2012: baked beans, iPhones and protest

Prospect Magazine

2012: baked beans, iPhones and protest

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Matthew Parris, Stephanie Flanders, Martha Lane Fox and others set out their thoughts
for the coming year. Things will be tough—but there are bright spots

Paul Mason

The 2012 zeitgeist is about analogue lifestyles with digital comms. You will be eating baked beans and tweeting from your iPhone. Cheap food, high energy bills—so you can fuel your open fire with old paperbacks while re-stocking your Kindle with the books you already paid for. As the streets go quiet we’ll be able to hear the nuances of acoustic music again.

The phrase “intellectual property” will get its first word elevated above its second: people will start to value what is intellectual and share it. Rock-festivals-cum-book-clubs at Minehead Butlins will be the “in thing.” Personalised placards, two-man tents and Maalox (an antidote to teargas) will go mainstream. Hunkering down will be the human reflex—even if we can’t all retreat to a Welsh farmhouse we can build a farmhouse of the mind in our tiny urban apartments. The buzzword will be “anomie.”

Paul Mason is economics editor of Newsnight

Stephanie Flanders

It’s difficult for economists to find reasons to be cheerful: difficult, but important. So here’s one thing we in Britain should be thankful for in 2012: the quality of our national economic debate, and the relative strength of our economic institutions.

Tuning into the Today programme or prime minister’s questions could make you think otherwise. But at least the sides talk to each other, and their arguments cover how government can support the economy. By contrast in the US, most debate is by megaphone, and the starting point, for many politicians and commentators, is that government can only be a force for bad.

Global investors may not care that our political culture is healthier than in the US. But they do care that our policymakers have the power to act. When ratings agencies watch George Osborne’s autumn statement, they don’t only see a man who is sticking to his guns when it comes to public borrowing (give or take £100bn). They also see a chancellor who could change course, in a heartbeat, if circumstances demanded it. He could halve the standard rate of VAT—or double it—in weeks. It wouldn’t be popular, but it could be done.

Barack Obama must beg Congress to implement even a tiny fraction of his budget plans. The 17 members of the eurozone are also slow movers: they took more than six months in 2011 to increase the firepower of the eurozone rescue facility, the EFSF.

Britain’s central bank and its relationship with the treasury is also an advantage. The lesson of recent years is that you need a central bank independent of government—but not so independent as to be unaccountable, or unable to co-operate with other parts of government. Britain seems to have got this balance about right.

The US Federal Reserve has been active in responding to the financial crisis, but many in Congress see it as too beholden to the administration and its wings may now be clipped. The European Central Bank has the opposite problem: extreme independence has made it harder for it to intervene decisively, because it has no line of accountability to governments. The Bank of England is independent, but the lines of political accountability are clearly defined—as is its relationship with the treasury. That is useful when policymakers operate—as they increasingly do—in the grey area between monetary and fiscal policy. The lines may get more blurred in 2012.

The strength of Britain’s institutions should be judged by output, not process. Forecasts from the office for budget responsibility suggest a bleak future, even if our policy institutions are—or ought to be—the envy of some of our neighbours. Critics of Gordon Brown, or Osborne, would say our future would be a lot brighter, had we given the treasury less sway. But then, Prospect asked me to accentuate the positive. And besides, if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that even independent economic forecasters can be wrong. That’s another reason to be cheerful, right there.

Stephanie Flanders is BBC economics editor

Matthew Parris

Installing technocrats as leaders has more in common with a military coup than might be supposed. Both amount to a flight from democracy. Any nation capable of resorting to one must be judged capable of resorting to the other. More such governments may arise during 2012.

We must not exaggerate, of course, the degree to which Silvio Berlusconi’s three terms in office, or the last Greek government, or any Greek government of recent years, amounted to democracy in the full sense. Once elected, bullies, media magnates, lawbreakers, godfathers, bribe-meisters and cronies can entrench themselves and their administrations in ways that undermine the proper working of a democratic process. But the Greek and Italian electorates did in some sense of the word choose their governments. Their replacement by unelected experts—and the voters’ apparent quiescence at this switch—shares many of the features of takeovers by hatchet-faced generals (often to the cheers of the populace) that so plagued Latin America, parts of Africa, and southeast Asia in the last century.

The breeding ground and the popular dynamics are clear: some kind of national emergency; a widespread sentiment that tough measures are necessary; and a hankering for stability, order and authority (whether of the gun or the economics textbook) after a period of ineffective, corrupt, vacillating or paralysed governance associated with the demagogues and pygmies (or stalemated cabinets) that the elective process is capable of promoting.

Any democracy will from time to time manifest some of these weaknesses to some degree. A nation whose reflex when confronted with political weakness is to suspend the democratic process rather than use it to produce a better administration, is a nation whose democratic instincts (and whose trust in its choices) do not go deep.

But the world economic crisis is cruelly stress-testing these instincts in many nations, and may yet test them in more. The Irish did vote for austerity. So did Spain. But both retained hope of better things to come. Would France, would Britain, would Germany—would the former eastern bloc countries— stick with their established political parties and their familiar political faces if things really did begin to fall apart, and the traditional political class declined to promise more than continuing pain? I feel just a twinge—only a twinge—of doubt.

This, though, is certain: from the vantage point of a flailing democracy, the uniforms and the mortar-boards do look tempting. Usher them in, however, and democratic politics may soon regain its allure. In the end, somebody has to tell western voters what they don’t want to hear. Substance not process. It is what our governments are going to have to do, not how we construct them, that lies at the heart of this problem.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Times

Ken Layne

For three decades, the American left has been drearily impotent, voting for the Democrat least offensive to the moneyed interests, while the activist fringe squandered itself on landmines, Free Tibet and identity politics. The era’s one burst of action in Seattle of 1999 was all but forgotten in the fear frenzy of 9/11.

Three painful years of supposed recovery and Obama’s limp administration is waking Americans from their stupor. The wonderfully inclusive term “99 per cent” may be an exaggeration of the economics of US life—surely the top 2 per cent don’t fear home foreclosure or go hungry—but it resonates so well because it shakes 30 years of Republican and Democrat political lies down to a basic truth. The Occupy Wall Street movement, spontaneous and thrilling, has shown how to “change the conversation.”

Obsessively examining the relationship between US government and citizen, the nation has mostly ignored the multinational entities that control both. This is the revelation the Occupy protests have made possible. The facts had long been apparent, but as Ronald Reagan said at the 1988 Republican convention, “Facts are stupid things.”

In December, the Republican propagandist Frank Luntz said: “I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” The left’s disgracefully long stretch of good behaviour is finally finished.

Ken Layne (kenlayne.com) edits Wonkette.com

Tom Chatfield

A new kind of people power came to politics in 2011—more will come in 2012. Mass digital technologies cannot take credit for the Arab Spring, or the Occupy movement, but they are a part of a continuing shift.

The last year showed governments, regulatory bodies and politicians at their worst: sluggish, out of touch and conflicted. Around them, the world is waking up to the fact that information is a political commodity. We are at the beginning of something new, and not necessarily better. There are dangerous opportunities for those on the margins.

But this inclusivity can have benefits. We already take it for granted that mothers may use Facebook as much, if not more, than their children. Now, the time of the grandmothers is coming too.

Tom Chatfield’s latest book is “50 Digital Ideas You Really Need to Know” (Quercus)

Martha Lane Fox

Recessions, though not welcome, can help entrepreneurs. When we started lastminute.com in 1998, the economic climate was not as tough as now, but our idea was based on selling distressed inventory from theatres, hotels and airlines, so when travel and tourism were less buoyant our business would have access to more deals.

Now, there are businesses being created on the idea of collaboration and recycling. Airbnb is probably the biggest example. This US website lets people rent out rooms in their homes. It offers places in 18,000 cities in 186 countries. TaskRabbit, a site that lets users “outsource their tasks” for small fees, offers people who will help with a wide range of things: assembling Ikea furniture, wrapping presents, or cooking food.

Entrepreneurs start businesses whatever the economic backdrop, but current conditions encourage entrepreneurial thinking by everyone. Whether looking for work, struggling to cut costs or launching a product, creativity, boldness and the ability to deliver on shoestring budgets are more important than ever. In this sense, the recession is making entrepreneurs of us all.

Martha Lane Fox is the UK government’s Digital Champion and co-founder of lastminute.com

Philip Ball

In 2012, scientists exploring a computer-based approach to understanding social phenomena—from civil war to economic crises—will achieve critical mass. This initiative will be boosted if the international project known as FuturICT wins the €1bn it is seeking from the European Commission.

Events and issues such as the Arab Spring, the lack of agreement on climate change, the eurozone crisis and the difficulties of building democracy in unstable states have shown the impotence of top-down solutions to political problems. These challenges must be understood in “bottom-up” terms, which acknowledge the network interactions between participants, the importance of motives and the diversity of human decision-making.

Building computer models of civilisation  demands huge investment in data collection, software and hardware, original thinking and collaboration between disciplines. But the hardest challenge might be to persuade policymakers to abandon ideological positions in favour of a rational exploration of the consequences of their decisions.

This “complex systems” thinking has proven effective in managing traffic and crowds; but the economy, war and the like are another matter. Yet even small improvements in how crises are handled could repay many times over the cost of a project like FuturICT.

Philip Ball is an author and science writer

Claire Enders

The British media faces challenges from two sources. The first is technology that strips value from content and replaces scarcity with ubiquity. The second is an economic system in which disposable income remains under intense pressure.

For consumers, this is a rich time, with much high quality free and paid-for content, services and devices. Apple, Google, the BBC, BSkyB, BT, Virgin Media and others have created huge choice.

The decline of incentives for investment in print is a long-term problem that audiences will only consider relevant if their preferred media diminish. British consumers will welcome the decision to maintain current structures, with commercial broadcasters’ licences extended, the BBC’s position stabilised, and News Corp’s ambitions checked. The Leveson inquiry will re-define the nexus between politics, the press, the public interest and privacy. It will also clarify the respective roles of regulation, the judiciary and legislators.

Even if overall consumption declines, spending on broadband, mobile phones, computing, television services, apps, music and subscriptions will grow. The screen has become the centre of our real and virtual lives, changing habits and expenditure. Media businesses are fighting for consumer attention against competitor services unimaginable just a few years ago. The obsession is with audience data capture and personalisation.

Innovation and development will help Britain’s economy grow—and for that we should be especially thankful.

Claire Enders is the founder of Enders Analysis

Kate Mossman

We’ve had 1970s and 1980s music revivals—the 1990s are next. While the Stone Roses stalk the earth in a series of sell-out reunion gigs, Noel and Liam Gallagher will battle it out further down the bill (and probably reform Oasis in 2013). There’ll be a small backwash of grunge, via the compelling Seattle miserablist Kurt Vile and a few new bands like Japanese Voyeurs and Violent Soho. The 1960s retro soul movement still has life. Once again, it’s all about girls—like Salford ingénue Ren Harvieu, whose debut was delayed last year when she broke her back, and Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant), the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” whose record company forced her to change her name and image against her wishes (it obviously worked).

We’ll access more music through streams and SoundCloud while “bundled” subscriptions—a Spotify account rolled into your broadband package—will be widely available.

Facebook and YouTube will become the most powerful music platforms thanks to their simple “like” function, and 2012 will be the year of reckoning for artists still hoping to make money. The industry will develop ingenious technologies to prevent leaks. This time next year, Coldplay’s new album will probably be delivered as a piracy-proof code which you can crack only by holding your smartphone up to a poster of Chris Martin on a bus shelter. Perhaps.

Kate Mossman is reviews editor, Word

Stephen Page

The coming-of-age of book apps in 2011, including Faber’s release of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land for iPad, offers a clue to the future of the book. In 2012, we will see digital books develop even further beyond the plain text of most current ebooks.

At present there is almost no audience for enhanced ebooks (an ebook plus audio, video or illustration). The market has been held back by a lack of the right device. That’s changing. The launch of Kindle Fire, Kobo and Nook e-readers, all from book retailers, not to mention the relentless growth of the iPad, iPhone and Android devices is helping the ebook market.

In the coming year writers and publishers must seize the opportunity. Writers will begin to gather materials to amplify their text. Trade publishers will strike up relationships with film and video archives as they already do with photo libraries. The title of producer may well arrive in trade publishing. And hopefully we’ll stop calling this enhancement. Is a cookery book with pictures an enhanced book? Are maps enhancements? No—they are integral components of a work.

The future of the book has thrilling new dimensions and it begins in earnest next year. And perhaps we’ll have the confidence simply to use the word “book.”

Stephen Page is CEO and publisher at Faber

Mark Cousins

In my fantasy 2012, all films would be directed by women. No country would import any films. Movie theatres would play Fauré then Dolly Parton before screenings and people would dance. Sex in movies would be banned for the year and all films would be shorn of their last five minutes, to leave them open ended.

The most exciting thing next year might be cinema’s ongoing love affair with metaphysics. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was the movie event of 2011, a grief film about rapture. The best directors in the world—Lucrecia Martel in Argentina, Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand, Alexander Sokurov in Russia, Claire Denis in France—all seem to be pushing film beyond material things. Malick’s new untitled film, which we might see in 2012, is likely to do this too. Power to their elbows.

Mark Cousins is a director and film critic

Tavi Gevinson

In the 1960s, you used to be able to say that a look would hold up for a decade, but now it’s changing four times a year. At the moment, I’m really curious about Justin Bieber. He is a model for people who are fascinated by glamour but he sort of has an underdog story. People joke about him being effeminate but I do kind of like that it’s more popular now for guys to wear skinny jeans. I hate macho culture so I think it’s cool that boys now want to wear sensitive flannel.

Flannel used to be associated with grunge, but boys like Justin Bieber aren’t tortured—they’re sensitive in a more positive way. He’s a guy who plays guitar—but it’s definitely acoustic guitar.

Tavi Gevinson, aged 15, is editor of rookiemag.com, the teen fashion site. She has been profiled in the New Yorker and French Vogue

Julia Slingo

Though it will never be possible to predict the exact timing and location of extreme weather, we can assess its likelihood. Research is improving long-term predictions. The Met Office’s forecast for the intensity of the North Atlantic tropical “hurricane season” is now used by the insurance industry.

So, for 2012, we can make some observations about trends. On average, we have seen our climate warm—this means higher temperatures (more heat waves), more evaporation (more droughts) and the atmosphere carrying more water because it is warmer (more extreme rainfall).

Julia Slingo is chief scientist at the Met Office

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