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The Year UnPacked: 20 to 11

Azim Khan Ronnie/Zuma Press/PA Images

December 27, 2018   6 mins

UnHerd is a place to look at the world without the headlines getting in the way. But we don’t claim to be the only such vantage point. Beyond the froth of the 24 hour news cycle – and the 24 second social media cycle – you can find a wealth of writing that doesn’t follow the herd. The aim of my daily UnPacked column is to feature, and comment on, the best of what’s out there.

I’ve counted down the top 50 UnPacked highlights from 2018 – the facts, figures, ideas and events that may not have made the headlines, but which provide a more reliable insight into the forces shaping the future.

Today, numbers 20 to 11:



The widest longevity gap

At a time of intense debate about inequalities between men and women, rich and poor and between other groups and identities, there’s one social divide that goes largely unseen.

Writing in the New York Times, Dhruv Khullar opens our eyes:

“Americans with depression, bipolar disorder or other serious mental illnesses die 15 to 30 years younger than those without mental illness — a disparity larger than for race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status. It’s a gap, unlike many others, that has been growing…”

Obviously, suicide risk plays a part, as do other “unnatural causes”, but that’s not the only reason why people with severe mental illness live shorter lives:

“…they’re much more likely to die of the same things as everyone else: cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and respiratory problems.”

Far from diverting resources away from general healthcare, investing in mental health services is a vital preventative measure.


The bureaucratic fracturing of government can destroy lives

Flyover Country



How beer could save capitalism

In sector after sector, we see monopolists squeezing out the competition and robots squeezing out the human workforce. Is this the technology-driven future of capitalism?

In the Atlantic, Derek Thompson cheers us up with news of one industry moving in the opposite direction – the US beer industry:

“…in the last decade, something strange and extraordinary has happened. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of brewery establishments expanded by a factor of six, and the number of brewery workers grew by 120 percent. Yes, a 200-year-old industry has sextupled its establishments and more than doubled its workforce in less than a decade.”

Are workers drowning their sorrows? Actually no, Americans are drinking less beer by volume, but they’re paying more for it. Quality has triumphed over quantity, and craftsmanship over automation.


One industry where capitalism is going in the right direction




Digital self harm

Anyone who doesn’t see the dark side of social media should acquaint themselves with the concept of ‘digital self harm’.

It’s defined and tentatively quantified in Aaron Kheriaty’s briefing for First Things:

“In the first systematic investigation of this behavior among adolescents, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja report their findings from a large, randomly sampled population-based study of 12-to-17-year-olds in the U.S. Of the 5,593 adolescents surveyed, one in twenty admitted to engaging in ‘digital self harm’. Specifically, 6 percent reported that they had ‘anonymously posted something online about myself that was mean.’ Among these, 36 percent said they had done it a few times, and 13 percent said they had done it many times. Likewise, 5 percent responded affirmatively to the statement, ‘I have anonymously cyberbullied myself.’ Among these, 37 percent had done it a few times, and 18 percent had done it many times.”


How common is ‘digital self-harm’ and what explains it?




Peter Thiel complains about the rent

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is a very rich man, but even he thinks that rent is too high.

Reporting for Yahoo Finance, Julia La Roche quotes remarks Thiel made at an event hosted by the Economic Club of New York:

“One thing I’ve been thinking about as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley is the vast majority of the capital I give to the companies is just going to landlords. It’s going to commercial real estate and even more to urban slumlords of one sort or another. And that’s an odd thing to be doing as a venture capitalist. That’s so disproportionate…”

Thiel is a libertarian – he’s got no problem with people getting rich through their own efforts. But the landlords of Silicon Valley and other super-productive areas aren’t contributing to that productivity, they’re taking away from it.

Their profits should be taxed accordingly.


The cost of property may slowly kill Silicon Valley - but a Land Value Tax might give it new life




Xue Liang 

You’re being chased through a city. Your pursuers are closing in. What do you do?

Standard procedure is to lose yourself in a crowd. Except that might not work for much longer.

Earlier this year, a fugitive from Chinese justice was arrested at a pop concert in Nanchang. How did the police spot him in a crowd of 60,000 people? In a report for the Washington Post, Amy B Wang explains:

“Details about Ao [the suspect] had been in a national database, and when he had arrived at the stadium, cameras at the entrances with facial-recognition technology had identified him — and flagged authorities…

“‘He was completely shocked when we took him away,’ police officer Li Jin told Xinhua news agency…”

Inevitably, the Chinese state has plans to extend these capabilities – to create a “comprehensive, nationwide surveillance system known as ‘Xue Liang,’ or ‘Sharp Eyes’.”

Sauron would be proud.


Who’s that watching your every move? Don’t worry, it’s only everyone...




Merkel contemplates a European civil war

In a fascinating piece for Spiegel OnlineRené Pfister reveals that Angela Merkel has been thinking about the Thirty Years’ War – a devastating conflict that raged across Central Europe from 1618 to 1648.

It was preceded by a long period of calm, ushered in by the Peace of Augsburg, a compromise between the Protestants and Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire, signed in 1555:

“To Merkel, the Peace of Augsburg is much more than some distant historical date. Rather, it is a warning of just how thin the varnish covering civilization really is. Just as people in the late 16th century were erroneous in their belief that the Peace of Augsburg would be enduring, we could be just as mistaken today in the belief that the postwar order, with all its treaties and alliances, serves as a guarantee that the scourge of war will not return.”

The end of the peace can be blamed on the Hapsburg Emperor, Ferdinand II, who tried to impose the will of the strongest power – and its ideology – on the other states.

I wonder if Angela Merkel can think of anything like that in today’s Europe?


Is Europe on the brink of a new Thirty Years' War?

Global Affairs



The self-driving future is a bus(t)

2018 was the year when optimism about automated vehicles turned to pessimism. In March, a pedestrian was hit and killed by a self-driving car in Arizona – a tragedy that symbolises just how far the technology needs to progress before we can trust it. Some experts wonder whether road vehicles will ever go fully driverless.

But if that’s true, what should we make of the news that the Chinese company Baidu has begun mass production of its Apolong self-driving minibus? According to the BBC, the 14-seater vehicle has “no driver’s seat, steering wheel or pedals”, which sounds pretty driverless to me.

The catch is that the Apolong is designed for controlled environments “such as airports and tourist sites.”

But perhaps that’s how we’ll get to the driverless future – via segregated bus routes and not on the open road.


One way to bypass a driverless future




How technology divides rich from poor

Access to technology has always divided the rich from the poor. It continues to do so today, only now it’s question of whether the latter are over exposed. Writing for the New York Times, Nellie Bowles notes that the children of the poor spend more time glued to screens than the children of the rich:

“Lower-income teenagers spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog… Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.”

In another article for the NYT, she reveals that nannies employed by Silicon Valley professionals are instructed to “keep phones, tablets, computers and TVs off and hidden at all times”.

How’s that for hypocrisy?


Who are the the cyber-nannies coming for?




Liberal nationalism

Liberalism and nationalism are portrayed as opposing philosophies – one seen as being ‘open’ and the other as ‘closed’.

Writing for the Guardian, Ivan Krastev reminds is us it wasn’t always this way:

“Remember how nationalists and liberals were allies in the overthrow of communism in 1989… Appealing to national sentiment was critically important as a way of mobilising society against the communist regimes. Poland’s Solidarity movement was not liberal, but a mixed – social and nationalist – coalition that endorsed the values of liberal democracy.”

The history of liberal nationalism goes back much further – it was, for instance, a vital force in the European revolutions of 1848.

Europe’s liberal elites need to rediscover the virtues of positive national self-expression, because in refusing to do so they’ve left open a political space that populist politicians have eagerly exploited.


Coercive federalism has doomed the EU

Flyover Country



China has tech giants too

America’s tech giants are sometimes referred to as GAFA (i.e. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple). If you include Netflix then they become the FAANGs.

Writing for Wired, Christina Larson implores us not to forget the BATs:

“China’s established internet titans – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, sometimes called ‘BAT’ – began as clones of US companies like Google and eBay. But these giants have since evolved in distinct new directions, rather like megafauna evolving new breeds within a Galapagos Islands ecosystem.”

China protects this ecosystem behind various barriers, but it is also aided by the fact that technophilic Chinese consumers provide markets for digital services that are massively bigger than those in the West:

“In a country where personal cheques and credit cards never went mainstream, paying with your smartphone has become the norm: in 2016, China’s mobile payment market was 50 times the size of that in the US, according to research firm iResearch.”

Meanwhile Europe, which has neither BATs nor FAANGs, is looking rather toothless.

Now read the top 10 of The Year UnPacked


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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