Category Archives: Geography

The influence of environmental factors on Covid-19: towards a research agenda

Considerable attention was paid in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to its spatial distribution in the hope that environmental factors might be found to play a key role in influencing its spread in two ways: by restricting it to a narrow band of countries with specific environmental factors; and hoping that a rise in temperature in the summer would kill it off.

  • Researchers at Maryland University (Sajadi, M.M. et al., 2020) thus used maps of the early stages of Covid-19 to suggest that it spreads more easily in cold, damp climates, and that its highest incidence would be between latitudes 30-50 N.  At the time, I suggested on 3rd April that there were too many anomalies for this to be valid, that it was only based on limited data (where the coronavirus had spread by early March 2020) and that it was necessary to understand better the actual physical processes involved.  However, the idea that there might be environmental factors that will control Covid-19 still persists.
  • Likewise, in the early days of the pandemic there was much optimism that the new coronavirus might act in similar ways to some of its predecessors and be seasonal in character, waning in the summer months when it gets warmer.  Again, this was in part based on the timing of its outbreak (in China in December 2019 ) and its rapid spread through Europe with an approximately similar timing to seasonal flu.  However, many experts were cautious about this possible scenario (see Jon Cohen in Science, 13th March 2020, and Alvin Powell in the Harvard Gazette, 14th April 2020).

Nevertheless, the much more rapid spread of Covid-19 in Europe and North America than in Africa and South Asia has led some to continue to argue that the devastating impact of lockdown in countries nearer the equator, particularly on the lives of some of the poorest people living there, may be un-necessary if this pattern can indeed be explained by environmental factors.  The lockdown has already been partially rolled back, for example, in countries such as Pakistan (with some factories reopening on 12th April , and congregational prayers at mosques durong Ramadan being permitted from 21st April) and South Africa (with initial steps being taken to reopen the economy on 1st May).  Clearly, the rate and distribution of the spread of Covid-19 is influenced by many factors, including government policies (with the UK performing especially badly, see my recent post),  demographic characteristics (with the elderly being particularly vulnerable), population distribution (spreading slower in sparsely settled areas), characteristics of the several strains and mutations of the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus (summary in EMCrit), and the inaccuracy and unreliability of reported data about infections and deaths (see my comments here).

The role of environmental factors remains uncertain, despite a considerable amount of research (see systematic review by Mecenas, P. et al., 2020 – thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this) which has sought to draw conclusions from the distribution of cases in parts of the world with different climates, and has suggested that cold and dry conditions helped the spread of the virus whereas warm and wet climates seem to reduce its spread.  A more recent study by Jüni et al. (8th May 2020) has claimed that epidemic growth has little or no association with latitude and temperature, although it has weak negative associations with relative and absolute humidity.  Unfortunately, very few studies have yet sought to do experimental research that actually measures the survivability and ease of spread of Sars-Cov-2 under different real-world environmental conditions.  Moreover, if as appears likely, most infections actually occur indoors, it is not the external climatic conditions that will influence rates of infection but rather the artifical environments created indoors through heating and ventlaltion systems that will be of most significance in influencing its spread.

Two related approaches to this challenge are necessary: identifying its survivabililty in a range of different environments (and surfaces), and analysis of the effect of different environments on the distance that it can be spread by infected people.

Research on the survivability of Sars-Cov-2 in different contexts

Several reported studies have explored the stability of the new coronavirus on different surfaces.  In a widely cited study, van Doremalen et al. (13th  March 2020) suggested that the stability of HCov-19 (Sars-Cov-2) was very similar to that of Sars-Cov-1 (the SARS outbreak in 2003), and that viable virus could be detected as follows:

  • in aerosols up to 3 hours after aerosolization
  • up to 4 hours on copper
  • up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 47-72 hours on plastic and stainless steel.

This important study has subsequently been used as the standard estimate for the survivability of the coronavirus.  However, it was undertaken in the USA under very specific relatively humidity (for aerosols at 65%; for surfaces at 40%) and temperature conditions (for both at 21-23o C) (See also more recently, van Doremalen et al. 16 April 2020).  A rapid expert review of Sars-Cov-2’s survivability under different conditions (Fineberg, 7th April 2020) notes that the number of experimental studies remains small, but that elevated temperatures seem to reduce its survivability, and that this varies for diffferent materials.  Nevertheless, Fineberg emphasises that laboratory conditions do not necessarily accurately reflect real-world conditions.  In referrring to natural history studies, he also emphasises, as noted above, that conflicting results have emerged because such studies are “hampered by poor quaity data, confounding factors, and insufficient time since the beginning of the pandemix from which to draw conclusions” (p.4).

If a better understanding of Sars-Cov-2’s survivability in different parts of the world is to be gained, it is therefore essential urgently to undertake real world studies of its viability on similar surfaces in various places with different temperature and humidity profiles.

The dispersal distance of Sars-Cov-2

The standard advice across many countries of the world is that people should maintain a minimum distance of 2 m (in some countries 1.5 m) between each other to limit the spread of Covid-19 (see, for example, Public Health England).  This is double the WHO’s advice for the public, which is to “Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others. Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease“.  The 2 m figure was adopted early by some CDCs, and appears to be more of an approximate early guess (based on the previous Sars-Cov-1 outbreak) that has taken root, rather than an accurate scientifically based figure.

Since then, more rigorous research has been undertaken, much of which suggests that 2 m may not be enough. Setti et al. (23rd April) thus note that Sars-Cov-2 has higher aerosol survivability than did its predecessor, and that a growing body of literature supports a view that “it is plausible that small particles containing the virus may diffuse in indoor environments covering distances up to 10 m from the emission sources”.  They also conclude that “The inter-personal distance of 2 m can be reasonably considered as an effective protection only if everybody wears face masks in daily life activities”. A particularly interesting laboratory based study a month previously by Bourouiba (26th March 2020) provides strong evidence that the turbulent gas clouds formed by sneezes and coughs provide conditions that enable the coronavirus to survive for much longer at greater distances: “The locally moist and warm atmosphere within the turbulent gas cloud allows the contained droplets to evade evaporation for much longer than occurs with isolated droplets“.  She concludes that the “gas cloud and its payload of pathogen-bearing droplets of all sizes can travel 23 to 27 feet (7-8 m)”.  Furthermore, another study by Blocken et al. (9th April) noted that the 1.5 m – 2 m distance was based on people who were standing still, and that there could be a potential aerodynamic effect for people cycling and running.  For someone running at 14.4 km/hr the social distance in the slipstream might be nearer 10 m.

Such studies have been controversial (for a summary, see Eric Niiler in Wired, 14th April), but they highlight that in practice:

  • the “safe’ distance between people is unknown;
  • there is little strong scientific evidence for the 1 m – 2 m recommendations for social distancing; and
  • this distance is highly likely to vary in different environmental contexts.

Not enough conclusive reseach has yet been undertaken on the extent to which environmental factors, such as humidity, pressure, altitude, wind and temperature actually affect how far Sars-Cov-2 will disperse, and at what infectious dose (see Linda Geddes, NewScientist, 27th March 2020, where viral load is also discussed; see also ECDC, 25th March 2020).  It seems likely, though, that dispersal will indeed vary in different conditions, and thus in different parts of the world.  We just don’t yet know how great such variability is.

The latest systematic review published in The Lancet, and cited in The Guardian (2nd June 2020) sugggests that distance does matter, and that not only is 2 m safer than less than 1 m, but also that face masks can indeed reduce substantuially the risk of infection.

Towards a research agenda

This post has emphasised that we actually know remarkably little with certainty about how Sars-Cov-2 physically survives and disperses in different environmental contexts.  This has hugely important ramifications for the spread of Covid-19 in different parts of the world, and thus the mitigating policies and actions that need to be taken.  If, for example, Covid-19 does not survive in hot humid conditions, and is also dispersed over shorter distances in such circumstances, then it might be possible for governments of countries where such conditions prevail not to have to impose such stringent social distancing requirements as those that have been put in place in Europe.

Urgent experimental research is therefore required in real-world environments on:

  • the survivabililty of Sars-Cov-2 in a range of different physical environments (and surfaces), and
  • the effects of different environments on the distance that it can be spread by infected people.

A standard protocol and methodology for such research should be created that could then be used collaboratively by scientists working in different parts of the world to address these crucial issues.  Contrasting environments that would warrant the earliest such research (given the high number of economically poor countries therein) would include: high altitude savanna (as in the Bogotá savanna, and the much lower montane Savanna of the Angolan scarp), tropical and subtropical savanna (as in parts of Brazil and Kenya), tropical rainforests (as in Indonesia and Brazil), semi-arid and arid landscapes (as in much of northern and south-west Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and parts of South Asia).  It is also very important to undertake such resaerch both in urban and rural areas, and indoors as well as outside.  If scientists can indeed co-operate to provide a swift answer to the questions raised in this post, then it would be possible to provide much more tailored advice to governments concerning the mitigating measures (including the use of masks) that they should be taking to protect the highest number of people while also maintaing essential economic activity.

[Updated 8th May, 12th May, 30th May 2020 and 2nd June]

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Covid-19, Geography, India, Pakistan

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Servants of the poor – WSIS TalkX

TalkXIt was a great honour to have been invited – a few hours beforehand – to give one of the inaugural WSIS TalkX presentations last Thursday evening as WSIS 2019 drew towards its close.  Seven of us had been asked if we would like to talk about our lives in technology for around 5 minutes. I opted to go last – just before the closing cocktail party.  Several colleagues had to leave before the end to get to other commitments and so they spoke first; I knew I would be remaining to enjoy the wine.  Before me there were some amazing, inspirational speakers: Stephenie Rodriguez, Joel Radvanyi, Gloria Kimbwala, Ayanna T Samuels, Sebastian Behaghel and Ted Chen

With little time to prepare it was difficult to know quite what to say.  We had been asked to tell our own stories, and so I chose five images as five “scenes” around which to tell my tale.  Posting the images on social media, I had hoped that people might be able to see them as I spoke…

1 2 3 4 5

 

In reality, I’m not sure that many people actually saw the pictures, and I know many were rather confused when I began and introduced myself in the persona of one of my aliases.  I had, though, been introduced by the Master of Ceremonies as someone learning from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah…

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 20.29.34

To see and hear what I had to say, click on the image above (or here).  Fully to understand it, though, you would need to listen to the other six talks, because I tried hard to link it to what the speakers had to say – especially, for example, about the best university in the world, and the SDGs!

The basic message is simple – if we really believe in empowering the poor and the marginalised through digital technologies we must become their servants…

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Why the notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution is so problematic

Watching a video last Wednesday at UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week produced by Huawei on the Fourth Industrial Revolution reminded me of everything that is problematic and wrong with the notion: it was heroic, it was glitzy, women were almost invisible, and above all it implied that technology was, and still is, fundamentally changing the world.  It annoyed and frustrated me because it was so flawed, and it made me think back to when Klaus Schwab first gave me a copy of his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2016.  I read it, appreciated its superficially beguiling style, found much of it interesting, but realised that the argument was fundamentally flawed (for an excellent review, see Steven Poole’s 2017 review in The Guardian).  Naïvely,  I thought it was just another World Economic Forum publication that would fade away into insignificance on my bookshelves.  How wrong I was!  Together with the equally problematic notion of Frontier Technologies (see my short critique), it has become a twin-edged sword held high by global corporations and the UN alike to describe and justify the contemporary world, and their attempts to change it for the better.  Whilst I have frequently challenged the notion and construction of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I have never yet put togther my thoughts about it in a brief, easy to read format. Huawei’s video has provoked this response built around five fundamental problems.

Problem 1: a belief that technology has changed, and is changing the world

All so-called industrial revolutions are based on the fundamentally incorrect assumption that technology is changing the world.  With respect to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab thus claims that “The premise of this book is that technology and digitization will revolutionalize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage “this time is different” apt.  Simply put, major technological innovations are on the brink of fueling momentous change throughout the world – inevitably so” (Schwab, 2016, section 1.2; see also Schwab, 2015).  The entire edifice of the Fourth Industriual Revolution is built on this myth.  However, technology itself does not change anything.  Technology is designed by people for particular purposes that serve very specific interests.  It is these that change the world, and not the technology.  The reductionist,  instrumental and deterministic views inherent within most notions of a Fourth Industrial Revolution are thus highly problematic.

In the popular mind, each so-called industrial revolution is named after a particular technology: the first associated with mechanisation, water,  steam power and railways in the late-18th and early-19th centuries; the second, mass production and assembly lines enabled by electricity in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the third, computers and automation from the 1960s; and the fourth, often termed cyber-physical systems, based on the interconnectivity between  physical, biological and digital spheres, from the beginning of the 21st century.  However, all of these technologies were created by people to achieve certain objectives, usually to make money, become famous, or simply to overcome challenges.  It is the same today.  It is not the technologies that are changing the world, but rather the vision, ingenuity and rapaciousness of those who design, build and sell them.  Humans still have choices.  They can design technologies in the interests of the rich and powerful to make them yet richer and more powerful, or they can seek to craft technologies that empower and serve the interests of the poor and marginalised.  Those developing technologies associated with so-called “smart cities” can thus be seen as marginalising those living in rural areas and in what might disparagingly be called “stupid villages”.

Problem 2: a revolutionary view of history

Academics (especially historians and geographers) have long argued as to whether human society changes in an evolutionary or a revolutionary way.  There have thus been numerous debates as to how many agricultural revolutions there were that preceded or were associated with the so-called (first) industrial revolution (Overton, 1996). Much of this evidence suggests that whilst “revolutions” are nice, simple ideas to capture the essence of change, in reality they build on developments that have evolved over many years, and it is only when these come together and are reconfigured in new ways, to serve specific interests, that fundamental changes really occur.

For example, the Internet was initially used almost exclusively by academics, with the first e-mail systems being developed in the 1970s, and the World Wide Web in the 1980s, largely in an academic context.  It was only when the commercial potential of these technologies was fully realised in the latter half of the 1990s that use of the Web really began to expand rapidly.  In this context, most things associated with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution actually seem to be extensions of ideas that existed very much earlier.  The notion of integrated physical-biological systems is, for example, not something dramatically new in the 21st century, but rather has its genesis in the notion of cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, at least as early as the 1960s.

More importantly, the main drivers of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution go back many centuries, and each previous “revolution” was merely an evolving process to find new ways of configuring them.  If there was any fundamental “revolutionary” change, it occurred in the rise of individualism and the Enlightenment during the 17th century in Europe.  Even this had many precursors.  Fully to understand the digital economies of the 21st century, we need to appreciate the shift in balance from communal to individual interests some four centuries previously.  Once it was appreciated that individual investment in the means of production could generate greater productivity and profit, and institutions were set in place to enable this (such as land enclosure, patent law and copyright), then the scene was set for “money bent upon accretion of money”, or capital (Marx, 1867), to become the overaching driver of an increasingly global economic system in the centuries that followed.  The interests underlying the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution are largely the same as those driving the economic, social and political systems of the previous 400 years: market expansion and a reduction of labour costs through the use of technology.  It is these interests, rather than the technologies themeselves that are of most importance.

Problem 3: an élite view of history

The notion of industrial revolutions is also largely an expression of an élite view of history. It is about, and written by, the élites who shape them and enable them.  It is about the owners of the factories rather than the labourers, it is about innovative geniuses rather than the peasants labouring to produce food for them, and it is about the wise politicians who see the potential of these technologies to transform the world in their own image.  Certainly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is premised on an assumption that global corporations and brilliant innovative minds are driving the technological revolution that will change the world for what they see as being the better.  It is also no coincidence that the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was established in the USA, and that most of its proponents seem to be drawn from US élites (see for example the World Economic Forum’s video What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?).  The notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution clearly serves the interests of USAn élite politicans, academics and business leaders far more than it does the poor and marginalised living in remote rural areas of South Asia, or the slums of Africa.

Counter to such views are those of academics and practitioners who argue that history should be as much about the poor and underprivileged as it is about their political,  military or industrial leaders.  The poor have left few historical records about their lives, and yet they vastly outnumber the few élite people who have ruled and controlled them.  Traditional history has been the history of the literate, designed to reinforce their positions of power, and this remains true of accounts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In 2017, Oxfam reported that eight people thus owned the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity; five of these people made most of their wealth directly from the technology sector.  In an increasingly unequal world, the way to create greater equality cannot be through the use of the technologies that have created those inequalities in the first place.  Rather, to change the global balance of power, there needs to be a history that focuses on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised, rather than one that glorifies élites in the interests of maintaining their hold over power.

Problem 4: male heroes of the revolution

One of the most striking and shocking features of the Huawei video that prompted this critique was that almost all of the people illustrated as the heroes of the industrial revolutions were men.  Most historical accounts of industrial revolutions likewise focus on male innovators and industrialists, and yet women played a very significant part in shaping the outcomes of these tecchnological changes, not least in their roles as workers and as mothers.  Not only are accounts of industrial revolutions élite histories, they are mainly also male histories.  It is thus scarcely surprising that men continue to dominate the rhetoric and imagery of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, despite the efforts of those who have sought to reveal the important role that women such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Radia Perlman played in the origins of digital technologies (see techradar, 2018).

The perspective of a masculine revolutionary view of societal change presents significant challenges for those of us working to involve more women and girls in science and technology (see for example TEQtogether).  Much more needs to be done to highlight the roles of women in history, especially histories of technology, and to encourage girls to appreciate the roles that these women have played in the past and thus the potential they have to change the future themselves (see for example, the Women’s History Review and the Journal of Women’s History).  Otherwise, the masculine domination of the digital technology sector will continue to reproduce itself in ways that reproduce the gender inequalities and oppression that persist today.

Problem 5: the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Finally, the idea of a heroic, male industrial revolution has been promoted in large part as a self fulfilling prophecy.  Schwab’s book and its offspring are not so much a historical account of the past, but rather a programme for the future, in which technology will be used to make the world a better place.  This is hugely problematic, because these technologies have actually been used to create significant inedqualiites in the world, and they are are continuing to do so at an ever faster rate.

The problem is that although the espoused aspirations to do good of those acclaiming the Fourth Industrial Revolution  may indeed be praiseworthy, they are starting at the wrong place.   The interests of those shaping these technologies are not primarily in changing the basis of our society into a fairer and more equal way of living together, but rather they are in competing to ensure their dominance and wealth as far as possible into the future.  The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution seeks to legitimise such behaviour at all levels from that of states such as the USA, to senior leaders and investors in  technology companies, to young entrepreneurs eager to make their first million.  Almost all are driven primarily by their interests in money bent on the accretion of money; some are beguiled by the prestige of potential status as a hero of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In some cultures such behaviour is indeed seen as being good, but in others there are greater goods.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in large part a conspiracy to shape the world ever more closely in the imagination of a small, rich, male and powerful élite.

Is it not time to reflect once more on the true meanings of a revolutionary idea, and to help empower some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people to create a world that is better in their eyes rather than in our own?

 

[For a wider discussion of revolution, see Unwin, Tim, A revolutionary idea, in: Unwin, Tim (ed.) A European Geography, Pearson, 1998.  As ever, please also note that a short post cannot include everything, so remember to read this in the broader context of my other writing, and especially Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  For my thoughts on the other edge of the two-edged sword, do read my much shorter “Why the notion of ‘frontier technologies’ is so problematic…“]

 

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Dubai in 1980

Continuing the digitization of some of my early slide collections, I post below a selection of pictures from Dubai in 1980.  I remember it then undergoing a building boom, but that was of a completely different scale from what has subsequently happened over the last 30 years or so.  I wish I had been there in the 1960s, when by all reports it was a small, sleepy town built around the harbour! However, my pictures do still capture something of the old character of the city, and the busy waterfront.  I loved wandering around the Bastakiya quarter, and remember being fascinated by the wind towers and architecture. It is good to see the sympathetic restoration that has taken place in the quarter in recent years, but it does not have quite the same atmosphere that it did then!  It was good to wander in the suq and see all of the glittering gold that i could never afford! I also loved just watching the small boats and dhows plying their trade along the creek. My favourite hotel was undoubtedly the Meridien, a quiet oasis where I could escape from the business of the city, but surprisingly I never took a photograph of it!

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Religions in the UK’s 2011 census: David Cameron and his critics

The rather strange and surprisingly vehement exchange of views that has erupted following the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, comments about “faith and the importance of Christianity in our country”,  and those who wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph criticising his “characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country'”, made me explore some of the data that has been published on religious affiliation in the UK.  I found the results somewhat surprising.

Cameron’s critics claim that “Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”.  So, I turned to the England and Wales Census of 2011, and the reports on it from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for an update of the situation.  The question on religion was the only voluntary question in the 2011 census, and yet interestingly only 7.2% chose not to answer it.  This might be taken as suggesting that questions about religious affiliation are indeed something that do matter to the majority of people.  As the ONS notes, though, defining religion or religious affiliation is indeed complex: “The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practise or belief. Religion is a many sided concept and there are other aspects of religion such as religious belief, religious practice or belonging which are not covered in this analysis”.  The questions we ask undoubtedly influence the answers we get!

The responses to this question need to be treated with caution, but according to the census, the largest religion in the 2011 Census was Christianity with 33.2 million people, representing a substantial and surprising 59.3% of the population.  Muslims were the next largest religious group, although with only 4.8% of the population.  25.1% of the population said that they had no religion.  Of the other main religious groups: 817,000 people identified themselves as Hindu (1.5% of population); 423,000 people identified as Sikh (0.8% ); 263,000 people as Jewish (0.5% ) and 248,000 people as Buddhist (0.4% ).

sctrfigure1_tcm77-290493Religious affiliation, England and Wales, 2011 (Source: ONS)

According to these figures, I find it very hard to accept the views of Cameron’s critics at face value.  As comparison with the 2001 census shows (see below), things are undoubtedly changing.  There has certainly been an increase in those reporting “no religion”, from 14.8% of the population in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011.  Likewise, there has been a substantial decline in those reporting to be Christian, from 71.7%  in 2001 to 59.3%  in 2011.

sctrfigure3_tcm77-290499Change in religious affiliation, England and Wales, 2001-2011 (Source: ONS)

However, at least based on these figures, which unlike representative surveys include responses from almost all of the population, it would indeed seem to be the case that England and Wales are still largely a Christian country, and that Cameron’s critics are wrong in claiming that “most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”.

The problem with this debate is that the two sides seem to be focusing on rather different meanings and interpretations.  Cameron’s critics have focused primarily on their argument that “most British people … do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government”, and they are critical of Cameron for introducing religion into politics; it would actually be quite interesting to see data on whether or not their claim is true. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to have been focusing both on his own faith, and on the heritage that Christianity has given to the country and its people.  Again, I have to side with Cameron on the second of these.  Whilst many other religions, and indeed non-religious perspectives, have shaped Britain in recent centuries, Christianity has been the major religious influence over the last 1500 years, and has had a very major impact on our society, culture, and indeed landscapes.

So, to me, this debate is largely a political one, and actually has rather little to do with religion or faith.  In terms of religious beliefs and people practising religions, it is clear that there has indeed been a dramatic decline in Christianity, with a Tearfund report in 2007 indicating that only 15% go to a church at least once a month, and most of the evidence suggests that churchgoing has continued to decline since then.  Accordingly, the moral values of the majority of people are indeed no longer based on a deep Christian faith – if ever they were – but this is something entirely different from saying that Britain is not a Christian country. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is some truth in Cameron’s assertion that Britain is more welcoming to people of other faiths than many other countries, “precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths”.

While on the evidence of the census, it is fascinating to note the substantial regional differences in religious affiliation, as the ONS map below indicates:

religionchristiansmallimage_tcm77-290514Spatial distribution of Christian population, 2011 (Source: ONS)

According to ONS figures, Christianity was the largest religion in all local authorities except Tower Hamlets where there were more people who identified as Muslim.  The spatial distribution of people with different religious affiliations is itself fascinating: the local authorities with the next highest percentage of Muslims were Newham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford and Luton; Hindu representation was highest in Harrow, Brent, Leicester, Redbridge and Hounslow; Sikhs were most represented in Slough, Wolverhamtpon, Hounslow, Sandwell and Ealing; Buddhists in Rushmoor, Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hounslow; and Jews in Barnet, Hertsmere, Hackney, Bury and Camden.  One of the riches of Britain is indeed our cultural diversity.

 

 

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On critical thinking…

thinker smallI overheard a strange and depressing conversation about critical thinking at last month’s otherwise excellent Online Educa conference in Berlin. Ever since then it has been nagging away at my mind.  So many of those involved in the conversation seemed to have a conceptualisation of critical thinking that is so totally at odds with my own!  For many of them, critical thinking seemed to be something destructive, a form of negative criticism of the works of others. Critical thinking, in their views, was all too often damaging, destroying the confidence of young academics, and a means through which supervisors impose and re-enforce power relations over their doctoral students.  This is so alarmingly different from my own perspective, that I feel I should share some of my thoughts here, not only to contribute to the debate, but also so that others may perhaps gain some insight into alternative views of critical thinking.  Here, then, are my list of the ten most important aspects of critical thinking.

  1. First, critical thinking is something hugely positive. It should be very far from the negative caricature summarised above.
  2. It is a way of creating new knowledges, rather than simply encouraging the regurgitation of accepted truths.  All too often, universities across the world today focus on teaching students accepted truths that they then learn and regurgitate in examinations, rather than liberating them to think for themselves.
  3. Critical thinking is therefore hugely creative, a way of encouraging people to craft new ideas that will hopefully better explain, or help us to understand, the world in which we live.
  4. It is fundamentally concerned with questioning and challenging accepted norms and arguments, weighing them up both through the power of reason and logic, but also through empirical experience to see which, for the moment, can continue to be accepted as approximations to some truth.
  5. My notions of critical thinking derive heavily from my engagement with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and especially the writings of Jürgen Habermas (notably Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied, 1963, and Erkenntnis und Interesse. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1968).  In particular, for me, Critical Theory provides two important underpinnings for critical thinking: its emphasis on the interests behind all knowledges, and its focus on emancipation.
    • There is no such thing as value free science.  All science or knowledge, is created by individuals, or groups of sentient people, for particular purposes.  We must therefore understand these interests, and indeed our own interests, if we are to reach agreement on the extent to which such ideas can be accepted as accounting for any particular observations of reality.  Critical thinking is in part about understanding the interests underlying any claim to knowledge.
    • The ultimate purpose of critical thinking is about emancipation, both for the individual thinker, but also perhaps more importantly for the wider community of which that thinker is a part.
  6. Critical thinking is self-reflective, requiring a conscious consideration of how and why a particular set of thoughts comes into being.  In this sense, it is an ancient tradition, going back at least to Socrates, but being developed by scholars such as Dewey (Moral Principles in Education, SIU Press, 1909), and more recently Glaser (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University, 1941) and Ennis (Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1996).
  7. Critical thinking is committed to action. This, again, derives in part from my own commitment to Critical Theory, but it emphasises that thinkers must also be actors.  Unless knowledge is shared, in a sense liberated from the confines of the thinker’s own body, then its creation is a purely selfish, indeed arrogant process.  If society permits some of its members to be set apart for thinking (most usually in universities), then it is incumbent on those thinkers to ensure that the outputs of their thinking are indeed used for the betterment of society.
  8. Critical thinking involves serendipitous rigour (about which I have written elsewhere).  We need both to be rigorous in ensuring that we create places for serendipity, and likewise be rigorous in how we respond to serendipitous occurrences.  Serendipity is essential to the creative aspect of critical thinking.
  9. Critical thinking requires clarity of method.  I do not want to be prescriptive in defining any single particular set of methods, not least because many such lists already exist (Glaser, 1941; Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, CUP, 2001), but most of these focus on the importance of reason, logic, judgement, argument, inference and analysis.
  10. Finally, for me critical thinking is fundamentally about those who are privileged enough to be thinkers, using their thinking skills to enhance society and not just selfishly for themselves; it is, in particular, to use such thinking to help and enable the poorest and most marginalised individuals to improve their lives.  This is not just about action (point 7 above), but about action committed to a particular social and political cause.

There are, of course, many other aspects of critical thinking, but reflecting on that conversation in Berlin, these seem to me to be the most pertinent responses. Let me conclude, though, with a quotation from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin, 1966, p.21), “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they wont think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.  I used this years ago as the introduction to one of my chapters in The Place of Geography and it still seems as pertinent now as it did then!

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On ‘retirement’…

Around 18 months ago, Royal Holloway, University of London offered a severance/early retirement deal for staff, and after much reflection I decided to apply.  My application was accepted, and I will therefore be ‘leaving’ the College in the autumn after 30 years working there – although I am delighted that I have been appointed as an Emeritus Professor, and so I will still be retaining very close links involving both teaching and research!

Many friends have asked why I have chosen to leave, and so I thought I would share my reflections here.  They say much about the state of British higher education in the 21st century. I was appointed to Bedford College back in 1981, and have many great memories of my times both there and in the merged institution of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.  It has been a wonderful place to teach and do research, and I have had some amazing colleagues.  However, UK universities have changed so much in this period that I no longer feel that I can really achieve what I want to do within the confines of this environment.  Let me try to explain why.  I guess there are five main reasons for my decision:

  • a decline in collegiality amongst academics within universities
  • changing student attitudes to being at university
  • institutional and individual approaches to learning and teaching
  • a failure to promote Geography as the important discipline that it is
  • institutional leadership

The decline in collegiality

One of the main reasons I am leaving is quite simply because the sense of collegiality that I participated in as a young academic has been eroded to such an extent that I no longer enjoy the spirit of shared intellectual adventure that lay at the heart of university life when I began my career. Many academics are now so absorbed in advancing their own careers that they have almost no time for their colleagues or their students.  Long gone, for example, are the mid-morning and late-afternoon coffee and tea breaks when administrative, technical and academic staff would all come together to share a few minutes of each other’s company.

At the time of the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges in the mid-1980s, I explicitly chose to live near the campus so that I could participate fully in its life – and be collegial.  Rather few people now do so. Many ‘colleagues’ live far away and seem to spend more of their working lives off campus than they do on it. Colleagues who absent themselves are not there to support the students, are not there to attend seminars, are not there to answer the inevitable minor queries, are not there to share research ideas, and are not there to support each other. What has really saddened me is the way in which some young colleagues claim to be collegial and yet their actions seem to suggest that they have no idea what the word means.

Perhaps I was foolish not to be more careerist myself, but what I loved was my research and teaching, and all that mattered was that I should earn the respect of my colleagues and students for what I did.  When I returned to Holloway in 2004 after my secondment to DFID, I therefore specifically created a ‘Collective’, to try to rekindle that mutual support for colleagues and students that I had valued so much – and still believe in.  Ultimately this has not really succeeded in the way I had hoped, in part because it runs counter to the selfish arrogance that drives so many academics today.  It also saddens me that some young academics expect me – as a professor – to be hierarchical and cannot understand that I truly believe in the communal values that lie at the heart of sharing knowledge.

As for the causes of this changed mentality, it is clear that the fragmentation of unified pay scales, the introduction of the research assessment exercise, and increased competition between departments and institutions for the ‘best’ academics have all played their part.  However, we as academics are also to blame, in that we have not stood up to these changes vehemently enough, and have insufficiently emphasised the critical importance of collegiality in our endeavours.  That having been said, I should also say without any hesitation that there are some brilliant young academics in our department, who are indeed collegial.  Their life is tough, very tough, and I wish them well in trying to retain their humanity and love for the discipline.

Student attitudes

Throughout my career, I have vacillated between being angry that many students do not work hard enough, and being sorry for them that our society has shaped them in this way.  More often than not, I have sympathised with them, and done my best to enthuse them with my love for Geography, and the crucial importance of rigorous academic enquiry. Perhaps I am retiring in part because I taught second year human geography techniques for too long!  Excessive alcoholic indulgence by some students after sports fixtures the previous day, often meant that half the class was absent for my techniques lectures on Thursday morning, and many of those that were there  seemed disinterested in participating. Small wonder that they had difficulties doing the practical classes; small wonder that many did poor dissertations.

The average number of hours that students study a week during term time in the UK is somewhere between 25 and 30. My expectation of a minimum 40 hours work a week is thus way beyond this, and I have not found a way of reconciling these figures.  I love teaching, but after 30 year of hitting my head against a brick wall, I now want to spend time teaching students who really seem to care about their learning.  Having taught at Peking University recently, where many students seem to spend more than 60 hours a week studying, I feel re-invigorated.  It is scarcely surprising that the Chinese economy is so much more vibrant than is ours in the UK.  All this having been said, we do indeed have some able, keen and enthusiastic students in our department – and I will miss them.  They are just too few in number!  It was brilliant, though, how some of them responded when I offered to teach an extra-curricula course entitled “Critical Practices: an exploration of ideas in Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice” more than a year ago now.  This was learning and teaching how I wish I could have done it more often.  The course was completely outside the normal curriculum, counted for nothing towards their degree assessment, and was based around discussions between us all.  I enjoyed it hugely, and think that they too seemed to gain something from it.

Approaches to learning and teaching

I have always believed that universities should be about sharing ideas at the frontiers of knowledge, that such intellectual enquiry is therefore challenging, that standards of assessment should be maintained, and that it is essential to treat students as human beings if we are to encourage the critical enquiry that I value so much.  So many of these values have fallen by the wayside: in order to make courses popular they often take the form of learn and regurgitate; in some courses students are more or less told what questions to expect in the exams; students have to be treated as numbers in the name of fairness; we have to send them to ‘experts’ if they have personal issues, rather than first trying to help them ourselves; and we have devised mechanisms for ensuring that they get higher grades than they would have achieved in the past, so that out institutions climb up the various rankings in terms of results and added value! I am often seen as a harsh marker, but why should I change my expectations in a world that is moving towards mediocrity?

The amount of teaching that academics do has been vastly reduced in large part because hitting the research assessment criteria is seen as being more important.  I am probably the only member of staff in our department who gives non-assessed essays to the final year students doing my course.  Around two-thirds of the marks for most courses remain as being based on unseen exams at the end of the year, and yet we do not give students time to practise and have feedback.  My non-assessed/formative essays are seen by some students purely as being an extra burden of work, rather than as an opportunity for them to learn how to write better essays!  I believe that all undergraduates should have to write an essay a week (or produce a similar assignment in subjects where essay writing is not normal practice), and that we should mark them and provide feedback.  How else are they going to improve?

Likewise, I have always expected that undergraduate dissertations should be based on at least a month’s fieldwork.  Yet, many years ago I recall a younger colleague saying that given the pressures that students have to earn income during the vacations it was unrealistic for me to expect such high standards.  So it has increasingly become acceptable for dissertations to be based on a handful of interviews, rather than the detailed rigorous field research that I once expected.  This does not only apply at undergraduate level, but I have also recently been dismayed at the quality of several PhDs that I have examined.  Not only have I identified clear plagiarism in some, but also the amount of field research on which others have been based is totally paltry compared with what I expect from my own students.

In a different but related vein, I have always sought to entertain students for dinners and BBQs at our home, in part to get to know them better so that I can write honest references about them, but also to show that I am human, and care about them as individuals.  Yet, this behaviour is frowned upon by several of my colleagues.  I was therefore very deeply honoured that our students should nominate me successfully for an Apple for the Teacher award from our Students Union this year – this is the greatest complement that they could possibly have paid me, and is one of my most treasured achievements in my 30 year career.

The Place of Geography

I read this morning in an e-mail from our Head of Department that Geography has now dropped out of the top ten subjects in the UK in terms of the number of students studying  at A level; numbers have fallen from 32,063 to 31,226 from 2010 to 2011, a drop of 2.6% in a single year.  This is incredibly sad, and only reinforces the arguments that I made in a recent publication (The role of Geography and Geographers in policy and government departments, in Agnew, J. and Livingstone, D.N. (eds) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, London: Sage, 271-284) about how academic geographers have largely failed to engage externally with the public, with politicians, and with schools.  I have always sought to champion the subject in schools and the wider political arena – as reflected in my early work for the Geographical Association – indeed, that was what my book The Place of Geography was explicitly intended to do!

I am also saddened at the way in which many geographers seem so unwilling to defend what to me lies at the core of our discipline: an engagement with the ways in which humans interact with the physical world, and an understanding of how we thereby construct particular places.  By building their careers increasingly on a few tiny areas of intellectual enquiry, geographers have all too often moved away from what I still see as the essence of our discipline.  I have always been fascinated by new ideas – often at the interface of disciplines – and enjoy being able to engage across many different intellectual areas.  So, having worked for 30 years, I now find myself increasingly at odds with the views being advocated by many, but by no means all, of our disciplinary leaders.  Rather than continuing to swim against the tide, I am ‘retiring’ to enable me to do the research, teaching and practical work that I believe in.  There is so much still to be done.

Institutional leadership

Finally, I decided to retire because I was disappointed in the specific institutional leadership in place at Royal Holloway at the time I took the decision.  University Vice Chancellors are a motley crew.  Some, but all too few, are outstanding.  I do not envy them the task – it is immense and complex – but Vice Chancellors and Principals have to show real leadership qualities, they must champion intellectual excellence above all else, they must be wise, they must be fair and transparent, and they must be collegial.  Quite simply, I was no longer convinced that I could achieve the things I wanted to do – especially for the ICT4D Centre – within the confines of the institution where I was.  I felt so much more valued by those outside the institution than I did within it!  At the time, I did not know that we were about to have a new and dynamic Principal, and I am certain that Holloway is on the way up again, having fallen dramatically in profile and achievement under the previous regime.

It is obviously with regrets that I am retiring from Royal Holloway, University of London. I have a huge number of very fond memories – of some amazing colleagues, and great students.   I am indeed therefore delighted to be continuing as an Emeritus Professor, and in this capacity will do all I can to support the institution that I have loved and sought to support for the past 30 years.

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Graduation at Royal Holloway, University of London, 2011

Last Friday was graduation day for Geographers at Royal Holloway, University of London. It was great to see three of my former PhD students getting their degrees.  Many congratulations to:

Likewise, it was also good to see so many of our undergraduates – particularly those doing my course on ICT4D – gaining their well deserved degrees.  Three of them – Olly Parsons, Ben Parfitt and Jamie Gregory – are spending time this summer in Uganda undertaking research in support of the Ugunja Community Resource Centre.  To follow them, check out

Many congratulations to all of our graduates!

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Reflections on Geography at Bedford College (and then Royal Holloway) in the 1980s

The Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, is hosting an alumni event focusing on the 1980s to be held on 16th July.  As one of the last ‘surviving’ members of staff to have worked at Bedford College, I was asked by Klaus Dodds to write a few words about my recollections, so that they could be included on a poster in the Department.  Just thought that it might be interesting also to post them here, together with some imagery from 20-30 years ago!

The Department 30 years ago was so much smaller than today – fewer staff, fewer undergraduates, and fewer postgraduates.  It was a world largely without computers.  No e-mails!  One could think, and write, and teach students who were genuinely interested in learning.  It was brilliant!

I distinctly remember being appointed, and joining in 1981.  There were but a handful of jobs advertised in human geography that year.  I had been interviewed for a job at Exeter, but couldn’t hear properly what the panel chair was mumbling!  Needless to say I did not get that job!  My girlfriend was working in London, while I was still living in Durham and working at the Geography Department there.  Then this job came up at Bedford – amazingly the College where my mother had studied mathematics many years previously!  I remember being asked at the interview what it would mean for my personal life if I got the job, and responding that of course it would mean that Pam and I could get married. Imagine being asked such a thing in interviews today!

I was appointed to teach historical geography – and loved it!  I diligently used to write out my lecture notes in full – and read them to my students!!  Scarcely something that new lecturers would do now, in a world of PowerPoint!  But I did use slides on the old projector. I was very little older than the students were, and they forgave me for my nervousness.  I think my enthusiasm must have made up for a lot – medieval taxation documents, field systems, and prehistoric monuments!

One highlight was when the new electronic typewriter with a memory arrived; the precursor for word processors and personal computers.  One day, I was using it when the Departmental Secretary came in and threw me off, saying that she had something important to write.  Suppressing my fury, I left the dark room where it lived, and hit the wall outside with my fist.  My hand crumpled….  I then spent all afternoon running “The Green Revolution Game” with my students; my hand bent in pain.  Only in the early evening did I go to St Thomas’s – and of course they diagnosed a broken hand!

Then there were the great students doing the Master’s course in Third World development.  The course was led by Alan Mountjoy, and attracted bright people from all over the world – some of my favourite teaching ever; if only I was still in touch with some of them – particularly the Egyptian journalist who gave me a photograph of Jürgen Habermas.

And there was the IRA bombing in 1982.  I heard the first blast in Hyde Park whilst I was working at the RGS, and then got back to Bedford to see the debris remaining from the other blast that had taken place at the bandstand just nearby in Regent’s Park.  A sad day.

But the early 1980s was the time of mergers across London.  I became deeply involved in planning for the merger with King’s, and remember being saddened when it was announced that this had fallen through.  Going to Egham did, though, have one advantage in that we did not have to negotiate with another Geography Department already there; we could instead build our own identity from within.  On a personal level, we also decided to move from our rented flat in Kennington out to a newly built house in Englefield Green, on the Larksfield estate.  I remember this being a huge risk, since I had not been made permanent and we bought before it had definitely been confirmed that the merger would go through.

The move meant that we could reorganise our courses, and I recall working with Chris Green and others on a new teaching structure that would mean that our third year courses would become much more research oriented and also applied.  This provided the opportunity for me to launch my new course on the historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade.  At first, this was rejected by the University Geography board as being far too esoteric – but I resubmitted it again pointing out that if there was a course at SOAS on the geography of oil, surely we could teach about viticulture and wine.  After all, the wine trade has been in existence for millennia.  This course also provided an opportunity to work more closely with those in the wine trade, and highlights definitely included the wine tastings and the field trips to Burgundy and Champagne.  Imagine being allowed today to ‘race’ in minibuses across France from vineyard to vineyard and campsite to campsite.  How generous were the winemakers who shared their time and their wines with us!!

But I recall other field trips too: the day excursions to Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire for my second year students, exploring field systems and deserted medieval villages, more often than not in the snow; and then the second year trip to Portugal, again with generous hospitality from friends in the port wine trade.

There were great characters in the Department: Ron Halfhide, who became Departmental Superintendent, and was always the life and soul of the party, helping to arrange wonderful Geographical Society events; David Hilling, the ‘uncle’ figure, who cared for students (and rugby) in ways that we are no longer permitted to do; John Thornes, who as Head of Department told me that I should really make myself the specialist in one area of the discipline, such as the geography of Portugal.  John certainly taught me some lessons!  On his recommendation, I drafted two chapters of ‘the’ book on Portugal, and sent them to a publisher.  The academic referees liked them, but the publisher said that there was no market for a book on agricultural innovation in Portugal.  Never again have I written anything for a book publisher without a contract!

Above all, I remember those days as ones of amazing freedom – when we could craft new knowledge in the innocent ways we believed were right, when we could treat students as friends and not numbers, when collegiality rather than individual selfish career progression mattered.  They were good times”.

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