Tag Archives: Richard Florida

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.

Will New York City go the way of the newspaper?

The digital effect rolls on. The record store has been vaporized by iTunes. Retail is being disintermediated by Amazon. The newspaper has been dealt a mortal blow by Craig’s list, the print magazine by PSFK, Huffington, etc.  Clearly, education is next.

No one talks about cities.  However natural they seem to anyone born in the 20th century, cities are arbitrary constructions.  They are predicated on the idea that humans must congregate and colocate.  But this idea is contingent.  A "face to face" connection matters only when there is no digital alternative.  

And now there is.  We can interact digitally.  You can be in a cab in Singapore and I can be in a cab in Philadelphia and our voices have real fidelity.  If we don’t need to be in motion, we can use the camera build into our computers, adding facial expressions to voice.

The fidelity of teleconferencing is still pretty horrible.  Jack Conte and I tried to create a conversation on line Friday using Ustream and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. (I ended up called Jack on the phone, and he held the received up to his computer microphone.) But this is merely a technical problem.  By the end of the present decade we will have perfect fidelity of audio and video.  (See Cisco’s Umi for a glimpse of the future.)

And then what?  I wonder if it isn’t the end of New York City as we know it.  

Here are a couple of crude speculations that will indicate what I mean.  In a perfect world, we would have Steve Crandall build one of his amazing thinking machines to help us work this through.  In the meantime:

Let’s say there are 8 million people in NYC at any give time.  And let’s say 1 million of them are there as commuters, traveling in from New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island each day.  

When there is TCWTF (teleconferencing with true fidelty), these people will no longer commute every day.  They will probably commute once a week, because, and here I am making the BFA (big, fat assumption) that some face-to-face contact is called for, especially when the people in question or idea workers, cultural creatives or, as I like to call them, Floridians.  

The commuters who now come in one day a week will need perches more than offices and the corporation will now be in position to cut space requirements substantially.  Let’s say they do so by 15%.  

We have remaining 7 million people who live in the 5 boroughs.  (Forgive me if I am way off. I just need some figures to paint the picture.)  Let’s suppose the 2 million of these residents qualify as idea workers or Floridians.  I think we can assume that some 80% of this group will give up their homes or rentals in the city.

No longer tied to the city by the need to be there everyday, these people will give up tiny living circumstances for something larger, cheaper and less onerously taxed.  (Again, I am assuming that these people will want to be in the city say a day a week.  Face to face contact will continue to be important.  This too may eventually change and then there won’t be anything stopping us from moving to the rain forests of the Amazon or the stormy coast of Newfoundland.  For the time being we will telecommute from Philadelphia or New Haven.)  

Now the city is really up against it.  With a decline in demand for office space and housing, the tax base will take a tremendous hit.  (Given the kind of taxes paid by idea workers and the companies that employee them, it’s not unthinkable that this exodus would remove something like a third of the city’s tax base.  This without actually reducing very much of the need for the services that taxes support.  Actually, Richard Florida is exactly the guy to run these numbers.  I hope he will favor us with some rough calculations.)

We might be looking at the return of the 1970s "downward spiral" scenario.  Tax base falls, social services falls, crime rises, the city becomes chaotic, even more people leave, and the tax base falls again.  The city tries to correct by charging fewer companies more, and more companies leave.  After all, the tech now makes this easier and easier to do. 

Thoughts, please!

Floridians

As the American economy continues its movement from the manufacture of objects to the manufacture of ideas, the question arises: what do we call the people who work there?

Drucker called them "knowledge workers."

Davenport and Prusak called them "idea practitioners."

Ray and Anderson called them "culture creatives."

Richard Florida called them the "creative class."

I’m stuck.  I prefer "culture creatives" as a term, but Florida’s treatment as an account.  

My compromise is to suggest that we call them "Floridians" in honor of Florida’s treatment. Plus there are many similarities between creatives and people who live in Florida, including casual clothing, an excellent club scene, and eccentric driving habits. 

No, but really, I’m serious.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. 

References

Davenport, Thomas H., and Laurence Prusak. 2003. What’s the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best New Management Thinking. Harvard Business School Press.

Drucker, Peter. 1992. The Age of Discontinuity. Transaction Publishers.

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.

Ray, Paul H., and Sherry Ruth Anderson. 2001. The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World. Three Rivers Press.

Stewart, Thomas A. 1998. Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations. Crown Business.

Pattern recognition and the Wurman’s response

Richard Saul Wurman and Gloria Nagy live in Newport.  The NYC wrote them up yesterday and the results are interesting.

Wurman is the founder of TED and MED.  Ms. Nagy, his wife, is a novelist. The kids are equally questing and accomplished.  Tony Wurman is an artist who experiments in new media, Joshua is a severe-weather chaser, Reven is a photographer in New York, and Vanessa created a equestrian center in Rhode Island.

All of us in the creative class (as Richard Florida calls it) are interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s speciality: pattern recognition. Could there be secrets here?

And sure enough there are.

The article records Ms. Nagy’s answer to a snooty German architect when he asked, skeptically, about what her husband did for a living.  

Ms. Nagy’s reply, she recalls, was something like:

“What Richard does is allow his brain to operate like a great big cellular Cuisinart, mixing all his knowledge, thoughts, frustrations, observations, visual, conceptual and gathered information and feelings about everything together, hitting the high switch and pouring it all out in the form of ideas baked in one mold or another: conference, book, map, exhibit.” 

This is as good an account of pattern recognition as I have seen.  It emphasizes how inclusive, syncretic, and fecund the process is.  It begins with everything and ends up with one very particular thing.  And this thing may become productive in its own right.  Like TED which had been very productive of patterns indeed.

But why stop there?

The entire family is exemplary of what we now hope for from the creative class.  Ms. Nagy is an ethnographer, of a kind, the observer of the architectures and fine details of contemporary life.  Tony Wurman leaps media.  Reven captures life.  Joshua chases storms. (This last is increasingly apt for people who study contemporary culture.)  Vanessa manages horses, and if you have ever worked with clients, you know who valuable this skill can be. 

This family needs franchising.  The Wurmans could be exactly what the corporation needs to make the world make sense.  The CEO awakens to discover that her corporation has been disintermediated, disrupted, creatively destroyed as she slept.  "Get me a Wurmans," she cries, "For God’s sake, get me a Wurmans."  

References

Green, Penelope. 2010. “The Outsiders Inside Newport: Gloria Nagy and Richard Saul Wurman in Newport, R.I..” The New York Times, September 8. here.  (Accessed September 10, 2010).

Post script

This article by Penelope Green does astonishing things for the NYT Home section.  Have we ever seen a NYT story so rich in information about the personal lives of home occupants? With this as a lead, perhaps we will see the NYT take the Home section in new more ethnographic, anthropological directions.  I am guessing, but only guessing, that the founder of this section, Joan Kron, would approve.  

Creativity’s brief moment in the sun?

At year’s end, I have an unhappy thought, that some of the creative professionals who rose of prominence in the first decade of the 21st century will be eclipsed by the end of the decade.  My unhappy thought: the first decade of the 21st century will be for some creative professionals, a brief moment in the sun.

This suspicion turns on three propositions.

1) There has been a change in supply.

As Henry Jenkins pointed out in Textual Poachers and as I labored to point out in Plenitude, the distinction between cultural producers and consumers began to blur in the last 20 years.  Indeed, there was a vast migration from one side of the distinction to the other.  Many people who once merely consumed culture (in the form of film, art, comedy, observation, journalism, criticism) were now surprisingly good at producing this culture.  Suddenly in the economy of culture, the number of suppliers exploded.

2)  There has been a change in demand.

The first decade of the 21st century  was the moment in which the corporation reached out and embraced creativity. We have many institutions and people to thank for this, including BusinessWeek (when it announced the innovation economy), Richard Florida and his study of the creative class, the Kelley brothers (David at Stanford design school, and Tom at Ideo), Roger Martin at the Rotman School, to name a few .

3) There has been a change in the market in which supply and demand find one another

Recently, I was chatted with Richard Shear. He’s owns a design firm.  Over the years he’s done very well, thank you very much. But he can see a cloud on the horizon.  He is seeing some corporations "crowdsourcing" their creativity.  They hold competitions in which all the design talent "out there" is encouraged to apply.  The best work is selected…and paid much less than my friend would have charged.  In sum, demand may be increasing, but supply is increasing more. So prices are falling.

A case in point: that image that appears in the upper right hand corner of this post?  I just bought it from istockphoto.  It cost me a dollar.

4) Creative professionals may lose their moment in the sun.

The economics of creativity may be changing, and this trend appears to be on a collision with the trend that made designers the charmed creatures of the corporation.  It’s possible that the great golden age of commercial creativity may end almost before it began.  By the end of the decade of the next century, we may be looking at a very different design world.

5) Recommendation

In the new "crowdsourced" economy, there will be one place where designers will continue to flourish.  It will be with clients who do not know what they need.  When they do know what they need, they will take advantage of the new economy.  But when they don’t, they will need a enduring connection with a designers who gets who they are, who the consumer is, and what the culture is.  They will need designers who deliver a larger package of knowledge, intelligence, and creativity.  (To be sure, this is the way great designers always seen what they do.)  The upshot?Designers should be cultivating the skills that enable them to deliver ideas and intelligence, not just design.  (To be fair, this is what all design schools say they do.)  This will take a new order of professional development.  (It will mean that designers will have to be Chief Culture Officers, whomever else they are.)

There’s good news: that as the world grows more dynamic, more and more clients are going to need more foundational work from their designers.  They won’t know what they need. They will come to the designer with a wish for a bigger picture, pattern recognition, a true knowledge and mastery of culture, a feeling for the competitive field and a deeper skill set that is perhaps now usual.

References

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge.

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph Fluide.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  Basic Books.

Mandel, Michael.  2004.  "This Way to the Future." BusinessWeek, October 11.

Kelley, Thomas, and Jonathan Littman. 2005. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. New York: Broadway Business.

Moldoveanu, Mihnea C., and Roger L. Martin. 2008. The Future of the MBA: Designing the Thinker of the Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winsor, John.  2009.  The power of And.  John Winsor’s Blog.  December 30. here.

Acknowledgment

I have the uneasy feeling that my recommendation comes from someone somewhere.  I have been reading widely over the holidays, and there has been a lot of water under the board (internet surfing, that is).  If someone knows the source of this argument, please let me know.

Note: this post was lost late last year due to Network Solutions’ incompetence.  I am reposting it today December 31, 2010.