Microtrends meet Max Headroom

Microtrends I had a look at Microtrends, the new book by Mark Penn. 

The Proposition:

The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 6 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard.  No matter how offbeat their choices, they can now find 100,000 people or more who share their taste for deep fried yak on a stick.  (xiv)

As someone who made this argument in print 10 years ago, it is a little discouraging to see how little progress we have made.   

Penn offers us 75 microtrends, and declines any bigger picture.  "The one-size-fits-all approach is dead," he tells us.  Fair enough.  But does the death of monolithic trends mean that we live in a world consisting only noisy, little, episodic ones?

I guess we should be grateful that Penn is not offering up Chris Anderson’s "long tail" fallacy, the odd idea that because we have ceased to be a mass culture we are now an utterly particulated universe of ones.  At least, Penn is prepared to see the world aggregating in groups of 100,000.  I mean, that’s something. 

My argument: Penn is generalizing, he’s just not generalizing enough. And this is no small problem.  We are now looking at a world that so teams with variety, dynamism and innovation that thinking in a useful way about social and cultural worlds is extraordinarily difficult.  If we have any intellectual overhead left, let’s for god sake use it.  (Max Headroom, not just a highway warning anymore!)  If we can generalize, we must generalize.  Right?

Well, before we get to the generalizations, a word on the howlers.  In the chapter called "Unisexuals," Penn addresses "gender bending," by which he appears to mean the way in which the traditional markers of gender categories have broken down.  Men buy skin care treatments. Women lift weights.  Men work as nannies.  Women drive tractors.  That kind of thing.

This is a useful observation, I guess.  It is a microtrend.  The way our culture defines maleness and femaleness is "under review" and the old boundaries have broken down.  But then Penn gives us an extended treatment of transgendered people.  And this tells us that he is now entirely out of his depth.  For the transgendered are not people who participate in the new approach to gender.  No, they so insist on the old approach to gender that they are prepared to go under the knife to acknowledge and preserve it.  Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that you can’t talk about gender bending and transgenderists as tokens of the same type.  At all. 

Oh well.  The other problem here is the armchair sociology problem. Penn is a pollster.  This means he has bags of quantitative data.  This data tell him some astonishing things.  They tell him, for instance, that a great many young men list "sniper" as a favorite occupation.  Sniper! 

Penn duly acknowledges this finding and his astonishment.  And then he speculates in the blithe, not very interesting, call-in-the-usual-suspects, turn-crank-till-done, kind of explanation.  But never does it occur to me to actually ask respondent what he thinks he’s up to.  I mean, this isn’t a laboratory.  (Nor is this the winter of positivism that prevailed in the period after World War II.) Those paramecium beneath the microscope have powers of speech.  They can tell you why they want to be snipers. Idle speculation (utterly untouched by any knowledge of contemporary culture, in this case, Bones) is unnecessary and, actually, uncalled for. 

Ok, I have totally run out of time.  This is quite different from merely running out of time.  When you have merely run out of time your wife is not ready to kill you for giving your Friday night to the blogosphere.  So, let me delay till Monday my attempt to use Penn’s 75 microtrends as a stairway to a few, useful generalizations.  While we still can, I mean. 

References

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph.: Fluide. 

Penn, Mark J. with E. Kinney Zalesne.  2007.  Microtrends.  The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.  New York: Twelve.

9 thoughts on “Microtrends meet Max Headroom”

  1. Thanks for addressing the need to actually interact with subjects in order to really understand commercial (and cultural) trends. I’ve always distrusted armchair social scientists – unfortunately including some of our most revered theorists – because so many of their theories are based on assumption rather than interaction.

  2. Can you always believe what people say about their own motivations? Do they have conscious access to these, and if so, do they deceive themselves, do they present themselves so as to look better? I’ve worked with interview data, and they’re great for some things, but I think the armchair isn’t a terrible place from which to objectively analyze causal hypotheses if you have useful statistical data.

  3. I agree, we’ve read this book before and not just from Chris Anderson. Robyn Waters wrote a book called the Hummer and the Mini, which also unhelpfully pointed out that for every trend there is an opposite. I think these are simply symptoms of a postmodern (or post-postmodern if you prefer) culture. Our identities are built from fragments that tell our own stories.

  4. “I guess we should be grateful that Penn is not offering up Chris Anderson’s “long tail” fallacy, the odd idea that because we have ceased to be a mass culture we are now an utterly particulated universe of ones.”

    Huh? “Universe of ones”? Are you confusing my book with “Bowling Alone”?

    Grant, either you’ve never read my book or you’re willfully misrepresenting it. Which is it?

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  7. Another book about nothing really new. They used to say that in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. They were wrong, in the future everybody will write a book about what we already know. Boring. Fundysdotcom

  8. Another book about nothing really new. They used to say that in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. They were wrong, in the future everybody will write a book about what we already know. Boring. Fundysdotcom

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