The Industrial Era is in its twilight, giving way to the rising Digital Era, where people, businesses, industry, and government grow increasingly reliant upon Internet connectivity. Ubiquitous connectivity is transforming interactions on all levels of society: On the micro level, it impacts personal relationships, as more and more people meet and communicate with their partners via digital devices; on the macro level, smartphones, and social media have become catalysts for sweeping and sometimes unanticipated social and political changes, like that witnessed during the Arab Spring. Digital connectivity has become so integral to people’s lives that when Facebook went down in the Summer of 2014, so many people in Los Angeles called 911 to report this “ emergency” that angry Sheriff’s officials took to twitter and tweeted, “#Facebook is not a Law Enforcement issue, please don’t call us about it being down, we don’t know when FB will be back up!” As more and more “things” get connected to the “Internet of Everything,” the demand for and indeed, reliance upon, connectivity places data centers as “digital factories” squarely in the center of this new ecosystem, with the expectation that they manufacture 24/7 uptime and reliability.
Entirely new business models are materializing, infused with a new set of values important to the first generation of digital natives. One is the “sharing economy,” where lean companies like Uber and AirBnB (whose valuations have now topped $17 billion and $13 billion, respectively) are disrupting traditional businesses like taxis and hotel chains without owning a single car or room. This is a mobile first, customizable, on demand marketplace, focused on fulfilling the consumer’s desire for immediacy and a digital interface. Older businesses without a finger on the pulse of this changing zeitgeist are facing serious losses or are even failing. Long-standing brick and mortar stores like RadioShack, Macy’s, and luxury brands like Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren are shuttering their doors, leaving malls struggling to survive; Sears and Kmart are closing over 250 stores. In fact, a third of the U.S.’s 1100 shopping malls are projected to close their doors over the next several years. Meanwhile “virtual” companies like Amazon and eBay that deliver products right to the consumer’s door through the touch of an app – some within an hour or less – are booming. Amazon, having captured over 50% of the online sales market for higher income customers, is now taking aim at Walmart by going after lower income customers, lowering their price for Amazon Prime delivery, and piloting a program for recipients of food stamps. Even business stalwart McDonald’s—the largest fast food chain in the world for over 60 years now with 36,000 restaurants in 100 countries, having already served 69 million people—is faltering. They’re scrambling to reinvent themselves from their one-size fits all Industrial food production model into the digital era sensibility by introducing a few made to order “craft” burgers in an attempt to meet the demands for a “customizable world” desired by younger consumers. Meanwhile, “fast casual” competitors like Chipotle and Starbucks, sensitive to this new, on demand, customizable marketplace – are booming. Chipotle is even experimenting with faster delivery of made to order burritos via drones flown right to college kid’s dorm rooms with the touch of an app. Popular app Tapingo let’s those same college students order their morning lattes on campus Starbucks without ever talking to a human or queuing; for a fee, they’ll even deliver. Busy venues are receiving 800 Tapingo orders a day.
Scores of such examples of the transformation of the social, political, and business landscapes exist. Digital connectivity may even be altering the evolutionary path of humankind by rewiring the neurochemistry of children growing up in a digital-rich environment: A Youtube search of “Baby with iPad” reveals thousands of videos showing children who have digital literacy skills before acquiring language. The digital immersion of the typical American child now is astonishing: Those between the ages of 8-18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day, or more than 53 hours a week “media multitasking” across various digital screens. This immersion in digital technologies has resulted in major behavioral and social changes, including disconnecting from activities normative for other generations: For kids, playing outside is becoming a thing of the past. Among Millennials, home ownership is eschewed, marriages are put off; having children is delayed or forgone altogether.
Noelle Hancock is a perfect example: Untethered from marriage and home ownership, and unhooked from the 35 year career typical for many Baby Boomers, she’s pulled up the tent stakes to explore many bohemian “micro-lives.” After an image of a white sandy beach with swaying palm trees cropped up on her computer screen, she quit her $95,000 a year writing job in New York City, bought an airplane ticket and took off. As she put it—“Why couldn’t I? With no professional obligations or boyfriend, I was completely untethered for the first time in my life.” She now scoops ice cream for a living on the gorgeous Caribbean island of St. Barts, spending her off time swimming, snorkeling, and watching sunsets with friends. She’s now pondering a move to Europe. Unhooked from the burdens and responsibilities of homes and families, the Untethered generation can up and go on a whim. It’s no wonder “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) have become the rallying cries for this generation. While sharing assets, many Millennials also feel they’re building community or making new “friends” in the process—key values for this generation. Many actively use “sharing economy” companies like Couchsurfing, AirBnB, TaskRabbit, and HelpX to facilitate these micro-lives, allowing them to digitally coordinate gig work, room, and board while traveling the world. Others crowdsource money to fund the dream via website like GoFundMe or FundMyTravel. Others post pics of themselves with hand-lettered cardboard signs as they panhandle their way across the world, complete with their own twitter or instagram hashtag – #begpacking. In this same vein, co-living facilities are cropping up in the cities, allowing Millennials to rent transitory housing, sometimes 40 to a home in “adult dormitories.” Fashioned after college dorms, they come complete with residential advisors who plan group dinners and outings. Common Havemeyer in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood bills itself as “flexible and friendly” and features a “move anytime/ no commitment” contract which facilitates untethered living, described on their website as: “co-living, co-eating, co-playing, co-creating. This is what it means to live life in common.”
For Millennials, growing up in a dual context of a recessionary economy and full digital immersion has lead them to value experiences over the acquisition of things, a virtue born of necessity, but with far reaching implications, particularly for businesses which have been built upon the Boomer value of conspicuous consumption. Realizing they were playing a game they can’t win after the economic downturn beginning December 2007, Millennials are changing the rules. As the largest generation to come along since the Baby Boomers, they are now the dominant group in both the workforce and the consumer market as of 2015. Due to their sheer size alone, their values, behaviors, and attitudes will have a major impact on the social landscape. Millennials are young, tech-savvy and—increasingly—non-White. Enabled by mobility and digital connectivity, the sum total of these changes represent the emergence of a new social contract, with vast implications for the social, economic, and political environments. The impacts will be as significant and far reaching as that of the Printing Press or the Industrial Revolution. I refer to these changes as a whole as “The Untethered Society.” Becoming “untethered” is defined as:
a condition where 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 hyper-connectivity.
Although untethering is increasing in scope across socioeconomic and generational lines, manifesting most notably among Millennials and younger. The Untethered Society isn’t simply devices in hands or the number of text messages sent a month or the 1.44 billion monthly active users on Facebook or a few kids dropping out of high school or college. The Untethered Society instead represents a 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 which is re-shaping the evolution of society going forward:
Figure 1. Double helix of technology and behavior
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 which have far reaching, global implications to re-constitute consumer behavior, political outcomes, home, and hearth—and indeed, the structure and workings of our Nation State: Millennials aren’t simply shunning 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 which look like highly produced video games which speak to a young, untethered (male) audience. 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.
I recently visited Shanghai to talk about the Untethering of Millennials in America. After my talk, many in the audience came up to me saying they’re experiencing the same phenomenon in China with their Millennials, despite the fact that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites popular in the US aren’t available there. I realized 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 de-stabilizing until a new equilibrium is reached: An Untethered Society then is ultimately an unstable one. This is a transitional moment in history which is generationally uneven. Entrenched institutions that don’t understand the changes underway and don’t evolve to address them may potentially go the way of the dinosaurs.
Triad of Technological Immersion
The Untethered Society represents an uncoupling and re-constitution of the social contract – in sometimes unexpected and surprising ways. One recent example is the response to the rejection of the Paris Agreement by President Trump in the United States: As the U.S. as Nation State pulls out of the agreement, States, businesses, universities, and other organization are stepping up to take its place, stepping around the Nation State and signing new agreements with nations like China or the EU. Two hundred seventy nine Democratic and Republican Mayors from 42 States as of this moment have formed the Climate Mayors to support the Paris Agreement at the city level. Digital connectivity facilitates this kind of disintegration of traditional structures and the reconstitution/ mashup of new ones in ways previously unimaginable.
I have developed a theoretical framework for understanding 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, are simultaneously operating. Each technological phase makes its appearance at various points of time and spreads, from its introduction to 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, and then the woodwinds rise up and the brass joins in – all eventually operating together in (hopefully) a harmonious way. Yet while these technological systems may indeed operate as intended, almost inevitably unintended and disruptive consequences also emerge which have widespread impact on society and human lives, for good or ill.
These three stages are:
First, The Untethered Society – with its 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 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 and organization of social movements.
The next phase is the Internet of Me. With the advent of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and “smart” systems, there is an increasing intersection between physical systems and an array of objects – from light bulbs connected to smartphones, to automobiles and homes – and digital information technologies. Examples include the Smart grid, an array of sensors, and smart home technologies like the “Nest” thermostat, controllable 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 which is now beginning to emerge on a larger scale, and will continue to do so with smart, connected cities in the future. The Bolt light bulb from Misfit is one example – taking cues from your body from a clip on device – it to simulates a slowly brightening sunrise based on your sleep/ wake patterns.
The last stage on the horizon I call “The Internet of Them.” In the prior stages, humans were in the loop, controlling the technologies (e.g., pushing a button on your app to hail a cab or have dinner or groceries arrive, or setting one’s preferences for the proper temperature for the AC at a certain time of day). In this stage, intelligence becomes autonomous, spinning away from human control. It is human out of the loop: As an increasing number of “things” have their own embedded artificial intelligence – they can “learn” and get smarter without human intervention, and 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 which will simulate their owners or others through “synthetic personalities,” intelligent robotics and automated workers. Eventually, these intelligent agents will exceed human intelligence and capabilities for certain tasks: IBM’s artificially intelligent agent “Watson” was recently 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 interconnected and inter-operative, working alongside and cooperatively with other intelligent agents, coordinating their activities with other smart systems. The social and human impacts of this range from positive – like artificial intelligence enabled robots who can help tend to our increasingly greying population, to the more troubling, including mass layoffs and the “the end of jobs” on the horizon for many.
A key factor differentiating these stages from earlier technological innovations is their speed of penetration: Compared to the average time it took steam power to saturate a country (100 years) and electrification (60 years), it only takes about 16 years for the Internet. Thus, the disruption is faster, making it much more difficult for people to keep up with and adapt to; Some are simply bound to be left behind, the detritus of the digital divide. 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 over-reliance on the “unsinkability of the ship” – we all know how that story ends.