I came to the conclusion that it's not a watch or a TV.
It's a version of telepresence so good it will be a little like teleportation, so good, that is to say, we will actually want to use it.
How do I know? Well, of course, I don't. My method was a kind of telepresence ethnography. I used empathy to take up residence in the Apple culture and I saw, or think I saw, two things:
1. that Apple wants to do great things. Reinventing the watch and the TV are too small.
2. that Apple wants to prove it can do great things without its guru, Steve Jobs.
What, I wondered, is big enough to be big enough for Apple? Telepresence feels right. To create this would be to transform the home, the work place, education, and perhaps also the city. Apple does it again.
Anyhow, that's the argument.
You can find the post at the Harvard Business Review Blog by clicking here.
If you have comments, I'd be grateful if you would please leave them at the HBR Blog. Thanks!
Credits: Thank you to BioShock for the image.
This is my Foreword for a new book on ethnographic method from Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users.
I was just looking at YouTube in a brave attempt to keep in touch with popular music, and I found the musician Macklemore doing a hip-hop celebration of the thrift store. (“Passing up on those moccasins someone else been walking in.”) Google results indicate that Macklemore is a product of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. And this is interesting because Evergreen produces a lot of ferociously creative kids—wild things who care nothing for our orthodoxy, and still less for our sanctimony.
Now, our curiosity roused, we might well decide to go visit Evergreen College, because as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Evergreen would be an excellent place to look for our futures. But it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant. We would struggle to get a fix on the sheer volcanic invention taking place here. Our sensibilities would be scandalized. We would feel ourselves at sea.
And that’s where ethnography comes in. It is, hands down, the best method for making our way through data that is multiple, shifting, and mysterious. It works brilliantly to help us see how other people see themselves and the world. Before ethnography, Evergreen is a bewildering place. After ethnography, it’s a place we “get.” (Not perfectly. Not comprehensively. But the basics are there, and the bridge is built.)
And that’s where Steve Portigal comes in. Armed with his method of interviewing, years of experience, a sustained devotion to the hard problems that our culture throws off (not just at Evergreen State College), and a penetrating intelligence, Steve could capture much of what we need to know about Evergreen, and he could do it in a week. And that’s saying something. Steve is like a Mars Rover. You can fire him into just about any environment, and he will come back with the fundamentals anatomized and insights that illuminate the terrain like flares in a night sky. Using his gift and ethnography, Steve Portigal can capture virtually any world from the inside out. Now we can recognize, enter, and participate in it. Now we can innovate for it, speak to it, serve it.
And if this is all Steve and ethnography can do, well, that would be enough. But Steve and the method can do something still more miraculous. He can report not just on exotic worlds like Evergreen, but the worlds we know—the living room, the boardroom, the not-for-profit, and the design firm. This is noble work because we think we grasp the world we occupy. How would we manage otherwise? But, in fact, we negotiate these worlds thanks to a series of powerful, intricate assumptions. The thing about these assumptions is that, well, we assume them. This means they are concealed from view.
We can’t see them. We don’t know they are active. We don’t know they’re there. Ethnography and Steve come in here, too. They are uniquely qualified to unearth these assumptions, to discover, in the immortal words of Macklemore, those moccasins we all go walking in.
This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.
Use discount code mccracken2013 to get 20% off Steve’s book here.(http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/interviewing-users/).
Orphan Black, the new show on BBC America (Saturday at 9:00 Eastern) is a pleasure. The theme is multiplicity, the writing is good, the acting is strong.
Seven women discover themselves to be clones. They are genetically identical. But that's where their similarities end.
Raised in different circumstances, countries and cultures, the "orphans" manage to represent some of the great diversity of the contemporary world.
These differences are enough to force them apart. But someone is trying to kill the clones so they are now obliged to work together.
Saturday, the "soccer mom" clone must stand in for the "Punk" clone. She must persuade everyone that she is the mother of the Punk's daughter. (The daughter spots her immediately. "You're not my mother.")
The soccer mom has an hour to get ready for her big performance, an hour to throw off suburban nicities and take on a brawling, street-smart cynicism. She is aided by the Punk's brother who says something like "Oh, God, this calls for a complete reverse Pygmalion."
It's one of those lovely moments, where an actress playing one person must now play that person playing a second person. Hats off to Tatiana Maslany, the very gifted actress who plays the clones.
The theme here is forced transformation, aka involuntary improv. As Orphan Black assumes the identity of another clone, the challenges come fast and furious. In rapid succession, she discovers that she has an American accent, a stylish condo, a dolt for a boyfriend, $75,000 sitting in the bank, a career as a police detective, and that she is under investigation for a crime she can only guess at.
In the title of the best book on improv, Orphan Black must deliver "something wonderful right away." This is improv in real time, under unforgiving pressure, with dire consequences attending failure.
I believe we are seeing this theme more and more in contemporary culture because it is more and more a theme in contemporary life. Increasingly, it's what life is like.
For more on this argument, see my book Transformations, on Amazon, by clicking here.
I was listening to Justin Timberland’s Mirrors the other day and at the 2:03 mark, something weird happens. It’s as if the song suffers a sudden loss of blood pressure.
The tempo so far has been driven by a calm but persistent momentum. A horse traveling at a canter, leisurely but insistent, the base line supplied by instruments and voices.
And then the momentum suddenly glides! The baseline stops. At 2:03 strings come in and fall away. And you think they are going to keep falling until strings come in again at 2:04. Between 2:03 and 2:04, there’s free fall.
It feels like the song is over. Then those second strings come in, just in time, to catch the song and prepare for a return to canter.
Not quite a resurrection. More like a save (in the baseball sense of the miraculous catch).
It’s hard to see what this intrusion means for Mirrors. The first time I heard it, it seemed to me that the song was wheeling (as trains do) and now moving off in a new direction. But Mirrors comes out of this swoon the song it was going in. Nothing has changed. (Unless I’m missing something. You can tell that I don’t know anything about music. So something might have changed and I can’t see it.)
I might have ignored this aspect of Mirrors, except that it reminded me of the music that accompanies a recent Microsoft ad. This is Labrinth’s Express Yourself. This is a good natured, peppy, confessional little song that comes with an admonishing chorus: Express yourself!
No sooner has this chorus started than (at 0:54) it sounds like a Paris ambulance has decided to take a short cut through our “listening experience.” Klaxon blaring! Get out of the way! This is an emergency!
It’s glorious, great confusion, as the song has suffered a blowout, lost its stability and fights now to get things back under control. Express Yourself on two wheels! Look out!
Popular music has often cultivated this conceit, that it is a lord of misrule capable of summoning terrible confusions and disorders. In fact, “Look out!” is exactly what guitarist sometimes mutter at the beginning of a solo, as if chaos were now to be unleashed. I am not always buying it, but I am usually charmed. “A” for effort and grandiosity.
Again, it’s not clear what the Paris ambulance adds to the song. It sounds out of place. Not quite in error. Not entirely apt.
And this reminded me of that moment in Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a ring on it) where we get (at 0:52) what struck on first hearing as “dread chords.” They come in like a low pressure zone, dark, menacing, and if this weren’t a pop song, majestic.
These three things are anthropologically obvious…or at least probable.
1) That music is one of the most cultural of cultural artifacts. What works in one culture is strange and unpleasant in another. We are extremely particular about what we like and what we don’t.
2) That music is rule bound. The rules specify, among other things, how sounds should be chosen and combined. Some selections and combinations are so conventionalized, they become genres. But what confines some artists frees other, and part of the fun of musical creativity is seeing what an artist can make these rules do, by stretching them to the breaking point and in some cases deliberately violating them. This is what keeps music “fresh.”
3) Some of the rules of music call for “harmony.” Some sounds go together, some do not. It’s a largely arbitrary arrangement. It varies between communities and it changes over time. But at any given time for any given group, the rules say some sounds go together more surely than others.
And what we are looking at in the case of Timberlake, Labrinth and Beyonce are sounds that so clearly don’t go with the surrounding sounds that they seem to qualify as intruders. They remain separate and different. They are passengers. Stowaways even.
The simplest explanation for these dark passengers is that they are post hoc efforts to give the song additional depth and credibility. The artist says, “oh, God, we’ve gone too far. This is bubble gum. Do something!” And faithfully, the tune smith or the producer comes up with a sound that “runs against type” as we used to say of casting Broadway or Hollywood actors.
But I think there’s another explanation. Or, better, I wonder whether we should search for the explanation elsewhere. I wonder if culture, and in this case pop culture, is changing. Changing so much that unitness is breaking down. Cultural rules once said what a unit was and how to constitute it, not least how to specify what goes in a song and what does not. This is what gave a song its “thingness.” This is what allowed the artist and the listener to agree that, yes, this is a song.
If its possible now to smuggle music into a song that doesn’t quite go, well, that would be interesting. After all popular culture has been ruthlessly crafted. Artists are controlled by conventions and producers who are controlled by genres and labels who are controlled by sales numbers. Even in an era of indie and alt musical producers, music is crafted quite carefully. Rules are honored. Conventions play out.
But if an artist/producer/label can now allow dark passengers, musical moments that are not just cast against type, but markedly different in tone and character, then what we call a “song” is changing. And if that’s changing, well, think what else must be changing.
On changing in music and the music biz, see the remarkable work being done by Leora Kornfeld over at Demassed.
Have a look.
You will see that I rush the conclusion. These are early days and at the moment we have little more than a suggestive trace of the new trend. Still, early notice has to start somewhere, as it were.
Here's a paragraph from the post.
Why sweetness? Well, we are coming out of an era of some darkness. We seemed almost to celebrate skepticism and snark. We dwelt upon the grimmest aspects of the human experience. TV and movie making were increasingly ghoulish, with new standards of viscera and depravity. Shows like CSI and NCIS dwell lovingly on the crime victim. Bright lights and strategically placed towels protect our sexual sensitivities, but everything else on the autopsy table is enthusiastically examined. Once the standard bearer of heartlessness, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) now looks a little quaint. Since its release, we have seen a succession of werewolves, vampires, serial killers, and human monsters of every kind. If you are 40 or under, you've grown up on a steady diet of heartlessness.
This just in (Tuesday, February 26)
Steve Crandall had this excellent datum to add to the post. It turns out he recently had dinner with one of the writers for Big Bang Theory, who "said the show was designed to be "sweet' … characters who might be considered intimidating due to their skill in math and science [were] brought down to human scale by being socially clueless and quite "sweet"."
Thank you, Steve. (See Steve's excellent blog here.)
It's not hard to imagine why Netflix has decided to focus on original programming (most recently with House of Cards and now with an animated children's series). Making oneself an exclusive source for a show starring Kevin Spacey is a great way to sweeten the value proposition and compete with Hulu and Amazon. Plus, eventually every grocer wants to be a P&G. Why merely manage the channel when you can start filling it?
But Hollywood is not just any industry. It's the true north of our culture. To become a broker here! Think of the power! Think of the parties! And this is why so many are called. Everyone would like to be a player and Hollywood is littered with the wreckage of careers of people who looked at the entertainment industry and thought, "I would love to be a big shot and, anyhow, how hard can it be?" It turns out that making entertainment is extremely hard. Even Disney can make a stinker like John Carter. Even very talented people (the Weinstein brothers or Bonnie Hammer, for instance) make mistakes.
For the rest of this post, please click here.
My nephew is up for an interview at the college of his choice. Everyone is thrilled. His speciality is the classics so I am no use at all.
But what, I wondered, would be a good way of quizzing someone about how much they knew about contemporary culture.
As it happened, I was working on a Keynote deck for which I produced the image above. It has several bits and pieces. We could just to hand an applicant the image and invite them to comment. This would be one of several "quizzes" and is not meant to be the only useful test.
There are no right answers. But I think we would be able to judge very swiftly whether someone had depth, range, intelligence, and what do they call it in tennis, "touch." I want you to identify each of these images and tell us how and why what they represent matters to contemporary culture. You should be able to speak for 5 minutes on each image...and that's just for starters.
Please have a go and if you feel like banding off a thousand words I would be happy to put together a set of judges with the winner getting a Minerva award.
Or just work out your answers "in your head" and let's discuss our various answers in a later post.
Click on the image to see the whole test!
I can't supply attribution for these photos. If you recognize where they came from originally, please let me know!
Every time we renew the debate on women in combat, I think of the soldier in Aliens, rippling with muscles and attitude.
A fellow soldier asks her,
"Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"
She turns and asks him cooly,
"No, have you?"
I thought this might stand forever as the best response to a someone who dares challenge a woman's abilities on the field of battle.
But then I saw the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where someone asks Cat woman,
"Hey, do those shoes make it hard to walk?"
She kicks the offender in the groin and asks,
"I don't know. Do they?"
Portlandia (Fridays, 10:00, IFC) has started its third season. Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) continue to search the city for satiric targets. And because satiric targets are one of Portland's chief exports, the comedic opportunities are many: Bed and Breakfasts, knitting, pickling — and organic deodorant:
We're reading the Scottish play.
We have to. For school
And Mr. Ledingham said, "do research."
And Lenea said, "he means, like, England."
And I said, "that's not Scotland."
She said, "same difference."
We googled "Macbeth" and "ghosts," because you know, [shiver], right? And this came up.
F. W. Moorman
The Modern Language Review
Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1906), pp. 192-201
But we could only read the first page because of something called Jstor.
Then we found:
On Elizabethan "Credulity": With Some Questions Concerning the Use of the Marvelous in Literature
Journal of the History of Ideas
Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 151-176
But we got another Jstor.
That's how it went most of the day and now it's a joke.
When Mr. Ledingham confiscates something, someone says "Jstor!"
Someone shuts you down in the cafeteria? Jstor!
Our Ti-cats shut down the most potent running game in the south, the crowd roars "Jstor!"
Just at the moment when we should celebrate the technology that makes knowledge freely available to curious 15 year olds in Mobile, Alabama, we are asked instead to endure the unjust and unreasonable tax on knowledge called Jstor.
Here's a piece I posted on this blog in 2008.
Has this ever happened to you? You are hot on the trail of exactly the article you need to complete a thought, a post, perhaps a book, and, oh no!, you hit the red light from JSTOR.
Chances are you have. As of June 2007, the JSTORE database contained 729 journal titlesand over 165,000 individual journal issues, totaling over 23 million pages of text
JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a United States-based online system for archiving academic journals, founded in 1995. It provides full-text searches of digitized back issues of several hundred well-known journals, dating back to 1665 in the case of the Philosophical Transactions.
JSTOR was originally funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, but is now an independent, self-sustaining, not-for-profit organization with offices in New York City and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But I say, this stuff is bought and paid for. It is time to release it into the public domain. Surely, there is a university server somewhere that would assume the costs. Google, I am quite sure, would be willing to shoulder the burden.
The fact of the matter is JSTOR is holding precious resources captive to sustain itself…and its ability to hold precious resources captive. This content was created by academics funded by not-for-profit institutions. JSTOR is not reinvesting revenue in academic production. It is, as I say, now self sustaining in the worst sense of the term.
JSTOR is taxing public knowledge in order to sustain its ability to block access to public knowledge.
Time to let go.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Swartz.
We should do something to keep Aaron's fight going. Please drop me a line, if you know of anything.
Please come have a look at my post at Wired. Click here.
Wired did a great job editing as they always do. But some small differences emerge in the process. I append my original wording below. As you will see, the Wired version is better, much better. (Still learning after all this blogging.)
Why ritual rehabilitation will not work for Lance Armstrong
Celebrities serve at our pleasure. We make them. We break them. We lift them up again.
We are prepared to endow the celebrity with riches, fame and glory beyond the hope of any ordinary mortal. But the moment we are done with them, we are done with them. (If it pleases the court: Andrew Shue, Peter Fonda, Josh Harnett, Loretta Swit, Judd Nelson, Karyn Parsons, Lea Thompson.)
Some celebrities remove themselves from grace by their own hand: shop lifting, drug abuse, domestic violence, endless court appearances, bad behavior of one kind or another.
But, noblesse oblige, we are prepared to be generous. Under the correct ritual circumstances, we will restore the celebrity to glory.
First, the celebrity must flame out and fall low.
Second, we insist on self abasement. The celebrity can’t just look humiliated. They have to say they are humiliated. In the ritual of rehabilitation, there can be no doubt that the celebrity understands 1. how far they have fallen and 2. how much they need us.
We won’t return the celebrity to favor unless our status as favor-maker is itself renewed. In a vulgar turn of phrase, before we return these people to the status of a God, we like to make it absolutely clear that we are in fact the boss. These gods, they depend on us.
In the case of Lance Armstrong, the ritual of rehabilitation is tested to its limit. He misbehaved so profoundly. He lied so often. He corrupted team mates and a sport. He fell so swiftly and so far that his might be the limiting case, proof that there are some falls from which people just don’t come back.
He performed credibly last night on Oprah. He rolled out the sincerity. He looked Oprah and the nation in the eye. He abased himself with something like artistry. No special pleading. No presumption that we would forgive him. The important thing: he made it perfectly clear that he serves at our pleasure, that he is nothing without us.
Every talk show can serve as a theater for ritual rehabilitation. Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, Anderson Cooper, Ellen, Wendy Williams, Kathy Griffin. But there is no ritual officer quite as powerful as Oprah. No ritual platform quite as potent as her show. If anyone can raise Lance Armstrong from ignominy, it is she. Indeed without this interview, Armstrong could have spend years in the wilderness, unable to state the case, to perform the ritual.
And last night Oprah worked her magic. She listened with her special brand of intelligence and feeling. She gave him a hearing. She gave him a chance to confess and repent. She created an opportunity for contrition. My wife was unpersuaded, but I for one believed that he fully understood his predicament. Not so much the fall from fame and glory, but the terrifying movement from a world where he had absolutely control to one in which he doesn’t have very much at all. What can that be like? I think he gave us a glimpse of the terror. Just a flicker. But yikes!
For all this, there is no real hope of rehabilitation. It showed most clearly on an ESPN show called Mike and Mike In the Morning. Without making a big deal of it, Mike Greenberg recited the instances of deceit, bullying, and villainy. He played the Nike ad in which Armstrong asks, “What am I on? I’m on my bike.” He told the story of people driven from the sport and the country by this man’s power and arrogance.
I think this is a little like lying to Federal prosecutors. You don’t want to do it. Ever. Because they are professionally, and perhaps personally, obliged to make you pay. Armstrong used journalist for his own aggrandizement. In the process, he stripped them of their professionalism. He turned them into shills. And they will make him pay. They will do this as Greenberg did it, by quietly insisting that we not forget how corrupt and corrupting this guy was.
But there is a second injured party. The rest of us. Anyone who has suffered at the hands of a bully had to look at Armstrong on Oprah last night and see, if only for a moment, the face of their tormentor. All of us can remember being made the victim of arbitrary power.
The ritual of rehabilitation depends on a collective amnesia. We all agree to forget and forgive. But it won’t happen in this case. There will be no rehabilitation. Journalist will not forgive the man who diminished them. We will not forgive the man who stands for the people who diminished us. Done and done. You had your moment on Oprah, and if she can’t repair you, no one can.
Grant McCracken is an anthropologist. He has appeared on the Oprah show. He was not there for ritual rehabilitation.
This came in yesterday and took me by surprise. Though I have to say I always suspected that I might have some connection to the Uncertain people. Then again, I thought, maybe not. But here's the proof. Is it certain proof? Well, that depends...
See the green hand? It’s there in the foreground of the photo, in the middle of an intersection in my little town.
It stopped me in my tracks this morning. It reminded me of discussions I had this summer with Peter Spear and Rainer Judd.
We were working on a project designed to stage dramatic and the counter-expectational outbreaks in a couple of towns on the eastern seaboard. (It does sound a little pretentious phrased this way, I know. Believe me when I say we were serious, sincere and not in any way carrying on or showing off.)
Our working idea: that all the creativity nurtured by and staged in the digital world in the last couple of decades is now prepared to bust out into the world. This meant specifically, that outbreaks of reckless creativity should now be able to happen anywhere, even in a small town on the eastern seaboard.
We had a measure of success. If we succeeded, we would have increased the possibility that any time a town member subsequently encountered something lingering at the edge of consciousness, something “odd, accidental, and ‘nothing, probably,’” they would be more inclined to treat it as “something, possibly,” and to attend to it.
If our project succeeded, we would have expanded the realm of the possible in this little town. This is in and off itself a good thing but we also believed that making the odd and accidental more interesting, we would also have struck a blow for what Max Weber called the "reenchantment of the world."
It is our belief that a lot of creativity starts as a stray signal on the edge of work-a-day reality and ordinary thought. It is when we credit these stray signals and declare them worthy objects of our curiosity, that good things happen. Creativity becomes more possible. Innovation easier.
Indeed, that “box” everyone is always talking about gets easier “to get out of.” This might indeed be the very thing a small town on the eastern seaboard, especially if it finds itself captive of the rust belt and in need of recuperation.
Anyhow, you can’t work on a project like this and not remark upon a green hand when it appears in the middle of an intersection in your home town. If it was a green hand.
- a term for an inexperienced crew member of a 19th-century whaler on his first voyage, and who would typically have the smallest "lay", or share, in the profits.
- In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth books, a family of hobbits.
- a first-year Future Farmers of America (FFA) member.
All of these are appealing, but being an anthropologist I am obliged to put my money on the middle one, the family of hobbits. And this would tell us, I guess, that the hand in the intersection marks the spot where, were one to dig, there would be revealed a place containing hobbits. And that would be great. Because our town doesn't have enough hobbits. Actually, I don't believe we have any hobbits.
I will close with another stray signal that appeared some months ago in Rowayton. It appears to be a panda. It is tiny, obscurely located, and repeated no where else in town. I puzzle over it every time I pass it on Sammis Street. Now of course I know there's a pretty good chance it's the work of hobbits. But if anyone else has another explanation, please sing out. It's a very fine piece of work, not just a panda, but a panda descending as if from on high, luminous, with a choir singing richly. (You know, one of those revelation chords!)