Culture in real time: data visualization and the CCO

Micro fashion network color Arikan Dalton medialab MITThis is Cambridge, Massachusetts, one rainy autumn afternoon in 2005. 

Fantastic?  Or totally spectacular?  You be the judge.

It was created by Burak Arikan and Ben Dalton at MIT's Media Lab.  It designed to show the color of clothing in motion in the many neighborhoods that make up Cambridge.

Arikan and Dalton rigged up cameras, capture color data and converted it to this astonishingly useful piece of data visualization.  

To be fair, Cambridge is not the most fashion forward place in the world.  Indeed, I have seen people on the MIT campus who look as if they just walked out of explosion at Goodwill.  I'm not talking hipster refusal of mainstream fashion.  I'm talking completely random.  This is a wonderful thing from an anthropological point of view but somewhat at odds with the clothing conventions that rule our world.

So the Chief Culture Officer may not care about these data as data.  The Arikan-Dalton visualization will matter more as proof of concept.

And what a concept.  Imagine an Arikan-Dalton machine in all the neighborhoods we care about in all of the cities we care about (London, Paris and Tokyo, at a minimum).  A real time feed of essential cultural intelligence delivered in a form that allows for effortless pattern recognition. 

Well, you don't have to be a CCO.  Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, should have an Arikan-Dalton machine.  If only to observe the effects of the Fall issue.  She could watch colors she had blessed suddenly begin to infuse the city center and then ripple out into the suburbs.  She could watch them leap from country to country.  She could begin to experiment, using data vastly more accurate than feedback from the industry. 

What if we were American Apparel or J. Crew?  Wouldn't the likes of Dov Charney and Mickey Drexler want an Arikan-Dalton machine on the wall of their trend rooms?  Indeed everyone in the design world, architecture, branding, interior, product, would want one of these machines.  So should every school and studio of fashion and design. 

An Arikan-Dalton machine would matter especially to the CCO because the CCO knows that colors spring from culture.  They do not coming spinning out of the fashion industry at random.  They emerge as the logic of our culture works itself out out, sometimes mysteriously, through the choices of the fashion industry.  The Arikan-Dalton data are not only color and movement.  They are culture effectively, very cleverly, coded as color and movement.

The CCO knows this: there is no sudden, dramatic change in color trends that is not driven by some shift in culture.  This makes the Arikan-Dalton machine an early warning machine.  The ADM (the Arikan-Dalton machine) tells us that a change must have taken place.  And then allows us to track the change as it moves from city to city, from early adopter to late adopter, from the urban center to the hinterland.  Now we can send in the researcher for a qualitative examination of "what the hell just happened out there."  It will raise questions like "That's weird.  Paris didn't bite," or "Wow, that little town in Brazil just started 'broadcasting' in fuchsia!"  This is the kind of data that will send us off in pursuit of still better data.  The ADM creates data that takes us towards knowledge, then intelligence, then strategy.  It's the beginning of wisdom.

The benefits of the ADM are broader still.  It would allow us to watch our culture as a living, breathing, organic thing, bound together by meanings in motion.  It would show us our miraculous society of strangers as we enter into, or refuse, the new trends, the fleeting consensus, the rivers of briefly shared meaning, that run through us, and make us briefly up. 


For more details on the ARM, go to Visual Complexity here.


Thanks to:

Manuel Lima and his site here for curating this work.

Ben Malbon for pointing me towards Lima's work at Visualcomplexity.  If you are interested in this kind of thing, I recommend following Ben on Twitter at "bbhlabs." 


I don't actually know the time period over which the Arikan Dalton data was collected in Cambridge.  I bet it was longer than a day.  (I was using my poetic license, recently renewed.)  Hopefully someone will clarify. 

12 thoughts on “Culture in real time: data visualization and the CCO

  1. Sarah

    Fascinating. In addition to the real-time benefits, I think the historical aspect would be quite interesting, too.

    I feel like I saw a blog post last spring about the declared “color of the season” (it was some shade of yellow). I wonder how such a declaration would play out in the ADM.

    Pantone produces a yearly fall and spring color report ( But before I even saw that, I noticed I was seeing a lot of purple this season in the stores and in the adds. Maybe you could track the change of seasons by a historical series of ADM.

  2. Grace

    Pantone sends out the color predictions to industry 2 years before they are released to the public. That gives industry enough of a heads up to produce the dyes, dye the fabrics, get them to the designers, the factories, etc.

    ADM would be a visualization tool for early adoption instead of a predictor of new color trends. But, if you could filter for DIY home dyers like myself, who can produce any color and not just those in the stores…

  3. Grace

    BTW, the Chico’s storefront in Manhattan Beach, CA had a uncharacteristically subdued color theme last weekend. Everything on the mannequins was burgundy and gray. Where have I seen that recently?

    Oh, yes! The MIT bookstore.

  4. Christopher Edwards

    Grace — I was just thinking about how this could upset the, very pricey color forecasting industry. Of course Pantone does some of this themselves, but their are organizations like the Color Forecasting Group who charge quite a hefty sum for their work (and others too, I remember a job where our marketing director subscribed to a French publication, I believe she paid $5K a year for that subscription).

    So perhaps this would allow a DIY approach. Giving product planners their own tools. Decentralizing the data. Which would then become a specific value add for a design department. Just like the spread of data from organizations like Bloomberg and SNL Financial have allowed smaller and smaller institutions and individual investors to play games where they used to not be able (because they weren’t big enough to have a research department to track that information.

    Oh and one other thing, I noticed when I was at the Murakami Takashi show at the Brooklyn museum last year that his paintings anticipated color trends by about 3 years. So, alternately, instead of a machine, companies should just hire artists.

  5. srp

    The updated design of the blog is great. Was the change from “This blog sits…” to “The blog sits…” intentional?

  6. Grant McCracken

    Steve, Oh, f*ck, no, this is what happens when you fiddle with blog design
    late at night. Thx for the spot. Now to decide: do I leave it or go back?
    Your thoughts, sir? Best, Grant

  7. srp

    Go back! “This blog sits…” has a bold, self-referential zing. Plus, a lot of rankings and bookmarks have “this blog” stored as the title.

  8. Pingback: Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Planning for surprise || October || 2009

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