On re-reading Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders

Of all the ideas put forward by Karl Marx one that has always resonated with me is his view that people are ‘authors’ of their society yet have forgotten their authorship. In one sense this is unexceptional. Not everyone has the time, opportunity or breadth of mind to appreciate the social construction of reality, the uses of legitimation and the many ways that powerful interests favour themselves above others. On the other hand there’s something increasingly bizarre about the way that entire populations in the rich West have been sold a notion of ‘the good life’ based on a 20th century invention known as affluent consumerism. For if one thing has become clear it’s the undeniable fact that this way of life has been on a collision course with planetary systems for some time. As Sam Alexander puts it:

Capitalism wants or needs what it cannot have: that is, limitless growth on a finite planet. This ecological predicament is the defining contradiction of capitalism in the 21st century, insofar as growth is now causing the problems that growth was supposed to be solving (Alexander, 2018).

While browsing recently in a small bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, I came across a Penguin paperback of Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1956. It’s perhaps 50 years since I first read it but it left a strong impression. It’s almost certainly one of the underlying reasons I’ve never accepted full-on commercial advertising as anything other than what Donella Meadows called ‘an unwanted tax on humanity’. (She also said that ‘you only have to spend millions on promoting something if its worth is in doubt.’)

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The Internet and Human Agency

Many people seem to think that tackling the big issues of the IT revolution is a demanding occupation requiring considerable expertise.[1] While there’s some truth in this view, it does not mean that individuals are helpless – far from it. Throughout history oppressive systems of any kind survived only because large numbers of people provided passive assent. In the case of the current Internet the vast majority may well continue to hand over their rights – and subject themselves to pervasive surveillance – in return for what they perceive as ‘free’ services for some time. The counter meme that ‘if something is free you are the product’ has yet to achieve broad acknowledgement, but this could change. It’s worth remembering that the use of ‘suboptimal’ Internet enabled services was never presented as a truly free choice in the first place. It came bundled with skilfully hidden costs and penalties some of which are only now becoming clear.

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Time to Disrupt the Disruptors

Here are two books that I’ve found helpful in understanding why the Internet has, in so many ways, become an instrument of oppression; a domain for what Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ where, despite many positive uses, millions of people are disadvantaged and exploited. There follows a short article that draws on these and related sources to assess some emerging risks attending this and other aspects of the IT revolution.

 

 

Scanning the macro environment for signals of change can be a daunting experience. But when links that imply a particular pattern keep getting stronger, or more frequently expressed, you know that something is happening that may require closer attention. Over the last few years, for example, evidence that the digital revolution has been compromised has been turning up with increasing frequency. It’s not merely wandered off-course, so to speak, but been actively hijacked by a handful of companies. They are not using it for the betterment of humankind – they are using it in pursuit of historically unprecedented levels of wealth and power. A PDF of a longer version of my ‘Time to Disrupt to Disruptors’ piece is available here.

Drift Toward Disaster Installation

An item entitled Drift Towards Disaster in a recent issue of the Weekend Australian Review deserves wider attention (Allen, 2017). What makes it different from so many other treatments of ‘growth,’ ‘the environment’ and ‘human impacts’ is that it refers to an installation from the Fondation Cartier in Paris and currently at the Art Gallery of UNSW. An introductory video by Paul Virilio deals with recent population upheavals (said to be 36 million in 2008 alone). This is followed by ‘a curved diorama on which changing projections convey some idea of the reasons for these vast population displacements.’ Further sections cover environmental changes such as global warming and sea level rise. The whole installation brings together a vast amount of information in visual form and, in so doing, provides a way of coming to grips with, and powerful critique of, our collective addiction to endless growth and development.

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Masters of Strategic Foresight (MSF) Wake – 25th November 2016


In late November some 150 people turned up at the Kelvin Club in Melbourne for a private function to celebrate the success and mark the imminent closure of the MSF program at Swinburne University. The original program was set up in 1999 at the invitation of the then VC, Iain Wallace, as the Australian Foresight Institute (AFI). With Barry Jones as its patron and an experienced and capable board, it soon acquired a distinctive national and international profile. As is well known I was appointed as Foundation Professor of Foresight and ran the AFI until 2004. At that time a new VC was appointed who pursued a very different agenda which, for reasons best known to himself, included closing all the university’s institutes. The foresight program was then absorbed into the Business School. Peter Hayward took over the directorship and ran the re-named MSF for the next decade. The program will close in 2017 after 17 years.

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20th Anniversary of the KBFS

Futs_KBFS_25_3_1993_small2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Knowledge Base of Futures Studies (KBFS). It first appeared as a special issue of Futures in March 1993. Besides the editorial it contained 7 original papers, 10 ‘divergent perspectives’ (from as many different countries) and no fewer than 5 bibliographies. The first book edition was a three-volume set presented in a sturdy slipcase. The first volume covered Foundations, the second Organisations, Practices and Products and the third Directions and Outlooks. It was officially launched at a World Future Society Conference (WFS) in Washington DC during July 1996. Hughes de Jouvenel, Wendell Bell and Hazel Henderson assisted with the launch. Two further hard copy editions followed. Then in 1999 and 2000 KBFS_ProfEd_2005_smallmy son Rohan and I converted the original files into html documents and assembled the first CD-ROM. It was followed in 2005 by an expanded 5 volume professional edition that was subsequently adopted for university courses around the world. A succinct account of how and why the KBFS was developed, along with some of the feedback it received, can be found on the FI site here. Also see here under Futures Archive.

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Rights of Nature Tribunals

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22nd October, 2016, Banco Court, Brisbane

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is described as ‘a worldwide movement’ seeking to create ‘human communities that respect and defend the rights of nature.’ A founding member of this alliance is the AELA or Australian Earth Laws Alliance. Both organisations have held Rights of Nature (RON) tribunals, the most recent of which took place in the smart, modern surroundings of the Banco courtroom in Brisbane’s civil law precinct. Some 150 people were in attendance for this serious, yet inspiring and well-organised event.

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Policies for a Post-Growth Economy

Alexander_Policies_PG_EconOccasionally an item comes along that deserves and requires greater attention than usual. In my view this is the case with a short monograph by Sam Alexander with the above title. I’ve reviewed it for the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) quarterly journal, Compass. The latter is only available to members so I’m placing the review here to provide wider access. A link to the monograph itself is provided on page one of the review.

One day it would be interesting to sit down and assemble some of the most significant ‘signals of change’ generated over the last half-century by concerned people of all kinds and from different fields. In an alternative history that is perhaps now lost some of those signals would have not been dismissed out as ‘loony left’, ‘Greenie fantasy’, ‘scientific nonsense’ and the like. Nor would some of the world’s most powerful actors have succeeded so completely in promulgating global agendas founded on their own rather specific requirements and needs. A PDF of my review is available here.

Global Integrity Summit Day One: The Big Picture

Griffith University, Brisbane, 13th October 2015

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It’s rare to attend an event such as this one that ticks nearly all the boxes. When my wife and I decided to register it was simply on the basis that it offered three consecutive sessions on issues of major significance. They were:

  • Free speech, freedom of the press and integrity in journalism
  • Big data, privacy and surveillance, and
  • Climate change and climate justice.

The event was held at the impressive Brisbane Conservatorium on South Bank. A PDF of my write-up of the day is available here.

Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

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In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

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