the taste, throw the thing away. But a million yoghurts a day is way beyond experimentalism: something pathological is going on.

Alongside this, it seems that millions of us are so befuddled when we look at the little date on the top or the side of the yoghurt pot that we conclude it means that the product inside is no longer safe to eat, that it is going mouldy or something. Yoghurt is a product that is, essentially, mouldy milk. Hmm. Yesterday, acceptably mouldy; today, suddenly, lethally mouldy. Better chuck it in the bin.

Or perhaps food has become so cheap, or the price of individual items so indistinguishable, that it is essentially part of the challenge of affluence to be able to throw away a yoghurt as and when you want to, just because you can. You return from the supermarket and you need some more room in the fridge: throw away some yoghurts.

#2 – Vanilla

In 1983 – he told me – a high ranking Soviet official had visited the UK in order to promote an urban transport technology of which his Ministry was very proud. Never before having visited the west, Vladimir – his surname must remain anonymous for reasons I am sure the reader will appreciate – was keen to experience a selection of cultural highlights in the few moments he had between his various promotional engagements.

As if channelling Kurt Vonnegut through Jarvis Cocker’s confessions in ‘Common People’, the young official assigned to Vladimir decided that the most appropriate first cultural port of call would be a supermarket. (“I don’t know why, but I had to start somewhere, so I started… there.”) (Actually, it is a perfectly understandable decision: the supermarket is a clear emblem of the western canon and readily accessible to boot.)

In a few hours’ time Vladimir’s ambitions for his urban transport technology would be given brutally polite and short shift by a gathering of technicians and advisors, with the exception of a lunatic who had somehow risen to a position of some influence within the various circles convened for this particular delegation and whose profoundly mistaken belief that Vladimir’s technology represented a significant breakthrough in mass rapid transit systems was a source of stifled disbelief on the part of his fellow delegates (who, it must be said, were only in the foothills of discovering the full measure of their colleague’s madness). The full ramifications of this reception would become clear to Vladimir only years later and were certainly utterly inaccessible to him as he stood – he later explained – astonished before the dazzling array of dairy produce to which his young charge had steered him.

“In Russia”, he told me he had explained to his young guide, “we have only two types of yoghurt.”

Gazing across the innumerable forms and flavours that even in 1983 characterised the world of retail yoghurt, the young official – we surmise – pondered the meaning of a world in which there were only two choices. (Had he read Beckett, of course, he would have known that there were, in fact, four choices: one, the other, neither or both.)

“Yes,” Vladimir continued, “two types: yesterdays, and the day before yesterdays.”

And that’s why communism failed, we agreed: poor supply chain management.

#3 – Peach

Among the many dimensions along which it is possible to vary a yoghurt, one of the most intriguing concerns the claimed number and vitality of micro-organisms present in the pot. There are very few products that actively draw the attention of prospective purchasers to the presence of bugs, indeed most manufacturers and retailers seem keen to persuade us that the food they are selling has been isolated from the biological realm entirely. In the case of yoghurt, by contrast, producers are falling over themselves to demonstrate the power and exuberance of the ‘good’ bugs that we can ingest through the medium of fruit-flavoured mouldy milk.

The marketing folk would appear to have capitalised very effectively on two characteristics of the yoghurt-buying public: it has little interest in or understanding of the origins of its food, and little or no understanding of science. The same public has nevertheless been persuaded that it should try to eat healthily and that ‘pro-biotic’ yoghurt is a means of achieving this. The European Food Standards Authority recently pronounced that there is no evidence that ‘pro-biotic’ has any net benefit on health (news coverage of which extended even to the Daily Mail, who were kind enough to point out to their readers that “The UK's best-selling probiotics, Actimel and Yakult, were not included in the study because the two firms withdrew their claims before they could be assessed”) but this has had no discernible effect. Pro-biotic yoghurts, subset of the more general craze for ‘super foods’, remain fearsomely popular.

No information is available on whether the punters are more or less likely to throw away their pro-biotic yoghurts compared to their merely or perhaps even anti biotic counterparts, but the fact that they buy yoghurts that are in no respects more beneficial simply as a result of the presence of a word which we might ordinarily expect them to be extremely suspicious is telling us something important.

#4 – Raspberry

When I wrote the introduction to Brook Lyndhurst’s ‘Bad Habits, Hard Choices’ in 2003 I used yoghurts as an iconic illustration of the dilemmas facing those seeking to promote more sustainable behaviour among consumers.

“Why did you choose yoghurt?” asked a new colleague on reading the report in 2005. “They’re a bit elitist aren’t they?”

It turns out – according to the official “Family Spending 2009” – that the average UK household spends £1.90 per week on yoghurt and yoghurt-like products; the poorest ten per cent of households spend an average of 90p, the richest £2.90. Compared to their spending as a whole, the poor spend more on yoghurt than the rich.

So no, they’re not elitist.

#5 – Apple & blackberry

What is a behaviour anyway? As I stretch to pick up the chosen yoghurt, what is it, precisely, I am doing? I am being in a shop. I am being in aisle thirteen. I am standing here, not there. I am smelling A, hearing B, seeing C. I am thinking about football/sex/the weather. I am holding a trolley, carrying a phone, wearing some clothes. I am slightly tired, worrying about my weight, remembering my son’s need for new shoes, noticing my sore toe. I am breathing, digesting lunch, wondering whether I shall need to break wind whilst still in the shop.

And you thought I was ‘choosing a yoghurt’.

#6 – Strawberry

The remarkable Thomas Schelling – Professor of Economics at Harvard, Nobel laureate and author of the wonderful ‘Micromotives and Macrobehaviour’ – is one of the principal architects of what is now known as ‘behavioural economics’. He has not, as far as I know, written on the matter of yoghurt. He has, on the other hand, very carefully considered the intricacies of the human decision-making process across a wide range of behaviours, with a particular focus on the instability or variability of these processes. In his valedictory text ‘Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays’ [Harvard University Press 2006] he devotes a chapter to the notion of ‘Commitment as Self Command’. He considers and explores the wide variety of occasions in which we humans say, and genuinely mean, one thing one moment – and say, or do, something entirely different the next. The things we might want to do are in perpetual competition with one another, inside our own heads. He writes (p70):

“The conclusion I come to is that this phenomenon of rational strategic interaction between alternating preferences is a significant part of most people’s decisions and welfare and cannot be left out of our account of the consumer. We ignore too many purposive behaviors if we insist on treating the consumer as only having values and preferences that are uniform over time, even short periods of time.”

This tells us much about yoghurt. Whether in our kitchen when the yoghurt is safely in the fridge; or as we gaze into the fridge pondering whether this yoghurt will satiate the ineffable wish flitting across our tongue; or as we decide that this particular yoghurt ought now to be disposed of, or as we write our shopping list, as we travel to the shop, as we amble along the aisle or as we stand before the abundant array, Schelling shows us that absolutely nothing simple is going on. The past, the present and the future are all involved; my age, gender, class, income, ethnicity, health, family circumstances, fantasies, self-image and history of self-control are all implicated. The personal heuristic that collapses all of this into a simple, subjective Yes/No decision cannot be aggregated in a stable fashion. May be I will, maybe I won’t.

It is like quantum mechanics. Reality exhibits stability at the levels at which we customarily perceive it, much like aggregate consumer spending on yoghurt. Close up, however, reality is no more than a cloud of probability densities – and Schrödinger’s yoghurt may, or may not, be in my trolley. I won’t know until I look…

Richard Feynman would have described it all as a miracle: ““Incidentally, the fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all.” [The Meaning of it All, p23]

Enough. Time for the next item on the list.