At a recent dinner a friend mentioned that his biggest fear during the holidays is that his 3 year old daughter receives presents from friends or family that are "too perfect", that some toys leave little for her imagination to play with instead of stimulating her fantasy. His daughter is clearly not in danger of becoming a dull kid. However, while many of us agree that kids should have meaningful toys we seem to stop applying that logic for adults. We adults have become addicted to "disabling" toys and gadgets that turn us into passive spectators. Our TV turns all our senses into receiver-mode and makes anything proactive almost impossible (did you ever have a good idea while watching TV?). Canned choices are everywhere in our lives and somehow seem to defeat the very idea of what we are trying to achieve. "Enabling" choices are social, inspire creativity, expression, learning and play. Canned choices isolate, immobilize and numb us.
The prize for the most backhanded campaign may well go to the "Shop Small" & "Small Business Saturday" initiative by American Express patronizing local businesses. Credit cards are an increasing, added cost without added value for small businesses given that their customers have been mostly paying cash historically. Amex takes a staggering 5% cut out of merchant's revenues, being by far the most expensive mode of payment for merchants and a serious drag on small business sustainability and margins. Amex campaigns under the pretense of supporting small businesses while promoting credit card use among their customer base. Credit card proliferation weakens local businesses that almost have become an endagered species and ultimately damages our urban culture. Shop Small and Pay Cash.
It's getting dark outside Dubai Mall, the biggest and most luxurious shopping center of the world sporting attractions such as a full size ice rink, record breaking fountains, the world's tallest building or an aquarium holding sharks. Visitors of all colors, cultures and religions are carrying their shopping bags, resting or having a final bite as the day comes to a close. Luxury seems to be a human right in Dubai and almost everywhere you look in the city there is some sign of glamour: the brass entrance, doormen, marble floor, swimming pools, large SUVs, deep-freezing air condition. Dubai has established itself as a beacon of opportunity in the middle east and beyond. It is the American dream on steroids: an apparently automatic lifestyle upgrade for everyone entering the country. The glitz must be even more mesmerizing for immigrants from the neighboring Asian countries, some of them being among the poorest of the world. Dubai clearly doubled down on consumerism, it transcends religion, culture or race and somehow shopping has become the meta religion here. After a long day at the mall, a certain tristesse descends on the visitors once the initial excitement has worn off. Over time, the omnipresent slogan "Everything you desire" starts to ring hollow and seems to intensify the feeling of emptiness. Here, like anywhere else, shopping malls appear to have worked as a shortcut to give the illusion of progress accross the world, the downside is that we find ourselves trapped in a distracted lifestyle of wasteful meaninglessness.
In this age of specialization, the polymath has become an endangered species. A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Intelligent Life magazine pointed out 20 living examples, among them my favorite: Bruce Dickinson best known as vocalist of Iron Maiden, also Screenwriter, Actor, Fencer, Airline Captain. Isn't it boring to specialize?
Life is undoubtedly getting better in many ways thanks to technology and economic development. However, what we associate with “progress” often makes us more distracted and dependent. The trend is to select the default option, go with the flow and seek more convenience – all of which takes away from our ability to move, cook, learn, communicate or entertain ourselves (or be entertaining). It is a slow, invisible process of self-disablement that not only degrades essential life skills, but also reduces opportunities of self-expression and social interaction. When convenience is the goal, distraction is the result. We all feel it: there is this nagging emptiness that we can’t quite define. Personal Analytics helped me discover and get to the bottom of this after I recorded my personal habits, mood and objectives on a daily basis over an extended period of time (see also: Quantified Self). Quantifying my well-being helped me see invisible patterns in my life. Most importantly, I saw what worked for me and what didn’t and I could prove it with numbers. I found that the key to doing better is to do less, re-introduce discipline, spend time with loved ones, seek an active lifestyle and remove distractions. That’s my personal formula - yours may be different. I truly believe that if we all had better tools to find out what really works for us (and what doesn’t) we’d have more empowered lives.
Privacy is quality of life. I got used to Google products and have great respect for the company but it's time to draw the line. If Google compares my behavior patterns with millions of other users they are theoretically able to find out more about me than I know about myself: e.g. life expectancy or likelihood of getting cancer based on my lifestyle choices, the odds of my marriage based on email keywords or frequency to my wife, my mood based on adjectives I use, my career prospects based on my contact list. I decided to unplug the search part entirely and transition all my searches to the "no-track, no bubble" search engine DuckDuckGo.com. Switching search engines is not that easy since common browsers are heavily pre-set on standard search providers. I did it by a) switching from Chrome to Firefox and then b) changing the search and URL window defaults in Firefox to DuckDuckGo. After four weeks I can say that the experiment worked: search results are pretty much as useful as Google's. I know my seraches are not stored, not merged with other data and not carried over to the next website. After all, it turns out we are less addicted to Google than we may expect. I feel a little more free and secure now.
A concept raised by former investment banker Gerald Hoerhan is the notion of "dumb" consumption. Consumer goods are losing most of their value the moment we purchase them. The most expensive drive of a lifetime is the very first trip in a new car, because it's going to be worth 30% less the moment you leave the dealership. A 30 year home mortgage basically takes away the freedom to say "no" to the boss. Many consumers are hardwired to spend just a little more than they can afford, the mortgage or the leased car that is slightly to big for the budget. Once falling into consumer debt they are basically ripe for all kinds of rip-offs because people consumed away their independence. An interesting argument in favor of a simpler life - or at least for buying used cars and renting a home.
Is that You? Identifying anyone’s identity based on a photo is surprisingly easy, it just requires a freely available software service like face.com (Tagline: “Is That you?”). A face on a photo is being compared to millions of publicly available images on the internet (conveniently uploaded and tagged by you). In about 61% of the cases our face and names can be correctly identified within seconds. Many surveillance points in the US, Canada, also London, UK use that basic approach on a large and connected scale. In the name of public safety it tracks everyone's itineraries by connecting random surveillance footage, recognizing faces, locations, time and names. It's fairly close to a "Minority Report" scenario. You can (partially) pull the plug by deleting personal photos online or by leaving that social network with lax privacy standards alltogether.
CureTogether aggregates personal experiences of people dealing with a particular health condition or disease, for example Migraine in this chart. Interestingly, effective solutions are simple and usually imply lifestyle change or avoiding a bad habit. Even more intriguing is the lower right quadrant: popular things that don't work. Strikingly, that quadrant mostly includes highly advertised, commercial products: pharmaceuticals that are expensive and have a negative impact, many of them with addictive side-effects. Brands included in that quadrant are Advil, Tylenol, Topamax, also Naproxen, Acetaminophen, Exedrin which are not visualized in the chart. Looking beyond Pharma, it's an interesting example of what is probably going on in many areas of our lives right now: Marketing Mythology leads us to buy stuff that doesn't work.
After spending time in Orlando and Miami this week I couldn't help thinking about the migration of the Wildebeest in East Africa and the scene where the herds are jumping the Mara river greeted by Alligators. For Tourists in Florida, the equivalent of the river crossing are Disneyworld and Miami South Beach. Predictable streams of masses seem to be irresistible to take advantage of. Disney takes care of both sides of the equation: shepherding large crowds through the parks as well as the Alligator part, catching them with very steep prices, e.g. in restaurants or souvenir shops. Also Miami South Beach is a very crowded place for what it is. Yes, it is pretty but unfortunately it has become a traffic-jammed cliche well short of it's promise. Cliches attract huge crowds. I believe things are starting to change - for the first time after many visits to Florida I had a genuinely good time there thanks to using social tools like Yelp and Tripadvisor. I could confidently stay outside the beaten path, found wonderful neighborhoods, had great food and interesting conversations.