Decentralization & anthro

I was just reading Scott Rosenberg’s account of the SuperNova conference in Palo Alto (at

The Decentralization conference was designed to ask Howard Rheingold’s question in Smart Mobs. What happens when you get lots of people with wireless devices and constant access to their own and one another’s blogs?

There is an anthropological answer: new and extraordinary opportunities for social and cultural observation, thousands of people doing the anthropology of contemporary culture on line in real time.

To observe the world is to change it. Who is going to wear that new Gap scarf a second time? Not when it is spotted in every Starbucks in the North America, the day it hits the market.

The chatter will be interesting:

“So who else is seeing that scarf with multi colored blocks about 3 inches wide that run down a scarf that’s about 6 feet long.”

“One just walked in here.”

“Shit, there’s another.”

Scarves will go from novelty to cliche in a day.

Hollywood warms to Transformation

Steven Spielberg and DiCaprio are about to release a film called Catch Me If You Can, a treatment of a con man who works his con by transforming himself into a succession of characters.

Transformation (the book on this site) argues that Hollywood shows more and more interest in transformational themes, especially when it takes the form of a character who plays many characters.

I use these films as my cases in point: Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt), Multiplicity (1996, Harold Ramis), Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), eXistenZ, (1999, David Cronenberg), Passion of the Mind (2000, Alain Berliner), The Family Man (2000, Brett Ratner), Me Myself I (1999, Pip Karmel), Down to Earth (2001, Chris and Paul Weitz), Possible Worlds (2000, Robert Lepage), The One (2001, James Wong), The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

The thing about Hollywood and a lot of popular culture is that, because it is governed by the market place, it represents more than an act of imagination. Any given film is a bet. When the bet is wrong, studios lose money, stars lose some of their brilliance and directors, some of them, never work again.

So far transformation has been a risky bet. Many of the films on my list have failed or “underperformed.”

But Hollywood continues to make the bet. If you add up all the budgets for these films, the bet now comes out to $447 million.

We can also say that the following actors have bet a chunk of their careers: Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Demi Moore, Nicolas Cage, Rachel Griffiths, Chris Rock, Tom McCamus, Jet Li, Matt Damon, and Leo DiCaprio.

The way to think about it anthropologically, I think, is to say that Hollywood can hear transformation has a new imperative in popular culture, but, like the rest of us, it is having a hard time figuring out how to treat the theme.

a conversation with Maria on what makes a good blog

a discussion about what makes a good blog

that turns on the idea that good blogs might come from a single, consistent persona on the part of the blogger OR from the multiplicity of the blogger, OR possibly from both.

Thanks to Maria for giving me permission to quote her.

Continue reading

Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe is a convention is some ways, a puzzle in others.

He is one of the journalists, now directors, who is particularly good at treating contemporary culture both as observer and participant.

He’s a puzzle because he seems to have an invisble centre of gravity. How for instance did he managed to cover the counter culture of the 60s without tipping into it. How did he, at 15 no less, manage to keep the company of rock stars on the road without beginning to see his profession and his paper (Rolling Stone) as the corruptions the age now scorned.

He did the same same thing with the movie Say Anything (1989). Here he was reporting Seattle culture (before it was official). This too was a counter culture that treated Hollywood as a corruption, the very thing alternative values were designed to encourage us to repudiate.

So the mystery is this: how did he get close enough to capture without getting close enough to repudiate the media (rock journalism and hollywood movies) he was capturing with.

Is it something to do with being a Californian…so persuaded that popular culture is it that you persevere with it even in the face of values that reject it?

Rules Broken

From today’s email version of PC Magazine

“You can learn a surprising amount by taking just a moment to read what one of the most influential voices in our industry has to say. Editor-in-chief Michael J. Miller weighs in on this year’s technically excellent products…”

This piece of popular culture reveals a rule of popular culture…by breaking it.

1) “just taking a moment.” There is something simultaneously pleading and patronizing here. And the pop culture rhetoric says, never plead and never patronize. You can’t appear to need the reader and you especially can’t appear to know better.

2) “you can learn a surprising amount.” Never tell the reader what’s good for them. They will decide this for themselves.

3) “one of the most influential people in the industry.” Be careful how you self promote. They will decide Miller’s standing for themselves.

At the very least, this rhetoric turns on a delicate negotiation of standing. Writers may not dare to plead, patronize, or know better. They must respect the autonomy of the reader.


Hack, the new prime TV drama for CBS is in trouble. They’ve decided to give it some time to take. It’s going to take awhile.

Hack has the advantage of having David Morse as its lead character. Here’s an actor who works the small facial gesture with virtuoso control, every tick and grimace and smile and shrug of unhappiness tied to the scene, and so transparent of the character’s emotional life, that it’s worth the price of admission, and carries the rest of the show.

The damp napkin, the one on which someone sketched out the original vision of the show, is still visible: gritty plus heartwarming, new age hopefulness meets street-slick, mean-street, cynicism. An angel from on high dressed up in low end noir.

The trouble is that the show is obliged to be more new age than noir. Nothing bad can happen here. This is the new age “promise” as this has been inscribed in a number of pop culture productions (e.g., Highway to Heaven, Touched By An Angel). This means that a show that has opened up dramatic opportunities by its inhabitations of the mean streets of Philadelphia and actors of the standing of Morse and Andre Braugher, must confine itself to the happy and the heart warming and the reassurance that, really, the universe is inhabited by forces of goodness.

TV has got a little better at exploring the complexity and contraction of its characters. Dennis Franz is one obvious case in point. Tony Soprano, an another. And this year we have seen a couple of shows (i.e., The Shield) in which the protagonist is obviously flawed. And “noir” was dedicated to this premise, one of the first pop cultural productions to escape the “niceness” trap of mainstream entertainment.

Hack is, finally, a tragic figure, not on the screen but in the script, the captive of a contradiction. The interest of the show comes finally from watching it wrestle with its demons. And this is one of the interesting things about popular culture, that we are engaged as much by what we imagine off screen as we do what’s on.