All posts by Grant

Capitalism and the exquisite choice: anti-economics from Alice Waters and Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs with the Apple iPad no logo - Steve Jobs - Wikimedia CommonsAlice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. Steve Jobs started selling his Apple I computer in 1976. From these beginnings, and in a relatively brief period, they transformed their respective worlds of cuisine and computers, rising steadily to greatness. Jobs was named “Entrepreneur of the decade” in 1989. Waters was named “Best chef in America” in 1992.

Alice_Waters_at_Viader_Vinyards,_NapaNeither Waters nor Jobs won instantaneous admiration of the business community. The feeling was that Jobs’ computer and Waters’ restaurant, while charming and interesting, were not ready for the real world of business. There was something too delicate or strange about these ideas. “How on earth is this going to scale?,” people asked. People worried that Waters and Jobs might be too precious for their own good.

To colonize the world, the Chez Panisse idea would have to go up against the Morton’s and Capital Grills of the world. It would have to unseat steak and potatoes. What was Waters’ business model beyond exotic recipes, eccentric ingredients and a really weird supply chain? (Chez Panisse actually sourced its goat cheese from hippies!) This restaurant in Berkeley was perhaps a little too Berkeley, a place fit for oddballs, aesthetes and gourmands of exactly the kind you would expect to find in the place that gave us the Free Speech Movement and a routinely disappointing football team.

Jobs in a sense was worse. Computers were more industrial than restaurants, but, if any thing, Steve was even less practical than Alice. He seemed more interested in creative applications than business ones. Sure, designers would like Apple computers. But if you wanted to do “real work” in the “real world,” you wanted something dead practical and this meant buying from someone like Bill Gates, who, whew, didn’t appear to have a creative bone in his body. Rumor had it that Jobs spend days agonizing over the color and shape of the case for the Apple II.[i] For Gates and his customers, any beige box would do.

The real trouble? It was all about them. Chez Panisse and Apple I were personal expressions of the creativity of Alice Waters and Steve Jobs. They did not rest until they made things just the way they liked them. Consumers, who cared about consumers? Alice and Steve were in the business of pleasing Alice and Steve.

Most business people accepted two things. 1. Close enough was good enough. The idea was not to be perfect, but to be better than the competition and to last one day longer than the warranty. 2. The only opinion that mattered was the consumer’s.

Capitalism is ruled by a fear of “surplus to requirement.” Everything that was surplus to requirement had to go (or never start) because it added time getting to market and subtracted money from the bottom line. The company that made a product better than it needed to be was bound to provoke shareholders to say, “Hey, stop giving away my earnings!” Engineering would break this rule, doubling the steel used to make a bridge, but this was a professional scruple. They wanted to err on the safe side. The rest of the world was working the art of “good enough,” “close enough,” and “that should do it.” Not because they were sloppy or lazy, but because this was pretty close to being the first rule of business.

The second rule of business is that the only person who really matters is the consumer. A business might have the best technology or the best product. It might be the best corporation. But unless the consumer bought what it was selling, too bad. In the words of Charles Coolidge Parlin in 1912, the consumer was king.[ii]

It took much of the 20th century to realize Parlin’s idea. Even late into the 20th century capitalism was still adding and refining techniques to make the consumer king. Information processing, focus groups, marketing science, psychology, anthropology, ethnography, design thinking, empathy, neuroscience, were all pressed into service. There was scarcely a theory or a method that wasn’t interrogated by marketers to find out who the consumer was and what he or she wanted.

Steve Jobs and Alice Waters broke both these rules. For them, “close enough” was an abomination. Jobs would go on tirades at Apple when his engineers delivered work that was merely good enough. He rejected the layout of the circuit board for the Apple II because the lines were not straight. This was, mark you, a part of the computer no one outside Apple would ever see.[iii]

Alice too was about the exquisite choice. In the words of Thomas McNamee, “She alone would dictate how every dish was to be prepared, down to the finest touch of technique: how brown a particular sauté should be, how many shallots to sweeten a sauce, how finely chopped. She knew exactly how she wanted everything to taste, to look, to smell, to feel.”[iv]

In a sense Jobs and Waters were at war with capitalism. They reversed the Copernican revolution. Capitalism was trying to make consumers the veritable sun (king) around whom everything else must turn. And Jobs and Waters said, “Wrong! Consumers aren’t at the center of things. We are.” And they hated the “good enough” principle, insisting on the exquisite choice.

Industrial capitalism was happiest when harnessing the productive powers of the machine, turning out enormous runs to create economies of scale, satisfying huge groups of consumers with goods good enough to please and prices both low enough to beat the competition and high enough to create value for the shareholder. All of this from an organization as faceless as a building with smoked glass.

Jobs and Waters had another idea: make very particular things, through the exercise of very particular choices, as created by highly visible individuals, driven by standards (and sometimes demons) that made the good better, vastly better, until it was in fact an exquisite choice. The consumer was now displaced as the arbiter of all things, and strangely, seemed to like this new arrangement just fine.

[i] Isaacson, Walter. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 83.

[ii] Parlin, Charles Coolidge. 1912. Department Stores Lines. Philadelphia: Curtis. Bartels, Robert. 1976. The History of Marketing Thought. Columbus, Ohio: Grid Inc.

[iii] Isaacson, Walter. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 74.

[iv] McNamee, Thomas. 2008. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Penguin, Location 827.

Image of Steve Jobs, courtesy of Matt Buchanan, with thanks to Flickr and Wikipedia

Image of Alice Waters, courtesy of David Sifrey, with thanks to Flickr and Wikipedia

Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

maxresdefaultMany people have remarked on the inclination of some young women in the US to use “up-talk” in everyday speech.

You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.

More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.”  See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.

Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny.  Highly recommended.)

I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment.  But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it  couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.

After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval.  But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying.  If people agree with us, fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.

And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own.  The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist.  It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.

So how about this?  We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.

I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”).  So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else.  Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.

Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and  friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.

Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation

[None of these names is used by permission.  I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]

Santa Massive (an anthropologist proposes a cultural reform)

santa01The December holidays recede gently from view.  We are now 3 full months away from them.

We can visit the “Christmas” issue with some objectivity. It’s a problematic term. Many people resent it.  Even Christians (the advantaged party) have their doubts.  Non-Christians certainly do. This is not an issue that’s going away.  Every year’s end, it gets a little worse.

My suggestion: Get rid of “Christmas.”  Christ is not universally worshipped.  Even by Christians, the mass of Christ is not especially well or scrupulously celebrated. Christmas turns out to be a religious disappointment and a cultural provocation.

I’m not suggesting that we celebrate nothing.  The ritual cycle of contemporary culture needs a door stopper, an event at the end of the year to which everything runs up and ends, that the cycle may start again.

We don’t have far to look.  Built into the event is a profane counterpart to Christ called Santa.  A little polishing and promotion and we have our substitute.

For most everyone, Santa’s the man, a figure of reckless good humor and vast, unrelenting generosity.

Call it “Santamass.”  Make it celebratory.  We get to keep the parties, decorations, trees, gifts and celebration. But now it’s  interdominational and ecumenical.  Once more, we’re all in the same boat.

I know some people will argue that Santa is too commercial, too much associated with Coca-Cola and other brands.  There’s a simple way to fix this.  Let’s call the holiday “Santa Massive,” where “massive” stands for whopping great party.

The real question is whether we can master that Islands accent that wicks “massive” upwards at the end.  And with Santamass(ive) that’s really all we have to worry about.

Hey presto, a end-of-year holiday without discomfort or  ambivalence.  (And people say anthropologist don’t really make themselves useful!)

The real message of advertising?

If the art of advertising (one of them anyhow) is closing the distance between the brand and the consumer, you can’t do much better than this.

Do we know you?  Yes, we know you.  This is sometimes the most urgent question advertising has to answer.

I’m told that the people responsible for this work at Digitas were  Michael Frease and Jeremy Bacharach.  Hats off to Jon Hall, Senior brand manager at Whirlpool  (See Dale Buss’ interview of Hall in Brand Channel here).  I would especially like to know the names of the people who did the ethnographies.  Really top notch work all around.


Thanks to the magnificently talented Scott Donaton.

Creativity, innovation, and the space between cultures

iPhotoAnthropologists are drawn to places where culture is a little shaky.

Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.

But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.

This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.

iPhotoWhich brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.

I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.

And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.

Mean meme mobs?

Joanna ColesI was watching someone’s pre-Oscar red carpet show last night from my hotel room in Panama City and came sharply to.

Joanna Coles (Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief) remarked in passing that the red carpet is now a fashion world unto itself and that, in general, style decisions there tend to run in the direction of the classic and conservative.

“Why is that?” she was asked.

“Celebrities don’t want to be turned into memes.”

Wow, I thought, if we have a group of people who command admiration, who rank high, who garner virtually limitless amounts of capital (cultural, social and economic) to themselves, it’s A-list actors.

And here we see them cowering before the mob, terrified of judgment and ridicule. The very rich and very famous have been reduced to awkward teenagers who live in fear of bullying.

Things have changed. Or, better, the more things change, the more they look like 18th century France.

Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.