2020 marks the beginning of the new decade, as Scott Galloway likes to remind us at the regular 30-day intervals. Look back at what captured our collective attention over the past ten years, and a narrative emerges.
We went from being enamored by the potential, the verve, and the creativity of startups to being alarmed by their unicorn (and minotaur) valuations, borderline insane founders, and often dreadful internal cultures. We went from being excited about sharing economy to grappling with the fallout of its legal, geopolitical, ethical, and human side-effects. Around the middle of the decade, we went through hygge and retromania (remember when every Urban Outfitters store featured a gramophone?) in order to protect ourselves from the world that brought nothing but anxiety and uncertainty. Towards the end of the decade, hygge morphed into our obsession with astrology, self-care, and daily meditation. We went from ownership to usage and all the way back, suggesting it’s best to own fewer better things we keep for a long time. Marie Kondo went from getting rid of our stuff to selling us more stuff. We went from Netflix and chill to Netflix, Disney+, Apple, HBO, etc. … and chill. We went from creating flash websites that no one asked for to in-store Instagram installations that no one asked for, either. We went from being excited about leaving our digital traces everywhere to being paranoid about it. We went from trading our personal data for better brand service to being micro-targeted with political ads. We went from talking about how the internet transforms branding to watching this transformation unfold live in the form of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. We then went from thinking of DTCs as a type of company to understanding that DTC is, in fact, a growth strategy for all companies. We got excited by every new spiffy video, Instagram post, and pop-up store that DTCs put forward because they felt fresh and different and innovative … until most of them, in order to scale, started being scooped up by traditional companies that gave them the actual distribution and footprint to make a difference. We went from being excited about influencers to not being excited about them, to being excited again, to realizing that they will most likely be replaced by algorithms and bots. We also went from rather innocently poking friends on Facebook to being asked to join the fake furniture-assembling groups set up by Russian trolls meant to radicalize us into political extremes. We went from not knowing what jade eggs were to knowing maybe too well. We went from Ok Go treadmill videos to a multi-million dollar YouTube creator economy peppered with dick picks, Nazi-wannabes, and jihadists next to the cheery CPG ads. We went from third-party cookies to the California Consumer Protection Act. We are witnessing our entire culture starting to mimic TikTok’s memes and “repeat this” challenges. If there’s one thing that we can aspire to amid all of this, it is to be less wrong than yesterday.
Overall, we went very quickly from being mostly uncritically excited about things to being confused as to how to deal with them. The problem seems to be that we do not think of these innovations systemically, in terms of how the existing social, political, and economic networks can support them and/or how they fit. We isolate them from the laws, regulations, and policies that have been put in place to maximize benefits and minimize the downsides of progress. The gig economy was all the rage until we realized that no one pays our overtime. Benefits of Amazon’s two-day (and soon to be one-day) shipping were welcome until they started clogging our streets and our landfills and killing passers-bys. Worse yet, fast shipping is still welcome — and we still don’t know how to deal with its negative side effects.
We seem to be mostly unequipped to think in systems and the externalities they create. We are equally unequipped to plan for the future. At the time when the future was distant, when it unfolded over decades, and when it was an “unknown known,” it didn’t matter as much. We had time to put a long-term strategy in place. When the future is right now and is an “unknown unknown,” the strategy — any strategy — doesn’t work. It’s not just that the game sped up; it’s that the rules of the game keep changing. It’s a different game every time we play it. Consider companies spending all their media budgets on Facebook, just to see algorithms change, repeatedly and unpredictably. Or, consider building your entire supply and production chain in China only to learn that your cost-saving strategy turned into a cash drain overnight. The new reality is that we are finding out what the problem is at the same time that we find a way to solve it. We aren’t used to it, but maybe that’s the challenge for the next 10 years.