Going Against The Flow?

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We can be fooled into thinking that the world is moving in a single general direction, with people lining up eagerly to take advantage of technological changes that make life easier, cheaper, faster. I see a trend in the opposite direction.

I don’t buy into the idea that we live in times of relentless change. People go on about it being faster, and getting faster every week, pointing at the digital stuff that shapes our lives with its updates and latest versions, but ‘change is the new normal’ on auto repeat sounds a bit lame. It doesn’t fit with reality.

Mobile phones get better and the Internet gets faster – but these incremental changes are hardly seismic. Truly disruptive changes do occur – recent history has plenty of examples; an outbreak of war, an outbreak of peace, the introduction of free healthcare, colour telly, free newspapers, cheap air travel, comprehensive education, a change in the voting age, the Good Friday Agreement, a man on the moon, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Brexit referendum…

The basic ingredients of daily life have stayed the same for decades, in a way that our grandparents would recognise. Being born, educated and going to work are really not that different now. There are some changes to all of them, but not huge.

On the other hand, there are some subtle trends incubated over the last few years; people behaving differently, embracing alternative dogmas, moving against the flow of ‘progress’.

These are not highly visible, nor are they universal, but significant and measurable. I offer three examples to illustrate the trend: Veganism, Facebook deactivation and the ‘gig economy’.

Although cause and effect are uncomfortable bedfellows, these positive actions can be strongly linked to some negative sentiments, which are all connected to a loss of faith and mistrust of some of the pillars of modern life. This makes a depressing list.

Let’s start with institutions. We do not have to explain why banks have become targets of intense scepticism. Greed and over-confidence have cost everyone dearly (except bankers) and no-one knows if we will ever be back where we were before 2008. Universities have mostly devalued their currency with grade inflation, over-subscription and reliance on high tuition fees, especially from foreign students.

Intensive farming has failed to hide its ugly side with BSE, foot and mouth, salmonella, avian flu outbreaks and a corrupt supply chain. Global companies seem to be incapable of self-regulation or even compliance, with disastrous offenders in the accountancy realm. Then there is inequality in pay and opportunities, sexual harassment and unfair practices.

Next we have social media, which has failed to escape the fact that it is founded on selling your personal data for advertising at best, scamming at worst. The exposure of your data to future employers or people with nefarious intent has left a nasty taste. Platforms are accused of working in an ethical vacuum.

The morality of politics has taken a severe knock. The promise of a £350m weekly bonus after Brexit is a local one, followed by racial abuse at a Presidential level over the pond, and several national leaders are accused of war crimes, while hit squads kill people in a Wiltshire city and a Saudi consulate. The global peacekeeping institutions remain completely neutered.

And, finally, the big economic model that is supposed to create universal wealth, growth and cheaper goods – let’s call it globalisation – turns out to only line the pockets of a miniscule number of people, while allowing companies and their owners to dodge taxes, hide profits and exploit workers.

I told you it was depressing, but the bright side is the trend of disengagement from these dark places while finding alternative ways of dealing with the big necessities of life.

Vegans don’t need livestock farmers and sometimes even grow their own vegetables, social network leavers call their friends directly and actually write letters (fountain pen sales are increasing!), people entering the workplace are joining the gig economy where a part-time plumber makes more than an accountant, but without the tuition-fee loan.

These are all very contentious minority trends, but all growing in the UK. For better or worse, people (mainly young people) are finding routes around established ways of doing things – because they no longer trust them. There is hope here.