The Prospectory agenda (assuming we were ever formal enough to have such a thing) suffered a significant set back when Peter was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December 2017.
Having said that, our combined interests in technology and psychology are getting well exercised as we learn how to adapt to living with Peter’s progressive loss of muscle power.
Some things we are learning for the first time; others we are re-encountering from experiences over the years in technology research. Here are some examples:-
Single function wins every time
I confess to a long term dislike of multi-function devices. They lack affordance ( an object’s visible or tangible properties that signal clearly the actions users can take with it), e.g. door handles, push buttons, hooks, sliders or well designed screen icons). In contrast, multi-function devices require a user model – “what will it do?” and “how do I make it to do that?”. You can find yourself in the ‘wrong’ mode just when you need to act and sometimes the different modes interact in unfortunate ways.
So, here’s an example. Peter can no longer turn the lock and open our front door. Generously funded by the ever wonderful NHS, we were assessed for appropriate technology support which was installed some months ago by the private technology company who design and manufacture it. Unfortunately, it’s a multi-function system designed (at least in principle) to control a whole range of household functions mainly via an app on a dedicated ipad. – TV, lights and phones as well as the front door .
The best thing is that the “system” includes an independent single function radio fob. You can hang it round your neck and press its one button (from anywhere in the house) to open the front door. It’s perfect for our needs except you can’t distinguish between friends and axe murderers (not that we have a lot of these in rural Wales) before opening the door to let them in.
But the all singing, all-dancing ‘system’ includes an intercom with the doorbell so, in principle, you can talk to the caller to establish their identity before opening the door to let them in. But, unfortunately you can’t do that from the radio fob. And the doorbell, rather than sounding a loud bell in the house, causes the ‘phone (well at least one dedicated handset) to ring. If we don’t happen to be in the same room as the handset, we don’t hear it or, if we are otherwise occupied and think it’s a phone call (which it kind of is albeit with a different ring tone) we might leave it to go to Voicemail to pick up later – all while some poor friend, delivery person or even would-be axe murderer is stuck waiting on the
doorstep. If you hear the ‘phone, what you are meant to do is pick it up and you can then speak to the intercom. You can’t actually open the door though. That requires the ipad or the key fob. So, embarrassingly, we have had to sellotape a sign on the intercom bell pointing to the old (less conspicuous) doorbell which we need people to press if they are guaranteed to get a response.
The function which seems to really excite the suppliers is the TV automatically muting when you answer the ‘phone! However, unfortunately if you are using the ‘phone when the doorbell goes, it interrupts the call completely not offering the chance to ignore it or explain to your ‘phone caller what is happening.
So, we’ve switched off as much of the system as we can and are just happily using the simple radio key fob. Ironically though, the lock on the door having been changed, Peter now finds he can now open the door by hand!
Physics 101 for MND sufferers – Friction vs slipperiness
If you have very poor grip or muscle function, then suddenly textural properties of everyday objects gain huge significance but they have to be the right way around. Friction when you need slipperiness means things get stuck and slipperiness when you need friction means things get dropped or can’t be picked up at all. So, we have switched to fleece jackets and coats with slippy nylon linings and silky night shirts because otherwise, you’ll never get them on or off or (in the case of night shirts) be able to turn over in bed. But the opposite (friction) is what you need when you can’t squeeze your fingers together to create friction and you need to pick something up or open a jar. And friction is also useful (we discover) for working one’s socks on by pushing the foot against the carpet or to work one’s trousers on by lying on the bed and wriggling!
This kind of easily obtainable grippy material is invaluable.
Physics 101 for MND sufferers (cont) : Skeletons are invaluable
There’s nothing like losing muscle function to discover the value of your skeleton! The trick is to find ways of using your skeletal structure instead of using muscle. A skeleton is arguably like a table – it’s a strong and stable structure which, physics will tell you, involves no energy to support a weight. So, Peter can carry surprisingly heavy things as long as his arms are straight and we’ve found a way of attaching them to him which don’t require grip! If the arms are bent at all, it won’t work because then muscles are involved. As Peter happily explains to people, a dead horse can carry the same weight of rider as a living one – it just won’t take him anywhere!
“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing?,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?‘ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.”
A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh
Activities with my artist colleagues, the Larks & Ravens, sometimes feel like this. When the Larks & Ravens are struggling to understand something or don’t know what to do next, we make an effort to stop talking or thinking and start doing instead – sometimes drawing, sometimes making or manipulating physical materials and seeing where that takes us. This is so different to my previous experience of beating a troublesome topic to death through endless discussion. Doing is nearly always rewarding but, as with Christopher Robin, the tricky bit is when someone asks you “what you are doing?” and you simply have no rational answer. Is it our fear of looking or acting crazy – i.e. not in a way which makes logical sense to those around?
Last Friday we were ‘playing’ with materials by a bus stop in a community (where we are working) because we had got stuck as to what made sense to do next to trigger conversations. All we had to hand was a very large red hot air balloon cover and a council wheelie bin so we started seeing what we could do with them. A lady waiting for the bus asked “what are you doing?”. “We don’t know” we replied. Another man, who’d watched us for a while, came over asking “can I help at all? … just explain to me what you are you trying to do!”. We “explained” that we had absolutely no idea but would he like to help?! Having such conversations in public is certainly awkward but also interesting. It makes you question why we think our normal life makes rational sense when ‘playing’ with a red tent and a wheelie bin by a bus stop doesn’t. What’s the critical difference? Is it just that we have a set of culturally acceptable narratives of what counts as rational activity?
(I have put ‘playing’ in inverted commas here because we certainly weren’t playing in the dictionary definition sense of “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose” (OED). Our actions were both serious and practical (as well as playful) but I can’t find another word which works in this context).
Some argue that an important role of art in our modern society is as a resistance to the logic of making sense … or, should I say, believing that what we do in our everyday lives makes sense … because does it? really?
The energy for the vast majority of transport, and certainly personal transport, still comes from burning fossil fuel in vehicles. Delivering that energy as electricity poses technological challenges with few solutions that promise a complete replacement for what we have now:
1.Catenary or underground inductive cables delivering electricity to every point along a restricted set of transport routes. This is fine for railways and trams but it difficult and expensive to for all transport routes.
2.Portable batteries in the vehicles can store and deliver electricity on demand. This is the focus of most technical R&D today, but the energy density of current batteries means that long distance transport vehicles are heavy and difficult to charge quickly, cheaply and safely – particularly at locations remote from the power grid.
3.A new portable fuel, with energy density comparable to fossil fuel but derived from renewable sources would be ideal. It could in principle be stored and distributed in much the same way as fossil fuels are today. It could then be burned directly in an internal combustion engine or used to produce electricity to power an electric motor. The most promising candidate for this new fuel, in the eyes of many, is compressed hydrogen.
As a behavioural psychologist, I am challenged by Tim Jackson’s book “Prosperity without Growth“. Living on a finite planet, how do we find ways to flourish in a world of less economic growth and less material consumption? At the same time, if AI and robotics continue to replace jobs at all levels in society, could a Universal Basic Income paid to every UK citizen enable enjoyable, meaningful lives which contributed to society in other ways than by traditional paid employment?
Asking people how they might behave or feel in an imagined future is tough. They don’t know and nor do we. But we can get clues from studying how people behave now and why that is and use that to understand how those behaviours might either be affected by or themselves affect this rather different future we face.
I conducted an online survey of 325 UK residents roughly matching UK demographic profiles on gender, age and personal income. I invited them to describe recent activities (either in their paid work or leisure time) which they found enjoyable or meaningful or they felt made a difference and why they felt that way. I explored: demographic differences, how much the activities cost them, environmental impact, dependence on material consumption and any economic benefit or contribution to social capital. I also asked them whether they had recently engaged in any of the following socio-cultural activities: creating, composing or designing, craft or construction, learning or discovering, collaborating, volunteering or helping and being active outdoors. The list was chosen to reflect the sectors of care, craft, creativity and culture suggested by Tim Jackson as a possible basis for a new kind of sustainable prosperity. Finally, respondents were asked to rate how much they enjoyed their lives, found them meaningful, felt valued and felt able to make a difference or change things.
The 900 descriptions of enjoyable, meaningful and difference-making activities were diverse but refreshingly simple in nature: walking the dog, gardening, playing with the kids, listening to music, making something, helping a neighbour, attending Church, reading a book, watching TV or singing in a choir. Shopping was rarely mentioned. Most activities involved little or no material consumption, had little or no environmental impact and were mostly free or cost very little. Levels of personal income had little effect on the choice of activities with the exception of some foreign holidays and major home improvements.
Only 5% of enjoyable activities, 6% of meaningful activities and 19% of difference making activities happened as part of their paid work. Worryingly, this may reflect the preponderance today of “bullshit jobs” as David Graeber refers to them. The activities described make a small but steady economic contribution via services such as gyms, instructors and guides, cinemas, entertainment events, restaurants and media generators such as digital content, books, music and films. These are industries which rely heavily on either shared facilities or human creativity or personal interaction.
While everyone described something they enjoyed, 11% of people couldn’t think of a meaningful activity. Those that did described helping others, doing things with their family and learning or experiencing new things. Only 1 in 5 of these activities contributed directly to social capital but they were heavily reliant on the social capital generated by others such as local clubs and social or sports events.
25% of people couldn’t think of something they had done recently which they felt made a difference or had an effect- whether in or outside of their paid work. The activities named ranged from helping others to home improvements or doing things together with their family as well as 19% connected to work. The work ones varied from analysing statistical data to managing funerals! Helping others outside of work again relied heavily on the existence of non-profit, social organisations such as local charities, clubs, schools and churches.
When asked about their engagement in socio-cultural activities reflecting creativity, craft, culture and care – around half the respondents had not engaged in 5 out of the 8 listed in recent months. They were least likely to have engaged in creative/composing/designing, craft or construction, learning or developing a new skill, collaborating with others or volunteering. They were most likely to have been active outdoors and to have helped a non family member. Although few had engaged in any of these activities as part of their paid work, those in paid work were much more likely to engage with such activities in their leisure time than those not in paid work or retired (who arguably had more leisure time). I would like to understand this difference better.
In terms of overall well-being, people rated their lives as slightly higher on enjoyment than meaningfulness and lower on making a difference and feeling valued. Overall ratings increased with personal income up to £51k and then leveled off.
3 factors made a significant difference to people’s ratings on meaningfulness, value and sense of making a difference. These were whether they were graduates, whether they were a member of a social group, club or organisation and whether they had any religious faith or other spiritual practice. And these 3 factors were themselves cross correlated. Other levels of educational attainment (GCSE, A Levels, Diploma) made little difference. Further analysis showed that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to have engaged in every one of the socio-cultural activities listed (mostly in their leisure time) and the greater the engagement in such activities, the higher their overall well-being ratings.
So, what do the survey findings suggest about our ability to prosper enjoyably and meaningfully in a world of less economic growth, less consumption and less paid work?
People readily engage in day to day activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and which cost them very little, consume very little and have minimal environmental impact. It suggests our individual prosperity may be less tied to our consumerist lifestyles than is sometimes thought and less than our government is relying on to grow the economy. This fits with other findings that the population were happier in the 1950’s than they are now.
What is less clear is how well we would prosper as individuals and as a society if everyone was financially provided for via a Universal Basic Income but few were engaged in paid employment. The enjoyable and meaningful activities which people described are ones they could and would still happily engage in. But few of these could be classed as “occupational” in the sense of purposefully engaging one’s skills and interests throughout each day, generating respect from others and giving people the sense of making a valued contribution to society.
In particular, activities associated with care, craft, creativity and culture weren’t practised with any frequency by half the surveyed population. These are activities which can become “occupations” in their own right in the sense of providing ongoing meaning, skill development and personal fulfillment as well as contributing to social capital and new kinds of economic growth.
The fact that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to engage in such socio-cultural activities, as well as being more actively involved in clubs and voluntary organisations, does raise questions – especially as care, craft, creativity and culture are certainly not the focus of our current educational systems. My hunch is that it’s less about the academic training of graduates and more about the whole social experience of attending university with the opportunity to create new social networks, try new interests and even identities. Also one is surrounded by several hundred different societies, clubs and interest groups all run by volunteers like yourself.
Alternatively, it could be that the particular socio-cultural activities we named actually reflect a distorted graduate-centric view of prosperity. This graduate is worried that could be the case and would welcome other views.
Finally, I am uncomfortably aware that the present study was limited to people in the UK who are fortunate to have enough to meet their daily needs of warmth, food and shelter in life and so have arguably the luxury of considering how enjoyable and meaningful their lives are. I am sorry that we live in a wealthy country where that is the case.
I hope the questions and findings described might trigger conversations about untangling economic growth, consumerism and jobs from human prosperity.
A copy of the full research report can be read here.
Isn’t it ironic that if someone happens to ask us the value of our house, we don’t tell them how attractive it is or how warm and comfortable or how much we enjoy the views. We simply give them a £ value and may even mention whether that figure has gone up or down in the time since we purchased it even if the attributes we value day to day in living there haven’t changed at all!
And therein lies a bigger problem for our society going back to when land first started being treated as tradable, private property in the 16th century triggering the birth of modern capitalism. Land is different from other forms of capital – we all need it to live but it is limited, we can’t create more of it.
As this excellent article explains: “much of the wealth accumulated in recent decades has come from housing. The classical economists would have viewed this as the accumulation of unearned economic rent; a transfer of wealth from the rest of society towards land and property owners. But in Britain, these windfalls are celebrated — house price inflation is hailed by economists and the media alike as a sign of economic strength. The cost this imposes on the rest of society is ignored. As John Stuart Mill wrote back in 1848:
“If some of us grow rich in our sleep, where do we think this wealth is coming from? It doesn’t materialize out of thin air. It doesn’t come without costing someone, another human being. It comes from the fruits of others’ labours, which they don’t receive.”
As someone of the lucky age group who benefited this way, I am challenged.