Steampunk Cometh?

EmberWhile in London, I had a chance to catch up with Trevor Davis.  Davis is one of the people responsible for the IBM Social Sentiment Index and the prediction in January of 2013 that we should expect Steampunk to move from its status as a niche enthusiasm to something more mainstream.

IBM offered its prediction in a wonderful graphic.  (Click on the image to get a larger view.)

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I came home from 3 weeks in London to find a Pottery Barn catalogue waiting for me.

Here, I thought, was just the place you might expect to find a steam punk reference…whatever other cultural trends might come swimming into view.  I began to read.

The results were vexing in the way this kind of work is so often vexing.  There was both no evidence and some evidence of steampunk  in the Pottery Barn catalog.

No, there is no explict reference verbal or visual.  No helmet made of  leather, studs, and brass fittings.  No science fiction weaponry as if designed by a Victorian.  No elaborate time pieces that somehow look to be, mysteriously, steam operated.   No glasses that look like something lifted from a 19th century optometrist.  There was nothing obviously, unmistakably out of the Steampunk design handbook.

And that’s a pity.  These catalogs, stemming perhaps from the brilliant early work by Stephen Gordon for his Restoration Hardware catalogs, now have range they didn’t have in the Sears Roebuck days.  The contemporary catalog lets in lots of things in addition to the product.  Things are staged beautifully and with great care.  So it’s not inconceivable for a Pottery Barn to include a Steampunk helmet or watch for illustrative, evocative, purposes.

Still the fact that there is no explicit reference to Steampunk is NOT evidence that there is no Steampunk influence.  I think you can see it in the color pallet, in the mad scientist theme, in the laboratory.  As follows:

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In point of fact, something happens to trends as they move from the margin to the mainstream.  They are obliged to give up some of their defining features.   This is a little like the social climber who is obliged to give up some of her friends if she wants to rise.  To include a Steampunk helmet would mean quoting an aspect of the  trend that is too strange and wonderful for the average American household (at least the kind who shop at Pottery Barn).  (If I may voice a note of skepticism against this argument, there is something pretty strange about the skulls.  The American household is perhaps less timid than we think.)

This necessary “gearing down” of the trend is the reason that early adopters often disdain the trend as it enters the mainstream.  Clearly, it’s been diminished or “dumbed down.”  Or to put this another way, the trend must give up some of its extreme characteristics to find a larger audience.  In a word, it must be dedorkified.  (In effect, this reverses the work of the enthusiastic early adopters / inventors who delight in dorkifying the trend in the first place.  I think we can probably agree that the whole issue of dorkification deserves more careful study.)

Trends are Diderot packs.  They are a bundle of ideas, aesthetics, materials, colors, shapes, motifs.  Not all of these are welcome on the voyage from margin to mainstream.  Some will move on.  Others will fall behind.  And this may help explain why the signature pieces of the Steampunk look are not in evidence by the Pottery Barn catalog. Indeed, the absence of these things are exactly what we would expect of Steampunk in this new context.  In sum, the absence of proof is, in a sense, proof of proof.  As it were.

So now we have a problem.  The most defining design signatures, the ones we can used as proof of a trend’s diffusion, are, in some cases, the very things that will be “edited out” by the diffusion process.   It’s not that the Steampunk influence is not there in the Pottery Barn catalog.  But there can be no influence unless it is in a sense rendered invisible.

All of this suggests we need a more robust methodology for identifying a trend in motion.  Perhaps some combination of colors, shapes, objects, with a statistical feeling for how far from random is the presence of certain elements especially in certain combinations.  This tool might enable us to say that our intuitive feeling that the Pottery Barn catalog is in places “pretty Steampunkish” has foundation…because the copresence of these colors, objects and shapes is precisely x far from random.  Naturally we would to examine all the Pottery Barn catalogs and see if we can show when the trend enters the catalogs and whether this corresponds to what we know about the development of the trend itself.

Trends have internal dynamics.  We also know that whether and how fast they move through the social world depends on a set of diffusion dynamics that we are relatively good at thinking about.  (My own modest contribution can be found here.)

But our work as students of the trend is not complete until we create a model of all the trends, and all the decisive economic, historical, social, demographic, technical, digital, and other factors that make up the context in which the trend flourish (or fail).

So was IBM right?  Is the planet called Steampunk exercising a tidal pull on the oceans of contemporary culture?  Reader, you decide.

Word herds: are they changing and why?

Get_On_Up_posterRichard Corliss describes Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in Get On Up as something that “radiates sex, drive, menace and spirit.”

Oh, I thought, that’s kinda new.  Normally, a series like this (“sex, drive, menace and spirit”) would have a little more redundancy.  The “word herd” repeated itself to aid comprehension.  In effect, the terms in the word herd meant roughly the same thing.

Words in the herd might even be near or actual synonyms.  Thus the performance might be said to be “deft, subtle, nuanced.”  The first term sets up the meaning, the last one spikes it.  (To use a volleyball metaphor.)

But these days it is much more likely to see word herds that are diverse, with meanings working not together but happily in opposition.  Each word does it’s own work.  These word herds are heterogeneous.  If terms used to be synonyms, now they are a little closer to antonyms.  And the pleasure of reading comes less from going “Oh, that’s what she means.  Got it.” to having to read the whole thing through, admiring the bumper-car effect of unruly language.  Good writers aim for whip lash.

The methodological question: could we examine a large body of texts and see if indeed word herds are changing?  The tricky part, I’m guessing, picking word herds out of millions of words of text.  If this problem can be solved, then the question is whether there is some technique for judging the semantic distance between terms.  What we are looking for, for the sake of this suspicion, is a “before” with relatively little distance and an “after” with lots of it.

Not to rush things, but I think there probably confirmation is waiting to happen.  And not to really rush things, but my guess is that word herds are more heterogeneous for the same reason that so many things in our culture are more heterogeneous.

If once we were monolithic as a social and a cultural order, now we are various.  And we are learning to live with this variousness.  Homogeneous word herd are really training wheels of a kind.  They were designed help us grasp the meaning of a text.  And now they feel like a tedium tax the author is forcing upon us, as an unreasonable condition of entry.

It does feel like everyone is getting smarter.  Certainly, and against the odds, popular culture is getting smarter and this lifts all boats.  But the reason might be there in the everyday act of thinking.  There was a time when we staggered beneath a weight of unanswered questions.  Yes, we could go to the library and find an encyclopedia, but, Dude, really?  All that indeterminacy created, to shift my metaphor, a film, a gauze.  Meaning was hard to see.  Distinctions hard to make.  So it was left to the author to make everything clear, definite and precise.  Got it?

Got it???  How laborious.  Now that we can answer almost any question almost instantaneously, some of that film is gone.  The world is windexed.  The homogeneous word herd just feels like we are being struck about the head and shoulders by a schoolmaster who resents the fact that we are more interested in stray and playful meanings than his lesson plan.  This is language acting like genre, setting up meaning over and over again to remove all doubt…in the process removing all surprise.  We don’t need training wheels.  Not any more.

This is a question for people with methodological skills I do not have.  Maybe Tom Anderson  might care to have a look.  Or perhaps Russ Bernard might have a student who cares to take this on.   Please, if you have a way of solving this problem, sing out!

“Don’t Peggy Olson me, mother f-ckers”

Peggy_Olson_Wiki

I have been doing ethnographies in London for a couple of weeks.  And the great thing about ethnographies is that things do pour in.

In one interview, the respondent told me about a phrase now poised to serve as a rallying cry in contemporary culture and the corporation.

Here’s the background.

Neko Case, the singer from the Pacific Northwest, was given an award recently.  Playboy congratulated her in a patronizing way and Case let fly.  Someone rebuffed her and Case rebuffed them.

Here it is play by play, tweet by tweet:

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See the fuller context here.

My respondent says she hears the “Don’t Peggy Olson Me” phrase at work more and more.

What a thoroughly contemporary artifact.  A show appears called Mad Men.  It’s an old media contemplation of an age gone by.  It features a character who comes to stand for the status of women in the present day.  An artist used the character’s name as a verb to object to her treatment.  Hey presto, a new media meme is born, and spoken language is a phrase richer.  An issue (feminism) that has lost some of its standing in the public agenda is returned to visibility.  The heat of people’s anger is reregistered, reemphasized.

This is contemporary culture, and its various wheels within wheels spinning as usual ferociously, with meaning skipping from old media to new media and back into the public eye.

One anthropological, the chief culture officer, question is how far will this phrase spread?  At the moment, it is too small to show on Google Trends.  I have asked a couple of people in London to let me know if it reaches them.

But I think we can still use Google Trends as a diffusion monitor.  It is possible when searching a term to subscribe to a weekly report on the term.  In this case, there is no report, but subscribing will, I hope, alert to me if and when the numbers for this phrase get more robust.

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I can’t find a way to draw on an image within WordPress, but see “Subscribe” in bold in the upper-right-hand corner of this clip.

It’s never occurred to me before to treat people as detectors, as trip wires, and ask them to report when they first hear a phrase.  That plus a Google Trend, should help a little to show us how fast this social innovation is traveling.

I would be grateful if readers who’ve heard the phrase would let us know when and where they did.  If you haven’t heard the phrase, it would be great if you could report back when you do.

London

my fox, my Syd

Apologies for having been off air for so long.

I’ve been sprinting to complete research in London.  I am presenting the results today.

The good news: the deck is done.  The bad news: so is the presenter.  So we will see how it goes.

But I did want to share this photo.  It was taken yesterday in the late afternoon.  It shows a Fox, a Red Fox, I think, taking a nap not 60 yards from the place I am staying in Clerkenwell.

Clerkenwell turns out to be an endlessly interesting place to stay.  I recommend it for your next trip to London.  I would give you a quick account here, but I have to get back to buffing and polishing the presentation.  Or at least weeding out the typos.  Oh, for a nap in the afternoon sun!

Trend watch: big weddings in decline?

(Photo by Lyndsey Goddard. See more of her wonderful work here.)

At the VCU Brandcenter last week, Gautam Ramdurai gave a dazzling display of the tools that Google puts at our disposal when it comes to tracking trends.

This weekend I looked at weddings.

By one reckoning, weddings account for $52 billion of expenditure in the US.  And most of it goes to local “mom and pop” operations: florist, caterers, photographers, seamstresses, musicians and planners.  That makes weddings a mighty engine of our local economies.

Here’s what I got from Google Trends:

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These data are interesting because almost no one else seems to be talking about a decline in the industry.  In fact, most of the chatter on line describes a wedding industry that scales ever upward.

There is some small journalistic encouragement for the “decline” argument.  Writing for the NYT, Helaine Olen says,

The lower-key wedding, if still a bit unexpected, is having a moment…

Turning to everything from public parks to the living rooms of friends and family, couples are recreating the traditional wedding one ceremony at a time. […]

The Wedding Report, a market research firm, has been tracking the change, noting that in the last year, couples participating in the company’s surveys have increasingly reported a desire for “fun, romantic, simple, casual and unique weddings.”

Vendors concur.

“The backyard is the new ballroom,” said Amy Kaneko, an events planner in San Francisco.

Stacy Scott, a caterer in Marin County, Calif., added, “I think people are waking up to the insanity that is the wedding market.”

Still, it would be wrong to rush to conclusions.  The Google Trend data is merely suggestive.  (Google searches for these topics may be falling because there is now an “oral culture” shared by friends that supplies the knowledge and contacts needed to stage a wedding.  Hence the decline in searches for “wedding planner.”)  And the New York Times story may merely report the exceptions made vivid by the larger trend.

But let’s say there is a trend here.  Let’s say weddings of the “hang the expense, let it rip, more is always better, nothing less than sumptuous will do” kind are in decline.

There is LOTS to think and say about this trend.  “Big weddings in decline” is a trend that must have many causes and many effects.  (I fear especially for those local economies.)

I will leave it to commenters to dig into the cause or effect of their choice. And, yes, if necessary, to insist that I am delusional and that there is no evidence that the big wedding is in any kind of peril.

Robot rescue! Who should we send into the uncanny valley?

Minerva-Terrace-Bicycle-Corps-001Who should we sent into the uncanny valley?  I believe anthropologists might be the right people for the job.

Wait, what’s an uncanny valley again?  As robots become more like humans, the response from humans is positive.  But as robots begin to close the gap, suddenly humans react with revulsion.  There is something chilling about a creature who is near human but not quite human enough.

A vague resemblance is good.  Something like perfect identity is good.  But in between, when the robot is very like a human but still identifiably different, that’s when we put our foot down.  That’s when we get our backs up.  That’s when we find repudiating robots and insisting on their exile in the uncanny valley.

It turns out that anthropologists are good at the uncanny valley.  After all, we spend our time looking at how humans construct and then navigate a world of meaning.  So we are alert to the small signals and involuntary communications with which humans inform other human beings about their intentions and inclinations.    A lot of this is uncanny in another sense.  It’s astounding how good we are at picking up signals that are barely visible. These are the things that robot makers find extremely difficult to program in.

To read subtle signals is the work of anthropology because it’s such a big part of humanhood.  People who can’t send signals or read them are tragic figures.  They are adrift in the very communities that locate and secure the rest of us.  They are lost in social space.  The rest of us are as satellites constantly sending and receiving GPS signals to figure out where we are relative to every thing and one else.

Incidentally, this is why we are so very interested in Autism at the moment.  Some people are bad at signaling but as Aspies  they find themselves in positions of wealth and influence because they possess other,  extraordinary powers of pattern recognition.  And this is a lovely paradox to reckon with and the reason that no fewer than five TV show that feature Aspies (including Bones, The Bridge, and The Big Bang Theory).  Generally, the digital world of innovation and code writing is a world the Aspie finds as transparent as human communities remain opaque.  (Let’s take the character Peter Gregory [as played by the recently departed Christopher Evan Welch] in the HBO show Silicon Valley as a case in point.)

So anthropologist are, I would argue, exactly the people most fit for the uncanny valley.  They are peculiarly well suiting to helping with the programming and design that can help bring robot across the valley and into the human community as fully welcome, integrated parts of it.  (editor!)

Anthropologists are good at phatic communication.  These are the little sounds we give off.  A sigh, a groan, a laugh.  Phatic communication signals our emotional and social condition.  Crucial to human relationships, but tough for programmers because it is in some engineering communities classified as “exhaust data.”  (See my investigation of this problem here.)  Robots are going to have to give off phatic signals.  So we are going to have to consult the anthropologist on this one, not the engineer.

Anthropologists are also masters of sprezzatura.  This is a big piece of human communications.  It consists in the art of learning some social convention and then making it look absolutely natural.  This is a matter of concealing art with art, as Castiglione would say.  (See by treatment of the idea here.)  These social conventions are necessarily hard to see, because the community has deliberately concealed their existence and use.  Again, it makes sense to call in the Anthropologist.

Anthropologist are good at all the signals that have been deliberately removed from view.  One of the reasons that on line meetings (telepresence) has not taken off that many bosses exert their veto power through small signals.  For instance, they may signal their disapproval of an idea by leaning back ever so slightly in their chair.  Subordinates spot this signal…or perhaps it is better to say they sense it…and the idea is nixed.  Again, this sort of thing is generally missing from robot programming.

Finally, anthropologists are good at contradiction, at the ways humans entertain conflicting thoughts and emotions, and give off mixed signals.  And this contradiction is the sort of thing that offends the very soul of a certain kind of engineer.

Of course, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to help out here.   Michael Silverstein at the University of Chicago used to talk about people who were simply supernaturally gifted at social communication.  Not surprisingly they end up in senior management, in sales, in teaching, in marketing, anywhere where their ability serves them to aid in the task of communications.   It’s also probably to that novelists should be particularly useful here.   Show runners like Beau Willimon (House of Cards), and Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) would be superb as well.  After all, they use social signals to help us construct interior conditions and social interactions.

So you don’t have to be an anthropologist.  But it helps I think if you are.  You are trained to understand the uncanny valley.   Here’s a very partial list.  Apologies to all I have excluded!  Ken Anderson, Katarina Graffman, Jane Fulton Suri, Mark Dawson, Charles Starrett, Robbie Blinkoff, Rita Denny, Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Emilie Hitch, German Dziebel, Miriam Lueck Avery, Amy Santee, Richard Wise, Patricia Sachs Chess, Phil Surles, Morgan Gerard, Melissa Cefkin, Susan Menke, to name a few.  Ok, a lot.  (People missing from this list are going to be so mad at me.  Apologies all around.)  These people can help us across the uncanny valley.

Image:

“Bicyclists’ group on Minerva Terrace. [Lt. James A. Moss’s company of 25th Infantry, U. S. Army Bicycle Corps, from Fort Missoula, Montana.] YNP.”  October 7, 1896.

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