Better Days…

As a New Year beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to what the future holds. Normally there’s a modicum of optimism that things will be better in the year ahead. The Badger’s found, however, that peering into the future is more challenging than usual given the prevailing uncertain and difficult times.  While he listened to a favourite music playlist and scratched his head as he read various online commentaries about tech trends for 2023 (here, here, and here, for example), the Badger found himself deciding that what most people wanted in the year ahead could be summed up in just three words, namely:

  • Trust that online information and news is trustworthy, that social media giants are held to account, and that our digital world is safe, secure, and lawful.
  • Stability in a day-to-day life that is sensibly protected against the downsides of globalisation, global supply chains, fractious geopolitics, and the weaponization of commodities and information. 
  • Confidence that public and commercial entities are not playing fast and loose with our personal data, and that they respect, value, and preserve individual privacy while using digital technology to make life better.  

Sadly, the Badger found that he’s not optimistic there’ll be much progress on these ‘wants’ in the year ahead. This created a dilemma! How could he write something at the end of the year that captured hope and a tinge of optimism? The eureka moment was provided by the playing music and the opening lyrics of the next song from the playlist:  

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

The Goo Goo Dolls melodic song ‘Better Days’  captures what the Badger feels that he and many others hope for in the year ahead, simply better days. So, if you make new year resolutions – and this applies regardless of whether you’re an ordinary citizen, a politician, an entrepreneur, a business executive, a scientist or engineer, self-employed, or economically inactive – then please shape them to make tomorrow a better day than today. Finally, just remember this; go forward with optimism – because the world can be a better place than it is today!

Take the smartphone challenge…

The Badger’s concentration often lapsed during dry presentations at corporate conferences. He was not alone judging by the extent to which those in audiences were always furtively using their smartphones rather than concentrating on the speakers. It’s still the same today. Indeed, our smartphone makes it difficult to maintain an optimal state of concentration on anything for a prolonged period. When it comes to concentration, the smartphone is not your friend. It’s a source of distraction that not only affects your mental productivity, but also encourages brain habits that are not in your overall interest.

This point arose in a conversation with an old friend who is a psychologist. Over a beer reminiscing about our careers, the Badger’s friend asked him to distil a frequent frustration during his career into just one word. The Badger scratched his head and eventually answered ‘procrastination’ because it always frustrated initiative, creativity, and productive progress. His friend grinned, said procrastination was a natural human reaction to things that seem difficult or challenging, and emphasised that it’s as common in general life as it is in business. Apparently, it happens when our inner energy to prepare, decide, and act, simply fails to overcome our inner resistance. The resulting inaction can frustrate and cause conflict with others.

Pointing to their smartphone, the psychologist said the device neither helped in reducing procrastination, nor helped to promote good life habits or personal productivity, because it disrupts our ability to concentrate. Frequent checking for emails, text messages, news items, and social media posts, during a task apparently disrupts our brain’s focus and hence our productivity. The Badger was sceptical, so his friend challenged him to ‘take the smartphone challenge’ . It would show that his brain could not only be retrained to be less dependent on the device, but also that his concentration and productivity would improve. The challenge was simple. Just turn your smartphone off for one hour, once or twice a week, and use that hour to do a specific task or a hobby. Continue for some weeks and you will notice that your concentration improves, your productivity in each timeslot improves, and that this regime becomes a new habit. It becomes embedded behaviour, and your brain benefits in doing tasks without the distraction of the virtual world. The Badger procrastinated in accepting the challenge, until his friend simply raised their eyebrows!

Now, some months after turning off his devices for an hour twice a week to write creatively using pen and paper, the initially sceptical Badger can report that the challenge works! It’s now embedded behaviour, and the concentration, productivity, and quality of output improvements have been obvious. So, don’t procrastinate, take the smartphone challenge yourself. If you give up or it doesn’t work for you, then this in itself tells you something about your willpower and the extent to which your brain has been affected by your own fear of missing out (FOMO) if disconnected from the virtual world.

Smart Warfare…

The Badger recently saw an elderly pensioner clash with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist at a demonstration in London. The clash triggered the Badger to think about ‘smart warfare’ and reminded him that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ might mean ‘clever’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

‘Can you zealots stop blocking my way please’, the pensioner asked politely. ‘I’m not a zealot; I’m a climate activist engaged in smart warfare’, the activist replied with a sneering arrogance. The pensioner responded indignantly with ‘I’ve been climate and environment conscious for years, so you should be ashamed about being at war with me when it’s the big countries in other parts of the world that have the biggest impact on the planet’s climate’. With that the pensioner pushed past the activist blocking their way. With a derogatory hand gesture, the activist turned their attention to someone else. The activist believed they were engaged in ‘smart warfare’, but to the Badger they seemed to be illustrating the polarising, fixated, tribal behaviour that is prevalent in today’s world.

The phrase ‘smart warfare’ tends to trigger thoughts of ever-evolving advanced military weaponry and a future of cyber warfare, swarms of drones, and robots. The activist’s use of the phrase, however, illustrates that ‘smart warfare’  is really modern-day terminology for the centuries-old execution of power over people using whatever clever tools and techniques are available. Tools range from extreme physical violence to the most subtle psychological techniques that enable one mind to influence and control another. Yes, clever advances in technology broadens the tools available and changes how wars are contested, but truly ‘smart warfare’ requires more than just technology, it requires clever, effective, and inspirational leaders, and committed and united people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that subjugating a population takes more than advanced ballistic, information, cyber, economic, and propaganda weaponry. It’s people that conduct ‘smart warfare’ not technology, and people will always find ways to resist against the odds regardless of the clever technology in use.

As the XR activist’s use of the phrase illustrates, ‘smart warfare’ has broadened beyond the military domain into the routines of normal life in our globally connected, online world full of misinformation, disinformation, processing of personal data, and location and preference tracking. When you buy a traditional newspaper from a shop, there’s no record of the articles and adverts you look at or share with other people, your opinions, other people you associate with, or whether something in the paper prompted you to make a purchase or change your behaviour. The opposite is true when we use the phones, tablets, and laptops that dominate life today. ‘Smart warfare’ is thus a routine aspect of life today because organisations are using clever tools to analyse this information to wield power over us! With this in mind, always use the apps on your phone, tablet, or laptop wisely…

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

The Web at 30, and getting cancelled…

There’s an interesting article entitled ‘Going global: the world the Web has wrought’ in this month’s edition of Physicsworld, the member magazine of the Institute of Physics. It covers how the Web has taken over the world in the last 30 years and the role of physicists and programmers in enabling this to happen. The article points out that the benefits of the Web have not come without tremendous economic and social dislocations, and its last sentence – ‘The world has indeed been transformed by the Web, but not entirely for the better’ – captures a truth that resonates with those whose careers spanned the Web’s progression.

The Badger made this ‘not entirely for the better’ point to a neighbour’s daughter, home from university for the weekend, and got a lecture in response! The Badger is a fuddy-duddy, apparently, whose opinions are irrelevant because his generation are responsible for everything that’s wrong and the Web has brought people nothing but good. Hmm! Resisting the urge to argue, the Badger just smiled and calmly suggested the young lady’s view might change on gaining more life experience after university. With a stare that could kill, she stormed off!

At the local supermarket later, the Badger bumped into her mother who apologetically mentioned that her daughter had ‘cancelled’ the Badger. She then said, ‘Join the club; last week she told me that I was cancelled too’. We laughed. The youngster’s mum theatrically rolled her eyes and then wryly bemoaned the amount of time her daughter spent surfing the Web. Being told you’re cancelled was a new experience, but not a bothersome one because it’s an absurdity that just illustrates the ‘not entirely for the better’ point about the transformational impact of the Web.

Many in our younger generations today seem intent on banning, reinterpreting, or cancelling anyone or anything from earlier times because it might offend. Enabling the growth of a sentiment which redefines the truth and facts of earlier eras stands out as one of the Web’s ‘not entirely for the better’ transformational impacts. Microsoft’s new ‘inclusivity checker’ in Word, see here and here,  is a simple example of the sentiment’s pervasiveness. In the Badger’s view, the words actually written by authors, songsters, and spoken by famous people in earlier times are the facts of their era and suggesting ‘inclusivity’ modifications for them just promotes the breeding of a denial and dishonesty in society that future generations will regret.

From the Badger’s experience above, it seems that all you must do to be cancelled is point out that the Web is ‘not entirely for the better’, be of an older generation, and stand up for the preservation of the language and facts of history, no matter how uncomfortable they may be in a modern setting. If that’s the case, the Web is facilitating the slide to a cultural oblivion that future generations don’t deserve.

Smart meters – Time for a refund

Over the Christmas holidays the Badger and visiting family and friends reflected on 2022’s challenges. This has become something of an annual family ritual over the years because it normally proves cathartic, entertaining, and insightful. This year’s conversation proved particularly entertaining. To the Badger’s surprise, one cross-generational consensus emerged, namely that consumers have been over-sold the benefits of Smart Meters and are not getting value for money from the UK rollout programme or their energy suppliers. Everyone agreed, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that one of the 2022 challenges was to get consumers a refund for the money they’ve paid via their bills for the Smart Meter programme.

Perhaps the Badger shouldn’t have been surprised given an update from the youngster whose experience was described two  months ago in the item Not another smart meter moan. In early November they emailed their supplier, EON, pointing out that the root cause of the metering problem lay with EON’s own systems. EON didn’t respond, and so in the week before Christmas the youngster phoned EON’s call centre whose only remedy was either to provide estimated bills going forwards or to arrange for an engineer to replace the Smart Meter which is actually working perfectly.  It emerged on the call that the meter problem started when EON unilaterally transferred the youngster’s account to EON Next, screwing up the data transfer in the process.  The call centre seemed at a loss on how to correct this, and so the youngster, who blames both the UK Smart Meter programme and EON, will leave EON at the end of their contract.   

Another friend, a long-standing SSE customer, also expressed annoyance with the recent transfer of their Smart Meter and SSE online account to OVO, who bought SSE’s retail energy arm in 2020. Their SSE online account provided useful year on year energy use comparison, but energy data prior to mid-November 2021 when it was transferred to OVO no longer appears in their online OVO account making year on year use comparison impossible. Being energy conscious and having lived in the same property for ten years, the Badger’s friend is frustrated and blames the UK rollout programme and OVO for not being consumer focused.      

It was numerous different experiences like these that seeded general agreement that getting consumers a refund for money spent on the UK Smart Meter was a 2022 challenge! After our discussion, we settled down to watch Netflix’s ‘Don’t look up’ which is a satirical take on our highly polarised, distorted, tech-dominated world. It made us all realise that there’s a next to zero chance of meeting this 2022 challenge,  and so we put another log in the wood-burner and thumbed our noses at all politicians and the energy industry. It felt like an apt gesture because we all expect to do more of the same as 2022 progresses…

Notable events, Weather & Sport – News

The Badger spent most of last week hospitalised in a (non-covid) ward bay with five others from various backgrounds and with a range of ailments. With everyone laid up without family visits, a ‘Band of Brothers’ spirit and strong camaraderie quickly developed. There was lots of time for personal observation, contemplation, and collective discussion on a myriad of topics. One of the key things we all quickly realised, however, was not only the huge benefit that having a smartphone or tablet provided, but also the corrosive effect of the perpetual information that’s a feature of the modern world.

Everyone had a smartphone or a tablet computer with them on admission. The devices, connected to free NHS Wi-Fi, were our personal critical infrastructure for regular voice and video contact with family, browsing the internet, streaming music, and listening to podcasts, radio, and TV. They were our sole conduit to the outside world. However, while everyone in the bay had different interests, internet browsing patterns, and different affinities with social media, it was quickly evident that every one of our ‘Band of Brothers’ distrusted anything they saw or heard via their devices that purported to be news-related!

As one of our illustrious band pointed out, we’re bombarded today by stuff  that  purports to be news, but which is really just a stream of mania, ignorance, babble, bile, character assassination, vendetta, and envy, all of which just spreads confusion, fear and anxiety throughout society. It’s hard to disagree! The reporting of a  truly ‘notable event’ in news is no longer crisp, clear and factual because it’s intertwined with misinformation, speculation, and distorted gossip polluted by social media, celebrity,  and hidden agendas. The internet and the smart devices in our hands have rendered traditional purveyors of news old hat. Even institutions like the BBC struggle to separate fact from fiction and to be impartial. The BBC TV News Channel has been in decline since 2012, and in 2019 Facebook was the third most used news source in England.  OFCOM’s 2020-21 annual report on the BBC also shows that audiences continue to question the BBC’s impartiality.  

The Badger’s hospital stay starkly brought home that news has become a mishmash of skewed information, sound bites, dubious analysis, gossip, celebrity, and organisational agenda rather than fact. Harsh, perhaps, but that’s what all in our ‘Band of Brothers’  felt! The ‘Band of Brothers’ are now all at home and looking forward to Christmas, thankful for the benefit their personal tech provided in hospital, but defiantly against  the babble and unproductive mania that confronts us every day. We made a pact! If  Santa Clause comes under threat, then we’ll start a revolution! And on that note, the Badger thanks you for reading his musings in 2021 and wishes you and your families a happy Christmas and a productive 2022.

Digital pollution

The High Street, closed to traffic, was crowded with people for the  annual Christmas Street Market. The numerous stalls selling craft items, festive decorations, food, and drink were doing good business. A group of ladies from Rock Choir sang songs and the smell of mulled wine hung enticingly in the air. Turnout was impressive. Everyone was enjoying themselves, especially after covid forced the market’s cancellation last year. Amongst the stalls there some booths where charities and campaign groups were drumming up support for their cause. One of these was manned by a millennial climate change campaigner who radiated enthusiasm. The  crowd moved unexpectedly, and before he could take evasive action the campaigner engaged the Badger in conversation!

Their spiel was well-practiced. Fossil fuels are bad, the oil, plastics, and chemical industries are all irresponsible polluters driven by corporate greed, and people who travel by plane or car are killing the planet. The Badger had no appetite for a prolonged debate, so he pointed to the campaigner’s iPad and to heir colleague listening to music on a smartphone and politely said, ‘You should be looking at your own digital pollution’. Movement of the crowd enabled the Badger to move on before the campaigner, slightly taken aback, could respond.

The Badger’s interest in digital pollution was heightened recently by both reading some articles (e.g. here, here, and here) and getting frustrated at a recent surge in irrelevant emails and ‘you might like’ social media content all of which just got ignored and deleted.  Every email, every interaction with the cloud, every search of the internet, every stream of a song or film, every social media post, every piece of online commentary, argument, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and every piece of digital advertising and marketing, not only comes with an emissions price, but also pollutes our well-being – as neatly articulated here.  Digital pollution is real; it has an emissions footprint and an insidious effect on our psychological well-being by affecting our emotional and intellectual capacity. On both counts this is worrying because emissions from building, delivering, and using digital technology already make up 4% of global emissions  and some are predicting an eight-fold rise in data traffic by 2030.

Our digital world has many benefits, but it comes with a form of pollution that’s much less obvious than the oil slicks and plastic flotsam we can readily see. Every interaction with data and online content comes with an emissions price and an insidious impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Just keep this in mind every time you use email, search the internet, and use online services and social media. Young campaigners at Christmas Markets should have digital pollution higher on their agenda. If it’s ignored, then in years to come their children and grandchildren will inevitably blame them for inaction on all of its polluting effects.

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.

S.E.P – Somebody Else’s Problem

With baby grandson asleep in his arms, the Badger sat watching the TV news and skimming his smartphone in sanguine mood. As usual, the news seemed dominated by speculation and opinion, but that is just the way it is these days. Like every parent and grandparent that holds a baby in their arms, the Badger wondered about the world that the little one will experience as they grow up.  Hopefully, it will be a better than today, but it is getting more difficult to be optimistic when misinformation, distortion, and polarization is rife and rising.       

As the Badger watched the TV, a reporter asked an ex-soldier if they had been bullied or encountered prejudice during their service. The ex-soldier paused, smiled, and said ‘No. My unit was about teamwork, camaraderie, and getting the job done. Everything else was S.E.P’.  On the mention of S.E.P – somebody else’s problem – ancient memories being an observer with some young soldiers in the back of an air defence vehicle came flooding back.  Their regiment had been deployed on an airfield to help contractors on a major systems programme understand how things worked. Talking to the soldiers – none out of their teens – proved highly informative and watching the whole set up function as the airfield was buzzed by a fast, low flying, Harrier jet was awesome!

The young soldiers knew exactly what system improvements they wanted so that, as one put it, ‘we can shoot down more enemy planes than friendlies and still stay alive’.   When asked if they worried about downing a friendly aircraft, they said that their job in a conflict was to fire on command, avoid being wiped out by the enemy, and quickly redeploy elsewhere ready to fire again. In that context, the ramifications of downing friendly aircraft were S.E.P – somebody else’s problem – not theirs!  There was a tabloid newspaper with a front-page highlighting defence cuts in the vehicle. When asked about cuts, the soldiers were ambivalent. They said the paper was a) a source of entertainment rather than news, and b) for use as emergency toilet paper!  As the baby slept peacefully in his arms, the Badger chuckled at the thought that this may still be the case for frontline soldiers in today’s digital world!

The Badger wistfully concluded that the foibles and problems of our modern online world are validly S.E.P for the baby grandson in his arms. For the rest of us, however, they are not S.E.P because unless the information we see, hear, and absorb becomes more trustworthy, we are headed for the kind of unruly future our children and grandchildren do not deserve.  So, there you have it; you never know where your thoughts will take you unless you cuddle a baby while watching TV and using your smartphone!