SMH: Youth issues drowned amid sound bites

Just after the Australian election, my  first 'real-life' paper opinion piece appeared in the Sun-Herald paper, the Sunday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Icing on the cake? Malcolm Fraser himself retweeted it!


In case you missed it, check it out below...


It has been a long five weeks. It would be fair to say it has been a long seven months; since the first election announcement on January 30, the political onslaught has been relentless.

The cycle of topical and divisive issues such as asylum seekers, the economy, the national broadband network and the paid parental leave scheme have dominated. Tiringly, these issues are only ever discussed in sound bites.

The debates made conspicuous by their absence however, were those about the policies that directly address issues of importance to young people and the longer-term future of our nation.

Climate change has been spoken about only in so far as to scrap the carbon tax. It would seem Maslow's hierarchy of needs is at work, with parties playing on voters' survival instinct rather than longer-term attitudes towards morality. In an environment where the fear of the "budget emergency" and the "rise in the cost of living" are touted as immediate crises, the apparent "ethical luxury" of a shift to sustainable development is no longer part of the debate.


The fear-mongering flies in the face of data from the National Electricity Market, which indicates a 7 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Naturally, the entire reduction cannot be attributed simply to the tax and it alone is not the whole answer. Nonetheless, the objective remains: to reduce our society's impact on the environment by whichever means are most effective.

Young people have been left behind at both ends of Maslow's hierarchy. Not only has the issue of climate change been removed from consideration, but the physiological and safety needs in employment and housing have been underplayed.

The unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 is 11.5 per cent, double the general number and up from 8.8 per cent in 2008. For those between 15 and 19, it is 27.3 per cent, up from 15.5 per cent in 2008. The Foundation for Young Australians' How Young People Are Faring 2012 report shows opportunities for them to take up full-time work have declined over the past 25 years.

Furthermore, the demographics of our workforce are changing. Job vacancies are low, with one in five unemployed for every vacancy in some states. Even for the 73.4 per cent of young people engaged in full-time education or training, their prospects once their training is over have been diminished.

The difficulties are further compounded for the vulnerable. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds (13.8 per cent) are twice as likely as their wealthier counterparts (5.2 per cent) to be out of employment, education or training. For indigenous youth and those with a disability, the rate is three times as high.

Housing is another sleeper issue largely ignored by public debate, with numbers showing a continuing decline in the value of loans taken out by first home buyers. Young people are also over-represented among the homeless.

The solutions provided by each side of the house are insufficient. The structures within the labour force, entry to employment and the effectiveness of traditional pathways need to be reassessed. To do that, however, these issues need to be on the table.

Perhaps the voting power of young people is not enough to set the agenda yet, but climate change during the 2010 election implied the opposite. The short-sightedness of our leading parties, however, means the burgeoning issues of our time are left aside for emotive discussions that play on voters' fears.

We can only hope that now that the decision has been settled, we will see some long-term visionary thinking. Optimistic perhaps, but isn't that the blessing of youth.

Read the original on the Sydney Morning Herald Website here. 


So what do you think? What issues are now missing from the agenda?


Election Night: Is there an echo?

Election night, Australia 2013.

Instead of switching on the telly when I got home (post the Brisbane Writers' Festival Great Debate which was much fun...) I flipped my laptop screen open and basked in the cool light of my facebook newsfeed.

Oh the woe.

But then the thought: If almost everyone I know is upset by the election results as per my newsfeed, who on earth voted for Tony Abbott?

(Correction. Who voted for the LNP? Such presidential style language.  A political party is a party is a party not a person).

Curious.  I think I saw only one congratulatory status update.  It could have been because all the LNP supporters were hitting the town in celebration and excitement, but the following few days saw little change in the tone of my feed (with occasional bursts about Syria).

It reminded me of the book published a few years back: "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from You", which talks about the Google and Facebook algorithms that 'personalise' what you see in search results.  

The synopsis paints a dystopian picture.

[box] Though the phenomenon has gone largely undetected until now, personalized filters are sweeping the Web, creating individual universes of information for each of us. Facebook-the primary news source for an increasing number of Americans-prioritizes the links it believes will appeal to you so that if you are a liberal, you can expect to see only progressive links. Even an old-media bastion like The Washington Post devotes the top of its home page to a news feed with the links your Facebook friends are sharing. Behind the scenes a burgeoning industry of data companies is tracking your personal information to sell to advertisers, from your political leanings to the color you painted your living room to the hiking boots you just browsed on Zappos. In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs-and because these filters are invisible, we won't know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas.[/box]

Is it really that bad? Should we be scared? Digging  a little deeper, it would seem that the Facebook PR machine has been doing a little work of its own to combat this image, publishing a study that disputes this claim.

But on this I am...undecided.  What is it that we are arguing exactly? That the 'online echo chamber' doesn't exist, or arguing about the effects of personalisation on creating such a 'chamber'?

Well, the personalisation exists, there is no question.  What effect is this having? Well...

Facebook's research concludes:

[box] Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook. [/box]

This links to the concept of EdgeRank (Facebook's algorithm for its newsfeed) .  As I understand, it says it doesn't matter how close you are to people in real life, what appears on your feed is what you interact with - whether they are 'strong' or 'weak' ties.  Because we share things from our 'weak' ties, it means this is likely to be information we wouldn't have accessed any other way.  Therefore, they are saying that in fact, the newsfeed system actually diversifies what you see.

I would recommend reading this slate article, which is a good summary of the research and findings.  I tend to the opinion that it isn't as fabulous a result as it is painted to be.  Although both strong and weak ties are sources of information, it would seem likely that weak ties would also include those who largely share ideologies...

Regardless of what the research says though, something doesn't feel right.

Yes, it is great that my friends seem to share my ideologies (judging by what I see/read on facebook for example), but the fact that rarely are widely differing ideologies  presented (or any that seem to reflect a popular ideology outside my immediate circles) seems disingenuous.  There might be other answers.  Perhaps my strong and weak ties are by and large young people who have similar concerns on the whole or those who don't share my opinions don't spend their time on facebook, or I don't actively spend my time interacting with perspectives/videos/links outside my ideologies so I don't get shown these on my newsfeed...

The question then becomes, how do I make sure that I don't fall into the trap of group think? Punters have talked about the narrowing of perspectives that is caused by a possible filter bubble, but what concerns me more is the increased likelihood of 'willful blindness'.

If everyone around you agrees or shares a similar world view, how will you be exposed to 'disruptive' views?

It is reminiscent of the story of a scientist whose partner's sole job was to disprove her theories and find the flaws until the theory was solid and foolproof. Only then did they publish the work.

It is so important for us to actively listen to opposing views and try to understand where they are coming from, right?  Isn't that the way we will truly broaden our scopes and try to bridge those chasms? Otherwise we are just looking at shades of the same primary colour, forgetting there are two other colours out there...

The Quraan says:

[box] O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. (49:13) [/box]

We are all different, but ultimately human.  Getting to know each other is part of the deal.

What do you think?