Dark matter and marketing

Infrastructure Several weeks ago, a bolt of excitement ran through the scientific community.  There was now direct proof of the existence of "dark matter." 

Several decades ago it was recognized that galaxies rotate much faster than their mass, stricktly speaking, allows.  Theorists suggested that something must keep these galaxies from flying apart.  They called this something "dark matter."

I am beginning to wonder if marketers and social scientists should posit a "dark matter" of our own.

There are, at least, two forces at work in the contemporary world.  One is fragmentation.  Every social group (i.e., nation, culture, ethnic, subcultural) is fragmenting into smaller groups.  Every organization is "baggier" than it used to be, containing a looser assembly of elements themselves more numerous and more heterogeneous in nature than before.  Indeed, even small units (neighborhoods, familities and selves) feel the effects of fragmentation. 

The other force is change.  This comes faster and goes further.  What used to take a century can now happen in a decade.  What used to take a decade can now happen in a year or two.  (Let’s mark YouTube as exhibit "A."  This organization went from nothing to $1.6 billion of value in a couple of years.) 

Between the two of them, fragmentation and change put the very system of contemporary life in question.   In the first decade of the 21st century, "system" is too generous a word.  There is no overarching architecture.  But things do seem to work together, the center does somehow hold.  We might not have a system but we are still systematic-ish.  So is this good for the duration?  Is there a point at which things cease to sync?  At what point do fragmentation and change accumulate until a wheel comes off?

This is no liberal cry.  I am not making an argument about "the world we have lost," life before the "cash nexus," or the effects of alienation, anomie, or bowling alone.  The sociologists and one or two economists have made a good living telling us the sky is falling, and I dearly hope that I have not just signed on as one of them. 

But I am growing impatient with the Panglossian argument that says that we are sustained by the invisible hand of  "emergent properties" or the "wisdom of crowds." I used to buy this, and I might sign up again some day.  But as an anthropologist, I do "look down" every so often to see to what sustains contemporary world.  I am always relieved to see that we are not "treading air" but usually I am hard pressed to see what holds us up.

Is there dark matter there.  What am I missing?


Anonymous.  2006. Galactic crash sheds light on mysterious dark matter: researchers.  Anatara News.  here

6 thoughts on “Dark matter and marketing”

  1. I’m not sure what “coming apart” would mean. Let me suggest that a good working definition would be acting in a self-serving way that damages the interests of one’s neighbors. “Holding together” would then be acting in ways that upheld the norms and values of the relevant reference group.

    From a worklife standpoint, the classic trend of the last 40 years or so in the US is a shifting of loyalty and reference away from one’s organization and toward one’s professional peer group. You see this in academia as well as business. Just as more CEOs and other top managers come from outside the organization, so do top professors circulate from instittution to institution. Even when people don’t actually move from one organization to another, their careers within an organization are strongly affected by their outside opportunities and outside reputations.

    Doing things that hurt your credibility with your professional peer group are thus much more serious than doing things that get you in Dutch with powers in your local organization. Exceptions to this rule are organizations that pay significant rents (wages far above the next-best alternative for the individual) or where the culture is so unusual that the organization becomes the peer group (maybe the Salvation Army fits in here).

    So maybe the dark matter (for work behavior) is professional peer group networks and professional reputation.
    An important fact this would imply is that one’s behavior would be constrained by a more attenuated but numerous set of ties instead of a smaller number of intense ties. A lot more of what constrains behavior may be relations with people you interact with entirely through emails or…blog comments…hmmm.

  2. In this context, “coming apart” would mean secession: members of an organization becoming non-members. The question is: why do accelerating rates of social change not cause this to happen? Partial answer: this will only happen if there is some precondition of organizational cohesion that takes time, and only if change occurs too fast for this whatever-it-is to happen. The inference I make is that organizations and the people in them are nimbler and lighter of foot than one might think. In other words, its not a mysterious “dark matter,” its that the gravitational force of normal matter is stronger than we think. Another way to look at it: The organizations that are notoriously slow are states and state-like entities (such as industrial monopolies), which do not need rapid adjustments because they have coercion on their side. In voluntary organizations, on the other hand, individual adjustments have to occur rapidly and they do: as swift as thought!

  3. Steve, Well, you nailed it. I had planned to talk about the structural integrity of the entire “system,” the systematicness of the entire system, in this paragraph, but the press of business (that old excuse) intervened and I went on automatic pilot for a moment. Now the question do I “go back in” and fix it or leave the failure out there. Will have to consult the blogger’s rule book and see what is called for. Thanks for the spot. Best, Grant

    post script:

    I have now changed the post in question. Here is the original paragraph:

    Between the two of them, fragmentation and change create new forces that test the integrity of groups, organizations and units. To be sure, some of these now show signs of “material fatigue” and some are actually coming apart. But the fact that they are not all coming apart obliges us, I think, to ask whether some “dark matter” does not sustain them.

    p.s., I like the point about corporation vs. professional loyalty had heard that before. That would make the corporation the wharf at which we happen to be moored.

    Jen, nice one! And then the question where does grace come from. Grant

    Lester, thanks, you got it too. My apologies. Thanks for the quality control! Best, Grant

  4. I like the work of Ronald Inglehart (World Values Survey) in this realm. His recent publication, “Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy – The Human Development Sequence” uses WVS data to pursuasively demonstrate how, what I choose to call “personal autonomy”, is at the core of human motivations. I would define PA as simply “the ability to exercise one’s free will”. Liberalization of markets, subsequent increases in personal wealth, the emergence of choice economies and technology extend the individual’s ability and degree from which to operate autonomously. We seem to like it too. You could easily see doom in this emerging autonomy (as Putnam did). I do not. If there is any “dark matter” involved, it is our innate grasp of the idea that autonomy is inherently cooperative. That is, I can not increase my personal autonomy without granting the same to others.

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