Culture Maps (a new game?)

Bart Lana Swartz, a colleague at MIT, has an interesting response to the Things That Don’t Go Together game.  (see the post for Wednesday).  I was suggesting that Dave Eggers and Alan Alda were distant points on our culture map.  Lana disagreed. 

I don’t know, Grant…

My guess is that is goes a little something like this:

Eggers/McSweeneys is very NPR

NPR is very West Wing/Alda

Not too far a walk!

I like the idea of forge a path between points on the map, in this case between Dave Eggers and Alan Alda.  The point is to show that for all their disparity, these people occupy contiguous space. 

How about this? 
1) Alan Alda to Robert Altman
    (Mash is the connection. Altman directed the movie version, Alda acted in the TV version)
2) Robert Altman to Hal Hartley (a more alternative American director than Altman)
3) Hal Hartley to Jim Jarmusch
4) Jim Jarmusch to Douglas Coupland
5) Douglas Coupland to, say, Bill Buford (editor of Granta, author of Heat)
6) Bill Buford to [blank, help please]
7) [blank] to Dave Eggers

Ok, it’s not perfect.  Some of these links are not just a "stretch" but a leap.

This game tests our knowledge of contemporary culture and it gives advantage to the  generalist.  We need more generalists.  (See the work of Eric Nehrlich, below, on this point).

Rules of the game:

a) People named in links don’t have to have a connection.  This is not a "6 degrees of separation" exercise.  They need only be proximate, i.e., within shouting distance of one another in cultural space.  (And in any case, we are not looking only for people, but also for institutions, events, movements and trends.)   

b) There is a sufficiency rule.  We must have at least 6 links.

c) There is a parsimony rule.  We mustn’t have more than 10 links.  (This is to discourage showing off and other trivial pursuits.)

d) There is a distribution rule.  Points have to be fairly spaced.  No bunching up where we know things and passing over where we don’t. 

e) We are allowed to leave blanks.  We are allowed to be hazy.  This is to give us a chance to admit the limits of our knowledge and seek help from others.

f)  We want to open our maps to the contribution of others.  Collaboration is encouraged, and indeed the only way to build good maps. 

This would make a dandy website.  Where we go show off our maps, post challenges, share knowledge, and otherwise refine the art of culture mapping.

We would hope to attract a variety of people the better to divide the labor. 

a) Those, say, who are good at identifying far flung points.  These tend to come up when you are thinking about other things.  Mr. Rogers and a Senate subcommittee, say.  The website would allow us to register these antimonies for others to "map."

b) Those specialists who are really good at tough links.  Leora Kornfeld comes to mind with her encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture.  Conspiring with the formidable Nardwar, the Human Serviette, she would be invisible. (Leora will have things to say about my Alda-Eggers map, I’m sure.) 

c) speed players who’s work is cheap, fast and out of control.

d) the deep thinkers who can be relied upon to dwell in encyclopedic space for long periods in their efforts to find the link juste. 

The long term effect of this sort of thing could be interesting.  One of these days we could bundle together all the good maps to create a cartography, a longitude and latitude of our culture now. 


Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist, here

The "Things That Don’t Go Together" Game, Installment 2.  This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  February 18, 2008.  here.

6 thoughts on “Culture Maps (a new game?)

  1. Rick Liebling

    A fascinating idea that’s right up my alley, but I fear it could degenerate in to some serious navel-gazing. Why exactly do we want to map the distance from Alda to Eggers? And if they are far apart on the map, as you suggest, their distance is measured relative to what? Eggers is farther from Alda than actor Ken Howard, who played a sensitive male character on an early 80s TV show, but much closer to Alda than Dave Mustaine, leader of Speed Metal group Megadeth. I think I tend to agree with Ms. Swartz that Alda & Eggers wouldn’t be that far apart, both appealing to left-leaning intellectuals (just a guess). Now, creating a culture map from say, Kanye West to Joel Osteen, that might be interesting. Is there a place where I can tap into two entities with huge support bases that are seemingly polar opposites? Maybe not, maybe they are too far apart. But a map that connected Kanye West (American hip hop artist) to Daft Punk (European techno stars) may have predicted the hit single by West, Stronger (featuring Daft Punk).

    I think artists make these culture maps mentally. Kanye uses a Japanese graphic artist for his album covers; Japanese pop culture features robots; Daft Punk exclusively appear in public dressed as… robots. Ok, that’s probably a gross oversimplification, but these culture maps exist. I think your idea for a website that creates, catalogs and archives them would be brilliant. I wonder if the guys at PSFK don’t already do this.

  2. Christopher

    So I don’t think these are that far off that it takes that many steps. Alda embodied/created the prototype for the post-modern male: sensitive, introspective, ironic. (Or perhaps it was Woody Allen that created it, Alda became a central figure in Allen’s work of the 1980s). Coupland and Eggers are the inheritors of that tradition in the generation X vain.

    Speaking of cultural maps, George Maciunas (founder of the fluxists, SoHo loft developer and architect) was incredibly infatuated with mapping and made many maps and chronologies of the avant guard and the fluxists and art history in general. They stand as art works in and of themselves.

  3. Lana

    Ooooh fun!

    This reminds me…
    When I worked at a restaurant while applying to graduate school, we would play a game we called Brackets. Here how it goes:
    1. Someone would draw up a set of blank tournament brackets, like they ones they use in college basketball (GO GATORS!)
    2. We’d fill the brackets in with binaries. The binaries weren’t necessarily opposites, and they we’re necessarily interchangeables, either. Whales vs. Dolphins works. Or Cunning vs. Generosity of Spirit. Or Groucho Marx vs. Karl Marx. Or, since it’s a thing now, Eggers vs. Alda.
    3. We’d debate until we decided which of the bracket won. Let’s day that Whales, Generosity of Spirit, Groucho Marx, and Alda advanced on the the next round
    4. Now it’s Whales vs. Generosity of Spirit and Groucho vs. Alan…
    5. And so on… until there is only one winner.

    I don’t think we made this game up… My sense is that the idea was bubbling around among a lot of different people. There’s this book that came after I moved to Cambridge. I haven’t read or even seen it in person, but it looks like it tries to turn Brackets into utilitarian exercise. Less fun.

    I feel like this relates the mapping game because they both rely on the unspoken cultural feel we have about things… I can’t explain why both Eggers and West Wing are so very NPR anymore than I can why whales beats out generosity of spirit. Brackets can only be played collectively, and in some ways it, too, maps a cultures.

  4. Virginia Postrel

    Alan Alda to Wayne Rogers to me to Bill Eggers to Dave Eggers. (I once went to a Liberty Fund conference with Wayne Rogers who played Trapper John and Dave’s brother Bill Eggers is a friend and former colleague of mine.) So there. I am, as steve says, the queen of weak ties.

  5. peter

    Lana —

    Your comment makes me think how deeply embedded in western culture is the idea of competition. (This is not a criticism of you, by the way, just an observation about the brackets game you describe.)

    I can’t imagine ever playing a game based on asking who wins when:

    something VERSUS something else.

    Why not, instead, ask what is:

    something AND something else

    or what is:

    child of something and something else


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