Winter is ending

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
July 9, 2021

During the last decade, fantasy fans were served promptly by the major studios. However, in 2019, Avengers Endgame wrapped up the third phase of the Marvel Universe, Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker marked the end of the last trilogy, and season 8 of Game of Thrones meant the (preliminary) end of Westeros. Then it became quiet, “winter came”. A year later, COVID caused cinemas to close and productions to be postponed, complicating things even further. Although lockdowns spurred streaming media consumption, fantasy fans weren’t exactly spoiled. Consequently, since last year, most customer attention has turned to gaming, which has shown remarkable growth figures and is the preferred medium for younger generations. And with lockdowns ending, some media firms even fear an “attention recession”.

Yet, this might be a bit exaggerated. Behind the screens, the major studios are preparing a new cycle of high-budget fantasy adaptations, which will strongly influence the outcome of the streaming wars in the next decade, determine box offices, and could forever change theatrical window strategies (to only name a few: Lord of the Rings (2022) on Prime, Foundation (2021) on Apple TV+, and House of the Dragon (2022) on HBO max. These modern fantasy worlds are built around epic stories, comics and nostalgia that will remain attractive to aging generations. And while we are accustomed to radically prefer the art of moviemaking to that of gaming, Hollywood seems to have begun embracing gaming IP. In the next fantasy cycle, gaming IP might even become one of the most important sources of fantasy adaptations (e.g., Halo (2022) and The Last of Us (2022)).

Burning questions:

  • According to some, the time is ripe for video gaming adaptations, but which screen and format are best suitable for video gaming intellectual property?
  • How will streaming platforms change theatrical windowing?
  • To what extent will the post-COVID period see consumers return to the cinema?
  • Who will be the winners and losers in the “attention recession”?

Judges break the unwritten rule of environmental agreements

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
July 9, 2021

Even though it concerns the first-ever climate case against a company, the court ruling against Royal Dutch Shell is part of a wider trend of a demand for more action against climate change. Yet, while the intentions behind them are clear, these rulings may actually be counterproductive. They break the unwritten rule that international agreements on climate action are taken with a grain of salt. Such agreements tend to be either abstract or focused on the long term and leave a lot of room for interpretation with respect to short-term action.

The resulting wiggle room allows politicians to sign these agreements and adopt a wait-and-see strategy afterwards. By now it is clear that the courts will no longer accept this and intend to force governments to take action today in order to meet the long-term goals they agreed upon. Looking ahead, the question is whether these rulings will indeed lead to much-needed action, or rather prevent politicians from signing any new agreements that could lead to similar court cases in the future.

Burning questions:

  • Will companies anticipate future court rulings and speed up their own plans of action?
  • Will companies flee to countries where judges are less likely to make similar rulings?

We need more downward mobility

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
June 16, 2021

We often gauge inequality by looking at income distributions and complain about the lack of equal opportunity in society. To fight inequality, governments are in search of social measures to ease the path upwards and close the income gap. For example, better education is widely held to be the great equalizer and the best way to move up on the social ladder. Although this is presumably true, it is only half the story. Income distributions only offer a static snapshot of equality.

To fully comprehend inequality, one should also look at the dynamics of the population. Equally important is the capacity of the population to constantly change positions, keep moving from time to time, including the rich and arrived (i.e. downward mobility). Mathematically, this is called the ergodicity of the system and, more intuitively, this tells us whether the rich stay rich and lock in their privileges and wealth or if one has a good chance to become rich(er), but still end up poor(er). From this point of view, Europe may be more unequal than the U.S., because, according to Nassim Taleb, Europe excels in non-ergodic systems. So, often neglected, the path to equal societies is not only to empower the lower classes, but just as much to add some skin in the game for the richest decile of the income distribution, to increase the chances some of them actually slide down the social ladder.

Burning questions:

  • Is the current surge in “public executions” based on someone’s private behavior a symptom of our non-ergodic system and lack of downward mobility by other means?
  • How do we make our central and bureaucratic organizations, companies and governments have more skin in the game?
  • Can the decentralized architecture of Web3 increase the ergodicity of the system in the future, or will it establish new, unforeseen mechanisms and patterns of absorbing wealth and sticky wealth in a decentralized economy?

The emergence of big tech mesh networks

Written by Arief Huhn
June 3, 2021

On June 8th Amazon will launch Amazon Sidewalk, a new wireless Mesh network which is created by connecting users’ Amazon internet-connected devices to each other. With Sidewalk, Amazon aims to create emergent infrastructure to strengthen connectivity of their consumer hardware and offer new services such as finding lost items. Similarly, Apple launched Airtags in which it uses all their users’ Apple iPhones as an emergent network to spot lost items attached to an Airtag.

As device density and bandwidth of wireless technology increases, mesh networks will become more functional and reliable and thereby more common. These more emergent ad hoc forms of infrastructure show that selling consumer hardware is not only a product play, but also a latent infrastructure play, in which the former can even be seen as a Trojan Horse for the latter. At the same this raises questions around privacy, digital sovereignty and shared value in which the consumer’s hardware and part of the consumer’s bandwidth can suddenly be used to perform valuable functions at an aggregate level.

Burning questions:

  • Which other companies could deploy similar mesh networks?
  • What other services can we expect using these types of infrastructure?
  • Can we expect open decentralized mesh networks based on open standards?

Building national character based on trauma

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
April 22, 2021

Since the beginning of the coronacrisis, there has been a lively debate on the successful handling of the pandemic in East Asia. In March 2020, we argued that we have to look beyond the idea of “strong governments” to explain why East Asia has coped well. Commentators, however, still point to the political leadership, social trust and state capacity of these countries to explain their success. Yet Western countries that share those characteristics have performed much worse. The key factor that seems to determine success in handling the pandemic is the historical lesson learned by East Asia in 2002/3 with SARS, another coronavirus. Interestingly, one of the most important lessons China learned with SARS is to overcome “impediments to the flow of information through the governmental hierarchy”.

Two years later, China launched its mass surveillance system to boost the flow of information for governments. Fifteen years later, China has been much better prepared for COVID-19 as rapid tracking and testing prevented the virus from spreading like in the Western world. Overall, we can explain the success of East Asia in terms of national character. However, instead of traditions of leadership, trust and capacity, national character also seems to be shaped by far more recent historical experiences.

Burning questions:

  • How will COVID-19 change the national characters of Western countries?
  • To what extent is the outperformance of East Asian governments part of a bigger competitive edge of these countries – and what does that mean for the future?

The European Deep Transition Strategy

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
April 2, 2021

A lot has been written about the unfolding European Digital Strategy to reclaim the digital sphere from private interests and make it more equitable and fair. However, the EU is also becoming a regulatory superpower in the non-digital realm. This month, for example, the European Parliament paved the way for new European legislation that stresses corporate accountability and due diligence for human rights within value chains.

Furthermore, the ECB aspires to become a pioneer in fighting climate change, by slashing bond purchases by heavy carbon emitters and advancing “green bonds” and integrating climate risk in its stress tests for the banking sector. And last year, the EU adopted new “eco-design measures” that should make it easier to repair – rather than replace – old household appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators. All these measures are meant to create more equitable and sustainable consumer practices, production processes, and value chains in the real economy. As such, the EU is leveraging the “Brussels Effect” to begin to establish the meta-rules of the Second Deep Transition.

Burning questions:

  • Will other countries follow Europe’s example or will this legislation cause more geopolitical friction?
  • Does the EU have the coherence and unity to push and enforce all legislation?
  • What is the goal or set of meta-rules that the EU has in mind?

Will a post-corona era arrive in the coming years?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
March 9, 2021

The phases a society experiences in a crisis are predictable, according to disaster psychology. First, we enter the honeymoon phase: people don’t quite feel the scope of the crisis, nor of its implications and are willing to work together. Then, a period of distrust and depression dawns, in which the gap between community needs and available resources widens. It can get grim: the disillusionment phase follows. In the final phase of reintegration, we adapt to a new reality. We are presently in the phase of disillusionment. According to experts, the pandemic will eventually become endemic, circulating the global population for years to come. However, there are strong indicators (e.g. new variants outsmarting vaccines, the coronavirus being zoonotic) that several more years of social distancing measures will be required before we reach that stage. The call for politicians to stop referring to the current situation as temporary and instead consider it permanent is therefore growing louder. This would allow the phase of reintegration to begin, in which new light can be shed on the costs and benefits of mitigating the impact of the coronavirus.

Burning questions:

  • Will societies reach consensus on ethical issues such as the price each generation must pay for mitigating the impact of the virus or the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated?
  • Will financial aid for certain businesses like airlines, physical stores, etc. continue even if it takes years for their services to be enjoyed again as they could in the pre-coronavirus world?
  • Will people be able to adapt to the reduction of freedom and physical contact that comes with mitigation, or will this result in endless unrest?

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Does the future belong to Keynes and Mazzucato?

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
January 14, 2021

In the past year, Keynes made a comeback into the soul of European economic policy. First intended to keep the economy going, then with a view to establish a sustainable and inclusive economy in the future. In order to facilitate the latter, Keynes was modernized with the mission-oriented innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Together, they provide a substantial economic policy framework for governments to combat the “wicked problems” of the 21st century.

Our observations

  • Because of the coronavirus crisis, for the first time in twenty years, poverty is on the rise again. Depending on the severity of the economic crisis, an estimated 150 million people will join the ranks of those living below the poverty line, making the sum total nearly 10% of the global population. A wealthy continent such as Europe, despite there being more social security than elsewhere, is no exception to this trend.
  • In the past, crises have sometimes been great equalizers: In wartime, equity and capital evaporated more quickly than gunpowder. This does not apply to the coronavirus crisis, which has only exacerbated social and economic inequality in several ways.
  • CO2 emissions decreased by 8% in the past year and we’re unlikely to ever again reach the global peak levels of 2019. The main concern is now whether emission levels will be reduced fast enough, and which part of the population will “bear the brunt” of the decreased emission rates.
  • With the coronavirus as a tipping point, governments are now striving for a more active role in the economy to deal with the abovementioned “wicked problems”. In the course of the year, aid packages came to be accompanied by recovery packages meant to correct the unbridled neoliberalism of the past years. These recovery packages are largely made up of investment funds with a lot of reference to mission-oriented innovation policy, which gradually seems to be gaining ground in Europe.
  • The recovery plans and investment funds are crystal clear in one respect: sustainability is the main goal. The German government devised a green recovery plan of 130 billion euros which focuses mainly on hydrogen. The French government, unwilling to lag behind, presented a 100 billion euro plan soon after, of which 30 billion is reserved for the ecological transition. And recently, regulations on spending the European recovery fund of 672.5 billion euros were tightened, so that a significant percentage of the subsidies and loans would have to be used for sustainability purposes. The same applies to the Dutch growth fund of 20 billion euros, which initially incurred much criticism for the gray and traditional economic set-up of the investment fund, but has now become much greener.

Connecting the dots

Economists generally disagree. Put two economists in a room and you’ll get three opinions, the old economic saying goes. The consensus among economists about the global aid policy of governments was therefore surprising. Economists have rarely been this unanimous in their agreement on the necessity of government intervention. Moreover, with the financial crisis still fresh in our memories, central banks are asking governments not to start phasing out financial aid too soon. The rising government debt has been taken for granted so far; the fear of long-lasting economic stagnation unequivocally takes precedence over the fear of inflation. Initially, the emphasis was on keeping the economy going. Now, we’re becoming concerned about the future. The government wants to stimulate economic growth as well as realize societal goals such as reaching sustainability and social justice at the same time.

This will be one hell of a job. Classical Keynesian undifferentiated innovation policy is no longer the solution, as not all innovation is good and not all consumption is wanted. Keynes needs an update. The neoclassical economic idea that innovation is ultimately best judged by the market, is abandoned in the innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Her ideas include a preceding process of elimination by civilians and the government, who join hands in formulating ambitious societal goals, or “moonshots” as Mazzucato likes to call them.

In Europe, in part because of the coronavirus crisis, Mazzucato’s ideas have gained much momentum. Following the Green Deal, governmental aid packages often contain clear references to mission-oriented policy, with social justice and sustainability as the most prevalent missions. These societal missions are ambitious and this is precisely the point, according to Mazzucato, so that passion will return to government policy, which otherwise is at risk of becoming uninspired and providing a culture with little direction. Yet, the economic reality presents a challenge for European policy makers. Mission-oriented innovation policy is a three-fold struggle in which crises from the past, present and future influence each other.

The legacy of the past is a financial system in which capital is (too) profitable. Indeed, private savings abound: in the year of the coronavirus, European savings accounts and nest eggs were amply stocked. Moreover, central banks are copiously adding to the money supply with their extensive buy-back programs. Because of this, collecting money isn’t the problem, but, eventually, this money should be flowing into the real economy, which has been an issue for over a decade. The way the financial system is organized ensures that returns on stocks and capital are often more interesting than risky innovation. It speaks volumes that in the year of the coronavirus, more young people opened a private investment account than ever before, and house prices merrily kept on rising during the crisis. Speculation counters innovation and discourages companies from making daring long-term investments.

The legacy of the present is simply the economic damage of the current crisis. Inequality has increased in many domains. The crisis greatly divides society, resulting in clear winners and losers. Consequently, we’re witnessing increasing resistance against some forms of public spending, especially where climate policy is concerned. Economists therefore advocate a joint approach to reaching sustainability and economic equality. Their approach boils down to higher (environmental) taxes for the upper class, and tax exemptions or financial compensation (e.g. for road pricing) for the lower and middle classes to restore their disposable income. According to economist Dirk Bezemer, tax and wage measures should be in one and the same package as sustainability laws, otherwise, the intended acceleration of the green transition in Europe would be completely unrealistic.

Our “legacy” for the future is the advance we’ve taken on this future and the necessity of growth to be able to pay this back. With sufficient economic growth, government debt becomes lower in relative terms and tax income rises, so that it becomes easier to pay interest charges without this affecting other expenses. And it’s not just government debt that makes economic growth desirable. The future pension costs and increasing healthcare costs of an ageing population, make economic growth essential to Europe.

Economic growth is thus very desirable, but to what extent are economic growth and societal missions reconcilable? This is a controversial question, especially as regards sustainability. Too much emphasis on quick recovery in the form of a single-minded focus on economic growth would have disastrous effects on, among other things, absolute emission rates. Yet, an economic downturn, is not the time to experiment with economic paradigms that do not center around growth. The fact that societal missions are still mostly framed as interesting investment opportunities for growth is exemplary of the dilemma governments face. Innovation, it is still felt, is mostly meant to be interesting economically, and only to benefit society by derivation.

Thus are government policy-makers forced to struggle with the legacy of a financial system marked by perverse incentives, with the economic downturn of the current crisis, and, finally, with the considerable loan we’ve taken out from future generations. If Mazzucato’s ambitious mission-oriented innovation policy is to have any chance of success, this threefold legacy will have to be taken deathly seriously.

Implications

  • There are risks involved in a more active role for government. If we fixate too much on the promises made, we’ll lose sight of the fact that in the past decade, many companies have become too dependent on the government, with dire effects on innovation. Economic renewal requires the creative destruction of old and lumbering companies that should not be able to keep getting handouts from the government or obtaining debt obligations at extremely low cost. Economists have long feared the rise of zombie companies, that are all too eager to look to the government for bailouts. Like unbridled neoliberalism, this “sunflower capitalism” (i.e. these companies turn to the government as a sunflower turns to the sun) creates the wrong conditions for innovation.

Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.