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The Year UnPacked

Azim Khan Ronnie/Zuma Press/PA Images

January 2, 2019   27 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.



“Dystopia starts with 23.6 inches of toilet paper”

Toilet of the Year is possibly not the most sought after accolade, but in a piece for the Atlantic on China’s increasingly comprehensive use of facial recognition technology, Rene Chun identifies the clear winner:

“Dystopia starts with 23.6 inches of toilet paper. That’s how much the dispensers at the entrance of the public restrooms at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven dole out in a program involving facial-recognition scanners—part of the president’s ‘Toilet Revolution’, which seeks to modernize public toilets. Want more? Forget it. If you go back to the scanner before nine minutes are up, it will recognize you and issue this terse refusal: ‘Please try again later.’”

Is this ‘fully automated luxury communism’?


Who wants to buy the products of 'Beijing Analytica'? Many of us (probably).




An IQ of 10,000

Masayoshi Son is the founder of SoftBank and reportedly the richest man in Japan. It’s fair to say he’s a very smart guy. But according to the Economist, he believes that in just thirty years time we’ll be sharing the planet with robots with an IQ of 10,000 (which would be more a case of them graciously consenting to share the planet with us).

Son is not alone, there are a lot of senior tech people who believe we’re on the brink of enabling the emergence of a self-created artificial super-intelligence (ASI) that will change everything – the so-called ‘Singularity’:

“The term has different definitions depending on whom you ask, and it often overlaps with ideas like transhumanism. But the broad idea is that the rate of technological progress is accelerating exponentially, and will continue to do so, to the point where it escapes all efforts at control…”

Singularitarianism, however, is based on the idea that we’re making progress towards artificial consciousness. But we’re not. We can’t even define consciousness, let alone explain or replicate it.


The most influential religion you’ve never heard of




The 50th anniversary of extraterrestrial life

OK, if we can’t expect artificial superintelligence anytime soon, how about a visit from the alien variety? According  to Liv Boeree in Vox, the Drake Equation has been recalculated – and it’s discouraging news for flying saucer fans:

“Based upon the current state of astrobiological knowledge, there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we are the only civilization in this galaxy and a 39 to 85 percent chance we are the only one in the observable universe.”

2018 was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 mission – the first spacecraft to circle the moon and come back home again. This space craft carried two tortoises (and an assortment of creepy-crawlies). If life is unique to Earth, then that means these were first known examples of extraterrestrial life.


Is there anyone else out there?




Economics catches up with common sense (maybe)

Are we heading for another financial crash? Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith says that economists have been revising their theories to explain the financial crash that the profession failed to predict last time.

One of the most interesting ideas to emerge is described as the “theory of extrapolative expectations”:

“…that when asset prices rise — home values, stocks and so on — without a break, investors start to believe that this trend represents a new normal. They pile into the asset, pumping up the price even more, and seeming to confirm the idea that the trend will never end. But when the extrapolators’ money runs out, reality sets in and a crash ensues.”

Arguably this phenomenon was already well known to the rest of us, only we know it as the ‘theory of reckless, greedy bastards’.


How (some) economists finally caught up with financial reality




Some good environmental news, for a change

Economic growth is often assumed to be bad for the environment, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, thanks to improvements in agricultural productivity, the richest parts of the world are now experiencing reforestation not deforestation.

According to the Economist, “Europe’s planted forests put on a little more than 1.1m cubic metres of wood per day.” That is more than a thousand times the volume of iron in the Eiffel Tower.

These days it’s neither necessary nor economic to force food out of the poorest land. So instead of paying farmers to turn our uplands into ‘wet deserts’, we should pay them to recreate wooded habitats, encourage wildlife, prevent erosion and minimise flash flooding further downstream.


The battle for Britain's countryside – the other Brexit debate




The capitalist trilemma

To truly thrive, ordinary workers need all three of the following: full employment, a decent wage and affordable housing.

We can divide up western capitalism into three zones on the basis of where they fall down worst. So we have the horrendous hosting costs of the global cities; the pitiful wages of US and UK ‘flyover country’; and mass unemployment in the underbelly of the Eurozone. We could call these three models ‘Iowa’, ‘London’ and ‘Italy’.

This is the capitalist trilemma. An awful lot rides on which, if any, of the three models can break free.


Full employment, decent pay and affordable housing: choose two




Britain is about to send more power to Brussels – literally

Unlike those pesky windmills, nuclear power is reliable, right?

Tell it to the Belgians. The country is heavily reliant on seven nuclear reactors, split between two sites; but as Daniel Boffey reports in the Guardian, things have gone awry:

“A forced shutdown of one nuclear reactor in the lead up to winter may be regarded as unfortunate. But the closure of six of the seven reactors responsible for the supply of 40% of electricity is raising eyebrows, even in a country as prone to chaotic administration as Belgium.”

If it’s a cold winter and the Belgians can’t cadge enough ’leccy off their continental neighbours then “motorway lights will be switched off, industrial production suspended and rolling three-hour blackouts launched in homes nationwide”.

Luckily, there’s a new  interconnector (basically a power cable that joins up different grids) between the UK and Belgium opening early next year. So it could be Brexit Britain that keeps the keeps the lights on in the Berlaymont.


Could Britain be about to power share with Belgium?

Global Affairs



Platform cooperativism 

Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Amazon – all examples of ‘platform capitalism’. Even in sectors where the products aren’t digital, proprietary networks are becoming key to market participation and coordination.

Is this future of the digital and digitally-enabled economy – i.e. a sequence of gated markets in which big tech gate-keepers collect all the money and then decide how much to give to the people who actually do the work?

In the American Conservative, Elias Crim proposes an alternative:

“…platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership…

“What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb?”

The alternative to nationalising Facebook is for government to make the ‘big data’ it collects available to platform coops. The tech companies are using their control over data flows to empower themselves; the state must use its digital resources to empower us.


Platform cooperativism – an alternative to technopoly




Kris Who?

How to illustrate China’s growing ‘soft power’?

From The Economisthere’s a list of the world’s top 15 universities for maths and computing, of which seven are Chinese and none are European.

But maths is boring, so how about pop music instead? As Adam Minter explains for Bloomberg, something very strange happened to the US iTunes chart in November:

Kris Wu, a superstar in China, not only had the No. 1 spot on the iTunes’ singles chart but also seven of the top 10 songs.”

Wu is not a superstar in America, so how did he storm the charts? The explanation appears to be that his new album was released in America before China – and that his devoted Chinese fans found a way of downloading it from US websites.

Just another reminder that the assumption that globalisation equals westernisation is both arrogant and untrue.


China: not just an economic superpower

Global Affairs



The worst tweet of the year from a President named Donald…

President Trump tried very hard this year, as he does every year, but in 2018 he was edged out by President Tusk (of the European Council). If you missed it, here’s his winning tweet, directed at the entire population of Greece:

“You did it! Congratulations to Greece and its people on ending the programme of financial assistance. With huge efforts and European solidarity you seized the day.”

It’s amazing how much misjudgment you can pack into 26 words – the celebratory tone, the hypocritical reference to ‘solidarity’, the implication that Greeks had any choice in what the Eurozone authorities chose to do to them.

For the reality, read Frances Coppola in Forbes:

“The magnitude of Greece’s collapse over the last decade is extraordinary… The Greek people have just lived through a Depression as deep as the Great Depression and considerably longer. It is now the greatest recorded peacetime Depression.”

The only adequate response to the Euro-establishment is “no, you did it!”



America’s Amish future

“Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” – that was the motto of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and arguably we’ve been conforming ever since.

But not the Amish. What they do is get together as communities and decide whether particular technologies suit their chosen way of life or not. According to Michael J Coren’s interview with Jameson Wetmore for Quartz, different Amish communities come to different conclusions – but there is a common thread:

“It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.”

By the way, the Amish are thriving. Their numbers double every generation and of the 500 or so Amish settlements, about half were founded in the 21st century.


The Amish: America's most sophisticated users of technology




The Internet of Bodies

I’d imagine the Amish would take a dim view of the notion that people should be microchipped like dogs. In a story for the Guardian, Julia Kollewe reports that microchipping is on the brink of going mainstream:

‘The tiny chips, implanted in the flesh between the thumb and forefinger, are similar to those for pets. They enable people to open their front door, access their office or start their car with a wave of their hand, and can also store medical data.”

Kollewe adds that one microchipping provider “is in discussions with several British legal and financial firms about fitting their employees with microchips.”

With these implants we wouldn’t have to bother with security passes and passwords anymore. In theory, we’d be automatically, perhaps permanently, interfaced with the corresponding digital networks – creating a so-called Internet of Bodies.

It would be quick, convenient and deeply, deeply sinister.


Prepare to be microchipped




Your local branch of the Chinese Communist Party

Did you know that the Communist Party is setting up branches in the West? I didn’t until I happened across Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian’s report for Foreign Policy:

“Party cells have appeared in California, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia. The cells appear to be part of a strategy, now expanded under Chinese President Xi Jinping, to extend direct party control globally and to insulate students and scholars abroad from the influence of ‘harmful ideology’, sometimes by asking members to report on each other’s behaviors and beliefs.”

And it’s not just America where the CPC is organising. Other countries mentioned by Allen-Ebrahimian include France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

These cells appear to be for Chinese ex-pats only. But perhaps they should be open to the local population too and even put up candidates in elections. The CPC doesn’t have much experience with democracy I know, but a platform combining rapid economic growth with a strict approach to law-and-order would definitely find support.


Could the Chinese Communist Party win votes in the West?

Global Affairs



The big problem with tall buildings

With sky-high property prices in global city centres, developers can only make a profit by building sky-high. But as Travis Barrington argues in a piece for Propmodo ageing skyscrapers can be very expensive to maintain, while being impossible to upgrade:

“Built in an era of cheap energy, many post-war Manhattan towers have facades of single-glazed glass, and structures that can’t support the weight of additional insulating glass. Many have low ceilings, tight column spacing, and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Often these have become even more cramped by having to accommodate the infrastructure of modern information technology.”

We could tear them down and start again, but that isn’t easy either. The tallest building ever (peacefully) demolished was the 41 storey Singer Building in 1968. With towers going up that are twice as tall or more, we’re bequeathing yet another head-scratching problem to posterity.


The false promise of the vertical city




The eugenicist at the royal wedding

The wedding of the year was, of course, that of Harry and Meghan. For many people, Bishop Michael Curry’s passionate sermon was a particular highlight. However, it did feature a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the philosopher and Jesuit priest whose unorthodox ideas made him a favourite with liberal Christians and those in the ever-expanding ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ category.

What they might find rather more disturbing, however, is the evidence presented in a jaw-dropping article by John P Slattery for Religion Dispatches. Quote after quote shows that Teilhard was a racist who believed that some ethnic groups are more advanced than others.

Furthermore, he was a raving eugenicist who argued that what he called the “advancing wing of humanity” should use scientific methods to further its biological evolution.

Teilhard rejected the idea that we’re all inherently imperfect (i.e. the doctrine of Original Sin) in favour of that old lie: that at least some of us can perfect ourselves.


A disturbing post-script to the royal wedding




The infinite screen

In 2018, we found out that smartphone sales for 2017 were down on 2016 – the first year-on-year decline. Is this the beginning of the end of the smartphone and, if so, what might replace it as the core technology of the digital age?

Benedict Evans makes a strong case for AR (augmented reality) – a wearable device that allows you to see what you want to see – not as a distracting image hovering in your face, but as an apparently real object at an appropriate depth and location within your field of vision:

“Your glasses can show you the things that you might look at on a smartphone or a 2000 inch screen, but they can also unbundle that screen into the real world, and change it.”

Evans calls this the “infinite screen” and it would replace all the finite screens that we currently use.

He compares the development of AR to that of the multitouch smartphone, and suggests that the stage at which AR is now is equivalent to where multitouch was in the run-up to the 2007 launch of its breakthrough commercial product – the Apple iPhone.

We’ll see.


The next tech revolution – you won't believe your eyes!




Pub culture versus cafe culture

According to John Harris in the Guardian, British pubs are closing down at a rate of 18 every week.

But for every pub that closes down, a coffee shop seems to open. But for Harris these are no substitute for the loss true community institutions:

“If our era has a pre-eminent gathering space, in both its chain and independent forms, it is surely the modern cafe – where most people seem to be hunched over their laptops, transfixed by their phones, or huddled with friends and oblivious to everyone else. This is the opposite of the places where the best kind of chaotic, unexpected experiences can happen and you might end up falling into conversations with complete strangers.”

Pubs and churches may seem poles apart in purpose and atmosphere, but both are shared spaces that aim to appeal across the community. They have much more in common with each other than what Harris sees as the 21st century culture of “ever smaller social niches.”


Our 'open' society has shut the door on shared spaces

Flyover Country



The end of reading

In an article for The Conversation, Jean Twenge has bad news for booksellers:

“…In 1980, 60 percent of 12th graders said they read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school… By 2016, only 16 percent did.”

One doesn’t have to look far too find the culprit:

“By 2016, the average 12th grader said they spent a staggering six hours a day texting, on social media, and online during their free time. And that’s just three activities; if other digital media activities were included, that estimate would surely rise.”

When you hear that ‘young people these days’ are doing less of X, Y or Z it’s because they don’t have the time.


Why it's time to panic about kids and smartphones




The great scientific slowdown 

How many discoveries made since 1990 have been honoured with a Nobel Prize in Physics? The answer, according to Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in a fascinating essay for the Atlantic, is just three.

It’s not like we’re starving science of funding. Quite the opposite, in fact – there’s been a ramp-up in resources since the 1960s. Even if scientific progress isn’t slowing down, it’s not keeping up with what we’re investing in it:

“When Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1911, he published it in a paper with just a single author: himself. By contrast, the two 2012 papers announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle had roughly a thousand authors each. On average, research teams nearly quadrupled in size over the 20th century, and that increase continues today.”

Even if science isn’t slowing down, it is having a productivity crisis. The big question is whether that’s because we’ve discovered all the easy stuff or whether we’re looking in the wrong places.


Why we need to concentrate on science




How to build more houses in global cities

Why don’t global cities build more homes? Clearly there’s the demand, otherwise they wouldn’t be so expensive.

Is it just too difficult? No, Because as James Gleeson explains on his blog, there’s one global city that’s getting on with it:

“Tokyo’s housing stock is growing very fast – roughly 2% a year, about twice as fast as that of Paris, London or New York…”

What’s more they’re not doing it through sprawl or by packing ever more people into each dwelling. Indeed, Tokyo is getting denser in terms of dwellings per hectare, while providing more living space per person.

The secret of their success is demolition: It’s much easier in Japan to knock-down old development and start again. That doesn’t mean that London and New York have to bulldoze their most beautiful neighbourhoods. There’s plenty of post-war rubbish to get started on first.



Scandalous link to Russia exposed

With America under Trump, Britain mired in Brexit and France having a riot, Germany looks like the responsible adult of international politics.

But is it? Consider the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a link between Germany and Russia that undermines the security of the countries in between. A Bloomberg editorial explains:

“Due to be completed in 2019, the pipeline will double the amount of gas Russia transports directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Nord Stream 1, completed in 2011, supplies 55 billion cubic meters a year to Germany; the second pipeline would allow Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, to funnel an additional 55 billion cubic meters over the same route.”

This is bad news for Russia’s immediate neighbours:

“Gas that gets to Western Europe [via land-based pipelines] from Russia also passes through countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, all NATO members. They… are at risk of being denied supplies and transit revenues once Nord Stream 2 comes online. Poland’s government has called the pipeline a ‘hybrid weapon’ created by Moscow to divide the EU and NATO.”


German irresponsibility threatens Europe

Global Affairs



Where are the clones? There are no clones

2018 began with a very special delivery at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai: the birth of two crab-eating macaques called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. What made these little monkeys special is that they are the first cloned primates to make it beyond the Petri dish and the womb.

People are also primates, but no human clone has ever been born (we think). In a fascinating, if somewhat horrifying, report for MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado explains why. Basically, it’s hugely impractical – most attempts fail and each attempt is costly:

“…[Yi Zhang, a leading stem cell biologist] notes that Chinese teams used 63 surrogate mothers and 417 eggs to make two monkey clones. Just imagine arranging for dozens of human surrogates and egg donors.

“‘No society could accept this,’ says Zhang.”

Well, one would hope so.


Whatever happened to the human clones?




China is electrifying

“If you want to know the future, look at the past”, said Albert Einstein. Alternatively, look at China.

For instance, the scale of the country’s environmental problems may shock you, but so might the effort going into solving them.

In April, Jeremy Hodges took a look at China’s electric bus revolution for Bloomberg:

“The numbers are staggering. China had about 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the roads worldwide in 2017, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s entire fleet. Every five weeks, Chinese cities add 9,500 of the zero-emissions transporters—the equivalent of London’s entire working fleet, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance.”

If we want to stop catastrophic climate change then we will have to electrify our transport system within a generation. China shows it can be done.


You wait ages for an electric bus, and then three hundred thousand turn up

Global Affairs



America: Not divided, just disappointed

America appears to be a deeply polarised nation. And it is – but not for the reasons you might think, argues George Hawley in the American Conservative:

“The Bible-thumping, pro-war, free-market purist is a rare creature. So is the gun-grabbing, abortion-loving, socialist atheist. Perfect conservative and liberal stereotypes are hard to find in the real world.

“Especially on economic issues, Americans exhibit a remarkable consensus…”

As shared institutions decline, we become more loyal to unshared institutions like political ideologies and cultural identities. This allows emotionally manipulative, but otherwise incompetent, politicians to rise to the top. In power, they let their supporters down – creating psychological stress that needs a release:

“…we can resolve the tension between our party identifications and our frustration with our parties by increasing our antipathy toward our parties’ opponents. In other words, we can justify our vote choice if we believe the opposing party is worse…”

Utter madness, but it explains a lot.


The worse our politicians get, the more we indulge them




Whatever happened to Web 3.0?

Ethan Zuckerman is a key figure in the development of the internet. Interviewed by Noah Kulwin for New York magazine, he believes that ‘Web 2.0’ – the internet as dominated by the giants of search and social media – is stagnating:

“I really feel like we’ve lost about ten years of innovation. I feel like this last decade has been pretty boring for the web.”

He’s right. Think about the development of internet in decade-long chunks. In 1988, most of us hadn’t even heard of the internet, but by 1998, email was widespread and websites commonplace. Fast forward another ten years to 2008 and broadband had become the norm. Google and Facebook were also achieving default status – indeed pretty much everything that dominates digital in 2018 was in place ten years ago.

Thanks to the smartphone, the internet has gone fully mobile over the last decade – but it’s still basically the same internet, only on a smaller screen.


Alexa, how do we disrupt the tech lords?




Stop fiddling with the gene machine

The first ‘gene edited’ babies were born in China this year. But as Veronique Greenwood reminds us in a piece for Quanta Magazine, an individual’s genome is not so much a list of instructions as a complex machine whose different parts interact in complicated ways that we’re nowhere near to fully understanding:

“Joel Bader, a systems biologist at Johns Hopkins University, says… that ‘[The] closer we are able to look, the more we are able to see that perturbing one gene or pathway has effects that propagate throughout the entire system,’…”

Thanks to techniques like CRISPR, we can knock-out and splice-in genes with ever greater precision. But though we know how to perform these manipulations, to a very large extent we don’t know what we’re doing. That’s worth bearing in mind before we genetically re-engineer our descendants.


Why much of genetic engineering remains a mystery




Sheffield A and Sheffield B

The great geographical divides that define the politics of our time – for instance between ‘red state’ America and the coastal cities, or between the Eurozone’s core and periphery – don’t always involve great distances. Sometimes, the same applies to a single city. In an eye-opening piece for CityMetric, Sam Gregory provides a guided tour of what he calls “Sheffield A” and “Sheffield B”:

“Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?”

Gregory describes a bus route across the city where, between the neighbourhoods at each end, “average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women”.

There’s no physical barrier between the two Sheffields, but that doesn’t stop them from being worlds apart.


What do Sheffield and Paris have in common?

Flyover Country



The birth of two nations

In the New York Times Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller describe another great divide, this time among American women:

“First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Tex., it’s half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21…”

Across the nation as a whole, the average age of first birth is now 30.3 for college educated women but 23.8 for those without a college degree.

When Benjamin Disraeli wrote about the two nations of Victorian England – “the rich and the poor” – he said that they were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners…”

In a different time and place, it’s still true.


America: the birth of two nations

Flyover Country



The great GDP con

Over the last few decades, there’s been a marked slow down in economic growth across the West. However, things could be even worse than the official GDP figures would lead us to believe.

In an article for the Global Poverty and Inequality Dynamic Research Network, Jacob Assa and Ingrid Harold Kvangraven show that some dubious tweaks to the way the figures are calculated mean that we’re not as rich as we think we are.

Not only does GDP include the rent paid by tenants to landlords, it also includes the imaginary or ‘imputed’ rent that “homeowners would have paid to a landlord had they [the landlord] owned their home…”

This means that escalating rents and runaway house prices – which contribute nothing to productivity and make a lot of people poorer – shows up as a boost to GDP.

No wonder governments are so reluctant to solve the housing crisis.



Families need fathers and so do entire neighbourhoods

The inequality in life outcomes of black boys and white boys in America is well known. But a new study featured in the New York Times shows just how pervasive the effect is – it doesn’t matter how rich the household or how ‘good’ the neighbourhood, black boys are more likely to end up in a lower income band as adults than are white boys (and correspondingly less likely to end up in a higher band).

And yet the fine-grained geographical detail of the study did pick out certain neighbourhoods where the effect was much weaker. What was it that made these areas different? Crunching the data revealed various factors, but the most significant had to do with fatherhood:

“…these pockets… were the places where many lower-income black children had fathers at home. Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or not.

“‘That is a pathbreaking finding,’ said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist whose books have chronicled the economic struggles of black men.”

Fathers aren’t just good for their own families, they can also provide boys in other families with “role models and mentors”.



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 overexposed. 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.



China’s chip addiction

UnPacked features a lot of stories about China –  and especially its game-changing use of technology. But for all the ways in which the Chinese as moving faster into the future than we are, there are some big gaps in the country’s technological prowess.

One of the biggest is the subject of an Adam Minter piece for Bloomberg:

“Although China long ago mastered the art of making products with semiconductors produced elsewhere (the iPhone is the most famous example), it wants to move beyond being a mere assembler…

“…China is currently the world’s biggest chip market, but it manufactures only 16 percent of the semiconductors it uses domestically.”

China’s influence over the global economy and geopolitics can only grow in the decades ahead, but its vulnerabilities – technological, social, environmental and demographic – are as significant as its strengths.


China: the hype vs the reality

Global Affairs



The Centrist Paradox

Is political polarisation a threat to democracy? Are the ‘wings’ – Left and Right – drifting towards authoritarian extremism?

That’s the standard account of what ails the body politic, but in a fascinating piece for the New York Times, David Adler presents evidence to show that the most disillusioned voters are those in the centre of the political spectrum:

“I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries…

“Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures…”

This is so counter-intuitive that Adler calls it the Centrist Paradox. Who, then are these ‘centrists’? Are they latte-sipping liberals aghast at the rise of populism or are they working class populists who’ve become disillusioned with the parties of the mainstream Left and Right?

It could, of course, be both – meaning that the centre is also incoherent.


Are centrists a threat to democracy?

Flyover Country



The gaping hole in the party system

Here’s another possible explanation for the Centrist Paradox: there’s a large group of voters who are unrepresented by the conventional party system. Traditionally, there are progressive parties that lean to the Left on economic and social issues and conservative parties that lean to the Right. You can also find liberal parties that lean Left on social issues and Right on economics.

But what about voters who do the opposite – leaning Left on economics and Right on social (and, especially, cultural) issues? A fascinating report by Lee Drutman for the Voter Study Group, suggests that there are a lot of these ‘Left conservatives’ – indeed they heavily outnumber the economic and social liberals who have such an outsize influence on politics.

This gaping hole has allowed populists of Left, Right and centre to disrupt the party system, but without offering a coherent policy platform.


The idea that liberals aren't represented by the party system is the opposite of the truth

Global Affairs



The deflationary Death Star versus healthcare

In a piece for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson refers to Amazon as a “deflationary Death Star” – a brilliant description of the company’s effect on any market it enters into.

If there’s one market whose prices definitely need deflating, it’s the ruinously expensive US healthcare industry. Therefore, the fact that Amazon is teaming up with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to sort it out may prove the most important business news of the year:

“The surprising trio of the nation’s largest online retailer, largest bank by assets, and most famous investor (Warren Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire) riding to the rescue of the beleaguered health system already rocked insurance stocks and thrilled health-care experts who have long dreamed of a technological solution to ‘bend the curve’ of inexorably rising medical costs.”

The immediate interest of the three companies is obvious – reducing the cost of providing healthcare benefits to their combined workforce. But if they succeed in developing a new and much cheaper healthcare model, I doubt they’ll keep it in-house.


Is Amazon's attempt to disrupt the healthcare industry heroic or villainous?

Global Affairs



The opioid epidemics

America’s greatest public health crisis is the opioid epidemic – and according to Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times, the latest figures show it getting worse:

“Drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans last year, a record number that reflects a rise of around 10 percent, according to new preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. The death toll is higher than the peak yearly death totals from H.I.V., car crashes or gun deaths.”

In the Atlantic, Ashley Fetters brings us news of another American epidemic:

“…reported cases of three sexually transmitted diseases in the United States had reached an all-time high in 2017. Rates of gonorrhea rose by 67 percent, syphilis by 76 percent, and chlamydia by 21 percent, to a total of almost 2.3 million cases nationwide… the fourth year in a row that STDs increased steeply in the U.S.”

Inevitably, the “rise in high-risk sexual behaviors [is] associated with opioid use and addiction”.

Suicide is also on the rise again in America, and that too can be linked, in part, to opioids.


How sex and drugs took their toll on 21st-century America

Flyover Country



The polygenic revolution

A strong contender for book of the year is Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are – by the geneticist Robert Plomin. It guides us through the accumulating evidence that genes have a major influence on behavioural traits, not just physical ones.

Quoted by Andrew Anthony in the Guardian, Plomin is at pains to point out that the genetic influence on how we turn out is polygenic – i.e. hundreds, even thousands, of genes can be involved in influencing a single trait. We don’t understand exactly how these complex interactions work, but we can measure the correlations between the presence of particular genes and the expression of particular traits. On this basis, polygenic testing could be used to make predictions about behavioural outcomes.

Whether this tool is used to tailor support to individuals or to discriminate against them will be down to society, not science.


Letting the gene genie out of the bottle




Amazon Go

Amazon is best known as an online retailer. But in 2018 it opened a new store in Seattle called Amazon Go. In a fascinating piece for Stratechery, Ben Thompson tells us about it:

“The trick is that you don’t pay, at least in person: a collection of cameras and sensors pair your selection to your Amazon account — registered at the door via smartphone app — which rather redefines the concept of ‘grab-and-go’.”

Think of all the different systems that have to be coordinated to make it all work. But then that, in a nutshell, is Amazon’s grand strategy – expanding in all directions, not just to achieve unbeatable economies of scale, but also to create a unified retail ecosystem in which it controls and seamlessly integrates all the interfaces between each bit of the overall operation. No other retail or logistics company will be in a better position to fully automate just about everything it does.

This year, there’s been a lot of debate over how Amazon treats its workers. In ten or twenty years time we could be asking ‘what workers?’


What does the 'charging elephant' - also known as Amazon - want? Only everything (and beware of getting in its way)




Yes we’re richer, but where did all the wildlife go?

The counterpoint to the crisis of capitalism in the West is the massive fall in global poverty. And, as well as the world getting richer, we also see long-term trends on literacy, violence, longevity and access to sanitation all moving in the right direction.

Yet the good news is no excuse for ignoring the trends heading in the wrong direction. In the Guardian, Damian Carrington writes about an especially dramatic and disturbing example:

“The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%.”

At what point do we call a halt?


One dead animal is an online sensation, a million is a statistic

Global Affairs



Americans against hate speech… and political correctness 

One of the most encouraging stories of 2018, was a study, published by More in Common, which demonstrates that Americans do indeed have more in common than one might think.

In a must-read piece for the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk highlights the key findings:

“Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that ‘political correctness is a problem in our country.’ Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24…”

These majorities were pretty consistent across ethnic groups too.

Meanwhile 82% of Americans “believe that hate speech is also a problem.”

It’s great that’s there such an overwhelming constituency for common-sense and against bigotry. If only there was a politician ready and able to represent it.


What the Right gets wrong when the Left goes nuts

Flyover Country



Social Credit System

I’m afraid I’ll have to conclude on a dystopian note; but there’s no other way of seeing China’s Social Credit System. This is the government plan to quantify and gamify the ‘good behaviour’ of every Chinese citizen in the form of a single score – a bit like a financial credit rating or points on a driving license, but applied across a whole range of different activities.

In a report for ScienceAlert, Peter Dockrill says that citizens will get a higher score for acts “like paying bills on time, engaging in charity, and… recycling” and a lower score for “[being] late with payments… jaywalking or smoking in non-smoking areas.”

The rewards of a high score will likely include “better credit facilities, cheaper public transport, and even shorter wait times for hospital services”. Low scorers will be second class citizens, restricted in movement and opportunity.

Quite clearly intended as an instrument of social control, the regime is making no attempt to hide that fact:

“According to China’s Communist Party, the system will ‘allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’.”

Pilot programmes are already in place with the system due to go national in 2020.

How long, I wonder, before we get something like it too?


The dark side of China's Social Credit System


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


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