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Ken Burns, an anthropological portrait of an artist and the edge

[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]

In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.

In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.

But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.

The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.

The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.

Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.

This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.

The Ken Burns Effect

The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.

The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.

The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).

But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).

The voice-over says,

Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.

The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).

That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.

As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.

“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”

The camera moves in, and we think,

“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”

And finally,

“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”

Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)

This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.

This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.

I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.

This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.

All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.

Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.

post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.

The case for culture in business, as clearly and forcefully as I can make it

This is an abbreviation of talk I gave for the design firm Thomas Pigeon in early April.

It puts the “case for culture in business” as forcefully as I can make it. (NB I’m not talking about corporate culture here. I’m talking about culture as in “culture creative.”)

Here’s a summary:

SECTION 1

00:25 capitalism and its creative destruction

00:30 Schumpter
00:54 Alvin Toffler
01:11 Clayton Christensen

01:31 the world is turbulent
…and culture creatives can help

SECTION 2

01:38 strategy struggles

1:44 Peter Schwartz and the corporation in a state of perpetual surprise

1:56 we wake up one morning to discover that our business model can be ripped out from under us

2:00 Michael Raynor and the death of strategy

2:19 Nassim Taleb on black swans and the unimaginable

2:48 these guys are not the least bit defensive (a joke!)

3:07 Andy Grove, here’s how we do strategy now: act like a firehouse

3:24 all that talk of agility is Andy’s firehouse

3:40 strategy is struggling…and we can help

SECTION 3

3:45 corporations and brands are in crisis

3:48 CPG brands especially, all the big brands are down, all of them are struggling to live in this new world

4:00 brands are struggling…and we can help

SECTION 4

4:07 culture to the rescue

this world of commotion gets simpler if you get culture

4:17 getting culture makes the world less “black swany” and less “suprisy”

4:47 we can do better than Andy’s fire house

4:2 culture is the professional competence of the culture creative

4:59 culture is our competitive opportunity

5:02 culture is our difference

5:03 we have always said our difference is creativity and it is but we can’t do great creativity without a connection to culture

creativity requires culture

5:12 creativity that’s not rooted in culture has this calorie-free quality. It’s not lasting, it’s not impactful. It doesnt really change the brand. It doesn’t really touch the consumer, and it doesn’t really resonate with the culture in place.

5:25 that’s when you know there a cycle here: you’ve drawn from culture buy you’ve created something so good, it’s so powerful, it actually contributes to culture

SECTION 5

5:40 culture is 3 things, meanings, rules and motions

6:20 the difference between Roger A and Roger B
(Roger is a dog, he doesn’t have culture. Roger B is a person, he does.)

7:10 Aspies and culture (making conversation in the elevator)

7:44 three purses, one is a Birkin bag worth $14,000

8:18 culture defines how we think about self and the meanings of gender, age, ethnicity, race, and our preoccupation these days with celebrity

8:24…and how we think about groups, style, entertainment and communications are all established by culture

SECTION 6

8:48 is there a Canadian advantage?
Yes, there is (possibly)
e.g., Michael Ennis, Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan

SECTION 7:
the case of the artisanal trend

9:08 food after World War II

9:38 the rise of prepared food: Cheese Whiz!

10:02 the artisanal trend itemized

10:38 the artisanal trend created the CPG crisis, it took on prepared food and fast food

10:46 and big brands disrupted by the artisanal
Unilever, Nestle’s, Coca-Cola, P&G taken by surprise

SECTION 8:
How can we help our clients?

11:07 first step: we map culture

11:11 culture too often the latest hippest thing, the coastal stuff, the beltway stuff, the elite stuff

11:23 the recent error of Democratic party

11:46 we want breadth of coverage

11:50 we don’t want to only listen just to the coasts

12:00 second step: choose the meanings (on the map) that really work for the brand?

12:17 which meanings work for the consumer

12:28 third step: now we build an exquisite brand

12:35 fourth step: stage events in the world that create meanings for the world (culturematics: meanings in action)

13:05 fifth step: meanings in motion. we have to track meanings, we need to find metrics. the corporation runs on numbers, all numbers are made with numbers. and when we are asked for numbers we just say just trust us, your career will be fine, your kids will go to college, you can trust us, look how hip our glasses our

13:40 it’s no longer about “refreshing” the brand, we need to be able to show when we want the client to claim this meaning and when to exit the meaning

13:51 We are still inclined to step in, offer a big idea and then leave, as if to say “our work is done”

13:50 what we need to say is “this is when we want you to get into this cultural moment and this is when we want you to get out”

14:02 this is the stuff of an enduring connection with the client

14:27 culture is our competitive advantage, it’s time to see it clearly!

Link

This is the presentation I gave at Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University a couple of days ago.

The opening couple of pages of the deck refer to the “bingeing” metaphor that I had felt had been used too liberally and not very critically at the conference the day before. People used “bingeing” is if this were the unexceptional and indeed the best way to characterize how we watch TV now.  Weird, I thought. “Bingeing” is after all a meme that came spinning out of popular culture a couple of years ago. It is a very particular, very odd figure of speech. No one seemed to be “interrogating” it.

So those opening slides, now a little general, post a complaint. I wanted to suggest that “bingeing” may be a bad metaphor, and to propose another way of thinking about what is happening to TV and viewers. Call it binging and you miss almost all of this.

 

The Artisanal Economies Project, entry # 2: The Peacefield Farms interview

This is a clip of an interview of Kaelin Vernon of “Peacefield Farms” with Sam Ford, Grant McCracken and Josh Poling acting as interviewers. The interview was conducted in the second week of March some miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

We spent several days traveling around the hills of Western Kentucky. The objective was to glimpse various parts of the local artisanal economy. We met Kaelin thanks to his connection to Josh Poling.

There were several questions in play in the interview.

Sam in particular was looking at what he calls the “balance between the logics of the commodity and gift economies. If your customers are buying from you because of the story of your farm, who you are, and how you do things, then it’s decidedly not a transactional relationship. You’re selling to your neighbors. They’re buying from their neighbor.”

You are building on, and building out, a social relationship, but, as Sam puts it, “When you have to translate that relationship back into something transactional, it can be tough to do. You don’t want to overcharge friends. You don’t want things to get awkward with neighbors. And that leads many artisanal businesses to pricing themselves in ways that they barely make a profit.”

Second question: We also saw a version of the topic that showed so strongly in the Olives and Grace interview (posted last Friday). Without a consumer who grasps the artisanal proposition, your pricing is always going to look too high. As Sam puts it, “Pricing depends on people understanding/getting the premium for what you do.”

Sam adds a problem (# 3 in this list, for those using a scorecard) that must haunt every artisanal player: that consumer enthusiasm does not represent a full and lasting conversion, but may prove to be something that’s merely “passing through.” In Sam’s words, “Fad buyers may be attracted to “buying local” but only for the surface of it.”

As a student of American culture, this particularly concerns me. I have seen several deep seated ideas change often and dramatically. American culture has some ideas it treats as ballast. We can’t know at this point whether these will include the artisanal concept. It was be wrong (worse, it would be glib) to assume that they will. And this means we may have a relatively brief window to get the word out, to encourage people to “sign on” to the Artisanal economy in a substantial way. When the fashion changes and some part of it will, many of people who are now loyal Farmer Market’s patrons, will move on.

A fourth question is the “false claim” problem. Sam says, “Consider the story Kaelin tells of big restaurants that buy only a small bit of their product, so that they could list that they “buy local” but so that they could primarily serve product shipped from elsewhere. Consider the story we heard from the guy who runs the dairy farm about the employee at the chain grocery who said, “It’s local from somewhere.””

There is tons of fakery here. And several people we talked to in Kentucky feel this problem intensely. There are no easy answers. Part there are some promising solution. At some point, in these proceedings we will tell the story of farmer’s markets in Bowling Green as a useful case in point.

A fifth question: this interview clip is interesting because it shows one way of solving all of these questions. Kaelin is talking about a conversion. The guy he is working with suddenly grasps what Peacefield farms is about and this comes largely from the “power of the gift” (as we call it in anthropology). It’s when Kaelin gives him a pound of sausage and dozen eggs that the guy makes a reciprocal gesture of his own, and a transaction cash economy falls away. Suddenly, we see gifts in conversation, as it were, and a different relationship, one that helps the relative stranger grasp the point of the artisanal economy and draws him into its sphere.

A sixth issue. Sometimes these private reciprocities come to define the identity of the trading partners. Thus “Peacefield Farms” appears on the wall of Home Cafe, a restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky (and, as it happens, a restaurant owned by one of the investigators on the project, Josh Poling). This helps Home Cafe make good on their artisanal proposition, even as it drums up new business for Peacefield Farms.

Sam is right to say that the mutuality of the relationship in the Artisanal Economy can serve to constrain the amount of value the producer can extract. But in this case it also helps them cooperate in the creation of a visibility in the larger community, and this, we can hope, helps everyone, gradually, come to understand the proposition and the need to pay for it. As in, “Oh, I’m supporting a farm!”

Tons more data and more thinking are called for here.

Seventh question. This “marketing” or “profile” piece is a big issue for every individual player and the community as a whole. As Sam puts it, “If you don’t have deep knowledge of talent in marketing/PR/etc., how do you make progress?” One of my Uber drivers on this trip dropped out of his artisanal project precisely because he just couldn’t solve this part of the problem. I don’t mean that he failed to do marketing successfully. I mean, the marketing problem so vexed him, it proved to be his “final straw,” and he dropped out.

Eighth question. And if all of this were not enough to daunt the artisanal player, there is the issue of regulation. As Sam puts it,

“How do you navigate the labyrinth of regulation and services? Kaelin’s story echoed something we heard from throughout. An artisanal business may be run by someone who has great talents/resources at their disposal but not necessarily history with managing all the local governmental and community entities you have to navigate. We heard stories throughout the trip of people confronted with how to get support from “the system” without having much sway to bring to the table, being blindsided by regulations they knew nothing about, etc. (Remember the beer brewer constantly hit with regulations he didn’t know existed, or the dairy farmer trying to deal with the USDA guy from out of state versus the state regulators who get it and are just doing their job.)”

Ok, that will do for now. Enjoy the interview. More to come!

Thank you, Sam, for producing comments at such speed. Apologies for my ham handedness in using them here.

A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

screenshot

This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

screenshot

Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

The Artisanal Economies, Entry # 1: the Sofi interview

Yesterday, walking to see friends in Boston’s South End, I stumbled across Olives and Grace

unnamed

I am working on a project called The Artisanal Economies. So I had to go in.

Olives and Grace is run by Sofi Madison. It’s been open for 5 years. (See more details here in a Boston Globe article. ) That I should come upon an interview opportunity this rich virtually at random encourages my suspicion that god is an artisan. (It would explain so much.)

Sofi and I spoke for about half an hour and the conversation was far ranging. In the spirit of Jerry Michalski (my favorite anatomizer of conversation), I will extract a couple of points.

1) Artisanal economies are robust in some ways, less so in others. One of the special challenges is “paths to market.” Farmer’s markets are useful. Etsy is super useful. But many artisans struggle to get their work before the public. Target isn’t going to carry it. Malls may be dying but they are for the moment closed to the artisan.

So a place like Sofi’s is a proof of vital concept: specifically that you can make a go (for 5 years no less) of bringing artisanal goods to market and flourish doing it.

2) A second big problem for Artisanal Economies has to do with what Eric Glasgow calls “cheap food.” (This idea may come from another source. I heard it first when interviewing Eric Glasgow of Grey Barn Farms,). The idea here is that consumers are addicted to the cheap prices that industrial economies, producing at scale, make possible. Confronted by the prices charged in the world of the hand made and the small batch, we sometimes balk.

In a sense, solving this problem is precisely what Olives and Grace is for. It is little, inviting, curiosity provoking, engaging. You are drawn in, as if into a children’s book. And you’re then engaged by Sofi in a conversation that moves effortlessly in the direction of anything you might happen to want to talk about. Sofi is there. Drawing you forward, gently shooing you along, helping you find that question you just have to ask. She calls this “intimate retail” and it deserves a study all on its own.

Several things happen in this conversation but one of them is that we begin to see into the history, we might even say the “intentions,” of the objects on the shelves. We begin to see that these things come from someone, that they were crafted to a purpose that begins with “coffee mug” and then scales up to include the lifestyle, the community, the economy, the culture that might be loosely designed artisanal.

Ah, now we get it. That’s why things cost more. That object on the shelf of Wal-mart doesn’t have a story. It was made by a stranger in a factory in Chengdu, shipped across an ocean, and banged around in the distribution system until it just happened to roll to a stop here on a shelf. It doesn’t mean very much because capitalism was so busy giving it value, it forgot to give it meaning.

And that’s what Sofi is for, to gently help you see what the mug means. Yes, we can buy a cheaper mug somewhere. But ,by this standard, cheaper doesn’t feel better, it feels poorer. As if everyone in the production – consumption chain as been diminished by the effort.

So, we could say, if we were rushing to conclusions (and that is what we do here), that retail is not merely the last moment in the distribution chain. It completes the meaning making process. And more to the point, it helps consumers understand and grasp the “artisanal premium” they are required to pay. It’s always true to say “we get what we pay for.” The very point of Olives and Grace is to help us see what we’re paying for. It helps solve the problem of cheap food.

3) Olives and Grace sits in a tiny shop in Boston’s south side, a neighborhood that continues to gentrify at speed. And this is another problem for the artisanal world. The best retail space is only temporarily affordable. A change in the surrounding neighborhood will eventually push us out.

Sofi has a plan for preventing gentrification, and it is a larger version of the education process that happens when you visit her in her shop. With the help of other shop owners, she is trying to tell the artisanal story in a way that makes it clear to people who live in the neighborhood how much value comes from shops like hers, how these shops transform the local style and spirit of neighborhood, and what happens, cue Frank Capra, when the big brand boxes come in. (Reebok has just set up shop down the street and while it is calling itself a collective and trying it’s hardest, people are nervous.)

So Olives and Grace is solving this third problem. Let’s call it the “where do you want to live?” problem. And to put this boldly, and much more bluntly than Sofi ever would, the proposition is this: you moved here because you found the neighborhood charming. But this charm doesn’t happen by accident. If you want this place to remain charming, you know want to do. You want to patronize local shops. And not “patronize” in the diminishing sense, as in dropping by every month or so. No, you want to make Olives and Grace the places you get your olives. Routinely. That’s if you want this neighborhood to be a place you get (some of) your grace. There is a connection.*

That was one of the pleasures of the conversation, listening to Sofi show how all these things things, the artisan, the olives, the coffee mugs, the scented candle I bought Pam, the store itself, the neighborhood, the local economy, American capitalism, all thread together. Pre-artisanal capitalism breaks these all apart. Sofi sees them (says them) whole.

Olives and Grace, and Sofi’s mission, comes down to the child’s art she has taped to the wall. It was done by a local kid who likes to come into the store and look around. She prizes this. Not because it’s good. And not because Wal-marts discourages people from bringing in children’s art. She prizes it because it completes the circle. All that’s hand crafted comes down finally to this thing that’s hand drawn.

More details at olivesandgrace.com

Thanks to Sofi for the impromptu interview.

*  A last point here. Sofi is working with other shop owners, many of whom happen to be women, and there is, she says, a fierce, “mama bear,” intensity to the way they protect their community.. We swept past this topic. I would have liked to have heard more.

Managing cultural complexity, 3 options courtesy of Tom Friedman, Chance the Rapper, and Maggie Siff

(Originally published Feb. 16 on Medium)

Edit Post ‹ CultureBy - Grant McCracken — WordPress.comTom Friedman was interviewed by Al Hunt on Charlie Rose Tuesday night. He was pitching his new book: Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. And he offered, as he always does, a modular understanding of the world.

There are, Friedman says, three things driving our acceleration. I always feel a certain ambivalence when listening to Friedman anatomize the world in this way These “modules,” let’s call them, are both disturbing and useful. Disturbing because they feel like intellectual decelerations, the world too simplified. Useful because these modules do give him coverage and breadth. And that’s the good thing about Friedman. He has a courage for coverage.

The intellectual strategy here is to “chunk” the great complexity of the world into thinkable parts. And when Friedman gives us a module, we are meant to treat this almost as a digital icon that signals the existence of an understanding more fully treated and crafted elsewhere. Take this as a placeholder, Friedman seems to be saying. (And he says this as much in manner as in content. He rushes through his exposition as if to insist that we consult the larger argument.) Still it feels sometime like a “near thing,” as the English say.

Things are more appealing when Friedman begins to put the modules together. And this he does as well as anyone. Because lots of people don’t even try. We live in our silos. We work from our silos. People ask for our advice and we proceed as if it doesn’t matter that all we know are our silos.

But of course it does matter. Especially in a world as dynamic as our present one, so filled with black swans and other disruptions. The good thing about Friedman is that he accepts that he should be talking about most everything if he wants us to take seriously his treatment of anything. Who else is doing this? Not many people. (My one complaint about Friedman coverage: not nearly enough about the cultural matters here. This is a blind spot.)

But surely we need to cultivate Friedman’s courage. Because there are more and more silos. So mastery of one silo gives us less and less. To make matters worse, the silos are coming alive, so to speak. They are increasingly conscious. They know about themselves. (Which wasn’t always true by any means.) They are better at spotting their limitations and blind spots. They are more mobile. To make matters still worse, they know about other silos and they are prepared to visit these competitors without permission or notice or any sort of sympathy. (In the contemporary world, disruption is never not the plat du jour. I was giving a talk in the investment world recently and I thought to say, “somewhere out there there is a disruption with our name on it.” A hush of recognition fell upon the room.)

The problem is not just achieving breadth and coverage. The problem is also the skill, the nimbleness with which we can move from top to bottom, and back again. It’s a question of control of focus even as we change the focal plane (and metaphor, sorry!). Can we move faultlessly up and down? The historical community prizes people who are nimble in this way. (I’m reading Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop. Holy Toledo!)

Is this part of any curriculum? Is anyone training us to hold understanding even as we scale? If you watched Chance the Rapper on the Grammys, you got to hear someone who has figured out how to manage scale. (His Someday in Paradise, not performed, is even more remarkable. By my count, it changes “altitude” 15 times.) But as far as I know, Chance the Rapper isn’t teaching anywhere. Though clearly he should be. (Somewhere out there, there is [or ought to be] an academic chair with his name on it. Someday…in paradise.)

But the problem is not just a) knowledge side to side and b) knowledge made manageable even as we scale. The problem is also knowledge writ broad and fine. This is, I venture to say, the single most pressing problem for communicating in our new culture. The advent of better story telling gives us the ability to speak with great nuance. But not everyone has risen to the new literacy. There are still some people who are using the old rules to read TV and Hollywood and every other kind of culture content. They find the new culture a little daunting, impenetrable even.

The solution is broad plus fine. We want big fat themes that are sit unmistakable at the opening of the story “view corridor.” And then we want a series of less obvious story points built into the view corridor and moving away by stages until we get to the far horizon where plot points are vanishingly subtle. Something for everyone.

This allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Popular culture is allowed to get better, so to speak. Eventually, it drops the adjective. It becomes culture plain and simple. But even as it becomes something Matthew Arnold would admire, it remains stoutly democratic, the sort of thing that is intelligible to readers who like things kept simple. (And all of us are that reader some time. This is pop culture’s holiest cause, its deepest promise. No viewer left behind.)

Our case in point here could be Maggie Siff who was interviewed by John Micklethwait on the same Charlie Rose episode that gave us Thomas Friedman. Siff was talking about her role on the FX show Billions. This is a show with themes big and unmistakeable. Two men contesting. But how thrilling to hear Siff talk about how her role. There’s no actorly pretense, no ‘observe how impossibly sensitive is my craft,’ just a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate treatment of “Wendy Rhoades,” the woman she becomes.

As popular culture got better, this was a question. Would there be a short fall in the supply chain? Would this cultural form have all the talent it needed as it got, quite suddenly and ferociously, better? The answer is Maggie Siff. (Smart studios should be reaching out to the best and brightest talents in the writing and acting world. They must improve their chances to access this top talent when particular projects come along.)

Summing up: 3 options

The world gets more complicated.

We remain rooted in our silos.

We need to cultivate several very particular intellectual abilities to survive the new complexity

(This list is not exhaustive.)

The Tom Friedman option

We need to get better at let’s called it the Tom Friedman option: learning to craft particular arguments and climbing up into the high rigging of real generalities. This is the single biggest problem for academics who do not train for it or encourage it enough. This means, tragically, academics are not very good at making it an outcome of the liberal arts education, or any education for that matter. (They are of course free to disappoint themselves. We should be less forgiving when they disappoint the rest of us.)

The Chance the Rapper option

This is a matter of managing scale. As we move from the finely crafted observation to the honking great generalization, can we control the argument? Or do these bust apart? Can we emulate Chance the Rapper and manage knowledge even as we move swiftly between altitudes?

The Maggie Siff option

This is a matter of communicating our “stories.” We want to step up and take advantage of the sudden improvement of popular culture and craft our work with new subtlety. But we DO NOT want to abandon those who are not (or not yet) transformed by this astonishing trend. We want to remain democratic. We want to continue to talk to everyone. The solution is the Maggie Siff option, to make stories that accessible to all even as they explore complexity and nuance.