Issue #42: Belonging and Institutions

So persuasive is the power of the institutions we have created that they shape not only our preferences but actually our sense of possibilities. — Ivan Illich

How is your corner of existential chaos and dread proceeding? I wish that were a sarcastic inquiry. The whiplash due to transitioning from joyscrolling last night’s historic Senate victories to doomscrolling an armed insurrection in the US Capitol has made this issue eerily timely. This issue is brought to you by whiskey and a stress baked apple crisp.

I’d planned to write about the future of belonging and our institutions earlier this week in anticipation of our community’s project to create scenarios and artifacts re-imagining belonging at work.

I began my research examining the future of belonging because I saw three extreme forces diminishing belonging over the next decade: increasing loneliness, accelerating social and institutional disaffiliation, and growing displacement. This disaffiliation is reducing avenues for emotional connection and validation through institutions such as school, church, government, and social and community organizations.

So, I’ve more deeply examined the shifts affecting the networks and communities that comprise and include these institutions to bring proto-forecasts, or stories of the future, to light.

I’ve written a few of these proto-forecasts in a previous issue, largely centered on the innermost circle of the belonging framework I’ve created. This circle focuses on our connections with self and others through Identity, Place, and Relationships. To recap, networks are webs of interconnected relationships, often used for communication.

Manual networks —> Social networks —> Autonomous networks

Social clubs like the Elks, Freemasons, and Key Club were some of the original social networks. At once localized hubs of strangers physically gathered together along with nationally connected network of individuals gathered together under a shared ethos, these social clubs required physical presence along with an education into the expectations, norms and activities performed by virtue of being part of the network. With online social networks like Facebook, the cost of participation lowered. “You also might like” turned into shorthand for signaling belonging. We also grew accustomed to interacting with bots and robots pretending to be human individuals in games like Fortnite or even in the workplace as coworkers and supervisors. As the surveillance apparatus grows, we will all find ourselves unknowingly members of autonomous networks without efforts to limit surveillance capitalism.

These proto-forecasts examine the next circle of our networks and communities which are the infrastructures for these connections.

Omniviolence Eats the World

These autonomous networks will power the scale up of omniviolence, the ability to target violence toward anyone and anywhere with a combination of bio-, digital, and nano-technologies such as bot swarms and neural dust, rendering notions like national defense and public safety irrelevant. The autonomous networks of omniviolence are far more resilient to deterrence, drawing inspiration from natural systems like bacterial colonies. Cells in a bacterial swarm often sacrifice themselves through a process known as necrosignaling in order to survive antibiotic treatment. The rise of idle and self-playing games presages a potential pathway out of ubiquitious violence, gamifying responses to hack these networks from within, insulting potential targets who can afford to deploy defensive swarms. Celebrity hacktivists become the new Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, lauded for their ability to capitalize on the chaos by hiring the “best and brightest” to create security solutions for the rich, famous and influential.

The digital colonialism of the 2010s and 2020s divides the world into those supporting ubiquitous surveillance and those subject to that same surveillance which has mainstreamed as the answer to omniviolence. In this threat-laden world, people scramble for the promise of wealth in vehicles like the pre-wealth of employee equity in startups, income share agreements (ISAs) to pay for education and reskilling, digital squatting of the handles of the hottest new digital platform to build their personal digital safety net. Institutional affiliation becomes a liability for all. People strive to maintain anonymity, if not ambiguity, around their institutional connections.

Stochastic Joy to the World

The social recession of the early 2020s redoubles efforts to bring the world closer together via technology in the collapse of public trust and social cohesion. The official futures of virtual reality as the “empathy machine” seems quaint in light of the leaps and bounds forward in technological development with brain computer interfaces and the emerging use of “skinput,” linkages to technological interfaces embedded in the skin. Nanosensors that enable haptics over long distances become popular for recreational use in feeling caring in a highly mobile society plagued by routine pandemics compelling social distancing. Unfortunately, hackers sometimes breach these systems to physically harass users.

Because alone together becomes the new normal, new social practices emerge to target and disseminate acts of endearment such as hugs and pats on the back. In contrast to the stochastic terrorism caused by the scapegoating done by alt-right parties and groups worldwide, digital cults arise and amplify the fragmentation of digital media environments into splinternets focused on connection and joy. These cults spread joy at anytime for any reason. These networks fill the void in a world where full-time labor, traditional education, and religious affiliation is the exception instead of the rule. Absent a profit motive driven by surveillance and rampant datafication, data cooperatives and other alternative modes of data governance that place safety first as the priority for networks.


Communities include groups of people connected by common place and/or affinity collaborating for collective action.

Colonialism —> individualism —> mutualism

Colonialism was the dominate paradigm of the last few centuries, enshrining communities of the haves and have nots globally. Although this practice of overt domination ended with bloody wars of independence, the legacy lives on in the myths of individualism. In the United States, aphorisms about meritocracy and “pulling yourself by the bootstraps” allow this division among communities to persist. Community membership and belonging is determined by economic productivity alone. Those who cannot perform are blamed and ostracized. As disruption from large scale forces like climate volatility destroy communities without regard for economic prosperity, communities will forge pathways to mutualism in the name of survival and resilience.

HaaS: Healing as a Service

Mutual aid initiatives comprise nodes in a larger social resilience ecosystem powered by restorative justice and accessible design after the turn toward algorithmic justice runs its course. After many cities ban surveillance technologies such as facial recognition and cashless stores, states and nations follow suit by phasing out algorithmic sentencing and predictive recidivism to reduce the economic burden of excessive imprisonment.

As the enormity of pandemic response and climate mitigation top the global national security agenda, cities turn to precision well-being as a governing philosophy and economic development imperative. Residents come together to protect the new rights needed in a more volatile world such as temperature rights that offer protection from extreme temperatures caused by climate disruption and the right to be forgotten offering freedom from tracking and surveillance.

Social experiments have uncovered strategies to end the plague of loneliness even as chronic grief and anxiety becomes the norm. People opt into surveillance, putting emotion AI to work to better maintain psychological homeostasis. Supplements have evolved to dispense customized blends of microdoses of psychedelics and probiotics to optimize mood.

The face of bureaucracy changes with civic engagement at a historic high. Services become more decentralized and rooted in community needs and values. This new organizational tech stack in government includes a “front end”of participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies, participatory defense and violence interrupters. With large scale data sharing across departments and with residents outside government, residents can orchestrate novel prosocial government services to be responsive to needs.

Upcoming Events

ICYMI: We are coming together to envision transformational futures for belonging at work over 10 weekly sessions this year. Learn more about this community experiment. Sessions start on January 11. RSVP for sessions: https://lu.ma/belongingatwork

If you aren’t able to attend, please submit signals of change to contribute to this project: http://bit.ly/belongingatworksignals

Watch this video for more information about spotting signals.


I’ll be speaking about how my writing process has evolved over a year of exploring belonging at Substack’s writers’ conference, Substack On!, on January 8, 2021. You can get more info + registration details at https://substack.com/on.