Anyone who wants to read the dynamism of our culture knows that numbers are essential. But we also know that some of the most useful numbers are hard to come by.
I would like to propose we consider a new set of metrics. Let’s call them “smoot metrics,” after the MIT student Oliver R. Smoot, Jr.
Oliver was a freshman at MIT in 1958. His fraternity brothers decided to use him as a way to measure the Harvard Bridge. Rolling Oliver head over heals the length of the bridge, they determined the bridge was 364.4 smoots plus an ear (see below).
The likeable thing about the smoot measurement system is that it is at once deadly earnest and entirely whimsical. This makes it perfect for our purposes.
I was walking across the Harvard Bridge (pictured with appallingly healthy undergraduates) on Friday night with Henry Jenkins and Robert Kozinets (we were not running) when our conversation moved me to say I wished we had a smoot measurement for the creativity taking place in the world. How many people engaged in how many creative endeavors in the creation of how many cultural artifacts…what would this number look like? More to the point, why don’t we have one?
It is commonplace in media, culture, and marketing circles to remark upon how many people are now engaged in creative activities and how good their activities often are. We have lots of ways of explaining this development. It marks the continuing democratization of an aristocratic privilege, the growing strength of what Bell called expressive individualism, the multiplication of venues and the decline in the costs of production, gatekeeper elites, and other "barriers to entry.”
By some reckoning, it was the rise of Punk that sounds the "all clear" signal. Now anyone could, and everyone should, pick up a guitar and “have at it.” It doesn’t matter how bad we are, the point is to get up on the stage and let rip. Rock stardom…not just for musicians anymore. This was the DIY (do it yourself) spirit now legitimized
What I don’t think anyone appreciated was how good this DIY stuff would become. I think the general assumption was that we would live in a two-tier world, with a great no man’s land between the professionals on high and the amateurs below.
Boy, were we wrong. I was at a wedding some years ago in Canada when three brothers roasted the groom with quality material. At PopTech a couple of years ago, the resident comedian Rocket Boy complained that all the speakers were doing pretty good material.
Every time someone holds a contest inviting people to submit their own films or make their own ads, I think the judges are a little chastened that so much of the stuff should be so good. They know that it is only accidents of biography that puts them on the panel and not in the crowd. An awful lot of DIY work turns out to be "performance grade." (It is precisely this rise in quality that makes the cocreation branding process vastly less risky and much more interesting.)
We live in a period of cultural efflorescence. For cultural purposes, this is a Cambrian era. It would be nice to have a number that helps us track this productivity. Does it rise steadily? Does it change with the decades and the state of popular culture? Does it change with each generation? We would need to measure print, video, music for a minimum. YouTube would be a great place to start, with the very film festivals as a follow up. It would be great to find out from Ed Cotton at Butler Shine how many submissions for Converse "make your own ad" competition there were.
Then of course we need a big board on which to plot this and other stuff. I mean, how else can we hope to keep track of our exceedingly dynamic culture?
With thanks for the photo of Harvard Bridge, here.