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From Ballyhoo to Tally-ho: 2020 Adventures in Futurism

Like everyone else, I’ve been lurking in the shadows of my mind palace for what feels like forever and a day. Not wanting to be an arbiter of gloom or peddler of fake optimism, I have held back from writing the past few months (publicly) and wrote this piece after encouragement by my colleagues. 

Living in the weird and future-y cosmos has been a comfortable place for me for as long as I can remember. Years ago I discovered that wearing light was the easiest way to showcase my zest for the future. At big tech conferences I cheerfully wore glow earrings, bracelets, and so on, not knowing that this was a metaphor for something else entirely…

2020 so far: Parakeets have a party. A blanket gets thrown over the cage.

Living in quarantine is funky. Nestled in my fortress of solitude (plus husband and 2 cats) for days on end I have been ruminating. I think about what the future is going to look like betwixt and between my pop-up pity parties, awkward Zooms, and intense binge-watching sessions. These fun activities are peppered with short stints of healthy eating and home improvement. 

I liken 2020 to parakeets having a party and then a blanket gets thrown over the cage. The party isn’t necessarily over, but the vibe turns oppressive. The good news is that the light of dawn is inevitable, and so the blanket will come off the cage… The pendulum of life swings one way and then back again, and so on. Recognizing the fact that any situation isn’t ‘forever’ provides us with both patience and courage to endure almost anything. There’s always a path to positive thinking in any situation, which is a personal belief that has carried me far. 

Before we go forward, we must always go back. After careful consideration of 2020 and how it feels to me now, I’ve only felt this way once before. It was during the great financial collapse of 2008. 

My husband and I were living in Midtown Manhattan in 2008 and lost our jobs one right after the other. We felt there were no possibilities. Everything felt like darkness and we were also in the dead of a brutal winter. We rarely left the apartment, not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t want to. It was hard to see the sad faces of New Yorkers and even more depressing to see countless shuttered businesses on Lexington Avenue. The collapse felt so intense and in our faces every day that we left for California and never looked back. 

I never would have guessed that the darkness of that time would become the biggest glimmer of hope in this moment. Why? Because that challenge prepared me for this one. We got through it then and we’ll get through this too. In the wake of the collapse I started my own business, which I still run today. The collapse made me a stronger person.

Our notions of normal will continue to evolve

I have grown weary of hearing ‘the new normal’ because I don’t think it’s the right approach to thinking about our future. Also, while it’s the first time many people have heard the term in practice, the new normal isn’t actually new, it was coined by Bill Gross in the wake of the financial collapse in 2009 (at least that’s where I first heard it). Mr. Gross was referring to financial systems and our financial futures.

Gross suggested that investors would need to question many long-held beliefs as they adjust to this new normal. Among them is the idea that risky assets such as stocks are always better for the long run. In the subdued economic climate ahead, risk-taking is simply not going to be as rewarding, so investors may want to switch down to a more sedate asset allocation mix with more bonds and stable blue chip stocks.

Morningstar.com

The new normal has since become a media-approved soundbite meant to function as shorthand for what’s happening in 2020 and I get that. But to me it is not becoming a new symbolic way of living my life. The new normal feels like government-speak for, “hey, digest this weird alternate future, just accept things will suck.” Nope! Not happening. 

It’s a fool’s game to think of normal as a fixed ‘thing’ that we should pine for and hang onto, or that it could ever come to a standstill. Normal in this context is meant to be a new community standard, and that’s not something I’m latching onto intellectually. 

The child version of me envisioned a future of wearable technology and what it would be like to own a phone and computer that could travel with me. Finally possessing those things changed the course of my life. I remember my first Apple iBook clamshell laptop in bright orange, I faithfully toted it around the University of Texas at Austin campus like a hotshot (in my mind). Was carrying my eccentric orange laptop normal to others? No, I got stared at, but it was business as usual for me. Surrounding myself with technology was always “normal,” and in keeping with scientific advancements, that feeling continues to evolve – as it should. Change is often the only constant in our lives. Without change and evolution we would live a highly colorless existence. Normalcy is a social construct, which renders ‘normal reality’ fleeting. 

This ‘new normal’ also makes me remember the age of ‘think outside the box,’ which is one of the worst expressions used in business (and humanity). Let’s say I’m in a theoretical zone creatively where I can think anything I want, so why am I subsequently imagining an imaginary box to limit those thoughts? So again, why am I envisioning someone else’s version of normal, accepting it, and then deciding that it’s outdated and mourning it? What is normal to me was never normal to you and so on.

We should not construct shared realities where there are none just so that we can pine for them. 

There is no box.

Total side rant: I shared my ‘there is no box’ revelation with some dudes at a tech event when I first moved to San Francisco a decade ago. I used it as an ice breaker for a short while at tech events. Throughout the years I became professionally friendly with some of these guys. Sure enough, years later, I saw my ‘outside the box fallacy’ revelation presented in not one, but TWO of their respective PowerPoints on different occasions. Both were sharing my observation as their own, without attribution, as if to demonstrate how they were dynamic thinkers. Looking back on it, I see it now as my Silicon Valley hazing, and maybe you’re not a seasoned tech person until you have your ideas ripped off. Huzzah!

Apocalypse Fashion Will Forever Become a Thing

In 2018 I predicted that apocalypse fashion would become a thing and never have I been so sad to be right (excerpt below). My feeling at that time was that we’d be worried about natural disasters and man-made tragedies like school shootings or chemical threats. I wasn’t envisioning a global pandemic where we are all looking to cover our faces. Our sense of “fight or flight” has been triggered as a society, which is why so many folks hoarded toilet paper, because it feels better to do something instead of nothing. Our fashion will inevitably reflect this change to our psyche. 

From my post in 2018:

I know we are flirting with disaster, but we wanna look good too.

— Anne Ahola Ward.

Disaster chic becomes a thing. Anyone who has attended the infamous burning man festival knows about artfully dressing in hazardous conditions. Unfortunately, with an increase in natural disasters, such as the California fires of 2018, most people in the golden state will not be able to erase it from their memories. Disaster chic is going to become a thing and it’s disturbing but probably true. People are already sporting paisley, polka dot and fashion-y PM 2.5 masks. I’ve even seen bulletproof backpacks being sold on Amazon. Companies are going to capitalize on fear mixed with vanity, a combination that will result in this new genre. Who doesn’t want to see the end of the world in style?”

I would also add that there are going to be companies out there who are going to come out with virtual AR facemask environmental type getups. Maybe Hazmat suits will have accompanying backpacks of liquids that cool down their GPUs? Humans will continue to evolve, but so will the gear we cover ourselves with to make us smarter and safer.

Gangs will Become Increasingly Virtual

We’ve already seen upticks in cyber crime since the quarantine started this year, but the weirdness won’t stop there. Virtual gangs have already been established to a certain extent, with the advent of forums like 4chan, online communities all over the web, Twitter bots and the mobilized communities used for fandom, harassment, and rabble-rousing. As a serial optimist I hate to call hate a trend in itself, but when people feel stress and the metaphorical pot boils, it will eventually find a way to boil over, no matter how inappropriate. 

We’re consistently seeing people calling for random things to get ‘canceled’ as if nobody gets to make mistakes anymore. These so-called keyboard cowboys will be further emboldened by the increasing virtual nature of the world. The pandemic will be the justification these people rely upon when calling out others in droves from their parents’ basements.

Additionally, neural networks will allow anyone with an internet connection to tinker with increasingly sophisticated bot farms for hybrid networks. The possibilities there are astounding.

VR will finally get its mass market moment

While I loved the idea behind Magic Leap, it was basically a Fyre Festival in execution. The promise of VR and mixed reality is what many Silicon Valley geeks long to see come true… But the larger platforms like Facebook are going to need to offer the masses a solution that makes the escape worth the weirdness of strapping junk on your face. 

There’s a faction of people who will never accept VR, and that’s ok, but new people will be reaching for it now that the meatspace is so weird. Gyms have started to feel riskier and riskier to people as a concept, which we should expect to continue in the next few months as we re-open society. I agree with what my friend Jesse Damiani recently wrote in Wired, that VR workouts will become more desirable to folks at home.

Although I’ve never revered the term killer app, it has a place in technology for a reason. The gym as we know it dying a sudden death is the most likely pave the way for VR’s killer app moment.

VR’s killer app moment is coming.

Blockchain will now be what it always should’ve been: applied niche use cases, not an expensive catch all 

Our supply chains have definitely seen some disruption in the past month or more and the transparency we’re looking for lies within blockchain technology. There are enterprises like IBM who are working feverishly towards rolling out blockchain for the supply chain. The two paired together make perfect sense, like root beer and ice cream.

The ICO rush of 2017 and the blockchain craze that followed led to some definite stinkers taking flight. Many of those blockchain startups have failed, but nevertheless I think it’s a viable technology. Many crypto entrepreneurs wanted to use blockchain for the sake of it and that was never going to work, because only specific applications truly made sense. It sounds basic and silly to say a solution should solve a problem, but in many blockchain startups that was the case. That era is now over.

A fraction of people may never fully re-enter society

This is an instance where I genuinely hope I am wrong, but the indicators are there that the Edgelords will maintain their distance and fracture from reality… Recently I emailed my doctor’s office to ask if I should be afraid of the air outside. What drove me to that was pent-up anger over conflicting information I’d read, things people said to me and the fact 30% or more of the people in my neighborhood don’t seem to think they need to wear masks. This is the level of paranoia we’re reaching. 

We are not just living and recovering from a pandemic, it’s an infodemic too. COVID-19 research findings and advancements are rapid and not everyone possesses the skills to properly vet and understand scientific information. There are those who seek to scare and misinform people for nefarious purposes and our social platforms are rife with abuse. Our brains have a tendency to believe stories and turn them into thoughts, which is one of the greatest tricks of all time for humanity to grapple with. The darkest stories and sometimes our feelings themselves can then feel like facts to us. When we don’t know how to verify information we’re hearing on any basic level, our opinions become supersized. 

Confirmation bias knows no bounds in the infodemic scenario, because we’ve firmly placed feedbags of information on, which dissuades us from analyzing things ourselves (or applying skepticism).

The Lucille Ball example is the best analogy I can give here. Lucy is working in an assembly line and doing her thing, then the assembly line speeds up and she’s perplexed. The response to too much input for her wasn’t to stop and consider the influx, it was to simply gobble up the excess. 

PSA: Don’t drink from the firehose of information without filtration. Stop and take a break to consider what you’re reading, where it comes from, and why before sharing it.

Doomsday preppers, extreme survivalists, and Edgelords; these are people who were already prone to belief that society has failed. Edgelords on the periphery will see their opinions as vindicated and will never turn back. My fear, and saddest prediction, is that this pandemic will isolate these small peripheral groups of people in a way they’ll never fully recover from. 

Brands will continue to want to be our friends, probably even BFFs!

Look at the recent swath of ads from the big corporate players talking about how they love love love first responders, grocery store employees, delivery people, etc. This is corporate pandering during a crisis at its crest. I have no issues whatsoever seeing amazing people get praised for their hard work. Unsung heroes are all around us every day, and I don’t want to diminish their sacrifices in any way (don’t @ me). 

What I don’t necessarily love about these ads is seeing companies doing the appropriate thing in an emergency and then expect us to love them for it. Would you do the right thing, even if nobody ever saw it? Would you expect to benefit? Maybe. Probably. We’re already seeing a swath of national ads with ‘the new normal’ (ACK) as it’s the new corporate Christian side-hug way to say “it” (pandemic) without saying it. 

Expect the forcible emotional discourse to continue from corporate America and know that they’ll expect you to love them for it.

Dethroning of mega influencers

Some of us were ready for influencer regicide before the pandemic… The fact is, we love to hate people who seem to achieve more than us without merit. It’s human nature to have at least a touch of blood lust. In many cases the perception was clearly better than their reality. Travel influencers taking pictures of themselves in remote lagoons with perfect bikini bodies would be sure to rack up the hate mail right now. This is why celebrities keep on getting flamed and flamed again for trying to steal the spotlight. Authenticity is something we crave, especially in times of strife. Mega influencers are often the antithesis of authenticity and that will be their undoing.

The fact we all know now that most of the people around us are in the same boat, i.e. our domiciles, the illusion has been destroyed. Sorry mega influencers, the bloom is off the rose! I hope we’ll see a rise in influencers who are actually qualified in their respective fields, people who inspire, and those who can help educate us on everything from sourdough starters to how to teach our children well. 

This trend is probably a good one, because haven’t we all done enough time in the Kardashian keep for a lifetime?

Embracing of the do-it-yourself attitude over the do-it-for-me attitude

The ultimate Silicon Valley weird flex is to talk to someone then pass them off covertly to your “AP.” Inevitably that person will have an extremely hip name like Dakota or Feather. They’ll convey how truly hard it is to get you on their boss’s calendar but they’ll do their best. Again, the illusion of ‘busy’ has been slightly destroyed, especially for those of us who do not have kids. I’m not criticizing those who need help with scheduling, we all need help sometimes, it’s the flexing part that gets old. Perhaps through all this we’re all learning to do a little more for ourselves…

People in cities are growing vegetables like celery, onion, potatoes, etc. and exploring home life in a way they weren’t before. Our ancestors had to eat what they killed (and grew) and not until recently had many of us tried on the idea of eating food we grew ourselves. As a society we’d lost a feeling of accomplishment because of the easy instant way we were living, which is why the maker movement happened, home chef kits happened and even knitting had a comeback there for a minute. 

Status could now be derived by the size of one’s carrots, not the number of meetings scheduled. Self-reliance is a skill many of us forgot we needed to have, which is possibly why everyone and their sister made bread this past month.

If something good comes out of what’s happened in 2020 thus far, it will be a new appreciation for doing things ourselves and a willingness to take on new challenges. If the collapse of 2008 taught me anything, it was to hold onto those you love, do your best, and know that things will get better. They will. Already we’re reimagining how we build our cities, our food supply chains, and even public transportation. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and so innovation is often born out of strife.

“And if you feel that you can’t go on. And your will’s sinkin’ low

Just believe and you can’t go wrong.

In the light you will find the road.”

Led Zeppelin