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1.
Reasons to be cheerful
Social values

writer
Ben Page

The world has become a much smaller place over the course of monocle’s lifetime. Air travel boomed: passenger flights rose from 2.4 billion in 2007 to 4.5 billion in 2019. In other ways, though, the planet has become more divided and disconnected.

The past 15 years have witnessed the decline of the “Weird” (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) countries driving the global economy. The number of liberal democratic countries fell from a peak of 45 in 2010 to 37 in 2019. Autocracies are, for the first time since 2001, in the majority.

Optimism has also become a dividing line between East and West. Europeans and Americans have generally become more pessimistic. Only 12 per cent of the British expected their children to be poorer than them in 2003; by 2019 this had risen to 45 per cent. Stagnant incomes and growing property prices are to thank for this massive psychological shift, which is the case in much of the West. In 2021 some 47 per cent of young people under 25 said they would prefer to have been growing up when their parents were young.

“The past decade has seen global public opinion wake up to the threat of climate change, with its risk being one of the few things that more than 80 per cent agree on”

In contrast, Asians see the future very differently, with dramatic improvements in living standards this century. More than 407 million people across China and India moved out of poverty between 2010 and 2021, and the growth of the global middle class has been more concentrated in Asia than elsewhere.

But there are some things that unite us, including a global desire to slow down the pace of our lives. In France this has risen from 46 per cent to 66 per cent since 2007, and in China from 73 per cent to 89 per cent. There has also been a growing awareness of climate change: in 2007 it was supported by science but there was only the beginning of concerted action. The past decade has seen public opinion wake up to the threat, with its catastrophic risk being one of the few things that more than 80 per cent agree on. This has driven a push to decarbonisation in energy production and travel, and towards more sustainability in what we eat: plant-based substitutes for milk have shot up and even McDonald’s introduced plant-based burgers in 2021. Four out of 10 of the rising number of vegans say that they are avoiding animal products because of climate change.

And, wherever we live, we have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Global life expectancy has generally risen: for example, from 57 to 64 in Africa over this period. The world has become more tolerant in its social values overall, despite political instability. It is better to be an ethnic minority, gay or female at the end of this period than the start. Many countries have introduced gay marriage, and businesses and governments have moved to act on gender pay gaps, even though, at current progress, real gender equality will take 136 years to be fully realised globally.

Finally, the youth of 2022 are simply “better” than previous generations. They drink and smoke less, are better educated, work harder and are less violent overall. So while uncertainty abounds, the world in 2022 is a better place than in 2007. —

about the writer
Page is chief executive of research company Ipsos Mori.


2.
Shocks and scares
Shifts in the global economy

writer
Vicky Pryce

Where we were economically in early 2020, before the pandemic, was still being shaped by the 2008 financial crisis. When coronavirus emerged, Italy’s economy was still below pre-financial crisis levels, average wages in the UK had only just got back to 2010 levels after years of austerity and Greece’s big annual drops in gdp and employment levels were only just being reversed. Many global health systems were already under stress from a lack of investment. However painful the pandemic has been, at least it has reversed economic thinking.

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Sometimes I wonder how much easier things would have been for many countries steeped in austerity if the pandemic had come first. But, before getting to that, it is worth remembering that 2007 was another good year of growth and, generally speaking, all was well with the world. Most former Eastern European countries had joined the EU, Russia’s Crimean inroads had not yet happened, the euro was becoming a new reserve currency and globalisation was doing its job: deepening China’s integration into the world capitalist system, helping move people out of poverty and keeping prices low.

The financial crisis changed all that. As the world economy almost came crashing down, central banks and the world supervisory authorities sprang into co-ordinated action, restoring order but at a huge loss. While interest rates were slashed and money pumped into the economy through quantitative easing (qe), state spending was cut and the lending needed for growth was constrained. The years of austerity that followed left a deep mark.

“National debt levels have risen steeply again, but capital markets seem to be more relaxed, having rethought what sustainable debt levels might be”

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Even the survival of the euro came under threat. Countries such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus had to be bailed out while meeting the requirements of the eurozone’s stringent Stability and Growth Pact (sgp). Italy and Spain also faced problems borrowing in the capital markets and had to be supported by the intervention of the then-head of the European Central Bank (ecb), Mario Draghi, who said he would do whatever was needed to save the euro. One of the ecb’s main interest rates was cut to below zero in 2014 in an attempt to encourage banks to lend and deal with what looked like entrenched deflation in some countries. It remains negative today.

So what about now? Interest rates are down to even lower levels than before, there has been massive new qe and national debt levels have risen steeply again. But capital markets seem to be more relaxed this time, having rethought what sustainable debt levels might be. Global financial institutions, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are lending their support and encouraging countries to not withdraw their stimulus too soon. The eurozone has suspended the sgp. Despite inflation picking up sharply to 30-year highs, developed countries’ interest rates have so far hardly budged. And extra fiscal stimulus is coming into the system rather than being withdrawn just as economies are bouncing back. It is now accepted that much rebuilding needs to be done.

The post-pandemic period is unlikely to be marked by the austerity of the previous decade. But the future is not all rosy: low interest rates are increasing inequality, favouring the asset-rich at the expense of the asset-poor; a lot rests on how work will be done in the future and the effect of automation; geopolitical tensions are adding to the rise in gas and oil prices; and the transition to net-zero carbon emissions is likely to be tumultuous and expensive. The world is now even more interconnected. I wonder what the rise in fintech and the mega cross-border m&a deals may mean for economic stability ahead.

about the writer
Pryce is chief economic adviser and board member at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, and former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service.


3.
Genre benders
Music industry

writer
Robert Bound

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As the first issues of monocle went to press 15 years ago, the music industry was reshaping itself quicker than Beyonce’s outfit changes at the 2016 Super Bowl. Madonna quit Warner Music to sign with concert promoter Live Nation and Radiohead bypassed emi to self-release a “pay-what-you-like” album online. cds went from accounting for 90 per cent of sales in 1999 to just 4 per cent last year.

Live music was to become the musical money-spinner and mega-touring became the norm. Festivals grew like mushrooms, magic or otherwise, in a summer glade.

While execs fretted about formats, pop did what pop does and shot like lava down a hillside. Hip-hop grew back its political balls: Beyonce’s “Formation” was a rousing chorus to racial injustice, crowned by that Super Bowl show where her backing dancers dressed as Black Panthers before forming Malcolm’s “X”. Meaning was back and the world was proud to shed real tears for David Bowie and Prince.

Pure-pop reached its apogee in South Korea. bts broke hearts and records, Blackpink became an international brand and Psy got the world to dance “Gangnam Style” – just ask Barack Obama. You felt that even Adele and J Balvin, despite really ruling the world, were missing a trick by shunning choreography.

Indie-pop was embodied by Ed Sheeran, who might have gone to prep school in Suffolk but sang for his own supper in railway stations and – vitally – on Youtube. He was also genre-agnostic, collaborating with hip-hop artists like Example and Wiley. Millions followed, who liked songs but were perplexed by genres. Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road” in 2018, a country-rap earworm with a video that featured Billy Ray Cyrus in a pink suit on guest vocals and the young, black, gay Nas as a rapping cowboy. It spent a record-breaking 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Execs stopped making notes and just switched on the radio again, happy for someone else to do the choosing. 

about the writer
Bound presents ‘Monocle on Culture’ and edited Monocle’s culture pages for more than a decade.


4.
Tangled web
The rise of social media

writer
Josh Cowls

In early 2007, Google had just purchased nascent video-sharing site Youtube for the sizeable sum of $1.65bn, non-students had finally been allowed to join a hip college social network called Facebook and, unless you lived in northern California, tweeting was something done by birds not people. Several billion tweets, likes and views later, these and a handful of other social media platforms now hold a commanding position in the social lives of at least half of humanity. The sense of social media’s omnipresence was reinforced by other technological advances sparked 15 years ago. The release of Apple’s first iPhone and Google’s rival phone-operating system, Android, in 2007 would eventually put a camera, a media player and a location tracker in billions of pockets and purses.

“Intimate knowledge of user preferences and activities has enabled fine-grained matching of product to person”

The story of social media over the past 15 years is not simply one of staggering growth, soaring profits, or aggressive acquisitions such as those that brought younger start-ups such as Instagram and Whatsapp under the Facebook umbrella (now called Meta). Social media has ushered in a phenomenal flourishing of sociality, unmatched in human history. Keeping in touch with distant friends used to mean expensive phone calls or onerous letter-writing; no longer. The average person’s views on politics used to be confined to the dinner table or the bar, not to a potential audience of millions. Social media platforms have served as lifelines for victims of natural disasters and as organising tools for dissidents in oppressive regimes. And that’s before mentioning the coronavirus pandemic, during which social media has helped to soothe social distancing. Yet while social media’s incredible growth has fostered extraordinary new possibilities for human connection and creativity, it has also enabled – and even unwittingly incentivised – a 21st-century resurgence of extremism, disinformation, surveillance and many other ills. All these changes have brought with them new social norms, and even a new lexicon (from “tagging” and “trending” to “ghosting” and “unfriending”), to help make sense of it all. But for all the many changes wrought by 15 years of social media, it’s possible to boil much of it down to a few words: personalisation, permanence and politics.

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Helping people to connect, create and collaborate drew a stampede of early users to social media but not, initially, much profit. Social media companies had to make money somehow, both to cover the costs of ever-growing data storage and futuristic office facilities, and to recoup enormous venture-capital investment. The answer was to act as a middleman between a company looking to sell its product and a user who, between sharing a status update and commenting on a friend’s photo, might consider buying it. Compared with advertising hoardings or the classifieds section of a newspaper, the significant edge that social media companies exploited was personalisation; increasingly intimate knowledge of users’ preferences, beliefs and activities enabled incredibly fine-grained matching of product to person. Add to this the development of complex algorithmic recommendation systems, which harnessed cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to anticipate what users might want to see next, and social media companies had stumbled on the formula for the most potent advertising model ever created. The proof was in the profits, which were used to fund even more data crunching, further acquisitions and no small amount of marketing and lobbying.

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However, this personalisation model has brought with it steep social costs. The huge stores of personal data collected by social media sites aren’t just a prime target for hackers but stymie prospective competitors, who lack such a wealth of data. Vulnerable users are put at risk of exploitation, exclusion or extremism. The sheer volume of content and communication – some of it abusive, misleading or outright dangerous – overwhelms the contract workers tasked with “moderating” it. Perhaps most significant of all, the overriding corporate necessity of keeping people on platforms, and maximising the amount of time they spend on them each day, has led social media companies to adopt increasingly aggressive, often invasive tactics. Companies such as Facebook cast an ever-wider net to construct “shadow profiles” detailing the browsing habits of its users and even of non-users. Meanwhile, the recommendation algorithms deployed to retain users’ attention have “learned” to nudge individuals in the direction of increasingly extreme content, often optimising for the shocking, the frightening, the politically polarising or whatever else keeps a particular person tuned in. And the frictional “Fomo” (fear of missing out) that discourages users from switching platforms and losing friends further helps keep people logged on.

As well as exacerbating privacy risks, the shift of platforms like Facebook and Youtube from desktop sites to smartphone apps, as well as the creation of mobile-only apps such as Snapchat, Whatsapp and Instagram, meant it was now possible to never entirely log off. The expectation, only strengthened during the pandemic, that someone is “always on” and reachable whether they are at home, in school, at work or in transit might be a source of reassurance for some but it is burdensome for others. And giving everyone the ability to speak their mind to the whole world at any time might generate more heat than light, intensify ideological views and fuel so-called “cancel culture”.

Over the past five years the societal impact of the personal-data-driven profit model has finally caught up with social media companies, thrusting upon them the kind of political scrutiny that they managed to avoid in the previous decade. Competition agencies have taken a renewed interest in the control that a few companies exercise over the entire social media landscape. Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the eventual removal of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook have meant that social media companies are no longer seen as neutral conduits for communication, but rather as self-interested profit maximisers and inherently political actors. A global “tech-lash” has inspired more muscular data protection in Europe, a Chinese government crackdown on its domestic technology sector, and bans on platforms like Tiktok and Twitter in countries including India and Nigeria. Even as their profits swell, today’s social media companies face a hostile regulatory landscape, user boycotts and sustained protests from their own employees. The next 15 years may feature far fewer likes and many more pokes. 

about the writer
Cowls is a technology writer and researcher based at the Oxford Internet Institute and a regular on Monocle 24’s ‘The Globalist’.

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