Category Archives: Anthropology of Contemporary Culture

Are podcasts a wasteland? (with a post script about Kurt Wagner)

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.

Post Script

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.

Kurt Wagner
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.

Ethics Statement

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), (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.”


Shohreh-aghdashloo (1) What do Oscar winners think when they lay down to sleep?  In a world that's fickle and filled with critics, they might well think:  

"They can never take this away from me."

Well, that turns out to be wrong. Apparently, they can take your Oscar away from you. There is a story in the present issue of Entertainment Weekly that dares to second guess Oscar choices.

It strips Renee Zellweger, Roberto Benigni, Tommy Lee Jones, and Geena Davis and gives their Oscars to Shohreh Aghdashloo (shown), Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, and Frances McDormand.  

I am filing this under new and worrying developments in popular culture.  I thought popular culture didn't ever scrutinize itself.  That's Henry Jenkins job. Popular culture embraced that modernist convention, once done, done for.  As Faulkner might have said, in popular culture, not only is the past dead, dude, who remembers?
Is this wise?  Is it healthy?  Certainly, it opens up vast new journalist territory.  We could now second guess pretty much everything: elections, playoffs, the Booker, wars, the stock market.  And certainly it plays to the multiplicity theme we like so much these days.  But it seems a little stingy.  And, yes, impertinent.  Just who do we think we are?  

That's it, isn't it?  It's all about who we think we are.  There was a time when we worshipped celebrities as if they were Gods.  Did anyone think about taking away Katherine Hepburn's Oscars?  (Just try it, buster.)  I bet the thought never occurred to anyone.  But these days, celebrities, they exist at our sufferance, they serve at our pleasure.  The imperial actor has been eclipsed by the imperial fan.  


Anonmyous.  2009.  And the Oscar Should Have Gone to…  Entertainment Weekly.  January 16, 2009.  pp. 28-38 

Life at Macy’s from Life at Google

Life Photography Macys Dept Store Nina Leen photographer personal use only Apologies for the radio silence.  I am hard at work on a manuscript that needs to be done by the end of February to be out next fall.  

But I wanted to share the sensational news that Life Magazine has opened its photography archives. 

This gives us an extraordinary opportunity to tour American culture.  I for one will be wandering the halls of this archive this holiday season.

To the right is a photograph by Nina Leen.  It shows Mr. and Mrs. Benot in Macy's Department Store in 1949.  Mr. Benot looks on (and holds purse) while Mrs. Benot tries on a knock-off of Rita Hayworth's wedding dress. 

It makes the heart ache.  The expressions of the Benot's, the depth of the moment, the delicacy of the image, as something comes streaming out of Hollywood into the lives of these "average" Americans.

Hat's off to Google, Life and Macy's for their willingness to share this holiday season


For more from Google and Life, go here.

homeyness triumphant

Homey ivy covered house A couple of days ago, I argued consumers would respond to the present economic downturn by "dwelling" instead of "surging." I argued that this change would be governed by cultural subroutine called "homeyness." (Both Virginia Postrel and Tyler Cowen were kind enough to point their readers to the post, and I am grateful for the coverage.)

It turns out that the world of marketing is picking up the theme, chiefly in its new attention to what WSJ writer Stephanie Kang calls "family and the warmth and safety of home." 

Pillsbury has a campaign called "home is calling."  This show a wide variety of characters (business man, woman at train station, girl at school) who click their heals as way to return to home and loved ones.  

I believe that this campaign is ill-advised.  Homeyness is not, indeed it is the very opposite of, a virtual, imaginary, or fantastic state of mind.  Homeyness is one of the great foundational part of our culture because it is so very literal, actual, and there.  No clicking of heels, no Wizard of Oz metaphors, no "transportation" should be used here.  With apologies to Gertrude Stein (who complained of Oakland that there was no there there), home is precisely where the there is, for most of us.  Home is our most substantial there.  

Toys "R" Us is reviving an old jingle and here too I think the strategy is ill advised.  Greg Ahearn, senior vice president of marketing at Toys "R" Us says that the play here is "nostalgia" but homeyness is an entirely "in the moment" experience.  Evocation of another time is as mistaken as the evocation of another place (the Pillsbury play). 

Faith Popcorn is quoted in Kang's article and she is right to say we are in a state of shock. This means we want the comfort not in a virtual home or another place, but in the most protected, controlled, personal, intimate and actual of our heres and nows.

Kang reports that other brands are having a go at the homeyness theme, including Ragu, Mastercard, Ikea, and J&J.  As it often the case, the brand manager  and the agency leaps in the right direction but ends up in the wrong place.  It is important to have more than a navigational vector when surveying the creative, branding opportunity.  In a perfect world, we are also in command of the anthropological particulars. 


Kang, Stephanie.  2008.  Marketers Take a Softer Tack to Reach Uneasy Consumers.  Wall Street Journal.  November 4, 2008.  

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  What consumers do in a downturn.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  October 22, 2008. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Homeyness: a cultural account of one constellation of consumer goods and meanings.  Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meanings, and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 22-47.  Available from here.   


Thanks to Sue and her website How to Keep House here for the image.  This house captures one of the seven symbolic properties of the homey home.  

Noise in the signal

Last night on The Mentalist, the police were interviewing a suspect and the suspect was complaining.

He says (something like),

“When you weigh what I do, women don’t even notice you. I’m just not a good looking guy.”

One of the detectives (Tim Kang) says (something like),

“That’s not true. If you went on a diet that was low on fat and rich on protein, you’d look completely different.”

And he says it earnestly. Obviously, the detective a) had thought about this sort of thing a lot, and b) felt he had to share.

The chief detective (Robin Tunney) smiles a little smile. She is charmed.

And we’re charmed too. So far, this has been a grueling interrogation, the police humorless and unrelenting, the suspect openly scornful of their authority. For the detective to hold forth in this way goes against the grain of the event, the script that informs every interrogation, and the role the detective has played in this interview so far.

A couple of days ago, I was commenting on the dialog in a recent episode of Life On Mars. A detective (Michael Imperioli) has offered what he thinks is an analogy, and conversation then turns on what an analogy is. I don’t remember conversations of this kind happening on The Rockford Files. In fact, I think we watched the Rockford Files with the implicit promise that we were never going to hear the word “analogy” or watch characters break from character.

Dialog in the Rockford Files had a job to do: move the plot along. If necessary, it could provide emergency service. If things got muddy, if the plot was unclear, dialog would step in and offer exposition. As in, “So you’re saying the butler did it!” Remarks were never “stray,” dialog didn’t wander. Philosophical speculation and idle advice was not forthcoming.

The police procedural has been with us for the beginning of recorded history. (The cave paintings in the south of France? Obviously an equine chase scene.) And now it’s on the rise. CBS owes its current success to the fact that it is all about the procedural.

But notice that this sort of dialog signals, or may signal, that something is trying to tunnel out of the procedural. In this the most formulaic of the TV shows, there are stray remarks and wandering dialog everywhere. And we are charmed.

Of course, this might be a kind of cultural gilding. Everyone party the police procedural is better than the form. The producer, the writers, the actors, all have skills and sophistication the Rockford team could not dream of. So, inevitably, we are going to see a high caliber of work “leaking” out of the prime time TV. How could it not?

Or maybe interesting dialog is something like the crouton in a Caesar salad, there merely to add variety, texture, novelty. It’s not really essential, but it adds something to the pleasure of the programming.

But there’s another possibility: that even a form as well defined as the police procedure is evolving out of its traditional tough talk form.

Finding joy in a joyless economy

DSC00111 Yesterday, I offered a couple of thoughts on what consumers do in a recession.  They cease surging, I argued, and started dwelling.  By "dwelling" I mean the metaphor, not the literal activity. 

But in fact the pun is apt.  When consumers slow down and begin to concentrate on the here and now, the what and the where of their activity is often the home. Dwelling is what consumers do instead of buying. 

And in a sense this reverses the Scitovsky effect.  You will remember Scitovsky's book The Joyless Economy and his argument that the trouble with a consumer society is that the pleasure of ownership soon degrades into mere comfort.  It's not long before we  take our new possessions for granted. 

What the consumer does in a down economy is roll back the Scitovsky effect.  We begin to treasure things.  We re-engineer the comfort to get back to pleasure.  We begin to savor things again.

One of the things we especially savor is the home.  Home, and hearth and heart, this becomes the new geographical center of our lives. 

Some brands have always taken an interest in home.  Ikea is one of these.  Here's a lovely little ad that captures the tone of dwelling creativity and it may well work a path for future marketing.

References Scitovsky, Tibor.  1976.  The Joyless Economy.  New York: Basic Books

See the Ikea campaign here.

For another Ikea campaign, see a brilliant piece of work by Max Hattler for Beattie McGuinness Bungay here.  (The homeyness offers up lots of creative options.)


Thanks to Katie Rook again for the conversation in which the aptness Scitovsky notion occurred to me and to Edward Cotton for telling me about the Ikea campaign.

Credits for the second spot Director – Max Hattler Client – IKEA Production Company – Bermuda Shorts Producer – Lisa Hill Agency – Beattie McGuinness Bungay Creatives – Trevor Beattie & Simon Bere Agency Producer – Jane Oak

What consumers do in a downturn

Dsc00111_6 Roughly speaking, consumers have two modalities: surging and dwelling.

In the surging modality,  consumers have momentum.  We have a vivid sense of forward motion.  Life is getting better.  Each purchase is an improvement onthe last one.  Clothes change with fashion.  The material world teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement.  We look ahead constantly, keeping one foot in the present, putting one in the future.  The good life is America is always a better life. That’s the fundamental promise of the consumer society. 

In the dwelling modality, the consumer is not forward looking, but concentrated on the here and now.  Now most of life’s pleasure comes from counting one’s blessings.  This is a dwelling modality, because the individual is no longer in transit, racing towards a better tomorrow.  Now the consumer is focused on what is good about what one has.  The consumer stops anticipating and starts savoring. 

We have to move from a surging modality to a dwelling modality when the economy suddenly "softens" and "goes south."  And there is no gear box.  There is no single or simple way of gearing down from "in motion" to "in place."  It’s one of those deals where the consumer must perform his own "interrupt" (to steal a term from Information Processing), see that the world has changed, see that something new is called, identify what is called for, embrace it fast, and hold it tight. 

It’s weird that in our economy/culture we go through the surging-modality transition something like once a decade, and you would think this would be enough to prompt us to formalize the transition.  I mean, shouldn’t we have a ritual or something?  But no. We leave to the individual to figure this out for him or herself. (Those who do not see that the world has changed, may get the news from Donny Deutsche or Suzi Orman.)

But there is a culture form that works especially while as a set of instructions for how to dwell.  It’s called "homeyness."  This is the set of instructions in an American’s head, the one that helps show them how to turn houses into homes.  As culture codes go, it is an amazingly detailed and helpful as a set of instructions.  I wrote about this in Culture and Consumption II.  Those who are interested in further details are urged to consult this essay. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Homeyness: a cultural account of one constellation of consumer goods and meanings.  Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meanings, and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 22-47.  Available from here.   


Thanks to Katie Rook for the question. 

Life on Mars and other archaeologies of the near past

Keitel I was home for the weekend, time to ransack my DVR for shows I’d missed in a week away.

Life on Mars was interesting. It feels like a companion piece to Madmen. Together, they are archaeological recoveries of the near past. (Life on Mars is set in 1973; Madmen in 1960.)

The similarities end there. After all, Madmen captures the stark simplicities of mid century modernism, that hustle economy driven by postwar prosperity and the upward mobility it made possible.

Life on Mars give us the great repudiation that followed the Madmen era, as the children of privilege embraced the experimental, alternative, egalitarian, and mystical.

If the two periods had something in common, it was that both treated women badly. In the place of the abused secretaries of Madmen, Life on Mars gives us a police-woman named Annie Norris. The guys in the station house call her “No Nuts Norris,” lest anyone fail to understand she does not belong there.

These shows take advantage of how much we have changed in the last 48 and 35 years (respectively). There is a certain amount of finger pointing. Look! They smoke! They drank! They ignored civil liberties! Our present circumstances may fill us with trepidation, but, in prime time, we’re free to indulge in scorn and self congratulation.

Life on Mars is a police procedural with a twist. The detective in question is a time traveler from the present day. This sort of twist is now standard in TV land. Life has a guy just returned from 12 years in prison. Raines (of sainted memory) featured a guy who talked with the dead. The police procedural has a new procedure. The Jack Webb character now always seems to consort with something other than the facts.

There is some really good writing in Life on Mars. Thanks to my DVR, I can report this wonderful snippet that takes place between stars Jason O’Mara as Detective Sam Tyler and Michael Imperioli as Detective Ray Carling.

Detective Tyler objects to bad treatment of a suspect.

What was that! That money wasn’t from the check cashing robberies!”

Detective Carling replies,

Yeah, and Roe vs. Wade aren’t really options when you find yourself on a river.

Tyler:   What does that even mean?

Carling:  It’s an analogy.

Tyler:  No, I don’t think it is.

Carling (somewhat hopefully): It’s like an analogy.

I laughed and laughed. It is impossible to imagine Jack Webb and his pal having an exchange like this. Steven Johnson is right. TV is getting better. (Hats off to writer, Bryan Oh.)

Then there’s the performance by Harvey Keitel as Lieutenant Gene Hunt.  You want authenticity, Keitel is your man.  This is bullet proof plausibility.  Keitel occupied his character so deeply, it’s hard to imagine how he finds his way home at night. 

Midcentury modernism took a blood oath never to repeat itself.  Fifty years later, popular culture dwells lovingly upon its recent past.  How interesting. 

We have no clear idea of what’s happening to us in the present day.  Even without the banking crisis, we are in the throes of ferocious change.  I guess it’s nice to the end the day with a trip through our collective photo album.  We may not know what we’re doing, but at least we don’t look anything like those losers drinking at their desks or wandering around in bell bottoms.  Call it serial superiority. 


For more on the show, go to the ABC website here.   

For more on the English origins of the show and the machinations it survived in Hollywood, go to the excellent story by Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times here

The quote above is from the second episode of the series, The Real Adventures of the Unreal Sam Tyler.

 Post script

I am sorry not to have posted more often and more regularly. Loyal readers deserve an explanation.  The loss of my sister has taken something out of me. We were not close in any conventional sense.  We did not talk often or confidingly.  But I am reeling without her.  Not to worry.  It’s jut taking awhile to get back on pace.   

Voice Over, Hollywood’s problem and opportunity

The_bank_job_1 I was watching The Bank Job yesterday.  You know the one with Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows.  It’s a classic heist picture.  How many of these have we seen?  Rififi, Heist, Heat, Sexy Beast, Reservoir Dogs, The Score, The Italian Job, tons.  This is a genre that just never gets tired. 

Or so I thought.  In fact, there are a couple of moments when I thought to myself "can’t we just take this as read, please?"  For instance, the lads gather their "bank heist equipment" and start working on the "bank heist tunnel," and you think to yourself, "Got it.  Got it.  Let’s move on." 

Normally, we soak the details up.  And the CSI franchise has us fascinated with scientific apparati and technical processes.  Normally, this is (mysteriously) absorbing.  But in this case, it was a little tedious.  I wasn’t sure I really needed to see the van racing through the streets of London. 

Clearly, TV and movies are predicated on taking things as read.  I mean, if The Bank Job were obliged to offer a record of all of the events and people that let up to that bank job (a true story, apparently), it would take many hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of film.  (Not to mention the agony it would bring to philosophically minded film makers, with the scrupulous ones building out the back story until we had exhaustive accounts of British politics and banking.  And no one wants that, I think we can agree of that.) 

So taking things as read is an essential part of the film maker’s craft.  TV and movies are dedicated to giving us only the "good parts," the parts that draw us into the film, that jack up our emotions, that give us purchase enough for acts of identification, and excising all the rest, taking it as read.

But here’s the thing, the more your audience knows the genre, the more you can take things as read.  And at the limit, you should be able to show the star, the car, the girl, the stunt and the "climax," and Bob is, as the English say, your uncle.  You’re done.  You take the rest of the film as read, and we can all go home.  Whew.  Think of the time we’d save. 

And, yes, Professor Postrel, as our powers of assimilation get better even this should be possible.  And this is a nice test actually of the Woody Allen proposition (that speed reading would tell us only that War and Peace "was about Russia".  I am devoutly fond of this joke, thanks for the memory.)  Give me a dedicated film goer who hasn’t see The Bank Job and I guarantee you that if we gave her the the star, the car, the girl, the stunt, the "climax," and of course the title, and she could give us an amazingly accurate account of how the film must go.  This despite the fact that this film is pulled out of genre by the fact that it must honor the "real facts" of a "true story.")  But I digress.  (This paragraph refers to a comment that Steven Postrel was kind enough to leave on my post Wednesday.)

Here’s what I mean to say: If we are as Henry Jenkins argues we are getting better at reading contemporary culture, and especially generic film, the ratio of things left out to things kept in should be changing.  We should be getting more telegraphic.  Less should be more, a lot more.

Which brings me to voice over.  Pam, my wife, says she thinks she is hearing more voice over on TV these days and I think she’s right.  It’s there in any thing with Noir origins and there is quite a lot of this.  And it’s even there in the police procedural (In Plain Sight) and the spy procedural (Burn Notice). 

I think Voice Over (VO, hereafter) is about putting things in.  It lets us add complexity, motive, background, depth and subtlety or simple exposition.  The VO is always an intelligent, authorial voice.  It doesn’t stumble.  It never says stupid things.  It is always astute, observant, and helpful.  (I, for one, would love a movie that used a completely straight VO even as the stuff on the screen began ever so subtlety and then increasingly to depart from the what the VO thinks is going on.)

Perhaps this is a cultural moment where we are taking things out (by treating them as read) and putting things in (by way of the VO).  Are these related?  It’s as if we are getting so good at contemporary culture that lots can be removed.  And this leaves Hollywood with a problem and an opportunity.  There is now a big hole in the narrative machinery, one that every self respecting writer and director is eager to fill with good writing and directing. 

On the whole, this shift is a good thing for popular culture.  After all, the stuff that typically come from VO is the human stuff.  And what is got rid of when we take things as read are all of the laborious details supplied by genre.  In effect, this may be the end of a certain Hollywood era.  After all, this is a cultural industry famous for taking the human out of films and replacing it with special effects, spectacle and starlets.  VO may mark a departure from all of this.

I mean, isn’t this is what we mean by "procedural."  It’s the literary machinery into which we can drop human beings without much more attention to their complexity as human beings.  They are really there just as machine operators.  Their job is to make the procedural go.  If we are now prepared to take this as read, if we are getting rid of the procedure, we are free and forced to pay more attention to what is human about the human.  And voice over feels perfect for this, at least as a short term intervention. 

In sum, it feels like things are changing in Hollywood, and we may take the rise of Voice Over is a leading indicator of this new trend.  Unless of course you saw this coming years ago, in which case please just take this post as read. 

Pop culture phones home

Add8hm_3 Reality programming came up in conversation today, and everyone took turns putting the boot in.  Me too.  We scorned it in suspiciously well informed detail. 

Then we all took turns on the high horse: The rabble have broken into the castle of broadcasting!  This is the end of civilization as we know it!   This is a ferocious attack on taste, discernment and elites!  Run for your lives!

I get the argument, and I especially like the phrase that calls RP the "theater of humiliation."  There is a lot of gratuitous cruelty.  I take Hell’s Kitchen to be exhibit A.  The Joe Schmo Show is exhibit B. 

But there are other things to say about this cultural form:

1)  Reality programming is instructive.  Pam and I watch Project Runway.  I see a new design come down the runway, I take my money and I place my bet.  Out loud, so that Pam can hear, I say what I think.  And eventually I discover whether my judgment bore any resemblance to the experts who eventually hold forth. 

It’s clear that some education is taking place.  My judgments diverge less and less. This means that this kind of reality programming is actually making me a more discerning observer of the world of fashion.  It is helping me internalize my own modest mastery of the code. 

2) Reality programming also serves as a way for a divergent culture to stay in touch.  Now that things have become more various and more diverse, divergence is a real problem.  It is hard for any one part of other culture to remain within shouting distance with any other part. Common ground is scarce. 

Reality programming gives the culture of plentitude a chance to phone home.  The Real Housewives of Orange County is ethnographic gold. Horrifying, yes.  Gold, yes. Cougars are glimpsed in Age of Love, kids in Kid Nation, 16 year olds in My Super Sweet 16, gays in Boy Meets Boy. child rearing in The Baby Borrowers.  (It is very hard to know what the Flavor of Love helps us see, but the boys in the lab are working on it.)  Of course we would not want to make these programs authoritative sources of information, but for a culture that is an exploding star,  it does help us stay apprised of one another’s movements.

3) Reality programming is not just cheap TV, it is responsive TV. Surely, one of the most sensible way for the programming executive to get back in touch with contemporary culture is to turn the show offer to untrained actors who have no choice but to live on screen, in the process importing aspects of contemporary culture that would otherwise have to be bagged and tagged and brought kicking and screaming into the studio and prime time.  Reality programming is contemporary culture on tap.  It is by no means a "raw feed."  That is YouTube’s job.  But it is fresher than anything many executives could hope to manage by their own efforts.  In effect, reality programming is "stealing signals" from an ambient culture, helping TV remain in orbit.  (Mixed metaphor alert.  Darn it, too late.) 

This is an era in which we are inclined to issue lots of brave talk about cocreation, open source, and dynamic institutions.  We speak of breaking down the citadel that separate the corporation from the real world. Well, this is actually what it looks like (for certain purposes).  And funny old TV may in fact be one of the first meaning makers to figure out how we solve this particularly thorny problem.  This, in turn, would make reality programming not the end of civilization as we know it, but a test case in what comes next. 

Yes, of course, in every case, the reality program insists on a preposterous pretext, and this in turn misshapes the behavior that gets on the screen.  I wonder if there are options here.


The 08/08 issue of Entertainment Weekly has several goods pieces on Reality programming.  It was the inspiration for this piece. 

Wordle to the rescue (on assimilable worlds)

Wordlenet_self_funding_anthropologi In the era of Web 2.0, miracles are so commonplace that I’ve grown a little jaded.  And then along comes something like Wordle.

Yes, we have seen things like this before, but something about this idea now, or perhaps it’s this execution here, made my job drop. 

This is a clever bit of code that creates a beautiful object that creates new powers of pattern recognition that creates an assimilable world.

What Jonathan Feinberg’s program does for us is roughly what academics do when they pick up a book and start with the index. 

Wordlenet_yesterday_2 I know a Harvard professor who can look at the index of a book, and give you a pretty good idea of the shape and content of the argument within.  It’s an impressive party trick. 

The first image is from the post I did last week on "how to be a self funding anthropologist." 

The second image is from yesterday’s post on transformational identities. 

And the third image is today’s post.  I wouldn’t want to have to read the post from the Wordle, but can that day be far off?

There is a general feeling in some circle, see especially Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson, that we are getting better at reading popular culture, that our powers of assimilation and pattern recognition are growing apace. 

All of us do something like this when we look at the index, table of contents, and browse a couple of pages, and make a determination about whether to buy or not.  We have not quite read the book, but we have made it’s acquaintance.  Something lodged.  Our cloud of ideas has reshaped a little.

There is something about the beauty of these images and their implicit conviction that the form of the idea is a guide to the content of the idea.  How does Wordle know?  But it does, and it’s knowing aids my knowing.  This feels like the beginning of a new order of information architecture and design. 

As we get better and smarter, I wonder if Wordle won’t be the future.  Can it be long before we send new blog posts, articles and books to Wordle and read the output? 

Hats off to Jonathan Feinberg, a senior software engineer at IBM research in Medford, MA and total genius.


Find the Wordle website here.

To an anonymous blogger: hat’s off for the head’s up

Dinner theater

Sardis_photo I tried, I really did.  I went to my first Broadway play this evening and I wanted to like it but I could only survive the first act.   

It turned out the real drama was Sardi’s.

The table straight ahead was a nuclear family, mum, dad and daughter about 14.  Dad was flying dark.  He was present.  Check.  He was enjoying himself.  Check.  But he wasn’t there.  This occasion belonged to his wife, you could tell he understood that, and his job was to turn up to turn in a cameo appearance.  His wife was a lovely person, you could just tell that immediately.  Intelligent, unassuming, gracious.  She was gazing fondly at the celebrity pictures on the wall, recalling perhaps shows she had seen, connecting with face she recognized.  The teenager was one part of "I know how much this means to my Mom so let’s have a little fun with it" and two parts "Broadway?  Negro, please.  When do we get out of here?" 

The table to the left was another nuclear family, this time with two kids. Here too Dad was present but barely accounted for.  He actually seemed to me a little nervous, as if he were perhaps a rental soon to be discovered as such.  Bad acting, no question there.  No caricature for you, buddy.  Here too the occasion was about mom, but her pleasure was not a private solace so much as it was the dear knowledge that she had brought her family into the ambit of one of the things "a family should have done" and now this too could be checked off the list.  The kids in this case, a boy of about 14 and a girl of 10 were, from what I could see of them, more engaged, and smarter and livelier about it.  Mom hung on their every word and feeling.  Who wouldn’t be engaged with an audience like this?  Generosity begets generosity.

The table to the right was a husband and a wife and two kids.  Dad was way present, paying attention, directing conversation, very like the master of the proceedings.  His wife was handsome but hard to read, as if banked.  It took a moment to guess what was going on here, and that is of course all I am doing here is guessing, but I think she was a trophy wife, and the kids were trophy kids.  Dad was wearing everyone on his sleeve. 

Catch this three act play every night at Sardi’s.  Every seat’s a good one. 

Image taken at Sardi’s well after all the actors had left the stage.

Who is the Elizabethan widow now?

A2c8tf Jonathan Bate offers this interesting portrait of the social standing of the widow in Elizabethan England.

…before marriage she was expected to be chaste and during [marriage] she was supposed to be submissive; once widowed she had more freedom.  A widow even had a degree of financial autonomy that set her apart from daughters and wives, who in law were chattels belonging to their fathers and husbands.  Widows, by contrast, could carry on their husband’s business.  The legal fiction was that they were just minding the shop until they remarried, but the reality was that they often controlled their own affairs fo trhe rest of their lives…  The widow, then was the joker in the pack, the wild card who was not obliged to play by the sexual and social rules.  [In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, this character] is a free agent.  She acts instead of being acted on; she delights in setting a plot.  She has the same kind of boldness as Iago and the Edmund of King Lear has.

I wondered whether the widow has a contemporary equivalent. Which group, if any group, has this structural freedom?  Who plays the wild card?  (And this is a pressing question for anthropological purposes because it looks as if a lot of cultural change is driven by specific groups, and these groups are often defined by age. )

The precedents are well known.  Each successive generations puts its mark on contemporary culture.  Boomers helped usher in a counter-culture.  Gen X helped install an alternative culture.

Strauss and Howe, the students of Gen Y, insist that "millennials" are quiescent.  The impulses "counter" and "alternative" do not beat within their breasts.  And it looks as if they may be right.  No one from Gen Y appears to have risen to protest the Strauss and Howe designation.  (On the other hand, we mighttreat civicmindedness, to use the old-fashioned term, as their generational difference.)

But the questions stands.  Are there no "widows" now?  Is there a group of people who by their structural location and/or generational identity who is prepared to play the wild card, the free agent?  (Yes, I could be that we just have to wait for Generation Z.  I leave this question to the likes of Jane Buckingham or Anastasia Goodstein.)  But if you forced me to bet, I would say the group most likely to assume this role will be boomers in retirement.  I believe some contingent of boomers will refuse all the stereotypes associated with age, and keep on going to defy the social stereotypes of every kind.  In the process, they will be a new motor, much resented, for cultural change. 


Bate, Jonathan. 2008.  Dampit and Moll.  Times Literary Supplement.  April 25, 2008, pp. 3, 5, 6.

X files and the perils of consistency

Thexfiles The new X-files movie is almost upon us, and the other day I stopped my feverish channel surfing to watch a rerun. It was amazing how bad it was. 

In it’s day, in the first couple of seasons, the X-files was mezmerizing.  It didn’t matter that it was shot in my home town, that  the production values were modest, that plot lines were improbable. There was something captivating there.  Fox Mulder was tortured, complicated and wry, qualities never before given a TV character.  And of course Scully was the quiet siren, every thinking man’s idea of a bit of alright.

But this episode was appallingly bad.  Poor Duchovny (Mulder) was pallid, Anderson (Scully) overwrought.  And the problem, I fell to thinking was that this was a late season and by this time the plot line was so fantastically complicated that what made the X-Files ineffably interesting, indefinably mysterious had been burdened and broken.  The show was over.  I had this vision of Chris Carter pinioned like Gulliver by plots lines, rendered incapable of creative freedom by the promissory notes he had issued with each passing season.

Surely, it’s time to get rid of the idea of consistency.  Plot lines, let’s think of these as sight lines, a general indication of where we are going, nothing more.  Now that we live in an era of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia, there are necessarily many versions of the narrative in play.  Who thinks that new narrative should be found by the details of old narrative.  Let us treat every season as a variation on the theme.  We would expect to see themes that resonate, but surely the pressure of each new season should be see not the slavish consistency but the departures.

We had the happy opportunity of listening to the producers of Heroes at MIT not so long ago and it’s clear that consistency is a tyranny.  It gives power to rapid fans who define their fandom by their knowledge of the narrative.  Some of these people are not cocreators of the narratives. They are jailers, constantly vigilant for any, even unimportant inconsistency.  On the other side, the newcomers look at the detail of a narrative enterprise like Lost and think to themselves, "there’s no way I can catch up."

Consistency, surely this is a cultural relic up with which we should no longer have to put.

post script:

See Rick Liebling’s very interesting contemplation of this theme here