Tag Archives: gender

Tinderbox: Building an ingenuity machine

2476581071_7a55c565ddSeveral weeks ago, Mark Bernstein announced the latest Tinderbox, the “tool for notes.”

I almost always sign up for these updates.

I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.

I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”

And that’s as close as I get to Tinderbox until the next edition rolls out.

This post is an attempt to figure out why the idea of Tinderbox continues to thrill me even when the reality never quite delivers. (I say this with all due respect to Mark. The problem, I’m sure, is mine.)

For me, the best description of Tinderbox comes from Naupaka Zimmerman who, when asked on Quora for a ‘simplest explanation,’ said this,

I think Tinderbox is most powerful for mapping ideas out of your mind and into something digital, especially when those ideas are not fully structured yet. If you have ideas and they are already all in order, you could use a simple text editor to make an outline, for example. Tinderbox is where to put thoughts when you don’t know where they go yet, or how they fit together. (my emphasis, full context here.)

This would make Tinderbox very valuable indeed. We live in an era that prizes innovation, that roils with dynamism. As a result, we are surrounded by ideas we struggle to identify and classify. We don’t “know where they go yet.” We can’t say “how they fit together.”

The app that helps us see where things “go” and how they “fit” would be useful. The app that suggest new categories and new combinations would be a very great gift.

Tinderbox does let me “pin” idea fragments. I can move them around. I can tag them. I can group them. I can look for new relationships.

But rarely does Tinderbox help me see the forest in the trees. So far it’s pretty much all just trees.

To put this in anthropological language, I want Tinderbox that gets me out of my categories. Categories are the units into which a culture identifies, distinguishes and organizes the world. They are the infrastructure of thought, if you want. They are the architecture of consciousness.

It is cultural categories that make the world look one way to an Ethiopian and another to a New Yorker. It’s categories that make the world look one way to someone from the upper east side and another to someone from Brooklyn. Think of categories as a grid. Hold up the Ethiopian grid and the world looks one way. Hold up the Brooklyn grid and it looks another. (Caveat lector: not a perfect metaphor.)

Categories are a big part of the box out of which everyone is constantly asking us to get. In this sense, categories are the enemy. They help us think, but they take us captive. To use the fashionable managerial lingo, categories are the reason we have such a hard time finding “blue oceans” and avoiding disruptions. They give sight and they take it away.

In a more perfect world, Tinderbox would enable us to escape our categorical, cultural schemes. It would take all those bits and pieces that we capture every day in the course of our excursions on line, and bring them into a series of relationships we have never seen before. This would really useful. New categories would form. New insights would swarm.

Think of this the way Granovetter thinks about networks. If I can be forgiven a too simple account of his interesting work on “the strength of weak ties,” Granovetter suggests that weak ties matter because they are the bridges across which novel information moves. (Strong ties are less likely to be this conduit because they exist between people who come from the same world and tend to know the same things.)

Granovetter is talking about social networks but his thinking applies, at least metaphorically, to information. Culture creates silos the way networks do. It puts like with like. That’s why we need “weak ties” here too. We need some way of bringing things from disparate categories together. Sometimes, the result will be unthinkable. But sometimes it will force a new category or a new reflection on a old category. This would make Tinderbox an ingenuity machine. As it is, Tinderbox has a way of encouraging my existing categories.

Steve Crandall has great stories about lunch time at Bell Labs. Someone would start talking, and a couple of people would slap their foreheads and run from the room. Ideas were leaping unbidden from one discipline to another. As it turns out, the only thing needed to provoke this “unofficial” transit of ideas was a lunch table.

The question is whether and how Tinderbox could serve as a lunch table. If only it would take the things I post to Ember, Evernote and Instagram and bring them together into novel, provocative, difficult, extra-categorical combination. If only it could promote new categories

As a completely non-rigorous test, I just reached into Ember and found three images sitting side by side. (I didn’t search. I just grabbed.) Images go into Ember in no particular order, so this “grab” is close to a random sort. (The overall category is “images that captured the attention of an anthropologist studying American culture” so it’s quite broad.)

Here’s are the 3 images I came up with.

screenshot-2016-02-29-at-1-05-02-pm-e1456780007526

First, this image from an Android ad. I love this campaign for the little phrase you see here. “Be together, not the same” is one of the best things produced by the advertising, branding world in a long while. (Hat’s off to Robert Wong, the Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Labs who is the author of this line or at least present at its birth.) It captures where we are now as a social world. It asks for unity without a compromise of diversity.

Then I found this. Sitting, innocently, beside the Android clipping was this photo of a sculpture in Mexico City. It’s Diana, goddess of the hunt.

diana mexico city - Google Search

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Mexico CityI was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I kept driving past Diana here held high on Reforma boulevard as if by many streams of water. My Diana is the one from Ovid, the goddess who kills Actaeon for discovering her in the wild. He’s a mortal. She’s a goddess. He may not look upon her. (The part Ovid must have liked: Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer. He is hunted and killed by his hounds.) I assume the statue has its own significance for Mexico and Mexicans. I never did figure out what. (Some Mexicans, it turns out, aren’t sure either. The trouble may be that Diana is many creatures with many meanings.)

And then I got this.

About Madewell - Learn More About Madewell - Madewell

I clipped it from the Madewell website as an interesting glimpse of the way one brand seeks to speak to one group of consumers, women with a quite particular sensibility. (An anthropologist is always looking for things that capture a particular way of thinking about, in this case, clothing and gender.) This went first into amber and then into Ember.

So now we have three images. All somehow caught the interest of an anthropologist, but they are otherwise unrelated to one another. Our Tinderbox “sort” invites us to imagine how they could go together.

The most obvious category is feminism. The opening image gives us one statement of our diversity. The second and third give us evocations of things that both express and propel our feminism. Diana is a feminist hero. Madewell clothing is one way our culture now expresses femaleness for some people some of the time. The Android tag line asks us to remain one community even as we continue to refashion gender and multiply our social identities.

This pretend spin of the Tinderbox wheel is, well, kinda interesting. But the outcome, (“feminism,” roughly) succeeds mostly in confirming a cultural category in my head. It doesn’t help me escape it. The trick is to look a little deeper and with this I find myself wondering whether I have quite honored Diana’s contribution.

What else does Diana bring to the Tinderbox sort? We could think of her less as a feminist hero and more as a warning. Actaeon dares do something mortals are forbidden doing. Hmm. Is there some correlate of this in contemporary culture? Who is Diana now and what would she object to? I think for a moment and then wonder if cultural creatives (in the Richard Florida occupational category) dare to engage in behavior that was once forbidden.

Culture creatives spend their lives trying to study, scrutinize, analyze, shape and reshape culture. We dare make and remake culture as if this were absolutely our right. And this is a marker of the world we’ve become, that we see culture as something that designers, anthropologists, writers, showrunners, studio executives, planners, strategists, app makers, software engineers, cultural creatives of every kind are entitled to have at. We even presume to give advice of every kind. (“Be together, not the same.”) We make free with culture and we make culture freely.

And it never occurs to us that this is daring behavior but I think there’s a good chance the practice makes us the odd ones out in the larger human story. I think a Victorian member of the middle class would have been astounded by our presumption. Culture was for admiring. It was for mastering. It wasn’t not for making, not at least by ordinary people. Poets, scholars, artists, yes. The rest of us, no. I think it’s unlikely that Roman centurion stationed in Gaul ended a grueling day building roads by composing fan fic versions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We don’t see that we engage in acts of Actaeon-scale presumption, but perhaps we do. And that means punishment, even Diana-scale punishment, for crimes of this order may have seemed not entirely out of the question, at least as a poetic conceit. (I am of course not serious when I propose there is something forbidden about cultural creativity. I embrace the idea because it is in the immortal words of Stanley Tambiah “good to think.” More to the point, it is “fun to think.”)

And this gets us somewhere. My Tinderbox sort has invited me to see something I used to take for granted. It gives me an opportunity to see “cultural creatives” not as unexceptional actors but as a daring, even transgressive ones. (Another clarification is called for here. I’m not talking about feminism as something transgressive. As an anthropologist, feminism is something that has been in the works for several hundred years. I’m surprised it took this long to transform us and I believe there is no likelihood that we will ever repudiate it. Feminism is here to say, and thank heavens.)

But is “transgressive creativity” this anything more than an odd idea? (Is it something more than a fanciful notion to add to that great collection of ideas with which we furnish our interior work shops?) Is there someone who believes that cultural creatives are transgressive? Is there anyone who would, Diana-like, punish them for this behavior?

Not at first glance. But when you think about it, you could say this is almost exactly what fundamentalists think (and threaten). Fundamentalists feel themselves captive of a culture filled with godless, immoral, reckless departures from the work and will of God. And if they thought about it in a detailed way (and for all I know some of them do) they would identify cultural creatives as precisely the people who are responsible for this systematic godlessness.

Hm. So is that it? Well, no. This Tinderboxian revelation leaves me with a problem…and a responsibility, even.

This is the place to ask ourselves whether any of us on the cultural creative side ever think to reach out to fundamentalists and encourage them to see the system, the genius, the good intentions of cultural creativity. I think the inclination of the cultural creative is to scorn fundamentalists as monstrously unsophisticated philistines “who just don’t get it (i.e., me).” But this is really not very empathic, or sophisticated, or cosmopolitan. It fails to see that, whether we like it or not, fundamentalists have a particular case to make. Most obviously, the “scorn” strategy destroys any hope of a rapprochement. If we cultural creatives really were liberal, they might be prepared to grasp the problem and commit to a solution. Scorn seems a little easy, a little glib.

The first order of business? Cultural creatives might want to demonstrate to fundamentalists that being “not the same” is not in fact a real threat to our ability to “be together.”

The second order of business? Cultural creatives might want to see if they can demonstrate to fundamentalists that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our cultural categories is NOT evidence that all hell has broken lose and that we are headed for moral collapse. We need to demonstrate (if we can and I think we can) that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our categories is another way of being a culture. It is another source for order.

One case in point here: gender categories. These categories were once quite clear. Men and women were frequently defined as mutually exclusive categories. In my (boomer) generation, men who displayed any female characteristics lost their claim to their masculinity. Gender (read “category”) conformity was policed with a terrible vigilance. Gender (read “category”) betrayal was punished savagely. Ours was a culture that terrorized people who did not honor their category into which conventional thinking (read “categorization”) had put them.

Gender categories have been rescued from this polarity. It’s no longer male / female. It’s now many kinds of maleness and femaleness, and lots of gender activity is substantially reinventing the possibilities. This transformation of the categories comes from many sources: Stonewall riots, feminism, the movies of Judd Apatow, TVs shows like Orange is the New Black, the LGBT movements. There are many forges for gender now.

To reach out to fundamentalists, this is to say, we will have to tell a historical, literary, anthropological story.

But let’s begin by giving fundamentalists their due. If you don’t have any way of thinking about gender categories except the conventional ones, it does rather look as if all hell has broken lose. We may scorn fundamentalists but from their point of view, chaos is upon us. From their point of view, sounding the alarm is the only sensible thing to do. Let’s be anthropological enough to grant that people are entitled to see the world as they do. And unless someone makes the argument to the contrary, they are entitled to revert to the traditional idea that only way to “be together” is to “be the same.” (And an Android ad is not enough to “bring them around.” Though frankly one of the reason I love this ad so much is that it does help, if only a tiny bit.)

So it’s up to us to make the anti-chaos case: that order can and does emerges from categories that are fluid, multiple and complex, that we can “be together” even when not the same.

Anyhow, whew! I can’t say this is a perfect exercise in ingenuity but my Tinderbox sort did help me think outside the categories that normally govern my thought. And this must be part of the reason why the idea of Tinderbox is so appealing. Imagine a software that helped us capture and combine notes in ways that can sometimes prove to be provocative of new categories.

Cultural Leaders and Laggards, the problem with beer ads

I love this ad.  How quickly bashful behavior gives way to full-on performance.  And how this disappears (when the woman enters the store). And then reappears (when it occurs to our singer that there is a small chance the strangers might actually come listen to him.)

Funny. Human. With lots of little grace notes. The store is brilliantly cast. The singer is that perfect combo of surprisingly good and still terrible.  The way the woman rolls her eyes in “whatever” dismissal when she enters the store to find a man singing.

Beer advertising has been the bad part of town when it comes to cultural creation and creative ingenuity.  TV with the advent of really good shows and new nuance has stolen the lead. Now it can be really painful to move from good narrative to bad advertising.

Beer advertising has been especially trying on the gender theme. As Bob Garfield has pointed out, beer ads treat men in a way that’s patronizing and diminishing. In a really symmetrical universe, men would protest this treatment with outrage and boycotts.  (Or at least roll their eyes in “whatever” dismissal.)

Beer advertising has been tone deaf when it comes to culture. Yes, some guys continue to act like dolts, and all guys treasure moments of deep, unapologetic stupidity at least some of the time. But beer advertising has to wake up and come to grips with the revolutions taking place in the world of maleness.

There are all kinds of things, a new feeling for play, wit, creativity, multiplicity and, yes, performance. Which brings us back to this Miller Lite ad which acknowledges this new development with just the right combo of tender heartedness and ruthless scorn. Very male that.  (Or maybe not.)

Hat’s off to MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England and  TBWA\Chiat\Day LA and director Matt Aselton of Arts & Sciences.

Women, power and popular culture

iu-1There’s a business school in the US in which female students routinely use the “interrogative lilt” when speaking in class.

This “lilt” turns assertions into questions. The phrase “this strategy looks promising” is made to rise at the end, becoming “this strategy looks promising?” The speaker is now asking for agreement instead of insisting on it.

In a business school!  If women are not learning to be forthright here, something is entirely wrong with the world.  I mean, really.

Popular culture continues to cultivate images that make woman look little, unassuming, unthreatening, unintelligent, and incapable.

Happily, some women are fighting back and using popular culture to redefine themselves. Videos from Ingrid Michaelson (Girls Chase Boys) and Meghan Trainor (All About That Base) give us two great cases in point.  But neither of these go after the “lilting” problem.

I am persuaded that this work will be done by actresses in the world of film and TV. They will portray women wielding power. They will show us how to transcend acts of deference.

The early days were frustrating.  Some actors would overcorrect. They “butch up” their performances but this had the unhappy effect of costing them nuance, as actors and as characters. There was a lot of growling and shouting.  But of course real power usually comes in a more subtle form (and is more effective for its subtlety).

But we are getting signs of a new approach.

In Murder in the First (TNT), Bess Rous as Ivana West and the acting CEO of Applsn confronts her boss.  She is leaving the company and wants to let him know.  He’s a world class bully and tries to intimidate her.  She doesn’t blink.  She doesn’t back down.  In a great performance of self possession,  Rous/West just doesn’t care. She meets his hostility with an attitude that sits somewhere between pity and contempt. No bluff, no rattling of arms. Just an implacable presumption that he doesn’t matter and that she does.  No lilting here. (Please could someone get this scene on YouTube.)

In episode 3 of The Killing (Netflix) we get Joan Allen (pictured) as the head of a military academy. And the pity of this performance is that it is designed to make her look a bit of a monster. But even as Allen satisfies this requirement of the role, she works in little grace notes everywhere. Which is to say this actress can deliver an overbearing authority and not lose control of subtle messages. This aspect of Allen’s art, the ability to assume authority without diminishes it or herself, was also on display in the Bourne Conspiracy.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary (in Madam Secretary, CBS) is giving us a variation on the theme. Her approach to power exhibits a light hand. Madam Secretary leaves no doubt that she has power and what she will do with it when dealing with people who disappoint her, but mostly she is alive to the humor and the ironies of the moment.  Call this a sprezzatura performance of power.It’s a welcome addition to our power vocabulary.  (Men have something to learn here.)

Compare this performance to the one being given in Homeland by Clare Danes as Carrie Mattheson.  This is a wonderfully ferocious “let it rip” approach to power. Clare/Carrie goes at it. (She succeeds in making the men around her look like time-serving careerists.)  This is sheer intensity, with no trace of ego or self aggrandizement.  (Men could learn something here too.)

Our culture is under reconstruction.  Gender, especially, is changing. And I think of all the ways the US qualifies as a “city on a hill,” as a prime mover in social progress, it’s surely here on the question of gender that we are most watched and most admired.

Big Bang Theory Theory (you should have one)

6486b283fb6900b4f3bea3d15906069bThe Big Bang Theory represents one of  the big puzzles for the student of popular culture.  It brings in 23 million viewers at a time when most shows would be happy to have half that number.

Big puzzles are important.  They represent anomalies so large and powerful that everyone is forced to pay attention.  In this superbly fragmented intellectual moment, they give us a problem in common.  Everyone should have a The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) theory (TBBTT).  

TBBTT can serve as a sorting device.  Searching for a question to ask a grad school candidate?  This is perfect.  “Tell me  why The Big Bang Theory is a success.” Either you have a good, interesting, original, powerful and nuanced answer.  Or you don’t.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Amanda Dobbins canvassed a number of experts to construct an answer to the The Big Bang Theory puzzle.  She captures several explanations.

1.  Casting: great, veteran actors (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper)
2.  Prized Time Slot: Thursday night
3.  CBS Factor:  Les Moonves is a genius
4.  Demographic reach of the show: loved by young and old
5.  Catchphrase: “Bazinga” allows TBBT to live outside the show
6.  Setting: the “French farce” advantages of the apartment house
7.  Setting: extraordinary efficacy of that couch as a comic platform
8.  Multi-camera format: and the intimacy it makes possible
9.  Pacing: Goldilocks’ perfection: not too brisk, not too slow
(this is a partial list)

I would have liked to have seen more on Chuck Lorre.  There can’t be any question that he’s a comic genius.  His gifts were on full display in Two and a Half Men but that show was loathed by some for the unapologetic low-brow, frat-boy, bro-ness of its humor.

And it’s almost as if Lorre was saying, “What, you think my humor depends on pandering to the lowest common denominator of male humor?  I can make anyone funny, even egg-head, anti-bros.  Just watch me.”  The Big Bang Theory may have been his “proof of genius” exercise.  Mission accomplished.

And I wanted more on the Sheldon Cooper character.  He is a deeply obnoxious human being.  And Dobbins notes how effective “monsters” can be for comedic purposes.  I wonder if the Parsons character doesn’t have Archie Bunker range.  We laugh at him.  We laugh with him.  We laugh at him and with him.

This would give the character his demographic breadth.   But it would also allow him to go to the heart of some of the issues, some of the contradictions, of our moment, and make them active, thinkable, graspable…not because Parson/Cooper resolves them as contradictions but because he lives them as contradictions…or we live them as viewers.  This is a moment when we have seen the cultural center of gravity move from heroic males to brainy ones, from creatures of mastery to creatures who are effective and influential in spite of (and some times because of) their social disabilities and eccentricities.  Sheldon Cooper may speak to some of the puzzles in our midst.

Finally, for me, and for all its virtues, the Dobbins’ treatment helps heighten the mystery.  All these factors seem right, but they don’t explain the success of this show.  Let’s be clear.  TBBT is a semiotic, political, cultural, entertainment miracle.  Mass media in the twilight of mass media.  A big show with extraordinary reach in an era where virtually every other show is smaller and more narrow in its appeal.  TBBT has bucked every trend, defied every tendency.  Explain this and other mysteries are perhaps revealed!

What is your TBBTT?

Bibliography

Find Dobbins’ essay here.

Feminism, how far?

LittleSnapperOver the weekend, I gave a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, my old stomping grounds.

My task: to cover some of the changes that have happened in culture since I left the ROM in the early 80s.

How our culture defines women, that has changed immensely.  But how immensely?  How far have we got.  I presented the following images as a way of suggesting that we have actually stopped defining women as women.

I ended this part of my talk with this slide:

Ember

 

And as I ended with this conclusion, a little voice in my head said “but is this true?”

It sounds plausible.  Even as it is riddled with problems.

Someone is sure to object that gender is defined by nature.  They are obliged to explain how many variations there are on the “women” theme in the world.

“Exactly!” others will say.  “There is no single way of being female, but there are 12 (or 120) variations.  So when you tell me someone is a woman, I can assume that she is defined by one of the 12 (120) variations.  So gender still defines identity.”  This might work.  It might be a better argument.

But I think if we look at the trajectory, it probably fair to say that we are at least moving towards a time when knowing that someone is a woman won’t tell us very much about her.

Here are the slides with which I set up the slide above.

charlies-angels-colors

I started  with Charlie’s Angels.  Remember.  These characters all came with an “identity.”  One was the sexy one.  One was the sporty one.  One was the classy one.  As if a woman had to choose.  (Or viewers were so dim, you didn’t dare confuse them with anything more complicated.)

Satc-sex-and-the-city-1282776-1280-1024

The next slide was this one: Sex and the City.  This characters are still defined by a kind of character genre.  (One is the sexy one.  One is the classy one.)  But the characters are more full blooded, more individuated.

Charlie-s-Angels-charlie-27s-angels-217248_1024_768

 

Next up, I used this slide.  When Charlie’s Angels was recast and presented as a movie, we got characters who were less defined by character (and gender) and still more individuated.

bachelorette07

Perfect.  These characters are not standing on ceremony.  They are not constrained by gender expectation.  They are not constrained by much of anything.

0101_HBO_Girls_S1_615x335

I ended with Girls.  These women are wrestling with gender issues to be sure.  But they are not much constrained by them.  As Mary Waters says of ethnicity in America: it’s a matter of choice, not biology, history or community.  These women have chosen who they are.  And they are largely and increasingly free to choose who they are.

And today we end with a new feature.  A poll to see what you think.  Please vote!

 

 

Contemporary culture: 25 years of change in 15 minutes

In the early 1990s, I founded and ran the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.

On Saturday, I’m going back to the ROM to reflect on some of the changes that have taken in culture in the last 25 years.

And it’s dizzying to see how much is now changing: the home and the family, the way we think about women, the revolution taking place in TV, the way we are now defining the self and the group.  (I have just 15 minutes to talk, so it’s a short list.)

As you will see, this presentation is  less about technology (the thing with which most people lead nowadays) and concentrates much more on the cultural changes that have taken place.  These are, I would submit, every big as large and astonishing as the tech changes.

You can see the presentation here on YouTube.   Like most everyone, my speaking style has shifted from too many words on the screen to images.  The burden of exposition falling to the speaker (me) when speaking (on Saturday).  Apologies when this makes the deck a little cryptic.  Please do come join us if you are in Toronto this weekend.

Women in combat…at the movies

Every time we renew the debate on women in combat, I think of the soldier in Aliens, rippling with muscles and attitude. 

A fellow soldier asks her,

“Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”

She turns and asks him cooly,

“No, have you?”

(See the full scene here.)  

I thought this might stand forever as the best response to a someone who dares challenge a woman’s abilities on the field of battle.

But then I saw the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where someone asks Cat woman,

“Hey, do those shoes make it hard to walk?”

She kicks the offender in the groin and asks,

“I don’t know.  Do they?”