I am in Toronto doing idea generation for Sterling Rice. I arrive at the "Coach house," a building on what used to be a grand estate. I enter and discover that food is being served and I help myself from the serving table. People smile and nod. I don’t recognize anyone but I know introductions will be forthcoming in due course. This is a Velcro world. Sterling Rice brings together strangers.
I sit at one of the round tables. A woman is already sitting there and we fall to chatting. She is from P&G. Interesting, I think. P&G must be the client. We talk about A.G. Lafley, one of my heroes, and the innovations that now pour from this corporation.
Eventually, the woman asks what I do and I say I am an anthropologist. What do I do in particular, she wants to know. "Well, sometimes it’s idea generation," I say with that English panic that I have been forced to state the obvious. "Interesting," she says, "So why are you joining us, exactly?" "Well," I nod encouragingly, "Sterling Rice uses me from time to time." "Who is Sterling Rice?," she asks.
Oh, fine. I have joined the wrong group and I am now eating their food. And I have a 15 minute conversation under false or at least mistaken pretenses. And the strange thing is, this "gaff" matters not at all. As this naturally occurring experiment demonstrates, we are all pretty interchangeable. My fellow conversationalist and I speak exactly the same language. And we might as well be working on the same project. And this conjunction of perfect strangers, brought together to serve the corporation, is routine. We have a good laugh. I thank them for their generosity. They say, "you’re welcome anytime."
This reminds me of the time I was working for the Royal Ontario Museum and I went to what I thought was a cultural event for the CBC at the Sutton hotel. It was only when I got back to my office that I realized that I was one day late, that I had gone to an event sponsored by the Globe and Mail. Here too the mistake made no difference. I had gone to the same place, had drinks with exactly the same people, talked about precisely the kinds of things I would have talked about the night before, and come back with precisely the same kind and quantity of illumination.
Theres a difference. In the case of the Sutton Place affair, I was meeting with fellow gatekeepers, the group who shape Canadian opinion, giving to and taking from the same, well fermented, trough of news and views. Not only were we interchangeable but our ideas, especially by the end of the evening, were interchangeable too. The Sutton Place experiment demonstrated, much too well, that the formative institutions (CBC, Globe and Mail, and Royal Ontario Museum) were way too chummy, way too convergent, and, to this extent, way too exclusive of the range of Canadian opinion.
In the Sterling Rice case, something very different is going on. This event brought together not too chummy chums, but perfect strangers. And these strangers are chosen to poll the differences of contemporary culture, not exclude them. The group consisted of home makers, engineers, artists, bankers, the owners of small businesses, jazz musicians, creative directors, product designers, new age gurus, and assorted other creatures.
What they had in common is the ability to play well with others, a certain joy when faced with messy problem sets, the ability to beat their way through low clouds, some turbulence, and a good deal of noise, like the tacked-together flying machines of World War I. It’s not always very pretty, but eventually the clouds clear and, yes, that is almost certainly the coast line of France. Actually, the real objective here is to get blown well off course, so that when the clouds clear, you are not quite sure where you are. "Newfoundland?" someone asks. Yes, you are always hoping for Newfoundland.
This is a difference between capitalism and the cultural institutions that continue to "represent" us. The latter are staffed by "chattering classes." (Buckley?) They cluster densely. They network redundantly. No "weak links" here. (Granovetter?) They spend their time tracing the links over and over again. ("Oh, so you know so and so.") Thus, do they reproduce themselves, wearing away differences, asserting commonality. Thus do they erase divergent opinion. Thus do they regress to the mean.
The Sterling Rice affair is, within limits, devoted to capturing diversity and turning it into creativity. And a fountain of new ideas appeared in the course of the day. This creativity will, some of it, pour back into the marketplace, and consumers will vote "yeah" or "nay." More to the point, new cultural ideas will find their way in the form of these new products out into the world. Within certain limits, Sterling Rice is a difference machine.
We can choose: cultural institutions who converge (however avant-garde and progressive they insist they are) or capitalism that operates, sometimes, like a multiplier of dynamism. Capitalism, if I pay myself an extravagant compliment, has a way of making itself comfortable wherever it finds itself. Cultural institutions on the other hand prefer to stick together.