The issues that are to dominate the year

From the surveillance state to food security, the World Cup and missions to map out the galaxy, here is a look at the matters that will likely make headlines this year

By Charles Arthur  /  The Observer, LONDON

Wed, Jan 01, 2014 - Page 9

The tension between privacy, security, sharing and impermanence that began gathering steam last year will come to the fore this year. The Edward Snowden revelations echoed loudest through the technology business, with companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo all implicated in the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) scooping up of huge amounts of data. That, of course, is their business — but it is generally done with their users’ permission.

Privacy and security are becoming intertwined, though they are different. Privacy is about the right not to be overlooked; security is about the systems that ensure it. Yet we are happy to sacrifice a form of privacy, our personal data, in return for clear benefits. That is why systems like Google Now — which try to tell you useful information before you ask for it, such as delayed trains on your commute, or hotels near your arrival points in a new city — are accepted. We would like computers to do such boring stuff as working out if our day is going to be derailed, but we do not want that shared with other people.

And what we do share is becoming both more permanent and more transient. Facebook’s growth continues and people commit more and more to it. Yet at the same time a younger generation is adopting services such as Snapchat, whose key feature is impermanence: You take a photo, send it and within seconds of it being viewed, it is gone. The Web is blown away by the morning wind. That Snapchat was offered US$3 billion by Facebook (it declined) shows how important it is becoming to leave no trace in the modern world. The device on which all this privacy, security and sharing happens is increasingly, of course, the smartphone. The PC is no longer dominant and the new battleground for our trust is the device that we hold in our hands — and of which more than a billion will be sold during the year. However, is what we do on our mobile phone private? Is it secure? Apps give us the promise of privacy yet sometimes break it (some grab details without permission) and, when it comes to security, the hacking of telephones by the NSA and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (the secret agency responsible for signals intelligence) demonstrates that the battle does not end — it just moves to a new platform.

FASHION

By Alice Fisher

British names are going to be the big news in fashion this year. Over the past 12 months Kering and LVMH — the two biggest fashion conglomerates in the world — have invested heavily in British design talent and this year will bring the results of that injection of money.

In September last year, LVMH bought a 51 percent stake in shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood’s accessories company and a minority share in the JW Anderson label. Designer Jonathan Anderson was also appointed creative director of the Loewe luxury leather goods brand, another of LVMH’s companies. This investment came months after Kering bought a majority stake in Christopher Kane’s label. After the deal, Anderson described LVMH as “the Oxford University of luxury goods,” a perfect description for the way this sort of investment will help him develop his creativity and improve his company’s infrastructure. Expect all three names to dominate the international fashion stage in months to come

British models are also heading for world domination. Cara Delevingne was the most-Googled fashion name last year — beating Kate Moss to the top spot. As well as starring in advertising campaigns for Saint Laurent and lingerie brand La Perla, the model is diversifying into acting this year. She is now shooting a feature film, The Face of An Angel, out this year. However, the new name to watch in British modeling is Malaika Firth. The 19-year-old from Essex, southeast England, starred in her first advertising campaign for last year’s autumn/winter season. It was for Prada, one of the most influential companies in the fashion industry. This made Firth the first black model to appear in a Prada campaign since 1994, when it used Naomi Campbell in its autumn campaign. Firth has also been named as one of the stars of Burberry’s spring campaign.

British fashion has typically enjoyed a reputation for quirky eccentricity and this year will show whether, with the right investment and promotion, that talent can find a strong international market. With big labels backing the UK’s most promising names, it looks as though this year will be the year when everyone buys British.

SPORT

By David Conn

The sporting year this year is dominated by one midsummer behemoth: the soccer World Cup, this time in the most evocative of soccer countries, Brazil.

The start of the action usually pushes wider social concerns about sport to the sidelines, but after last year’s Confederations Cup was disrupted by mass protests in Brazil over inequality, poor public services and the massive cost of hosting FIFA’s tournament, the Brazilian government is bracing itself for more during the World Cup.

Demonstrations would also increase pointed questions about FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s hugely profitable world soccer governing body, which has been tarnished by corruption scandals yet enjoys tax-free status at home in Switzerland.

The increased scrutiny of sport’s integrity and its authorities’ fitness for purpose will be an issue when the Winter Olympics begins in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7. The amnesties for Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace protesters, and the early release of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky, have been widely interpreted to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to clearing away potential human rights protest points before the skiing starts.

Cycling’s governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has promised that an independent commission into the doping abuses of the 1990s and 2000s will begin early in the new year. New British UCI president Brian Cookson has said the commission will examine allegations that the UCI itself was previously complicit with doping, in the years when Lance Armstrong was riding high.

Yet cycling’s doping scandals seem not to have dulled huge British anticipation of this year’s Tour de France, which starts in England on July 5. Le grand depart is to follow a 190km route from Leeds, north England, up the Wharfedale valley and through more splendid Yorkshire countryside before finishing in the town of Harrogate, whose already grand streets are being further spruced up for their moment in the global spotlight.

SCIENCE

By Robin McKie

At 10am on Jan. 20 this year, a tiny electronic chip inside Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft is scheduled to flicker into life. The robot probe is by then to be several hundred million kilometers from Earth, on course for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Once its circuits, heaters and instruments have been brought to life, the probe is to make its final rendezvous with its target in August, before landing a tiny craft, called Philae, in November.

Rosetta and Philae are then to stay with Comet 67P/CG over the next few months, studying the plumes of gas and vapor that are to boil from its surface as it sweeps past the sun. The £840 million (US$1,389 million) project is to be one of the most spectacular feats of space exploration ever planned and, if successful, will mark a major milestone for the European Space Agency, which is set to fulfill a series of space spectaculars this year.

Apart from Rosetta, the agency is to start taking data later in the year from its robot satellite Gaia, which it launched successfully a few days ago. Carrying the biggest, most accurate camera ever constructed, Gaia is to pinpoint more than a billion stars with unprecedented precision and create a 3D map of the Milky Way. The billion-pixel camera will also help astronomers pinpoint planets orbiting stars elsewhere in our galaxy and help them in their quest to detect dark energy, the mysterious force that is believed to be pushing the universe apart.

In addition to these missions, this year will see a program of commercial satellite launches and flights of European astronauts to the International Space Station, demonstrating that Europe’s burning ambition to become a major space power may very soon be fulfilled.

FOOD

By Jay Rayner

At the dawn of the new year the global population will stand at just over 7.2 billion and rising. We are predicted to hit eight billion by 2024 and nine billion not long after that. The imperative of feeding all those mouths remains and the diary is packed with talking shops for those looking at ways to do it. The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture is to hold its Empowering Agriculture summit in Berlin from Jan. 16 to 18.

Likewise, the AU has declared this year the year of agriculture and food security, and will debate the issues at its annual gathering in Addis Ababa at the end of this month. It is likely that similar discussions will be held in March at the Wheat Food Security summit in Mexico. This marks the centenary of the birth of Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution that ushered in a massive explosion in agricultural yields in India and Pakistan from the 1960s.

However, the key event in the food security diary this year is likely to be the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s second international conference on nutrition in Rome in November. Given that the first one took place in 1992, it is long overdue. Back then the issue was relatively straightforward: there were people who had enough to eat and a lot who did not.

Now an explosion in the middle classes of the emerging economies has created a different narrative. There are still nearly a billion people with not enough to eat, but there are also vast numbers who are consuming too much. Agricultural fixes alone will not secure the planet’s food supply; we must also now find a way to rebalance our consumption. This is the debate that will come to the fore this year.

TRAVEL

By Joanne O’Connor

The growth of the “sharing economy” will continue to be one of the biggest travel stories of this year. Once seen as niche alternatives, accommodation sites such as Airbnb and Housetrip, car share service BlaBlaCar and dinner-party finder EatWith are moving swiftly into the mainstream and giving traditional hoteliers, car rental companies and restaurateurs sleepless nights.

Unable to compete on size with behemoths such as Tripadvisor and Airbnb, the new wave of travel startups will focus instead on offering a personalized service, in effect performing the role of the old-school travel agent. After all, what is the good of having half a million apartments to browse on Airbnb if you are not sure where you want to go in the first place?

San Francisco-based Peek.com is typical of the new breed of startup, offering a selection of handpicked travel experiences in the US, London and Paris. Local personalities in each city are enlisted to suggest itineraries for their own “perfect day.”

Mygola.com is another site that was created in response to a lack of decent online itineraries for independent travelers. Users can download a suggested itinerary, modify it and book the various components all in one place. Taking this customization process one step further, new apps from travel Web site Triposo provide recommendations for things to do and places to go in 200 countries, based on your location, the time of year, the weather and your personal preferences.