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:

Ember Ember




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.


“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.

Artisanal Trend Timeline

I gave my Culture Camp in London last week.  I feel a little like a peddler producing my new array of household cleaners and brushes.   “Here’s a lovely notion no planner or strategist should be without!”

Here’s one slide that people seemed to find useful.

Artisanal Trend Timeline G. McCracken II

(Apologies if WordPress compresses this slide too much.  Try clicking on it for a larger view.)

The idea was to show trends in motion.  The events picked out in blue represented the pre-artisanal era, the period in which we liked our food fully industrial and the more artificial the better.

(In Camp, we talk about all the machinery perfected for the war effort applied in the late 40s and 50s to food, and the great explosion of prepared food and fast food brands, including of course Tang, that utterly artificial foodstuff endorsed by astronauts!)

Then the reaction, the repudiation, of artisanal food begins with the counter culture and the emergence of the person who was to be the goddess of the new movement, Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse, the one that was to prove the beachhead of the new movement.  Waters and CP brought a new idea into the world and then sent a diaspora of chefs and enthusiasts who went out into the world to colonize it in the name of the artisanal.

And then comes the reaction to the reaction.  Those events picked out in green are harbingers of the new, as new innovations and inclinations rise up to propose new approaches to food.  This is not to say the artisanal trend will disappear.  Some of its transformative effects have changed us forever.  But a new perspective will emerge, and it will set in train a great revolution in chefs, restaurants, TV shows, cooking magazines, and food culture generally.  And it will change the way we are eating in a decade or so.  At this point, all we have are “faint signals.”

As readers of this blog now, I am looking for more sophisticated ways of looking at culture.  We need these devices if we are to make sense of the great turbulence of our culture.  But I think they also help us clarify culture for clients for whom it is mysterious.  I think this Artisanal Trend Timeline is a good way to say, “Ok, here’s the bigger picture.  This is why we believe you should be primed to launch product X at moment Y.”

If you are interested in attending the Culture Camp, please let me know at grant27ATgmailDOTcom.  The next one will be in New York City possibly in the late summer.

If you want a high rez version of this slide, send me an email at the same address.

Secrets of charisma from Iggy Azalea

I came back from London  yesterday.  As the jet-lag began to lift, I  thought:

“What happened in American culture while I was gone?”

First stop, VH1 where I saw this new video from Ariana Grande.   Grande is so lovely she makes Audrey Hepburn look like an awkward teenager with problem skin and unfortunate hair.

But watch the video and note the performance by Iggy Azalea who comes in at the 1:50 mark.

Doesn’t Iggy, with roughly a third the video, end up owning it?  Somehow, she delivers charisma while Ariana ends up looking quite a lot like Hepburn in some of her lesser roles, lovely but insubstantial.


The secret is I think clear.  Iggy doesn’t care if we like her.  At 2:22, she does that  “Like, what?” and wrinkles her nose, but that’s the only time she courts our approval.  The rest of the time, the attitude is “aren’t you ever so lucky to be watching this video?”

EmberAriana on the other hand flirts with the camera with a steady flow of entreaties and ingratiations.  Several gestures are meant to emphasize how little and unthreatening she is.  (As if she could be any smaller or less threatening.)

EmberWhile in England, I had a chance to catch up with Peter Collett, a friend from years ago.  (Thank you, John Deighton for putting us back in touch.)  Peter is perhaps the world’s ranking expert in matters of non verbal behavior and I leave it to him to have a look at the video and this blog, and sort things out for us.

Watch this space for Peter’s remarks.

Peter (to whom, devout thanks!) writes:

“Grant, you’re absolutely right about Ariana’s flirtatious signals.   There are far too many to mention, but let’s look at three of them:

  • First there Ariana’s “eye-popping” – when she looks into the camera she frequently widens her eyes.  This makes her look more baby-like, which is why we instinctively feel protective towards her—just as movie audiences did towards Audrey Hepburn, who used the very same eye-popping gesture.

  • Then there’s the “neck-show”, where Ariana tilts her head back or sideways in order to expose her neck.  This is a submissive gesture because it draws attention to a highly vulnerable part of her body and shows that she’s unthreatening.

  • Finally there’s Ariana’s repeated face-touching.  People frequently touch their face when they’re feeling unsure about themselves.  When they do this in our presence it boosts our confidence.  In this context it’s therefore a subtle way of making viewers of the video feel good about themselves.  But let’s not forget that face-touching also acts as a “pointer” – a means of directing viewers’ attention, in this case, to a soft and inviting part of the body.  Did you notice that the male singer also touches his mouth repeatedly during the video? – partly to indicate that he’s not trying to steal the show, but also to mimic Ariana and suggestively advertise what’s on offer.”

Splendid.  Thank you, Peter.

Clearly, it’s more than nonverbal behavior.  Iggy uses a hip hop idiom where Ariana confines herself to a music from which everything vivid or powerful has been deliberately removed.

As a last note, I found this version of the Iggy Azalea Clueless remake (aka Fancy) online and I was stunned to see how much clearer the audio track is.  This is the “explicit” version of the video and I think the means that the “tame” version of the video was created by “graying out” the offensive terms.  This technique, versus removing or replacing, is weird and interesting.  I think.

Oh my god!

iggy-azalea-clueless-2Does anyone know the origins of this exclamation?

Does anyone know when it rose to such prominence?

Does anyone know why this phrase (and not some other) is so popular at the moment?

I did a very quick search and came up with this:

Jonathan Quayle Higgins from the TV show “Magnum P.I.” apparently said it a lot.

It also featured in the movie Clueless.

Any other thoughts?

Culture Camp London June 13 (and an apology)

men on brooklyn bridgeApologies for the radio silence.  I have been running flat out.

I just presented some of my work in Washington.  I can’t talk about this and it’s just killing me.   This anthropologist has never presented in circumstances  so exalted.   I hope I will some day be free to give you the details.  Stay tuned

The work for Netflix continues.  And it’s absorbing.  And really interesting.  On Thursday I’m going to Austin for the ATX conference.  I’ll be hosting a panel.  Please drop by and day “hi.”

I am also working on the Culture Camp for London.   That’s Friday  June 13th.

First, a note of apology.  For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time, I chose to describe the camp as something designed for “cultural creatives” and to some English readers this suggested that this course was designed for creatives who make advertising.

My mistake.  This course is for students of culture, planners, strategists, innovators and ethnographers.  And yes, in the second half we will talk about how we can use your knowledge of culture to make culture.

The First Half: Mapping Culture

The first half of the Camp will review of the big trends reshaping our lives, markets, and culture.  We will look at the transformation of house, home, and family, the artisanal revolution in the world of food, what happened to “status” and “cool” as drivers of our culture (specifically, how they got extinguished and what replaces them), the revolution in the way we define women, the rise and role of old media and new.

You know those programs on PBS that shows us the coast line of Scotland from a low flying plane.  That’s what the first half is going to be like, American and Western culture as if from a Piper Cub aircraft traveling at 12,000 feet.  The whole thing (more or less) laid out before you.  We will talk about how you can build your own “radar” to track changes in this culture.

The Second Half:  Making Culture

The second half of the Camp is going to be really hands on.  It is one thing to know about our culture.  It’s another to begin making culture, in the form of design, advertising, innovation, story telling.

As far as I know, there is no handbook that shows what we do when we act as “meaning makers.”  And this is a pity, because what the ad person has learned about creating culture in the form of an ad can serve the designer who is creating culture in the form of a brand.

We will talk about cultural arbitrage, and here we will talk about a recent video by Ingrid Michaelson, the comedy by Amy Schumer, the TV of Beau Willimon, the design work of Warby Parker, and the  advertising by Carmichael Lynch for Subaru.

We will be talking about the meaning making, the meme making of Old Spice, Pharrell, Volvo, Apple, Oreo, Microsoft and others.

And we will be talking about the new rules of storytelling.  TV is effectively become a laboratory for the reinvention of story telling.  This gives me a chance to draw on my Netflix work to show how story telling is changing and what the new rules are.

This is a “vista” opportunity, a chance to see the what and the how of culture in a new, more systematic way.

So, please do come join us.  Here’s the link.

new ways to make culture and discover value