Observing America: After Decay, Reorder?

So far this year I've tallied up around 10 weeks on the road, away from home, family and office—though in some sense everywhere I go is "office". Unlike previous years, the bulk of this travel has been inside the US—Dopplr helpfully tells me that's 22 trips (undercounting) and about 8,100 kgs of carbon. I've been to LA, New York, Charlotte, Chicago, Tampa, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, Washington, Raleigh, Minneapolis, most of these multiple times. Double that in number of airports, getting to and from.

This amount of roadwear isn't very different from a lot of other working people, but the point of view is. The majority of this travel was driven by qualitative research, mostly ethnographic in nature, to dig for trends and indicators of future consumer lifestyles. My colleagues and I have been in homes, shopping centers, restaurants, the aforementioned airports, gas stations, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and just about everywhere else, looking and listening for clues that will help clients pick up that crucial thread that leads to new opportunity. Even when not on the clock, people who know me will tell you I'm always watching. I'd like to think we've found plenty along the way.

What's been most striking, though, has been the opportunity to go deeper into the social fabric of a country experiencing something rare (for America): a slow freefall into a new world where many things the last few generations have taken for granted are slipping from view. Work as a sure thing, education as qualification, even the fallback of family and community have all decayed. 2008's Massively Parallel Correction and 2009's weak recovery have faded and a strange stagnation has set in.

Many of the people we interviewed put on a good face—positive outlooks, aspirations, motivations. Kids were fed and clothed, lights were on and homes were emotionally warm, even in the most modest surroundings. All good. What was different than past field tours, though, was what lay just behind these fronts. Many folks seemed to sense that we've broken through into new territory, where "what comes next", for the first time for many, is completely unforeseeable. Cyclical economic downturns of the past eventually promised a return to some level of prosperity, work, and stability. At levels above them in government, religion, and professional work, somebody was still in control, and systems still functioned in these past eras. That sense is missing now. Obama vs Tea Party, the BP oil spill, the rise of new global forces, and a permanently smaller workforce constitution the dreaded "New Normal". System breakdown is setting in.

In his analysis of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian writer Dmitri Orlov describes five stages of collapse, in order of occurrence: financial, commercial, political, social, and cultural. We've been through versions of financial and commercial collapse already, if you take that as major institutions and frameworks failing to operate as needed (yes, we've managed fairy-dust workarounds of both for now), and political paralysis is certainly here. Now human, social connections are becoming frayed. Families are losing direction as the foundations of employment and education weaken. Real-world social connections are being pulled apart as the macro-social and macro-economic scripts are rewritten. Many people are quietly losing direction.

What's next then? Is it all doom and gloom? Do we end up a collapsed culture? I'm not sure about that yet. Right now, as Orlov points out, our amygdales, the part of the brain responsible where fear is generated, are a bit messed up. We don't quite know where we are. And experts pitching a top-down imposition of resilience aren't helping, as well-intentioned as they may be. I wonder if, as should happen when we are in actual freefall, if our collective nervous systems will light up, kick in, and start to reassert a semblance of social cohesion from the bottom up. We may be post-modern, even post-normal, but we aren't so far removed from our origins as social animals that we have totally lost the programming.

I remember clearly standing in the waiting area for the first flight back East after being stuck in the Bay Area after 9/11. After that week of deep, deep shock and disconnection, I can't remember a time when my fellow humans were more kind, social-minded, and collectively cooperative. That struck me at the time as a deep bio-social reaction. That's resilience. 

Last week while co-teaching a group of students in a futures course at Duke University with Frank Spencer and Venessa Miemis, during a discussion of the future of money and value systems, we began to talk about why new value systems, particularly focused on around social value, are emerging. Alan Rosenblith, director of a new documentary on money, voiced the opinion that these new social value systems being increasingly driven by the scarcity of capital at a time when people need, even want, to work, to rebuild their communities. These new value systems provide a way to satisfy this urge. Maybe that is what is behind the success of social gaming and the artificial economic ecosystems they have created. We farm FarmVille because we can't do the real thing.

So, what's next? We are used to fast action, big upheavals, red vs. blue, zero-sum. We are also awash with people who will give us the recipe for the next big Reboot. One hopeful sign has been the way so-called "underdeveloped" regions have used technology to bootstrap as top-down solutions fail. Maybe we can do that here. I'll be watching to see if it self-develops, slowly but collectively, on a long cycle, looking for weak signals and subtle indicators. Right now, many are just sketching, not yet building. Let's hope we see those signals. If not, then we've truly been re-programmed.