Tag Archives: trends

The corporation and the future

This is a post I put up on the Harvard Business Review Blog.  It’s about an essential hostility between the corporation and the future.  They are made of entirely different stuff, I argue.  

An outtake:

To the corporation, the future looks a risk that can’t be managed, an idea that can’t be thought.

The corporation puts a particular boundary between now and the future. And it guards this border ferociously. New ideas are scrutinized with tough mindedness and high indignation. If we can’t see the business model, we’re not interested. If we can’t see how to “monitize this sucker,” we’re not interested. When the future manifests itself merely as a murmur of possibility, we are not interested.

Too bad. There is really only one way to live in a world of speed, surprise, noise, and responsiveness, and that’s to visit the future frequently. And, if we have the intellectual capital, maybe get a pied-à-terre there. Well, and if we’re really committed, we need someone to take up residence full time.

Please click here for the whole of the post.

Acknowledgements: The image is from Tumbler and Villacollezione  (http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/wooden%20planks).  Thank you to Julia Matthews at the Royal Ontario Museum for helping me identify it.  

The Real Mystery of Bates Motel

I am watching Bates Motel (Monday nights, A&E).  It’s engaging and scary.  Tune in if only for the performance by Vera Farmiga which really is astoundingly good.

I came away from last night’s episode thinking there are two kinds of drama on TV right now.  (Yes, there are more than two but indulge me.)  

ONE:

There’s the police procedural, that work horse of network TV. Law and Order, if you count all 6 versions, now has over 1000 episodes to its credit.  Then there’s CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds

In all of these, we open with a crime and we close with some kind of resolution.  Chaos breaks into the world and then gets routed out of it. 

TWO:

Then there’s the another category that forgoes that this narrative and moral clarity.  I am thinking of Bates Motel which is shot through with menace and a mystery never goes away. 

You will say this is the nature of horror.  But this “dreadful indeterminacy” can be seen also in shows like Fringe, Lost, Orphan Black and Dolls. Something is out of kilter, the world no longer spins on its axis, the forces of disorder are building, and we are done for.  

SOME QUESTIONS

1. Is this a fair contrast?

2. Is the police procedural category diminishing?

3. Is there a second category of the kind proposed here?  (I am perfectly happy to hear everyone say “no.”  This is an open question.)  

4. If there is a second category, what should we call it?

5. Is it growing?

6. Why is it growing?

This is a question for those masters of popular culture, Sarah Zupko, Matthew Belinki, Tara Ariano or Sarah Bunting, and anyone else who wants to prove they are in their league.   

The Sweetness trend

Recently I was thinking on the possibility of a new trend.  

And I wrote it up here.  

Have a look.

You will see that I rush the conclusion.  These are early days and at the moment we have little more than a suggestive trace of the new trend.  Still, early notice has to start somewhere, as it were.  

Here’s a paragraph from the post.

Why sweetness? Well, we are coming out of an era of some darkness. We seemed almost to celebrate skepticism and snark. We dwelt upon the grimmest aspects of the human experience. TV and movie making were increasingly ghoulish, with new standards of viscera and depravity. Shows like CSI and NCIS dwell lovingly on the crime victim. Bright lights and strategically placed towels protect our sexual sensitivities, but everything else on the autopsy table is enthusiastically examined. Once the standard bearer of heartlessness, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) now looks a little quaint. Since its release, we have seen a succession of werewolves, vampires, serial killers, and human monsters of every kind. If you are 40 or under, you’ve grown up on a steady diet of heartlessness.

This just in (Tuesday, February 26)

Steve Crandall had this excellent datum to add to the post. It turns out he recently had dinner with one of the writers for Big Bang Theory, who “said the show was designed to be “sweet’ … characters who might be considered intimidating due to their skill in math and science [were] brought down to human scale by being socially clueless and quite “sweet”.”  

Thank you, Steve.  (See Steve’s excellent blog here.) 

Culture Quiz

My nephew is up for an interview at the college of his choice.  Everyone is thrilled.  His speciality is the classics so I am no use at all.

But what, I wondered, would be a good way of quizzing someone about how much they knew about contemporary culture.

As it happened, I was working on a Keynote deck for which I produced the image above.  It has several bits and pieces.  We could just to hand an applicant the image and invite them to comment.  This would be one of several “quizzes” and is not meant to be the only useful test.  

There are no right answers.  But I think we would be able to judge very swiftly whether someone had depth, range, intelligence, and what do they call it in tennis, “touch.”   I want you to identify each of these images and tell us how and why what they represent matters to contemporary culture.  You should be able to speak for 5 minutes on each image…and that’s just for starters.  

Please have a go and if you feel like banding off a thousand words I would be happy to put together a set of judges with the winner getting a Minerva award.  

Or just work out your answers “in your head” and let’s discuss our various answers in a later post.  

Click on the image to see the whole test!

I can’t supply attribution for these photos.  If you recognize where they came from originally, please let me know!

When did innovation get so cool?

I live in Rowayton, Connecticut. It’s a tiny town, around 4,500 people, that sits on Long Island Sound roughly 50 miles up from New York City. Rowayton is famous for… well, it’s not famous really. It’s a sleepy little place that has managed, by applying itself as little as possible, to remain almost entirely obscure.

Under the circumstances, this took some doing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Connecticut was a veritable Silicon Valley, filled with hard-charging inventors throwing off a profusion of new ideas and practices. Just up the coast, for instance, in a town called New Haven, Eli Whitney created the cotton gin and gun works.  Connecticut inventors were learning how to make machine tools. All those things once painstakingly assembled by hand (guns, watches, bicycles, and, yes, even machines) could now be mass manufactured. The earth trembled with industrial activity.

How Rowayton managed to sleep through this fury of invention … well, we can’t be sure. Certainly, there were local sources of income. Rowayton was briefly called the oyster capital of the world. Every day, its oysters went down to New York City where they were sold to factory and office workers as the fast food of their day. The other source of income, latterly, was a fairground that featured a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, concession stands, beauty contents, and big bands. This made us vulgar and noisy, and the object of much sniffing from Darien across the way. We didn’t care. We might be vulgar, but we had oysters and, um, a roller coaster!

And then one day, something happened. The Remington Rand Corporation came to town. It installed itself in an old estate in the middle of town. Remington Rand was active in the machine tool tradition: sewing machines, firearms and typewriters. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was trying to figure out how to make something called the “business computer.” (A machine that could do for information what the machine tool did for manufacture, that was worth trying for.)

The computer work was so top-secret they put it in a building called “the barn,” a sweet little building, all stone and faux Tudor timbers (pictured).  Actually, the barn looks like a preindustrial cottage, and the last place you’d expect to help produce the business computer. So much for appearances. The Barn created the Remington Rand 409. After hundreds of years of well-deserved obscurity, Rowayton had a claim to fame.

Photos from the Barn tell the story. Engineers, dressed in white shirts, wearing sensible glasses. One is wearing that early badge of geek chic, the pocket protector. And there is more than one short-sleeved shirt, that miracle of “Drip-dry” and “Wash and wear!”   No one actually has tape on his glasses, but one feels that’s only a matter of time.

This is what innovation looked like after World War II, deeply practical, happily inelegant. Guys in sensible shirts. People trying stuff until they got it right. The invention process was a deeply engaging, sometimes vexing thing. The beams of the second floor proved insufficient for the weight of the new computer, so they shored them up. Vacuum tubes ran hot and had to be replaced every three hours. There were problems large and small, and the guys at Remington Rand kept at it. By mid century they were done. Lo and behold, the father of the UNIVAC line of computers and great, great, great, great grandfather of the laptop on which I write.

This is innovation as we used to do it. The recipe was simple: put inventive souls in an isolated place, give them resources, and leave them alone. We called it “R&D,” Research and Development. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fashionable. It wasn’t sensible in certain ways. (Why was everyone white, male and middle aged?) But it was relentlessly curious. And practical. When ‘A’ didn’t work, someone said, “what about ‘B’?” And if that didn’t work, people were happy to run down the alphabet until they found something that did. “What if” was the order of the day.

There is something about this R&D tradition that feels at risk. That combination of hard thinking and brute pragmatism is now in peril. But this is just for starters. For ingenuity and reckless experiment funded a larger spirit of innovation. This was the “can do” world. A place of relentless ingenuity. And now it fails cowed, diminished, uncertain, less and less prepared to “try stuff and see what happens.” Westerners in general and Americans in particulars have retreated into pessimism. They have taken to their ideological corners. They have withdrawn from their furious engagement with the world. But of course we have grounds for discouragement. But I would have thought that the baby we do not wish to put out with the bathwater is our ability to solve problems. If we lose that once reckless, generous, exuberant spirit of invention that we truly are done for. It’s time for ingenuity to stage a comeback.

Time machine: a conceptual model for predicting culture

In Boston this January?
Come sit in on my course.
Here’s the outline.

MIT CMS.S62
Special Subject: Comparative Media Studies
Time Machine: Building a model for predicting culture
Grant McCracken
Wed-Thu, Jan 18-19, 25-26, 1-2, 03-05:00pm, 4-231

Pre-register on WebSIS and attend first class.
Listeners allowed, space permitting
Prereq: Permission of instructor Qualitative and quantitative skills.
Level: U 3 units Standard A – F Grading Can be repeated for credit

As our culture becomes more diverse and changeable, cultural prediction becomes more urgent and difficult. The point of this course is to build a model for making predictions. We will proceed in a practical way, taking on “real world problems.” How quickly could we have seen the influence Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were to have on American culture? Could we have predicted a shift in Hollywood that demoted the likes of Schwarzenegger and promoted the likes of Michael Cera? To build the model, aka “big board” or “time machine”, we have to solve theoretical and methodological problems: what is the unit of analysis, what are the best markers of adoption, what are the best metrics, how can we make and monitor predictions, how can we represent data according to best “infographic” practice? To my knowledge, a model like this has no precedent. Think of the course as something out of the early Soviet space program. The engineering will be dodgy. Failure is not unlikely. The process will be messy and frustrating. But the outcome is sure to be illuminating and instructive. Plus your heroism is guaranteed.
Contact: Grant McCracken

Law and Order in Peril?

Stray signals are important to people who want to keep track of contemporary culture.

Here’s one from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Nordic noir, the chilling, realistic Scandinavian crime fiction that has taken movies and books by storm, is coming to American television.  The Killing, premiering April 3 on AMC, comes from the hit Danish drama “Forbrydenlsen.”

It is not intuitively obvious why there should now be so much Nordic noir in our world.  But to be sure there’s lots.  And I think we can see it moving swiftly, from page to big screen to little screen, signs of its ability to command larger audiences.

The question for the Chief Culture Officer and the rest of us: why?  What is it about Nordic noir that makes it appealing.  Why should this cultural form now threaten the standard police procedurals (Law and Order, CSI, etc) that have dominated TV for so long?  What does the rise of Nordic noir tells us about the state of American culture now?

I am not making this an official Minerva competition, but if someone comes up with a dazzlingly good answer, there’s a good chance they will get a statue!  

Reference

Chozick, Amy.  2011.  Something’s rotten in Seattle.  Wall Street Journal.  March 25. (subscription required)