Roughly a week has passed since my experiment in San Francisco and some thoughts are in order.
For those who are new to the enterprise: On July 16, I installed myself in SF and invited people to send me instructions via Twitter. I promised to do pretty much anything people asked me to do.
It was a disaster. And not in an interesting way. But in a “how could he get this so wrong” way.
My plan was to be truly automated, to do in real time whatever I was instructed to do. If someone said, “turn right” that was what I wanted to do, assuming that it did not put me in the path of an oncoming trolley. If someone said, “burst into tears and wait for someone to come to your aid” I intended to do that too. (More on motives and objectives in a moment.)
I failed at the automated thing. The fact of the matter is I’m a nervous nelly. So I cheated. I took assignments sent me by email with me into the day. And then I asked my assistant Maria to decide which of the tweets received we would act on. (Maria Elmqvist is just graduating from the Academy of Art University. I had written to Cameron Maddux there to see if he knew of a student who could help out. Maria volunteered). This too destroyed the randomizing quality of the undertaking. (Again, more on the point in a moment.)
In the press of the moment, old habits prevailed. I have done a lot of ethnographic interviews in the street. And before I knew it, I was interviewing people. This created some interesting moments as when it become clear that a would-be respondent had just told me indirectly ‘to fuck you and leave me alone.’ Then the media found us, and that lead us to Jonathan Bloom, a really interesting guy who works for ABC7 in San Francisco. We started chatting and it turns out that Bloom is helping reinvent the world of TV journalism and I wanted to find out more about that. Then he started driving us from place to place. And by this time, my head was spinning and I was thinking, “So why did I decide to do this, again?”
So why did I decide to do this?
First, Automatic anthropologist was a culturematic and every culturematic is a hack of culture. It creates an event designed to engage, provoke, reveal culture.
In this case, turning yourself over to the direction of other people might be expected to raise questions about agency and autonomy.FN1 Specifically, “Who’s in charge?” And “How can someone surrender control of the self to other parties?”
The Automated anthropologist was designed in haste. Suddenly, I had a free day in SF and I thought, “now what?” I am just finishing a project for the Ford Foundation in which the question of individualism surfaces almost constantly. So I was thinking about autonomy and what it is to be a free standing individual.
As Americans we are deeply devoted to the idea that we are in charge. We make choices. We craft lives. We are self inventing. The idea of voluntarily giving up this agency and autonomy strikes us as odd. (And to the media, it turns out, irresistible.) Outside of S&M dungeons and other romantic encounters, giving up control is actually unamerican. We define ourselves by the idea that we are self defining.
The fact of the matter is we are only partly choosing, in charge and self inventing. We are deeply constrained and defined by social rules, cultural meanings, political forces and economic realities. I don’t make too much of this. I am not one of those social scientists who think that because we are sometimes determined by forces outside ourselves, we are wholly defined by them. Choice makes an extraordinary role in American life. But there are moments, ghoulish, quite scary moments, when we glimpse the limits of our autonomy and I wonder if the automated anthropologist could become one of these.
More simply, I think some people heard about the automatic anthropologist and thought, “Great. A monkey on a string!” It was as if they had wandered by and discovered that someone had left the door to selfhood wide open, with the keys still in the ignition! And they had an “evil genius” moment.
“Ah ha! My agency will inhabit his agency. I will make him do things that embarrass him. I will force him to hold himself up to ridicule. Finally, my chance to play the puppet master!” Americans are deeply opportunistic (I mean this in the technical sense) and this looked like one hell of an opportunity.
A higher objective of the undertaking was magic. Culturematics at their best have a way of “reenchanting the world,” to use Max Weber’s phrase. In place of the rational, the routine and the routinized, they are designed as a way to make something wonderful happen. This is what I’d been hoping for.
Perhaps the most compelling objective of the exercise was novelty, creativity, innovation, to pile up the words we use so often these days. One of the paths to innovation is randomness. And we see a passion for this these days in our passion for improv and experiment. And the Automated Anthropologist looked like a way to use randomness to march me out of the world I knew into a world I didn’t. We are self defining. We are captives of our own little gravitational fields.
These fields are the proverbial “boxes” we are always claiming to be trying to get out of, but it’s hard. Many of our choices have hardened into habits. It is very hard to escape ourselves and I thought that automation and the real time feel of advice from others might walk me straight out of the world I construct for myself into something new. (We talk grandly and often about empathy, but this is, in my opinion, merely a matter of letting difference into consciousness on a day pass with an armed guard. The chance of assumption-rocking transformation is remote.)
The learning, then, is clear. If you are going to do an event like this, you have to be scrupulous and disciplined. You have to stick to the plan. And you have to follow it wherever it takes you. No cheating. And that means you can’t do any of your own documentation. Leave that to someone else. Your job is to be completely automated…by others…all the time.
The learning may also be “don’t sent a nervous nelly on a mission like this.” Or maybe that’s just a note of personal criticism.
A note of thanks.
Sometime in the 1990s, while living in the Danforth neighborhood in Toronto, on Saturday mornings, I would wander up the record store near the Danforth subway station and fell into conversation with Dave Dyment there who introduced me to the art of the Fluxus movement and Yves Klein (see Leap, pictured). I would not have undertaken the Automated Anthropologist without this instruction.
FN1. Cliche alert. I blanche a little when I write this. How many exhibit catalogues have told us that the artist is “dealing with the whole question of agency.” (Plug “whole question of agency” into Google to see what I mean.) This has become a kind of boilerplate, the thing curators says about art without saying anything more about the topic, thus betraying reflexive behavior at the moment they wish to be critical. With some powerful exceptions of course.
For the Storify summary of the event, have a look here.
For the book from which the project stems, have a look here.
Here’s the video for an interview I did with Greg Parsons in Chicago on June 11. The event behind us was NEOCON, the design event that happens each year in Chicago. It was an impromptu interview so not only are my questions “not prepared,” they are unprepared. I shot the interview on my iPhone which I thought did really well given the noise and the commotion. I have to declare a conflict of interest. I consulted for Herman Miller on this project. Which, I have to say, does nothing to augment my admiration for the undertaking. If only I could always work for clients this gifted.
And here’s the transcript:
Interviewer: …do? [laughs]
Greg Parsons: Oh no, no. I won’t be able to take it again. [laughs]
Interviewer: No, look! We can just keep doing it until we get a take you like.
Greg: Huh? [jokingly] No.
Interviewer: We’ll just keep throwing them away. I love what you just said about getting things together, getting people together, telling them the purpose and then turning them loose.
Greg: The way we manage has been…You line people up, you tell them what to do, you get a piece, you know their outcome. You make sure and you monitor, and you see how it’s all tied together. The future is actually much more complex and free in that you actually take people…You align them around passion and purpose, but then you set them free. You don’t pin them down, and they bounce off against each other. They build relationships and together they find the next direction.
As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve, and a clear set of purpose and principles, that will do just fine. You teach them how to make decisions together, so it’s not pinned down. Everything have a process map. It’s actually let people be free, and it’s counterintuitive for people to do that.
Interviewer: Yeah. It feels like we should send in a group of people called pattern recognizers.
Greg: No, I agree.
Interviewer: Who go in and say, “This is an idea.” They just lift it off, as you would transparency. You just lift that off and people keep thinking, keep lifting ideas off.
Greg: That’s exactly how we’ve designed this. We had a big idea around the living office. It’s very general. It’s very abstract. We started to say, we think there’s eight parts of this. And then we said, no, there are nine and we actually have landed on 12 parts and it’s everything from a shared vision to a place design paradigm to a set of products and a set of services. There are 12 things and we’ve put one person who’s passionate and qualified in charge of each of the 12, haven’t told them what to do in their area, but we all get together and do the nodes of our offer. Those nodes keep developing and evolving, which causes the one next to them to develop and evolve, to form new relationships and new matrixes and new networks.
It’s incredibly organic and it’s incredibly uncertain and it’s incredibly invigorating and surprising. Sometimes you go off the rails and you pull people back, but it works, and we got to where we are twice as fast as I think we would have. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would be here today if we tried to set a process and tell everyone what they needed to do and have a process, the Microsoft project map for everything. We wouldn’t even have the map done by now.
We just had a shared view, got people who were passionate, told them their area of the percolate and we just bounce of each other and build connections as we go.
Interviewer: In a sense the concept of the living office came from a living office.
Greg: It came from the principles of life and we said “What are the principles of life?” It’s the elements of surprise and uncertainty, and it’s freedom, these loose systems of things, interacting, each evolving on their own, but together forming an ecosystem. We said “Let’s apply that to places, let’s apply that to tools and technology, and let’s apply that to actually how you manage people.” Herman Miller has always managed this way, but we didn’t know what it was, so our founder talks about covenant relationships, not contracts. We’re all about innovation and imagining and delivering things that didn’t exist.
It’s very hard to do that in a contract relationship where you define what you need by when because you don’t even know what you’re doing, and so Herman Miller has always said covenant relationships, where you agree on the purpose, the goal, the objective, the loose vision.
You agree who’s responsible for which areas and then you set people free and you keep kneading and bouncing off each other to get out [inaudible 03:48] . Very different, very frightening to most companies.
Completely the opposite to what we’re taught is a good process for management, but it’s the mode of living, it’s how people live, and it’s how life happens and so we believe it’s probably how organizations should work…
Interviewer: You have a design degree, and an MBA, both?
Greg: I have a fine art degree, a degree in history, and an MBA.
Interviewer: Right. Your most recent degree was an MBA?
Greg: Yes. I was the wacko artist at the University of Chicago where everybody else was an investment banker.
Interviewer: [laughs] Could you see then what you’re witnessing now, that the world of work, that capitalism would be flexible and fluid in this way?
Greg: No. Basically, when I went to business school, I was learning design at Herman Miller, and how we do it, which is a lot of what I’m telling you about, when we apply onto products, and then I went to business school and said “What if we applied this to business instead of products?”, and it works. To me, this is how Herman Miller is innovative, but we just don’t know it as a practice, and so we’re getting better and better at knowing it as our practice.
Interviewer: In a manner of speaking, Herman Miller, with this new living office is exporting its corporate culture to other corporate cultures.
Greg: Exactly. We’re learning it better ourselves. Most people, we do our thing and we don’t even know what we do and that’s how Herman Miller has an organization. It’s just who we are, it’s our culture, and we don’t really see what we’re doing, and so we’re trying to step back a bit and see what we’re doing so that we do it better and we actually find that we are a network organization. We are a living organization. There are these principles that we’re talking about that are actually coming from us, so why shouldn’t we share them with the world, because they’ve worked incredibly well for us in terms of innovation.
It’s not necessarily right for all work, so if you’re making 500,000 of the same thing, it’s probably not the way to manage. But if you want to reinvent that next thing you’re going to make 500,000 of, it is the right way to manage.
Interviewer: Yes, and to the extent that whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’re also in the game of reinventing who they are and what they will do in the next moment.
Greg: That’s the other thing we are seeing. Every large company started as a small company with a big idea. Most Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies have many of these big ideas that they expand globally, expand and extend into niche markets. They drive down costs as low as possible, but then they have to reinvent the idea, because the Earth is only so big and most of these companies are global. They found the most efficient means to manufacture so costs are approaching zero or as low as possible. Now what’s left is reinventing the big idea, and many of them try and apply the same principles that they have to optimize to how they invent, and it doesn’t work. You have to apply what we’re talking about, which is this mode of living management which is freeing people, giving them shared purpose, giving them shared direction, connecting right capabilities and passions, and then letting them evolve their part of the organization or the living organism.
That’s how life works.
Interviewer: Are there any early adopters out there who will be the first ones into the Living Office and will be a laboratory for you?
Greg: Yes, there are. I probably can’t share them, but, frankly, there are a number of companies we’re talking to that received pieces of this. Actually, we saw it in them before we saw it in ourselves. “Hey,” we said, “they’re doing this. We do that, too,” and we were realizing we do many pieces of it, but a lot of those pieces do live elsewhere. One fundamental thing that most of them seem to share is our perspective on purpose. When I went to business school, we were asked in a lecture hall of 40, “What’s the purpose of a business?” 39 hands went up to say “to make money.” I was the only one who said “to solve a problem really well.” I was told that I was crazy and I left thinking I was crazy.
What I learned was Herman Miller was founded on that idea, that if you actually solve a real problem for people, you’ll get rewarded much more highly financially than you would if you were trying to achieve a financial goal. The way we look at it is, if you want to make more money, don’t focus on money, focus on your purpose and your passion and the money will come.
What you get is very counterintuitive, but companies like Johnson and Johnson and Herman Miller and IBM were all founded on this principle. About 10 percent of businesses seem to pursue it, and those are the ones that have lasted for many decades and have outperformed the stock market.
Interviewer: Darn, I just…Hey, there he is, Jim.
Greg: You saved me from this.
(Transcribed by Castingwords.com)
Today, Tuesday, July 16th, I will be in SF doing what every people tell me to do. It’s an experiment, a culturematic.
Starting at 9:00 West coast time, I will be in Union Square ready to act on your directives.
Please send those directives to @grant27 on Twitter, with #autoanthro as your hashtag.
In between acting on real-time directives, I will try to act on the suggestions you have sent over the last couple of days. Thank you for those!
You can follow the events of the day by searching for #autoanthro on Twitter. (I like Tweetdeck as a way of keeping track of my Twitter searches.)
We will take photos and video and post the former on Twitter and the latter on YouTube. (Thanks for the suggestion, Kate Hammer.)
We will post our location in SF using Glimpse with links announced by Twitter.
For those who miss events tomorrow, I will post a compilation on Storify in a week or so.
USA Today has given us early coverage (for which many thanks, Bruce Horovitz!). You can find the details here.
Thanks to the help of Cameron Maddox of the Academy of Art University’s School of Advertising I will have the assistance of a recent graduate, Maria Elmqvist. Thanks, Cameron and Maria!
Thanks to everyone for their support.
For background, here’s the email that first announced the project a couple of days ago.
Over the course of Tuesday, July 16, I will do whatever you tell me to do. Assuming of course that it is within the bounds of legality and morality(ish).
I am going to San Francisco this week.
I am giving a talk on Monday and come back to NYC on Wednesday.
That leaves the whole of Tuesday to …
Well, that’s the question, what do I do on Tuesday? (I should have booked a get-together, but things got busy and I never got around to it. Apologies to friends in SF, Eric and Ed especially.)
So this is my plan.
To put myself on automatic pilot.
Over the course of Tuesday, I will do whatever you tell me to do. Assuming of course that it is within the bounds of legality and mortality(ish).
Please tweet your instructions to @grant27 on Tuesday over the course of the day.
I will tweet the results, text and photos, with the hashtag #autoanthro.
I haven’t quite figured out how best to capture and sequence the requests you send me. And I can’t promise to do everything that is proposed. But I’ll try. I will.
Feel free to embarrass me. I believe myself to be one ill-chosen word away from social catastrophe in any case.
But the real object is ingenuity. What effects can you set in train in an American city by directing an anthropologist on automatic pilot. Think of it as a rolling Rube Goldberg event. Small events and larger narrative arcs are both welcome. (Everything from “Turn right.” to “Find someone to tell you the story of [x].”)
If the Twitter feed stops suddenly or you never hear from me again, well, we’ll call it a long term culturematic.
Thanks for reading and thanks for any directions you send me on Tuesday! Grant
This morning I got a note from someone who wanted to know whether a master’s degree in anthropology would be useful to his career as a consulting anthropologist.
Here’s my reply:
Thanks for your note.
A couple of things spring to mind.
The anthropology consulting world does not sort very well, so the good does not rise nor the bad fall away. Partly this is because there are no real barriers to entry. Lots of people hang out a shingle, despite the fact that they don’t have credentials or any real clue.
Second, clients don’t seem to care that someone doesn’t have a substantial career training, education or accomplishment. Procurement just goes with the low-cost provider.
So I am not sure that a master’s degree makes as much difference as it would in another field.
The second thing: to judge from your background, you have a breadth of experience, and you have engaged with the world, and that means, I am assuming, you are prepared to go places other angels fear to tread.
Many organizations are saying things like, “Geez, I wonder if there is an opportunity/problem opening up in this new place, new industry, new community.” More and more, organizations are confronted with “unknown unknowns” and the best thing to do is to drop someone into the place/industry/community and have them think their way home again. This takes a kind of pattern recognition (aka problem cognition) that anthropologists, some anthropologists, are particularly good at. (My clients used to ask me for “to find the right answer,” increasingly they ask me “to find the right question…then the right answer.”)
In my intro to Steve Portigal’s new book on ethnography, I praise him for being a Mars Rover, someone you can send anywhere to capture the culture in place. A lot of anthro-consultants would wilt under the pressure. So they eliminate themselves from the competitive set. (On this website, about 4 posts ago.)
This is not to say that I can identify the exact clients out there who would want to hire you. But I believe once you had established yourself as someone who perform this kind of problem recognition, you will have many clients largely to yourself. (For more on being a “self sustaining anthropologist,” see my contribution to Riall Nolan’s Handbook on Practicing Anthropology. http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Practicing-Anthropology-Riall-Nolan/dp/0470674598/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2.)
So my advice comes down to this. In the absence of a really strong program and clients who are sensitive to professional credentials, it might make sense to take the year (or two) you would give to a master’s program, and spent in a “proof of concept” project where you go after a big problem and in the process deepen your skills and show what you can do.
Blog it, then turn it into a book. And that’s your calling card. Lead with a total, open, intellectual curiosity and an eye to problem-solving pattern recognition. (Lots of people can do the first or the second. Advantage goes to people who can do both.) This is a “self invention” scenario, but if you trust your powers and experience, I suspect you can transform yourself more effectively than a Masters’ program can.
I hope this is helpful. I hope you don’t mind but I am going to post this note to my website. Naturally, I will not use your name or pass it along.
p.s., I am writing this from a Hilton in Columbus, Ohio where a philanthropic foundation has me for the week, talking to Americans about politics and community. It is absolutely interesting. I am listening to people reinventing their ideas of who they are and what community is. In almost real time. So keep at it. This is a spectacularly interesting career.
Here’s a game that will give you hours of fun.
Play it with friends and family! At the beach!
1. Assume everyone you meet is in witness relocation. Everyone.
2. Come up with the “real story” for each of them.
An example: My wife and I recently decided that our new neighbor was caught in the Bernie Madoff scandal, having served as one of Bernie’s assistants. In exchange for testimony, she was renamed and relocated. (As far as we know, this is completely untrue.)
Here’s how our “de-relocation” continued:
Life with Bernie was an odd outcome for someone raised by a woman who was raised on the commune founded by D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe in the Southwest many, many years ago, someone who had, as it happens, done time of her own for breaking into the Santa Fe institute and stealing top secret plans for complexity theory.
How would someone like this find her way to New York City and into the employ of Bernie Madoff, you ask? Well, because she had a heart murmur, a speech impediment, a lust for life, and/or served briefly as the President of Columbia University and, yes, Columbia Records, it just so happened… [Off you go.]
3. When you are introduced to the person in question, be sure to murmur, “Yeah, right” when given the “cover story,” and be sure to use broad winks and rolled eyes to let them (and your significant other) know “you’re not falling for it.”
Rinse and repeat.
This is a post I put up on the Harvard Business Review Blog. It’s about an essential hostility between the corporation and the future. They are made of entirely different stuff, I argue.
To the corporation, the future looks a risk that can’t be managed, an idea that can’t be thought.
The corporation puts a particular boundary between now and the future. And it guards this border ferociously. New ideas are scrutinized with tough mindedness and high indignation. If we can’t see the business model, we’re not interested. If we can’t see how to “monitize this sucker,” we’re not interested. When the future manifests itself merely as a murmur of possibility, we are not interested.
Too bad. There is really only one way to live in a world of speed, surprise, noise, and responsiveness, and that’s to visit the future frequently. And, if we have the intellectual capital, maybe get a pied-à-terre there. Well, and if we’re really committed, we need someone to take up residence full time.
Please click here for the whole of the post.
Acknowledgements: The image is from Tumbler and Villacollezione (http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/wooden%20planks). Thank you to Julia Matthews at the Royal Ontario Museum for helping me identify it.
See this wonderful ad from Haagen-Dazs and Goodby, Silverstein:
It suggests two things, I think, about branding and the future of advertising.
1. That we are now prepared to give the viewer a little credit.
Note that the brand and the agency are prepared to go with a foreign language.
And you can imagine how difficult this conversation would have been just 10 years ago. To trust anything to subtitles! To slow the ad! To turn the viewer into a reader! Unthinkable! Quite enough to make you want to throw a piece of crockery! AND POSSIBLY START YELLING AT SOMEONE!
There may once have been a time when the ad world treated the consumer is a dolt, a moron, an idiot but those days have passed. Or in the Cluetrain era, they are passing.
2. That we should be able to give the viewer more and more credit.
Some day, the brand and the agency will be brave enough to go without subtitles.
Have another look at the ad and put a post-it over the subtitles. The emotional power of the scene is undiminished. Indeed, it’s more powerful because we don’t have to take our eyes off these beautiful people, this splendid acting, and this moment of delicious outrage.
I will grant you this much. Without subtitles, we would miss two really wonderful lines from the actress: 1. “Isn’t it your turn to apologize to me?” and 2. “You shouldn’t yell at me!” (This from someone who is prepared to turn “honey, I’m home” into World War III.)
Subtitles give the viewer quite a lot of work to do. Giving them no subtitles would give them still more work to do. With no subtitles, we can I think guarantee 5 or 6 viewings.
Plus, I think we could assume that many people would take to the internet to look for a translation. And assuming they end up at a Haagen Dazs website, we have another brandable moment and our ad will have gone transmedia, a very good thing. Everyone is now a googling machine.
The two assertions come back together again in what is perhaps a new rule for the ad world.
The more credit and work we give the viewer, the more engagement, meaning and value they will give the brand.
Tip of the hat to the people responsible for this splendid work:
Ad Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Client Häagen-Dazs
Brand Manager at Haagen-Dazs: Cady Behles
Co-Chairman / Partner: Rich Silverstein
Associate Creative Director/ Copywriter: Will Elliott
Senior Art Director: Patrick Knowlton
Director of Broadcast Production/Associate Partner: Cindy Fluitt
Broadcast Producer: Melissa Nagy
Account Services Department
Group Account Director: Leslie Barrett
Account Director: Erin Fromherz
Account Manager: Kristen Baker
Assistant Account Manager: Lacy Borko
Brand and Communication Strategy
Group Brand Strategy Director: Kelly Evans-Pfeifer
Senior Brand Strategist: Molly Cabe
Business Affairs Manager: Mary Marhula
Production Company: H.S.I. / Person Films
Director: Michael Haussman
Director of Photography: Paolo Caimi
Executive Producers: Cecile Leroy, Michael McQuhae
Line Producer: Gianluca Leurini
Editing House: Union Editorial
Editor: Marco Perez
Assistant Editors: Nellie Phillips, Francesca Vassallo, Jedidiah Stuber
President / Executive Producer: Michael Raimondi
Executive Producer: Caryn Maclean
Producer: Sara Mills
Three paragraphs from my recent Wired essay on binging on TV:
Why do we binge watch? One way to answer this question is to say we binge on TV for the same reason we binge on food. For a sense of security, creature comfort, to make the world go away. And these psychological factors are no doubt apt.
But the anthropological ones are perhaps just as useful and a little less obvious. Because, as I’ve suggested here before, “culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets,” and the anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second to figure out what’s going on.
I believe we binge on TV to craft time and space, and to fashion an immersive near-world with special properties. We enter a world that is, for all its narrative complexity, a place of sudden continuity. We may have made the world “go away” for psychological purposes, but here, for anthropological ones, we have built another in its place. The second screen in some ways becomes our second home.
I came to the conclusion that it’s not a watch or a TV.
It’s a version of telepresence so good it will be a little like teleportation, so good, that is to say, we will actually want to use it.
How do I know? Well, of course, I don’t. My method was a kind of telepresence ethnography. I used empathy to take up residence in the Apple culture and I saw, or think I saw, two things:
1. that Apple wants to do great things. Reinventing the watch and the TV are too small.
2. that Apple wants to prove it can do great things without its guru, Steve Jobs.
What, I wondered, is big enough to be big enough for Apple? Telepresence feels right. To create this would be to transform the home, the work place, education, and perhaps also the city. Apple does it again.
Anyhow, that’s the argument.
You can find the post at the Harvard Business Review Blog by clicking here.
If you have comments, I’d be grateful if you would please leave them at the HBR Blog. Thanks!
Credits: Thank you to BioShock for the image.
This is my Foreword for a new book on ethnographic method from Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users.
I was just looking at YouTube in a brave attempt to keep in touch with popular music, and I found the musician Macklemore doing a hip-hop celebration of the thrift store. (“Passing up on those moccasins someone else been walking in.”) Google results indicate that Macklemore is a product of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. And this is interesting because Evergreen produces a lot of ferociously creative kids—wild things who care nothing for our orthodoxy, and still less for our sanctimony.
Now, our curiosity roused, we might well decide to go visit Evergreen College, because as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Evergreen would be an excellent place to look for our futures. But it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant. We would struggle to get a fix on the sheer volcanic invention taking place here. Our sensibilities would be scandalized. We would feel ourselves at sea.
And that’s where ethnography comes in. It is, hands down, the best method for making our way through data that is multiple, shifting, and mysterious. It works brilliantly to help us see how other people see themselves and the world. Before ethnography, Evergreen is a bewildering place. After ethnography, it’s a place we “get.” (Not perfectly. Not comprehensively. But the basics are there, and the bridge is built.)
And that’s where Steve Portigal comes in. Armed with his method of interviewing, years of experience, a sustained devotion to the hard problems that our culture throws off (not just at Evergreen State College), and a penetrating intelligence, Steve could capture much of what we need to know about Evergreen, and he could do it in a week. And that’s saying something. Steve is like a Mars Rover. You can fire him into just about any environment, and he will come back with the fundamentals anatomized and insights that illuminate the terrain like flares in a night sky. Using his gift and ethnography, Steve Portigal can capture virtually any world from the inside out. Now we can recognize, enter, and participate in it. Now we can innovate for it, speak to it, serve it.
And if this is all Steve and ethnography can do, well, that would be enough. But Steve and the method can do something still more miraculous. He can report not just on exotic worlds like Evergreen, but the worlds we know—the living room, the boardroom, the not-for-profit, and the design firm. This is noble work because we think we grasp the world we occupy. How would we manage otherwise? But, in fact, we negotiate these worlds thanks to a series of powerful, intricate assumptions. The thing about these assumptions is that, well, we assume them. This means they are concealed from view.
We can’t see them. We don’t know they are active. We don’t know they’re there. Ethnography and Steve come in here, too. They are uniquely qualified to unearth these assumptions, to discover, in the immortal words of Macklemore, those moccasins we all go walking in.
This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.
Use discount code mccracken2013 to get 20% off Steve’s book here.(http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/interviewing-users/).
Orphan Black, the new show on BBC America (Saturday at 9:00 Eastern) is a pleasure. The theme is multiplicity, the writing is good, the acting is strong.
Seven women discover themselves to be clones. They are genetically identical. But that’s where their similarities end.
Raised in different circumstances, countries and cultures, the “orphans” manage to represent some of the great diversity of the contemporary world.
These differences are enough to force them apart. But someone is trying to kill the clones so they are now obliged to work together.
Saturday, the “soccer mom” clone must stand in for the “Punk” clone. She must persuade everyone that she is the mother of the Punk’s daughter. (The daughter spots her immediately. ”You’re not my mother.”)
The soccer mom has an hour to get ready for her big performance, an hour to throw off suburban nicities and take on a brawling, street-smart cynicism. She is aided by the Punk’s brother who says something like “Oh, God, this calls for a complete reverse Pygmalion.”
It’s one of those lovely moments, where an actress playing one person must now play that person playing a second person. Hats off to Tatiana Maslany, the very gifted actress who plays the clones.
The theme here is forced transformation, aka involuntary improv. As Orphan Black assumes the identity of another clone, the challenges come fast and furious. In rapid succession, she discovers that she has an American accent, a stylish condo, a dolt for a boyfriend, $75,000 sitting in the bank, a career as a police detective, and that she is under investigation for a crime she can only guess at.
In the title of the best book on improv, Orphan Black must deliver “something wonderful right away.” This is improv in real time, under unforgiving pressure, with dire consequences attending failure.
I believe we are seeing this theme more and more in contemporary culture because it is more and more a theme in contemporary life. Increasingly, it’s what life is like.
For more on this argument, see my book Transformations, on Amazon, by clicking here.
I was listening to Justin Timberland’s Mirrors the other day and at the 2:03 mark, something weird happens. It’s as if the song suffers a sudden loss of blood pressure.
The tempo so far has been driven by a calm but persistent momentum. A horse traveling at a canter, leisurely but insistent, the base line supplied by instruments and voices.
And then the momentum suddenly glides! The baseline stops. At 2:03 strings come in and fall away. And you think they are going to keep falling until strings come in again at 2:04. Between 2:03 and 2:04, there’s free fall.
It feels like the song is over. Then those second strings come in, just in time, to catch the song and prepare for a return to canter.
Not quite a resurrection. More like a save (in the baseball sense of the miraculous catch).
It’s hard to see what this intrusion means for Mirrors. The first time I heard it, it seemed to me that the song was wheeling (as trains do) and now moving off in a new direction. But Mirrors comes out of this swoon the song it was going in. Nothing has changed. (Unless I’m missing something. You can tell that I don’t know anything about music. So something might have changed and I can’t see it.)
I might have ignored this aspect of Mirrors, except that it reminded me of the music that accompanies a recent Microsoft ad. This is Labrinth’s Express Yourself. This is a good natured, peppy, confessional little song that comes with an admonishing chorus: Express yourself!
No sooner has this chorus started than (at 0:54) it sounds like a Paris ambulance has decided to take a short cut through our “listening experience.” Klaxon blaring! Get out of the way! This is an emergency!
It’s glorious, great confusion, as the song has suffered a blowout, lost its stability and fights now to get things back under control. Express Yourself on two wheels! Look out!
Popular music has often cultivated this conceit, that it is a lord of misrule capable of summoning terrible confusions and disorders. In fact, “Look out!” is exactly what guitarist sometimes mutter at the beginning of a solo, as if chaos were now to be unleashed. I am not always buying it, but I am usually charmed. “A” for effort and grandiosity.
Again, it’s not clear what the Paris ambulance adds to the song. It sounds out of place. Not quite in error. Not entirely apt.
And this reminded me of that moment in Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a ring on it) where we get (at 0:52) what struck on first hearing as “dread chords.” They come in like a low pressure zone, dark, menacing, and if this weren’t a pop song, majestic.
These three things are anthropologically obvious…or at least probable.
1) That music is one of the most cultural of cultural artifacts. What works in one culture is strange and unpleasant in another. We are extremely particular about what we like and what we don’t.
2) That music is rule bound. The rules specify, among other things, how sounds should be chosen and combined. Some selections and combinations are so conventionalized, they become genres. But what confines some artists frees other, and part of the fun of musical creativity is seeing what an artist can make these rules do, by stretching them to the breaking point and in some cases deliberately violating them. This is what keeps music “fresh.”
3) Some of the rules of music call for “harmony.” Some sounds go together, some do not. It’s a largely arbitrary arrangement. It varies between communities and it changes over time. But at any given time for any given group, the rules say some sounds go together more surely than others.
And what we are looking at in the case of Timberlake, Labrinth and Beyonce are sounds that so clearly don’t go with the surrounding sounds that they seem to qualify as intruders. They remain separate and different. They are passengers. Stowaways even.
The simplest explanation for these dark passengers is that they are post hoc efforts to give the song additional depth and credibility. The artist says, “oh, God, we’ve gone too far. This is bubble gum. Do something!” And faithfully, the tune smith or the producer comes up with a sound that “runs against type” as we used to say of casting Broadway or Hollywood actors.
But I think there’s another explanation. Or, better, I wonder whether we should search for the explanation elsewhere. I wonder if culture, and in this case pop culture, is changing. Changing so much that unitness is breaking down. Cultural rules once said what a unit was and how to constitute it, not least how to specify what goes in a song and what does not. This is what gave a song its “thingness.” This is what allowed the artist and the listener to agree that, yes, this is a song.
If its possible now to smuggle music into a song that doesn’t quite go, well, that would be interesting. After all popular culture has been ruthlessly crafted. Artists are controlled by conventions and producers who are controlled by genres and labels who are controlled by sales numbers. Even in an era of indie and alt musical producers, music is crafted quite carefully. Rules are honored. Conventions play out.
But if an artist/producer/label can now allow dark passengers, musical moments that are not just cast against type, but markedly different in tone and character, then what we call a “song” is changing. And if that’s changing, well, think what else must be changing.
On changing in music and the music biz, see the remarkable work being done by Leora Kornfeld over at Demassed.
Have a look.
You will see that I rush the conclusion. These are early days and at the moment we have little more than a suggestive trace of the new trend. Still, early notice has to start somewhere, as it were.
Here’s a paragraph from the post.
Why sweetness? Well, we are coming out of an era of some darkness. We seemed almost to celebrate skepticism and snark. We dwelt upon the grimmest aspects of the human experience. TV and movie making were increasingly ghoulish, with new standards of viscera and depravity. Shows like CSI and NCIS dwell lovingly on the crime victim. Bright lights and strategically placed towels protect our sexual sensitivities, but everything else on the autopsy table is enthusiastically examined. Once the standard bearer of heartlessness, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) now looks a little quaint. Since its release, we have seen a succession of werewolves, vampires, serial killers, and human monsters of every kind. If you are 40 or under, you’ve grown up on a steady diet of heartlessness.
This just in (Tuesday, February 26)
Steve Crandall had this excellent datum to add to the post. It turns out he recently had dinner with one of the writers for Big Bang Theory, who “said the show was designed to be “sweet’ … characters who might be considered intimidating due to their skill in math and science [were] brought down to human scale by being socially clueless and quite “sweet”.”
Thank you, Steve. (See Steve’s excellent blog here.)
It’s not hard to imagine why Netflix has decided to focus on original programming (most recently with House of Cards and now with an animated children’s series). Making oneself an exclusive source for a show starring Kevin Spacey is a great way to sweeten the value proposition and compete with Hulu and Amazon. Plus, eventually every grocer wants to be a P&G. Why merely manage the channel when you can start filling it?
But Hollywood is not just any industry. It’s the true north of our culture. To become a broker here! Think of the power! Think of the parties! And this is why so many are called. Everyone would like to be a player and Hollywood is littered with the wreckage of careers of people who looked at the entertainment industry and thought, “I would love to be a big shot and, anyhow, how hard can it be?” It turns out that making entertainment is extremely hard. Even Disney can make a stinker like John Carter. Even very talented people (the Weinstein brothers or Bonnie Hammer, for instance) make mistakes.
For the rest of this post, please click here.