Are we sharing enough data?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

The world is rapidly digitalizing, and the deployment of data offers many opportunities for economic development, achieving sustainability and a better quality of life. There are, however, considerable concerns about the misuse of (personal) data and undesirable outcomes of unbridled use of data. These concerns are legitimate, but we’re also running the risk of becoming too defensive when it comes to data, missing out on big opportunities and, more importantly, our selective opposition to data sharing may have undesirable effects.

Our observations

  • The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, according to an evaluation by the European Commission, worked well when it comes to “empowering” consumers and giving them more insight into and control over the use of their personal data. At the same time, this regulation is expressly targeted at minimizing risks, and with that could lead to an all too defensive attitude on the part of governments and citizens that could, for instance, stand in the way of innovation.
  • The so-called privacy paradox plays a large role in this. We consider privacy to be highly important but time and again show willingness to exchange data for access to information or services. This applies most when the reward we receive is immediate and beneficial to us as individuals. It’s therefore likely that a more defensive attitude towards data sharing will lead to lower willingness to share data for collective purposes (e.g. relating to public health).
  • The recently launched Dutch coronavirus app was long-awaited, partly because of a painstaking approach to the privacy risks. The chosen solution, as developed by Apple and Google, minimizes the storing of privacy-sensitive data, but also limits the possibilities for researchers and policymakers to ascertain matters such as where contaminations took place (when location data is lacking). Ironically, some governments therefore actually asked for less protection of privacy than the tech parties were willing to offer.
  • When only or mostly contextual data is used, the risk of bias increases, along with the risk of undesirable consequences such as discrimination and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality. This happens, for example, when predictive policing leads to higher deployment of police services in neighborhoods with above average crime rates, which then almost unavoidably leads to higher rates of reported crime. Another example is that theft insurance costs more in neighborhoods or cities with a bad (statistical) reputation, even when the individual takes all the necessary precautions to secure their belongings.

Connecting the dots

Like the great technologies of our past, digital technology enables us to increase our wealth and, more importantly, actually improve our well-being. On the one hand, technology can have direct financial benefits, such as cheaper services or more efficient use of energy and resources. On the other hand, and perhaps more crucially, technology enables us to improve our quality of life by facilitating matters such as better healthcare or a cleaner living environment. Opportunities are arising in our own daily lives as citizens and consumers, as well as in the public space, where we can organize matters more intelligently, better, more honestly and in a cleaner way. Data is the most vital resource in this, as data and the knowledge and insights it yields can help us to make existing processes more efficient or otherwise smarter and better. Along with all these promising prospects the datafied society offers, the other side of the coin is that there are great concerns over the use of (personal) data and the possible violation of our right to privacy and, worse, our civil rights. The societal and political knee-jerk reaction to this is to limit data sharing as much as possible in hopes of eliminating as many risks as possible. It’s questionable, however, whether this is the right and most productive approach.

First, this is causing us to miss out on great opportunities, for individuals and society as a whole. This can never be a valid argument for releasing all possible data to solve any problem that needs fixing. We have to be more fastidious about this issue and ask ourselves to what purposes we’re willing to allow the use of our data. At the moment, there seems to be an imbalance, in that we are willing to offer up our data to various (relatively anonymous) tech companies without asking any questions or setting conditions. Though this yields clear “rewards”, these rewards are often not related to the data we release or generate. In fact, we often don’t even know what they (can) do with our data, outside of personalizing the ads we see. We’re much more cautious with parties closer to us (such as the government or health insurers) and with applications in which the purpose of using our data is clear, visible and more concrete (such as the coronavirus app). In other words, the clearer and more concrete the value of our data is, the more reluctant we are to release it. That might make sense, because it’s easier for use to imagine our data being misused (e.g. resulting in higher health insurance premiums), but it should also be clear how this, most valuable, data could work to our own or collective advantage.

Second, we’re running the risk that, in the absence of reliable and/or individual data, inaccurate, incomplete or contextual data will be used, potentially resulting in disadvantageous decisions. That is, the role of data will certainly expand because of the promise it holds and the ubiquitous tendency to ascribe importance to anything that’s measurable. Conversely, we also have the tendency to reduce “problems” to what is easily scaled and solved by means of (digital) technology (which Evgeni Morozov calls solutionism). This implies that it’s clearly in our best interest to make sure that data about ourselves is in fact complete and accurate. If it’s not, we will be subject to judgment and treatment based on non-specific data that’s publicly accessible (e.g. features of the neighborhood we live in).

As mentioned, the promise of the datafied society is now at odds with concerns over the use of personal data. The only possible way to reconcile these two will be to develop systems that enable citizens to explicitly release data to parties that will use it for something of value, without relinquishing all control of their data. It’s also imperative that it becomes much clearer what these parties use the data for exactly and how this benefits the citizen or society as a whole. Many initiatives have already attempted to develop this kind of system and fix the internet, but there hasn’t been any real breakthrough as of yet. Hopefully, our (selectively) defensive attitude towards data sharing will eventually make way for a more wholehearted embrace of these systems that enable us to get the best out of our data.

Implications

  • There is a growing need for data management systems with which citizens can govern the use of their personal data and the data they produce through their everyday practices. Governing should not necessarily imply a strong focus on privacy or not-sharing of data. Individuals and society as a whole have a lot to gain from sharing data with others and allowing third parties to cooperate on the basis of such (possibly anonymized or aggregated data)

  • Developing and managing such a system is not necessarily a task for private companies or governments; there are good reasons not to trust either of them to the full. Both may be involved to maintain a balance between interests, but solutions fully owned by users (e.g. using a decentralized infrastructure) may also emerge.

The sharing economy is dead, long live the rental economy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

After hearing a lot about the sharing economy in the past ten years, the craze now seems to have passed. Society is more critical of the use of the term and the actual added value of platforms that offer these services. However, this doesn’t mean that the as-a-service-model has become any less popular. In fact, the coronavirus crisis seems to create even more demand for access to products and services at low cost and with minimal obligations. The difference is that this is now grouped under the much more pragmatic heading of the “rental economy”.

Our observations

  • The term sharing economy has been bandied about in the past decade by various digital platforms in order to portray themselves favorably. The term suggests that platforms and services make valuable contributions to society. That is, that they bring people closer together and liberate the world from its abundance of things. Misuse of the term by companies that are actually not a part of the sharing economy has considerably weakened the craze surrounding the sharing economy.
  • Whereas the sharing economy is essentially based in consumer-to-consumer services, the rental economy, now coming (back) in vogue, is more focused on business-to-consumer services. The use of this term as opposed to the more idealistic “sharing economy” reflects a pragmatic shift, both rhetorically as well as regarding the services referred to. In the rental economy, low costs and minimal obligations are the main objectives.
  • A number of these rental services initially suffered because of the coronavirus crisis. Especially services to do with travel and mobility were hit hard at first. Airbnb and car rental services are examples of this. Now, these and other rental companies have found ways to profit from the coronavirus crisis (e.g. by providing an alternative to public transportation or offering temporary workspaces). Business models based on temporary use are as old as the economy itself. Since the early days of the car industry, cars have been rented out to people who can’t afford their own car or only need one occasionally. Telephone companies such as AT&T even obligated their customers to rent phones from them, supposedly so they could guarantee the quality of the phone connection.
  • Because of digitalization, a lot of things or spaces can now be rented out that previously could not. First, this is because supply from large numbers of providers and demand can be more efficiently brought together, with digital means of communication also awakening much latent supply and demand to become manifest (e.g. people with a car in the driveway who would be open to renting it out can do so more easily by signing up to a platform, while people with a smartphone can quickly find a car near them). Second, administration costs have decreased dramatically, making it more lucrative to process modest transactions (from cheap products to short-term rentals).

Connecting the dots

One of the most significant promises of digitalization is that it can make a wide array of transactions simpler and cheaper. This is where especially the rental, lending and sharing platforms excel; they enable us to have a simple and real-time overview of the availability of various goods, to book them and pay. This provides us access to an assortment of products and services, without having to purchase anything or being tied down by long-term contracts.

In the past decade, the term sharing economy was widely applied. In the ideal sharing economy, consumers offer their own means when they’re not using them themselves. This allows for all sorts of capital goods to be used more efficiently, leading to a decrease in the use of natural resources and pollution in the manufacture of these goods. This would enable consumers to (partly) earn back their investment and increase their wealth. Moreover, the sharing economy would stimulate social cohesion by bringing people together and could revive old practices of shared ownership.

Now, the term sharing economy has lost much of its cachet and, both in the framing of this market as well as in the services involved, we’re seeing a shift to a more traditional rental economy.  The framing of the sharing economy has been done away with because the practice has failed to live up to the ideal, with all sorts of companies claiming to be part of the sharing economy without actually contributing anything in regard to the values the sharing economy purportedly upholds. Many of these companies (such as Uber) are in fact more a part of the gig economy or operate partly or entirely in a traditional rental market (such as Airbnb). As such, these companies have failed to contribute anything to achieve the societal goals of the sharing economy. With respect to the services involved, we can now carefully conclude that real consumer-to-consumer sharing is not without disadvantages. Although digital platforms are specifically able to bring together supply and demand and facilitate financial transactions, this doesn’t mean the transaction is always smooth, cheap or fair in the end. In practice, the use of a private share car is more complicated than hiring a car from a 24-hour car rental service; think of the key exchange and possible damage claims. On the side of the private provider, there are still high costs involved; a rented-out residence needs to be cleaned afterwards and acquiring good ratings requires time and effort. In other words, amateurism is inhibiting the growth of the real sharing economy.

Nonetheless, the demand for cheap and temporary services is increasing and the (digital) rental economy is eagerly playing into this. Before the coronavirus crisis, it was already clear that the as-a-service model, in mobility for instance, caters to the needs of new generations. The crisis has enhanced this. First, because it has led to a demand for temporary solutions, e.g. regarding work space and office furniture and personal mobility solutions. In the longer term, the crisis will also leave us with lasting economic and societal trauma, and chances are that many of us will not be very eager to commit to any long-term obligations for fear that another crisis, of any nature, will create problems for us. This kind of no-strings-attached mentality plays into the hands of as-a-service providers.

The rhetorical and factual transition from a sharing economy to a rental economy is also interesting and relevant with respect to the long-term success of this kind of service. We could view this as the unmasking of the supposedly socially committed millennial. The sharing economy has specifically fed into this image, with its ideals such as cohesion and sustainability, but it now appears that millennials mostly want user-friendly services at low cost and with minimal obligations. In the longer term, this offers better (economic) perspective for providers of rental services than the “youthful idealism” aimed for by the sharing economy. The same appears to apply to Gen Z, who are said to have had an overprotective upbringing, causing in them a strong aversion to any potential source of worry. The success of Swapfiets is telling in this respect; Gen Z are more than willing to pay for services that relieve them of responsibilities.

Implications

  • The pragmatic transition from the sharing economy to the rental economy means that the platforms offering services of the latter kind are likely to be successful in the long-term, as they are less dependent on ideals that may go out of fashion. Nonetheless, the professional rental economy could still contribute to a more efficient use of resources and goods and serve (some of) the ideals of the sharing economy in this way.

  • With the label of the rental economy, these parties are now once again expressly part of the regular economy, subjecting them to stronger regulation (already visible in the fact that Airbnb and its lessors are now treated more like regular hotels in many places).

  • The demand for professional rental services, not offered by “amateurs”, will also compel some of the platforms to operate in a more “asset-heavy” way. This trend was already incited by an increased need among platforms to gain more control over the user experience and acquire more data with their own hardware. This does mean, however, that because of the investment costs, these platforms will be less scalable and there will be less of a winner-takes-all dynamic.

Human death as a boost for the use of ecological materials

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
October 7, 2020

This autumn, the first human was buried in a coffin made of mycelium, the root network of mushrooms and nature’s biggest recycler. It ensures a highly efficient transformation of remains into nutrients for the soil. The product ties in with a larger trend of using alternative materials that, contrary to stone, steel, wood, polymers or glass, are more compatible with the ecological processes of nature and/or are produced in an environmentally friendly way. The product has met with worldwide interest and could boost the reception of this controversial material. In some cases, it could even stimulate new uses and rituals.

Our observations

  • We’ve written before that global problems such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources and waste call for sustainable, circular and adaptive solutions. Studies on organisms such as bacteria and fungi show that nature has a very efficient way to produce its basic elements such as lipids, protein and complex chemicals with minimal waste. Progress in areas such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and synthetic biology is making it increasingly easy to use these insights for our own production methods.
  • In the West, the interest in the workings and possibilities of fungi is relatively new. According to biologist Merlin Sheldrake, there are two reasons for this. First, technologies for scientists to fully research the world of fungi have only recently become available. Second, historically, there has been a deeply-rooted prejudice against fungi, which mainly invoke fear and disgust in us. For example, fungi were only recognized as a separate kingdom of life in the ‘60s. Before that, scientists studying fungi were classed as botanists, rather than as mycologists (fungus scientists).
  • Fungi now appear to play a more important role in the carbon cycle than was previously assumed. Studies show that when plants cooperate with certain types of fungus, they can store up to 70% more carbon in the ground, which contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.
  • Scientists are using mycelium more and more often to make all kinds of products, from packaging to plant-based meat, and even frames to grow new organs in. It also has great potential in construction, as an alternative building material that is both practical and benefits the climate. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, a building made of mycelium was displayed.
  • The ecological footprint of conventional funerals and cremations is substantial. In the U.S., cremations account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In India, emissions are much higher, and millions of trees are cut down each year to cremate the dead. The use of wood for coffins in the U.S. accounts for about 4 million hectares of forest per year, not to mention all the steel, plastic and toxic materials used to produce the coffins that end up in the ground. Moreover, a coffin delays the decomposition process, causing the body to produce toxins that also seep into the ground.

Connecting the dots

Mycelium feeds through hyphae, fungal threads, on the organic remains of trees, plants and dead animals. It can also neutralize the toxins that are released in the decomposition process. It’s the fundamental link in the process of turning (organic) waste into nutrients for nature. The advantages regarding the sustainability of a mycelium coffin as opposed to a traditional stone or wood coffin, are considerable. It stimulates the decomposition of the body as well as the conversion into nutrients for the environment, and the process can be complete after only one year. By comparison, a wood coffin in fact delays the decomposition process (on average, it takes ten years), causing the body to produce toxins which eventually end up in the ground.
Furthermore, no glue, lacquer, paint, metal or plastic is used in the production of a mycelium coffin, also sparing the soil some toxic pollutants. In addition, a chipboard or wooden coffin on average needs a year to decompose and a mycelium coffin is absorbed into the soil after 30 to 45 days. Finally, mycelium can be produced very sustainably and locally, using organic waste and without carbon being released. In that sense, this product ties in perfectly with the trend of environmentally conscious products such as meat substitutes, sustainable materials in fashion such as bamboo or hennep and energy-saving systems. The mycelium coffin was thus developed from a practical perspective on the ecological footprint of our final resting place.

There are, however, long-standing traditions surrounding the process after we die. Jews, for instance, bury their loved ones in a raw pinewood coffin, Muslims bury the dead on their right side, wrapped in a white cloth and without a coffin, Hindus often opt for cremation as it is the fastest way to return to “the source”. Additionally, in many cultures, it’s customary to give the deceased various objects and to create some type of permanent memorial. In secular funerals, many of these customs have remained. With this alternative option for burial, dominant values around sustainability gain prominence in this domain, and it brings its own, new uses and rituals. For example, it’s possible to give the deceased seeds so that the body can provide nutrients for the new life that will issue from the seeds. The use of a tombstone or other permanent memorials does not appear to be consistent with this new form of burial, which is meant to correspond to the biological processes of nature as well as possible.

The idea of life after death thus maintains a place in our secular worldview, albeit in a very singular way. With this, we’re breaking with old values of, for example, Christianity or certain Chinese practices and rituals in this context. In these practices and rituals, it’s of the utmost importance that the soul of the deceased is treated a certain way after their death, in view of the afterlife. At first sight, this new type of burial doesn’t appear to be consistent with these principles, and it seems to mostly be in concordance with the secular values of sustainability.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, globally, the religious population is growing. And yet, the alternative of the mycelium coffin has been met with worldwide interest, including in non-Western countries such as Thailand and India. It’s not the first time religious people have shown the willingness to make concessions to sustainability when it comes to burial rites. Certain communities in India, for instance, have accepted a non-traditional but sustainable manner of cremation that requires only a fourth of the wood required in traditional cremations. Generally, modern values have often been known to affect religious customs.

Implications

  • In the U.S., among other countries, cremation is now more often elected than burial, mainly out of the desire to be environmentally friendly. If the mycelium coffin turns out to be a significantly better alternative to traditional burial than cremation in that respect, people might revert back to burials. However, traditional burial grounds don’t have sufficient room to accommodate a large increase in burials. But because this form of burial purports to benefit the soil, regulations on which locations may be used as burial grounds might be adjusted. Governments’ desire to plant more trees could, for example, play a role in this. In this way, new values could emerge with respect to the final resting place of our loved ones.

  • The mycelium coffin is the first applications of living mycelium that could be relevant to everyone. After all, every person dies sooner or later, and this is one of the first scalable, sustainable and affordable alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. This product could therefore have an important impact on our acquaintance with and subsequent acceptance of mycelium as a usable material in our living environment.

The not-so United States of America

Short Insight written by Pim Korsten
October 7, 2020

In the run-up to the U.S. elections, a lot of attention is paid to partisan, generational, ethnic and socio-economic dividing lines. These differences, however, are transcended by the various American “nations” with their distinct geography and economic systems and unique history and culture. For example, the East and West Coast share a “Yankee” mentality of individualism, combined with belief in reform and social engineering by the state. In Yankeedom and the Left Coast, support for egalitarian and liberal policies is highest.

Washington, around Tidewater, on the other hand, was founded by English gentry who created an aristocratic and very unequal society. The central regions of Greater Appalachia and the Midlands were founded by Irish and Scots with a fierce warrior ethic. These nations have suffered from deindustrialization, and still support Trump against Yankee domination, while also opposing southern nations they see as “El Norte”. Within these southern nations, large differences also loom, such as the difference between Texas and California, which hold different views about the future of the U.S. In fact, the United States might be even less united than we think.

Racial representation in Hollywood

Written by Joep Schot, september 25 2020

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced that, from 2024 onward, movies must meet newly imposed diversity criteria to be considered for Best Picture, the final and most prestigious Oscar of the world-famous award ceremony. To be precise, at least 30% of cast members, production and distribution teams must be part of underrepresented groups based on race, gender, sexuality and disability status to evade ineligibility.

The announcement coincided with the premiere of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, which stars Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu. Many celebrated the casting of Liu, mindful of the successful anti-whitewashing petition and #OscarsSoWhite activism that preceded it. Mulan does, however, cover another chapter of racial supremacy, namely China’s oppression of its northern, Mongolic peoples, to which many historians believe Hua Mulan belonged. Liu, conversely, belongs to the hegemonic Han people. The financial advantages of appeasing the Chinese government impede the ethnic representation the very same industry is trying to foster at home. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be no easy fix in this complicated world of race politics.

The outdoor economy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, september 25 2020

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we’re moving many activities out of doors. This goes for food and drink, of course, but is also exemplified by the vogue for outdoor sports, the revival of the drive-in cinema and the growing popularity of cycling and walking. For now, this is a temporary effect of the pandemic, but part of the rediscovered “outdoor economy” will remain in the coming years. This is partly because some will feel lasting fear of the coronavirus and other viruses that dwell indoors, but also because we’re learning to revalue the fresh outside air and are unlikely to relapse into our old indoor practices.

The outdoor economy is strongly dependent on (extreme) weather conditions and this is part of the reason why accurate weather forecasts are rising in value for consumers, governments and business. In the long term, this movement may also give shape to new (and at the same time traditional) architecture, in which the sharp distinction between inside and outside will dissolve and the public space will once again be organized with a (weather-proof) life outdoors in mind.

American soft power is under pressure

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, september 9 2020

The American Dream is showing severe cracks and the U.S. has long ceased to be the country the rest of the world looks up to. The increasing unrest in the United States will inevitably lead to a loss of American soft power. As a result, U.S. hegemony is becoming more dependent on military and economic power display. The Trump presidency seems to be largely responsible for this loss of soft power and a reelection of Trump could have serious consequences for the U.S.’ place in the world order.

Our observations

  • A soft power index from early this year (pre-corona, pre-George Floyd) still put the U.S. in first place, but also indicated that this was mostly owing to the entertainment industry, sports and science and that matters such as (failing) public administration, reliability and international cooperation (on which the U.S. ranks 44th worldwide) are in fact weakening American soft power.
  • Historically, Hollywood and the American music industry have always contributed to American soft power. At the same time, American (pop) culture also expresses frequent criticism of the state of the nation and this denunciation seems to be growing more forceful and more widely shared, e.g. in films such as The Florida Project, American Honey and series like House of Cards. Movies that disparage the American Dream and the utopian image of the suburbs have been around for some time; consider American Beauty (1999) and Blue Velvet (1986).
  • Asian countries now also successfully wield soft power worldwide through their cultural sector. We’ve written before about the role of (Korean) K-Pop and the Chinese TikTok. Moreover, Hollywood is no longer able to make movies solely from an American point of view, simply because it has become too economically dependent on the Chinese market (and censorship).
  • Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history contained (implicitly at least) the thought that deep down, there is an “American” in each world citizen, who would prefer to live in a democratic, free and economically liberal society. Presently it’s becoming clear that this prototypical American doesn’t exist and that there is a lot of discontent among Americans.
  • The current degree of polarization and corresponding political rhetoric in the U.S. are not associated with a modern and civilized democracy. A president who publicly refers to a conspiracy theory such as the Deep State or congressmen adhering to a conspiracy theory of the likes of QAnon further degrade the country’s reputation.
  • The Black Lives Matter protests, and the responses to them, have painfully revealed how divided America still is. Moreover, the footage of riots and the strongly militarized police forces don’t give the appearance of a civilized state, but rather of an authoritarian-led developing country.

Connecting the dots

Countries’ soft power consists of their ability to persuade or entice other countries to follow a certain course. This as opposed to “hard power”: military and economic means of exerting pressure. In most cases, the degree of soft power is determined by the question to what extent a country is perceived as alluring; act as we do, and experience the same freedom and prosperity.

*Besides this, there is a more explicitly moral aspect; act as we do, and you will be doing what’s Right. The U.S.’ soft power of roughly the past century coincided with its military and economic hard power and was largely generated by the globally visible, often predominant, American (pop) culture that reflected the American consumer lifestyle and “way of life”. Additionally, American brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike, and later big tech corporations and platforms like Apple, have always been important vectors of soft power. Alongside sporting achievements (Team USA), they comprised the most important building blocks of the American Dream; the country where everyone has equal opportunity to become successful and happy.

Today, the rest of the world has gained more insight into the less pleasant aspects of American society. This has gone hand in hand with the decline of American soft power, which rapidly accelerated with the election of Trump, and especially with his battle against Obamacare and his inadequate handling of the coronavirus crisis (and before that, of the hurricane in Puerto Rico).

In addition, and most importantly at present, the world is witnessing the collapse of American society along racial, economic and ideological dividing lines. The antagonizing language of both political camps and the footage of American cities are strengthening this image. Where the anti-racism protests (and earlier, the #metoo protests) are concerned, this could also be explained as a positive step, and “enhancement” of the American project. From its founding on, the U.S. has always presented itself as an “unfinished project”. In that sense, the Black Lives Matter movement could also positively affect the international reputation of America (“the country is working towards equality for all its citizens”). In practice, however, it seems closer to the truth that the BLM movement is showing the world how much structural inequality there still is in society, something we don’t associate with a highly developed and “civilized” country. After all, Fukuyama also posited that equality and freedom are the most important qualities of “post-historic” countries; values that America formally appears to uphold but fails to put into practice.

The decline of American soft power cannot be separated from the relative loss of military and (based on the dominant dollar) economic power since the nineties. First, this loss of hard power means that the rest of the world looks up to America less and the country is losing some of its natural appeal (“when you win, you have friends”). Second, the division in American society can also be understood to derive from the loss of American dominance and, linked to that, a loss of self-confidence. Since the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the rise of China, the average American doesn’t feel as if they’re living in an unassailable country anymore. The idea of “American decline” has thus become more widespread and forms, along with considerable socioeconomic inequality, a breeding ground for (right-wing and left-wing) populism and is causing a high degree of polarization and societal unrest. The fierce counterreaction of part of (white, male) America to the BLM movement (and before that, to #metoo) could possibly also be understood from this loss of American self-confidence; both abroad and within the U.S., the old image of America is under pressure and people feel as if their culture and values have become unimportant (or even banned in the perceived “cancel culture”). It seems in President Trump’s best interest to stir up these tensions, and to deepen the fear and uncertainty among his voters. Although this might increase his chances of being reelected, it won’t help the U.S. to once again become a paragon to the rest of the world.

Implications

  • The (relative) waning of American soft power is enabling the worldwide emergence of other ideas about the Good Life, citizenship, public administration and international relations. Europe now has the opportunity to take on moral leadership, but there will also be more room for “the Chinese story” and Chinese ideas about democracy.

  • A victory for Biden would likely benefit the U.S.’ reputation in the liberal and multilateral world order and may lead to less domestic unrest due to Biden’s more conciliatory tone. However, it will not change the fact that American society is under pressure and “culture wars” between progressive and conservative Americans will endure.

  • In a world where multiple nuclear powers compete, but “mutually assured destruction” makes armed conflict unlikely, the U.S. will have to continue to actively advertise the American Dream. To do this credibly, enormous domestic investments may be necessary to reinforce the social-moral infrastructure and make the U.S. alluring to other countries again. It can also be expected that the entertainment industry and big tech will be heavily involved in such a project.

Is the meme culture causing an increase in widespread stereotypes?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, september 9 2020

Some think it’s funny, others deem it yet another example of the stigmatization of women. In any case, the internet meme “Karen” has become world-famous. It’s the stereotype of an entitled white woman who feels aggrieved and expresses this in a slightly hysterical way by invoking her rights. The deployment of a proper name to signify a stereotype is not new: consider the widespread use of “Scrooge” to refer to an avaricious person. But the possibilities of the digital meme culture might lead to a rapid surge in the forming of such stereotypes.

Our observations

  • The term internet meme generally refers to an image, short video or audio recording in which an idea (e.g. that denying climate change is idiotic), certain type of behavior (e.g. when a “boomer” expresses views considered outdated) or style trend (e.g. that of the hipster) is humorously depicted and subsequently shared so often that the message quickly spreads among a large group of people.
  • It’s become difficult to imagine our daily digital communication without the use of internet memes. This can partly be explained by the visual culture in which we communicate less with language and more with images, and by the fact that our attention span has shortened. A meme is a way to bring across ideas that befitting our time: they’re easy to “consume”, require little to no effort to read and can easily be opened on any smartphone.
  • Because memes provide an effective way to spread ideas, they’re increasingly used in political debate. They allow for a political message to be quickly communicated and spread. President Donald Trump, for example, is known for using memes to send a specific message.
  • As we wrote before, the “Karen” meme is currently one of the most widespread and widely discussed internet memes. The American literary-cultural magazine The Atlantic, for instance, wrote a critical piece about this meme, because in a sexist way, it ascribes certain universal behaviors exclusively to middle-aged white women. The stereotype arising from this is more negative than funny, in contrast to many other memes which are more funny than negative.

Connecting the dots

The use of a proper name to invoke a certain stereotype is not new. “Scrooge” is one of the most well-known examples of this. Ebenezer Scrooge is a character from Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol, who is guilty of greed, selfishness and believes the poor get what they deserve. Likewise, “Don Juan” is known to signify a man only interested in seducing as many women as he can. There are also less widely known examples used more locally, such as the Dutch “Sjonnie and Anita”, referring to a vulgar boy and girl from lower social strata who often drive around on a moped or motor scooter. A stereotype is generally negative, if only because it reduces a person to a limited set of qualities. But in internet meme culture, the point is to also highlight a funny aspect.

Although most memes don’t cause any controversy because of their humorous approach, the general criticism is that they can contribute to the polarization of public debate both on and off social media. A stereotype generally effectively puts a stop to any conversation; when someone is dismissed as being a Scrooge, it becomes very difficult for that person to credibly explain why he is careful with his money other than out of sheer selfishness. One of the most recent and widespread memes is the Karen meme, which invokes a negative stereotype about middle-aged white women. This is one of the few memes that was subject to much reflection in renowned newspapers and magazines. Karen symbolizes a white middle-aged woman who unpleasantly attempts to exercise her rights, is racist, doesn’t believe in vaccinations and resists coronavirus measures. The reason this meme has come under such scrutiny is not merely its popularity, but also the sexist way it dismisses women.

And yet there are more memes like this, such as “Kyle”, an angry and aggressive white teenager who drinks Monster energy drinks and uses Axe body spray.

In the past, it was more difficult for a stereotype to become as widespread as they are now. First, one had to understand the content of the stereotype, which was only possible through clarification. Scrooge, for example, is well-known because A Christmas Carol is a worldwide childhood classic, but the Lolita stereotype isn’t as prominent, as this derives from the similarly titled novel by Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, which isn’t nearly as widely read as A Christmas Carol. Contrary to the stereotypes with proper names that predate the digital era, internet memes are much more easily distributed across the world. Moreover, and importantly, internet memes are far easier to understand as they are comprised of images, creating a recognizable type within seconds, as opposed to an entire book or essay one has to read first. In addition, the humoristic aspect of memes makes them fun to look at, which also contributes to their popularity. And, in conclusion, more people have access to memes than to written text in a book or newspaper, as they are easy to open on any smartphone. The popularity of internet memes may therefore result in a rapid increase in such use of proper names worldwide.

Implications

  • With the accumulation of internet memes like “Karen”, “OK Boomer” and “Kyle”, negative stereotypes about specific groups will become more common. The humorous nature of internet memes and their potential ubiquity on social media make it difficult to shed a certain stereotype once it’s been expressed.

  • As a communication tool, the use of a meme like “Karen” or “Kyle” is very similar to a fallacy. In general, a fallacy refers to an argument that is incorrect, but seems plausible. There are different types of fallacies, of which “ad hominem” (attacking the person making an argument, rather than the argument itself) and “slippery slope” (the argument that a small step will or must lead to a certain chain of events, with each link in the chain erroneously accepted as a given) are arguably the most well-known types. Deploying the stereotype of “Karen”, for example, is similar to the use of ad hominem: the argument made by the woman in question is immediately disqualified because she is a Karen, regardless of whether her argument is sound. If the internet meme culture does lead to an increase of this type of communication tool, this could hamper and stall public debate, as there will be more tolerance for unsound but seemingly plausible reasoning.

The automobile is on its way out

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, august 26 2020

The car was one of the most important drivers of growth in the twentieth century. Yet we’re now coming to the realization that we’ve given the car too much space, both literally and figuratively, in our lives and living world. That’s why there’s growing momentum for reducing car ownership and use worldwide. This is a technological, institutional as well as cultural battle which will slowly unfold during the twenty-first century.

Our observations

  • The rise of the combustion engine and motorized transport was initially widely embraced and many saw it as a solution to societal problems. This was no wonder, as the car was universally introduced by manufacturers and newly established interest groups (e.g. ANWB in the Netherlands and the Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association in the U.S.) as the standard-bearer for progress and modernity.
  • The car was given all the necessary space and more and investments were made in highways. This was done out of political considerations regarding the stimulation of economic growth (partly as a component of the New Deal) and (as in Europe) to enhance political unity. Streets and entire cities were taken over by the car at the expense of other road users, but also of other infrastructures (e.g. bicycle highways in Los Angeles and public transportation such as trams). Especially in the suburbs (made possible by cars), the car was (and is) the only practical form of transportation.
  • The ousting of other road users and the growing number of (fatal) car accidents led to large-scale protests in the 1920s and ‘30s, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Car drivers were seen as an elite group that made life miserable for a much more diverse and larger group of non-car users with their “devil wagons” and “toys of the rich”. In some cases, tensions even led to violence against car drivers.
  • The American car lobby succeeded nonetheless, through education and other means, in convincing the population that the streets and roads were mainly meant for cars. Children were taught to be careful when crossing the street, as opposed to the driver exercising caution, and learned that they basically didn’t belong on the streets. While rules for car drivers were developed as well (such as maximum speeds, driver’s licenses and stoplights), the emphasis was on rules and bans for other road users.
  • In the Soviet Union, political ideology led the state to expressly prefer the development of public transportation (i.e. subway, trams and buses) and the (individualistic) car was given much less space. Many European countries also elected a more modest role for cars than they had in the U.S.

Connecting the dots

In hindsight, we can say that most countries gave the car too much space and that, in organizing our lifeworld, we’ve inordinately accommodated the motorist. As a result, the car, aside from all the good it has brought us economically and societally, has also led to large structural problems; unlivable cities, unsafety in traffic, unhealthy lifestyles, segregation, air pollution and climate change. Looking back, we can thus now say that laws and regulation for cars and other motorized traffic have remained too limited to solving or preventing (relatively) small problems and that we, society as a whole, have been insufficiently attentive to the structural problems increasing car use would cause. It is questionable, however, to what extent societies had any choice in the matter (in light of the economic and societal promise of this technology) and what measures they should have taken. Furthermore, a problem such as climate change (and to a lesser extent, local air pollution) could not conceivably have been foreseen.

Now, we’re experiencing the problems mentioned on a daily basis and momentum is growing to correct these historical “mistakes” and, with a certain sense of drama, one could even say that we’re waging a war against the car. Partly, the solution may take the form of technological fixes, such as the electrification of mobility (which would at least reduce direct pollution) or robotization (which could make the deployment of vehicles much more efficient), but we’ve also come to the understanding that technological fixes are nearly always limited and lead to other issues in turn.

There are also many initiatives to strongly discourage car use by means of charging motorists fees and car-free zones. Years ago, Barcelona introduced the model of “superblocks”, whereby four or nine residential blocks are made car-free and car traffic can only use the adjacent streets. In Utrecht, they’re developing a neighborhood of 10,000 houses (virtually) without parking spaces. In response to the corona crisis, London has chosen to make many of the city’s streets car-free in order to create space for the pedestrians and cyclists that, for fear of corona, want to avoid public transportation. To further discourage the car as an alternative to public transportation, the rush hour rate has been raised for cars in the inner city. Paris too, has invested in separate bicycle lanes at the expense of space for cars, which has led to a 54% increase in bicycle traffic in one year and a (much smaller) decrease in car use. Naturally, these kinds of measures lead to much resistance among car drivers (on practical and cultural grounds), but young people seem to be more open to new, cleaner, shared and more flexible forms of transportation with more room for bikes, mopeds and motor scooters, as well as traditional modes of public transportation.

In the longer term however, the total demand for mobility will also have to drop for the desire for cars to dwindle. A society with fewer cars will probably only be possible if we can manage to organize our daily lives on much smaller surfaces. This could be done by bringing physical destinations closer together in more compact cities instead of vast suburbs. In an extreme variation on this principle, China is currently working on so-called “15-minute life circles”,  in which nearly every imaginable destination (such as work, stores, education and healthcare) is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance for residents. This principle is applied, among other places, in the Tianfu New Area of Chengdu, a city of millions meant to serve as an example of a green megacity with high quality of life for residents. Possibly, virtualization can contribute to a structural decrease in our demand for mobility (hypomobility), as it enables us to engage in more practices from home.

Implications

  • Slowly but surely, space will arise for new mobility models that until now have failed to achieve a breakthrough (such as car-sharing), but the solution will mainly lie in renewed appreciation for old modalities such as bicycles and trains (which will increasingly become an alternative to short-haul flights).

  • It’s not nearly everywhere that the car has taken up such a dominant position (yet) as in the West. The (developing) countries where it hasn’t, may be able to leapfrog to cleaner and smarter forms of mobility without ever being encumbered by a car-dominated culture and infrastructure.

  • The history of the car may also teach us to more critically reflect on technology today. For example, in the debate on digital technology (and artificial intelligence in particular), there is strong emphasis on regulating excesses, but we don’t often enough ask what impact this technology will have in the long-term and to what extent we can put a stop to that if necessary. For this technology as well, a (more cautious) European approach could benefit our quality of life in the long-term, even if it is at the expense of economic growth in the short-term.

QAnon and knowledge

QAnon is a well-known conspiracy theory. It’s also a phenomenon of an era beyond the era of post-truth, in which we uphold the value of truth we are not able to obtain anymore: an era in which there is no truth. More and more people adhere to QAnon, but how should we understand this as a sociopolitical phenomenon?

Our observations

  • QAnon first appeared in October 2017 on 4chan, an online forum popular among alt-right and far-right adherents (it later moved to 8kun, a similar website that used to be called 8chan). The identity of the founder is unknown – all messages on 4chan are anonymous – but this person, who calls himself “Q Clearance Patriot” or just “Q”, claims to be a high-ranking official in the Trump administration with information about a conspiracy to overthrow the president originating from deep within the state. Since October 2017, the anonymous person or group known as “Q” is responsible for 4,600 posts, or “Q drops” indicating that the world, but especially the U.S., is controlled by a “deep state” that Trump is attempting to fight.
  • QAnon originated in a discussion on several platforms on social media and has become something of an “omnispiracy”, encompassing different conspiracy theories. The problem is that its belief systems are intertwined systems of different beliefs that are codependent, so that the many conspiracy theories and beliefs within QAnon can mutually reinforce each other, which is how others can be persuaded to accept new beliefs. As such, QAnon offers an integrated whole of correlated conspiracy theories and “fake news” notions. To deal with QAnon, the whole information ecosystem should be dealt with. Otherwise, any solution will remain local and QAnon will keep cropping up. This could be done by attacking the distribution system of misinformation by informing users about manipulation and fake news, combating echo chambers and tunnels for algorithmic recommendations and actively highlighting contradictions and opposing perspectives, and breaking trust in conspiracy theorists and theories by demonstrating how wrong they are.
  • Though it’s unclear whether QAnon has attracted more adherents than other conspiracy theories, the difference is that with QAnon, those in power spread the theory and thus confirm that its adherents aren’t crazy or outlaws. The community formed by QAnon has helped it to linger longer than other conspiracy theories, while the community works together to ascertain the real truth. Moreover, it plays into the desire for apocalypse and the complete collapse of society and its institutions. At the moment, there are over 35 politicians in the American Congress that have in some form or other proclaimed themselves adherents of QAnon.

Connecting the dots

For a number of years, especially since the election of Trump, we’ve had to deal with fake news. This is, however, only a phase we’ll have to go through. We’ve always relied on certain authorities that brought us truth, such as religious leaders, politicians or other persons whose knowledge we took as gospel. This led to a concentration of power, which also resulted in corruption or tunnel vision (whether consciously or subconsciously). QAnon has emerged from this and shows us a glimpse of the dynamic between media and a “post-truth” era. How can we now understand the rise of QAnon as an exponent of this?

First of all, digital technology now gives people the means to investigate for themselves and to share their insights at low cost and high scalability. This is visible in the stories and decodings of Q drops. Furthermore, the filter bubbles and echo chambers of digital media provide people who have extreme ideas with a platform and the means to broadcast their ideas. As such, QAnon and its narrative belong to the postmodern condition of deconstruction, debunking and false consciousness. Think, for example, of the critical theory of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – the “masters of suspicion”, according to Ricœur – and this discourse is where QAnon fits in, with its alleged criticism of elites and the technocratic system (i.e. the deep state). QAnon thus appeals to a group that suffers existentially-economically, feels wronged by the leading elite and political systems, and therefore criticize these powers, which takes the form of accusations of corruption or running illustrious networks and systems (e.g. a pedophilia ring).

We’re also living in a time of latent desire for apocalypse and collapse: a preference for chaos in the system over the maintaining of the status quo. That is also the proud message of QAnon’s Awakening and Calm before the storm. Furthermore, QAnon is a meta-conspiracy theory, feeding into all kinds of anti-government sentiment and aversion to centralization of power. This matches the libertarian, anarchist movements in American culture. Corona has had a radicalizing effect on all this anti-government sentiment. Lastly, QAnon is mobilizing the strength of anonymous movements without a leader (e.g. Anonymous and Guy Fawkes, Bitcoin by Nakamoto).

But we shouldn’t just dismiss QAnon as an unnecessary conspiracy theory that wants to criticize, or as an absurd religion. In a broader sense, we’re living in systems in which we mainly take for granted knowledge and convictions handed down to us, or which we’re unable to verify. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as we have faith in these systems, instruments and knowledge production. Not every person has to verify for herself whether the earth is in fact round, and we don’t have to continuously engage in philosophical reflection on the knowledge instruments of a hospital to assess a form of treatment. And that means that we’re living in a time of “conspiracy” of interrelated propositions and intertwined ways of knowledge production. And it isn’t just in periods of great change and internal criticism that conditions for truth become apparent and clear. That makes QAnon a metamodern phenomenon; it constructs a narrative with an entire meta-narrative and idea of the Good Life, the political system and truth. At the same time, it’s an undesirable outgrowth, because it’s not committed to the epistemological conditions of falsifiable and coherent theory. Metamodernism is specifically supposed to guard us against that.

Implications

  • Effectively combating QAnon requires a broader view of our “ecology of knowledge production”, in which we include more aspects than a merely theoretical-discursive approach to knowledge production would (i.e. knowledge production as the formulation of true propositions and convictions). An increasing amount of research focuses on the way truth and our beliefs come into existence (e.g. the importance of feelings, the broader knowledge system of propositions and mutual coherence between them, or the way digital media manipulate our rational capacities).

  • Besides the strong focus on how knowledge arises “in ourselves”, we must take a broader view and consider the structural factors that contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories. We’ve written before about the significant demographic and political variables that influence the belief in conspiracy theories. But we should also reflect on the way we achieve ignorance instead of knowledge. The study of “agnotology”, the construction of ignorance and its manifestations, can also be helpful in understanding how conspiracy theories play into this.