xrematon

January 15, 2019

Home from home

img_20181228_100504Where do you think the above snap was taken? Don’t look too hard as otherwise you will spoil the fun!

I’m hoping that you zoned in on the all-too recognisable Heinz tomato ketchup and thought the photo was perhaps taken in my local supermarket. Well, not quite. I took this picture in my Xmas holidays spent in the coastal area close to Malaga on the Costa del Sol. It is the heartland for ex-pat Brits and it was all too easy to find those little creature comforts of familiar foods readily available in the Mercadona next to the villa we were renting.

With all the chaos created by Brexit (at the time of writing, it is all very much up in the air), the number of Brits living in Spain has actually dropped. According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), in the last five years, the number of British residents in Spain has dropped from 397,892 to 240,785 – a fall of 157,107. However, for someone who has no point of comparison, it felt like British presence was still a feature of the landscape in Cala de Mijas where we stayed.

I had a lot of fun ambling around the supermarkets, trying to spot the items catering to the Brits. Here are some of the treasures I found.

Brussels sprouts – of course! Well, it was Christmas.

img_20181228_100414And fancy a curry – albeit with salmon – but I guess fish is pretty hard to avoid in coastal Spain.

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Can you spot the bacon in the centre of the bottom shelf?

img_20181228_101327Spot the wannabe After Eights on the top shelf?img_20181228_100233But there were also some delicacies clearly aimed at the local residents. The below is not my cup of tea.

img_20181228_100726And out in the streets, there other similar indicators of Brit presence.

img_20181228_110112But I want to use my final photo to highlight a new dynamic reverberating in the area. Having chatted with a local (Irish!) estate agent, it seems that Scandis are the new big kids on the block since an airline started added direct flights between Norway and Malaga. So in the Mercadona, amongst the bacon and baked beans, I also found the dark rye grainy bread so beloved of Scandinavians.

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I can’t say that I saw any pickled fish, but that’s probably coming!

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December 22, 2018

Eating less meat – what could this look like?

At this time of festive overindulgence, perhaps it’s good to think about opting for the opposite – ‘underindulgence’ – in particular the growing momentum around reducing meat consumption.

This is not a new idea but the dynamics swirling around it have changed. Whilst the key motivation when I was growing up was moral and centred around the idea of not wanting to inflict cruelty or be responsible for the death of animals, the environmental rationale for opting for a more vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is now paramount. Fresh evidence appears in the headlines almost daily:

‘Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.’

However, it seems that there are variety of different trajectories a meat-reducing world might go.

Let’s get insects out of the way first. Some people are very excited by the prospect of either making insects themselves palatable or grinding up them up to use as a nutritious flour of some kind. In fact, in November 2018, Sainsbury’s was proud to claim it was the first UK supermarket to stock edible insects, making packets of Eat Grub’s smoky BBQ crunchy roasted crickets available in 250 stores across the country. However, to produce insects at scale and for large swathes of the population to eat them is another matter, There is currently limited experience or knowledge about how to do this or what the impact might be. This is in terms, for example, of allergic reactions, microbial risks or even what welfare standards to apply to rearing arthropod livestock.

Others hope that cutting-edge science will have the answer and give us meat that either is not real meat or else real meat but does not involve rearing and slaughtering livestock as currently takes place.

The former, a meat-like product, is actually quite advanced in some markets, the US in particular. Companies such as Impossible Foods have created ‘foods’ which act like meat in every sense – they look, smell, taste and even bleed like meat – but are in fact newly manufactured foods. In case the case of Impossible Foods, they have created something magical reliant on their star ingredient, leghemoglobin. This ingredient is found naturally in the roots of soy plants and derived in a fermentation process similar to brewing. However, as this is effectively a genetically modified organism which has never been eaten before by humans, Impossible Foods sought approval from the FDA to confirm leghemoglobin was safe to eat and this approval was eventually given. Whatever reservations some might have about the safety of such products and in particular risks of allergic reactions, as well as the resource costs involved, the scale and ambition of Impossible Foods is impressive. Whilst it is easy to pitch non-meat options to affluent, health conscious and well educated individuals, it is a much harder sell to those who don’t have the means (neither the time nor the money) to be so selective and discerning. Impossible Foods has made a start to address this: its burgers are now being sold in the outlets of fast food chain White Castle across the US (albeit priced at one dollar more than their standard burgers).

The other way to get real meat but without all the usual associated negative impacts is to effectively ‘grow’ meat in a lab. This ‘clean meat’ is still at very early stages of development, but already significant progress has been made. Costs have dropped dramatically: from $325,000 for a burger in 2013 to $11 five years later with the potential to go lower. More importantly, clean meat is attracting the interest of investors already big in the meat world. In mid 2018, the American meat giant Tyson Foods announced a multi-million dollar investment in a cellular meat startup. This is a sure sign this kind of meat is to be taken seriously.

However, there are also challenges here, which relate to the fact that currently growing meat in this way relies on animal stem cells which are typically fed with a serum derived from the blood of calf foetuses – in other words, clean meat uses animal products and is not vegan.

Now, for our third meat-free path, let’s go back in time to when this involved going for something that didn’t have any pretense at being meat – a veggie alternative that was clearly veggie. I’m thinking of something like a good old-fashioned nut roast or veggie burger made of beans and the like. From having spoken to colleagues, it seems there has been a shift in expectations between one generation and the next. Some Millennials expect going meat-free to mean having something else that is just like meat, whilst older generations expect meat-free to look ‘veggie’. I wonder how this will pan out and whether there are also comparable regional differences in attitudes.

The final trajectory for meat-free is to put forward to the idea of preparing dishes that are designed to be vegetarian or vegan from the outside. An example here is the cuisine from Asia which makes use of vegetable and vegetable forms of protein such as bean curd, nuts and pulses. This seems like a much simpler path – we use ingredients that have been tried and tested over many generations, with the promise of lots of spice to keep things interesting.

However, no one would try to claim that anything can match up to the smell and taste of a proper bacon sarnie! I wonder if Impossible Foods is working on that.

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November 20, 2018

Get real!

Though almost one pound in every six is spent online in the UK and despite the fact I have already written a post lauding the internet, I think that engaging in consumer activity with real human interaction, face to face or on the phone, still has a lot going for it. Let me justify my perspective with three bits of evidence / recently experienced examples.

Firstly, the boring but perhaps surprising nugget of evidence. With the shift to the virtual world, many have proclaimed the end of all things physical. Whilst this may be happening with many forms of media, books are challenging these lazy assumptions. Sales of physical books are expected to grow modestly, by about 1 percent annually, every year. And it seems that ebooks, in whatever form, just aren’t so exciting any more. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-book sales in 2017 fell for the third consecutive year, off 4.7 percent from 2016, to $1.1 billion from $1.16 billion.

Second, let me tell you about my beloved oven, which recently broke down beyond repair. I did the necessary research online in order to get a sense of the different options out there and what kind of deals and promotions were available. Before I made the purchase, I did a quick call to the online retailer, ao, I had selected. Having worked through my various questions with the person at the end of the phone, instead of making the purchase online, I was identified as a repeat customer (my washing machine broke several months ago – not sure I can cope with any more domestic disaster), and without asking or prompting, I was offered a £15 discount. This unexpected bonus would not have been granted if I had gone online only.

My third example comes from a trip to the great extravaganza that is Bird Fair. As hinted in a previous post, I live in a household of keen birders and Bird Fair is the place to go for individuals of this inclination. Though there is obviously lots of activity online in the world of birding, including the indispensable Rare Bird Alert app to keep track of unexpected species appearing somewhere in the British Isles, as well as Whatsapp groups to keep communities of interest in the loop, going to the Fair brought particular advantages. It allowed us to visit stands and ask people the type of questions you ask when you are face to face – more informal, less structured, with immediate follow-up, more effective often than a time-symmetric drawn-out drip-flow of an email thread. You could look people in the eye to see if you trust them with lots of money for a Big Birding Trip. We managed to get binoculars repaired for free, something that would have been very unlikely to happen otherwise. And I haven’t even mentioned the lectures and talks on a whole variety of diverse topics, ranging from ‘Why birdwatching isn’t just a man’s world’ to ‘An introduction to the avian riches of North West Ecuador’ and ‘Why you should never ever write a field guide’ (surprisingly gripping).

Here’s an entertaining bonus photo: of all the different recycling bins at the Fair! But there still were some I felt to be lacking, namely for food. We’ll have to go back next year to see if that is addressed – amongst other pleasures.

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September 19, 2018

Change in the financial sector – three observations

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to dabble in numerous projects for FMCG clients. Recently, however, this pattern has shifted and I have worked on several projects in the financial services sector, giving me a chance to engage with the challenges and dynamics impacting this sector.

Across all areas of commercial activity, there is increasing focus on innovation. In mature markets, growth is slow and it seems that the best opportunities to deliver against revenue targets come from not simply tweaking the existing but taking a fresh approach. When it comes to the financial sector, innovation is undeniably taking place, but a lot of this is driven by the external context, rather than established players deciding for themselves to do things differently. How money is managed is changing rapidly – thanks to changes in technology and the accompanying shifts in consumer expectations and habits. What is most interesting of all is the way that this new of ‘doing things’ is most apparent in emerging and developing markets, with mature markets lagging often behind.

Think about mobile money – this initially got going in Kenya. And now look at where the most sophisticated mobile payment ecosystems exist – there are in China. In mature markets, we are hobbled by our legacy systems which make switching to quicker and more convenient processes hard. Moving to contactless payment didn’t require waiting for the technology to be invented (that was around a long while ago); the delay came from having enough retailers who had installed the pay points that could accept this payment method. In emerging markets, it has been possible to build the infrastructure from scratch, using only the latest and best, which can work seamlessly across all types of digital processes and systems.

Mature markets are not only behind the curve in innovation. Some might argue there is a backlash as well as momentum to maintain the status quo. In an article earlier this year, Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, mentioned that she does not use contactless payment cards for personal spending – in part because she is yet to trust the technology completely. In Sweden, though the country is making rapid progress towards becoming the world’s first completely cashless society, there are growing concerns it is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, as well as recognition that phasing out coins and notes could put the entire country at risk should Sweden encounter a serious crisis or war.

My final observation relates to how our relationship with money, and those organisations whom we talk to about money, is changing in the core fundamentals. In the UK, being able to buy a house is not a realistic aspiration for those in early adulthood. First-time buyers now wait longer – on average, they are seven years older than in 1960, and likely to be in their late thirties. In the face of this situation, some decide they will simply rent. Likewise, buying a car no longer seems such a critical entry milestone to adult life. Instead, there is great aspirational appeal in not being tied down, and instead taking the opportunity to experience life and work in a more flexible manner. I paint an extreme picture but only to bring out what challenges this presents for financial organisations.

If people are no longer buying houses or cars, gone is their opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with customers by providing them a mortgage or loan; if people are not slotting into standard regular jobs, gone is the opportunity to have salaries deposited in a nice and steady manner to build up bank capital; and with a desire to travel and focus on experiences, gone is the need for credit cards and other vehicles to facilitate spending.

It is a world for the brave, with the greatest innovation found not quite where and how you might expect it.

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April 21, 2018

Hairy business

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Futures,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:34 pm
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Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in the ‘personal care’ category – think all things hair, skin and other forms of beauty care.

Now, my first learning was actually that I had a lot to learn. Unlike food, where I not only have done many pieces of work over the years, but I am also deeply personally engaged given that I generally cook from scratch at least 10 meals a week, for personal care, I have limited exposure. I have bought the same brand of shampoo for the past 25 years and the same brand of facial cream for the past ten, and apart from other bare essentials (toothpaste and deodorant), I’m done. I have in effect opted out of some whole categories – make-up, more sophisticated hair care, treatments and styling and skin care (the latter, I realise now, is a particularly bit gap given that I am of the age when I should spending a good proportion of my disposable income on anti-ageing products. (For the record, I am currently relying on addressing wrinkles from within by eating lots of avocadoes).

But it turns out that personal care is a fascinating category which has some dynamics it shares with food and some which are quite specific to personal care. Let’s start with the similarity:

Personal care and food are both deeply influenced by the local cultural context. How and what we eat will, to a certain extent, vary depending on where we are: in the US, the UK and increasingly Europe, we shop from supermarkets and are happy to a certain amount of ready-made foods, going from dried pasta and bread all the way through to ready meals, and the food we eat will be quite diverse with many non-native items. In other countries, there are often stronger food cultures and more variety within that culture of food, for example think of all the different types of curry in Asia, but curry will still dominant, with fast food nibbling away at the edges.

In personal care too there are culturally-dependent preferences, for example beauty regimes in Asia are more complex and a lot of effort going into achieving fair skin. Interestingly one might argue, that just as with food, there is starting to be some globalisation/less variation across geographies. Think of the impact of social media on the convergence of aspirational aesthetics – everyone wants to look as lovely and beautiful as the Duchess of Cambridge or Meghan Markle etc.

However, there are important differences between the dynamics of food and personal care.

A key one is the direction of influence. In food, though we have ‘hot’ food cuisines, which become trendy for a year or two, for example it was Korean recently, but perhaps the crown has now gone to Scandi food, in general, food is becoming more ‘Westernised’. By this I mean that people are cooking less from scratch, there is greater consumption of processed and ready-prepared food, people’s food routines are changing with more snacking, whether to fill hunger gaps between meals or to replace meals entirely. And that’s not to mention the irresistible temptations of delights such as burgers, pasta and pizza.

In personal care, in particular beauty and skin care, the more interesting ‘stuff’ tends to be happening in the East first, in particular countries such as Korea and Japan, where people are willing to invest considerable time, money and effort into looking after their appearance. Fancy a 12-step skin-care regime anyone? It is from this region that the BB cream came, now a major staple in the beauty product world, as well as many other weird and wonderful products, such as syringe face-masks (not quite as dramatic as they sound!). So look East for beauty tips!

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March 21, 2018

Can graphic design save your life?

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

This is the arresting title of an exhibition I saw at the Wellcome Collection. It was a more interesting experience than I had expected, but I am not convinced I would answer ‘yes’ to the exhibition’s opening question.

Do you remember those iconic Silk Cut print adverts from the 1980s?

Silk cut

Well, that’s what the exhibition started with – adverts to be admired for the way in which creativity was used to circumvent restrictions on advertising. This, in effect, is graphic design that brings you closer to the end of your life.

However, after this, the exhibits were centred on communications from the world of healthcare, and not just for patients, but also for would-be medics. The latter was covered by excerpts from text books and teaching manuals which were closer to works of art than academic material, as the below images suggest.

design head

design body

What struck me most about the exhibits of medicines and other health products is the way in which they reflect the best in lowest common denominator communication approaches. The pill boxes below make it very clear what consumer need they are responding to. I have seen a similar approach used by smoothies and herbal infusions, which pitch specific products as the solution for a particular moment, whether it is the search for an invigorating uplift or a soothing experience.

design pill boxes

One area getting increasing interest as a way to increase public health is behavioural economics – for example making ‘good’ products easier to get hold of, whether this is about making them more visible or accessible on a shelf, or making the default option the ‘good’ one. Behavioural economics wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but graphic design could be used in partnership with behavioural design to up the ‘oomph’ factor of a piece of communication or instruction.

And finally, it’s worth noting that it was a refreshing experience to think about paper and packaging which didn’t come alive. If the exhibition was repeated in 10 years’ time, it would be about how augmented and virtual reality can save your life!

February 21, 2018

The internet is awesome!

I know that the online world is no longer new but I recently had an experience which reminded me of how *cool* some of the things you can do online are.

I should point out that my relationship with online ‘stuff’ is incredibly functionally driven. I have been an early and committed adopter of some internet possibilities – for example I started banking online twenty years ago, I have been regularly ordering all my groceries online for 12 years and now probably make over three-quarters of my other purchases online too. However, I haven’t been a major social media user (my life is too boring to describe to others) and still do very little on my phone (I just really prefer a proper keyboard and bigger screen).

So what are my internet ‘wow’ moments?

Well, the most recent one was when I finally decided to do something about getting rid of the two rabbit hutches that have been littering our garden unnecessarily for several months. The hutches are not in good condition and so not appropriate for selling on eBay. I just wanted to get rid of them but wasn’t sure they would fit in the boot of my rather small car to take to the tip. So after a quick search on Google, I found Freelywheely, which seemed much more friendly and easy to use than Freecyle, and within 15 minutes of the hutches being posted on their site, I was amazed to find I had requesters. By the end of the day, I had eight interested people, ready to drive almost an hour to pick up these rather battered hutches! And now they are gone, which is amazing. But perhaps I was just lucky and rabbit hutches are actually the most sought after freecycle item!

Rabbit hutch

Whilst I am at it, here are two other internet ‘wows’.

Second on my list is Airbnb, which I first starting using four years ago and now have clocked up 11 trips. I just really like the fact we can rent out something for the number of days we want and not stick to the old limited arrangement of a week and Saturday to Saturday or equivalent.

My third item is not so much an internet business but picks up on the transparency that the internet allows. I am someone who gets frustrated with waiting for things and I also like to know as much as possible about how long things might take. So the opportunity to track – in absurd detail – where your packages are is brilliant as far as I am concerned.

Delivery details

However, it does set expectations rather high. I have recently ordered items off Amazon which I think are being shipped directly from China, rather than coming from a reseller based in the UK. These items have what now seems like remarkably long delivery times of four weeks. In addition, once they are dispatched, there is no further information about the item until it appears in your letter box, more often than not several months late, by which time I have already complained and been reimbursed for said item! I’m waiting for everything to be RFID tagged so I track its global journey. That would definitely be awesome.

December 19, 2017

No, you don’t see it

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What do you make of the rather enigmatic image above? Any clues as to what it might represent or where it could have been taken?

Well, it’s a photo I took from a visit to the Perfume exhibition on at Somerset House over the summer – which turned out to be surprisingly interesting and entertaining. Going round the exhibition made me realise how much of a construct perfume is – an insubstantial experience onto which we can overlay our own memories, prejudices, preferences etc. Obviously, this trait is exploited in order to create branded perfumes, where the constructs have been determined by the marketing bods at big commercial perfume houses.

Looking at the packaging used for perfume bottles over the past couple of decades makes clear how perfume is ‘of its time’ – a thing created for ‘then’ . A bottle from the 1950s looks as though it is a prop for one of the early seasons of Mad Men, whilst the ck one bottle appears pale and dated.

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The only bottle on display to stand the test of time is the one below – quite resolutely a timeless classic.

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The rest of the exhibition was organised through ten rooms, each of which ‘housed’ a scent created by a different modern perfumer, which we were encouraged to ponder over and capture our thoughts on using special little notes postcards.

What was most interesting was how far the set-up / design of the room influenced my interpretation of the smell. Some rooms were almost heavy handed in how they introduced the scent: one had a film of laundry flapping on a washing line against a blue sky with seats draped with white sheets.

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Others gave more clues but still left you space to create stories. For this scent, there two couches decorated with rather florid fabric. Was this meant to be a psychotherapist’s study? I could easily imagine a Brooklyn lady in her late 50s, with frizzy black/grey hair, big earrings, hundreds of books lining the walls, and her heavy scent in the background.

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And what would you make of the below?

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It was all too easy to fear the worst and I hesitated to approach and sniff. It turned out to be fine: a rather sickening, cloying smell, but distinctly more in the realms of perfume as oppose to just bodily odours.

There was one particular scent where the set-up was ambiguous. The friend with whom I visited the exhibition picked up on the black leather pouches and dark wood and thought of a boxing gym, and found the smell deeply masculine and sexy. But it turned out the intimate closed space and heavy sandalwood scent was meant to recall confession boxes!

These different scents were created by what would be described (unavoidably!) as the ‘new generation’ of perfumers – those who are ready to break with convention and take a different and often unorthodox approach to scent. Though I may use a mocking tone, on reflection, it did strike me that perfume and commercial scents are really still very conservative. Gender-neutral perfume actually isn’t really that ground-breaking; read the below blurb introducing a more ‘cutting edge’ perfume.

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Such perfumes come across as experimental, deliberating courting controversy, perhaps comparable to how art behaved a century ago with artists such as Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and making it into an artwork called ‘Fountain’. I wonder how the world of perfume will settle down once it has got past this rebellious phase.

In the interim, we can enjoy the inventiveness. Fancy a perfume inspired by Nutella?

Or theme park rides? You can even get the smelly postcard of it.

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September 18, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part II

In the second part of these two posts on health/science books I have recently read, I will focus on Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I was particularly interested in getting to grips with this book as there is lots of chatter about genes. I have become aware of the fact that it is all too easy to merrily throw on some bullet points about genome testing, personalised health plans and diets etc, but what does this actually mean?

In reading Gene, I was struck by the fact that in order to understand how our thinking about genes has developed over time, we need to go back and look at how science explains differences between and among ourselves and also other living organisms. Perhaps, therefore not surprisingly, we spend some time with Darwin, as well as looking back at Greek philosophers/scientists, whose perspectives were always, surprisingly insightful/provocative, despite they effectively ‘knew’ less than we do now.

There was a section on the interest in eugenics in the US in the 1920s. Reading this made me realise how, when we look back in time, we often make simplistic assumptions about what ideas to associate with particular eras. Eugenics – that was obviously the handiwork of those nasty Nazis – well, not just them it seems. A number of medical professionals and politicians in the US were determined to stop ‘bad heredity’ and to set up ‘eugenic sterilizations of the feeble-minded’. In 1927, the state of Indiana passed a law to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’ and other states followed with even stricter laws to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior. This preoccupation with the right heredity was reflected in popular culture at the time, for example, by the late 1920’s, premarital genetic-fitness tests were being widely advertised to the American public. However, it is important to remember DNA testing, as we know it, had not yet been uncovered. Instead, they consisted of assessments of family histories to pick up on incidences of mental retardation, epilepsy, deafness, dwarfism, blindness etc.

It was not until the 1950’s that the chemical structure of the gene was uncovered. I find it fascinating that so much had already happened, eg laws instituted, as described above, around a part of ourselves – the genome – which we had not really ‘seen’ as such and did not know really how it worked. As a child of the modern era, I have the naïve and simplistic assumption that we know everything before we decide to ‘use’ it!

Reading Gene made me realise that there in fact is much more uncertainty around the impact genes have than perhaps comes across in popular media and culture. One aspect to this is that there still seems to be much life in the nature versus nurture debate. This is down to the fairly new area within gene studies of epigenetics. As explained here, “Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone’s taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren’t as important….But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited, just like some highlighting still shows up when text is photocopied.” So it seems looking at what it’s in your genome will only tell you so much; the messiness of real life has an important impact.

Another angle is the fact that only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. As a reviewer observed, “Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. … Some scientists are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place.”

It makes me wonder what Gene – An Intimate History would include if it was written a hundred years from now?

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May 17, 2017

Homo Deus

Filed under: Business,Futures,Innovation,Technology,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:32 pm
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In an earlier post, I gave some thoughts on Yuval Noah Harari’s first book Sapiens. Though I don’t normally like to read books by the same author, preferring to endlessly taste the new and different, I had the opportunity to get to grips with his follow-up tome, Homo Deus, as I received it as a gift.

As with Sapiens, it is an intoxicating read, with grand sweeping ideas set to make you think differently and challenge your assumptions about how you think things are progressing. In Homo Deus, the Big Idea is that now Man has learnt how to conquer famine and horrible diseases that used to wipe out whole populations, he can think about higher objectives. We can focus on achieving immortality and eternal happiness, making use of the latest technological innovations to reach this goal. Our brains and bodies will be re-engineered by algorithms with those controlling these algorithms becoming the elite and the rest rendered useless from a societal perspective.

Harari puts forward all too convincing evidence and examples of how the steps leading to this are already taking place. Whilst I agree with his prognosis of increasing and insidious inequality spreading beyond basic wealth status to social mental and physical wellbeing, I am not so convinced that the conversion to a technologically determined utopia (for some) will be that straightforward.

These ideas make sense when taking a macro, more ‘godlike’ top down perspective, but less so when going bottom up and thinking about how individuals think and act. For a start, people have become more wary about how their personal data is used. 84% of US consumers are worried about the security of their personally identifiable information.

And there are signs that people simply can’t bothered to keep collecting personal data if it is left up to them. Research among those who have invested in wearables, still very much at the early adopter stage, reveals that barely a third of them continue to gather information about personal performance. This is surprising low for what would otherwise be assumed to be the keenest part of the market.

In addition, I am not sure that people will necessarily be that keen on options which have been designed as perfect for them. Instead, realistically, they are more likely to go to opt for what is most satisfying. Food is the most obvious example here. Though vitamin pills have been around for a long time, we still bother to prepare food. Soylent is still has pretty niche appeal, despite its recent efforts to go mainstream. And I haven’t even touched upon resistance to genetically modified and other forms of manipulated food.

My final quick challenge is about something completely different and only an aside, albeit an interesting one. In chapter one, Harari uses lawns as a way to illustrate how many of our preferences and aspirations connect back to earlier dynamics in society, though we are often now oblivious. Lawns were the preserve of the rich and thus associated with political power.

But I would argue that the ‘smart set’ are now increasingly opting for astro turf.  In fact, this is actually another demonstration of how the elite are using better technology to improve their lives. But it could be done better: surely the super elite would have grass personalised to match their wellbeing needs, being in the right shade and right texture to deliver optimal stress release. Perhaps I should try that on Kickstarter…..

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