Excerpt from my new book: Left To Their Own Devices

The publisher has released an excerpt from the introduction of Left to Their Own Devices.

I thought I’d share it with you

Hope you enjoy…



Millennials are rewriting the rules. Millennials are the largest generation to come along since the Baby Boomers and are the largest group in both the workforce and consumer market since 2015. Due to their sheer numbers alone, their values, behaviors, and attitudes matter. Millennials are young, tech-savvy, and—increasingly—non-White. This combination of changing socio-demographic factors, their population size, and their tendency to want everything filtered through a digital interface means they will leave an indelible mark on society.

Enabled by mobility and digital connectivity, the sum total of these changes represents the emergence of a new social contract with vast implications for the social, economic, and political environments whose impacts will be as significant and far reaching as that of the printing press of the Industrial Revolution. I refer to these changes as a whole as “The Untethered Society.” I define coming “untethered” as: a condition in which ties to people, places, jobs, traditional processes, and organizing structures in society—like churches and political parties—are being weakened, broken, and displaced by digital hyperconnectivity.

Although untethering is increasing in scope across socioeconomic and generational lines, it is manifesting most notably among Millennials and those younger. An estimated 5,527,000 young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are now living life untethered in the United States, totally disconnected from work or school. This represents about 13 percent, or about one in seven American youth today, more than the population of thirteen states. In certain cities like Philadelphia, the number of eighteen- to twenty-four-year olds totally disconnected from work or school is as high as 25 percent. Most of the states with the highest youth disconnection rates are located in the South and Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina.

Like Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic powering along full steam ahead in the “unsinkable ship,” many Boomers (and those older) see only the tip of this iceberg, but do not fully grasp the magnitude of the impact of what’s ahead. Failing to plan ahead, and an overreliance on the “unsinkability of the ship”—we know how that story ends. The Untethered Society isn’t simply devices in hands or the number of text messages sent per month or the 1.44 billion monthly active users on Facebook or a few kids dropping out of high school. The Untethered Society represents a new set of technologies and behaviors coming together to create a new social DNA, and with it a new set of social problems and challenges to businesses and other institutions. The Untethered Society is the socio-genetic underpinning of a new constellation of behaviors, values, norms, and ideals for the Millennial generation and those following it—a double helix of technology and behavior that is reshaping the evolution of society going forward.

Like the dinosaurs before them, large and seemingly entrenched social, financial, and political systems are unraveling and being reconfigured as a result of this coupling, with some going extinct altogether. This double helix of behavior and technology is the genetic code for the social trends of the future—trends that have far-reaching global implications to reconstitute consumer behavior, political outcomes, home, and hearth—and indeed, the structure and workings of our very nation-state. Millennials aren’t simply shunning a long-standing, traditional concept of the American Dream—they’re hacking it. Groups like ISIS have already figured out how to tap into the Untethered Generation—with brutal viral videos of beheadings and increasingly violent acts and recruitment videos that look like highly produced video games that speak to a young, untethered (male) audience who grew up gaming. Such moves leave traditional political structures at a loss for a response. This is a war being fought—and lost—in social media. It is survival of the digital fittest. Recent polls show a loss in confidence in institutions in the United States ranging from political parties to the banks, from churches to marriage, home ownership and family, most notably among Millennials. What’s happening here? How and why are more and more Americans, particularly younger Americans, untethering from the American Dream?

I visited Shanghai to talk about the “Untethering of Millennials in America.” After my talk, many in the audience came up to me saying they were experiencing the same phenomenon there in China with their Millennials, despite the fact that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites popular in the United States are banned in that country. I realized at that moment that becoming untethered isn’t just a US phenomenon but, instead, we’re entering a new era of an increasingly untethered world. Cybernetic theory has taught us that change is destabilizing until a new equilibrium is reached. An Untethered Society, then, is ultimately an unstable one. Entrenched institutions that don’t understand the changes underway and that don’t evolve to address them may potentially go the way of the dinosaurs.


The Untethered Society represents an uncoupling and reconstitution of the social contract, in sometimes unexpected and surprising ways. Our reliance upon and embeddedness within technological systems is growing. I have developed a theoretical framework for understanding the phases of these changes, which I am calling the Triad of Technological Immersion. It is an organizational scaffolding for the stages of technological and behavioral development. These stages are not sequential but, rather, operate simultaneously as each technological phase makes its appearance at various points of time and spreads, from its introduction as “the new shiny” adopted by early adopters through to becoming a fully mature technology with widespread adoption by the general population. The stages behave like a symphony, where the strings come in, then the woodwinds rise up, then the brass joins in, while all eventually operate together in (hopefully) a harmonious way. Yet while these technological systems may operate as intended, there are also unintended and disruptive consequences of each that will have widespread impact on society and on human lives. These are the three stages:

The first stage is the Untethered Society, which we are in now, where there is a ubiquity of digitally enabled mobile devices. During this stage, there is an increasing desire for a digital interface; behaviors revolve around connectivity and there is a simultaneous unhooking from traditional social structures/processes and institutions (like marriage, buying a house, having children, buying a car, having a long-term career—all aspects of what many have considered the American Dream). This is our current stage of technological immersion. All this connectivity has fueled a plethora of social behaviors, from online dating to the formation of social movements (e.g., the Arab Spring, #OccupyWallStreet, #MeToo, etc.) and has allowed many old friends to reconnect to one another via social networks. All this connectivity has a dark side, however: as more behaviors are conducted and documented online in social media and other places, more and more data is gathered, allowing computerized behavioral models to be developed that can be used in increasingly sophisticated ways to persuade or even manipulate audiences based upon their likes, fears, and psychological profiles as seen in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook.

Next to emerge is the Internet of Me (some call this “The Internet of Self ”). This is happening now with the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and “smart” systems in which there is an increasing intersection between physical systems and an array of objects—from light bulbs connected to your smartphones to Alexa and Google Home to connected automobiles and smart homes—all connected via digital and information technologies. Examples include the Smart grid, an array of sensors and smart home technologies like the “Nest” thermostat that can be controlled from your smartphone. In the Internet of Me, environments are customizable to your preferences—the temperature and lighting are adjusted to the way you like it when you come home; perhaps your favorite music is playing when you walk through the door. This is the stage that is now beginning to emerge on a larger scale and will continue to do so with smart, connected cities in the future, where more and more things become “digitized” and connected to the Net. The Bolt light bulb from Misfit is one example: taking cues from a clip-on device on your body, it simulates a slowly brightening sunrise based on your sleep/wake patterns.

The last stage on the horizon is what I call “The Internet of Them.” In the prior stages, humans were in the loop, in terms of controlling the technologies (e.g., pushing a button on your app to hail a cab or have dinner or groceries arrive, or in setting one’s preferences for the lights to come on or the proper temperature for the AC/Heater at a certain time of day). In this stage, intelligence becomes embedded in devices and acts autonomously, spinning away from human control. It is human out of the loop. An increasing number of “things” have their own embedded artificial intelligence. They can “learn” and get smarter without human intervention, and they make decisions on their own. They will increasingly “talk to” and coordinate with other intelligent objects and agents, like autonomous cars communicating with one another to coordinate driving on the road. Examples include chatbots that will simulate their owners or others through “synthetic personalities,” intelligent robotics, and automated workers. Eventually, as some researchers believe, these intelligent agents will achieve what has been called “the Singularity,” a stage at which they exceed human intelligence and capabilities for certain tasks. For example, IBM’s computer Watson recently was able to diagnose a rare form of cancer that had stumped a panel of human doctors. In the Internet of Them phase, intelligent agents are linked and interoperative, working alongside and cooperatively with other intelligent agents, interdependent with other smart systems. The social and human impact of this range from the positive, like artificial intelligence enabled robots that can help tend to our increasingly greying population, to the more troubling, including mass layoffs and “the end of jobs” for many workers in those parts of the economy in which automation can replace human labor. These impacts may well span beyond the factory walls and into white collar sectors including law, medicine, accounting, and other fields. A key factor differentiating this from earlier technological innovations, which many people fail to account for, is the exponential increase in the pace of change…. For example, compared to the time it took steam power on average to saturate a country (about a hundred years) or electrification (about sixty years), it could take only about sixteen years for the internet to fully saturate a country.

Technological disruption is faster now making it more difficult for people to keep up with and adapt to these new technologies. With the spread of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, some are simply bound to be left behind, the detritus of the digital divide.

The aim of this book is to start a conversation about the impacts that digital devices and the constant connectivity to them is having on society. This book will begin to explore in more depth the various social and psychological impacts of our increasing technology-embedded lives, and the fractures taking place because of it, focusing on the first of these stages, the Untethered Society. I’ll attempt to address a number of questions about the impact of ubiquitous, connected digital technologies on our social world and lives, to begin the conversation, including:

What challenges do we face as we enter an increasingly untethered world?

What does it mean when a generation grows up where reality is filtered through a digital interface? In relationships: What impact will an endless sea of attractive and available others online have on relationships, marriage, and the family?

How are businesses being impacted by a digital-first consumer and workforce? How do they need to change to adapt?

What will it mean for human brains when more and more “physical” work is simulated, and more cognitive work is transferred to digital devices? What impact do digital devices have on learning, memory, and the ability to think and focus?

For every movement, there is a countermovement. What counterforces are emerging in response to untethering? In what ways are people beginning to resist the Untethered Society, and reconnect to physicality, nature, the body, etc.?

And lastly, what changes are afoot as we enter an increasingly Untethered World?

But first, how did we get here? How did we become tethered in the first place, and when did everything change?