Issue #26: Shifts Powering the Future of Belonging

I wish that I could say that I was feeling hopeful, but the world is simply too heavy these days. I live in San Francisco where I awake everyday to the smell and smog of the fires raging all over the Bay Area. I dust ash off of my outdoor plants. My family lives in Texas where yet another record breaking storm, Hurricane Laura, is making landfall. And because this is America, yet another Black person, Jacob Blake, has been shot by police and other two people have died at protests decrying this latest act of police brutality died, murdered by a teenage white supremacist.

As a futurist, I devote my investigation, analysis and creativity to helping individuals, organizations and communities think systematically about the future. I’ve written before that thinking about the future is neither a luxury nor an exercise for the lazy. It requires an investment in both curiosity and collaboration to dare to hope for the world to be radically different and to work toward transformation. But there’s so much chaos and violence in our present that it’s difficult to have the mental and emotional bandwidth to imagine anything different.

In times like these, I find it helpful to turn back to history. My mother reminded me that my grandmother grew up so poor in Miami that my great-grandmother used to sew my grandmother’s underwear using the fabric from the flour sacks that the family had. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Black Internet Culture, you would have seen the phrase “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” I firmly believe that this is true as I remember the tremble in my grandmother’s voice when she learned that I got into Yale.

Yet I doubt if this declaration will continue to ring true for those who come after me. When I examine the forces at play in our present, I can only imagine more death and violence ahead of us in the near future as White supremacy digs in its heels, aided and abetted by the apparatus of failed leadership and accountability at all levels of government. Curiosity feels futile and collaboration out of reach as asymmetrical powers double down on command and control. I try to hold onto the glimmer of hope that traumatic backlash means the forces favoring transformation have struck a chord. And it’s these large shifts that I want to lean into.

I’m really trying to sanity check this graphic that I shared a couple of weeks ago aiming to capture the arenas within the landscape for belonging. Major paradigm shifts within each arena have shaped the literacies and approaches to belonging. Belonging is a multi-faceted human need, inclusive of how we choose to identify ourselves to self and others, emotional and sociocultural attachment to others, shared group affinities and locations, and the interconnected systems within which we are situated.

Identity explores the new ways we define, create, conceal, reveal and choose who we are, informing where and how we belong.

Defined FOR you —> Defended BY you —> Created/generated BY you

Identity defined FOR you include social categories such as religious affiliation as well as sociodemographics including gender informed by social respectability and conformity. Within identity defended BY you, pride first movements led by African Americans, LGBTQ people and others challenged existing social categories as normative and claimed worth within categories that were sidelined by dominant norms. As we look over the next decade, identity will be continuously created and generated as digital identities and blended realities enables infinite generation, iteration and combinations of identities both at will and autonomously.

Place explores the new locales including geographical, social, virtual and temporal spaces, their boundaries and the ongoing dynamics among identity, place and belonging.

Proximity —> Mobility —> Mutability

In examining proximity and place, so much of place and belonging occured by happenstance of our place of birth and economic production. As economies industrialized, mobility increased and normalized with the rise of globalization and urbanization. And now, the twin forces of gentrification and climate disruption bring mutability to the forefront. Place is wherever and whenever we determine it exists. It may be destroyed at a moment’s notice by shocks like extreme weather, violence, or contagion and reimagined and recreated in virtual recreations. The ability of places to expand and contract, build and rebuild, and learn and unlearn approaches to both physical and social construction will redefine belonging.

Relationships encompass our connections and emotional attachment to others: kinship, friendship and romantic relationships.

Fixed obligations —> Overexpanded quantity —> Fluid quality

Much like identity and place, our proximity to kinship relationships and means of economic production reduced our social connections to those closest to us: the family under our roofs and the friends we had next door. Reciprocity of social participation in ceremony and labor and sharing of resources underpinned these quasi-contractual relationships. With greater mobility and information sharing, we were able to break through constraints and enable choice within our social relationships. Presented with a social smorgasbord, we chose to form relationships with whomever we could reach with a text, DM, or tweet, Dunbar’s number be damned. The measure of belonging was our follower count. Over the next decade, we will shift to curation of our relationships. We will invest in products, services, and experiences to continuously improve relationship quality, making relationships that evolve by design and ongoing negotiation.

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.

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.

Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense, find meaning, and exercise power via avenues for belonging.

Superstition and mysticism —> Rationalism and science —> Quantum mechanics

Past narratives relied on the mysticism of religion and other superstitious avenues to explain what could not be directly observed. With scientific and technological breakthroughs ranging from immunology to artificial intelligence, we have the ability to engineer the stories that we want to hear about how the world does and should function and our own place within that narrative. What is observed can be measured and only that which can be measured, matters. The field of quantum mechanics explodes our former ways of knowing, an antithetical paradigm to our brain’s innate desire to categorize and stereotype that shows the coldness of rationalism. We are simultaneously and inescapably separate as individuals and interconnected as part of a whole. The reality that we suppose to perceive objectively is also a constructed perception.

Culture includes the values and ethos that propel the behaviors and norms for belonging.

Religiosity —> Objectivism —> Humanism

Culture functioned to save our souls from either eternal damnation or a restless afterlife. Through a combination of faith/fealty and good works, cultures made the conditions for belonging clear but constraining. Objectivism or rational individualism elevated the perfect hero above all, rejecting any attribution or contribution of context or privilege to success. Although not the only philosophy that dominates our cultural milieu, other practices like prosperity gospel award credit to “winners” and blame to “losers” for many of the same reasons. These cultural practices serve to divide and fragment populations at systemic levels and sustain inequity over time. As our cultural gaze shifts from what we do and assessing our output to more internal reflection on self-awareness and empathy for others, humanism may grow deeper roots, prioritizing social and emotional wellbeing for all.

Community Events

This Monday was the second meetup for this community where we got to have an interactive discussion about disruptions that may influence the future of belonging using Miro. You can take a look at the collaborative output below. I’m so thankful for everyone’s attendance and contributions as well as ongoing dedication to keep learning and practicing new ways to foster belonging.