G’Bye (requiem for a way of life)

After eight and a half years based in Australia I am returning to England. It’s a tough call, but the commute between Sydney and London finally got to me, especially the occasion, a few months ago, when I did the journey twice in three weeks. Mind you, I did establish that once you’ve got jet lag it’s impossible to get double jet lag. You just get a general blur. Maybe that’s what my friend Ross means when he says jet lag is just your soul trying to catch up with your body.

What will I miss? I will miss getting back from work and throwing myself into a pool. I will miss decent coffee, year-round BBQs, fresh mangoes, insects with attitude, properly aged meat (Victor Churchill, Queen Street), the smell of eucalyptus after a rain storm, people that say “thank you” to bus drivers when they hop off and a handful of thoughtful and interesting people.

I will miss the sea, the openness and the optimism of the Australians too. Also, the “She’ll be right mate” attitude. The “Fair go” (everyone is entitled to have a go at anything, regardless of background or position). I will also miss the sun and the space. I think these last two are a fundamental cause of the enduring (“no worries”) optimism. The light is hard in Australia but there is softness to the people. Even when things get tough there is still (generally) the thought that you can walk down to the (clean) beach and smile at a stranger and there is every chance that they will smile straight back at you.

What am I looking forward to? Someone (we’ll call him Oliver because that’s his name) once said that the best two things about Australia are leaving it and coming back. I think it’s the same with England. I am looking forward to seeing more of a handful of interesting and thoughtful people, but the best thing about England is what Donald Rumsfeld once called ‘”old Europe.”

For an (alleged) futurist I am strangely attracted to the old and Europe does old in abundance. This gets me thinking. One of the reasons I have a love/hate relationship with the digital age is that digital things have no trace of discernable history. Digital content is always pristine. It is not degraded by time and all copies are exactly the same. Hence, ‘digital’ has no discernable character.

Let me give you an example. I have a few albums from the 1970s and 1980s that have be worn by the hands of time. There are marks on the covers that tell particular stories and scratches on the records themselves that give each and every one a unique character and narrative. My digital music collection, on the other hand, is largely invisible and is uniquely devoid of personality.

It’s the same with photographs. I have photos that are fifty years old that are slowly fading to nothing, much like many of their subjects. I also have a handful of Polaroid photos taken in the 1970s that are similarly fading, although it is the memory of the talking of each photograph that I remember the most. I can remember the sound – even the smell – of some of these photographs.

When film was expensive we took care about what we photographed. Similarly, the theatre of seeing a photograph develop slowly before one’s eyes (Polaroid film if you are much under thirty) is still imprinted in my memory. Even popping a film in the post and waiting a week or more for the photos to be developed (”some day my prints will come”) had a perverse appeal.

So what have we got nowadays? Well the taking of photos costs next to nothing so we don’t think very much about what we are taking photographs of. Equally, while we shoot almost anything, we print virtually nothing. And we don’t back up our ‘collections’ of photographs very much either, do we? I guess the deal here is that we have traded an intensity of seeing for convenience.

Maybe books will go the same way. We will download them from invisible libraries for 99 cents a shot (shades of Dickens Tuppeny Tales?). Once read they will sit on invisible shelves displaying no hint as to where they have been or by whom they were once read.

Again, the pay off will be that we may end saving lots of time but not having anything of value that is worth saving. We will end up living lives where everything we do, see or come into contact with will be captured digitally, but in the end these lives will be totally devoid of meaningful or memorable content.

Must go…got another plane to catch.

Where Do People Do Their Best Thinking?

You may remember that as part of my new book (Future Minds) I spoke to a few people asking them the question: “Where and when do you do your best thinking?” Here are some more responses…

“Over the decades, I think that my best thinking has occurred when I am visiting a foreign country, have my obligations out of the way, and am sitting in a pleasant spot – in a café, near a lake – with a piece of paper in front of me.”

“Usually when I am not working, and most often when I am travelling!”

“The most relevant (issue) for me is ideas needed for a piece of writing. As a drummer I am generally required to avoid deep thinking of any sort. So it’s probably whilst driving on a motorway, or on the start of a transatlantic flight. I think it’s to do with some distractions so that the thinking is a little freer – there is nothing worse than tidying the desk, sharpening a pencil and sensing the creative part of the brain creeping out the back door… also there’s a nice reward element that can be employed. No motorway fry up, or extra dry martini before there’s an opening line invented.”

“Lying in bed in the dark, with the white noise generator producing a soothing whoosh, I sometimes have a few seconds of modest insight.”

“I love doing household chores: loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the floors, scouring the pans; the polishing, the cleaning. All the time I am thinking of ways to improve upon the equipment; what would bring forward the technology.”

“I’ve had creative thoughts while walking down the street, in the shower, on the squash court, in the bathroom (of course), while shaving… .”

“I do my best thinking in bed – sometimes even when asleep. I wake up having solved a problem.”

Dead People Everywhere

Here’s a thought. Why are there so many films about vampires, ghosts and mediums around at the moment? Could it be connected to the baby boomer bulge? That there are a large number of people approaching retirement, especially in the US, and these people are starting to think about their own mortality? Hence an interest in shows about the afterlife, or immortality. Here’s another thought. Graph major demographic trends in the US and then see if there’s a correlation to certain types of hit TV shows or movies.

Pool side reflections

I’m sitting by a swimming pool eating watermelon and a few things have drifted into my mind, as they always do when I am removed from the normal distractions of daily existence.

First, I think the idea that there is a shift going on away from consuming products to consuming experiences is Western-centric. I think it’s true that there is a shift towards experiences in regions like the US and Europe, but this is less true in other parts of world. For example, there is plenty of research showing that when people move from relative poverty to relative wealth they start buying products that are an outward display of prosperity. But as this wealth becomes normalized the spending becomes more inner-directed. Thus, a shift away from clothes and cars towards the inside of a home or towards education and travel.

So here’s a prediction. In developing markets (e.g. the BRICs) luxury goods will do well, whereas in developed markets luxury goods companies will have to warp their products around sensory experiences or even membership clubs. So, yes, consider buying shares in luxury goods companies, but only if they are well established in emerging markets.

Of course, there’s an immediate flaw in this argument. What about the Indians and the Chinese versus the English and Americans when it comes to education?

BTW, speaking of education, according to an interview with Andy McNab in the FT, recruits going into the infantry division in the UK army used to have a reading age of 12. Now it’s 7.

A second thought. There will be more bubbles in the future because global connectivity is acting as an accelerant for herd behaviour. Moreover, the scale and frequency of such bubbles will grow dramatically. I think gold is a current example of a bubble about to burst. Only a genius would dare to suggest when exactly this will happen but I will make a vague prediction of within the next 18-months.

No Real Substance

I’ve got writers’ block. Actually it’s more writers’ diarrhoea – lots coming out but little, if anything, of real substance.

One thing. I did a talk this morning about ‘prediction’ and the other speaker mentioned that he thought the ‘generations’ were becoming extinct. He might have a point. Is there really any difference nowadays between Gen Y and Gen Z (millennial, iGen, new silent generation – whatever you want to call them)?

Back in the 1950s there was a big shift in the way that teens behaved versus their parents. Since about 2000 the generations have been converging.

I think this is an interesting argument, but I do believe that, for the time being at least, there are still major generational differences between Boomers and X’ers or between X’ers and Gen Y. Where there is less difference is between Y and Z, although even here I could argue that there is as much difference within Y and Z and there is between Y and Z or between X and Y.

See. I told you it had no substance.