How does social media affect our happiness?

Social media has allegedly become the new menace facing young people in the digital era; Ofcom's 'Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report' points out that 23% of 8-11 year olds have a social media profile, a figure rising to 74% amongst those aged 12-15. A seemingly constant stream of media reports highlight the apparent dangers that social media brings about in relation to life satisfaction; with the government's 'Online Harm' White Paper suggesting new policies such as establishing a ‘duty of care’ to make social media companies take more responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of their users, evidencing the general concern that surrounds this issue.

However, a new paper published yesterday casts doubt on the idea that social media has a detrimental effect on the life satisfaction of teenagers. It offers compelling evidence that efforts to curb teen’s screen time are unlikely to make a significant impact on their wellbeing. The paper – authored by Amy Orben, Tobias Dienlinc and Andrew K. Przybylski – argues that most links between social media and life satisfaction are ‘trivial’ when best statistical practises are followed. In essence, the extent to which your son or daughter chats to their friends on Facebook accounts for less than 1% of their wellbeing, with 99.75% of satisfaction over the course of a year being dependant on other factors such as friendship, family life and school.

By analysing responses of 12,672 10-to-15 year olds from a nationally representative dataset, where respondents were asked one question regarding levels of social media usage and gave a further six statements to assess life satisfaction, the authors were able to distinguish between ‘within-person effects’ (tracking an individual and what affects them over time) and ‘between person effects’ (comparing different people at the same point). This methodology goes some way in explaining the insights the conclusion reached, combined with the large dataset. It allowed them to determine whether social media does genuinely reduce life satisfaction amongst users with greater screen time, or whether this assumption regarding the direction of causation was misplaced and adolescents with an already lower life satisfaction simply use more social media. Their conclusions were clear, stating:

‘The relations linking social media use and life satisfaction are, therefore, more nuanced than previously assumed: They are inconsistent, possibly contingent on gender, and vary substantively depending on how the data are analysed. Most effects are tiny— arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models.’

With a growing concern surrounding the operation and role of social media platforms in our society, it is clear that limiting screen time or misguided legislation surrounding social media usage should be resisted. Not only is it a clear restriction on liberty, but as the paper proves it will do little to improve the life satisfaction of teenagers who currently use social media. Having said that, it is clear that further work needs to be done, and as the report highlights, it is crucial that social media companies work hand in hand with the scientific community, providing more data with higher levels of granularity to continue to assess the effects of social media on our lives.

David Hume still influences our thinking

A remarkable man came into this world on May 7th, 1711. David Hume was a contemporary and friend of Adam Smith. They would meet together in Edinburgh taverns to discuss their ideas with each other. In the Adam Smith Institute we have the Tassie medallion plaques of each of them next to each other.

We speak of “David Hume the Philosopher,” but in his day he was known as David Hume the Historian.” When he published “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he said of it that “it fell dead-born from the press.” However, his massive 6-volume “History of England” was an instant best-seller and established his fame.

Hume was a thoroughgoing empiricist, maintaining that impressions come to us via the five senses, and that our ideas are derived from them. He was very much concerned with the world of our observation, and preferred natural explanations of things rather than supernatural ones. He argued that it is only habit or instinct that makes us suppose things will be seen to behave as they have done previously, failing to find any causal thread that connects past events to future ones. This is his famous “problem of induction,” solved by Sir Karl Popper in the 20th Century. Popper’s solution is that we conjecture about the future in a leap of the imagination, and then test our theories by real-world experiments.

When we maintain that the free markets and choices of neoliberalism have proved their worth in practice by the observed results they have achieved, there is Hume as well as Smith inspiring that approach. It is what happens in practice that matters. And when we point out that socialism was tested to destruction in the 20th Century, we are referring to the disastrous results it engendered every time. Things have to be grounded and tested in the observed world, not in the fanciful reasonings of theorists.

Hume’s concern with this world rather than any next world set him at odds with the established religion of his day, putting him at risk of severe punishment. As it was, his unorthodoxy caused him to be denied promotion and preferment. He was not one to mince words, as the concluding paragraph of his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” makes clear.

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Technology in the driving seat: how competition can end car accidents

Driverless cars seem to be, if you’ll pardon the pun, rather a stop-start issue. It’s evident to most people with an interest in the sector that a driverless world is eminently possible, and might serve to combat the 94% of accidents caused by human error. But various obstacles still lie in the way of this technology, not least the drag factor on commercial viability provided by the fact that at present, consumers simply prefer to drive.

To make self-driving cars a commercial possibility, therefore, the impetus must come from manufacturers. Tax breaks birthed the diesel car, and by the same method manufacturers may be more inclined to develop technologies that integrate driverless car systems under the same algorithms, more or less eliminating the concept of a car crash altogether.

Theoretically, car crashes stem from minor differences in interpretation. Whilst one driver, for instance, might see bad weather as a deterrent from driving, a more confident individual would not. In extreme cases this would mean different calculations of risk, leading to fatalities. Driverless cars alone are not the answer to this, as each algorithm developed will have its own ‘interpretation’ of the minute judgements made every second by an autonomous vehicle which may conflict with cars driven under different algorithms, or indeed the evolutionary algorithms which form human responses. However, further liberalising the market would lead to dominance of the algorithm system proven to be the best combination of safety and efficiency that human passengers seek. Less need for healthcare and policing infrastructure that limits the damage caused by dangerous driving could even mean lower tax burdens on the ex-drivers themselves.

Currently, such a scheme would hit the buffers due to a natural tendency of drivers to trust their own judgement over inorganic algorithms, hence the need for tax incentives at this early stage. But times are changing in this respect. Yuval Noah Harari argued in 2015 that the world will soon experience a shift away from the innate faith in human judgement towards ‘dataism’: faith in data processing, with the socially instilled knowledge that advanced digital algorithms are better at making contextual judgements than our own minds. Such a progression would negate the moral opposition that currently deters manufacturers from focusing on driverless vehicles, and may yet usher in a world where the power of the market spells the end of dangerous driving.

Peter Wollweber is the winner of the 18-21 category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.

Bionic prosthetics need not cost an arm and a leg

The year was 1982, when Robert Campbell, of the UK, was diagnosed with muscular cancer and doctors were contrived to amputate his arm. However, fortunately, 11 years on Robert was bestowed with the world’s first fully-functioning bionic arm – a marvel, designed by a team of five bio-engineers in Edinburgh. Bionic prosthetics such as Robert’s have the ability to unlock a vast amount of potential in anyone suffering from a lost limb. Yet over a quarter of a century on with over 2 million amputees in the US alone, only a few thousand have been recipients of this gift. Why? Perhaps, in order to tackle such a complication, it would be prudent to implement effective free market policy reforms.

The single most decisive factor preventing millions from benefiting from the use of bionic prosthetics is the colossal price tag attached with each prosthetic. For instance, a bionic arm fitted to go up to the shoulder, can cost an immense $60,000: over $5,000 more than that of the median household income in the US. This enormous price is primarily driven by the cost of innovation and R&D involved in developing such a sophisticated piece of technology. However, by advocating the deregulation of financial markets, this can induce greater competition between financial institutions, while precipitating positive spillovers for firms developing bionic prosthetics. These positive spillovers would come in the form of lower interest rates, as banks begin to compete on the cost of loans, effectively encouraging firms to undertake more investment, enabling the acceleration of R&D in bionic prosthetics, and the eventual long-term reduction of the price of such prosthetics.

Crucially, the lack of skilled engineers also presents a pivotal threat to the lack of bionic prosthetics in circulation. However, by adopting more liberal immigration policies, the free movement of labour can enable firms to fill skills shortages and meet consumer demand. This free movement of labour can also help supply skilled engineers to new firms wishing to enter the market, further expediting the pace of R&D in bionic prosthetics. Furthermore, by allowing more diversity in the workforce, it is more likely that greater innovation is generated, which in the long-run, can help introduce more efficient and cheaper bionic prosthetics.

Widespread availability of cheap bionic prosthetics is an inevitable part of the future, so why not advocate such policies to help make this vision a reality sooner rather than later?  

Prerak Goel is the winner of the under 18s category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.

Could Michael Gove report for remedial education in sums please?

We have a summit, a government plan, thousands are to be mobilised to counter one of the terrors of our age:

Michael Gove has urged chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers to help the Government end the “moral, economic, and environmental scandal” of throwing away food.

The Environment Secretary will host a summit next week when he will call on 300 organisations and prominent individuals to pledge to significantly reduce their food waste.

The pledge includes a commitment to checking the fridge before going shopping and always using a shopping list to better plan meals.

Every year approximately 100,000 tonnes of “perfectly edible” food - roughly 250 million meals - is thrown away and Mr Gove is urging immediate action to address the situation.

250 million does sound like a lot. But now do some basic sums. Even try to think a little bit. If we start at pixel time for this piece, 7.01 AM, that will take us through to about 9 am tomorrow morning. It’s around and about 4 meals per head of population that is, we get from before breakfast one day to after it the next.

For we’ve 65 million in the country, we eat 3 meals a day - we’ve heard of this food insecurity and don’t believe it for a moment - and there are 365 days in that normal year. That’s 71,175,000,000 meals a year to keep Britain off the Ex-Lax. The worry here is that there’s a 0.3% inefficiency in the system.

We would laud that as a marker of the efficiency of an unplanned and free market system. The application of that modern technology we call the supermarket with the associated logistics chain. Plus those fridges and freezers that adorn every home. Do note that the FAO, the food and agriculture bit of the UN, tells us that in poor countries, those without those hangars and temples to capitalist gluttony, lose some 50% of all food produced between field and fork.

On the numbers presented to us this is a problem we’ve already solved. For, seriously, who believes that any government scheme ever will operate with a mere 0.3% wastage rate? We are distinctly unconvinced that government has unlimited capacity and we’d thus suggest that this particular point be declared dealt with and that limited attention and competence be directed at more pressing concerns.

When for example, is someone going to solve Simon Cowell?

Fully Automated Luxury Vehicles

At a 1939 exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, American giant General Motors displayed their vision of what the world would look like in 20 years; a world brimming with self-driving vehicles and automated highway systems. However, 80 years on, this vision is yet to be fulfilled. Why is that after decades of innovation, we have yet to accomplish a dream envisaged almost a century ago? Perhaps we can help accelerate this dream into a reality, through the advocacy of effective free market policy reforms.

Crucially, one of the greatest barriers presented to the self-driving industry is the plethora of government regulations encompassing the development and testing of autonomous vehicles. Although numerous bills and acts have been passed in recent times, bestowing greater freedom for firms to test their vehicles, regulations surrounding the manufacture of cars still greatly discourage new firms from entering the market. In lifting such regulations, increased competitiveness between firms would be enabled, allowing for greater incentives to increase productivity and innovation.

Tax also presents itself as a critical hurdle. For instance, in the UK, the higher tax rate lies at a staggering 40%. However, by reducing income tax rates, it is likely that people will be incentivised to work harder, leading to greater productivity, and in turn, the swift development of self-driving vehicles. Furthermore, by reducing corporation tax, currently at 19% in the UK, this would encourage firms to reinvest larger amounts of their profit back into research and development.

Unfortunately, overregulated labour markets pose a hindrance too. For instance, in France, rigidities have been so vast such that the level of unemployment has soared at an average of around 10% over the past decade; 5 percentage points greater than that of the OECD average. However, by eliminating such regulations, firms would be enabled to more easily hire and fire workers, and by enabling zero hour contracts, firms would be allowed to employ workers when demand is greater, enabling greater productivity and innovation when a firm requires it most, as is currently desired. Such deregulation would enable firms to economise considerably, allowing for further investment into research and testing.

We are on the brink of making the vision General Motors once displayed into a tangible reality; let’s make the effective policy reforms now, to help us shift into the new, and exciting future.

Prerak Goel is the winner of the under 18s category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.

Channel tunnel link

The Channel tunnel is 25 years old. On May 6th, 1994, a year later than planned, Queen Elizabeth II and French president, François Mitterrand, met on trains that stopped nose to nose in the tunnel, and then officially opened the tunnel in a Calais ceremony. It was the culmination of an ancient dream for a land link between the UK and the Continent.

In 1802, Albert Mathieu-Favier, a French mining engineer, proposed to tunnel under the English Channel, illuminated by oil lamps, with traffic drawn by horse-drawn coaches, and an artificial island positioned mid-Channel for changing horses. Early proposals were rejected because of security fears that first Napoleon, then later Hitler, would use it to invade Britain.

It’s a rail tunnel of 31.35 miles linking Folkestone and Calais. At its lowest point, it is 250 ft deep below the sea bed and 380 ft below sea level. Construction began in 1988 and went 80 percent over its budget at £9bn. It takes freight and passengers, plus the occasional illegal immigrant.

It is a symbol of globalization. In January 2017, for example, the first goods train arrived through it from China, after crossing seven countries in 18 days and travelling 7,500 miles to deliver 34 containers of clothes and goods. It is also a symbol of the movement of peoples; we travel more than we did. The tunnel carries over 20m passengers a year.

The Channel Tunnel is but one of a series of fixed links built to facilitate and shorten travel times. The Øresund Bridge, completed in 1999, connects Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmo in Sweden. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, finished in 2018, connects Hong Kong to Macau. Both save long drives or ferry crossings. The Amur Bridge joining China to Russia is due for completion next year,

Many more ambitious ones are planned, including one that will connect Japan with the Asian mainland. The granddaddy of them all, if it is ever built, will be the one that connects Russia and America via the two Diomede islands in the Bering Strait. There is a Chinese plan for a fixed link between China and the USA via Russia and using 200km of tunnels,

As with many of these ambitious ideas, the problem is not so much the technology as the funding. Engineers can solve the problems of drilling and spanning, but government ministers have first to determine how they might be financed, since like most big projects they will probably overrun on both time and cost. The dream of travelling from London to the US by train is a long way from becoming reality, but the opening of the Channel Tunnel 25 years ago was a significant first step along the way.

The data will see you now: Algorithms and the NHS

Much is made of the staff shortages that the NHS may suffer after Britain’s departure from the European Union. Whilst falling European migration is an issue that may be resolved by opening up to more global movement, simply providing more workers does not guarantee that public-sector jobs will be filled ahead of potentially more lucrative private employment. In the near future, technology may yet provide the answer to what seems increasingly to be a political and economic black hole of state-funded healthcare.

The solution could lie in partnerships with the private tech sector in order to utilise the potential of data with ‘virtual diagnoses’. The time and expense taken to train each human doctor is a major contributor to the shortage, and an integrated system would only require one large cash injection. Additionally, future processing power seems likely to surpass the human brain in making accurate decisions. Whilst a human conclusion will be reached by drawing on past experience, a data bank, when joined to advanced diagnostic algorithms, would be capable of accessing near-infinite information to inform a diagnosis, with the added benefit of removing issues like fatigue which might impair human decision-making.

However, this fails to take into account the innate ‘emotional intelligence’ required by many front-line medical staff. It seems that to fully resolve the issue, diagnostic technology would need to factor in the algorithms necessary to understand emotional responses. Incorporating the process that leads to human feeling would be crucial if, for instance, a data system had to make a direct diagnosis of a serious disease. Understanding emotional algorithms in humans would also enable investment in technology-related treatments for mental health, developing the best way to approach matters like mental trauma. Such systems could be refined to the smallest detail, even anticipating the human brain’s processing of the fact that a machine was treating it and acting to prevent this with semantic changes particular to the patient and diagnosis.

Adopting partnerships with the private sector, where technology is a major draw for funding, could help stabilise the state healthcare budget in the UK and address qualified staff shortages. The reduction in cost provided by what is effectively one ‘super-doctor’ could substantially reduce the heavy taxpayer burden of NHS funding. Ultimately, therefore, the medical profession might one day be able to reduce its numbers for the right reason.

Peter Wollweber is the winner of the 18-21 category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.

How can we tell whether the fracking earthquake limit is nonsense or not?

Fracking in the UK cannot continue if earthquakes of 0.5 or more are recorded. A break must be had if one is so recorded. This rather, as Sir Jim Radcliffe has noted - as the just resigned fracking “tsar” has done - puts the kibosh upon the use of the technology. That is, we’ve not actually banned fracking but we’ve put in place a rule which has that same effect.

Now, of course, it is possible that such a 0.5 limit is necessary. Don’t want to shake the country down after all. We have made obvious our views on this a couple of times. It is not a useful nor sensible safety rule it is, instead, an attempt to ban fracking on spurious safety grounds. But how can or should we try to prove this?

The Government has been accused of "blatant double standards" for allowing drilling in Cornwall that is able to cause stronger tremors than fracking.

The United Downs Deep Geothermal Project, in Redruth, Cornwall, is the UK’s first geothermal extraction site which opened in December 2018. It consists of two deep wells at least 2,500m in depth being drilled into the ground to extract renewable energy.

However, unlike fracking, tremors caused by geothermal drilling are not formally regulated by a national government body. This is despite the “seismic hazard” of the process which can cause earthquakes “magnitude four and above” that could be felt by up to 4000 Cornish homes,

If you are drilling for geothermal power, something environmentalists generally approve of, then you can cause earthquakes several hundred times more powerful - the Richter Scale is a logarithmic one - than if you are drilling for natural gas. The rules is therefore not a safety one, it’s a deliberate attempt to impose bureaucratic safety standards to ban fracking.

Thus, obviously, either ban geothermal drilling under those same rules or lift the allowable limit for fracking. For the imposition of different rules dependent upon whether some approve, or don’t, of the activity being undertaken is rule by caprice, not law.

The country is being shaken down here and it’s not by earthquakes.

The malign influence of Karl Marx

Karl Marx, born on 5th April, 1818, in Trier, Germany, spent much of his life in exile, finding it unsafe to live in Germany, France or Belgium. Britain provided a haven, though, and Marx spent much of his time in the reading room of the British Museum. He is famous for two principal publications. First came “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, co-authored with Friedrich Engels, a textile magnate who supported Marx for 40 years out of the profits from his mills.

Second was “Das Kapital,” the first volume of which appeared in 1867. The two works are regarded as the foundation stones of Communism. Marx was undoubtedly a talented and original thinker, but his works were treated with a religious fervor that was unmerited, largely due to their appropriation by Lenin as the justification for the Bolshevik seizure of power and the establishment of the decades-long Soviet tyranny.

Marx saw history in terms of class struggle, and was Hegelian enough to think that history was working towards a foreordained conclusion. This would of course be the dictatorship of the proletariat to bring about the classless society. At which point history would stop. He sympathized with the plight of working people, and saw them as victims of capitalism and its lust for profit. He thought their labour was exploited, and that they were not given the full value of what they produced.

Some people still think this, but a more real-world picture might see capitalists as people who commit resources to produce what they think people will want to buy, and who do so hoping to gain a return thereby on their investments. In doing so, they provide working people with the chance to better their lives by earning money. On such a view the capitalists benefit both the people who buy their goods and the workers who earn wages producing them. The capitalists risk losing their investment if they guess wrong, and people don’t buy the goods.

The fact is that the socialism Marx wanted to replace capitalism does not work, and has never worked when it has been tried, even though millions have died while this truth was being made apparent. In the name of Marxism, lives have been blighted and terminated, misery, poverty and destitution have spread, and none of the results it claimed to seek have been achieved.

Despite his tunnel vision of history, Marx did make an important contribution to its study, recognizing that the productive technology of different ages has an influence on their ideas and their culture. He thought it determined them, which is too extreme, but his recognition of its influence is a useful one.

Marx was one of history’s most influential thinkers, but the crimes against humanity committed under the banner of his name will forever taint his record. Most of the influence he had was malign.