This is why we look towards the weird and the wonderful as key signals to understand where the world is headed.
Right now, the taboo trends worth keeping a particularly close eye on can be summed up as sex, drugs, and AI Eurovision.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
The sex industry has a lot to teach more mainstream businesses. For a start, the world’s oldest professions also tend to be some of the earliest adopters of new business models and technologies. From robotics and artificial intelligence to cryptocurrencies, the sex trade is always fast to spot how to monetise a new trick, sometimes in very creative ways.
As just one example of the sector’s propensity for innovation, take teledildonics, a term for remote sexual encounters that use digital technologies to imitate interpersonal connections. One of the more creative teledildonic applications dates to 2017 and involved sex toys linked to bitcoin price fluctuations. As the cryptocurrency’s price goes up, so does the intensity of the vibration – thereby combining cutting edge robotics with emerging cryptocurrency markets.
Fast forward a few years and, once again, the sex industry is pointing the way to the future. Two trends, in particular, stand out with specific relevance to business leaders: ‘platformification’ and ‘uncovered calls’.
Platformification refers to how our online fetishes reveal the hidden power structures in the “deep stack” that control our access to the internet. The “deep stack” refers to the powerful platform businesses and other two-sided marketplace players that connect businesses with each other and with their customers. Examples of deep stack players include social networks, cloud-based computing software and storage providers, ISP providers – and payment processors.
This brings us to Only Fans, an internet content subscription service best known for permitting adult content creators to host and share pornographic content with their fans. It is also, now, well known for drawing global attention to the risks businesses that rely on deep-stack partners face with regards to deep stack denial of service attacks. A deep stack denial of service attack occurs when a platform provider pulls the proverbial rug out from underneath its business clients. And that is exactly what (almost) happened to Only Fans in 2021 when major credit card processors threatened to refuse to process payments related to sex work. After a public backlash, the credit card morality police backtracked on their threats.
However, the issue of deep stack denial of service has persisted and extended to the wider economy. In November 2021, Amazon, one of the biggest platform businesses of them all, made headlines when it announced that as of January 2022, it would no longer be processing credit card payments from Visa cardholders due to an unresolved fees argument, leaving potentially millions of small businesses and customers as collateral damage. This is a strong signal that deep stack denial of service attacks will only increase in the years ahead.
The ‘uncovered call’ trend refers to how nude photographs have become loan collateral for cash-strapped consumers. The phenomenon started in China a few years ago, where predatory loan sharks quickly took advantage of new technologies to satisfy two different consumer appetites – the appetite for credit and the appetite for pornography. The admittedly innovative yet technically illegal business model allows young female clients to submit nude selfies containing a clear shot of their identity cards as collateral for loans. Then, if a woman fails to pay back their instalments, the loan sharks sell their naked (and easily identifiable) images to the softcore porn market, thereby ruining their debtor's reputations and enriching themselves at the same time.
While these sorts of naked selfie loans are an extreme example of consumer desperation in our very tough economic times, they are also a harbinger of the slew of fully legal yet ethically dubious tech-enabled consumer debt services that have hit the market in recent years. For example, Payfast has reported that BNPL, or buy-now-pay-later, is one of the fastest-growing e-commerce payment options in South Africa. These products offer “interest-free” payment instalments for consumer goods (even, infamously, for Uber Eats orders in some countries). However, as with the naked selfie loans, like all debt, these tempting easy ‘debt training wheels’ offers come with a catch – missed instalments are slapped with hefty fees and, potentially, black marks on the user’s credit ratings. So, while easy credit may sound tempting to customers and businesses alike, they are far from sustainable financing models.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Drugs, like sex, are a seemingly perpetual taboo topic. Now, however, drugs are having a deregulation moment. First cannabis and now psychedelics are moving from the fringes to the centre of health and wellness conversations as micro-dosing goes mainstream. However, as big as the opportunities around these green and grey economies are, perhaps more interesting are the ideas of ‘smart pills’ and ‘digital opium’.
‘Spiritual opium’ is the term used by the Chinese Communist Party to refer to what it believes to be the socially destructive impact social media and online games are having in its society. In response to the ‘spiritual opium’ epidemic, the Chinese government has instituted a wave of radical policies, including allowing under 18s to play video games for only a couple of – strictly monitored – hours a week at predetermined times. This crackdown on the destabilising social impact of digital tech technologies in China is echoed with the so-called ‘techlash’ taking place across the rest of the world, as governments and parents alike are becoming more frightened about the influence big tech companies have on their constituents and children. Businesses should be aware of the growing appetite for stricter surveillance and regulation arising in response to the growing distrust of digital networks.
With most trends, there is an equal and opposite counter-trend at play. Spiritual opium is no exception to this rule of thumb. Even as the world becomes increasingly wary of the web, it is also awakening to new positive possibilities, one of which involves the advent of digital drugs, here not referring to smart pills (which are, indeed, a trend), but rather to digital technologies being prescribed by doctors and psychiatrists as (legal) drugs to treat issues from post-traumatic stress disorder to pain management to ADHD.
In 2020, the US FDA approved a video game as a ‘digital therapeutic device’ to assist children with ADHD to concentrate better. Other app developers are now trying to get a host of mental wellness apps, therapist bots, and mindfulness virtual reality experiences approved as medical devices and digital therapies. This should be of interest to businesses in that mental health and wellness (or the lack thereof) are emerging as one of the biggest post-Covid workplace trends. Digital ‘drugs’ and therapies are shaping up to be an important part of future employee mental wellness programmes.
Mamma Mia, here we go again
The robots are (literally) coming for our rock stars’ jobs. When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the Eurovision Song Contest, an alternative AI Eurovision song contest sprang up to keep fans entertained. The AI Eurovision Contest (won by Australia) only accepted songs written and “performed” by AI. This should be seen as a signal as to how AI collides with human creativity and challenges us to reconsider the future of work and the future of humanity itself. The key trend worth considering here is that of ‘reality privilege’.
Reality privilege refers to how, increasingly, as technology amplifies both growth and inequality, along with technological redundancy for many skill sets, if not jobs, more and more people will likely end up having more fulfilling jobs, lives, and even relationships online. With and through virtual avatars, they’ll engage in activities such as play-to-earn gaming inside the metaverse instead of commuting to a “real” job. The online world thus becomes more enjoyable than “real” life.
It’s a concept perhaps best described by internet pioneer, Marc Andreessen: “The vast majority of humanity lacks reality privilege – their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world. The reality privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian and demand that we prioritise improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality, to which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people.”
This might make you feel uncomfortable, but that is the point. Taboo topics do make us uncomfortable. However, we should not turn away from that discomfort but lean into it. We might just learn something about the future.
- Look to the edges to see the future – today’s taboo is tomorrow’s trend.
- Deep stack denial of service attacks are a growing business risk – don’t build your business upon a platform.
- Make sure your business model is built on sustainable finance and not on customer exploitation.
- Have an antidote ready for spiritual opium – expect the leviathan to exercise more control over the state of nature that is the internet as we know it.
- Consider digital drugs as a part of your future employee holistic wellness programmes.
- Check your reality privilege – explore the potential (and the problems) of the metaverse.
- Discomfort is a great teacher.
Bronwyn Williams is a partner at Flux Trends. She is a futurist, economist and business trends analyst, whose particular areas of expertise include fintech trends, alternative economic models, and sustainable future design.