“You can find awesome rhythm in everything. People will hear certain breaks that I make and be like, ‘Where’d that come from?’ I’ll be like, ‘That was the part where dude was running down the steps in “Annie Get Your Gun.”‘” [Quelle Chris, producer, quoted in jason hirschhorn’s @MusicREDEF, Aug. 26, 2020]
Quelle Chris was just minding his own business, watching a musical 40 years older than himself, washed over by all that motion and music.
One detail sticks: the sound of a dude running down the steps. Can’t have been more than a couple of seconds, a tiny fraction of Annie Get Your Gun. But it sticks.
It sticks and then it returns!
Years later, Quelle Chris is solving a problem and something deep inside the vaults of memory breaks free and climbs right up to and into the conscious mind.
And starts shouting, “Me! That rhythm you’re looking for. It’s me!”
At a minimum, creativity is two things: pattern capture and pattern delivery.
The capture is mysterious. Why that detail from a musical and not one of the thousands of other details? Something in it speaks to something in us. And the unconscious mind says, “I’ll have that” and spears it out of the stream of consciousness.
Pattern delivery feels still more mysterious. How do things find their way back up stream, none the worse for spearing, back into consciousness years later?
For some reason, I think of the unconscious mind as operating like that ancient guy in a still more ancient hardware store. “Hank” (see greasy badge on chest) stands behind a bank filled with every kind of, well, hardware. And when you come in and say, “Do you know what this is?” Hank says, “Sure I’ve got one of those. Gimme a sec.” and begins to scrutinize his many tiny boxes of battered cardboard.
Of course Hank has it.
“Here you go.” he says, “That will be 47 cents.” (Why does everything in the old hardware stores cost too little?)
It’s as if everything sits in memory spring loaded, ready to undertake an instant passage from “concealed in memory” to “irresistibly present.” Like, dude, how? Like, right?
Ours is an age obsessed with creativity and innovation. Before COVID we staged a million brainstorms. The air turned yellow with post-its. Everyone was invited. We tried to make the mysteries of Quelle Chris and Hank happen at will.
And we did a pretty good job of it. We made the brainstorm deliver magical things. But all that’s gone, struck down by the fever. (And if you think brainstorms are being delivered by Zoom, for god sake, tell me about it.)
The COVID era forces us back on our own resources. It’s up to us to “Quelle and Hank” it on our own. Are we working on this? Are we?
Maybe this marks a return to an earlier internet. Remember those early days? That pre-COVID fever. All of us offering up thoughts that might “stick” for someone else, eventually “returning” to aid them solve a problem.
The question (and I do have one) is how is our “Quelle and Hank” efforts going? Lot’s of activity? Lots of productivity? Or were we so domesticated by the group mind and corporate brainstorm that we are now estranged from Quelle and Hank. Let me know.
to Matty Karas at jason hirschhorn’s always provocative @musicredef.
to Pip Coburn for a glimpse at the way he thinks about the creative process.
to Sara Winge and Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty for the Web 2.0 idea that helped us make that transition from a passive web to an active one. It does feel like passivity has returned, that the old days of the old fever need a reboot.
Recently the marketing team at Twitter put culture at the heart of what they do, in that most precious territory, the value proposition.
This is great, I thought. A company as connected and powerful as Twitter using culture to describe what it does, that has to be good for us all.
Because, let’s face it, we have all struggled to put the culture idea on the agenda. People give it lip service, but when it comes to hiring people to supply cultural intelligence, not so much.
I see a lot of really big talents languishing for want of a more sophisticated approach. Culture is always and everywhere in the work of the creative, strategic, design, digital, innovation, social, marketing, content creator and curator. But it is almost never acknowledged as such. AND THAT MEANS THE PERSON WHO IS HELPING THE ORGANIZATION CONNECT TO CULTURE IS NOT GETTING THEIR DUE.
After work, everyone, including senior managers, goes to the bar and talks about culture. They talk about what they are watching on Netflix, and this is entirely cultural because a Netflix show cannot matter unless it resonates with something in us and that cannot happen unless the show resonates with something in our culture. But back on the job, the senior managers forget this. It’s back to business as usual. It’s back to business without culture.
Why isn’t culture identified in the value proposition of the corporation? It comes down to four problems. (Well, four will do for starters.)
1. OK boomer
Partly this is a generational problem.
This spring I wrote an essay on Culture and Design. (Let me know if you want a copy.) I had been reading Design Thinking statements, and none of them mentioned culture.
I opened my essay by noting this was like listening to an economist talking about economics without talking about value or a physicist talking about physics without talking about energy.
I sent this essay to someone in the Design Thinking field. Here’s how he characterized what he thought I was saying.
“I am the culture guy. I believe culture is super important. So I am going to write 22 more pages on why the culture guy thinks culture is more important than non-culture people do.”
For this person, my essay was a form of special pleading. Because for him, culture is a minority interest. And, no, you don’t need to know about culture to talk about design.
This person has been taken captive by all the old generational stereotypes. For him, culture is additional, superficial in both the conventional and the literal sense of the term. It’s a thing of surfaces, something we slap on, something we can therefore strip away. And that is the job of smart, tough minded people. They take pride in removing anything that doesn’t speak to the practical, the utilitarian, and the consumer’s pursuit of economic self interest narrowly defined.
This is what boomers think of culture. It’s the way they exclude it from business. Thus do they short-change their professional responsibilities. Much worse, thus do they force their organization to compromise its navigational instruments and understandings.
2. A branding problem to be sure
The culture idea has many variations on the theme. Time to rethink and relaunch. Some people insist that culture means “corporate culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “high culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “popular culture” (and it does…) The culture we care about sits above all of these. It’s like language in several ways but particularly this: it operates silently and invisibly to supply a grid that divides the world into categories. As William Gibson says, “We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.” We could think of culture as the software we install in that hardware called the brain to make the world make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of Ethiopia, France, or Scotland. It supplies meanings without which life in Ethiopia, France or Scotland is largely mystifying.
Culture means the rules and meanings with which people grasp the world around them. Imagine an hour in Manhattan if you were from, say, the Mongolian steppes. You would be in a state of astonishment. And this is not because Manhattan can be percussive and even concussive, but because you don’t have the cultural template in your head that lets you grasp what you are looking at.
But culture is also the rules and meanings with which people craft the world around them. Some people are very good at meme making. Others not so much. The difference depends upon whether you have managed to divine the grammar of this emergent form, figuring out how to use it, and put it to work. American culture is restless and innovative. It was only a few years ago that there was no such thing as a meme. Then, for a moment it was a wild experiment. Now it’s a standard creative voice. Ours is a culture under constant reconstruction.
3. Frankfurt School
We understand why the Frankfurt school was so deeply suspicious of culture, but their thinking helped create several generations of academics who could not see American culture except as an act of manipulation and false consciousness. And this created generations of students who loved culture, who lived culture, but struggled to find a way to take it seriously.
Now they take it seriously. Now they decode our culture with an eye for subtlety and nuance. Now they invent culture in the form of memes, fandom, blogging, pop ups, videos, remixes, and all that editorial comment on Twitter. But thanks to the Frankfurt school, these people don’t always have a formal idea of what they are doing. A meme has nothing to do with a blog post which has nothing to do with a video. The world is a collection of discrete events. For want of an idea of culture they cannot see the bigger picture or the deeper one.
4. Sloppy thinking
Take the notion of the gift economy. We all know to genuflect when this term comes up. We get a little teary eyed at the thought of people giving of their creativity freely. But let’s be clear about this. There are millions of kids writing many more millions of lines of culture. They are (almost) never compensated. As a result these authors will have to work at McDonald’s again this summer. Even a small amount of value would free them to refine their craft, in the process building their art and our culture. On reflection, it occurred to me that the only people who really profit from the gift economy have tenure and big fat professorial salaries. (See my bad tempered essay, (sorry, Clay,) called The Gift Economy: a reply to Clay Shirky).
The point: until we build an economy that rewards and funds culture creators, we are starving our culture and excluding a generation (or two). A 14 year old fan fiction writer doesn’t need to make much money, just enough to free her from the french fry line. I can’t believe that some brand hasn’t taken the leadership position here. Oh, wait, perhaps Twitter just did. Spotify recently made steps in that direction. And Patreon is of course one variation on direct fan support.
Given what we know, making a culture for culture shouldn’t be that hard. We understand the sociology and anthropology of how communities form. We know how to build networks. We know how to wire a world with Twitter and Instagram. Right?
The trouble is we are not pack animals. We’re quick to wear the culture badge on our sleeve, but not to join the lodge or pay the dues. This could change.
For starters, we want a bulletin board in which people talk about the problems they are working on.
I’ll start. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve.
▪️ Reading the future
I am working on a “big blue board.” (Yes, it’s a stupid name. But if you saw the Board you would understand.) This attempts to combine big data and thick data to create an early warning system to see the future coming. At the moment, I am tracking the crisis in retail, the effects of the gig economy, the change in the status of pets in America, the way we are rethinking status and privilege, the decline of ownership, something called “rewilding,” and 200 other trends. The problem here: as the world becomes faster, more chaotic, more disruptive, everyone is trying to figure out how to see what’s coming. (Rita McGrath at Columbia just published a book called Seeing Around Corners.) Can people who get culture make a contribution and if so what?
One of the big challenges: getting the data. In turns out, people would rather reveal the intimate details of their sex lives and financial standing than share corporate data. I don’t know how we solve this problem. But we have to.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the investors were unable to get their mitts on good data easily. And along came Michael Bloomberg and his terminals. Somewhere out there in our culture culture there is someone who will do for cultural data what Bloomberg did for financial data, and make themselves fabulously wealthy into the bargain.
▪️ Working on our novel
I’m finishing up a novel called Anna about a couple of guys who go to LA, install massive computing power in an old warehouse in Chinatown, and begin the hunt for the secrets of Hollywood. They are discovered by a Hollywood celebrity who understands that popular culture is capricious and that she must change to survive. The point of the exercise was to find a lively way to tell the story of culture. Did it work? Kinda sorta. I had to teach myself how to write fiction. Not sure how well I did.
The point of this there are lots of media in which to conduct our study of culture.
▪️ Working on theory and concept
One of the problems with culture is that it is so very amorphous. One of our first requirements then is a nice, clear, compact definition of what culture is.
My current definition says culture is meanings and rules. The trouble with most marketing, branding, design, strategy, and innovation is that it uses culture without ever treating it as culture, and it works with a small piece of culture without any sense of the larger architecture of meaning from which this comes. This is fine for clients. But those of us who work with culture need, I think, to construct a great vaulted ceiling that shows all the meanings of American culture and a sense of where they been and where they are going (hence the Big Blue Board). We need the entire “periodic table,” so to speak. (Apologies for the welter of metaphors. Anyone suffering whip lash or nose bleeds is asked to report to the Medium nursing station immediately.)
Here’s a good example of rules. Many young women (some men, and a lot of Canadian men interestingly) used to end a sentence with an interrogative upswing. This is sometimes called “uptalk.” We have seen some women undertake a new strategy. Now they end a sentence with a “vocal fry.” This replaces the upturn with a downturn. (Kim Kardashian may or may not be the innovator here. In any case she served as a super agent in its diffusion.)
This cultural rule says “end a sentence with a question mark even when it is an assertion.” And that rule is now being challenged by a new rule that says, “end a sentence with a down turn.” This rule springs, in part, from the gender meanings with which we define femaleness. This is American culture in action. It is almost certainly feminism in action. (The upturn communicates uncertainty. The downturn says, take it or leave it.) The actors rarely see that they are obeying rules. Because culture conceals itself. But these rules are nevertheless active and formative. We use a great many rules in the “presentation of self in everyday life” as Goffman called it. These days it feels like the famous Goffman formula could also be written the “construction of self in everyday life.” We are all works in progress. We change (as/and the rules do).
Clients don’t need to see the vaulted ceiling that shows the meanings of American culture. They don’t need to see the rule book that contains the instructions for “being American.” But our work gets better when we do. When we advise clients too often we do not give them detailed rationales for our recommendations. Worst case, creatives “just know” they are “on to something.” Eesh! In an age in which things change so fast, the cost of error is so high, and CMO tenures are so fleeting, we have to do better. We have to be able to say there is a system, a discipline, and a profession.
This will have a sorting effect. Clients will be able to choose their consultants more intelligently. And that means consultants will begin to get the clients they deserve.
I am always having a discussion with myself when I should be having that discussion with the culture community (aka the culture culture). Recently I have been asking whether it is enough to call culture merely “meanings” and “rules.” Maybe , I thought, I want to add “conventions” to my definition.
Here’s how that went. I was working for Netflix on how TV was changed. I needed a good way to talk about this change. Raiding the field of political science, I decided to posit a contract between viewers and showrunners. The old contract said things like “on TV, bad things can’t happen to good people.” Once we identified with a character, no harm could come to them. Now of course bad things routinely happened to good people. (I wrote this up for a Boston conference. You can find it on Slideshare here.) The argument to make here is that the revolution on TV can be seen as a rewriting of the contract between showrunner and viewer and this can be seen as a change in our cultural conventions.
Ok, now I have a problem. In the heat of the moment, I used “convention” to explain the data. But it’s neither meaning nor rule. So have I changed the model…or not? This is culture theory as an open question. I think we should all have models. And one of the points of culture culture is precisely to compare and contrast these models. There is a ton of work here. Let a 1000 models bloom.
▪️ Moving and making meanings
Culture does not confine itself to the conventional expression of conventional meanings. We are constantly inventing new meanings (e.g., new ideas of femaleness) and giving them new expressions (e.g., vocal fry).
In fact, our culture continues to rethink the way it works with meanings. We can posit 4 approaches.
In the first, we use marketing, advertising, design, innovation, social media, and PR as informed by research, planning and strategy, to put meanings (old and new) into brands and services. This is a simple process of transfer. The ad transfers meanings from culture to brand. It is almost exactly like metaphor. “Look, X is very like Y” invites us to take what we know about X and use it to think about Y. “He ran like a gazelle.” “The world began with a big bang.”
Thus in the early 1960s a print ad in Life would show the new Lincoln sitting at the verge of a fox hunt in Connecticut. “Look,” said the ad, “this car has the same meanings at the fox hunt. Surely you can see that.” Hilarious, yes, but it spoke to the status aspirations of a rising middle class. This is what marketing in general and advertising in particular spent most of the 20th century doing. (Except of course when the ad was merely an informational exercise. And in this event, no one, not the agency, the client or the consumer, could conceal their disinterest.)
Stage 2, starting some time in the 1990s, grew tired and resentful of this kind of meaning making and said, “Oh, please, this is just so dumb. Surely we can manage something more interesting.” The “alternative” 90s preferred a meaning-making strategy that combined unlikely meanings, meanings that did not “go” together. This would put Tarantino, Beck, Jay-Z, and Frank Black and the Pixies in the same category. The effects were arresting. We were looking at the systematic violation of the “combinatorial” conventions in our culture. The effect was “fresh.” We liked “fresh.” Increasingly, “fresh” came from combinatorial violation.
Stage 3 is an exaggeration of Stage 2. In this stage (still active) some of the best culture came out of a deliberate collision of genres. Because genres were dying. They were simply too predictable for our new interpretive gifts. So we put things into the particle accelerator and ran them together. The effects were explosive. “Cyclotron culture” was fascinating. See Jon Caramanica’s account of the album by 100 gecs. “This duo’s debut album, 1000 gecs, smashes electro-pop, dance music, punk and dozens of other rapid-fire reference points into something genuinely new and exhilarating.”
Stage 4 sees the advent of a new kind of meaning making. This is subtle and cunning. Less about colliding culture and more about braiding and splicing it. This is about acts of ingenuity that the culture creator cannot perform unless she is fully the master of culture and that the rest of us can only “get” because we are so much better at culture. Not everyone is. Nas X was asked why he thought Billboard had removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. He suggested “the song’s ingenuity might have intimidated them.” When this kind of meaning making works, it provokes the smile people wear when confronted by something really clever. You know the one. I wrote a book about Stage 4 meaning making called Chief Culture Officer.
Until we are prepared to put the idea of culture at the center of all these creative undertakings (advertising, social, PR, branding, design, planning, innovation, experience, activation, marketing), it is hard to see that there is one world here. It’s harder still for creatives to see what they have in common. Culture gives us the opportunity to embrace the whole of marketing and creativity in a single point of view.
There are several interesting puzzles here. I think the very gifted Mark Earls is wrong to say that all culture is the repetition of culture. I think there is a cultural grammar that is genuinely generative. But this too is an open question. What are the specific techniques with which people make movies, ads and memes? How is culture drawn upon and given to, that’s the question. (Mark has a new book out called Creative Superpowers.)
I think people are wrong to say that the only meaning that matters now for brands are the ones marked “social purpose” or “social advocacy.” These matter to be sure. But they are not the only meanings that can make a brand vibrate. Quite apart from the problem of cause fatigue, as Tanya Dua calls it, there are almost an endless provinces of meaning out there. And the good marketer is Marco Polo.
Peter Spear and I have been trying to have this conversation since December. (See his excellent blog That Business of Meaning.) I thank him for the provocation.
▪️ Working on method
We are pretty good, most of us, at using ethnography or something like it. Time to add new methods.
More and more, I am using big data and AI. There is too much waterfront in our diverse, changeable culture for us to depend on qualitative data alone. Or put it this way, only quantitative data can tell us where we should be collecting out qualitative data.
We also need to think more about how to present our work to the client. One method is “scenario planning” which I first got to see in action at Herman Miller. It’s a useful way to present alternative futures. But more important it helps engage clients in the problem solving. See the recent book by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon called Moments of Impact and The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.
Again, we are not pack animals.
But surely, we can build an institutional lattice work!
In a perfect world, we would have a university home. While Syd Levy, John Kelly and Rob Kozinets were still there, this was the Kellogg business school at Northwestern. Ditto the magnificent group Henry Jenkins built at MIT. (He has since moved to USC.)
I am always impressed by how many people with a gift for culture have a connection to Brown University. (Take a bow, Ken Anderson, Kate Hammer and Brad Grossman. See Brad’s Zeitguide here.) Who is responsible for Brown’s contribution to the cause? Suggestions please.
Londoners are unusually brainy when it comes to matters cultural. I couldn’t possibly name everyone who has impressed me there but I’m going to try: Russell Davies, Amelia Torode, Henry Mason, Andy Dexter, Leanne Tomasevic, Richard Wise, John Curran, Lee Sankey, Tracey Follows, John Willshire, Petar Vujosevic, Nick Morris, Johnny Vulcan, Nick Sherrard, Adam Chmielowski, Beeker Northam, Stuart Smith, Jon Howard, Martina Olbertova, Frederica Carlotta and Ben Malbon.
But what was I saying about institutional homes for the study of culture? Ken Anderson is at Princeton at the Keller School. Caley Cantrell is at VCU Brand Center. Rob Kozinets is at USC. I wonder if Michael Diamond could be persuaded to build something into the School of Professional Studies at NYU. Maybe Rob Fields could build it into his Weeksville Heritage Center. Or perhaps now that Amran Amed has colonized the world of fashion (see his revolutionary Business of Fashion) perhaps he would love to climb the vertical and assume control of the cultural high ground.
But of course we don’t need an academic locus. In a post bricks-and-mortar age, we have world-building technologies of our own.
But someone will need to stand up and nominate themselves as the still center of the storm. This person would need the networking gifts of a Napier Collyns. He or she will need the strategic genius of a Sam Ford (now preoccupied by his new assignment at Simon and Schuster.) I had a great conversation last year with Sam Hornsby at Havas. He would be great at this. Sparks and Honey is deeply capable when it comes to the culture idea. Perhaps CEO Terry Young would consider taking on a broader mandate. Robert Morais and Timothy Malefyt have created a home for Business Anthropology. Maybe they would be prepared to cast the net to include those who are interested in culture but are not anthropologists. Or maybe it could be Samantha Ladner, Patti Sunderland, Phil Surles, Eric Nehrlich, Sophie Wade, Ed Cotton, Collyn Ahart, Dan Gould, Faris Yakob, Martin Carriere, Clay Parker Jones, Garth Kay, Melissa Fisher, Rick Liebling or Gillian Tett. I wonder if we could persuade a brand or an agency to create a fellowship so that someone could spend a year setting up a “Culture College.”
Most of all, we need to establish a place in the minds of the clients who fund our work (those of us who live outside the academy). This has to be a shared task: books, conferences. The only thing we don’t want to share is the clients themselves. That would be wrong.
A change inside the corporation?
A change has to be made in the American corporation. This is what makes the revelation from Twitter marketing so exciting. Finally someone is prepared to lead with the culture idea. And if it’s good enough for Twitter, surely it’s good enough for Delta and American, NFL and MLB, Hertz and Avis, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Ford and Chrysler, CBS and NBC, Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft and Apple, and all the brands struggling for oxygen.
Surely, there is a change in the works. I read with interest a story in Variety called Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds.Yes, get rid of the Old Biz Models. Please.
And there was a great article on the HBS website called “NFL Head Coaches Are Getting Younger. What Can Organizations Learn?” It draws on a piece in the Washington Post by Adam Kilgore which includes this passage.
“For years the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses, and innovation taking root slowly.”
The HBS piece concludes,
“This conservative approach to hiring seems to have changed in recent years. As early risk-takers have been rewarded with high-profile success, others have become more willing to take chances themselves.”
Perfect, I thought. Perhaps we can hope for a changing of the guard at the American organization.
The younger you are, the more you treat culture as an obvious good, a useful instrument, and the very heart of your personal interests and identity construction. There are a couple of generations waiting to take their place in the corporation, to be valued by the corporation, to be paid by the corporation, to be advanced by the corporation to the C Suite. Enough with “let’s ask the intern.”
The time for culture is coming. But we keep saying that. How do we hasten the day? Thank you, Twitter, for taking the initiative.
A couple of things I’m liking
Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books, 2017.
Katarina Graffman has a wonderful TED talk about culture here.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Balsy for thoughts on the first draft.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Boston Book Festival, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House.
Reading the future is hard. It takes sharp eyes. It takes lively imaginations. It takes smart models. (There is a “good head on your shoulders” joke to be made here, but I’m going to restrain myself.)
Most of all, reading the future takes the ability to see the things coming when they are a mere smear on the radar screen, a trace of green. Is that Southwest flight 1440 taking a film crew to Sante Fe? Or is it an artifact of an aging navigational system. Only the very gifted can say.
On Thursday (Aug. 15), Chris Ryan and Sean Fennessey convened on the blog called The Watch to discuss a new show called The Boys (around the 12:00 mark). This show is interesting because it posits a world in which superheroes now work for the corporation. They have been corrupted. They are cynical. These superheroes are all working for the man.
At roughly the 14:15 mark, Fennessey says the advent of The Boys is telling.
“This is how you know we are in stage 3 of superheroes as an important cultural force.”
Fennessey believes this is indeed the final stage of the superhero moment. The first was defined by Spider-Man. The second was defined (and dominated) by Marvel. And this third as defined by the likes of Dead Pool, Suicide Squad and now The Boys. Here at stage 3 the genre gets darker, nastier, more worldly. Idealism is swapped out for story lines and characters that are more complicated and less predictable.
Hey, presto. Someone makes a prediction. Fennessey takes a stand. We have a prediction. Superheroes are in their last moment. And a great chunk of popular culture hangs in the balance.
Thank you, Mr. Fennessey. This is a real public service. There are lots of people who claim to see the future coming. Almost no one is prepared to stake a claim, to go on the record, to risk being wrong.
In fact most of us in the forecasting biz are disingenuous. We don’t often make predictions. And when we do, we erase them, the better to create the impression that we are faultless, immaculate, batting at least 900%. When it comes to predicting the future, people like to backdate their checks and otherwise fudge the record.
This is cowardly, but it is also disappointing. Because predictions are useful even when they are wrong. They tell us about possible futures (“adjacent futures” as Stuart Kauffman calls them). Now we are prepared. Now some of us can look at that smear on the radar and go, “You know, I think that could be that thing Fennessey was talking about.”
It’s useful to look for alternate explanations. As part of our “Superhero watch,” I propose two. I am not saying Fennessey is wrong. I am saying let’s get our best ideas on the table, the better to see the future coming.
1) What Fennessey sees in the advent of stage 3 is perhaps not the Icarian fall of superheroes. It may be a simple case of genre going post genre. And let’s face it, it had to. Superheroes were increasingly, to use a second term from Stuart Kauffman, “overformed.” They had quit growing. Increasingly they were a forced march, an exercise in the indubitable. We could see outcomes a long way off. Change or die, it applies even to superheroes.
2) What Fennessey sees as the advent of stage 3 is part of a larger development identified by Hargurchet Bhabra, the Canadian novelist and culture guru. Bhabra observed the improvements taking place in popular culture and said, in effect, “As long as popular culture was the captive of commercial forces, it was going to disappoint from any genuinely creative or intellectual point of view. But now that is now also the possession of large and active audiences, it is getting steadily better. And that means, at some point, popular culture becomes culture plain and simple.” By this reckoning, the superhero arc is following the trajectory of everything in (popular) culture. It started small. It’s getting better. This means letting in the dark, amongst other things.
I don’t intend to make a prediction about Fennessey’s prediction. It was a moment of illumination for me. I am trying to map and track everything in contemporary culture so anytime I can get a head’s up from an expert, my job is easier and I am grateful.
One more methodological point for the trend watching reader, what are the best metrics for tracking the genre and constructing our “superhero watch?” I would be grateful for any and all suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of the “adjacent possible,” see what Rick Liebling is doing with the idea here. Very interesting.
Check out the rate for Wired subscriptions. 10 bucks! I was looking at the Kauffman article on Wired and up came the inevitable “subscribe now” invitation. “Great,” I thought, “someone else wants $100 for a subscription.” This has got to be the best bargain in publishing.
I was reading Axios today and came across an article that describes the desperate conditions of some American neighborhoods.
Working with data collected by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Kim Hart reports several problems:
In many post-industrial cities, vacancies are still at “epidemic levels.”
It’s not just an urban problem; rural areas and small towns can have a vacancy rate nearly twice as high as major metro areas.
Abandoned properties are a significant drain on municipalities because they are expensive to police, drag down the value of surrounding properties, and reduce tax revenues.
This crisis can go from bad to worse.
Hard-hit legacy cities are dealing with some degree of “hypervacancy.” When vacancies rise above about 20% of a community’s total properties, the number of vacant buildings may grow indefinitely and the market stops functioning, according to Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress.
Angie, a friend, recently told me about her brother’s work in a midwestern city.
He was living in Seattle when he decided to see what he could do to repair his home and native city. He called friends from high school and together they put to work.
Wouldn’t this make a great HGTV show? HGTV has enjoyed a big success covering renovation teams of several kinds. Fixer Upper, Good Bones, Flip or Flop, Rehab Addict, to name a few. Indeed, this is one of the real success stories of reality TV.
I couldn’t help wondering whether this might not be an idea for a new HGTV franchise. How about a show that features Millennials helping to rebuild a neighborhood? This would be a story about renovation in the literal sense. But it also renovation of community, neighborhood life, urban economies and the American city. Angie’s brother is all about this bigger picture.
And surely a bigger picture would be good for HGTV. There is something cozy and charming about their present narrow focus, individual homes, families, reno projects. But there is always a bigger picture, and this would open up story-telling vistas for HGTV.
Best of all, HGTV could help us reckon with a compelling social problem.
The Venn diagram in question. How can we make these circles intersect?
Call it City Salvage, or Reno, not demo, or Reno rescue.
I have reached out to “Angie’s brother” and if he is prepared to let me, I will give you more details in a subsequent post.
Thanks to Patrick Gorski for the image and to Pamela, my wife, for help with naming.
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as wereCaitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)
Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)
After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.
Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.
1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.
2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?
3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.
4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.
5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.
5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).
5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).
5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.
5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.
6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look. Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.
[written as an anthropological response to the New Zealand massacre of March 2019. I was in the field, doing ethnographies.]
I’ve spent the last month out of the shipping lanes of American prosperity, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey. In one case, I visited a town of roughly 1000 people. This town is two or three departing families away from losing their high school and with this, their high school team, and with this, their town spirit. (The high school matters so much in this scheme of things, the town police cruiser is dressed in school colors.)
If the town is on a knife’s edge, so are some livelihoods. The people who run the hardware story can hear the Amazon dragon over the hill side. Not far behind, robots and AI. And there are all the other problems of American life: poverty, opioid and other kinds of drug abuse, unemployment, families damaged by violence, poverty, and divorce, kids who manifest as aimless, lost even.
It’ll probably be ok. This town has survived many challenges. I walked past a home-made flag pole on top of which was a model airplane in the form of a Lancaster bomber. The work of a hobbyist? A celebration of someone’s departure for service in 1940’s Europe? A way to memorialize loss? Bad things happen. The town has a way of carrying on.
But this time might be different. The uncertainties are stacking up. And when you throw in a few imponderables, and some people begin to lose their nerve and turn to wild thinking and fault finding, and really bad things draw nearer.
Back in a city, plenty more problems. Structural misery, a system of drug abuse, a permanent class of hopeless people, an institutionalized inequality. To be sure the inner city is filled with lifeboats, churches, hospitals, soup kitchens, libraries, shelters. All of them really making an effort without any hope of making a difference.
This is where New Zealand might be said to start. This underclass in an inner city used to be a mystery to the rest of us. They were people we said had failed. They were absolutely other others. But they might as well have been another species. They were “losers.” And by stages this classification has given way to the understanding that, ‘no, actually, that could happen to be me.’ And for some the revelation is still more frightening: ‘that will be me. If things don’t change.’ (Things have been tough enough for long enough that it’s like we’re wearing Frank Capra glasses. You know, the ones that come from watching It’s A Wonderful Life over the holidays. We can see the future, good and bad.)
There are three groups to consider. The first is frightened and angry. They can be mobilized in the ballot box but are otherwise passive. The second is frightened and angry and actively looking for a scape goat. ‘Who is to blame? It’s not going to be me. I worked hard. I did everything asked of me. I sacrificed.’ This group is intellectually mobilized. They call in. They are anti social on social. The third group takes things one horrifying step further. They believe that the world can be restored to order by the murder of ‘outsiders.’ Killing ‘outsiders,’ to some this is a socio-political act, a method of re-equilibration.
And this ‘argument’ would be less compelling if anyone else was making an effort, if people who believe themselves in peril could point to politicians, bureaucrats, NFPs and identify someone who has created something more promising than a life boat.
But they don’t see much of this. They see a Washington filled with people who found a way to help themselves to public resources. They see talk show hosts grown rich as Croesus trafficking in grievance…not solutions. They see intellectuals elites (by which they mean you and me) who are doing nicely. When asked why we have not been more active in coming to their aid, we say things like “well, the economy changes and people are obliged to change with it. Sure it’s going to be painful, but an adjustment has to happen on the ground. People have to do it themselves” People have taken pains to tell me how little comfort this brings them when they are lying in bed at 4 in the morning, wondering if they are going to lose their home.
So what about solutions? I have to say that growing up in Canada, we used to think of the US as a nation of problem solvers, people who took could not wait to exercise their ingenuity.
The solution pieces are easy enough to see. Local economies in a small town are in peril. At least the industrial economies are. The artisanal economies on the other hand are flourishing. Thanks to the revolution put in train by our Mao, Alice Waters, Americans have rethought what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, how they want it grown, harvested and brought to market. The artisanal movement has transformed consumer taste and preference, and not just in food. Ideas of luxury, extravagance, satiety, satisfaction, indulgence, all of these are on the run. Take a bow, Ms. Waters.
A companion change in culture is taking place as boomers (of whom I am one) have crept towards retirement. To no one’s surprise, they are rejected cultural conventions for aging and insisted on a new model sometimes called the Third 30. This says that with enough health and wealth, sometime can redefine themselves radically. (So much for the gentle decline model.) And this create a large, well funded, deeply experienced labor class that is eager to take on new challenges.
Back to the little town on the verge of losing its high school. With the right will and initiative, we could redefine what a teacher is and bring boomers into the loop. Costs of education drop, town spirit perseveres, the police cruiser keeps its colors.
And while we are at it, lets invite artisans to come live here. Now the local economies are somewhat protected from Amazon, AI and the robots. New sources of revenue, tax and otherwise, open up. And notice we know have an economy to which some people living in the inner city can contribute. So let’s invite them too. This little town is vastly better than a life boat.
Peter Kafka has a great piece on Conde Nast, specifically how this once dominant publishing enterprise now struggles and what this means for incoming editor Roger Lynch.
“The magazine industry is in decline because the magazine industry’s core product — packaging stories and ads and presenting them together in a discrete bundle — is in decline, for an obvious reason: Readers and advertisers are more interested in spending their time and money in other ways.”
This post is an anthropological addendum to Kafka’s original. It attempts to answer why readers and advertisers are spending their time and money elsewhere.
Conde Nast and American culture come unstuck
In the post war period, America howled with change. The New Yorker and Vogue were excellent guides, a way to keep a fix on how culture was changing. These publications were working out of New York City, with a select set of gifted journalists, each of them plugged into a series of exquisite networks that ran from the Manhattan delta back into the worlds of innovation. The New Yorker and Vogue made themselves the bearers of essential intelligence. Readers were periodically “read in” to the state of contemporary culture, briefed like so many diplomats, politicians or spies, their cultural capital perpetually topping up.
But American culture changed. So much innovation, from too many parties, with so many effects. Pyromaniacs are now running the fire works factory. (And I don’t just mean Trump. There’s now a Trump on every street corner.) Unsurprisingly, the beautiful intelligence systems called The New Yorker and Vogue have been overwhelmed.
Readers no longer use these publications as they once did. They extract knowledge that is interesting but, for “read in” purposes, this knowledge is now less essential.
in sum 1: the value proposition is broken.
2) In the post war period, people were eager to hear from The New Yorker and Vogue. Eager, indeed, to defer and imitate. The value proposition was bigger than mere intelligence. It was also a matter of sensibility. What was the right style of life and view of world? Vogue and The New Yorker could supply these too. There was a hierarchy in place. Readers knew their place and accepted it. Publications were nice about it. They didn’t actively scorn the reader. (Well, sometimes they did. Paul Fussell made a career revealing status secrets to provincial readers and then scorning them for their interest.)
This is over, mostly. Hierarchy is dying. Deference is tired and tiresome. Provincial readers are no longer provincial. The level of education has risen. Data are distributed. The cultural advantage that comes from living in New York City is radically diminished. Anyone who works as a creative or a strategist routinely looks behind the curtain of American culture. There are few secrets and fewer elites. High culture knowledge is no longer “must know” capital. Neither, interestingly, is avant-garde knowledge. In sum, the New Yorker (both the person and the publication) knows less, and when he/she/it does know more, this matters less.
The reader is no longer a supplicant. The New Yorker and Vogue no longer have quite the same authority. The relationship is no longer quite so asymmetrical.
in sum 2: the value relationship is broken, too.
3) But the problem goes deeper still.
Conde Nast sits in an imperiled middle. This is where “stories” live, to be sure, but, as little bundles of proper nouns, events, causes and consequences, these stories do not take us deeply enough into details or high enough to see the big picture. “Stories” feel like a Victorian machine. Charming and noisy in a Steampunk kind of way. Dear but not useful. The scale and mechanics are just wrong. Any and all claims to utility now dubious.
Conde Nast sits in a certain middle because it is hoping to speak to as many readers (of a kind) as possible. The notion is that the article that really impresses a Methodist minister from the rough and tumble part of Cleveland, Ohio will mystify, perhaps even antagonize just about everyone else.
But, miraculously, the first principle of mass marketing and mass media has been repudiated. The status system of the post war period is suddenly ineffective and people are beginning to think of privilege as a trap. (There are several architects of the mighty ideological change, but one chief hell-raiser was Alice Waters.) Once a reward, an indulgence, an entitlement, privilege now feels “gated” or better “gating.” I have collected the ethnographic data and these data say that privilege is beginning to make people feel limited and unsophisticated. It makes them wondered if they run the risk of having the world steal a march on them. If that Methodist minister has her wits about her, her story may very well prove keenly interesting and useful…even for people who happen to occupy, through no fault of their own, quite different genders, classes, cities, and occupations. The devil is in these details, not the generalities. We are mobile and we are curious. We are (all) anthropologists. This makes the old publishing trade offs and compromises misleading.
This brings us to the big picture. Because, yes, generalities, properly constructed, do sometimes still matter. Without them we cannot see the future coming. And it is now ferociously and perpetually on approach. Sometime after World War II, “trends” died. They ran like large, handsome breakers through American culture, bringing consensus as they went. Now (cliche alert) it’s a perfect storm out there, with lots of trends moving in all directions, colliding in ways that make them impossible to track in conventional ways. And this puts paid to the diffusion models of the post war period, the ones that said if we wanted to know the future of the middle class we only needed to consult their early adopting betters (New York writers, say). The new journalism will have to look more like O’Hare on those windy summer days when the flight schedule takes on a wistful, poetic quality. (Your flight from LA? We have no idea.) This journalism will need a new kind of pattern recognition. Conde Nast may or may not be equal to the task. And this threatens the enterprise with what Taleb would call a “black swan” (i.e., an unanticipated disruption) because someone out there surely is.
Conde Nast uses conventional categories of understanding…at the very moment when these are being deformed and reformed. It uses language like “story,” “politics,” “artist,” “family,” “corporation,” “community,” “self,” “democracy,” as if these terms had not been blown to bits. This makes Conde Nast journalism a shell game. We can’t know what it’s saying. That is unless the story is formed by genre, in which cases it’s not clear why we’re bothering with it in the first place.
The loyalty to the “story” model of journalism is understandable. Simplicity, clarity, everyday language, these represent the deepest contracts between journalist and reader. But the underlying assumptions are now up for grabs. To presume them blithely on the page, it’s like taking Bolivian currency from the 19th century to our local Bank of America and hoping for a kind reception. The old exchange models are broken. We can’t use them to talk about the world in a way that matters.
Glassy and calm. That’s the quality of much American journalism. Beneath the text murmurs a lovely conviction: “this is obvious, you are smart, hey, you get it, let’s move on.” This has always been a little disingenuous. Now it’s flat out dissembling. (Well, unless of course it’s delusional. I mean, if the journalist does not recognize the sleight of hand he/she performs.) We have scant grounds for confidence. The only thing we know for certain is that the world streams with change, that most propositional bets are iffy, that most rhetorical devices are unreliable. The biggest shared assumption of all, of course, is that we share assumptions. This is really unreliable. And if this is now in question, it’s time to stop making glib assumptions about our ability to create the effortless, efficient or reliable acts of communication. (I make this argument only to contradict my argument. Sorry. Not sorry.)
Long form work has a problem of its own. The author, present but unassuming, starts us off with a very particular story, and mines the details every so patiently until the transmission of the idea is accomplished as if by magic. One of the masters of this form is John McPhee, a writer who was so good at making the details speak that The New Yorker is now addicted to his voice. It’s as if the journalist is frightened of frightening the horses. She must now eschew abstractions, metaphors, reckless claims (as above). It’s all so very patronizing. And laborious. And finally, if we are going to be honest about it, ever so slightly anti-intellectual. (Gasp.)
And then there is the herd mentality as people cluster around the intellectual trend of the moment. Someone has an idea (say, “digital engagement is bad for you!”) and then for several months everyone gives voice to exactly the same revelation as if it were new, fresh and totally original. It becomes the worldly, the tough minded, the “I really care about the world,” thing to say on line and especially over drinks. As if, God forgive us, there could be something entirely, unreservedly wrong about a technology that gives us instant access to knowledge and social connection whenever, wherever we want. The New Yorker should be working harder to murder nonsense in its crib.
I am not calling for philosophical discourse, pontificating experts or academics going all papal on us. The post modernists broke the Liberal Arts and they just don’t care. They have committed a crime against the species, and they just don’t care. The last thing we want them to do is have a go at public discourse.
In a sense, this is simple Marc Andreessenian wisdom. Publishing has suffered a disintermediation. Software is eating the world. Magazines were a nice light snack. Put it this way, and the future is clear. We have to find a way to change how a magazine mediates between the reader and the world. The solutions will not be merely digital. There is no simple UX solution, no algorithmic fix. We have to rethink categories and conventions, all that cultural stuff. All that cultural stuff the digital world likes to think is residual and likely to work out on its own. But it won’t. So the problem may be Andreessenian, but the solution probably won’t be.
Thoughts on how to create value
1) The real insight comes not from “story” but from the deeper dive and the bigger picture. The middle matters less and less. Go high. Dig deep.
2) The language of the story is itself a story. We can’t assume that even the simplest terms are reliable. Examine assumptions. Entertain alternatives. Show what differences follow from one choice over another. Most of all, we want to use language not as something transparent to reality, but as something that needs reformation.
3) There is no privileged point of view. Tell the story from several points of view, class, race, gender. Identities flourish. We are multi-perspectival. (Without being in the least Baudrillardian about it. Meaning matters. Culture continues.) This should look great on the page. And it is the world according to John Stewart Mill. So.
4) Let’s stop acting as if the story, once told, is over. What the reader needs is an arc. What came before. Where things stand now. Where things might go from here. Show things in process. This change is just now taking place in the strategic world. Until very recently, strategy firms would sell the client on a new idea with the implicit notion that “change this and you are done!” We are beginning to see that good strategies have a “best by” date. Let’s advise readers as we do clients: “this too shall pass. We want you to get into this strategy/stock/market/innovation in 12 months and out of it in 24 months.” The story is a window. Everything rushes through it.
5) Even the most sinuous prose style will not be sufficient. We need statistical data. Nothing effortful. Let’s be honest. No one wants to “do the math.” But data visualizations, these are essential. Again, it’s a world in motion and a story that only quantitative data can tell.
6) And speaking of Peter Kafka (and Kara Swisher), we must ask why pod casts are flourishing. Some insights come most surely when crackling up out of all the “noise on the line” of a real conversation. It turns out that some of the stuff the writer was supposed to eliminate, we want back in. Why? That’s a story too.
What publication will step up and reinvent reporting? The world set sail. Journalism stands on a wharf in 19th century Manhattan, smiling bravely. Who will rescue it?
in sum 3: parts of journalism are broken
It’s a lot to fix. The value proposition, the relationship and the model. Until we fix these problems, we can’t hope to fix the business model. We won’t get people to pay for content. But once we do, they will. The new journalism will be worth a fortune.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is a cofounder of the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He advises widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Boston Book Festival, Nike, and the White House (no, the other one).
Tom Brady says new plays were inserted into the Patriot’s playbook on Sunday.
“At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. … They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.” (Peter King)
It’s hard to reckon with how big this is. I think we can agree that no team is better coached than the Patriots. So you might think that the Pats didn’t need new plays at this point. In any case, there can’t be many teams smart enough to master new plays in the fleeting hours before a big game. And few coaches who would risk overloading players with novelty at the moment they were overloaded with anxiety.
But this is a measure of the “just in time,” “pure improv,” “adaptation as a continuous event” organization that Coach Belichick has created in New England. He has fashioned a hyper intelligent beast that can be reprogrammed continuously.
But that’s just for starters.
On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.
“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs. They just take a bunch of guys that they think are football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman. Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same playing different positions.”
So this sheer adaptational ability goes right into the heart of personnel decisions, into training, into the very concept Belichick has of what the game can be.
I think it’s fair to say that as business heats up it will summon (and then require) managers with Belichickean gifts. And from these extraordinary managers we can expect new models of what business is. We will see “business models” that change in real time.
[This essay was published on Medium on Sunday (December 2)].
This is a wonderful interview. Two smart people expressing themselves at speed with power and precision. Swisher stops from time to time to sing her own praises. But I’ll take it, especially now that podcast practice is often sloppy thinking coated with a syrupy glaze of “the only thing I really owe you is the sound of my enchanting voice.”
This Recode interview is plain spoken, tough minded, and more or less unfreighted by fashionable ideas. It’s a troika driven bracingly through woods and snow to the safety of a country inn stacked with useful ideas and a blazing hearth of creativity. For the moment, we are rescued from the cold (and those nay-saying corporate cossacks).
Comstock talks about “success theater,” the way an organization beguiles the CEO with an appearance that all is well, that every one of her ideas is irresistibly sensible, and the deep reassuring promise that her kingdom come, her will be done.
Comstock also gives us a glimpse of “innovation theater,” those moments when everyone puts on a bright face to embrace the new orthodoxy. Yes, we are well outside the box. Yes, we are going to reinvent near everything. Dude, no problem.
The reality, Comstock knows from her experience at NBC and GE, is otherwise. People are frightened, competitive, and often blinded by a narrow reckoning of their own self interest. Worst of all, new ideas provoke our provincialism. (Surely, NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] is the least worthy and the most dangerous reason to refuse the future. Because, really, if the future is not in your backyard, you’re are, as a professional and an organization, just asking for trouble.)
So there’s no “isn’t the future wonderful?” blather here. This interview is about the sheer and dour difficulty of change. We have all heard the “war stories” from the early innovators. Too often these are “just so” accounts that conceal the importance of failure and politics. And not just failure as in “ok, that didn’t work, let’s pivot!” But failure as in “oh, shit, we are committed to an idea that hemorrhages value as it loses altitude.”
Comstock is candid about her failures, including iVillage.
“Bought iVillage. It didn’t work. It took it a while not to work.”
Comstock learned something from iVillage as it was failing. This is how we win even when losing. If we are not learning, then the investment really was squandered. But if IP comes out of failure then the loss was a win and the investment worked. This will demand a C-Suite time-line not to mention accounting subtleties we have yet to master.
Comstock built an early in-house content studio. This was a chance to see what worked and what did not, at a time when nothing was obvious or intuitive. You had to try stuff. Comstock’s group invented The Easter Bunny Hates You and Microwave Gorilla. And then Comstock had to protect her lab from the broadcast mothership which really only grasped big, formulaic TV shows, not to mention C-suite carnivores who felt they could spend these resources more intelligently…not to mention an organization that wanted any kind of short-term success for the sake of balance sheet and PR.
Still more trial and error, and before you knew it, Comstock had invented Hulu. (Which, thanks to this interview, I now think of Hulu as a kind of YouTube for old media.) And this in turn forced new forms of advertising. Suddenly there were 10-second “post-rolls.”
Lots of useful self criticism. Here Comstock is on politics.
Politics (or, stop being so University of Chicago)
One, I think the big mistake I made, personally and with the team, is kind of the cool kids versus the not-cool kids. And I think that happens a lot in change and I hired a bunch of digital Turks and we were gonna take on the world and I was out with my face on every magazine cover, like, “Yay, digital’s the future.” And I didn’t spend enough time building the bridges and building the partnerships internally.
I think many creatives and strategists tend to think the idea is everything. (Certainly this is the idea I brought out of University of Chicago. And it is, someone told me, the attitude of many Israeli innovators. Both see politics and anything promotional as so much time-wasting and glad-handing.) Both say, “Once we have the idea, we’re done!” The reality is of course, very different. Ideas are where you start, not where you end.
There is also great thinking here on the role of the irritant. (The term is Swisher’s.) The idea is that someone has to tie the bell on the cat, someone has to say to Mark Zuckerberg, “What? Are you kidding me? No!” Who dares risk their career like this? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? Only those with Swisher-scale self confidence need apply. They know they don’t need their present position. At all. They can be truth tellers because the world is their oyster, er, option.
(This has wacky implications for hiring. Now we have to hire people we want to keep precisely because we know they’re going to leave. And, er, we want them to. Huh? (I leave this puzzle to the team at Coburn Ventures who recently met to contemplate these issues.)
In additional to irritants, we need those who mint permission, “de-riskers” as Swisher calls them. Someone has to make it OK for others to take risks. Swisher points out that Elon Musk made it ok for Ford and BMW to take the risk on electric vehicles.
Because he paved the way for them. He was the early risk-taker, right? He was de-risking it for them. So you need somebody in your organization who is willing to take the arrows.
The thing we especially forget when beating the innovation drum is how hard a really new idea is to think. In the usual “biz lit” prayer book, innovation is a joyful experience. We just summon our courage. And jump off the deep end. Eazy peazy. Right?
Wrong. New ideas are painful and frightening. The innovation zone is not sunny or fun. Things we haven’t thought before are strange and weird. Eventually we will skin them with familiarity, but when new, brand new, ideas either resist thinking altogether or pin-wheel around inside our skulls like a Hot Wheels stunt truck. Too often, senior management (well, everyone, really) doesn’t want to think new ideas until they are nice and smooth and worn with wear. Because before the novelty disappears, everything looks like the Microwave Gorilla and provokes a “yeah, right” skepticism.
Or as Comstock puts it,
You have to get out in the world and discover. You have to go where things are really weird. You have to make room for it and people have to see it’s valuable.
But my favorite piece here are thoughts from both Swisher and Comstock on the importance of multiplicity in the way we think.
I think companies don’t spend enough time thinking through [different scenarios]. I always liked those red team, blue team exercises that came out of the military, where you deliberately seed one point of view versus the other and you kind of set up a cage match. … I think if you’re really serious about innovation, and your investors are serious about you having a future, you have to have a separate lane where you’re investing in some of these things, longer return, you’re testing ideas.
This is not the first time, Comstock has talked about multiplicity. See her comments here. I have tried to imagine a scenario-centric corporation here.
I wanted to do scenario-building. I was obsessed with the idea of what are the 10 things that could happen … that’s how I do my reporting actually. That’s my little secret.
Journalism is a great background for that.
I make up things all the time, and then one of them is right.
Yeah. Because then you’re testing. You’re constantly testing.
Yeah, then I’ll call people and they’re like, “How did you know?” And I’m like, “I just made it up. Turns out to be true.” One of them is true. Like it’s interesting and it’s always pushing against something.
This is, or should be, management and journalism now that the world rushes in at us. The time between first sighting and ‘right on your doorstep’ is collapsing by orders of magnitude. So you have to spot things early, imagine them ferociously, and domesticate them fast. Otherwise, we are captives of catch-up.
This is where multiplicity and complexity come in. We have to surround ourselves with many versions of the world and we have to learn to manage the intellectual complexity this makes necessary. And this surely means that some captains of industry may not have quite enough intellectual omph to make the journey. For this group, Microwave Gorillas, not to mention much of the rest of the world, must remain an enduring mystery.
One way to look for disruption is to watch our color palette.
Cause color is culture. And that means it can tell us that culture is changing.
I was reminded of this when I went to an artisanal fair in Hudson, New York. Everyone around me was dressed in autumnal hues. I had turned out in a bright yellow that can only be called nautical. (I wear this coat not because I sail, but because I am very much hoping I will not get run over when walking at night.)
Autumnal colors, good. Nautical yellow, bad. Color matters because color is culture. (Thank you, Peter Spear, for your patience with a tone-deaf visitor.)
So last night, watching TV, I couldn’t help notice this new ad for Cadillac. Notice the riotous use of color.
This struck me especially because Cadillac recently used a very different palette, showing new models drifting through the moody, monochromatic, streets of Soho. Very quiet, very hip, very dialed down.
So what gives with all the colors? No, I’m asking. What gives? Is this an indication of a change in culture? Is this the future whispering in our ear?
But of course, this could well be an eccentric choice on the part of the brand or the agency. That’s always possible. But let’s assume that the people at the brand and the agency is listening to culture as hard as we are…and possibly, just possibly, they think they’ve heard something, they’ve spotted a future, they have seen a disruption in the works.
As I was suggesting in the last post (How to read a t-shirt) we cannot follow everything happening “out there” in culture. We have to rely on other listeners. We have to divide the labor of our disruption watch.
The question now: Are big, extravagant colors coming? And does this suggest something in culture that might be big and extravagant too? Is the new prosperity going to change our palette, our messaging, and the messages that matter in brand building? Is the economy going to drive culture in new directions?
No, I’m asking. Is it?
You know who might have an answer to these questions is Ingrid Fetell Lee who, as it happens, has just published a book called The Aesthetics of Joy. For more details, see Ingrid’s website here.
Peter Spear has a great newsletter called That Business of Meaning. I think you can subscribe here. Otherwise visit Peter’s website here.
If we listen far enough out into the future, we are dealing with very weak signals. Or, better, we are dealing with noise that may or may not be signal.
One way to solve this problem is to enlist the aid of others. To let them listen for us. We need listening stations. Where ever they present themselves. (And they are likely to present themselves in the most unlikely places.)
One example caught my attention recently.
The first came from an essay by Lauren Sherman. Sherman is an impressive journalist. She examines the fashion world broadly defined and has a gift for seeing the pattern in the whirlwind of data that comes spinning up out of this world almost daily. (She writes for Fashion of Business.)
Recently, Sherman wrote about t-shirts.
Traditionally, the t-shirt is a perfect example of a commodity market. It may begin with robust margins but it’s not very long before people are slugging it out for tiny increments barely above cost.
But Sherman noticed a company called Everybody.World was doing very nicely indeed. Everybody.World had discovered that it can sell wholesale in the very teeth of the commodity market.
There was margin here. And lots of customers. The Trash Tee was a hit with streetwear brands including Noah NYC and No Vacancy Inn. It sold to to Shake Shack, Standard Hotel, Google, Airbnb and Dropbox. It was a feature of music festivals like Coachella.
This is a god send for someone who cares about the future. The t-shirt is a message from the future, a glimpse of the world in the works.
Case study learnings (from the ground up)
1. We can’t monitor everything.
2. We enlist the help of others, listening to the listeners, so to speak.
3. In this case, the journalist Lauren Sherman surveys the fashion business and spots something.
4. Everybody.world is making a success of t-shirts (of all things).
5. This is a big and unlikely change: The lowly t-shirt, once the unloved and unlovely child of the clothing biz, and almost the classic case of a commodity market, is undergoing its own little apotheosis. It has escaped the status of an undergarment, night shirt, softball team uniform and college wear. It is now punching above it’s weight and is now the medium for some very interesting messages. There is something to learn here.
This is where the culture watching really begins.
For starters we are looking at the expression of a couple of new sensitivities. These are, or should be, familiar territory, specifically:
6. People prefer things that are recycled.
7. And they prefer things that are manufactured in America.
Let’s treat these as “so noted.”
But the rest is new to me. How about you?
8. These t-shirts reveal something astounding about music festivals. They work there because they help festival organizers speak to 20 different segments. 20! (And the t-shirts work here because these groups are not going to signify their difference with a cheap and flimsy piece of polyester.) We are put on notice that festivals, once monolithic and a little repetitive, are now various. Very various. Certainly we have absorbed the “diversity” lesson from other sources…but this kind of cultural diversity tells us something about consumer taste and preference that our economic models were never designed to content with. Are we ready?
9. These t-shirts sell as street ware. The world of fashion is changing. Design and branding comes not just from on high from the great fashion houses and god-like designers. It comes also from the fearless, endlessly provocative efforts of people who routinely break the rules of the fashion moment. (In the current world of fashion, the insurgent designer, as Scott Miller would call him, is powerful and rising.) Let’s contemplate what this means for branding and PR. If we think we can speak to the world in the big booming voice of corporate self assurance…well maybe it’s time to think again. Everyone in the marketing and innovation biz is taking a risk on new voices. (Consider Nike as a recent case in point.)
10. These t-shirts work for companies like AirBnb and Google precisely because these companies are working hard to get away from that big booming voice of corporate assurance. Nothing says playful and propositional like a t-shirt. Especially when compared to the official bumpf issued by PR at HQ.
11. The t-shirt are also a calculated effort, as expert Sophie Wade tells us, to send a message to the Millennial employee for whom all companies must now compete. A t-shirt says, “look how much fun it must be to work here! We’re, like, super casual! And also totally awesome.”
12. Perhaps the biggest take-away is the evidence these observations give us of a world in which the basic rules and regs are changing. Three worlds, to be specific. That of the Music Festival. That of the street. And that of the organization. All of them have embraced the t-shirt for their own, revealing, reasons. All of them are primed for change. Are we monitoring these changes? Have we read the t-shirt? Have we grasped its message?
(This post was originally published on Medium two days ago. It is reproduced here with light editing only.)
How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots win so much?
Yes, Belichick is a genius. Yes, this system is the beneficiary of continuities at owner, coach, quarterback and players other teams can only dream of.
There are lots of answers. Every football fan has pondered them.
But here’s one I hadn’t heard of.
On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.
“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs.
They just take a bunch of guys [who are] football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman, Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same, playing different positions.”
This Belichick innovation is something more than a clever adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of thinking we prize these days. It rises above the architecture of thought and solves a problem in a new way. This is a classic disruption, a veritable black swan. The opposition can’t see it coming until there it is on the field.
Other coaches are prisoners of convention. They start with the positions specified by the age-old architecture of football. They find the players that fit these slots. And only then do they begin the work of strategy and execution.
Belichick’s innovation says, in effect,
“We don’t have positions to fill. We have problems to solve. We have plays to run. We will ask our players to conform to the play…instead of asking the play to conform to conventional thinking. Luckily, we have players so talented they can change their stripes from play to play.”
Has Belichick been reading Complexity theory? It’s possible.
What does the Belichick disruption mean to the rest of us?
Most organizations are slaves to convention. There’s the hierarchy that distributes power. There’s the division of labor that tells people what to do. We ask our personnel to conform to these conventions. Instead of turning them loose to solve the problem at hand.
This image of Rebecca Walker is from the Wikipedia entry for Third Wave Feminism (I can’t find an attribution for the image on this page or the one for Ms. Walker.)
(This post was originally published a couple of days ago on Medium. I’ve added a post script which does not appear there.)
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and was shocked to hear the guests talk about their clothing brand as if it were very special and blindingly original.
They insisted that their brand spoke to young women with a feminist message of empowerment. I kept waiting for the host to gently point out that there were a couple of precedents here.
For starters: One hundred years of suffragette feminism, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Walker (pictured), to say nothing of the work of Dove and the brilliant “Throw Like a Girl” videos by Lauren Greenfield for Always.
But no. He sat by while his guests sang their own praises. The best he could muster were obliging prompts on the order of “so tell me, would you say you were totally awesome or merely utterly fantastic?”
The host is from the creative world, so he’s not trained as a journalist. And podcasts are, as we know, a planet still forming.
More’s the pity.
Edison Research found that 48 million people listened to podcasts last year. The number grows steadily. This universe expands steadily. But it’s not clear that it is maturing as a form of discourse. My fear: that it is expanding but a little witless, that it’s agreeable but a little toothless.
The world of journalism has taken this question on, and the podcast has something to learn from this precedent.
The Society of Professional Journalism has code of ethics. The code asks that members adhere to four principals:
1. Seek Truth and Report It.
2. Minimize Harm.
3. Act Independently.
4. Be Accountable and Transparent.
In the podcast world, this might be boiled down to a simple imperative:
cut out the shameless glad handing and ask real questions in the pursuit of real answers. Do not suffer fools.
No sooner had I published to this post to Medium than I found myself listening to a Recode Media interview by Kurt Wagner of Nick Bell, Snap VP of Content. I was impressed by Wagner’s willingness to ask the difficult question. Several of them. How well was Bell’s company doing and what did he (really) think about the share price? Why does Bell use “sexy selfies” when we might expect “serious journalism?” Most devastatingly, Wagner asked Bell if he regrets having failed to engage the creator community. (This is a difficult question because it suggests a fundamental failure to grasp perhaps the biggest change ((and opportunity)) in the digital world.) Bell took these questions in stride, but the interview was now richer and more illuminating. No glad handing here. (It occurred to me that one behavioral marker of the difficult question is the awkward silence. There were a couple. You could almost hear Bell thinking, “He did not just ask me that!”)
I looked Wagner up and was interested to see that he puts the “ethics question” at the center of of how he describes himself.
Senior Editor, Social Media
Kurt Wagner has been a business and tech journalist since 2012 and was previously reporting for Mashable. He also covered general tech and Silicon Valley news in his first job as a tech reporter with Fortune magazine, based in San Francisco. Originally from the Seattle area, Kurt graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.S. in communication and political science. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Santa Clara, the university newspaper, for two years.
Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.
In June 2016, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a job as an administrative assistant with Instagram’s marketing and community team. She is now a member of Instagram’s brand marketing team. She does not share material information with me about specific company projects or plans. She has been awarded a small stock grant as part of her compensation package, in which I do not have any ownership or control.
I have various 401K and IRA accounts, as well as non-retirement mutual fund stock accounts that invest in a wide-ranging basket of stocks, over which I have no control. I do not own stock in any individual tech companies.
I do not consult for any companies, nor do I accept gifts or products of value from companies I cover. I do not accept travel or accommodations from companies I cover.
Recode is owned wholly by Vox Media, a company with an audience of 170 million worldwide. It has eight distinct media brands: The Verge (Technology and Culture), Vox.com (News), SB Nation (Sports), Polygon (Gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (Shopping, Beauty and Fashion), Curbed (Real Estate and Home), as well as Recode (Tech Business).
Vox Media has a number of investors, including, but not limited to, Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal, both of which are owned by Comcast Corporation.
My posts have total editorial independence from these investors, even when they touch on products and services these companies produce, compete with, or invest in. The same goes for all content on Recode and at our conferences. No one in this group has influence on or access to the posts we publish. We will also add a direct link to this disclosure when we write directly about the companies.
Blogger, heal thyself
It’s all very well to play the “J’accuse” card. In point of fact, I do not have a Wagnerian statement of ethics that lets the reader know what standards they can expect of this blog. And I should. (And it says something about the haze of self congratulation that surrounded blogging in the early days that it never occurred to me to criticize blogging in the way I am now criticizing podcasting. Bitter? Ok, a little.)
I will leave the full statement for another day. But I can say this much.
1) I have never expected, solicited, or extracted any sort of payment for a blog post.
2) I have never written in a laudatory manner about anyone for whom I have served as a consultant.
I have written a lot of laudatory pieces. My “beat” at this blog is contemporary American culture and I am especially interested when I see people (by which I mean creatives, writers, agencies, brands, journalists, bloggers) making interesting (witty, rich, powerful) contributions to that culture. My guiding assumption is that much of American culture comes from commerce and we have done a poor job looking at the intersection between culture and commerce. Inevitably this means I look at the work of branders and agencies in an approving way. How does they express culture, how does they improve culture? But in 1.5 million words, I have not got any sort of payment for these posts. Before or after the fact. I’ve never even got so much as a bottle of scotch or a note of acknowledgement. (Agencies like to think they exist sui generis. And this says a lot about why the creative and commercial world struggles so much these days. But it’s also a good thing. It keeps temptation at bay.)
3) It’s one thing never to write in a laudatory manner. If we are to follow the example of journalism in general and a journalist like Wagner in particular, we are obliged also to write negatively. This blog has lots of criticism. I have criticized Gillette, P&G, and Coca-Cola, to name just three. Bad work (i.e., lazy, stupid, craven work) deserves to be called out and scorned. I am sure this has cost me clients who supply the income that keeps my “self-funded anthropology” enterprise afloat. So this has been something more than a cosmetic gesture. It’s cost me.
There may be an official anthropology code here. (And it is almost certainly an exercise in the field’s solipsism, effectively discouraging all interactions with all parties. God forbid, the field should let in data that might disturb its orthodoxies.) But certainly there is an unofficial “University of Chicago” ethics code. This says, “you are in this inquiry for the inquiry, and the moment you start to shill, you cease to inquire.”
At the Culture Camp in June, we will be applying our knowledge of American culture to the following topics.
1: Futures of work (the physical, hierarchical and emotional changes in how we work)
2: Futures of social (meme making, identity construction and pinging the hive)
3: Futures of storytelling (TV, marketing, movies, advertising)
4: Futures of branding (artisanal, consumer packaged goods and brand you)
5: Futures of retail (the mall, Main Street, fighting the Amazon dragon)
6: Futures of consumer engagement (brand activation and other Culturematics)
7: Futures of financial services (speaking to different segments, in new languages with new logics)
8: Futures of Health & Wellness (new cultural ideas of body, mind and spirit)
9: Futures of the American Home & American Family (critical contexts for CPG)
10: Futures of Tourism & Hospitality (engaged travel, share economies)
11) Futures of Social Good (the economy of social change)
I can hear someone saying, “But you can’t possibly cover all this territory in a day.”
But that is the beauty of a cultural approach. It gives us knowledge that is deep and broad. It gives us a single set of principles that apply across the board.
Culture operates everywhere to shape the American experience (and experiment). So it can be used to solve a great breadth of problems.
Or to use the visual metaphor that features in my opening deck on culture.
Any and every culture looks like London from the air. A great mass of detail and complexity. Like this:
But once we do our study of culture, this world looks a lot more like this:
We can see the parts, the wholes and the relationships. More than that, we can see the logics that make this world make sense. This has always been anthropology’s promise. It casts the net wide. It struggles to see things whole. We will show how we can use anthropology to solve a range of problems. Come join us.
✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”
To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.
Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”
Culture Outside: this is American culture.
We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.