Jeremy Hiebert

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Philosopher Downes

Stephen Downes is a researcher for the NRC, looking mostly at e-learning, but he's been churning out gems at his other blog. I've been sitting on two of them, going back to re-read them occasionally. The first is is about values and how they may be in conflict with the direction society pulls us, a topic I've also been stewing on:
"There is such a divide between what we believe, what we value, and how our leadership conducts public policy. We are desperately seeking a return to a society that is life-affirming, supportive of community, and respectful to the environment."

The second is an essay on the value of work. It's loaded with smart references, radical politics, well supported arguments and even a personal timeline that isn't far off from what I'd like to build for people creating future timelines of their life plans. He's thinking about what our lives would look like if the government starting the guaranteed income program that was recommended by a Royal Commission in the '80s (PDF). What a vision it is:
"We would, for example, expect a proliferation of the arts. Enough people live today at less-than-starvation wages in order to be able to write, paint, sing, act and perform any manner of cultural pursuit; with guaranteed income even more of them would do so. We would expect a proliferation of scholars and philosophers: with the requirement to work no longer driving people into cookie-cutter training programs, people would pursue their own aptitudes and interests. We would see many, many more restored cars, hand-crafted furniture, four-table restaurants, home gardens and home restorations, as people engaged in the sort of creation and building that interests them.

We would, ultimately, see a wealthier society. It would consume less, but what it consumed would be better. We would see much greater emphasis on production efficiencies, as the labour surplus currently existing would no longer pose a barrier to technological innovation. And we would see a happier society as no person would ever need to live in fear of economic ruin or starvation. There would be a much greater sense that we're all in this together, a much greater willingness to cooperate and share, a much stronger sense of family and community."

Sims University

I keep meaning to check out The Sims games. I mean, if I'm interested in how people envision their futures, wouldn't an existing immersive lifestyle simulation be a good place to start? Duh.

One of the recent extensions to the franchise that caught my eye was Sims 2 University, which lets players live the college dream, partying, studying, playing pranks and trying to eventually graduate. The focus here is obviously fun, rather than any attempt to teach kids about college choices or the transition to careers, but I don't consider that a criticism -- this is not educational software. From a review:
"Together the new content doesn't just simulate the whole college lifestyle, it genuinely impacts the game as a whole. Sims who take the time to go to college will gain tons of skills and new friends that will give them a huge head start in their future careers. They'll also get bonuses to help them score higher in life, such as extra 'want' slots. 'Lifetime Wants' are also added into the core game, and if your Sim can achieve these incredibly ambitious goals, he or she will attain a permanent platinum mood."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Poverty and Gross National Happiness

US poverty rate continues to rise:
"An extra 1.1 million Americans dropped below the poverty line last year, according to the US Census Bureau. There were 37 million people living in poverty in 2004, up 12.7% from the previous year."
Are those numbers not completely disturbing? Do we need any clearer indication that something is very, very wrong with the way things are going? This little piece of analyis makes it even more bizarre:
"The rise in poverty comes despite solid economic growth in 2004, which helped to create 2.2 million jobs in the US."
It looks to me like the measures of economic growth we're depending on aren't reflecting the reality on the ground. Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at Bhutan's attempt to measure and foster gross national happiness instead of assuming that all economic growth and activity is a positive thing.

Update: In case we felt like criticizing our neighbours to the south, the news on poverty is the same in Canada: "Poverty is rising among children and new immigrants, the middle class is finding it increasingly difficult to afford education and housing, and there are 250,000 Canadians living on the streets...", all apparently while the economy booms.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Visualizing Future Events in Isolation

Psychologists now know what makes people happy...with a title like that, the article better be good. Of course it doesn't have all the answers, but I'm liking most of what I'm reading in there. I was most fascinated by this:
People tend to rationalize bad things, quickly adapting to new realities. They also visualize future events in isolation, but real life teems with many experiences that dilute the impact of any one. This means winning the lottery doesn't make people's lives stellar, but they recover from romantic breakups much quicker than expected.

"If you knew exactly what the future held, you still wouldn't know how much you would like it when you got there," Gilbert says. In pursuing happiness, he suggests "we should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we'll feel. We should be a bit more humble and a bit more brave."

Sunday, August 28, 2005

City Lifestyle Explorer


The City Lifestyle Explorer is a little java-based web app from 1999 with a great concept. The interface feels at least six years old, but I like how making a lifestyle choice gives you some instant feedback. If you choose to bath instead of shower, the water reservoir shrinks a bit. If you recycle, you get a little recycling icon on your dashboard. There's not enough depth to sort of "try on" a lifestyle, but even this simple treatment gets you thinking about how decisions interact and affect the world around you.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

More Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium: Where Are We? Where Do We Need to Go?

The full report (PDF) is a hefty 90+ pages, but it's solid stuff and worth skimming. Check out the eight-page summary (PDF) for the list of recommendations for employers, employees, unions and government. Some of the media reports bouncing off the study are more concise and personal -- Success Redefined is a scanned PDF article from the Globe and Mail with all kinds of lifestylism gems.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Life Building

Kirsten is thinking about the process of building your life. A quote:
"life is all about building. it's not a neat & tidy process with a firm completion date to look forward to - it's a messy, ever evolving project of weaving together what we want and making it work."
I like the recognition of ambiguity -- it's a reminder that a focus on planning your future can lull you into thinking that everything will fall into place if only you have everything figured out up front. When I'm talking about a tool to help you create future lifestyles, it's not really about creating the perfect one, it's about mixing and matching and finding interesting combinations that inspire you to take those all-important first steps toward something.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Money=Happiness: Take Two (or Three?)

Here's another great argument against the money-equals-happiness myth, offering some great advice on what has been proven to correlate to happiness (close friendships, good physical health, good marriages, etc.) and a few great links on the income-spending gap and a paper called Does Economic Growth Improve Human Morale?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Richer Than Peers = Happiness?

Happiness is Besting the Joneses: "The results showed that the richer people were relative to their peers of the same age, the happier they tended to be."

So relative wealth is more important in influencing happiness than the actual level of wealth -- I guess that makes sense. Your sense of how well you're doing tends to be determined by what you're comparing yourself to. I dug up a draft of the paper (PDF), summarizing their fascinating research. The articles reporting on the research overemphasize the effect of overall wealth on happiness, but the paper goes much deeper into interesting territory:
"That is, if your consumption lowers my happiness, then I must consume more to keep up. As a result, we all end up consuming more than is socially optimal. Because consumption uses up resources, we would all be better off if we consumed less and released those resources for other purposes that more effectively promote our happiness, such as more resources deveoted to community endeavors, or more time spent with friends and family. The consequences for society are perverse, then, when relative income effects dominate."
I've been bumping into that exact issue, and obviously it's not an easy one. I was also nodding along with one of their concluding statements that asks the best question:
"Given that most individuals spend a substantial fraction of their adult lives working to earn income -- some at jobs they dislike -- one wonders why income does not have a greater effect on happiness. Neither the absolute nor the relative income effect is very large. Why do we work so hard to earn money if there is no guarantee that riches bring happiness?"

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Born to Buy

I keep forgetting to write a bit about Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (page includes first chapter), which threw me for a loop a few weeks ago. Here's a review and an excerpt from an article that mentions the study the author did as part of her research for the book:
"While some of this material is covered in the other books, what makes this book special is the chapter in which Schor presents her own research study. Her subjects were 300 fifth- and sixth- graders living in or around the Boston area. Each student took a 157-item survey that assessed not only the child's involvement in consumer culture but also measures of physical, and mental, well-being. Schor's main conclusion is deeply disturbing. She writes that high consumer involvement is a significant cause of 'depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints.'"
Like Bowling Alone, which brilliantly (and systematically) links TV culture to the decline of civic engagement over the past 50 years, Born to Buy creates a compelling link between the time kids spend watching TV to consumerism and from those measures of consumerism directly to a general decline in well-being. Heavy duty.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Web Apps to Organize Your Future

I've been hearing how people love products from 37signals. Their first web application was focused on project management (Basecamp), but they've got two new (well, to me anyway) sites that look interesting: Backpack and Ta-Da List. They're simple approaches to organizing your goals and to-do lists, but seem to have lots of cool features in nice interfaces. Backpack is like a beefed-up (but easier to use) wiki to help you create pages around whatever concept you want.

I've also been playing with ConnectViaBooks, which does a search based on the books you've read and connects you to people you'll likely have things in common with...and noticed that the 43Things folks have added
All Consuming to their stable of social software niftiness. Lots of action in this space, methinks. They're all tools for collaborating with other people who share your interests and goals, potentially helping each other while you're in the process of setting and achieving your own.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Life Caching

From an updated take on what Trendwatching is calling Life Caching comes a link to another company doing personal history consulting/projects for paying customers called eDv, the "personal motion picture company". Lots of interesting links in the report, including HP's StoryCast, and I liked this simple graphic showing how some of these ideas could be combined with goal-setting.
Update: Another great post on the topic, with a juicy collection of links as well.

Busy

Rob's thinking about our addiction to being busy:
"One has moved from a major global metropolis to the Island and another away from a big city to a smaller one. They both told me how uncomfortable they are with the slower pace and with what appears to be the low brow culture.

They miss being Busy.

What is it about 'Busy'. Ask someone how they are and you will often get the response 'Busy'. No one tells you what they are doing, they just comment on the process of their activity. The saddest part of the Busy addiction is that usually busy people are involved in activity that ends up nowhere."

He goes on to theorize that active parents probably spend too much time keeping their kids busy with too many structured activities and sports, perhaps preparing them for the hamster-wheel approach to time-management.

Friday, August 05, 2005

11-Year-Olds Deciding Whether They'll Stay in School

Many children make post-GCSE choices by age of 11, study suggests
"The research analysed the responses of 11-year-old children, in their first term of secondary education, to a question about whether or not they planned to stay in education after they were 16. Some 11% said they would definitely leave, and 67% said they would stay on. The remainder were not sure. These results were then compared with the actual outcomes for the same young people.

Of those who said they would leave, two thirds actually did so. While of those who said they would stay on, almost four-fifths actually did so. Girls were more likely to stay on than boys, and young people from families in middle class occupations were more likely to stay on than other young people. Both these differences were also apparent in the earlier expressions of intentions."

First the Twixters, Now the Yeppies

So we've got another trendy label for 20somethings who are unsure about how they fit into the grown-up world. First it was Twixters and now we have Yeppies. As with Gen X, Gen Y, and NextGen, I think these new names tend to be rather dumb and not particularly illuminating. Despite the superfluous label, Kate Fox has done some interesting research on how young adults are approaching their lifestyles, and it's been picked up by news outlets in the U.K.:

The Yeppies* shop around for ideal life
"'Yeppies are unsure how to achieve their ambitions so they experiment through a shopping-style approach, trying to find the perfect job, the ideal relationship and the most fulfilling lifestyle.'

They postpone big, life-altering decisions until they feel they have exhausted all their options. 'It will be increasingly regarded as normal for young people to continue "Life Shopping" well into their late twenties and thirties. The way things are going, by 2012 thirty will be the new twenty as the "official" age for transition to adulthood; people getting married in their twenties will be regarded as too young or too immature to make such a big decision,' Fox said."

Since When Did Work Bring You Happiness?
"These days, we expect to actively enjoy our work, and feel that we have failed if enjoyment is not forthcoming. Ever since the Sixties, we have had it drummed into us that we are entitled -- even obliged -- to seek personal fulfillment in every aspect of our lives."

Those of you who have been following my meandering through the study of lifestyle choices already know why this stuff fires me up. Much of what I've outlined here is in the realm of the theoretical, as in "people might be generally happier with their decisions if they thought about their lifestyles as a whole, rather than looking at them in isolation (job change)." What these articles indicate is that people are already attempting to do so (practising lifestylism?), perhaps with mixed success. I'm excited about the idea of creating tools for these people (and others who haven't really been thinking this way yet) to help them envision better (more authentic, meaningful, productive) future lifestyles that manifest their values.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Preparing Kids

Thoughtful writing about helping kids learn to really engage in their lives, finding the middle ground between TV-as-babysitter and overscheduling their lives so that every moment is structured for them: Preparing Kids for the Future Economy. Do regimented childhoods full of every possible organized extracurricular activity prepare kids for a life of following directions and waiting for someone to provide the impetus for action?
"By age 2, their daughter, Lydia, had a schedule of structured daily activities. Soon after, the lessons started: piano, French, fencing, and so forth. They wanted Lydia to have every advantage in the competitive climb. Lydia's sweet, but she's uncomfortable when there is 'nothing to do.' She'll declare, 'I'm bored,' while flipping on the tube. She waits for her folks to tell her what's next and then plows through the weekly schedule. When I ask her if she's having fun, she stares at me blankly.

While I don't agree that everything bad is good for you, Lydia's life reminds me that everything good can be bad for you. Flo and John haven't prepared her for the future but for today's workplace in which success and happiness depend on excellent performance according to prescribed criteria. This approach is making plenty of people miserable. According to the latest Conference Board report, only 14% of U.S. employees are very satisfied with their jobs; 25% say they're just showing up to collect a paycheck; and 66% say they can't identify with their employer's business objectives. Why get our kids ready for a world that's already in cardiac arrest? What will replace it?"

Via the Future of Work blog.