Here are two rules and an example for trend spotting:
Take any possibility seriously. The new wouldn’t be new unless it defied expectation. All ideas, even crazy ones, are to be taken seriously.
Install a good SETI system. This is about pattern recognition. Rule 1 means that we are going to have lots and lots of ‘trend candidates. We need some culling system that allows us to get rid of false positives. In the case of the real SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), there are 5 steps: 1) collect data, 2) find candidate signals, 3) check data integrity, 4) remove radio interference, 5) identify final candidates.
Clearly, these two rules are related. The credulity of Rule 1 exposes us the chaos of too many trend candidates, and obliges us to embrace a Rule 2 that sorts out the real trends from the apparent ones. Indeed, the wider we cast the credulity net, the more formidable must be our powers of pattern recognition. Or, to put it the other way round: the better prepared we are intellectually to spot a trend, the more widely we may cast the net.
In fact, we could say that these two rules force an intersection in a Venn diagram: where the circle 1 of dreamers/droolers/utterlyingenuous overlaps with the circle 2 of hardheaded/toughminded/cleareyed. This is a very good place to be, not least because in a culture in which anything is possible no longer finds much of interest in someone who sees that everything is possible. (“The world supplies that, we dont need you.”) The real question is whether any given possibility contains any trace of plausibility, whether it might visit us, that is to say, not just in the imagination but in the world. But, I am missing the obvious (comme toujours): the intersection of circles 1 and 2 is for certain purposes precisely the characteristic intersection of culture and commerce (not to mention the place this blog sits).
I’m reading the New York Times today, and there is a story about a guy whos renovating his place and decided that he will have no chrome, steel, aluminum, nickel or any brushed, satin or polished metal in his home.
As he put it, “No visible metal has become my new obsession.”
Rule 1 says that we must consider this as a new trend candidate. No more metal. No more homes that shine, gleam or even glow. Good bye to all those bright, shiny bits in the kitchen and bathroom. Good bye to anything sleek or polished. Good bye to anything light bearing.
At first, this seems ludicrous. What are the chances that North American householders would ever forsake “visible metal? But if we are reacting simply against sheer implausibility, this must give us pause. Sheer implausibility is, in fact, good grounds that this trend candidate deserves a hearing. The really new new must always offend us in this way. (If someone had tried to tell us in, say, 1965 that middle class householders would someday install industrial strength stoves in their suburban kitchens, we would have laughed at them.)
Rule 2 says that we must root through the intellectual toolkit to see if we have anything that would provide “skids,” a way to “dock” the candidate trend with what we know and a future we can imagine. There are lots of approaches here, but one particularly jumped out at me: brightwork. Brightwork is the name for the bits of metal on North Americans cars. It was especially current in the 1950s.
The term is sufficiently arcane that my Microsoft spell checker does not recognize it, and now shows it with that accusing red underline that says, summon your best imitation of a highly judgmental Bill Gates, “you have made a mistake” or, as it will be understood for the remainder of this blog entry, ‘this is a trend candidate for which we cannot vouch. Proceed at your own risk. Low Headroom.”
One of the points of brightwork was to make cars look fast. It helped to create the impression that the car was “streaming” forward. It was brightwork, among other things, that helped give the impression that cars were “moving even when standing still,” a phrase of high praise for cars at mid century.
I cannot prove, but I do nevertheless believe, that there was a deep cultural connection here: the appearance of motion that brightwork supplied and a temporal orientation that prized the idea that individuals, corporations and countries were “moving forward,” “racing into the future,” and otherwise, “on their way up.” The confusion of movement in space and time was, I think, a key article of mid century modernism. (I have substantiated this claim to some extent in Culture and Consumption II, in an essay on the 1954 Buick.)
Anyhow, the “brightwork” idea gives us a way to think about the trend candidate presented by the NYT author. If he is removed brightwork from his home, we might suppose that other individuals will do so if and when they decide that the home should be stripped of these important traces of dynamism, that they wish to retreat from a culture that prizes individual and collective mobility, that one of the new objectives of interior design is aesthetic stillness. Naturally, I can’t even begin to imagine whether any of these things are true. But I know have a set of auxiliary trend candidates, the encouragement of anyone of which would help reinforce the “candidacy” of the “no metal trend.”
This is not a great example, perhaps. The brightwork notion will test your credulity even more than the “no metal” one. But it does suggest how “rule 2” might apply here. And this gives weight to the notion that trend watching should be left not to the hippest person in the room but the person who actually knows something about the culture in question.
We all know who I am talking about. The cool hunters who take good corporate dollars in return for a recitation of all the things you end up taking for granted if you live in TriBeCa. These poor creatures don’t have intellectual depths. They only have tabloid-like surfaces. They can only reflect what is. They cannot reflect upon what is. One of these days I am going to name names. I really am. It is time to remove this “radio interference” that we might examine the future with new clarity.
Marin, Rick. 2005. Heave-Ho, Silver! The New York Times. April 7, 2005.