London, millennials, a stag night, and immersive television…

The Badger spent last weekend in London attending a stag night.  Our party of 8, mainly millennials, had a great time without succumbing to a drunken stupor. The weekend featured a crazy golf competition, a great meal, a stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, a bowling competition, and many wide-ranging discussions during the quieter times. Although the Badger was positively geriatric compared to his millennial companions, he gained much respect by doing well in all the competitions!

The members of the group came from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Bonding was helped by the fact that it was everyone’s first stay in London since the start of the pandemic. Although initially apprehensive, we all relaxed when it was clear that all venues were applying covid-safe procedures rigorously, and that most people everywhere were complying with government guidance. It felt strange, however, to see that millennials were by far the dominant generation on the streets and on public transport, and also that no one gave the groom – dressed as Star War’s C3PO – a second look as he walked along Oxford Street! 

Spending a weekend with a group of millennials having a good time proved strikingly educational for the Badger. This is a generation whose lives have been impacted by a global financial crisis, a global virus pandemic, and enormous advances in digital technology.  Most of them don’t remember a time when they received a sensible interest rate on their savings. Most depend completely on their smartphone and use gaming or Netflix for entertainment rather than television. Most use social media heavily, only shop online, expect things to happen fast, and use cash minimally.  Over the weekend everyone used contactless payment for public transport and even to play air hockey in an arcade at one of the activity venues. Smartphones were used to order and pay for full English breakfasts at a table in Wetherspoons, at a fifth of the price for breakfast in the hotel. This is a generation of digital natives who know that continued rapid tech advances will dominate the rest of their lives. 

During one discussion that morphed from the limited success of 3D TV over the last decade, most in the group believed that television will shortly become immersive using virtual reality technology derived from gaming. Time will tell, but it’s a brave person that says they’re wrong.  It was discussions like this that made the Badger thoughtful on the way home. London’s Oxford Street is cleaner, the buses are hydrogen powered, many shops are empty, but the multitude of American Candy stores and the small number of the Badger’s generation out and about highlights that the world has changed and that millennials have the future in their hands. The Badger’s stag night companions were hungry to embrace every aspect of the digital future ahead.

Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.

Four wheels and a motor…

The UK government announced in 2020 that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030. Electric cars, powered by batteries or fuel cells, are the future but there’s a very long way to achieve their mass adoption by the public. The marketing of current rechargeable, battery-powered, electric models trying to persuade us to buy one seems to rise weekly. So far, however, none of it seems to have triggered a truly massive step-change in mass demand from the public who, like the Badger, are still a long way from giving up their existing vehicles for an electric alternative.

New figures show that the average age of cars on UK roads is 8.4 years, that only 1.3% are plug-in hybrid or battery electric, and that more than 60% of cars are 7 or more years old.  Indeed, the Badger’s own trusty vehicle is 10 years old, and fossil fuelled. It’s comfortable, practical, reliable, economic, easy to maintain, 95% recyclable at end of life, and it’s used in a climate-friendly way. Electric car evangelists may think this is heresy, but there’s currently no hard-nosed economic case for the Badger to relinquish it for a used or new electric vehicle. Many people appear to have come to the same conclusion and a recent OFGEM announcement about putting ~1800 new ultra-rapid charging points across the UK motorway network’s service stations  is unlikely to persuade people otherwise.  

The transformation of society to electric cars is a marathon rather than a sprint. We may have started on this marathon but there’s an awfully long way to go with lots of opportunity for bumps on the way. Battery technology continues to advance rapidly and batteries with a 5-minute charge time could be in mass production by 2024. If that’s so, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if people decide against spending their money on new or used electric cars that use today’s battery technology. Range anxiety and effective and convenient charging infrastructure remain barriers to adoption. There are also strategic and geo-political issues associated with sourcing many of the materials necessary for battery manufacture. There are also significant recycling challenges  – see here and here – regarding the recovery of valuable elements from end of life batteries.  Whereas the recycling of fossil-fuelled vehicles, where ~70% is of ferrous metals, is well established and straightforward, electric vehicles contain a far greater variety of metals that are much more complex to recover.

There’s much more to the electric car picture than just zero tail-pipe emissions, and that’s why there’s a very long way to go in this marathon transformation yet. That’s also why the Badger’s own trusty vehicle, which still fulfils its primary function of taking occupants from A to B safely with maximum flexibility and minimum fuss, has some years left before it takes its final journey to the scrap heap to be, perhaps, reincarnated as the bodywork of an electric vehicle…

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

What goes up will come down…

‘Won’t get fooled again’ by The Who, one of the best political songs there’s been, played on the radio as the Badger cogitated in wonderment at Apple’s $US2 trillion market valuation at his laptop. How in the world is Apple worth that much? Well, a simple insight can be found here.  Of course, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) are not far behind with valuations of $US1 trillion or more.

The Badger’s been around long enough to know that markets are fickle, and that today’s mega corporations will normally disappoint at some stage in the future with the man in the street bearing the brunt when they do.  Yes, the big tech companies are at the heart of today’s world of instant digital mass communication and consumption, but have their valuations and the view of their future prospects become absurd? Hmm. Probably, at least that’s what the Badger – who’s no expert in these matters – senses.  

The valuation of Apple alone is greater than the UK FTSE 100 as a whole, greater than the GDP of countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Italy, and about two/thirds of the GDP of India!  Isn’t that just bizarre when the company hasn’t really come up with anything new recently? By the way, this isn’t an anti-Apple rant, just an articulation that the valuations of tech giants may have become too detached from the real global economy experienced by the average man on the street.  The Dot.com boom and bust of some 20 years ago comes to mind, although – to be fair – the situation today is somewhat different.  Nevertheless, the Badger senses there’s not only a bubble of some kind, but also a strengthening sentiment that the tech giants are way too greedy, powerful, and uncontrollable.  You may, of course, disagree.

As the Badger cogitated, his wife observed, playfully, that if Apple and the other tech giants got together they would rule the planet making governments irrelevant!  The point was tongue in cheek, but nevertheless well made in today’s strange world.  She also asked how it was possible – apart from in the world of spreadsheets and speculation – for Apple to be valued at $US1 trillion two years ago and to have doubled in value in just 24 months.  The Badger, trying to avoid  any explanation of corporations and markets, just smiled and said, ‘What goes up will come down’  pointing to the bit of  correction the tech giants experienced last week as illustration.  

And then Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ came on the radio. Cogitation ended with just the easy conclusion that while we live in strange times, they are probably no stranger than 50 years ago when The Who and Barry McGuire wrote their songs. The Badger put the laptop away, turned up the volume on the radio, and sang along proving that you can still have lots of fun without being a captive of the big tech giants and their $US trillion valuations.

V-J Day, Animal Farm, and the digital world; a poignant moment…

The only light in the dark lounge was from the flickering images of a TV programme about V-J Day, the end of World War II in Japan 75 years ago. It was poignant not only because the Badger had relatives who served in the Far East, but also because the Badger’s baby grandson was cradled in his arms, fast asleep. It’s moments like this that make you think about what people endured in those times with how it is today, and the slumbering innocent in his arms, that’s just what the Badger found himself doing.  

Those who lived through World War II and its aftermath – regardless of their allegiance, age, colour, or creed – endured great hardship for years. Rationing, for example, only ended in the UK in 1954.  The Badger’s relatives rarely discussed their experiences which undoubtedly set the high values they held dear for the rest of their lives.  They lived without selfishness and took responsibility for dealing with whatever curve-balls life dealt them. They also had a strong sense of right and wrong, a great respect for law, order, and justice, and they put freedom and their families at the centre of their universe.

The world today is different, but is it better? Hmm.  As he watched the TV, the Badger found himself lamenting that the baby in his arms would grow up in a world in which ‘online’ has already hugely challenged the values and moral compass that his relatives held dear.  Today people seem less willing to take personal responsibility for anything; blame seems to be the first instinct and privacy and freedoms seem to have been willingly traded for convenience. Daily living is dominated by ‘online’ devices and social media whose negatives far outweigh its positives.  The news media is full of questionable content rather than fact, and respect for those who uphold law and order seems to be waning.  There’s something wrong with society when a first instinct is to video any interaction with upholders of the law and immediately upload it to Twitter or YouTube. It won’t be long before everyone videos their one to one meetings with their boss and immediately puts them on YouTube too!    

Looking at the peaceful innocent in his arms, the Badger felt that his relatives, now no longer alive, would be horrified by the erosion of values they held dear.  As it happens, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm was published two days after V-J Day in 1945. The book is as relevant today as it was then, and it will continue to be relevant when the Badger’s grandson reaches adulthood. As the little one gurgled and opened his eyes, the Badger vowed to ensure he knows not only of the values held dear by a generation who did what they had to do for the greater good and suffered personal hardships by just stoically getting on with life, but also that life itself is much more important than anything on the internet and social media.