This Is Water: Revisiting Social Constructs (Part 2)
Exploring the Long-Held Norms Ripe for Change
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This Is Water (Part 2)
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
The idea is that the most obvious things in the world are often hard for us to see. Many parts of our lives are social constructs—things that are totally…made up. Working in an office. The five-day workweek. Paying taxes. Marriage. Gender.
Sometimes social constructs make sense, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they should remain as they are, and other times they’re long overdue for change.
Last week, I dug into norms like working in an office and living in one place. This week, I’ll dig into another set of norms, touching on topics like secondhand fashion, climate change, and movie theaters. The goals are three-fold: 1) to examine the things we take as gospel, 2) to question whether those things are ripe for change, and 3) to explore the companies poised to power that change.
Norm: Driving cars 🚘
Every year, over 40,000 Americans die from car crashes and 2,000,000 more are injured. Cars are the leading cause of death for kids and young adults age 5 to 29. We hurl ourselves through the air in metal death machines, and we think nothing of it.
Meanwhile, our cities are built for cars, not people. The area in New York City devoted to street parking is equivalent to 12 Central Parks (!). Just think how else that space could be used. My partner Martin shared this image with me—once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Why do we choose to live this way?
In the future, we’ll look back and wonder how we ever centered our lives around cars. Self-driving cars will be so safe that we’ll marvel at the fact that we had vehicles susceptible to human error. Companies like Aurora and Waymo and Applied Intuition will power this future. And cities will become designed for walking and biking and public transit—greener options.
There was an excellent recent piece in The Atlantic about how American cities aren’t built for kids. Essentially, cars lead to urban sprawl, and urban sprawl makes it hard for kids to get anywhere; kids become reliant on their parents to drive them around. Most child socialization happens through unstructured play, which is rarer and rarer for American children given urban sprawl. In Amsterdam, by contrast, the majority of kids bike to school. Higher population density creates a safer environment for unstructured play and, consequently, for human development.
This is how our London team gets to work:
My hope is that more of our commutes will soon look like this—especially here in the U.S.
Another major reason cars will decline, of course, is their carbon footprint. The next few norms all build on the theme of climate change.
Norm: Fireworks on the Fourth…and other traditions
Climate change may lead us to rethink key parts of culture.
The tradition of setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July began in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, during the first organized celebration of Independence Day. Fireworks have been a part of all 245 celebrations since. But with climate change wreaking havoc, that might change. Every year, fireworks drive a huge spike in wildfires:
This year, many communities subbed in drones instead.
As climate change worsens, drones may supplant fireworks completely. And other small ways of life may have to adjust for a changing planet.
Norm: Eating meat
Food production is responsible for about 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, about double the entire emissions of the United States. Meat accounts for 60% of food production emissions.
Young people are eating less and less meat. This chart does a good job showing how habits are changing along generational lines:
To be clear, I don’t think meat is going anywhere. There will still be many meat lovers around in 2050. But plant-based meat alternatives will become a growing share of food. Beyond Meat is already a $2.5 billion market cap public company, though its sales have plateaued in recent quarters. Impossible is becoming a household name.
And there are younger, promising startups building on this behavior shift.
Planted, for instance, is a Swiss company that offers everything from plant-based chicken skewers to plant-based chimichurris.
Simulate is the New York-based holding company behind brands like Nuggs, which offer chicken-less chicken nuggets 🐔
The tailwinds behind meat’s decline are many: some people just want to be healthier; others are fed up with animal cruelty in the meat supply chain; and others care about meat’s carbon footprint. It’ll be interesting to see how large meat alternatives can become. 10% of the meat market? 50%? 90%? The global meat market is growing from $838 billion in 2020 to over $1 trillion by 2025. Even if meat alternatives only capture single-digit percentage points, that’s a multi-billion-dollar opportunity.
Norm: Frequent travel
Given the carbon footprint of air travel, barriers to flying will become higher. The stigma around flying might increase—if you’re a frequent business traveler, or a jet-setting influencer, you may find friends beginning to judge you. Zoom will replace all but the most important business meetings, and job interviews (at least initial screenings) will happen online.
I also expect more people to track and manage their own emissions. Apps like Joro already let you do this:
As climate change ramps up in urgency, more consumers and more businesses will take it upon themselves to take action. Measuring and offsetting our travel might become commonplace.
Norm: Buying items firsthand
The last of the climate-related norms:
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, with fast fashion the worst culprit of all. Traditionally, buying items firsthand has been our default. But that will change. The secondhand market is booming, buoyed by environmental concerns, and this decade, secondhand will surge past fast fashion in market size.
This shift is generational, with secondhand growing 2.5x faster in younger cohorts than older cohorts.
In the future, your first instinct might not be to shop new goods. You might first peruse Facebook Marketplace or Depop or Vinted. Or you might shop the dedicated “pre-owned” section on brand websites using Reflaunt or Archive. Secondhand will slowly eat the world.
Norm: Movies in theaters for 30+ days
The “theatrical window” is the length of time that movies stay exclusively in theaters. The window used to be 200+ days. Only after those 200 days would movies become available on VHS and DVD. And then, even later on, movies would finally be shown on TV. The idea was that a studio would get paid three separate times: 1) at the box office, 2) from VHS and DVD sales, 3) from selling TV rights. Cha-ching 💰
Even before COVID, the theatrical window was shrinking. Streaming put pressure on old deals struck between theater chains and studios, compressing the window down to ~80 days pre-COVID.
Then COVID hit, and major studios like Warner Bros and Disney began directing major films (Mulan, Borat 2, Hamilton, Soul) straight to streaming.
But in a post-pandemic world, the theatrical window isn’t dead. Blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Spiderman: No Way Home, and Minions: The Rise of Gru have shattered box office records over the past six months. People like the communal experience of moviegoing. But theatrical windows are going to become a lot shorter. The new normal will be a 30- or 45-day window. “Event pictures” will post big numbers at the box office for a few short weeks, before hitting Netflix or Hulu or Disney+.
Meanwhile, family fare (e.g., Pixar films) and lower-budget flicks (e.g., rom coms) will forgo theaters altogether. The economics just won’t make sense anymore.
Norm: Only showing movies in theaters
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the average American went to the movie theater 40 times a year (!). Visits to the cinema peaked in the 1940s, just before a little device called a television began to invade American households.
Today, the average person goes to the movies about twice a year. In other words, about 20x less often than 80 years ago.
The big theater chains are, unsurprisingly, struggling. They’re looking for other ways to draw consumers, and many have turned to premium offerings (reclining seats, IMAX, dine-in theaters).
But there’s no reason that cinema real estate should be restricted to showing only movies. Expect to see more content hit theaters. Why wasn’t the Game of Thrones final season shown on big screens across the country? Each episode, brimming with special effects, cost $15 million to make—but viewers had to watch dragons lay siege to entire cities on 60” TVs.
In the future, theaters will become hubs for communal gatherings. The next Stranger Things season. The Super Bowl. The Oscars. Formula 1. The new normal will be that movie theaters become just…community theaters.
This is a recent norm: the concept, popularized by Netflix, of consuming a new TV series all at once. Because of Netflix, streaming became synonymous with binge-watching. You burned through 12 hours of House of Cards in a weekend.
But the era of binge-watching is coming to a close. Content budgets are ballooning: Netflix will spend ~$20B on original content in 2022.
It’s unsustainable. Netflix is already finding creative ways to extend the life (and economics) of content. The latest seasons of Ozark and Stranger Things both dropped in two separate segments, months apart. Competing services like Disney+ and Hulu, meanwhile, have stuck to weekly roll-outs for hit shows like The Mandalorian and Only Murders in the Building (both excellent!).
Binge-watching will be remembered as a remnant of the 2010s “peak TV” era—the cash-burning race to win the streaming wars. We’re now going back to the old way of things. One upside: the water cooler might be back, with appointment television creating a more cohesive cultural lingua franca for people to bond over on Monday morning.
Norm: TV and movies as the dominant forms of entertainment
One of my all-time favorite charts is this chart of household technology adoption:
The pink line for color TV is among the most vertical lines on the chart. Within years, 95% of U.S. households had a color TV. And since then, television has dominated entertainment (in tandem with movies, a related phenomenon.) In 2022, American adults will spend three hours a day watching TV. But that figure is actually declining, as TV competes for attention with the internet. Netflix’s Reed Hastings is famous for saying that Fortnite is a bigger competitor than HBO.
Over the coming decades, we’ll see TV and movies stop being the nuclei of culture. There are already 3.5 billion gamers on Earth—about half the planet. And new technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are only just getting started. The potential for entertainment from these technologies far surpasses what a flat screen can accomplish.
Hollywood has already begun tapping technologies built for non-moviemaking purposes. Disney’s The Mandalorian and live action The Lion King were both rendered with Unreal Engine, the 3D computer graphics game engine from Epic Games (the maker of Fortnite).
Game engines are getting so realistic that they’re able to create unparalleled experiences. Here’s a rendering of the Star Wars planet Tatooine, made with Unreal:
Soon, consumers will be able to walk through this hyper-realistic world. Instead of watching Star Wars at home, you can live it and explore its universe within VR. Television’s command over culture will wane, replaced by new technologies yet to go mainstream—technologies that will gain rapid adoption in U.S. households and will be new additions to the chart above.
Norm: Stereotypes on gender, race, and nationality
One final, broad norm to end on. As a society, we have a tendency to overestimate technological change and to underestimate social change.
Take The Jetsons. The Jetsons was an animated sitcom in the 1960s about a family living in a futuristic society. The show has flying cars, holograms, and a robotic housekeeper. But Jane Jetson—the matriarch of the family—is a stay-at-home mom whose hobbies include cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Hmm. The creators of The Jetsons could envision a future with incredible inventions, but they couldn’t envision a future with a working mom.
We talk a lot about the technologies that we’ll have by 2030, 2040, 2050. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Implants in our brains. Harder to dream up, but arguably more impactful, will be the social changes. We’re already seeing Gen Z be more gender fluid than any other generation. And as the world globalizes—and thanks to the internet—people are becoming more informed about and accepting of other races, ethnicities, and nationalities.
It’s difficult to imagine what the ripple effects will be, but social innovations will likely evolve more rapidly than technological innovations.
It would be easy to keep going. There are many everyday parts of life that our kids will one day laugh at. Paper money will be a distant memory, with dollar bills replaced by software. The digital penetration of money is still in its early innings, but companies like Revolut, Brazil’s Pix, and Cash App (The Rise of Cash App) will change that.
Or our kids might view today’s social media in the way that we view the cigarettes our parents smoked—addictive, unhealthy, destructive to mental health.
When I think of our current trajectory as a digital species, I think of the humans in Wall-E. I think of the oft-told joke: “I’m going to take a break from my mid-sized screen to lie on the couch and watch my big screen while scrolling my small screen.”
My hope is that new generations will challenge this trajectory and right the ship.
But rather than keep going, I’ll finish with interesting submissions from readers who responded to last week’s Part 1.
Here are some norms that readers suggested are ripe for change:
“Meetings: more teams will work asynchronously with remote work and distributed, global teams.” — Jeremy
“Alcohol! Gen Z already consumes 20% less alcohol than Millennials. They’re turning to fun alternatives like Ghia, Seedlip, Recess.” — Nora
“Leaving home at 18. We’re already seeing kids stay in the nest longer. The pandemic led to a step-change here, but younger adults are also struggling with finances and will live at home throughout their 20s.” — Gary
“One fixed first name for your entire life. I’m amazed by how many of my Asian friends literally ‘change’ names every other year.” — Kevin
“The duration of formal schooling. Why should schools run 9 months a year? The roots of this system are agrarian, from when there was a summer harvest. The pandemic forced a rethink of how, when, and where students should learn.” — Nora
“Private homes: we might go back to communal living, or multi-generational living.” — Kevin
“Children and schools adapting to digital nomad life. With parents working remotely and changing locations—New York in fall, LA in winter, etc.—will schools follow suit? I could see this happening with private schools for sure.” — Jackie
“My girlfriend and I traveled while working remotely, but it’s still a legal gray area for most countries. Will we see more ‘nomad visas’ as remote work booms? Companies and governments will need to break down international barriers as talent becomes borderless and fluid.” — Jeremy
Some of the most successful startups in history were built on behavior changes that challenged a norm: Uber encouraged us to share a vehicle with a stranger; Airbnb asked us to live in a stranger’s home and to invite them into ours; Facebook, and later TikTok to an even greater degree, taught us to broadcast everything to everyone around the world.
It turns out that it doesn’t take as many people to change culture as you might think. My partner Martin shared with me this study on “the 25% tipping point”—basically, research has proved that if just 25% of a population changes behavior, the rest follow suit.
It all starts with awareness of what needs to change. To finish with an excerpt from This Is Water:
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
Sources & Additional Reading
This Is Water | David Foster Wallace (I promise, this is the best thing you’ll read this week)
Part 1 from last week is here
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