Pattern panic

Whitman Rob Walker offered this trenchant observation on the weekend. 

Last April, New York Magazine revealed that the concept of the Generation Gap had just been "killed off." This was "unprecedented in human history," since there has always been a generation gap, but now there isn’t one anymore, given the music that young people listen to and how they dress, etc. The article was "an obituary for the generation gap."

This month, New York Magazine reveals: "It’s been a long time since there was a true generation gap, perhaps 50 years." But now there is one, and it turns on the way young people use the Internet and their attitudes about privacy, etc.

What is the correct answer? Generation gaps used to be a fundamental part of society, but now they’re gone? Or generation gaps disappeared ages ago, but now they’re back?

As Mr. Walker notes, there’s nothing like a NEW TREND to sell magazines.  But I wonder if the New York Magazine’s contradiction is not also a symptom of our present condition.

Pattern panic, it’s the next new thing!  It afflicts especially the chattering classes, the people charged with pattern recognition.  We are overwhelmed.  There are too many kinds of people engaged in too many disparate projects with too many odd and unpredictable outcomes.  Our patterns are failing us.  Run for the life boats.

A little case study:

One account of the music of the 1990s says that it was the result of the union of punk and heavy metal.  At the moment of their cohabitation, these two musical forms appeared, at least to the likes of this anthropologist, to occupy different, mutually inaccessible, parts of the musical universe.  Many futures were possible but not this.  Yes, if you listened to college radio in the late 1980s you saw it coming, and if you knew something about the worlds of the Pacific Northwest, you had greater warning still.  But if you were a clueless anthropologist who doesn’t get out much, 1991 came as a big surprise. 

And this is now the way of the world.  Things come sailing out of the blue.  The world proves opaque.  And sometimes it actually and actively resists comprehension.  Our response?  For many of us, it’s panic.  We begin hunting wildly for answers.  We begin multiplying our explanatory schemes.  "Yes, there is a generation gap!  No, there’s isn’t a generation gap! God, I hope no one’s keeping track."  (Damn you, Mr. Walker.)

More symptoms:

Trend books used to be one or two big trends (Lasch on a narcissistic culture, Baudrilliard on the simulacrum,), but now that our culture is a perfect storm of possibilities, this too looks like my father’s generation used to call a mug’s game.

The new books come loaded with lots and lots of trends. Salzman and Matathia recently graced us with a book that has 15 trends and they offer no indication of how these trends might interact.  It’s a smörgåsbord and the heavy lifting is left to the reader.  Sam Hill gives us 60 trends.  Ochoa and Corey give us 100 trends.  No one includes  "assembly instructions."  Sure, these trends are going to come together somehow, but how?  Well, don’t ask the experts…how would they know?  (I believe that Faith Popcorn was the first one to hunt the future with a shotgun.)  Make enough predictions and you’re going to hit something.

Lifestyle typologies used to come with 3 categories.  Then they grew to 6, then 9, and finally topped out at 12.  People have pretty much given up trying to create the typology that can contain us. Categorical inflation of this kind is a sure sign of alarm.  The typologists are now working to save the very idea of typology.  But if there is a "Dunbar number" for social networks (around 150), there has to be one for typology.  3 is good.  6 is ok. 9 is pushing it. 12 is a cry for help, a categorical admission that the world is too much for us. 

While the intellectuals panic, Hollywood and Burbank appear to be responding. I think we could see the new Jim Carrey picture, The Number 23, as a parable on pattern panic.  Here’s a man, Walter Sparrow, who believes that the number 23 has insinuated itself everywhere in his life.  He was born at 11:12. He was 23 when he met his wife.  The day they met was 9/14. The number 23 is in his driver’s license and social security number.  Of course, he’s wrong, but he is still illuminating.  This is Carrey scrutinizing pattern panic. 

I think we might even take the surprising success of the TV show Numbers as a case in point.  Sorry, that should be Numb3rs.  This show is a triumph against the odds.  Most Americans hate numbers.  They think of math as the torture they were glad to leave behind in high school or college.  (I wish someone would do the numbers on numbers, giving us a sense of how large is the community that gets numbers and how large the one that dislikes them.)  To think that we now watch a show about a mathematics of crime solving, well, here’s one trend that I, for one, would never have predicted.  Crime solving used to happen in the detective’s head.  Then it took place in the CSI laboratory.  Now it springs from an algorithm that comes from CalTech!.  Come on!  But I think we respond to this show perhaps because it promises a new means of pattern recognition when so many others are wearing out and breaking down. Apparently, pattern panic trumps math panic.   

Do I contradict myself?  Of course, I contradict myself.  To suggest that "pattern panic" is a new trend is to insist that some trend watching is still possible.  But this is perhaps the death throes of this intellectual instinct, the pattern recognition that acknowledges the decline and coming extinction of pattern recognition. 

But there is another possibility.  And this is: we have to start thinking about trends in new ways.  We have to start seeking patterns that are a lot less patterned and a good deal more fluid.  I’m just saying. 


Adams, Michael. 1997. Sex in the Snow. Toronto: Viking.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. translator Sheila F. Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

A Dunbar number is the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" here

Hill, Sam.  2002.  Sixty Trends in Sixty Minutes.  New York: Wiley. 

Mitchell, Arnold. 1983. The Nine American Lifestyles: Who We Are and Where We’re Going. New York: Macmillan.

Nussbaum, Emily.  2007.  Say Everything.  New York Magazine.  February 12, 2007. here.

Ochoa, Goerge and Melinda Corey.  2005.  The 100 Best Trends, 2006: Emerging Developments You Can’t Afford to Ignore.  New York: Adams Media Corporation.

Salzman, Marian and Ira Matathia.  2006.  Next Now: Trends for the future.  New York: Palgrave. 
Sheehy, Gail. 1995. New Passages: Mapping your life across time. New York: Random House.

Sternbergh, Adam.  2006.  Up with Grups.  New York Magazine.  April 3, 2006. here.

Walker, Rob.  2007.  Note. weekly email.  [you can sign up for this email here.] 

Washburn, Katharine, and John F. Thorton, editors. 1996. Dumbing Down: Essays on the strip-mining of American culture. New York: Norton.


to Walt Whitman

7 thoughts on “Pattern panic”

  1. Your last few posts on the cloudiness and opaqueness of culture and the intellectual landscape are right on. I think the days of “rationality” are over…intellectuals are going to finally have to let go of their attachment to the Enlightenment and arrive at the current age of complexity, ambiguousness and emergence.

  2. Great post that got me to thinking. Our brains require that something must fit into a category for it to be remembered. We have to figure out “what hook to hang it on.” Otherwise the neurons just spark off and the item seems irretrievable. Over-categorization is the culprit producing stereotypical thinking. The autistic person is unable to differentiate amongst equally powerful in-coming stiimulii, and must do repetitive behaviors to calm the cacaphony with no recognizable pattern. What you are describing are our efforts to stay sane in a sometimes insane world, I think.

  3. Great post. In a backwards way, I think the societal freak-out may have something to do with a NEW pattern as well: that of post-modern communication taking on an organized form within new media. As oxymoronic as that seems, social networking and online communities have been persistently stabbing away at ordering disjointedness (intentionally or not), and the audience begins to forget to look for patterns anymore, as it’s basically being done for them; and, when they realize they’ve lost that primal drive— PANIC. In a sweeping sense, we can’t smuggle the online world into any kind of “trend” camp anymore (as we may have been able to do easily in 1994).

  4. It’s interesting. When I was reading the post and got to the part about the Carrey movie I thought, “yeah, we used to have a name for that kind of ‘pattern panic’ back in the state mental institutions I worked in; it was called ‘paranoid schizophrenia’ “. Then I read the comment about over-categorization being a way to stay sane in an insane world and I had to take a step back and marvel at where we’ve gotten to. Where is that? I think to a place where the unlikely becomes possible and the impossible unlikely. Seen all this buzz about “The Secret”? Seen the cover of Oprah magazine this month: “Trust your gut; it’s NEVER WRONG.” There’s a pattern there and it makes lots of folks sweaty in the palms, if not exactly panicky, I’ll tell you that. These cloud-related pieces are terrific posts, by the way.

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  6. Gene’s comment mentioning the Enlightenment is provocative. Isn’t it a truism of “science” that tested falsifiable hypotheses allow events to be predicted and thus controlled via “if…then”? The pattern-function that assures us of prediction and control has become comfortable, and we rely on it. But emergent self-organizing arrays require much shorter-term open-ended in-the-alternative response, since they are less predictable or repetitive. Dancing in RealTime, not pontification and policy. Requires the sacrifice of much habit and certainty, and hinges more on integrity, courage, and perhaps intelligence (at least in “quickness” and requisite variety functions.)

    And I agree with Tom that we may see a good deal of spurious-to-demented attachment to one hypothesized pattern or another, accompanying freak-out in some quarters. Interesting times.

  7. I think a fair-minded person would have to say that the Tofflers (Future Shock, The Third Wave) nailed most of this stuff long ago. They lack cachet and so don’t get much credit for it, but they were talking about “the accelerative thrust” and “modular personaities” and “ad hocracy” and all this stuff over thirty years ago. The internet turbocharges all these trends, but the trends themselves are surprisingly close to what they first noticed. I don’t buy all their neo-Marxist technological determinism or every detail, but they did lay out a more-or-less coherent set of linked trends that turned out to be pretty valid.

    The first successful shotgun futurist I believe was John Naisbett with Megatrends.

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