Some things you can see coming…

i just remembere that i wrote this back in 2012 for a book called The Future: 50 Ideas you really need to know. Of course, if you write enough, and then wait long enough, almost anything can come true.

The text below is from the draft, so doesn’t exactly appear above.

41 Biohazards & Plagues

You might have noticed that some of the previous ideas where perhaps getting a little silly. Or perhaps I was.  No drama. This next lot of ideas will soon sort us all out.  Instead of intelligent machines, immortality and alien life how about a few mass extinctions, genetic terrorism or some good old-fashioned plagues?

Something, sometimes, strikes me as rather odd.  Namely that we somehow assume that life will go on, more or less as it has always done. But ‘always’ is actually a rather contemporary concept. We compare the present to the relatively recent past. This we do not take into account, for example, world wars one and two (around 70 million men, women and children killed) or the great flu pandemic of 1918-19 (somewhere in the region of 20-40 million dead). Going much further back we had the Black Death, which killed something like 30-60% of Europe’s population.

We’ve been lucky.  So, what other doomsday scenarios are there out there? Well it’s another long list. The problem is essentially two-fold. First more of us are living closer together in crowded cities and moving around in an interconnected world more easily thanks to various regulations and innovations in transport and infrastructure. We’ve even got our animals closer together – and closer to us some might argue – than previously. This means that when something nasty like a naturally occurring pathogen does break out it travels much faster – and has the potential to travel much faster and further between species too.  This goes some way to explain recent outbreaks of H5N1 virus, SARS, dengue and Ebola, all of which initially originated in Animals and were then spread by humans.

The second problem is technology. New technologies are emerging faster, many are quite powerful and many can be used in bad ways as well as good.  Genetics is a case in point. Genetics means that it is possible to create new and novel micro-organisms. Most of the time genetics will be for peaceful and products purposes. But there is no reason why some day someone (it’s Dr Evil again) won’t do something a little more sinister. As usual this has happened already in a sense. Smallpox and anthrax have been used as weapons before and more recently we’ve had the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system where the result of a few deranged minds.  So how about someone creating a new deadly micro-organism which, for instance, is only lethal to a specific race or ethnicity? Stealth and deniability all rolled into one.

Consequences? Apart from an outbreak of fear there would be an initial issue relating to the mass disposal of bodies. Many of the ideas we cherish – like saying good bye to loved ones or being able to visit their graves, might vanish. We would be back to plague pits, at least in the early days. There are also the economic effects.

Work done by Warwick McKibbin at the Lowry Institute in Sydney (quoted in Alok Jha’s book, The Doomsday Handbook) suggest that a mild repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic would kill almost 1.5 million people and would reduce economic output by b$330 billion (in 2006 prices).

A large repeat might kill 142 million and shrink output in some economies by as much as 50%.  Or maybe it’s more prosaic than that. Maybe the next plague is Type-2 Diabetes?  Maybe millions will die simply because they eat too much and don’t go outside and walk around enough. As for biotech disasters, the potential is serious mishaps is significant. What if poor synthetic biology regulation leads to people taking short-cuts, which leads to the creation of a new form of bug that can’t be got rid of using any known techniques? The bug might not be a problem on its own, but if it destroyed the world’s wheat, maize or rice crop the result could be mass starvation within particular regions.

Or maybe problems will occur from a combination of factors. What if global demands for meat creates issues surrounding the disposal of animal carcasses? This could cause a growth in feral dogs in some parts of the world that could lead to massive increases in rabies. Or what if a global economic boom meant more pool building swimming pools, but the boom is followed by bust and the homes are repossessed leading to stagnant water in swimming polls, which in combination with warmer weather caused by climate change leads to outbreaks of malaria?

BTW, worth pointing out the 2012 entry on the timeline for this, which reads: “A typical year for the common flu (3,000-5,000 killed in the USA). ” Context people, context.

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How to do nothing

I’ve got sod all on at the moment (thanks Coronavirus!) so I’ve started to read How to do nothing in the greenhouse by Jenny Odell. No…the book is called How to do Nothing… I’m reading it in the greenhouse…got it? I haven’t got very far, but it’s shaping up to be really good book. The quote at the start is fab too, especially in light of what’s going on right now.

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Stop spreading the news

Given my ongoing experiments with what I call retrospective reading (i.e. reading ‘news’ when it’s several weeks, if not months, old) I thought this was interesting. I haven’t stopped reading newspapers altogether, but I have certainly cut down very significantly and switched towards periodicals and books. Top tip: If you can’t stop your addiction, at least get rid of newspapers during the week and focus on weekend editions, which are more reflective and analytical. Anyway, this is from Rolf Dobelli, who is well worth reading.

News is bad for your health.

Out of the ­10,000 news stories you may have read in the last 12 months, did even one allow you to make a better decision about a serious matter in your life, asks Rolf Dobelli. Photograph: Guardian/Graphic

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

News misleads. Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.

News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Book link.

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Scenarios for the impact of pandemics

A scenario matrix from my friend Nick Turner at Stratforma. His explanation below.

The framework is built on the axes of two critical uncertainties:

  1. The nature of global coordination; “slow and inadequate” vs. “fast and efficient”
  2. The nature of public response; “panicked” vs. “disciplined”

When placed in a 2×2 matrix, four scenarios unfold:

“Déjà Flu”a world where despite national governments and multi national agencies responding in a responsible and coordinated fashion, feed “too much” information, the public over-react, resulting in irrational consumption and even xenophobic outrage.

“Keep Calm & Carry On”: a world where the virus spreads but effective quarantining and treatment contain the epidemic and the public display unexpected resilience, as the media behave in a more retrained way.

“Plus ça Change”: a world of disparity in response across the globe between developed and developing economies, the population of latter, despite experiencing high mortality rates, shrug off as just another one life’s challenges to be faced.

“Me First”: a world of delay, opacity, incompetence and unpreparedness, leading to public panic, overreaction and selfishness, the after effects of which linger for years.

More on this in Nick’s post here.

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I’m supposed to be flying to Sydney, but…

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Something from the archive

From issue 22 of What’s Next (June/July 2009).

We’ve had Spanish flu (1918-19), Asian flu (1957) and Hong Kong flu (1968-69). Then we had SARS, bird flu and recently, swine flu. There is also seasonal flu, which appears every winter and kills about 250,000 people annually, although this is often forgotten. The idea, “community of anxiety”, was coined in 2004 by the writer, Ian McEwan, in Saturday, a novel about events surrounding the Iraq war. A similar idea is information pandemics. Both ideas describe the way fear and anxiety are spreading throughout the world, fuelled primarily by the interconnectivity of digital communications. It can start with a single email, spread to a blog and end up on Twitter. The result is global panic on an unseen scale and outbreaks are difficult to contain.

In early May, the World Health Organization talked about the need to stockpile food and water due to the swine flu outbreak and raised the threat level to five out of a possible six. Meanwhile, airports were installing thermal scanners and newspapers revelled in the story as it grew more scary and spectacular. The whole world seemed to be running for cover wearing a variety of (mostly useless) facemasks. Fear was spreading fast, fed with a mixture of confusion and impotence. The threat is real enough. The 1918 outbreak killed 20-50 million people in less than 18-months while the Black Death in the 14th century wiped out a third of the European population in just two years. Even the Asia and Hong Kong pandemics killed about 1-2 million people apiece. But we are confusing what’s possible with what’s probable. The reason is a collective feeling – a mood if you like – that something big and nasty is coming our way. This is partly because a string of events, from 9/11 and climate change to the economic collapse, have left us feeling unsure about what’s next. It is possible that a real pandemic will eventually emerge.

It will probably start in an overcrowded Asian city and travel economy class on a jet to the US and Europe. We may be able to contain it or we may not. The science surrounding such things is uncertain. Interestingly though, there appears to be a sense that we deserve things like this to happen to us. In some way, we are collectively guilty (because we borrowed too much money or damaged the planet with our selfish, materialist ways, perhaps) and we need to be punished. There is also a warped sense of curiosity at play. What would the world look like after a genuine pandemic? Would the death of 50 million people give everyone more food to eat? Another example of the fear factor was the jet that flew low over New York in early May. People automatically assumed another terrorist attack and panic whipped around Manhattan like wildfire. It turned out to be someone taking photographs but by then it was too late. And this, perhaps, is the point. Information now flows around the world too quickly and there is not enough time to properly react or to separate fact from opinion, anecdote from analysis, or sensation from science. There is too much information and much of it is unreliable.

Thanks to Web 2.0 the old hierarchy of knowledge, where source related to trustworthiness and reliability, has broken down. Furthermore, the people we used to trust (scientists, politicians, religious figures) are now widely distrusted so we ignore them. Swine flu is killing about 0.1% of those it infects; the mortality rate for the 1918-19 variety was 2.5-5.0%. So very few people have died so far. This could still change but I doubt it. Nevertheless, the sense of impending apocalypse remains.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 2-3 May 2009, ‘Fear fever’, J. Huxley. www.smh.com.au See also The Fourth Horseman: A history of epidemics, plagues and other scourges by Andrew Nikiforuk, Panicology by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Risk: The science & politics of fear by Dan Gardner.

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Friday Fun

When the furniture fights back
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Information Pandemic

Section from mega-trends map

It’s interesting to me to see how the media, and hence the public, are responding to Coronavirus (I think that’s the correct way around, but it’s hard to say who’s leading who sometimes). The risk of death is remote (a mortality rate of between 0.7% and 3.0% currently depending on circumstances and location), which is almost nothing. Ebola had a mortality rate of 60%, SARS 10%. The numbers 0.7-3.0 are still significant if applied across a while population, but the response of the media, and hence governments and people, generally seems over the top.

I think that perhaps the reason for this might be the current narrative, which is doomsday apocalyse (think of climate change and species extinction in particular). It’s also got something to do with how we think about the future generally, which is logical but hugely unhelpful (we simply extrapolate from current data or conditions in a linear manner) and perhaps the fact that people are generally dreadful at working out real probabilities or understanding the impact of feedback loops, counter-trends or unexpected events.

And, of course, connectivity is fuelling everything. It’s spreading the virus, but it’s also spreading panic about the virus. News is travelling to fast to be properly analysed, fact checked or placed in proper context.

Anyway, as they say, my particular interest at the moment is how the current panic about Coronovirus might work with other anxities to create some kind of super-anxiety or mental collapse (shades of Future Shock – see After Shock). I eluded to this somewhat when I created my risk radar and spoke of unseen combinations of events and put Global pandemic alongside Loss of antibiotic efficacy, Mental health epidemic and Global financial system collapse. The thought was repeated on the list of global gamechagers on my map of mega-trends.

Section from risk radar

So what to do? I think the Stoics have it nailed. Worry about or do something about what you can influence, or control, and don’t worry or try to control about what you can’t. In the words of Seneca, “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs on tomorrow and loses today.” Or, as he also put it, “You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours.” It will be what it will be.

An age of anxiety
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Found in the road

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Word of the Week: Mooch

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