Category Archives: dynamism

Interesting2008 New York

Interesting2008 New York is set for September 13.  I went to the London version last year and found it extremely, er, interesting, unlike anything, any conference, I’d ever seen.   

I am reposting my thoughts on the London event, below.


For Rick Liebling’s thoughts, go here.

For the Interesting2008 New York website, go here

The post below in it’s original context here

Reinventing the conference, blogger and new media style

560087643_0739b8cd62_bThis is Russell and Arthur Davies, father and son, outside Conway hall, site of Interesting2007.  The quietly  charismatic servant of ceremonies and his son, the latter in this picture graciously standing in for the rest of us, our hand in a bag of crisps, playing shyly to the camera, pleased to be included, living this brief moment in the protected space of a congenial world.  (Russell will so hate this metaphor, more on that later.) 

I participated with trepidation.  Russell was clear.  No talking, he said, about anthropology, economics, branding, marketing, blogging, creativity, culture, or commerce, and so removed all my usual crutches, obsessions, and the very parachute I like to wear while public speaking.  Kindly, he suggested I talk instead about my  Oprah episode and it turned out pretty well.  Clever Russell. 

My first guess on why Interesting2007 was going to work (if it worked) was that everyone in the room was drawn from one of the creative industries (design, planning, art, advertising, film making, and so on).  This means that everyone in the room at Conway Hall was good at metaphor capture and pattern recognition. 

So you could talk, as Adrian Gunn Wilson did, about how to cut wood, and the audience was bound to help themselves to that and much more. The details themselves turned out to be flat out interesting and the room fell into a state of silent absorption.  And the metaphors were everywhere, including the very big piece of wood on which Adrian cuts wood.  I forget what he called it, but it’s huge and well scored and serves as the platform for the undertaking.  It stabilizes the piece of wood that’s being chopped.  It absorbs the blow of the ax.  It catches the ax as it completes its arc and especially when it misses its mark. This is what we used to call an "agency," I think.  It is strange and horrible to look at.  Yes, quite like an agency. 

My second guess was we were looking at the reinvention of the conference.  Many cultural artifacts that have been dislodged by our new world.  Our world has been decentered, flattened, destabilized, distributed, and made participative, anarchical, elite indifferent, cloudily networked, self organizing, and concatenating.  So it’s natural that we’re having to rethink entertainment, information, elites, experts and especially speakers.  Who now wants to sit in a room and hear someone hold forth?  Certainly, there are a couple of people who we would like to hear speak in this way.  But how often do they turn up to the conferences we go too?  Mostly what we get is two things: 1) badly concealed self advertisement, and 2) a view of the world that means to be comprehensive but proves to be alarmingly (and unwittingly) partial.   

Conferences used to create value by giving us the benefits of a sorting exercise.  The organizers would choose experts and the experts would choose topics and treatments.  We the audience would undergo edification mixed with a couple of moments of epiphany (with the opportunity to build networks over drinks).  The trouble is we are now fantastically good at sorting for ourselves.  What we want from a conference is not a surrogate intelligence of a big name speaker.  What we want is a tide that delivers new and interesting things that present themselves in fresh and unexpectedly  formed ways.  (Interestingly, some presentations were overformed by their very effort to be underformed.  This happened when you could see that the presenter was deliberately casting a topic or treatment against mainstream type, as it were, the better to claim a quirkier credibility.)

Put us on the Kauffman continuum, the one that arrays the world between fixity at one end and chaos at the other, and it turns out that we most of us have paddled our way away from fixity towards chaos, and now tread water here in rougher, whiter waters with no discernible effort or difficulty.  Experts be damned.  We can read the world quite nicely on our own, thank you very much.  It doesn’t have to be very fully formed for us to "get it."  (It was fun listening to Johnnie Moore on this theme, and a pleasure to meet this fella in real space and time.)

Clever Russell.  To forbid the recitation of what we think we know for things that are interesting, this is a good way to oxygenate an occasion with things that are less formed in just about the right measure.  Less formed, and more charming.  There is something "nice" about things that offer the world up all in the jumble and leave us to think what we will.   

Now, someone is bound to say that this is merely the planning world, in the person of Russell Davies and conference attendees, discovered the well established truth of post modernism, that the world is now a thing of perfect incoherence, that the architectures of knowledge, the consistencies of culture, the thematicness of contemporary life, these have all collapsed, and that Interesting2007 was in fact merely an exploration and a demonstration of same. 

Wrongo! What collapsed was mostly the intellectuals’ favorite interpretative frames.  Naturally, this made it look like the sky was falling.  Naturally, because they are intellectuals, they worked very hard to make their problem our problem.  But the rest of us, those of us who actually make and manage meanings in the world know the truth of our present condition, and this is that if you have the right powers of metaphor capture and pattern recognition the world is still a relatively intelligible place.  The things to remember is that the coherences are multiple, the interpretive frames many and conflicting, and the world changeable and fluid.  And when all of this is true, then not only is the sky not falling, but Red Lions Square and Conway Hall when filled with speakers by Russell, is a very interesting place to be.


Thanks to Bowbrick for the photo.  (More photos by Bowbrick here.)  Thanks too for his support of Interesting2007   

To Johnnie Moore for interesting thoughts.  See Johnnie’s website here.

Admirals Ries and Trout and the new positioning

Ries_and_trout Positioning in marketing is a simple idea, really.  It locates the brand relative to the competition.  In a sense, positioning is a lot like retailing, it’s all about location, location, location.  But this location exists not in the real world but in the structure of the marketplace. 

Examples: Pepsi is positioned to be more current than Coke.  Marlboro is positioned to be more masculine than Kools.  BMW is positioned to be sportier than Mercedes. 

The idea of positioning, attributed to Ries and Trout (pictured), helped marketers be more strategic.  It encouraged us to parachute the brand into a marketplace at just the right place, where other brands had inadvertently opened a space and an opportunity. 

But the world has changed.  We now longer drop the brand into a fixed terrain.  We drop it into turbulent markets that stream with change.  The location we care about shifts constantly. 

To steal a metaphor from the Tom Wolfe, positioning is a little like landing an F16 on an aircraft carrier. The carrier is steaming forward, a veritable moving target.  In high seas,  the carrier is also moving up and down and side to side. Finally, the landing zone is incredibly little and we are moving incredibly fast.  Thank God for flight school.

But that’s the problem.  Flight school is still manned by Admirals Ries and Trout, men who were raised in another tradition and a world much stiller than our own (note classical columns).  The trick is to think about what happens to the art and science of positioning in a more dynamic world.

Let us use as our talking point, the case of Kathy Griffin, the comic who fought her way out of obscurity and onto the D list.  She dated Quentin Tarantino and had a cameo on Pulp Fiction.  As the moment, she has her own show on cable. 

Griffin is all about positioning.  She places herself as a struggling actress, someone on the verge of celebrity, someone trying to climb the slippery slope of fame.  This is a great strategy.  It make Griffin likable, approachable, relatable, close enough to celebrity to give us a closer view, but not so close to become a fixture in the world she likes to mock. 

But Griffin has a dynamic positioning problem.  The success of her TV show and stand-up tours pushes her relentlessly out of her present location.  If she ever was D-list, she has enough momentum now to relocate her at C or B. Even if Griffin does nothing here present position will drift remarkably out of and away from her preferred location. 

Now there are ways she can address the problem.  She can work the resources at her disposal, using her TV show, for instance, to good effect.  As when she is shown regaling someone in the street.  As it turns out, they have no idea who she is.  Good!  And when she offers them free tickets to her show, they turn her down flat.  Better!  And then they look at her like she just asked them for money.  Perfect!   D-list status is renewed, at least for another show.   It is entirely possible that Griffin is now excluding all the things captured by her reality TV show that make her look A list, and searching out material that helps renew her D-list status. 

Let’s take another, more difficult example.  The world of the medical drama in the early days was defined by shows like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.  The doctor in question was an authoritative, paternal, wise and thoughtful male, always male, healer.  St. Elsewhere open things up a little with doctors who were a little less God-like but still exemplary.  The show Becker featured Ted Danson as a crank who relished his imperfections, scorned his patients, and smoked like a chimney.  You could see the original TV genre building out with each successive position.  Thus did the genre and the audience expand.  Thus did TV adjust to a changing culture.

House, M.D., launched in 2004 on Fox, and pushed the envelope still further.  Gregory House is contrary, willful, self centered, staff abusing, patient mocking, and drug addicted.  Wow.  If you had asked me before the fact whether such a show would work, I think I would have said "no."  Wrong again.  It worked brilliantly.  House has won ratings and awards…and the genre and our culture took on new depth and complexity.

But here’s the problem.  House is the kind of property that wears or wears out.  I would be very surprised if there were any steady state at which the show can cost.  Those who find House difficult are eventually going to find him impossible.  Those who like him are eventually going to want him to ramp up the acerbicness.  This is what marketing calls a rock and a hard place.  And these are moving targets because different consumers are going through these arcs at different times.  This is what marketing calls a dynamic problem set. 

This is not a problem to be solved with a little Griffin-esque D list tinkering.  This calls for producer Bryan Singer to work two very different signals into the same show and the same character.  House must become both less redeemable and more redeemable not just once but for several audience as they migrate from present position to new positions.   It’s a lovely problem because it’s an impossible problem.  (Hey, but if anyone can do it, it’s Singer.  He’s the guy who did The Usual Suspects.) 

I have used TV examples here but I believe this problem presents itself in the world of product marketing, and that it will do so more and more as brands break out of their present addled geniality and take more marked and interesting positions in our culture. 

In sum, positioning is newly challenge.  It demands of us the ability to find a moving platform that consists of several audiences with disparate tolerances, moving at different rates in different directions.  Back to flight school…for the flyers and the admirals. 


Ries, Al and Jack Trout.  2000.  Positioning: the battle for your mind.  New York: McGraw-Hill.   

Herding cats: a new model for management


Unilever is up against it. In 2003, it needed 234,000 employees to net $3.5 billion. P&G needed half that number of people to net nearly twice as much ($6.5 billion).

One strategy is to rationalize the famously sprawling structure of the company. This is a good thing. Far flung companies are not just expensive to run. They can be ponderous and unresponsive.

Another strategy is to insist on global approaches. Country managers for Dove are no longer able to modify packaging, formulation or advertising. Knorr’s soup and bouillon cubes, a $2.7 billion annual business, is no longer produced and designed as locally as it once was.

Economies of scale are a good thing too. But you can’t read today’s Wall Street Journal without thinking that Unilever is playing out a traditional view of management.

Simon Clift is head of marketing for Unilever’s home and personal care division. In the WSJ piece, he says, that there used to be so many local players in the new product development process, it was “like herding cats. There were no strategic priorities at all.” Clift has imposed a new regime: “Recently a major region wanted to launch a new packaging for Ponds’ face cream. We said, ‘No.’ Gone are the days when you can decide packaging locally.”

The trouble is that some consumer taste and preference comes increasingly from its local context. (We may define “local” variously: national, regional, urban, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, subcultural, neighborhood, class, age, lifestyle, etc.) In this various marketplace, giving the local player some control over the formula, the package and the advertising is probably a good thing. Ironically, Unilever appears to move away from this approach just as the rest of the world is thinking hard about whether “herding cats” might actually be a new model for management.

There is a “paradigm problem” at the root of this. The old management model was an Enlightenment project. The manager sought rationality for a corporation that, left to its own devices, devolved into superstition, localism, the unsystematic, and the increasingly variable. Efficiency escaped this organization like heat from a New England barn. There were many enemies of great strategy. Local knowledge and practice was one of the most pernicious.

The new model says that the corporation must forsake its Enlightenment pursuit of single rationalities and find a way to respond to the variability of the marketplace. How does the corporation read and capture local variation and build this back into the products and services that go to market? This will be messy and difficult. It will take a thorough rethinking of some Enlightenment impulses and a reinvention of the management handbook. But it will happen. Local variation is growing, and it is now one of the great competitive opportunities in industries, sectors and product categories where just about everything else has been tapped.

The “herding cats” model of managements discourages some aspects of ‘the vision thing,” and the idea that corporations must be run with a great thundering idea that come from on high, obliging every subordinate to demonstrate fidelity to Rome, and make themselves the vessels through which the idea passes—in one direction only. (Actually, the Catholic church was pretty good in some cases in absorbing local practice and there may be something we can learn here.)

We are now looking for something a good deal more dialogic, where the locality streams intelligence back from the periphery and accommodation out into the world. No, this won’t be that awful California “sharing and caring” regime that says that everyone must be heard and every idea is precious. The dialogic is sometimes mistaken for the idiotic, but let’s not make that mistake here.

The solution has to be some center periphery model that says, first, that the center is constantly fed intelligence and inspiration from the periphery, and, second, that the centre responds with something like “strategic vistas” that establish parameters within which the locals may make choices. There has to be a fail safe provision here as there is in the Delphi system. Locals must be given the option of insisting on their own course of action but these exceptions must be very carefully justified and they must pay out if the exception is ever to happen again.

The corporation is the most nimble, adaptive, transformative thing in our worlds. But it is only beginning to master the full range of its responsiveness.


Ball, Deborah. 2005. Despite Revamp, Unwieldy Unilever Falls Behind Rivals. WSJ. January 3, 2005, pp. A1, A5.

centers of gravity

stilts 2.jpg

I have been thinking recently about the difference between Canada and the U.S., and especially their relative dynamism.

It’s as if the imagined Canadian center of gravity is lower. They like a low center of gravity because they believe it protects them from dynamism. It makes them, they suppose, less tippy. The wind may blow, the earth may quake, but this little house will stand. Having a low center of gravity puts them on good terms with stasis. Movement is expensive (in energy/effort) to achieve, and once you get going, the momentum effect can be formidable. You never know where you’re going to end up.

If, on the other hand, you have a high center of gravity, as I am beginning to think many Americans do, movement is the place of safety. This is because, to roll out the metaphor, the mechanics of motion allow the individual to correct against small perturbations that might become larger stability-threatening perturbations. Motion allows Americans to work perturbations out in transit. Canadians huddle, the better to make themselves, as an Elizabethan might say, “unconcussable.” With a low center of gravity, they are confident that small perturbations will not start or that they’ll “bounce off.” Americans accept perturbations as inevitable, and they keep the center of gravity high, the better to “work them out.”

The American model bears a resemblance to most sports and especially football. When you are playing football, you never want to be flatfooted. It is actually better, in most cases, to be going in the wrong direction than no direction at all. You are mobilized, and as the game begins to change around you, it is “cheaper” (from an energy/effort point of view) to change direction than to “get going.” This is, of course, a game that systematically manufactures perturbations, large and small, but even here it is better to be in motion than not. This is why Coach is always yelling at you to “stay on your toes.”

When you have a low center of gravity you may let the world swirl around you. You don’t need to take constant readings with the sexton or your GPS PDA because, well, the whole point is to ‘turtle.” It’s for the world to move, not you. Those with a high center of gravity are take readings constantly. They are inherent tippy, and only thus can they hope to remain upright. Stability is not build in. It must be read off the world often and carefully.

In sum, our metaphoric center of gravity will determine whether we move, whether we survey the world, and what we regard as our place of safety. Dynamism comes, in this metaphor, from a basic motor-mechanical decision about the world. Where we imagine our center of gravity will decide a host of other questions: Do we accept dynamism, or, do we fight dynamism. Are we, in response to dynamism, dynamic too or dynamic not. Are we in a “sense and respond” mode? Or do we turtle? History and culture gives us our center of gravity and this helps then decides a good deal else about us.

Where am I going with this, you might ask yourself. Very good question. The American in me says that it is better to be writing anything than nothing at all. Canadians are more inclined to just shut up. It’s a dynamism thing.

But I was also wondering whether there was a way to think about the relative dynamism of individuals, corporations, countries and corporations without resorting to self congratulation. Some of the readers of this blog will agree that dynamism is better than stasis because it is, most of the time, more productive of human liberty, economic accomplishment, intrinsic satisfaction, mutual tolerance, creativity of several kinds and the most interesting kinds of potentiality. This seems to us so self evident that we are inclined to celebrate dynamic people and institutions, and to scorn their static counterparts. I have done this at least three times on this blog (excoriating cultural institutions, Canadians and corporate naysayers).

But the problem is clear. As long as we proceed in this way, we are inclined to marginalize, perhaps, even stigmatize the static camp. We treat them, to use the language of the recent Presidential camp, as people “who just don’t get it.”

The result is also clear. Treated in this way, the static camp is sure to react as everyone does in these circumstances: with resistance, defensiveness, and by actually becoming more static. I am wondering if it’s not better to say they have a low center of gravity…and perhaps begin a fund for corrective surgery and counselling.

A Pixar generation?


Anthony Lane makes this observation about The Incredibles:

[Digital filmmaking of this kind] is, by definition, unable to cope with spontaneity. The camera no longer catches a feature, or a play of expression, on the wing; someone has to create a program for it and patch it into place.

The problem with machine based animation is that you can’t get out what you don’t put in. Live actors in real time on actual sets are inclined to work by accident and inspiration. Things slip into the performance that are not anticipated by the script writer or called for by the director. It is often these little grace notes that make the scene and the movie live.

But these graces notes don’t happen in machine based animation. The film maker must think to put things in. And we don’t add accidents on purpose. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be accidents.) So machine based animation often feels wooden and not very, um, animated. An effort is made to show “wind” ruffling “hair,” but the real stuff, the grace notes, the simple gifts, of spontaneity are hard to come by

I was thinking about Lane’s remark when reading about a crisis that has now beset the world of education. Many school systems are keen to protect children from competition, and the failure and differentiation it creates. Indeed parents now complain about school plays that have starring parts. They prefer plays in which all parts are equal. The world of education is becoming a place where everyone is equal and no one is allowed to fail.

The effects are beginning to show.

For her vantage point as a Los Angeles-based psychologist, [Dr. Wendy Mogel] has witnessed the fallout of a self-esteem movement that began with the best intentions of protecting children from the emotional harm that comes from undermined confidence but which has instead left schools hamstrung by constant ego-protecting maneuvers and children with wrapped-in-cotton-batten lives.

In an earlier post, I noticed that the lives of kids have been highly programmed and indeed regimented. Here we learn that their lives are sanitized against ranking and risk.

Are we creating a Pixar generation? Will this be a group of kids so highly programmed, so cosseted that they will be incapable of risk taking and even the very animation on which our economy and culture now depends? The problem here it seems to me is very like the one observed by Lane. You can’t get out what you don’t put in. Raise children without surprises, with tests, without outcomes, without what the French call bouleversement, and we end up with kids who are ill prepared to create innovation, intellectual capital, creativity and change.

Ironically, our world becomes ever more a matter of bouleversement. And we have all made the personal accommodations necessary to cope with and contribute to such a world. There is evidence that we are getting the hang of it. We are getting steadily better at dynamism. But if we are raising a generation of cotton batten kids who are systematically kept from spontaneity, we will become of us? More to the point, what will become of them when we ask them finally not to work for a living but “risk for a living,” as we all now must?

I realize this makes me sound a little like David Riesman and other intellectuals of the 1950s who were persuaded that a new generation of conformists was in the works. The difference here is that Reisman and company believed that a commercial culture must flatten differences and creativity. But now the risk comes from the other side of the isle, from the well intentions liberals who believe that our children must be protected. Riesman was wrong, it turns out. The 1950s helped produce a generation that helped produce a fountain of innovation. Let’s hope I’m wrong, too.


Belgrad, Daniel. 1998. The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the arts in postwar Ameica. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Shona L, and Kathleen M Eisenhardt. 1998. Competing on the edge: strategy as structured chaos. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Florida, Richard L. 2004. The rise of the creative class and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hayles, Katherine N. 1990. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. 2001. The art of innovation. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Kouwenhoven, John. 1988. What’s ‘American’ about America. The Beer Can by the Highway. John KouwenhovenBaltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lane, Anthony. 2004. Illustrated Life. The New Yorker. November 15, 2004, pp. 116-117.

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Is there a Ricky Williams effect? The blog here.

Owens, Anne Marie. 2004. Everybody fails. National Post. several days ago. (This is the source of the quote on Dr. Mogel. Sorry, I dont have the full reference. National Post does not allow access in any case.)

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Riesman, David with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. 1961. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spar, Debora L. 2001. Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from Compass to the Internet. New York: Harcount.

Bush’s secret “code word”


President Bush used the phrase “hard work” 11 times in his debate with Senator Kerry last night.

It worked, I think, as a code word, a way of reaching out to a very particular, but very large, group of voters.

Most Americans don’t work for a living. They risk for a living. If they run a small business, they are especially vulnerable. If they are members of Free Agent Nation, they must be very, very responsive to a changing set of circumstances. Even if they belong to a corporation, large or small, they are subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. As the corporation confronts new dynamism, they can be downsized, rationalized or otherwise dumped.

The Democratic camp, many of them, may work for a living, but they do not risk for a living. They hold protected positions in unions, civil services, and universities. The world may rise and fall with dynamism, but they ride not the large and small boats of enterprise, but a larger, more secure, platform of occupational privilege. (The “owning” vs. “working” class distinction is still a salient distinction. But the real measure of privilege may be how protected we are from dynamic effects of the marketplace.)

There are lots of ways to protect ourselves from risk: education, intelligence, foresight, planning. But these are only the necessary conditions of managing risk. The sufficient condition is hard work. Those who risk for a living get up every morning, gird loins, grit teeth, and get down to business. They work really, really hard.

(Let me say, parenthetically, that I’ve done a lot of ethnographic work in this area. Over the years I have interviewed hundreds of Americans for thousands of hours of contact. I have worked as a consultant for many people in the corporate world. I am frequently wowed by how demanding, how time scarce, how stressed, and how effortful most of these lives are. All without a net.)

Bush used “hard work” 11 times last night perhaps because this phrase has special resonance for those who risk for a living. The phrase allowed the President to say, “Listen, what I am doing in the White House is what you do every day.” It allowed him to say, “We are both working hard because that is the way we respond to the risk that defines our lives and our worlds.”

“Hard work” was perhaps a code word. Those who live by risk got it immediately. Those who do not heard it as everyday language. Clever President Bush. He managed to sneak a rallying cry into the most ordinary little phrase. It allowed him to claim common purpose with Republicans, real and potential.

Dan Pink says that Free Agent Nation has a population of 33 million and notes, “Even this […] figure means that free agents easily outnumber all manufacturing workers and all government workers—and may be the largest single cluster of workers in the economy.” If we add to this the people who work in the corporate world without the protection of union contracts or tenure, the number of people who “risk for a living” must be very high.

This is a natural Republican constituency. These are people who believe, or must at least act as if they believe, in the necessity of hard work. Whether the Republican party has found a way to recruit this group remains to be seen. The notion of the “ownership society” is apparently one such attempt. It is possible that President Bush’s “hard work” phrase represents the beginnings of a second, more comprehensive, strategy.


Stats from Dan Pink’s Free Agent webpage here

Dynamism panic?

future and its enemies.bmp

Virginia Postrel recently implied that family values and gay marriage are not incompatible. For her trouble, a reader called her a “fuckin’ idiot.” (all references below.)

Why is the issue of gay marriage so charged? Why do people react with un-parliamentary language and such charged emotion?

Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, offers this explanation of the larger phenomenon:

People tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society who come to figure as surrogates for people’s anxieties about their own animality. Such irrational projections have been involved in anti-Semitism, misogyny, traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, and discrimination against homosexuals.

According to Nussbaum, we project disgust to vent self loathing. We project onto others what we fear in ourselves.

No doubt, this is part of the explanation. But I wonder if there is not a more culturally particular account. We might be looking at “dynamism panic,” the fear that the world is on tilt, that our innovations have gone too far, that now is the time to “draw the line.”

Certainly, we are a culture of ceaseless innovation (as Virginia’s The Future and Its Enemies demonstrates so brilliantly). In the domain of the family, we have seen lots and lots of change: single parent families, multiple parent (melded) families, serial monogamy, divorce amongst seniors. And this is just the domestic sphere. We see dynamism in the social, political, corporate and cultural worlds as well.

What’s odd is that we have backed into this dynamism. It has been in the works for a very long time. The academics and intellectuals called it long ago, and issued fair warning. But we have adapted to dynamism in an ad hoc way, preferring case by case accomodation to a shift in values that says, effectively, “got it: all change, all the time.”

In sum, we have been dynamic in just about everything except our response to dynamism. For some reason, we continue to use adaptive strategy machined in the 20th century.

This creates a problem: without a standing expectation of change, and an adaptive strategy to deal with it, we are bee keepers on a bad day. Things keep coming at us “out of nowhere,” and failing our arms only seems to make the problem worse. At some point, “dynamism panic” sets in. Along comes a cultural innovation that makes us go, ‘that’s it, it is time to make the world stand still.”

Gay marriage is turning out to be that innovation. But why this issue and not some other? Why did this become the place where people feel obliged to draw a line and refuse to budge. Why did this induce “dynamism panic?”

The answer here needs a culturally and historically nuanced explanation that blogging does not allow (and that I would be hard pressed to supply, in any case), but a couple of things suggest themselves.

First, gay marriage violates our “benign neglect” rule. We have dealt with cultural innovation with the New Yorker’s “do whatever you want, buddy, just don’t ask me to like it.” This rule meant that contemporary culture was prepared to endure the gay revolution and inclined to refuse gay marriage. This asked for formal acknowledgement. It asked for us to “like it” or at least accept it. (Wolfe’s book gets at this issue nicely.)

Second, the family is a social boundary nearest to the self. The family is the space ship that is meant to protect us, most of us, from the blooming confusion and dangers of the world “out there.” If marriage, the fundament of the family, was going to admit gays, perhaps this boundary had broken down. Perhaps, it was now admitting change, instead of repelling it.

Third, the family was once the Trojan horse of the Protestant church. Early leaders of the reformation were, necessarily, denied an institutional locus from which to prosecute their cause. They chose to make the family “a little church” that could be founded anywhere. Family was a special domain, the Protestant’s “cosa nostra.” “Gay marriage? Get your own institution! This one’s taken.”

It may be that we vilify others to project our self disgust, as Nussbaum suggests. But it’s also possible that the present reaction to gay marriage is a symptom of a more contemporary problem, a growing panic in the face of our growing dynamism.


Fouroborous. Comment on “Thinking Physically.” Second comment. This blog sits at. Aug. 27, here

Kuczynski, Alex. The 37-Year Itch. New York Times, August 8, 2004. (for divorce among seniors.)

McCracken, Grant. Thinking Physically. 10th paragraph. This blog sits at. Aug. 27, here

Postrel, Virginia. 2004. Cheney bucks the party line on gay marriage. Dynamist blog, Aug. 24. here

Postrel, Virginia. 2004. Family Values. Dynamist blog, Aug. 29, here

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: The Free Press.

Sanches, Julian. 2004. Discussing Disgust. Reason. July, p. 15. (for the Nussbaum quote)

Wolfe, Alan. 1998. One Nation, After All. New York: Viking.

Thinking Physically


I knew a guy called Ian at Cambridge who had the world’s best party trick. One night, at his insistence, we wandered drunkenly out to find an intersection. He watched the traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, for a moment and then shut his eyes and turned his back. Fifteen seconds later, he began to recite what was happening behind him.

The blue car approaching from the west is now at the intersection. The woman in the bonnet should be just behind you. The large van traveling north is just disappearing from view.

What about the kid on the bike?

It’s an adult. He is just passing through the intersection.

Ian was tracking the moving objects in my field of vision by watching them in his head. And, yes, good guess, he was a physicist.

Wayne Gretzky was not the greatest hockey player of all time because he was particularly big, strong, or fast, but because he was playing a “motion” picture of the rink in his head. Basketball players wow us with the “no look” pass. Joe Montana could throw to receivers moving at speed and obscured from view. The most interesting sports may be the ones in which players “watch” the playing field in their heads. They are playing a virtual game as well as an actual one. Physicist or physical, it all happens in your head.

When is this gift going to find its way into the larger world? We know we live in a dynamic society. The economics and management literature tells us so. Schumpeter warned us of “creative destruction.” Charles Handy noted the rise of “discontinuous change.” Hammer and Champy call this change ‘the new normality.” Peter Drucker, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Virginia Postrel…it’s not like we haven’t been warned.

Cultural innovation is breathtaking. It was once possible to stay abreast of most everything that was happening in the world of music or film. Now we have to specialize evermore narrowly. Technical innovation is equally, perhaps more, impressive and now Christiansen counsels corporations on how to prepare for “discontinuous” technology. And we’ve just started. “The number of […] international copyright applications received from developing countries rose from 680 in 1997 to 5,359 in 2002, representing an increase of nearly 700%. In 2002, the highest % increase recorded by India (51.9%)…” Wait till India has cultivated all the talent that exists in a population of 1.1 billion people. Wait till China, with 1.4 billion, does the same. It won’t be long before the world goes ‘time lapse.” It won’t be long before Gladwell’s ‘tipping point” is perpetual.

But we still see photographically, instead of filmicly. We still take “stills.” Surely, a dynamic world demands a new way of seeing, the physicist’s intersection, Gretzky’s game, the ability to see things not where they are but where they are going.

The first rule is to stop panicking. Nothing gets in the way of mental “motion” pictures more completely than an alarm and refusal. Gay marriage? Just get over it. The world is too dynamic and transformational to be dimmed even by a constitutional amendment. You may not like what comes from the great fount of innovation. But you do yourself no favors by resisting it. Besides which, you are wrong. How many times have we heard, “suffer this (women’s right to vote, say, or civil rights for African Americans) and the end is nigh.” Your nigh is my neighborhood.

The second rule is to have some deeper sense of the forces that shape the world. If we know the fundamental trends, we can establish vectors and trajectories. We don’t have a a sophisticated sense of the tectonics at work here. This is partly because academics work, mostly, the still waters of the university world, and some of them have not yet got the news. But these will come. (I have a book before Indiana University Press that I hope will help.) Complexity theory feels like the right place to look here, as Clippinger demonstrates so well.

The third rule is to dislodge our processes of “pattern recognition.” We want to supplant the process of looking for patterns (the things for which we have prior acquaintance) with the new ability to begin to look for shapes. We might, for instance, want to rethink the symphony. As it is, symphonic works are always fully formed. They don’t get produced or heard unless they are finished pieces of work. A visit to the symphony is sometimes the pleasure of encountering something new, but here we do not “encounter” what we do not at some level re-cognize. And more often the pleasure of the visit is reacquaintance. “Ah,” we say, “this is the part where Bach…”.

Could we not have a symphonic work that begins with all those odd sounds the orchestra makes while tuning up? The players are supplied with a couple of “subroutines,” and some vectors and trajectories (sorry, I don’t know the musical lingo here), but otherwise, they are on their own. The piece emerges then as the players listen and respond to the sounds of others, and it continues to unfold as shapes are proposed, seconded, agreed upon and then given up in favor of the work of a dissident. It would not surprise me to learn that John Cage or Phillip Glass has proposed something of just this kind, but you get the idea.

Naturally, this would be difficult and, for some, intolerable. But it would also be an excellent way to begin the transition from pattern recognition to shape detection. We know from the remarkable work of Svetlana Alpers and Martin Jay that the “scopic regimes” (roughly: characteristic ways of seeing) of Western culture have changed in response to cultural, social and economic changes. And if I knew contemporary art and music better, I could not doubt supply lots of examples of a change in the works. (Certainly, Hollywood has gone after this theme in a big way. More on that later, possibily.)

But it does not seem we are collectively responding to the challenge and learning to think physically. The price is clear. We end up living in a state of what Schwartz calls “perpetual surprise.”


Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The art of describing Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christensen, Clayton M. 1997? The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Clippinger, John. 1999. The Biology of Business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Drucker, Peter Ferdinand. 1995. Managing in a time of great change. New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hammer, Michael, and James Champy. 1993. Reengineering the Corporation. New York: HarperBusiness.

Handy, Charles B. 1996. Beyond certaint: the changing worlds of organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Jay, Martin. 1988. Scopic Regimes of Modernity. Vision and Visuality. Edited by Hal FosterSeattle: Bay Press.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1983. The change masters: innovations for productivity in the American corporation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and It’s Enemies. New York: The Free Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. 1982. Business cycles a theoretical, historical, and statistical analysis of the capitalist process. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press.

Schwartz, Peter. 1991. The art of the long view. New York: Doubleday/Currency.


With thanks to Richard and Pam Shear and Pamela DeCesare for a recent dinner that got me thinking about symphonies. Thanks, too, to Tyler Cowen for his remarks in Santa Fe a couple of months ago on the topic of “repetition” in modern music.

Bobbies, thugs and dynamism


“I never thought I would live in a country where the police would have these powers.” Stuart Chapman, chief superintendent, South Yorkshire Constabulary, United Kingdom.

The British are waging a war on public incivility, by which they mean mostly, in the words of the Economist, “uncouth teenagers hanging around on the street corner.”

The police may now issue an ASBO, “anti-social behavior order,” using powers of discretion not subject to court scrutiny or “beyond reasonable doubt” standards of proof. The offender is constrained in his or her civil liberties, and the repeat offender is liable to 6 months in prison.

This is not the first time this battle has been fought in recent memory. Giuliani sought to “civilize” New York City. Bloomberg continues the campaign.

I understand the impulse. There is something threatening about public incivility. It is a modest, but distinct, form of terrorism. God fearing, good hearted citizens are made to fear for the security of person, family and home. Tolerating incivility gives power to thugs who are often marginal in their abilities, accomplishments, and social value. It is manifestly wrong that those who give so little to the common good should be allowed to extract so much from it.

I also admire the social science that went into this war. According to the “broken windows” work of Kelling and Coles, small infractions have larger consequences. Thus did they turn the old approach to community policing on its head. The old approach went after big crimes, on the assumption that they did most harm, and in the hope that the small crimes would feel a “chilling effect.” The “broken windows” model says that minor infractions have the effect of licensing major crimes, that they reset the “permission” conditions of a community. In sum, suffer a broken window, or a British thug, and we have in effect set out a “welcome mat” for larger crimes. (I don’t know the research here. I embrace this argument chiefly for the way it grasps the dynamism of the social world. In short, it strikes me as consistent with other things we know about community life and it is, to this extent, plausible.)

But here’s what troubles me. Communities that root out minor offenders set another dynamic in motion. This is the hyper-vigilance by which people begin to look for any departure from the norm, with the result that the norm itself grows ever smaller and more confining. If we give a community the power to scrutinize too finely and punish too much, we diminish the permission conditions for everyone, not just thugs. Start issuing ASBOs, and before we know it, we are Switzerland, a place of that greets the smallest departures as scandalous.

It’s as if we are caught between two equally unhappy potential outcomes. If we endure little crimes, they become big crimes. And in the face of a newly dangerous social world, people begin to withdraw from social services and to object to the taxes with which the public sphere is enabled. Urban life gives way to suburbs and people begin to privatize education, entertainment and protection. They begin to withdraw from the social contract. But if we punish little crimes too zealously, we risk forcing a dynamic that runs in the other direction. The community becomes so much the captive of a bourgeois rigidity that we cannot help but begin to withhold the other funds we make available to the community, the small gestures of individuality, creativity and engagement that make our communities lively places in which to live. Our efforts to escape meanness of one kind puts us at risk of promoting meanness of another kind

I guess the question comes down to this. How well do we control the “broken windows” dynamic. Is this, in the language of Cold War science, a controlled reaction or an uncontrolled reaction? Can we discourage small crimes against law without discouraging small crimes against social convention? I’m not saying we can’t. I am saying we need to know more about the broken windows dynamic before we unleash it.


Anonymous. 2004. The war on incivility. The Economist. July 24, 2004

Kelling, George and Catherine Coles. 1998. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: The Free Press.

Please see Stephen Karlson’s reply here.

Disintermediation and the state of higher education


The first time I heard the word “disintermediation” I applied the David Letterman test: “is this something or is it nothing?” I decided it was nothing. Too many syllables for too little concept, I thought, and a word badly in need of a little disintermediation of its own. Surely, de-mediation was sufficient.

Fifteen years later, it’s a term I cannot live without.

Technological disintermediation is, of course, the notion that it is possible to take out parts of the market channel that once saw goods to market. Dell eliminated parts of the distribution chain and the especially retailer.

Cultural disintermediation is the process by which we eliminate mediators that used to stand between us and the larger world of politicians, teachers, doctors, and civil servants. The individual once needed these mediators. They were the conduit by which essential information and services found their way to us. Now we are inclined to throw them off.

Partly, this is a question of self supposed authority. We are suspicious of medical authority. We are consult several authorities and to see remedies not approved by the AMA. The self-help section of the book store is filled with therapeutic and professional advice we once sought from a certified professional. The New Age movement is filled with new kinds of spirituality that could care less for orthodox religious authority. And politicians? Don’t get us started. Everyone knows better than them. In sum, the experts invite more skepticism than reverence. In many cases, we prefer to roll our own.

Some of this must come from the influence of the Reformation. What was this if not a massive disintermediation. At a stroke, we removed popes, cardinals, celestial intermediaries, saints, and the lesser figures in the Catholic hierarchy. The Protestant church made the relationship between man and God more direct and some of more radical versions of the new faith insisted that the individual was the sole arbiter of the relationship and the sole judge of the state of grace. We’re still doing it.

Now we are seeing a disintermediation of the corporate world. The old model ranked and filed the individual, giving him a place in the “corporation,” the body. Labor was divided. Everyone had a small part to play, a narrow band of competence, a little piece of the puzzle. We were in this corporation a little like the tiny figures that make up the body of the monarch on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan. We were embedded in what Durkheim called an “organic solidarity.”

Now we live in corporations which, at the bidding of the complexity theorists and Tom Peters, suppose that every individual will, as much as possible, contain all the knowledge and competence contained in the organization. In the new corporation, more intelligence and decision making power is located in a disintermediated individual.

The extreme example was the Silicon Valley start-up where the key players would ‘trade hats” for each new start up, until eventually everyone knew how to do everything. Now anyone could stand in for anyone and everyone. The single individual contained virtually all the knowledge and competence represented by the whole.

Clearly, all three work together. It is because we are technologically enabled that we can contemplate new kinds of cultural and corporation disintermediation. It is because we are culturally disintermediation that we can be engaged in new, more multiple, ways by the corporation. It is because the corporation treats us in a newly disintermediated way that we can contemplate new kinds of cultural disintermediation…and may (and must) embrace new technological enablements.

But finally none of this works unless we have access to a form of education that encourages the particular strengths of selfhood, sharper abilities to be self monitoring and self motivating, an internal complexity and multiplicity, and a certain breadth of interest, exposure, and point of view. And this is the stuff of a liberal arts education. This is where we make every man his own commonwealth.

But the liberal arts education is overwhelmingly in the hands of a teaching professional that is mildly and sometimes deeply hostile to a disintermediated individualism. First of all, university teachers are an imperiled elite that does not take kindly to student choice, challenge or engagement. They will not teach disintermediation in part because they are offended by the very idea that such a thing should be possible. But just as bad, these people are uncomfortable with the freestanding, self invented individual. They continue to treat some individual experimentation as narcissism and much of popular culture as pap (unless of course it is “transgressive”). They treat the marketplace, its disorders and its sometimes frantic liberties, as the very thing that ails us. They prefer collectivist approaches, government management, and state intervention. When they speak of the individual, they prefer a kind of Romantic self-discovery to anything that smacks of world-engagement. Or to put this in the language of Daniel Bell, they insist that expressive individualism should move away from instrumental individualism as briskly as possible. But finally they are suspicious of even of expressive individualism, and prefer that students, and the rest of us, take our lead from our cultural betters. “Just read my book.”

At Harvard, they use the phrase “every tub its own bottom” by which they mean every university department must make its own way. Disintermediated individualism makes every tub its own bottom with new intensity, and a thrilling and sometimes terrifying experiment is upon us.

But academics have other ideas. Generally, they have made themselves the enemies of the experiment and withheld an essential resource required by us. Not content to withhold themselves as part of the solution, they are now unmistakeably part of the problem.

I say, time for new barrel makers.

riding and rowing in connecticut


I was walking along the Connecticut shoreline today, and saw a little dinghy on the beach. It had nice, big oar locks, the kind that give good “leverage.” The oar locks on English dinghies are more shallow and give much less.

This got me thinking about English and American saddles. Same difference. English saddles do not give the same purchase that American ones do.

This means that the transition from English row boats and horses is, for someone accustomed to the American equivalent, perilous. Just when you want to “dig in,” you find you can’t. With English rowboats and horses, you have to know what you’re doing.

So what happened to this technology? Presumably, the Americans started with the English original and adapted it. Why, and why so much?

One answer: immigrants. Almost certainly, the American adaptation was driven by the arrival of a stream of new comers. They may have worked in trade or service in the old country, but the American opportunity would engage them in new ways. It might oblige them take to land or sea by unfamiliar means, all of a sudden, with not much training. Horses and row boats had to be “fault tolerant.”

Second, in the English case, the mastery of row boats and horses was inevitably about class. To be good a riding or rowing, this was one way to separate the sheep from the goats in a system deeply preoccupied with this distinction. (Riding would have been about distinctions of rank and rowing also about something more guild-like, but we will not worry this distinction here.)

The English planted “lie detectors” everywhere: elaborate systems of food, clothing, language and interaction, containing hundreds of fine distinctions, every one of them a test of whether you were “one of them” or “one of us.” A Georgian place setting, on a slow night, could contain 12 implements. “Excess to requirement” for some purposes, but very useful for seeing who was born to their station and who was newly arrived. Worse, these tests were to be dispatched with aplomb. To use the phrase Leora evoked in a recent comment, Castiglione’s sprezzatura was the order of the day. Knowing the code was not enough, you had to dispatch its demands with faultless grace (‘the art that concealed art”).

What a vast carrying charge this was. The English were extraordinarily inventive. But, mark you, only gentlemen were in the early days trusted to be scientists. They might and did engage in every kind of technological and industrial innovation, but they were disinclined to let these innovations “ripple out” to rework the social order.

How gifted the Americans. Possessed of the same inventiveness but not “saddled” by the same cultural governors. Damn the rippling, just get the job done. They had just found a way to get another 20 miles a gallon from the engine of industry. The English had always had access to this “secret weapon,” a small cultural change that would unleash unimagined new powers of dynamism. (And of course, in small and un-American ways they did.) But culture and practice imposed upon them oar locks and saddles was devoted to other objectives.

Walking around Connecticut, you sometimes, but only sometimes, think of that Faulkner line: here the past is not dead, it is not, in fact, past. But mostly what you see is a landscape that has been reworked with furious energy and a scant regard for preservation. The past is past and quite, quite dead. Look, you can see it there in that row boat lying on the beach.


“Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to societies…ready to break with their traditions?

Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. translator Miriam KochanLondon: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p. 323.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The book of the courtier from the Italian, done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, with an introduction by Walter Raleigh. New York: AMS Press.

Last note:

What am I doing here in Connecticut? I obliged by the anthropological vow of silence to withhold the details, but I can say that I’ve been engaged to do a preparatory study of prison life, and my client asks, merely, that we pray for her.

Jane Jacob and the city she lives in

Toronto has always been a dour place: unimaginative, intellectually entropic, complacent, disapproving, and pretty damn pleased with itself. Think of a kibbutz run by Scottish Presbyterians and you’ll get the idea.

My friend Max just got back from Toronto and says it’s a place of new excitement.

“Where’s the excitement coming from?” I asked him.

“Social justice types, mostly” he said. “Everyone you meet is a social worker or something. There are protests and movements. Stuff like that.”

Some years ago, this would have been music to my ears. Then I read Jane Jacobs.

When Max lays out his view of Toronto, he divides it into two categories: big business on the one hand and the social justice community on the other.

As a world view, this has problem. It sets up a dichotomy between big business and social justice. This founding distinction sets up a series of higher order distinctions:

conforming and individual
mass and micro
selfish and caring
bourgeois and street
complacent and engaged

This world view (city view?) puts economics and the marketplace city on the side of everything that is Scottish and Presbyterian about the city.

This is not the way everyone parses the city. Jane Jacobs, a long time resident of Toronto, is famous for supposing that the vitality of city life comes from the force of the economy.

Virginia Postrel sees the city as a “verge.” The dynamism of the city, she says, comes from the heterogeneity of the parties engaged there, the collision of their engagements, and the glorious messiness that must result. Cities are vital places in part because they create a verge called the marketplace in which conflicting aims and intentions meet, negotiate, redouble, and overflow.

Max sees the city as a conflict between two big ideas: capital and justice. Virginia sees it, perhaps as Hayek did, as a place in which an orderly disorder comes from heterogeneous parties pursuing separate projects in the unwitting creation of, now to quote Hayek, “a process more complex and extended that [they] could understand.” Isn’t this, the complex and extended, that most endears the city to us?

The real cost of Max’s worldview, I think, is that it discourages some people from full participation in the “verge” of city life. When we dichotomize the world in the Torontonian way we end up insisting that anyone with real intelligence and imagination must join the side of social justice and absent themselves from the marketplace. Worse than that, we commandeer their intelligence and imagination to engage in a pitched battle with the marketplace. This is simply tragic.

I have good news for the social justice camp. My trip this week to New York City to participate in “future forecasting” with three large enterprises reassures me that capitalism is newly appreciative of the dynamism of contemporary culture and it is now mobilizing to speak to this dynamism. If capitalism was ever the gray, conformist, conservative creature it is so often accused of being, this is about to change. I wonder if Toronto will ever get the news.


Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.

Jacobs, Jane. 1969. The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: The Free Press, pp. 191-218.