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Monthly Archives: August 2005

“Breeding Evil?”, a leader and special report published this month examining the virtues of video games, was my second Economist cover of the year. My first, back in March, was “The real digital divide”, about mobile phones in the developing world. (I have since written more on the topic — see here and here.) Anyway, it seems particularly fitting to me that these should be the topics of my two covers, because whenever I’m asked what I regard as the hottest topics in technology, I always reply “mobile phones and gaming”. (Voice-over-broadband comes third, I suppose, and energy technology is coming up the field fast. UPDATE September 2005: Lo and behold, my third cover of the year is about VOIP.)

Mobile phones are the most numerous digital devices on the planet, and truly deserve to be called “personal computers”. And games consoles are the most powerful mass-produced computers in the world. So they are, if you like, at the cutting edge of computing quantity and quality respectively. Both also have interesting social consequences. We in the developed world have spent the past few years adjusting to mobile phones, texting and so on, but their impact in the developing world will be far greater, since they are the first communications devices to become really prevalent. (By the time mobiles started spreading in the rich world, we already had fixed-line phones and the internet, so mobiles made less of a difference.) Gaming is also interesting, because it is emerging as a new medium, up there with music and movies. That was the main point of my cover article: that new art forms are often criticised by people who aren’t familiar with them and consider them to be evil. Rock’n’roll in the 1950s is another example.

The gaming piece generated more letters and e-mails than anything I have ever written for The Economist. Many were from gamers, who approved of the article, though a few of them thought I should have made more of the social nature of online role-playing games, which confound the stereotype of gamers as loners. (True, but such games are still a minority sport, even among gamers.) Several readers who disagreed with the article thought I had overlooked the many studies that show a link between gaming and violence. I am aware of these studies; but there are also lots of other studies that failed to find a link. Similarly, there are meta-analyses that look across all the studies — but they too are contradictory. Some evaluations of the literature find clear evidence that gaming causes violence, while others do not.

Sound familiar? It does to me. This is exactly what is going on in the debate over mobile phones and cancer. There is lots of anecdotal evidence, and plenty of dodgy studies which come to no clear conclusion. (See “Mobile phones are probably safe, by analogy”, below.) Of course, if mobile phones really were dangerous we ought to have noticed by now; the same is true of gaming. My article included this chart, which shows violent crime in America declining over the past decade as gaming became more popular. Many anti-gaming readers wrote in to complain that this chart posits a causal link: it doesn’t. I am not suggesting (though some people are) that gaming makes people less violent. I am merely noting that gaming is now so widespread that if it did make people more violent, that ought to show up in the violent-crime figures, yet they are declining. The point of the chart is to demonstrate not causation, but lack of causation. Anyway, as with rock’n’roll, this argument will only be resolved by a generational shift, as the gamers (mostly under 40) grow up, and the non-gamers (mostly over 40) die out.

My sporadic campaign against bottled water continued this week in The Guardian, on Marketplace, and on KQED in San Francisco. My Guardian piece was a good opportunity to take in some of the ideas (such as water taxes and “ethical” water) that were suggested to me after the New York Times Op-Ed appeared. I was also able to make it clear that if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, the next step should be to try filtering it, rather than simply giving in and buying bottled water.

So far I have yet to hear a good argument in defence of bottled water, and I’m not surprised, since there isn’t one. One industry executive suggested to me that the bottled-water companies are really selling “portable hydration” rather than water. But even if this were a good reason to sell water in bottles (drinking fountains also provide portable hydration, as does tap water in a bottle) this does not account for all the bottled water sold. Yes, people buy water in small bottles on hot days. But the bulk of the industry’s sales surely come from people buying big bottles, six at a time, in the supermarket, to drink at home instead of tap water. Surprisingly, nobody has yet advanced what I consider to be the best argument in defence of bottled water, namely that in a consumer-capitalist economy, people should be free to make dumb purchasing decisions: buying dodgy personal-fitness equipment from late-night infomercials, for example. This, of course, is the argument advanced by the tobacco industry. And it’s true: people should be allowed to smoke themselves to death if they want to, or buy water that costs 10,000 times as much as tap water but is really no different, but only if they have all the facts. In the case of bottled water, most people don’t have all the facts. I am doing what I can to remedy that, and if the e-mails I’ve received are anything to go by, people who have more of the facts think again about buying bottled water.

Now for the mea culpa. When writing the Guardian piece I found an error in my NYT Op-Ed. I wrote: “Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year.” In fact, these figures are not to provide water and sanitation to everyone, but to meet the UN’s target of reducing lack of access by half by 2015. I should have written, as I did in the Guardian: “The UN’s goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation by 2015 could be achieved for an outlay of around $11 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute.” Mea culpa.

Finally, I have to share a story sent to me by a reformed bottled-water drinker. When living in Paris with her husband, she used to keep a bottle of Evian in the fridge, and refill it from the tap when it ran low. One day her husband complained. “Damn it,” he said, “I wish you’d stop doing that. I can’t tell if it’s the good stuff or if…”. A funny look came over his face as he realised what he was saying, and after that they stopped buying bottled water.

I’ve had a lot of e-mail in response to my attack on bottled water, published as an Op-Ed in the New York Times (and the IHT, where you can still read it). Most people agreed with my stance. I heard from a dentist who pointed out that tap water has another advantage over bottled water that I did not mention: it contains fluoride which strengthens teeth. (That said, many people object to fluoridisation, for reasons I have never quite understood, particularly since some mineral waters contain higher levels of fluoride naturally.) A chemical engineer said he never drinks bottled water, since it is more likely than tap water to contain bacteria, and gets his children to refill water bottles from the tap. And a teacher wanted to know which water charity I recommended giving money to (my answer: Water Aid). Some people complained that their tap water tasted bad; fair enough, but I still recommend a blind tasting. Bottled water can taste bad too. Also, you could always try filtering your tap water. Other people noted that groundwater can be contaminated, so tap water is not always better than bottled water. True; but bottled water is not the answer to bad tap water, or is at least one of the least good answers I can think of. There are all kinds of clever filters being invented out there to deal with arsenic poisoning in particular. That kind of approach makes much more sense than resorting to expensive bottled water shipped around on lorries. I also heard about Ethos Water, an “ethical” bottled water firm; isn’t that a step in the right direction? So I have put answers to all these questions, and a few more besides — Where can you buy Roman wine? Why is my book not published in Britain? — on a new “Six Glasses FAQ” page.

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