Where to Begin: Imagining America’s Future After the Crisis Recedes
Reflecting on core values broadens the way we see and understand our own culture, where we come from, where we feel we belong, the things that make us feel purposeful and whole, and how these forces merge to shape our future.
Things that once seemed impossible are now possible.
There are moments in life when our future swings on a hinge of fate — forces beyond our control shatter familiar patterns. Shards of insecurity pierce our thoughts in waves. Visions of our mortality, the consequences of civil disruption, and a loss of control ripple in the wake. Policymakers scramble to “right the ship,” in a tug-o-war of tensions among values that define us: consumerism, democracy, directness, equality, informality, independence, innovation, meritocracy, patriotism, and time.
This is our chance to reflect on our deepest values and imagine a path forward. We’re tasked with determining what’s working, and what’s not. History has taught us that short term thinking comes with long term consequences. The decisions we make in times of uncertainty are never purely about economics or survival — they’re moral choices. We make better decisions when we’ve taken the time to clarify our values and are capable of seeing the big picture by connecting the past, present, and future.
Hindsight is 2020 — Look backward to see forward
The choices made by previous generations can shed light on our present options and serve as a reminder that we cannot lead others unless we first learn to lead ourselves.
Linden B. Johnson was thrust into the Presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. In the spring of 1964, Johnson declared his vision for a Great Society and pledged a commitment to ending poverty. The emotional weight of the tumultuous 1960s created conditions for the birth of policies that have defined two generations of political and social agendas and debates. Johnson’s policies included aid to schools and universities, new job training programs, public housing initiatives, new Medicare health coverage for the elderly and Medicaid coverage for the poor, and other programs that have endured, such as Head Start, Job Corps, and Community Health Centers.
Johnson’s initiatives became known as The War on Poverty. Ultimately, his good intentions were obscured by the War in Vietnam, but the War on Poverty marched forward. Now, in the spring of 2020, we’re facing a set of choices that will determine our present and future.
We will become what we choose to be.
Choose to let go of limitations
As we move forward, one thing is certain — people are our greatest resource and we need policies that support unlocking our full potential. Johnson’s targeted initiatives focused on one group and one generation at a time — this strategy, while imperfect was effective in creating lasting change. Case in point, voting rights were stripped from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and instead became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The War on Poverty provided targeted support for vulnerable populations with the aim of creating a more egalitarian civil society.
Policies impact people’s lives, but they are merely an instrument. Values drive policy and policy shapes behavior. The success of a policy is largely defined by how it’s applied. Policies can be applied to either block or unlock our full potential.
Today we face a pressing public health issue. As we reassess our approach to economic stability, health, and public education we may need to take a more holistic approach.
Choose awareness — Identify patterns of influence within relationships
Many of our most strongly held goals, fears, and desires are tethered to close relationships. The people we try hardest to understand, to win approval from, to please — the people who inspire strong feelings also tend to influence our motivations and values. Our friends, family members including parents, siblings, life partners, and colleagues make an indelible impression on us, shaping our perceptions of who we are, where we belong and how we behave. We must be aware of how these perceptions shape our thinking and limit our visions of what’s possible. To achieve the best outcome, we will have to confront and release our fears to have a full view of all possibilities.
Choose to understand
For better or worse, our perceptions and predictions affect our emotions, guide our decisions, and trigger reflexive habits. Crisis management and elevated angst can overshadow rational thought, impairing our frame of mind and ability to effectively create a vision of the future. Facing a threat to our health and livelihoods triggers fears of scarcity and personal loss. False dilemmas arise in consequence to short-term shock and hypervigilant survival instincts. It may seem like a strange time to stop and take a personal inventory of our values, but it’s a necessary part of understanding who we are and where we want to go in the future.
Choose to see clearly
Futurists track signals to anticipate an uncertain future. Signals are essentially signs — hints at “things to come.” Signals appear as people, places, or things that catch our attention, in one population or location, that can be connected on a broader scale pointing toward larger implications. The futurist lens can inspire creativity, confidence and bold action — three things we’re going to need to create strategies to adapt to a changing world.
As the shock, denial, and disbelief of the pandemic fades, we have an opportunity to revisit and become reacquainted with core cultural values that can help us to better understand and interpret current signals and their implication for changes on the horizon.
11 Core American Values That Shaped the Present
“Spending improves the economy — the one with the most toys wins,” are attitudes that grew out of late 1940s lifestyle values. After the second world war, consumerism was touted as a patriotic contribution to the success of the American way of life. New and expanded federal programs allowed some young families to purchase homes in suburban neighborhoods. Consumption and easy credit became staples of the American economy. The wide range of consumables, from clothing to toys and gourmet coffee to home décor, offers infinite variety. For some, shopping became more than securing basic needs — it provides a sense of power, pride or satisfaction.
With seventy-one percent of households financially unhealthy, and the narrowing distribution of asset ownership shrinking, consumerism isn’t working for most people. Millions of Americans do not have the day-to-day financial security they need to be financially resilient in the future. We need to find new ways to make a patriotic contribution of lasting value beyond transactional consumption.
The U.S. Constitution is our nation’s fundamental law. Upholding democracy is perhaps our highest value, and with it comes the principles of rule of law — that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to the law. It delivers values we hold dear: accountability, free and fair elections, a system of checks and balances, protection of fundamental rights, including the security of persons and contract, property, and human rights. As citizens, we value our right to elect and change our political leaders based on who we expect will best represent our values and interests.
Civil society and constitutional courts across America are part of the infrastructure being transformed by technology. Corporate personhood has its own set of interests, often very different from the best interests of human beings. As public spaces and cities begin intelligently tracking movements, monitoring citizens and visitors alike, the lines between safety and invasion of privacy will blur. With confidence and trust in government in decline, we need civic participation to shape future practices and ensure that unfair, incomplete, or short-sighted policies are not allowed to bypass civil liberties.
“Speaking one’s mind” and “telling it like it is” are hallmarks of our straightforward, direct approach that values making a concise point, as quickly and as clearly as possible so as to ensure the message is delivered as intended, and correctly received.
Networked machines will communicate and expand artificial intelligence and decision-making abilities to allow objects and environments to anticipate our next steps or actions directly, without a request or need for approval. On one hand, we’ll appreciate the convenience this brings ordinary life. It has the potential to eliminate certain types of miscommunication and misunderstandings. Machine learning systems often produce correct results, but the results aren’t always easily explained in terms we understand. Limitations apply — faulty conclusions can create disastrous outcomes. Are we prepared to address these limitations in advance?
“Treat others as you would like to be treated” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are values passed from generation to generation to instill a sense of kindness and care within communities. As history will attest, achieving equality has been a struggle. We have a history of polices and practices that includes certain Americans having their rights taken, overlooked, or ignored. Advocates champion equality of access to the right to make important decisions that affect their lives, have relationships with whom they choose and have access to all the benefits of society. Even with legislation aimed toward preventing discrimination and guaranteeing access, creating a more egalitarian society is a work in progress.
As machines increasingly make important decisions based on data collected through apps on our phones and beyond — we need to decide what we want from technology. Algorithms sift the most relevant intelligence. While efficient, algorithms carry the same bias as the data it's trained on.
Americans prefer to use relatively few titles in everyday interactions — titles are primarily used for medical and religious professionals, military and police officers, teachers and university professors. First names are used early in interactions. Protocols are more informal and relaxed. In comparison to other cultures, Americans tend to dress more casually and are more relaxed in standing and seating posture. People are encouraged to be self-directed and to take initiative.
Work environments are swiftly changing. As many people shelter in place and work from home during the pandemic, we’re increasingly relying upon virtual communication. In the last century, work environments were primarily shared with people in close physical proximity who could share in the same sensory conditions — sight, sound, smell, and touch. Advances in virtual and augmented reality will influence human perceptions and change the way leadership takes action. In the future there will be even less hierarchy — leaders will move from managing and mobilizing to curating, collaborating and integrating systems.
Americans value individualism, holding dear the freedom of each person to make their own choices, and do what they want — as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others. People strive to be recognized and rewarded. Personal accountability and a belief that our actions can change or influence our circumstances is a key part of our culture of individualism.
As data science and machine learning train on insights from psychology and neuroscience, we will increasingly rely on intelligent machines to make decisions and perform actions on our behalf. From these interactions, intelligent machines will learn new pathways to alter human perceptions.
American ingenuity brought us the conveniences we enjoy today. Our outward-looking orientation toward the future is one potential risk and possibility. We want to know what’s on the horizon, what’s around the next turn. The value we place on curiosity and interest in “what’s next” fosters innovation, business, and leadership.
We often think of technology as a tool that can improve efficiency or make our lives more convenient, but it’s also designed with optimal users and purposes in mind. In that way, technology is persuasive. It’s not neutral. It is up to us to instill the values and standards we wish to uphold.
The American Dream is part of a vision of the good life and a belief in opportunity for advancement. Our identity is closely tied to job titles and roles. We value hard work and expect it will lead to economic stability and a better future. We embrace upward socioeconomic mobility achieved through individual efforts, accomplishments, and talents — in direct contrast to cultures that focus on seniority, inherited names, titles, and property.
AI has been described as the most significant technological innovation since the steam engine. The practical and political issues that emerged during the late 1980s have a renewed relevance. AI’s advancement is dependent on hidden pools of labor. How will people be compensated for their contributions? This is our chance to determine what we want from the jobs of the future.
Patriotism, the belief in the ideals of the United States, is often expressed as “love of our country.” It has served as a powerful force of solidarity and resilience — bringing people closer together in difficult times. Patriotism inspires us to affirm and defend the country’s basic principles and institutions, regardless of how we identify ourselves in terms of religion or ethnicity.
In 2020 we face a human need for a different type of defense than what was required in the past. In response to the pandemic, the World Health Organization has encouraged leaders to take bold action to mitigate the financial harm coronavirus is imposing. More than half of all U.S. households have no emergency savings to sustain them through the current financial crisis. Our willingness to defend values and principles often amplifies the spirit of patriotism — does that spirit include banding together to sustain civil society financially, and to invest in fighting diseases?
The Value of Time
We treat time as money — our relationship with time is often described in specific and scarce terms, rather than as something fluid and abundant. From an early age, we teach children about efficiency and speed. Our relationship with time management creates conditions of increasing demand for convenience services like fast food, meal delivery, even product expiration dates.
The value we place on time is changing. Technology is becoming more interconnected daily and there are new possibilities to explore. Convenience and productivity have their place, but the tendency to equate more surveillance and tracking with more productive workplaces and higher profits may or may not align with the way we’ve valued time in the past. This is our opportunity to expand on our goals for the future.
What’s next — ask bold questions about the future we hope to create
How will the present outpouring of relief efforts, powers and responsibilities, international medical collaboration, and our own history, combine to set the conditions for the future 10, 20, 50 or 100 years from now? How will we combine our individual strengths, values, diversity and the complexity of American culture to meet the current needs of our society? Will we meet our challenges with humanity, humility, responsibility, and decency? Will we make choices based on conscience, and who we’re called to be? What kind of future do we want?
Turn by turn, the spin of chaos will slow. Our focus will shift. Solidarity will bring comfort. Suffering and grief will give way to acceptance of a new reality. A new order will emerge, and we’re all part of it. We have a responsibility to be sure the future represents the values and interests of, “We the People.”