If the new millennium were an adolescent in new york state, as of 2021 it has reached the legal age to drink. All the evidence suggests it’s been hitting the bottle awful and very hard. Bastids. Stay off the roads.

In mid-november I ran a survey, mostly of friends, of what the new year has in store for us. (You can take the survey here if you want). It’s been many weeks since then and they haven’t been short weeks, but here finally is my writeup of the results.

Horoscope-style summary: 20th century assumptions haven’t been true for some time now, but still form the backbone of our society. In 21 they’ll continue to not be true, perhaps more aggressively.

Logistics reshapes around updated capabilities

If your job happens on a computer you probably did it from home last year. We did it that way because we had to, we had the technology, it was fine. Amazon figured out how to ship us our stuff.

‘Lockdown accelerates the future’ is one way of looking at this but I think it’s more like ‘lockdown accelerates the present’. Large, disruptive change is a kick in the pants that lets us examine our current capabilities and use them.

I asked a few questions about technology and logistics:

Will driverless car pilots be succesful?

Strong ‘future is here just not evenly distributed’ vibe. My question had a ‘which cities’ prompt and nobody responded with a ‘no this happens everywhere or nowhere’. People belive that municipal buy-in matters for this topic.

People focused on fatality rate or ‘charismatic accidents’ as setbacks that can slow rollout. People who named a vendor trusted waymo over tesla. Several answers talked about delivery or trucking as narrow areas that might see earlier adoption.

What robots will enter your house?

I was hoping people would have ideas here about last-mile or last-meter logistics and manufacturing. We have technology to push these functions closer to the consumer than they’ve been since the neolithic revolution and the dawn of agriculture 13kya.

Will you purchase a 3D printed product?

People believe that this technology is here and works. Examples they gave: replacement bike parts, VR accessories, invisalign, custom clips for covid masks.

(I’m writing a short post about the decentralization and personalization of manufacturing. If that’s your thing, subscribe please so you get notified).

What tasks or decisions will you delegate to AI?

I didn’t intend this as a logistics question, but most of the answers here were ‘calendaring’ or ‘scheduling’.

People are ready to give a computer more control over how we spend our time.

This can mean bossware at work but it can also mean ‘force me to spend time on hobbies’, ‘limit my screen time’, ‘automate online dating so I skip the chat and just show up’. At scale, the ability to mobilize big groups of people with realtime control on short notice enables better evacuations and disaster cleanup. It also has massive trust issues.

(If you’re interested in bossware, I have a post queued up about the future of bossware. Subscribe if that’s your thing).

Do remote work trends continue?

There was no skepticism about remote work as a permanent change. People believe this could correct after the pandemic, but not to previous levels.

Where does basic research make a dent?

Conensus answer: batteries.

Boomers ate millennials but gen Z will eat anything

Tiktok and greta thunberg have given the olds a crash course in what gen Z is about.

I didn’t ask about generational trends in the survey, but some random high schoolers got the link to my survey and filled it out. For the last question, ‘what did I forget to ask’, they wrote:

  • How my mental health is, what my favorite color is, and if I think dinosaurs are cool.
  • how my day is

At first I thought they were trolling, but then I got into the headspace of someone who thinks their feelings matter in this context, and started to wonder if it’s a generational shift. I wouldn’t have written that as a teenager. I wouldn’t have even thought it.

Millennials were raised by helicopter parents riding a powerful wealth wave. We were inculcated with false forms of success that mostly had to do with obedience to authority and lucky sperms club. We have no agency and don’t blame the world for mistreating us.

Gen Z acknowledges no power but their own and gives zero fucks.

When the boomers told us older millennials to suck it up and deal with a shitty world, we sucked it up. We had no choice. But gen Z can organize. If you violate their values, they’ll violate yours. They defend their own and know the deck is stacked against them, so they want nothing and can’t be bribed.

I heard an interview with john higgs where he talked about watching a john hughes movie with zoomers. My rough transcript from 40ish minutes in:

There’s a huge shift between millennials and gen zed. Huge increase in empathy, and also anxiety. You know the breakfast club? it makes no sense at all to them.

For our generation the hero was judd nelson, bender. Individual, unshakeable, living by his own rules. Gen zed see a guy deliberately being cruel to people. That’s the bad guy.

They see brian, the nerd character. He confesses a suicide attempt. It’s played for laughs, he used a flaregun by mistake. My generation forgot that detail. But to them, that’s the emotional heart of the story. When the film ends with bender walking across the football field, gen zed is like what the hell. What, sort of, is this.

There’s been a shift in values. It’s infurating – they’re right. Molly Ringwald wrote a thing in the new yorker. ‘This is obviously wrong, why didn’t we see that at the time’. This generation immediately sees that.

It’s infuriating. They’re right.

Gen Z is the most powerful generation of children to walk the earth. This is a trend to watch out for.

Squalor drives us out of cities

If you lived in a locked down city last year, and you had access to property anywhere else, and can do your job over a wire, you left.

For the ones who stayed, the death by a thousand cuts that has always been crowded city life really started to grate. Our suburban and small-city friends have backyards and cars. We downtown folk gave up those things for short commutes, marginally higher salaries ignoring taxes + cost of living, and access to crowded bars. Now it turns out the rest of the world has been living semi-normal lives for 11 months while we’ve been mostly in our boxes.

Taking away the upsides of living in a city makes it very obvious that we’re paying more for everything and getting less. There’s a dude out on the street yelling something as I write this. There’s also a police siren. The two are unrelated. There are downsides to density.

I asked two questions about the future of cities:

Do lockdown trends continue in real estate?

The respondents with the best structural understanding of real estate markets believe it all depends on commercial, which in turn depends on ratios of remote work.

Someone else who works in travel pointed out that the return of tourism is an important variable.

Someone explained leavers by saying ‘lockdown accelerated planned moves’. I half agree; yes, if you were planning to leave, you left. But some people just realized ‘this isn’t for me, I can have a better life elsewhere’, and also left. Migration is powerful and hard to stop.

As with WFH, people are talking about a ‘rubber band’ recovery but nobody thinks occupancy reaches previous levels (for res or commercial). Some people talked about equilibrium effects where prices go down and people move in, but we don’t know how much people need to be paid to live in NY if they can access the same job from an off-grid cabin in Lincoln, MO.

Less expensive cities will thrive as NY/SF spiral. This is not just a function of capturing leavers. If we denormalize the idea that you need to be in a short list of big cities to get access to skilled labor and deals, every city not on that list gets N new high-skill companies overnight.

Who are the winners / losers in retail?

E-commerce obviously.

A thoughtful response said ‘brick + mortar isn’t dead, but becomes super-competitive in ways that look random to outsiders’. Someone asked ‘where will gen Z spend’, which assumes they continue to use money rather than trading vintage clothes and using twitter clout to decide who eats.

Someone says it’s hard to replicate the luxury apparel sales process online. Some brands are digital-native and had an advantage last year; lux brands are presumably not this.

Another response said that boutique manufacturing plus AR can thrive in luxury direct sales. Customization isn’t a new capability in clothing (we’ve always had tailors), but there’s potentially a sweet spot of quality, price and speed where advanced manufacturing can make a dent.

A few responses talked about same-day and hyperlocal delivery as areas with high consumer value prop and clear need for innovation to make this faster, more convenient, cheaper.

Return of bread lines

For me a defining image of 2020 was people waiting on lines. To vote, to get tested for covid, to collect unemployment benefits, to get into grocery stores. Now in 2021 to get vaccinated. The inability to schedule appointments in a society where everyone has a smartphone feels like a warning signal of institutional collapse.

Hanlon’s razor says ‘never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence’. On the face of it the trump administration’s tally of deaths from incompetence is far higher. In the malice column, include the federal executions they rushed through.

I read this statement by the lawyer of one of the victims:

The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a black man who never killed anyone, on MLK’s birthday. … There was no reason to kill him, particularly during the pandemic and when he was sick with covid that he contracted because of these irresponsible, super-spreader executions. Rest in peace Dustin. Shame on all of those involved and all of those who have looked the other way.

Even in this case, incompetent disease control is playing a role. I’ve never liked hanlon’s razor, especially as a tool for understanding failed states; if someone’s incentives aren’t aligned with yours, it’s very difficult to distinguish malice from incompetence.

This was someone’s response to ‘what did I forget to ask’:

How long until a 3rd political party takes a significant hold in the US? Will it be in response to divisiveness leading to inaction by the existing 2 parties?

‘Can government do anything right’ and ‘is there a structural flaw in our system of government that leads to incompetence’ are questions to watch out for in the new year. We aren’t so rich that we can keep making expensive mistakes.

Migrations and security

I didn’t think to add a question about ‘personal security’ to the survey but in every ‘where do you live / where do you want to live’ conversation I’ve had since lockdown started, personal safety in the city has come up. From a technology perspective, maybe this looks like tools for ‘eyes in the back of your head’ or ‘quickly distinguish friends from foes’.

Tech can’t really solve this; in little ways, public spaces are being invaded by paramilitaries. Self defense tech can’t fix a failed state. Walled suburbs maybe can, but if you like city life the cure is worse than the disease.

If the mini collapse of urban infrastructure in 2020 leads to migrations to walled villages, it will cause a greater collapse as consumer and tax dollars fly off. Something new will colonize downtown, but hard to predict what that is. Another possibility is that the walled towns will be inside the abandoned office buildings. Anyone want to ‘adopt a skyscraper’?

Whenever I read about the dawn of privacy law circa 1900, it strikes me that privacy then meant ‘the right to be let alone’. It was less about control over information and more about people not entering your space. It concerned noise and nuisance, unwanted bother, as much as people taking something from you. I suspect some ‘right to be let alone’ will be an element of whatever post-urban migrations we see in the year(s) ahead.