Microtrends are happening nationwide, and Tacoma is no exception.
That’s according to Mark Penn, author of a new book, “Microtrends Squared,” a follow-up to his “Microtrends” book of 2007. Penn, along with Meredith Fineman, spent the past two years working on the updated version.
Microtrends are those small niches of interest that seem to affect only a small group of people when, in reality, their ripple effects can spread widely. The book compares them to two tectonic plates — “These shifts at first seem small, but over time they separate continents by thousands of miles.”
Examples include a society of roommates instead of married couples, which ripples out to living arrangements. Or artificial intelligence that becomes so humanized that we forget the AI giving us human-sounding greetings is not human at all.
Microtrends can change how societies are organized, maintained or divided, something Penn has watched accelerate. He recently spoke to The News Tribune about the book and what he finds, good and bad, in current microtrends. Penn is chairman of the Harris Poll and served as pollster and strategist for President Bill Clinton in the '90s and later Hillary Clinton.
“The difference between 10 years ago and now is that back then I was optimistic about choice,” he said. “Now we add more intense choices, and they get cordoned off and people grow cocooned with their specific choices.”
It’s one thing when these catered choices have to do with deciding what brand to buy, quite another when it comes to the marketplace of ideas. He likens it to a Balkanization of the world when you select the same options for goods, services, technology, news outlets among other things, every time.
The result: “You become more antagonistic to each other, and that's one of the changes making microtrends so significant; they can pull society in polarized directions,” Penn said.
Real estate is a prime example of our society reorganizing itself to fit current market trends.
Higher real estate prices and rental costs, as seen in Tacoma and elsewhere in the area, at first appear to just be affecting local market rates and getting us on gentrification and high rent comparison lists.
But this upward spiral might have a longer term, societal impact when it comes to settling down and raising families, according to Penn.
“The biggest trend to make housing more affordable is to have roommates,” he said. “Whereas people used to date and marry their high school sweetheart, now people spend 10 to 15 years on their own having roommates. It’s a way to afford housing today.”
As the book points out, combined incomes from roommates being able to cover higher rents presents a more lucrative opportunity for landlords than do couples or families facing fixed expenses and growing child-care costs.
For roommates not looking for marriage, suburbia doesn’t appear to be a desired option.
“To the extent of getting married, having a family and moving to suburbs, the demand for suburbs goes down for people,” Penn said. “So we’re now living longer in less space.”
This microtrend, termed “Roomies for Life,” in the book, also notes future apartments nationwide designed with equal sized bedrooms and closets and baths to accommodate this growing segment.
Cathy Reines, president and CEO of Koz Development, was asked what trends she’s noticed in the area and her company’s projects.
“We have both — bedrooms that mirror each other to avoid the drawing of straws and a two-bedroom selection with one bedroom bigger than the other,” she said in an email to The News Tribune. “The latter option allows for an office in the home, a child’s bedroom or a guest bedroom.”
But, she adds, for people looking to rent, there are two other factors that outrank design. “In my opinion, the dominant trend is location/affordability, and that hasn’t changed.”
The biggest change coming among the microtrends listed in the book isn’t roommates, pot legalization, independent lifestyle marriages (again affecting design, this time for two master suites in homes) or even the gig economy.
By Penn’s estimation, the microtrend with most resonance will come from artificial intelligence and relationships with robots.
“Our relationships with a bot unquestionably will have the biggest effect in the future,” he said. “When people are asked if (Amazon’s) Alexa is a he or she, they all answer 'she,' when the right answer is ‘it.’ ”
And, AI is only growing in its reach. Amazon recently touted new homes with its Echo/Alexa device included in a smart-home design.
One of the flagship models of homebuilder Lennar Homes is in Bothell. These flagship homes are advertised as “Amazon Experience Centers.”
“Microtrends Squared” notes that everyone from the late physicist Stephen Hawking to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and even Bill Gates have warned about AI.
“You have the very purveyors of dynamite putting a warning label on their product,” the book contends.
It’s not Alexa’s microphones listening to your conversations that bothers Penn.
“I don't worry as much about the microphones as I do the pathway that the tech starts out free and helpful, then gets commercialized and distorted,” he said. “It starts out as a really helpful thing ... this relationship is meant to serve me.
“These relationships and what they can turn into is probably one of the most significant trends that we need to be more aware of.”
The book warns of the profit motives behind the AI personalization amid the growing market concentration in the tech industry.
One way to break through everyone’s silos, Penn notes, is to make technology introduce us to new things, instead of sending us down the same, comfortable roads via algorithms designed to find what we like and disregard other options.
“The fact that we now burrow in makes microtrends more powerful,” he said, “but the unintended consequence is it is dividing society. I’d like to see technology offering you different options you wouldn’t normally choose, and you could find you might actually like it.”