Issue #37: Transitions and Belonging
"To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose" — The Byrds
The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.
I loathe the darkness of Daylight Savings Time. I often tell people that because I’m from Texas that I need sunlight to grow. Although I’ve braved gloomy frigid East Coast winters for nine years before moving to California for rainy chilly winters, every year I’m reminded about how sad I feel when my SAD returns. Somehow this seasonal transition gets more difficult every year. It’s easier to be contemplative in the rosy glow of dusk rather than feeling surprised by the darkness that arrives around 3 pm.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the interminable year feels accelerated as we rush to Christmas and New Year’s. Of course this year is different as I imagine so many of us don’t feel in a celebratory mood. My boyfriend and I have decided to plan a Zoom-mas celebration in lieu of traveling to his home state of Iowa or my home state of Texas where we can exchange gifts and play games with our families. It’s not the same as physically being there, but we think they will appreciate the unique opportunity for both families to meet each other at once.
I’ve been thinking more about transitions lately. We are all living amid transition. There’s something endearing yet troubling about American naivete, in our rush to get through the middle to reach the end. Call it unhealthy work ethic or childish exuberance, but we don’t know how to sit in the messy middle of transitions. A concurrent presidential transition and poorly executed yet nevertheless dangerous coup. Two record breaking vaccines publish better-than-expected trial results as the global pandemic hurtles toward the worst case scenarios becoming reality. We would rather turn to the final chapter of a book instead of purposefully receiving our lessons from the hero right as they reach rock bottom.
I could myself as one of these irrationally exuberant people. You kind of have to be as a futurist: in a hurry to build preferred futures and eager to persuade others to act on imagined visions of the world. But we are in the transition, not past it. As we look at the world around us, things are likely to get much worse before they have a chance to get better. It’s tempting to fight for certainty despite certainty being in short supply. One of my favorite insights from Elena’s interview is moving away from optimizing for a relative or absolute maxima of a outcome but looking more at optimizing for the transition or process. In the context of the future of belonging, I started thinking about optimizing for pathways that build the capabilities needed for belonging in a wide range of arenas rather than assuming a fixed state where a given individual belongs in a singular place and time.
I’ve avoided writing clear cut forecasts about the future of belonging. In the field of strategic foresight, a forecast is a story of the future that is plausible, internally consistent and provocative. Some of this avoidance is my perfectionist tendencies popping out. It’s a tall order to craft these stories alone. But largely it’s diving into the messiness of a landscape teeming with provocative disruptions to begin pulling stories from the chaos. It’s frightening to commit to telling these stories given how much may change as we move through this transition.
So I’m asking you readers to build upon these nascent stories of belonging 10 years from now to build your futures thinking capabilities as we work toward clarifying these stories. I hesistate to call them stories as they are works in progress. But here are a few along with implications for belonging in the future.
Socially networked solitude: Society embraces singlehood and solitude as young people lean into the homebody economy as they shun seeking friends and romantic partners. Robotic companions satisfy their need for touch and physical comfort. Although physically isolated, these “super solos” pioneer digital communities, making immersive media socially therapeutic by adopting avatars and creating digital humans that mimic the interpersonal relationships they lack in real life. What they lack in social skills, they make up in their nearaly monastic devotion to the areas and causes they do care deeply about as they never learned to compromise or take no for an answer. Super solos feel deep connections with broader society and natural world, over-investing in these ecologies even as they underinvest in their inner circle. They often say a person is messy, but people are wonderful.
Digital self-sovereignty: Although Gen Z has no expectations of digital privacy, the generation that follows, Generation Alpha, grows up in an age where digital reputation management becomes available to the masses. Much like we discuss our carbon footprint, this generation knows their digital emissions and uses synthetic media to mask, conceal, and deceive the various apparatuses of surveillance capitalism deployed in a fragmented regulatory environment. This pursuit of self-sovereign identity protects those most vulnerable to the excesses of the digital commons as they exercise complete control over their digital personhood.
EIaaS: The COVID19 pandemic, systemic racism, and extreme weather events of the early 2020s overwhelm an already overburdened mental health system. The demand for therapy is too great while the supply for therapists, much less culturally literate therapists, is far too small. In response, immersive media content developers, data scientists, machine learning experts, and psychologists come together to develop end-to-end solutions that provide Emotional Intelligence as a Service (EIaaS) through brain-computer interfaces. EIaas provides mind training that fosters emotional fitness to prevent negative impacts from traumas like eco-anxiety and delivers AI therapy for those struggling with mental illness. Many parents begin to view EIaaS as an alternative to formal schooling as the soft skills it delivers are highly in demand in the workplace.
Home is where the community is: Co-living takes on an entirely new life as the delay to marriage and pressures of the modern workplace all but kill the nuclear family as a viable sociocultural organization. After young people survive the Great Lockdown of 2020, they reinforce their family-like bonds by choosing homes based on the community they afford access to. Small groups of families opt to purchase homes on the same block or rent apartments in the same building to provide turnkey socialization, child care, and sense of rootedness amid the nomadic feel of remote work. Developers begin to build housing clusters rather than rows of single family homes. Legal protections and frameworks begin to emerge, honoring the validity of these hodgepodge families. These include anti-gentrification co-ops and fractional community land trusts thaat allow cash-strapped young adults build micro-estates that ground present-day community and future legacy.
Quantified social bonding: We’ve found ways to prevent breakups in both friendships and romantic relationships. DNA sequencing reveals sources of incompatibility down to the base pair. AI models trained on thousands of virtual Tinder dates and Zoom parties now have created libraries of human actions that make behavior-based matching easily possible and preferable to heartbreak. Rather than trading stories of a bad date over mimosas with your girlfriends at brunch, everyone makes jokes about the corny AI-driven feedback that comes through dating apps to coach them into being better partners. The most overbearing parents put their children through friendship machines to ensure neurological compatibility with friends who will keep their children out of trouble and on a pathway to success.
What are your initial feelings after reading these?
What would make you happy? Why?
What would make you anxious? Why?
What would make you grateful? Why?
What would make you angry? Why?