The Macro Power of Microtrends
Eleven years ago, Mark Penn, a pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, wrote a book showing how seemingly minor developments often exert outsized influence on society. It was called “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.”
Today, Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, and chairman of the Harris Poll. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s razor-thin election victory, and a number of technological innovations changing U.S. society, Penn revisited his earlier work. The sequel is “Microtrends Squared: The New Small Forces Driving the Big Disruptions Today.”
He recently sat for an interview with Tony Mills, managing editor of RealClear Media Group, to discuss the current state of affairs — and where we might be heading.
Q: You popularized the concept of “microtrends” in your book of that name. What, exactly, is a microtrend and what made you decide to revisit the topic?
A: In “Microtrends” and “Microtrends Squared,” I look for the under-the-radar trends that may involve only 1 percent or so of the population and yet they can have outsized influence in business, politics, culture, or social policy.
Given that the last election was decided by fewer than 100,000 voters, many of whom were part of microtrends, like “Couch Potato Voters,” “Closet Conservatives,” or “Old Economy Voters,” I decided to revisit “Microtrends” because the influence of such trends is only growing. I try to teach people in the book to spot microtrends that are happening around them and appreciate how important even small changes can be in reshaping the country.
What are some of the most important microtrends out there right now?
I think those in a relationship with a bot, for example, are a growing, super important microtrend because how we react to new technology is going to determine our fate as a society. Will we achieve the kind of civilization in which bots will play a complementary role like they do in “The Jetsons” or in “Star Wars”? Or are we headed for “The Forbin Project” or “Battlestar Galactica” where AI destroys the planet? The decisions that will lead to those outcomes are being made now, almost unconsciously. We are seeing a battle between the Silicon Valley voters and the Old Economy voters play itself out here. We are also seeing a revolution in people’s ability to start their own business, with virtual entrepreneurs taking the lead.
The concept of countertrends — “for every trend there is a countertrend,” as you put it — plays a particularly important role in this book, especially in your discussion of politics. What are they? And do you think we are currently living through an era of countertrends?
Just as Newton observed that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so in looking at the world of trends today for almost every trend there is a countertrend. Of course, they do not have to be opposite and equal, which is what makes this so important to track and understand. We are in the age of information and also the age of misinformation, with fakesters (another microtrend) and the “fake news” taking front and center in the discussion of the flow of information. I think politics today can be seen as a battle of trends and countertrends. We are seeing older voters reassert their authority to millennials, and the half of the country that lives on one-third of the GDP said, “Enough!” and rebelled.
The tone of this book is somewhat different from your last in that you sound more cautious about microtrends and their countertrends as well as the effects of recent technological changes. (You go so far as to tentatively accept the label “alarmist” in your concluding chapter.) Why the change?
Ten years ago, I saw a world transformed for the better through technology and choice. Today, in “Microtrends Squared,” I see that same potential but also pitfalls and problems that need to be corrected. Tech companies have gone from small and nimble to enormous organizations with unlimited power and money; people have become cocooned in their own choices and look increasingly inward instead of outward; voting and politics have become warped as too many people are on the sidelines; and campaigns have gone from a battle of ideas to a battle of scurrilous attack ads. We need to address some of the emerging problems and reform things like our registration and voting systems now before it is too late.
Among the negative effects you document are some paradoxes: more freedom for consumers has led to fewer choices; more diversity in the media landscape has led to ideological balkanization; more flexibility for workers has led to more instability; more connectedness through social media has led to more loneliness. Why do you think this is? Can we do anything about it?
Yes, the law of unintended consequences seems to have taken root reinforcing those views in our society, and we often get the opposite of what we expected. I think of America as a restaurant that used to serve only chicken and fish. Then we added sushi and steak to the menu and those who dine on steak think they are in the right and the sushi eaters not only love toro but think red meat can kill you. By giving people more choices we have managed to feed the extremes at the expense of the middle.
Another problem you discuss is how new data and advertising techniques reinforce our habits and prejudices — meeting consumers where they already are, rather than challenging them. How can we counter this, especially given how profitable these techniques are for companies who rely on them?
By reinforcing choices we make, technology today tends to harden our choices and views. Express views on one side or the other and the next thing you know you are getting newsletters, solicitations, and information consistent with those views. All of technology today is meant to find people’s views and prejudices and target them over and over again. The problem is this has the effect of narrowing people’s field of vision and so we need the tech companies to widen their scope of information. They need to take 10 or 20 percent of what they feed consumers and mix it up a bit. After all, people said they would never use a cellphone until there it was, and people today can’t live without their smartphones. We also have to be wary about the distribution of media and customized media platforms as that can really narrow what people see to their detriment.
You make the point several times in the book that we are in a kind of “Wild West” when it comes to technological change and that laws and regulations will have catch up, at least if we want to mitigate some of the negative consequences. But before passing laws or writing new regulations, don’t we have to resolve — or at least debate — the underlying ethical questions so we know what to do (and what not do)? This seems especially important for artificial intelligence, data, privacy, and the like.
We wanted technology to take root in this country, and it did. To help it we suspended a lot of rules when it comes to taxation, antitrust, news media aggregation, and ethics. Now we have to backtrack and put the right controls in place as people begin to feel threatened about their privacy and as businesses begin to fold as a result of unfair technology competition. I don’t see this as the wholesale breakup of companies, but I do see it as making a level playing field between old and new companies.
Turning to politics: Your concept of impressionable elites, introduced in your first book, was especially prescient given the events of 2016. Who are these impressionable elites and do you think they’ve gotten more impressionable?
Impressionable elites continue to worry me to no end. The most intelligent among us seem to be content to form and offer opinions on the basis of cues from others rather than thinking for themselves. You see it today in more people saying there was a Russia-Trump collusion versus those saying that they have seen any evidence of such collusion. Generally, you want the people who believe something to be a subset of those who believe there is evidence, not the other way around. Otherwise that means people form their beliefs first, and only absorb facts that fit the beliefs. Look at the percentage who believed that Donald Trump could not win an election, spurred on by a media that could see no other conclusion.
Immigration unexpectedly turned out to play an outsized role in the 2016 campaign and shows no signs of going away. You focus a lot on immigration in this book. Would you say that it was a microtrend, albeit one that our impressionable elites overlooked?
The power of those who are here without documentation clearly is a significant microtrend — one we projected 10 years ago in the original “Microtrends.” The DACA recipients — less than 1 million people — are playing a major role in politics today. The impressionable elites ducked this issue while Trump picked it up and ran with it — sometimes way too far — but he understood the power of this issue and the microtrend.
Was populism a microtrend — and did you miss it?
It’s unclear in today’s world exactly what populism means in an American context. If you define it as a group of issues that President Trump picked up in his campaign — America First, trade, immigration — then you are really looking at a group of issues that are important to Americans and that fell out of the political dialogue as elites moved closer together on them while there were still broad divisions among the electorate. We believed that New Economy internationalism was here to stay as a political direction, and what we overlooked was how badly some sectors of the economy were being left behind — and just how much political clout those sectors can have in our Electoral College system of government.