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Options & navigation

Options & navigation

Choice once restricted to elites is now widely available. There are, however, fewer generic guidelines as to how to manage this choice. Societies have become more complex and job roles more specialised, families less integral and role models more diffuse. Finding one's way is, therefore, in increasingly burdensome overhead, with considerable penalties for making the wrong choice.

Companies face more options than before, something discussed elsewhere. The public sector, whilst constrained as to the policies which it can consider - again, discussed elsewhere - is faced with new issues that it may understand only weakly. It may have little or no established framework within which to discuss these issues with the public, even were it to have a coherent policy to pursue.

We suggest three main consequences of this.

A superfluity of options.

The urge to excite the customer and differentiate the product has led to a flood of closely similar products in the marketplace, each striving to establish its identity. A supermarket of two decades ago might have held a few thousand product lines: now, large ones offer 50,000 different products. The average new product survives for about 10 months in this environment. Hundreds of television channels are soon to merge into an oceanic database of entertainment and information products, which the user can select on demand. Dress codes have loosened, but it is still possible to spend US$20,000 on a dress and to find an occasion at which to wear it

This is, however, the trivial face of change. How an individual presents themselves, and the plethora of environments in which they might do so, offers a kaleidoscope of possibilities, including the possibility of getting it wrong. Contrast the following

In traditional village life, an individual operated in several domains of life - in family life and having fun, in religious observance and making money, in public service and creative endeavour - but all of the other villagers tended to operate in parallel with him or her. A uniform expectation of how one behaved, and what one did when confronted with common situations, offered straightforward guidelines.

In urban life, by contrast, each of these layers of activities have many distinct domains: religion, for example, comes in very many forms. Each layer and each domain within a layer has its own tacit rules, and a life can be seen as a thread which visits some of the domains that are on offer. Each such step requires a re-calibration of behaviour, presentation and goals. There is limited guidance and limited sense of community, in the way in which a village experiences this. Even a married couple meet only in one domain during their complex days.

Professionals undertake these changes of stance without much effort. Those from an excluded background, where people live much as villages did, experiencing a limit range of life that is lived to an imposed set of rules and standards, find the adaptation to this world rather difficult. Indeed, experiments in dependency management (reviewed elsewhere) suggest that one of the most helpful approaches is training in how to operate in other social milieux: what to wear, how to interact, what to expect from others, what will be expected of you.

Navigation is a problem in another way. Most of most societies lived as though on a conveyor belt: one was born, taught things, expected to work, given the opportunity to marry, became old. This situation had the merits of clarity, but it represented a state of near-complete powerlessness. Economic growth and education have offered almost everyone much broader options. They can step off the conveyer belt, build their own or join another one. However, the power to choose implies the power to choose badly, and with liberty has come risk.

This has led to a complex situation, in which we demand more choice but are both alarmed by the overhead which this represents and unhappy to take the risks which it implies. This shows up in the demand for 'compensation' when things go wrong, particularly when many people made the same bad choice, or were exposed to the same random event. It also underpins the so-called 'victim' culture, where whatever goes wrong is caused by anyone but the person affected, who is both indignant at what has happened and demanding of the community for counselling, compensation, stronger regulation, public enquiries and the like. The media - and lawyers - are instrumental in amplifying these tendencies.

Change as it is reflected in the public arena.

Elsewhere, we discuss the machinery of public debate. In this section, we are concerned with the way in which the population perceive this debate. Figure 1 suggests some of the elements that are involved.

Figure 1: Individual (lack of) perceptions of the policy process.

In the figure, the bar on the right represents the partition of an individual's concerns between the demands of daily life and consideration of public issues. In many cases, the phrase 'they ought to..' or 'somebody should.' attaches itself to whatever happens to fill this box.

A myriad of distractions impinge at every level: the average individual is exposed to around 17,000 advertising messages in the course of a week in contemporary Britain. Additionally, the zeitgeist - the spirit of the times - provides an interpretative backdrop to all of this. The unseen, long-term consequences of public choice impact on this box, whether this be long-term under-investment or tougher employment protection policies.

Quite divorced from this, complex policy issues are handled by elite groups and the results of their thoughts are filtered through media and others. The media cannot afford to bore, so what they can say is either harnessed to narrative hooks - celebrity, villainy, established big issues - or confined to an expert community.

This structure is a recipe for two kinds of decoupling.

These two sources of decoupling create a 'trust gap' which must get worse unless active measures are taken to bridge it. Political correctness - essentially, not raising difficult issues, or skirting them by using only anodyne terms of reference in discussion of them - is both a symptom of this problem and a way of prolonging it. We need a way of discussing the real issues and choices which we have to make in an open public manner if we are to become mature, coping democracies.

The impact of the 'trust gap' varies across societies. Elsewhere, we discuss a typology by which people in the industrial world can be classified. In brief, however, there are three dominant groups.

One seeks guidance from the community and from tradition. They tend to be elderly, and the demographics of the industrial world suggest that there will be more rather than fewer of them. They do not enjoy change, and find all of the issues discussed above to be of central concern to them. The do not understand their society and are deeply unhappy about the artificiality of it. Rather than a deity in charge of the land and the weather, there is Them in charge of water and power, housing and money. It is against Them that these people turn when things go wrong

A second group revel in the artificial structures, but take then for granted as a child of the jungle accepts the trees and the fruit which they bear. This group is consumerist, aware of personal advantage, competitive and focused on the prospects for their immediate future and that of their dependants. Government is to make the backdrop work, but is fundamentally dull until things go wrong, when blame is to be assigned.

The third group are small until a society becomes wealthy, where they swell to be equal to the other two groups. They try to understand the machinery by which things work, and to manage and manipulate these in their own terms. The have a complex set of values and take a balanced view of what constitutes a goal. They have the longest time frame of any of these groups.

None of these groups find it possible to talk to each other about fundamentals, for the terms that they use are quite different. The first group looks to social cohesion and precedent; the second to climbing the social ranking and managing easy relations with their peers; whilst the third focuses on the environment and the quality of life, creative work and fulfilling relationships. Change means different things to each; and adaptation to change implies different skills. Street smart traditionalists do not easily relate to the analytical, mixed approach of systems rationalists, the third group.

Politicians, too, have three kinds of fundamental to which they appeal. In a 'rationalist' mood, the describe the framework and then set out the policy steps. By contrast, when trust has failed, they have two approaches open to them: an appeal to social values connected with individuals, and - quite distinctly - and appeal to grand generalities about the collectivity. To clarify the difference, a critic of a failed military adventure would cite widows and orphans in one mode, but national humiliation in the other.

Debate which swings between the rational and the ad hominem is the traditional arena of the political left, whilst the rational-collective is usually inhabited by the right (or totalitarians posing as leftists.) A fascinating third possibility runs from the ad hominem to the collective: "I do this for you, the people, for national justice and our place in the Sun." This non-rational, assertive approach appeals directly to the zeitgeist and has been the backbone of most of the completely disastrous political movements of the C20th. A traditionalist majority may well expect such rhetoric, and a traditionalist majority may well be what many industrialised countries find that the have by 2020. Fast change, old age and poor pension provision are all factors which must help such attitudes to develop. We build one of the scenarios from this foundation.

Navigation cues and power-assisted steering: new tools?

The answer to this is not better policy - although this can never be less than helpful - and neither is it "leadership". People neither need to be told nor to be directed: rather, they need the machinery by which to exercise informed choice on their own behalf. This will never encompass the entire society and it will not work for every circumstance, but each advance must be helpful. Those who take free choices in some confidence that they understand what they are doing are typically less likely to resent failure than those who have been forced into a leap in the dark. Informed choice comes from two thins: from an adequate model of 'how things work' in respect of the issue at hand, and current, relevant information.

Where is this understanding to come from? Data and general transparency is set to increase everywhere and at a greatly accelerated pace. The interpretative framework that makes sense of this is, however, not nearly so accessible. For most people in most circumstances the insight comes from schooling and peers, mass media and casual debate; but most of all from the working over and over of new ideas in practical situations. The sense that market forces were a good way of allocating resource spread very gradually through the population during the Eighties, but is now relatively commonplace in most OECD societies. This view did not spread because economists or politicians said that it was true - although many did do so - but rather because this was the zeitgeist, embodied in soap operas and media star positions, what was happening in the work place and in the house market. A generation had arrived which was ready to take charge of its life and the market model made perfect sense to it.

There are any number of key issues for the industrial nations. How are we to cope with ageing and dependency? What are our cities to do for us and how are they to be run? What are our cities to do for us and how are they to be run? What is the proper role of the state in handling and operating, for example, infrastructural investments? How are we as a society to think about the coming revolution in human biology? What do we want from our countryside? Our police? Our teachers? Our soldiers? Above all, how are we to take choices in a complex world?

If public learning is to take place, it is obviously necessary that we engage in this debate must be interesting at entry level and continue to be engaging to the heart of expert policy. Political forces will need to change the way in which they are organised, discussed elsewhere. The policy process will itself shift both in emphasis and in process, also discussed elsewhere

"Private" navigation is often inseparable from the capacity to say sensible things about the society in which we live. However, there are many areas where advice is scant and the issues are formidable. The choice of pension or mortgage, training regime or career move can have major implications which are far from apparent at a glance. Technical issues - such as decisions about personal health, or legal positions - are often dominated by professions about whose advice the individual may want some oversight.

These are, however, well-defined issues for which there exist bodies of codified knowledge. Other areas - how shall I entertain? What shall I wear - are increasing attracting service industries that offer advice and practical help. The extent to which the media are dominated by home decoration, cooking and clothing-related programs gives some sense of the scope for individualised, just-in-time advice.

There are technical developments which are intended to deliver precisely this, building an overview of the individual, extrapolating what people in this circumstance need and providing it on demand. Crude versions exist in Microsoft's smirking-paperclip help system - which uses Bayesian statistics to guess at what you need to know and when you need to know it - but there are plans for mobile 'phone that mutter advice and information in the user's ear, entertainment systems that assemble pertinent information in anticipation of demand, all reviewed elsewhere.

As we deal more and more with an intangible, knowledge-saturated operating environment, so we shall all need to inform ourselves of new issues. We shall undoubtedly have new tools to help us in this. How capable individuals will cope is probably well in train. Whether the less informed will continue to grant trust to public institutions and private companies is much less sure. What will greatly influence this is the degree to which we harness the communication tools open to us in order to greatly change the nature of public debate.

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