The Dr Pepper spots were created by Kinka Usher for Y&R New York. Usher mixed music from Kiss, Will Smith and Cyndi Lauper. The point of the exercise was, according to AdAge.com, to "play up the notion that Dr Pepper has 23 flavors that make up its unique taste."
Mr. Berman has a prediction to make:
Chris Daughtry is the definite favorite, while talent-less Bucky Covington is the most likely to bid adieu tonight. Potentially joining Bucky in the bottom three: Lisa Tucker and, unfortunately, energetic Taylor Hicks in place of oddball teen Kevin Covais. Did you ever, meanwhile, see a contestant more in love with himself than Ace Young?
I am surprised to see how easy it is to make predictions. Everyone seems to know exactly who will win. And there is surprising agreement. Clearly, Kevin Covais will have to go just as surely (and for the opposite reason) that Santino Rice had to leave Project Runway. Kevin was too nice and Santino not nearly nice enough. (We want our icons, in music as in design, a combination of the two.)
But if we are truly a post modernist society, buzzing with variety and novelty, surely the American Idol confidence and consensus should be impossible. Surely, the whole thing should be playing itself out as a great mystery, with, say, performances of emo that shock and puzzle.
That there is confidence and consensus tells us a) we are mostly wrong when we talk about the new structural properties of contemporary culture, or b) there is something about American Idol that smooths the way for our confidence and our consensus. I am prepared to be talking into "A" but I have a feeling that the answer is "B."
After all, there are moments when watching AI where I find myself wondering what decade this is. No one has chosen a song penned in the 21st century. Indeed, as Randy, Paula, and Simon are often moved to observe, clothing and makeup choices often seem to harken back to another time. This is my way of saying that American Idol is a lie and perhaps even a conspiracy. It appears to be crafted to give the impression that American culture remains a mass culture, that happy time when every thing was known to everyone (see Monday’s post on the "death of destination television").
This is the "big brand" approach to contemporary music. Covington is an Eagles imitator. Daughtry is a road house rocker. Ace does Motown. My favorite, Elliott Yamin, a guy who looks endearingly like George C. Scott, covers Stevie. The girls, generally, are anyone anyone wants them to be as long as it obliges them to dress in clothing that no one has worn for several decades.
As we have noted here before, the great fluorescence of cultural invention that is taking place at the moment has certain structural effects, some of them predictable, some not. Predictably, it drives a plenitude of musical production, a fragmentation of consumer taste, and profusion of long tail markets. Unpredictably, it creates a flight to the higher ground of broader choice.
So much for the notion that the center will not hold. The fluorescence of our culture at one end is forcing a new coherence at the other. There are several benefits of this development. One of these is that we are left with an impression that really this a mass society, that nothing has changed. And it’s a very veritable impression. Forty million viewers. God in heaven.
I can think of several institutions that will buy the lie. The business schools will say, "listen, American Idol is proof that we do not have to let contemporary culture into the curriculum.It is business (school) as usual." Several brands, famous for the cluelessness, will also insist that American Idol is a license for complacency.
Too bad. For this appearance of cohesion is, I think, being driven by its opposite.
Berman, Marc. Programming Inside. Mediaweek. March 22, 2006. By subscription. Sorry, I don’t have an url. I get the Programming Insider by email.
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Francois Truffaut defined a great movie as a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. Now it’s become bifurcated. Studio films are all spectacle and no truth, and independent films are all truth and no spectacle. (Howard Franklin, reference below)
At first glimpse, it looks like Franklin is describing the "death valley" formation we have discussed before on this blog.
The death valley problem, briefly:
Big companies are flourishing. Small companies are flourishing. It’s the one in between who struggle. Big companies have marketing muscle. They survive by bending the world to their will. Small companies are nimble. They survive by adapting to the world’s dynamism. In between we see a "death valley" filled with mid-size companies too small to bend the world, too big to adapt to it. (We could call this the "sour" spot.) (I thank Scott Miller for telling me about the death valley problem.)
Looking at Franklin’s remark, I wondered whether the death valley model is the right way to think about this problem. It may not be a question of size, and the benefits conferred by large vs. small. No, this may be a problem of plenitude. It may be that plenitude is creating bigness as much as it is creating smallness.
As the consumer becomes more fragmented and multiple, the "block buster" must achieve new degrees of generality to appeal across these new differences. It must become ever more spectacular. Now, only big studios can play. Morgenstern (below) notes that there are six big players left: Fox, Warner, Universal, Paramount, Disney and Sony. Only big budgets will work. Morgenstern says the average feature film costs $98 million to make and market.
The block buster may once have been driven by mass markets and the "dumbing down" of popular culture. (The intellectual’s favorite explanation.) But now blockbusters are being created by blocks busted, by the rise of tiny cultures and subcultures into which consumer taste is now fragmenting. Or, to put this another way, the thing that is driving the little companies, the ones that seek for truth, is also the thing that is driving the big companies, the ones that trade in spectacle. Plenitude is creating not just a long tail. It is also creating a very fat middle.
We understand pretty well how plenitude creates itself. Finer distinctions beget more intensive segments. But Truffant’s distinction between truth and spectacle is useful here. To speak to more finely defined markets, the independent film maker must speak a finer, more intensive truth. The more narrow and deep is this truth, the more likely will proximate audiences will find it uninteresting. The more intensive the truth, the less likely will an indie picture find a large audience. It had better hope so to capture as many occupants of the segment as possible if it is to have any hope of success. For some segments, the very idea of "cross over" is in jeopardy.
What a culture! At one end, we may look forward to spectacle that must be all big name stars and very special effects. Nothing less than $100 million dollars will get the job done. Only movies that really are spectacle: violations of our sense of scale and proportion will speak to all of us. (I guess this is still shared.) (Is this why Tim Burton continues to flourish against all the odds? His films violate scale and proportion, whatever else they do or do not do.)
At the other, little films that may now be as particular as a novel. Little films that must be as particular as a novel. A world of film makers who are content to live the lives of novelists. No more huge paydays. No more award ceremonies watched by millions. The rewards will have to be intrinsic because, well, you just better like what you do. We may not be making much more. And this in turn, the plenitude effect again, means that the film maker may forsake spectacle and the Truffautian bargain. Sure, every so often, someone will make a City of God or a My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But these are going to be as rare as block busters with artistic credibility.
Tomorrow I am at the Corante Social Architecture meeting in Cambridge. If you’re there, let’s catch up!
Howard Franklin in Morgenstern, Joe. 2005. Hollywood’s Gambling Problem. Wall Street Journal. November 12, 2005, p. P13.
McCracken, Grant. Plenitude. 2006. Plenitude. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
The Harvard Business School is a class system. In this system, the Marketing Unit ranks lower than Organizational Behavior.
There is some justice to this, of course. OB has (and had) stars like Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Also, OB does a better job of thinking about culture than the Marketing Unit (yes, even with me as part of the team).
But from an extra-HBS point of view, this arrangement seems wrong. In the "real world" of business, marketing has more on the ball. It is learning to read turbulent marketplaces. It is responding to shifting taste and preference. Some of this is a "foxhole Christianity" of course, adaptation forced by necessity. But some of it is due to the deep and sometimes anquished thinking on the part of marketing professionals and professors.
One of the things that marketing has got good at is seeing and adapting to the consumer’s new diversity. Mass marketing has given way to micro marketing. The marketer understands that there are many types of consumers, and that any given consumer is a bundle of many, diverse tastes. In sum, marketing has learned to deal with multiplicity, fragmentation, diversity, or as I sometimes call it, plenitude.
OB has a long way to go to catch up. Here’s what Fast Company says:
Typically, HR people …. pursue standardization and uniformity in the face of a workforce that is heterogeneous and complex. […] The urge for one-size-fits-all, says one professor who studies the field, "is partly about compliance, but mostly because it’s just easier." […]
There’s a contradiction here, of course: Making exceptions should be exactly what human resources does, all the time–not because it’s nice for employees, but because it drives the business. Employers keep their best people by acknowledging and rewarding teir distinctive performance, not by treating them the same as everyone else. […]
Human resources, in other words, forfeits long-term value for short-term cost efficiency.
Hmm, if what Fast Company says is true, the world of business really only grasps plentitude on the demand side of the equation. The supply side…oh, here, we expect everyone to conceal their differences, suppress their individuality, and pretty much act like that robot in the "gray flannel suit."
I’m sorry but this just seems really, really stupid. Not because I am one of those bleeding hearts who believes that we all should cultivating the flower of our personhood. No, recognizing the internal diversity of the corporation looks like a good way of responding to the external diversity of the marketplace. Every corporation has marketing intelligence on tap. Every corporation is filled with people who understand some of the diversity out there because, hey, they live it all the time.
And let’s be clear. When we talk about "diversity" here, this is not a code word for "alternative lifestyles" (itself a codeword for gayness). Gayness is good. It should flourish in the corporation. But so is all the rest of the "diversity" out there and in this case, we mean that guy who does base jumping, the woman who drives muscle cars, that small coterie of people who are still, bless them, line dancing, the radical Christians, the radical Buddhists, the full force gardeners, and the devotees of Hi8 cinema. These people are a marketing gold mine. Their heterogenity makes it easier to respond to the world’s heterogenity.
And let’s be clear on something else. Wasn’t it the people in HR and Organizational Behavior who keep talking about exploring human potential? As it turns out, there is a big fat condition here: we can explore our potential at work, as long as it doesn’t complicated or inconvenience the people in HR. And while we are remarking on this contradiction, we might dwell for a moment on the truth it appears to witness: that the marketplace is more accomodating of human difference out of commercial interest than are all those full hearted people in the human potential "movement" who claim to work from higher, purer motives. The trouble with this group, in my experience, is that when they talk about human potential they mean their idea of potential (and the rest of us can just f*ck right off).
This is an unusually bad tempered way to end a post, but then, hey, it’s Friday.
Hammonds, Keith H. 2005. Why we hate H.R. Fast Company. August, pp. 40-47, p. 45.
To Jason Kottke who put this blog on the map today. Welcome to all the visitors he sent our way.
A great op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today from Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) on the ways in which blogging may someday supplant the newspaper. As Reynolds notes, “newspapers” constructed out of the work of independent, decentralized, unedited, undirected bloggers gives us the news with certain filters removed. This is one of those pieces that makes the future legible.
Reynolds’ essay reminded me of a piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago. It is now possible to get unauthorized tours of the Museum of Modern Art. The Times says these reflect,
a recent podcasting trend called “sound seeing,” in which people record narrations of their travels – walking on the beach, wandering through the French Quarter – and upload them onto the Internet for others to enjoy. In that spirit, the creators of the unauthorized guides to the Modern have also invited anyone interested to submit his or her own tour for inclusion on the project’s Web site, mod.blogs.com/art_mobs.
This is a splendid act of disintermediation. Museums have been pretty bad custodians of their collections. With exclusive control of the museum space, it was their way or the highway. Podcasts give us a way to break this stranglehold. (I do not mean we should not listen to their wisdom, only that they should have been given “sole source” authority.)
Newspaper and museums, these are two of the gate keepers of contemporary culture. Their diminution must help a hundred flowers bloom.
Kennedy, Randy. 2005. With Irreverence and an iPod, Recreating the Museum Tour. New York Times. May 28, 2005. (Sorry, don’t have this reference.)
Reynolds, Glenn. 2005. We the (media) People. Wall Street Journal. May 31, 2005 here
Ok, so its a miracle that the Chudnovsky brothers found the MET Unicorn photos. But is it merely miraculous or are there miracle mechanicals at work here?
Word of mouth
In order for the solution to find a problem it could solve, it would have to travel first by word of mouth. And it could not travel very far unless it was embedded in a narrative–a story that people wanted to hear, and even more to tell. (We could think of these narratives as little PR shills that recruit interest for the solution.) This is, probably, the only way something really obscure stories (and their client solutions) rise to public attention in the early days. Everything else remains trapped in the wash of daily conversation, forgotten virtually upon hearing.
As to the mechanicals: this is hard to figure. How many problems and solutions are estranged, that is, unlikely to find one another through conventional channels, thanks to conventional agents? How many conversations are actually devoted to transmitting little stories? I am guessing that there are many more solutions and problems that need connecting than there are word-of-mouth mechanicals capable of doing so. (How to figure? Lets say we have 3 conversations a day = 21 a week but only 6 of them are story-bearing x 300 million Americans / 2 (or more) to allow for conversation overlap, dont know how to figure this) = around 1 billion conversations a week. There are, by this reckoning, lots of delivery vehicles out there at any given time. Really commanding stories commandeer ever greater share of conversations. More and more people come to know the narrative, and the solution it contains. The chances that an obscure solution will reach an obscure problem go upward steadily. How quickly a narrative commandeers its share of conversation will depend, as we have seen, on the force of the narrative, and this is really hard to calculate, but not perhaps impossible.)
An expanding cultural universe creates a problem of its own. Part of the power of Chudnovsky narrative comes from the fact that it appeals to many New Yorkers. But as the world becomes more various, it will become harder and harder to find narratives with this kind of reach. There is a solution here and the Chudnovsky story exhibits it. This story is about the New Yorker approach to things and to this extent it can speak to the great diversity of New Yorkers. Presumably, someday all problem-carrying narratives will have to speak to form, not content. But even when they do, it is not clear that they can have the narrative punch that problem-delivery demands of them. This, then, is grounds to wonder whether cultural space is expanding faster than the networks that would allow them to communicate. The narrative delivery device may fail us.
As the world becomes more various, two additional problems emerge. Our problems, some of them, become more exotic. I am keenly interested in finding out something about the supply of talent in Hollywood. We know how many big name celebrities are chosen. I would like to know how many people are called. How many people say, “hmm, Id like to be a star. In between is a hierarchy: those who get some kind of training, those who get some a role or two, those who get a SAG card, those who win several parts in C films, B films, A films, how many get an agent, good agent, great agent, how many get a career, good career, great career, and so on. This is an obscure problem. Lots of people might be interested in the outcome, but you and I are the only ones who are looking for an answer.
Now there is someone in Hollywood who knows the answer. I need that rare person who covers the entire waterfront, the full scope of the recruiting system. I think there are lets say 20 people who could answer my question. And in a desultory way, Ive tried to find them. (I wrote SAG, Screen Actors Guild, with no results. Of course, they have a deeply vested interested in making sure these numbers are never revealed. Their revenues depend upon people clinging to an illusory hope: next year, stardom!) This small effort failed, and chances are word-of-mouth mechanicals, even with a narrative gale behind them, will not find me. My problem is too obscure. There are lots of little problems like mine out there but not even IMDb can find an aggregated way to speak to them. This is a way of saying that there a “demand aspect to the “long tail (thank you, Chris Anderson) that even a very dynamic marketplace cannot keep up with.
The solutions I can supply become exotic too. I am interested in predicting cultural trends, and I have worked out some ways of doing this. Many people are interested in this problem, but because I live outside the academic and the industrial world, mostly, my “solutions are obscure and will strike many solution seekers as wrong headed. Chances are the word-of-mouth mechanicals will not reach the people who find my solution useful. Here too diversity threatens network.
Now, there are happy moments of congruence/confluence. Some of the diverse solutions “out there eventually trade in their exoticness and become the generic way of solving problems. Marc Andreessen came up with a solution (Mosaic-Netscape) that was exotic in the early days, but as we wrapped our heads around it, we began to see that it was the solution to a great warehouse of problems, some of them anticipated, many just in time. (Andreessen didnt just make new solutions possible. He make new, “generative, problems possible too.) At first glance, it appears that an Internet browser will outstrip problems. (The Internet becoming in effect the solution to almost all network problems and the problems that networks help solve.) But again, the Andreessen solution had the effect of underwriting a new profusion of problems, so the congruence/confluence was fleeting. The cultural space that contains problems continues to expand, and the moments that Humpty Dumpty is brought together again are brief. (Mr. Dumpty always turns out to be an anarchist and not really a “wall sitter at all.)
Word of net
Our little story is an old fashioned one because news of Chudnovsky brothers moves from word-of-mouth to a big media player in one big leap. This is the world BI, before internet. This is a world in which the solution had to be wrapped in a sensationally interesting narrative because it was going to have to leap the grand canyon between all those people talking and a mere handful of newspapers and magazines.
So the good news here is that word-of-net decreases the amount of narrative power a story actually needs. In a word of mouth word, solutions need quite large narrative sails to move between conversations. In the word of net world, a small (i.e., 2 h.p.) outboard of curiosity will do.
Furthermore, the internet is, as we know, disaggregated, non hierarchical, less constrained by gates, less controlled by gate keepers. This means narrative power can drop again.
Finally, narrative itself may mean less. I think its probably true that the internet hosts lots of talk that is purely informational, where people talk about things because, thanks to the net, they can find that critical mass of people who find news of certain individuals and innovations intrinsically interesting. No narrative is needed to catch our attention and conscript our word of mouth.
Word of net fills in the gap between word of mouth and the media outlets. Now passage into the jet stream of public opinion is less frictionful. Solutions need less narrative oomph to make the transition. But in other cases, word of net supplants the big media outlets all together. And now there is a steady stream of intelligence moving from obscure origins to obscure destinations without the aid of much aggregation, narrative, or gatekeeping. (I apologize for belaboring what is well known. This was a ground up, “what do I have to think to think this exercise, and hey presto, I just found the path to illumination taking me through a little town called the “obvious with a stopover in a suburb called the “indubitable, with a sharp turn through a drivers ed parking lot filled with startled beginners for whom the obvious is actually a big surprise.)
But media coverage still matters more often than we thought it would. Some solutions will find real exposure only when upward ascend brings the story container to the attention of the media. Narrative still counts. The Chudnovsky solution came wrapped in a humdinger of a narrative (and in NECS II, we tried to show why.) People liked it so much they repeated it and repeated it till it reached the New Yorker magazine. This is the balloon hitting the jet stream. Now were really getting somewhere. Media coverage will also adds new credibility (unless the medium in questions happens to be The National Enquirer). You and I will talk about it with the assurance that ‘this is something. And we are now more likely to put this back into word-of-mouth circulation, sometimes reaching those who exist outside the original word-of-mouth and media ambits.
And the really good thing about this media coverage is that it fights the effects of diversity. It helps form and inform a “main stream. It allows for the possibility of broadcast, when word-of-net is mastering the idea of narrow cast so effectively that we are tempted by the notion (see the one-to-one marketing literature here) that narrow cast is all we need. Lets hope not. Thats the path to a culture of great diversity in which many of the differences are sealed away from other differences.
Ok, thats enough for today. So far this is pretty pessimistic. My conclusion appears to be that networks are not expanding fast enough to keep up with cultural spaces in which we live. There are several reasons for this, but the chief of these is that every solution to the problem is itself an incitement of the problem. Andreessens solution to the problem of a disaggregated culture actually serves further to disaggregate the culture.
But tomorrow, the final installment here (I promise). There is a still larger, more daunting problem here, a deeper reason to think that Chudnovsky solutions cannot hope routinely to reach Unicorn problems. This is another way of saying that it is entirely possible that the miracle mechanicals cannot be relied upon and we will be forced to rely mere miracles after all.
How did the problem and the solution find one another?
From the MET point of view, the Chudnovsky brothers represent a “solution so remote it might as well be one of those green glass Japanese fishing floats bobbing happily off the coast of Peru. From the Chudnovsky point of view, the MET problem is quite literally locked away in a vault buried within an institution and a profession the brothers do not understand and may not actually know about. The Unicorn tapestry photos might as well have been on Mars. (This is an asymmetrical remoteness because, presumably, museums find mathematicians more easily than mathematicians find museums.)
That problem and solution found one another is a miracle. Our job is to see if there were mechanics in the miracle, and what, if anything, these can teach us about networks in expanding cultural spaces.
The first question, of course, is whether the Chudnovsky-MET connection has anything to do with the real world. Some will say the Unicorn photo problem is the sort of thing that happens to museums, and nobody else. Surely, the brothers Chudnovsky are the very definition of an arcane solution. Maybe. But not if we proceed metaphorically.
I think it must be true that problems in the world are speciating as fast as everything else in our culture. When we decide to “reinvent some part of our world, to express our creativity, to think “outside the box, we often force ourselves to move out of the standard package of solutions to something that must be custom build, perhaps even purpose built (few, if any, modular components).
In the old Vegas, entertainment called for little more than a conventional stage, a half decent sound system, and some way of keeping middle-aged women from practicing Dionysian abandon at Waynes expense. The advent of Circe du Soleil changed all that. Now it is customary to make people sail through water and air in a single arc. For the old Vegas, the number of people capable of solving the staging “problem could be counted in the hundreds of thousands. For Circe, its down to a handful. God knows how they find them. (Chances are, they train them instead, perhaps from infancy.)
I think this might also be true for the corporation. There was time when CEOs were either patrician or hard charging. (Morgan Stanley, before and after.) And there was plenty enough of either one. Now that the corporate world is a place of new complexity, the number of suitable candidates has fallen. It is not clear that the MBA conduit remains the best recruiting system and it looks as if the old supply chains are failing us. In-house training may be the solution here. (And this is a very interesting recipe for plenitude. Some theory of the corporation says that managers are supposed to be interchangeable and that when they do trade places, the intelligence of the system distributes itself and becomes more uniform. But if we are looking at a world in which corporations are so complicated that they can only be run by creatures raised from within, creatures who do not and cannot move across corporations, this will encourage still more different corporate cultures.)
My point (and I do have one): as the world becomes more various, problems and their solutions are perhaps becoming more various too. If the old supply chains are failing us, this opens the vista of a culture in which problems and solutions are ever harder to connect.
Oh, for crying out loud, Ive done it again. Banged out 700 words and not yet supplied the answer to the question in question. My conclusion, and I do have one, tomorrow. Sorry!
Observed: an unlikely solution finds an improbable solution
Proposed: that we can give an account of the network that connects them
Yesterday: the transition from stage 1 to stage 2
Today: stages 2 through 5
The transition from stage 2 to stage 3 is pretty clear cut. Real estate magnates read The New Yorker and they know an investment opportunity when they see one.
The magnate put up $400,000 to fund the Chudnovsky brothers. In return, he got at least at least one mention in The New Yorker, a philanthropic project that differentiated him from other real estate magnets (of whom there are, I believe, several in NYC), elevated standing in the social world of NYC, a claim to “getting and supporting what is peculiarly New York about New York. (I am making assumptions about the magnates motives. I apologize if these are unfounded, diminishing or unduly Machiavellian. ((Hey, if you want a rosy view of human nature, stay away from the dismal sciences.))
In sum, the magnate converted $400,000 into a pretty substantial body of social and cultural capital. We cant do this calculation precisely. But there is a PR expert somewhere who could assess the ROI with a fair degree of accuracy. (How else do PR firms decide what to charge?) At the very least, the investment brought him: more profile, more invitations, broader social access, higher social access, and finally a larger business network. This, in turn, gives him access to more and loftier real estate deals. This, in turn, will improve the financial resources with which he can fund subsequent philanthropic “gestures that the spiral may continue upward.
Many investors pay much more for much less. Museum sponsorship can be much more expensive and receive no reference in the New Yorker or word of mouth treatment. Below, I have included a passage from my new book that describes the more traditional bargain.
Now how does the magnate collect his social and cultural capital? It is not enough to make the philanthropic gift, one must be seen to make the philanthropic gift. Mention in The New Yorker is one way of doing this. Another is showing the Chudnovsky brothers off at a Manhattan soiree. Thus have patrons always harvested the investment. Thus have clients always been obliged to “sing for their supper. Patrons compete and sometimes trump other patrons when they show off their clients. Patrons impress status non combatants when they show off their clients. Patrons draw in other would-be clients by showing off their clients. Getting the Chudnovsky brothers to show up for a soiree was very good for business. (And it doesnt matter that their heads are teeming with numbers, racing off in pursuit, say of pi. Really, they just had to turn up.)
In the transition from stage 3 to 4, the ROI soiree model holds with one small difference. When the hedge fund manager shows off the Chudnovsky brothers at his soiree, he is leveraging the magnates accomplishment. He is cutting himself in on a piece of the action. For this evening, he too is a patron of the life of the mind. Why is this ok? Why should he help himself to the anthropological consequences of the magnates beneficience? Its ok because he is staging his friend, the magnates, generosity. Now the investment is being put to work in the world. It is being lent out. (Is this something the actor understands? Oh, something tells me a hedge fund manager could work it out.)
Little does the fund manager know he plays a much larger role in our network. For he is a MET patron, and this entitles him to cameo appearances from MET curators. Thus does he let the world know of his philanthropy. As it happens, the evening that he invites Chudnovsky brothers, he also invites a curator who happens both to know about the Unicorn problem and to have a wife who is teaches math.
And now we move from stage 4 to stage 5. And wouldnt we like to have been there when the penny dropped. When asked what they did for a living the Chudnovsky brothers probably said something conversation-stopping like, “oh, we calculate pi. All eyes glazed over except those of the curators wife, who released finally from the tedium of these events, said, “really? with an intensity of feeling that quite took the brothers aback. And it wasnt long before the brothers were gazing upon the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries and supplying a solution that was otherwise permanently, structurally, beyond the problem solving powers of even a museum as mighty as the MET.
Geez, this is taking way too long. Tomorrow, then, the thrilling conclusion to the mystery of “networks in expanding cultural spaces.
Excerpt from Culture and Consumption II
Museums also have had long, intricate relationships with local families of high standing. These families supply precious resources: social authority, cultural capital, and political influence. They have offered their children as curators, their spouses as volunteers, their matriarchs and patriarchs as board members, patrons and donors. They have made the museum a repository of material culture (e.g., china, furniture, art and silver) that has helped define their status in the community (Warner, Low, Lunt and Srole, 1963, p. 107).
The relationship is not asymmetrical. Status flows to these families as it does from them. In the crudest case, the museum will trade social standing for infusions of cash. In effect, it launders wealth so that a “new family may become (or begin to become) an “old family. Normally, the exchange is more complicated and more delicate. Museum and family seek a balance in their exchange. There are many currencies in the exchange: money, events, names and naming, objects, prestige, standing, and influence of several varieties. What is given and what is got are calculated with some care. The bargainers seek a rough sense of parity (when an exquisite one is not possible).
Inevitably, there are asymmetries. Some families rank so high they must necessarily give more status to the museum than they get. Others rank sufficiently low they must always get status more than they give. All of this requires careful calculation about what is owned to whom, and someone on staff capable of making them. In a robust status community, the museum is simultaneously a participant in, an arbiter for, a contributor to, and a beneficiary of the process by which status is reckoned and apportioned. (I appreciate that this “exchange model of the relationship between families and the museum does not always square with the familys point of view. Many families see their contributions to the museum as “free gifts offered in the classic tradition of liberality and not because of the consequences that may follow from the act of giving (Kelso 1929).)
Yesterday, we noted how an unlikely solution (two mathematical brothers from Russia) found an improbable problem (distorted Unicorn images at the MET).
Today, I want to use this story to address a question: can expanding networks hope to keep up with the expanding cultural universes in which we live. (All unicorn stories are allegorical and especially this one. The photographic ’tiles created by the MET proved to have captured diverse materials that would not, when assembled, fit. Gregory Chudnovsky decided finally, “The [MET] tapestry is like water. [It has] no permanent shape. Water, cest nous.)
As to the improbability of intersection, we open with a shocker. It is, I think, relatively certain that the Chudnovsky brothers enter this network ONLY because certain conditions were fulfilled. The brothers:
1. were immigrants
2. came in twos (brothers insisting that they represent one functional mathematician)
3. failed to get mainstream academic appointments and lived in obscurity
4. pursued a problem regarded as unsolvable
5. built their own computer and stuffed it into a living room
6. did all of this in New York City
If even one of these conditions were unfulfilled, no New Yorker story, no Rube Goldberg mechanism, no MET solution.
But the moment the world supplies all of these conditions, I think the movement from stage 1 to stage 2 is relatively certain. (And this is strange. One condition missing, no transition. All conditions in place, transition inevitable.)
This is where we are obliged to get “all anthropological. We are after all talking about cultural systems here, not logical or mechanical ones.
Heres how I think it works culturally. The Chudnovskys make an irresistible narrative, at least in our culture, in this moment, in New York City. Most people, and virtually every New Yorker, is pleased to hear this story. Most people, and virtually every New Yorker, is still more pleased to tell the story.
Why is this? The story has good narrative value. It gives us sympathetic actors, little guys shut out of the mainstream, who quixotically pursue impossible problems, and do so from the discomfort of an apartment they share with a home made computer. Not just little guys, but deeply eccentric creatures who insist they are a single mathematician who happens to be divided across two bodies. People who have ordinary intellectual gifts love to tell stories about very smart people who are tormented (A Beautiful Mind) or very strange (the Bobby Fischer story). It is, I think, a way of saying, “whew! I may not be all that smart, but at least Im not nuts.
For a variety of reasons, then the Chudnovsky story tells well. All of us like to hear stories. It gives pleasure to hear stories. This is almost certainly hardwired and I will say no more. We like even more to tell stories. Telling good stories gives pleasure plus some kind of personal capital. As social actors, we are now more appealing, more credible, perhaps more charismatic. And this is a capital we can spend on a variety of things, some tangible, some not, all of them more or less influential in the disposition of our “life chances.
Most of all, the Chudnovsky story has “definitional force. One of the pleasures that listeners take from this story is a confirmation that reads something like: “yes, this is the kind of city I live in. Yes, this is the kind of person I must be (if I live in the kind of city this city is). Floridians might tell this story with a certain, “get a load of this for just plain nuttiness and in this case the definitional force runs in the other direction. (“Were not like this, thank God!)
But for New Yorkers this story carries a deep confirmation of what the city and its occupants must therefore be. Many other events, institutions, people and misadventures compete to supply alternate notions of the city. The horror of 9-11, Time Square, Donald Trump, crime, any one of these supply a different definition of the essence of the city, to the chagrin or distaste of most New Yorkers. The Chudnovsky story helps define the city these people want to live in and the kind of people they must be, by implication.
This is the place to bring in a “6 degree analysis. (Thank you, Brian.) Chances are the Chudnovsky story spread quickly. Its an empirical question: how many links did it take to hit the New Yorker net and how quickly did it then climb the editorial ladder? In this case, the New Yorker Magazine acts as a classic diffusion agent. It is always in the business of making the affairs of the city available to those who cannot experience it first hand. (This is all New Yorkers, because no one can be everywhere on the island, and lots of people across the state, the country, and the world.)
For some of these readers, the New Yorker goes so far as to traffic in a “New York frame of mind and now the magazine is much more than a classic diffusion agent. It is not just supplying notice of urban affairs but an opportunity to participate as a “New Yorker in absentia. For this virtual New Yorker, the Chudnovsky story has special definitional force. “Ah, yes, this is confirmation of the very special place this city is clear evidence of its difference, and how important it is for me to stay in touch.
Transitions through stages 3, 4, and 5 are much simpler and can be dispatched with a simpler argument. This I leave for tomorrow. Because, like, clients are waiting. I think you see what I am trying to do here. I am trying to see if there is a cultural account of the network that connects the Chudnovsky solution to the MET problem that shows where system, emergent or otherwise, driven by maximizing actors driven by cultural objectives, is operating to link diverse parties in disparate places. This will give us a chance to ask whether networks can keep up with expanding universes.
(I acknowledge the sheer implausibility of my example. Most readers will already have said to themselves, “for crying out loud, there is almost nothing in the Chudnovsky story that corresponds to the real world. Most problems have nothing to do with spoiled digital images at the MET. Most solutions, we must hope, bear no relationship to underemployed mathematicians from Russia! I hope my final discussion will show that the Chudnovsky story has a certain illustrative value as a talking point.)
In the meantime, I am putting down the chalk and I hope, when I come in tomorrow, someone will have finished the equation.
This is the story of how an unlikely solution, two mathematical brothers from Russia, found an improbable problem, digital images of a Unicorn tapestry. What connects them is a Rube Goldberg mechanism that includes The New Yorker magazine, a real estate magnet, a hedge fund manager, a MET curator and his wife. As we will see, the chances of this particular solution finding this particular problem were astronomically small. Or were they?
The story. Two brothers, born in Kiev, take up residence in New York City, where they lived hand to mouth on the outskirts of the academic world and devote themselves to mathematical problems of great interest but small promise. The brothers Chudnovsky, Gregory and David, built a computer out of mail order parts, installed it in Gregorys living room and set to the task of calculating pi to two billion decimal places. Twenty-six fans were needed to make Gregorys apartment habitable in the summer time.
In 1992, The New Yorker wrote an article about the Chudnovsky brothers and their story attracted the attention of Jeffrey H. Lynford, a real estate tycoon. Lynford put up money enough to install the brothers in their own research institute at Polytechnic University where the brothers built a still larger computer.
About 10 years later, the Chudnovsky brothers were attending a party held by Errol Rudman, a hedge-fund manager and a MET patron. Also in attendance was Walter Liedtke, a curator at the MET and his wife, Diana, a math teacher. Walter and Diana wondered whether their fellow guests might not represent a solution to a problem at the MET.
Several years before, the MET had taken digital photographs of a set of tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn. (These were woven around 1500 and held for centuries by the La Rochefoucauld family before coming to the US, thanks to a Rockefeller purchase, in 1937.) The tapestries were photographed in 3 x 3 foot sections with the idea that the resulting ’tiles would be electronically reassembled in a “faithful image. But the digital record was very large (filling two hundred CDs) and reassembly proved impossible. Eventually, this problem was found to conceal a still more vexing problem: that the tapestries had shifted during the photographic process so that the tiles could not be reassembled. Only higher mathematics, and, as it turned out, two brothers from Russia, could put the tapestries back together again. And of course they did, using their new supercomputer to perform what the New Yorker calls “vast seas of calculations upon each individual pixel in order to make a complete image of [the] tapestry.
This story covers a lot of ground, culturally, and it brings together really diverse elements. The temporal dimension stretches from the 16th century to the present day. The geographic one takes in Russia, France and the US. Weve got diverse players: real estate tycoons, a prince of capital, a museum curator, mathematicians. Weve got diverse institutions: a research institute, the New Yorker, the MET, an ancient French family, a look in from the Rockefellers. Badly written, I dont see any reason why this couldnt be a Dan Brown novel.
Diverse elements link implausibly (otherwise they wouldnt be diverse). This is the Rube Goldberg aspect, with each connection apparently a most delicate, most implausible hinge. Working backwards, the ‘tapestry problem cannot find its “brothers solution unless the brothers meet a math teacher whose husband happens to be a MET curator who happens to come to lunch at the home of a prince of capital who happens, presumably, to know a real estate magnet, who happens to read a story in the New Yorker about two brothers who happened to come to the US and build a supercomputer in their living room.
I will supply Part II tomorrow. For those of you who have finished the Times Cross Word puzzle, here’s another. The diversity of contemporary culture continues to grow and we are now, in the words of one book on the topic of networks, “small pieces loosely joined.” But it is also true that new technologies, the web, email, blogs among them, have created new, more powerful way of casting connections across these diverse cultural spaces.
The question is this: which is growing faster: the universe or the networks?
I liked the Chudnovsky story because it might serve as a way of thinking about the question in, er, question.
Preston, Richard. 2005. Capturing the Unicorn. The New Yorker. April 8, 2005. pp. 28-33.
Weinberger, David. 2002. Small Pieces Loosely Joined. Cambridge: Perseus.
Prefatory note: yesterday, I promised to look at the “cultural literacy a CEO like Meg Whitman needs to run the rapids of the contemporary marketplace and to advance shareholder value, but thats going to have to wait for tomorrow.
The intellectuals shook their heads in gloomy wonder. This would have to end badly. North America in the 1950s and 1960s was collapsing in on itself. Conforming was the order of the day. Colorless, featureless uniformity was the ineluctable result. Thus said John Kenneth Galbraith, Philip Riesman, Newton Minow and several others.
Wrong! In fact, contemporary culture began to fill with difference. Throw a dart anywhere on the demographic map and heterogeneity is there for the asking. The categories of age, gender, class, lifestyle, ethnicity, nationality, all of these show invention furious in kind and quality.
This so stunned the intellectuals that they threw up an academic embargo. Apparently, the hope was, ignored, heterogeneity might go away. But it got worse. Heterogeneity would have to be acknowledged.
The intellectuals sought to repair their position by insisting that, yes, there was lots of cultural innovation, a new diversity of definition for the group and the individual, but really this existed for a simple, single reason and the reason was politics. All that furious cultural invention was ‘transgressive in its intentions. People created new notions of age, gender, class and so on, in order to “fight the power.
And then a discovery so stunning that the intellectuals were reduced virtually to silence. There was invention going on “out there that even transgressive view of politics could not explain. People were engaged in acts of innovation for a variety of motives and sometimes this motive was the simplest differentiation. People were making differences between groups, within groups, and within this increasingly unlikely thing called the self, and they were doing so, in some cases, just because they could.
Politics, schmolitics. It was as if Platos account of the great profusion of life in the natural world applied now even to the cultural one:
[T]he universe is a plenum formarum in which the range of conceivable diversity of kinds of living things is exhaustively exemplified…no genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled.
We are still some ways away from living in a world that exemplifies our “conceivable diversity. But we have come a startlingly long way since 1955.
Naturally, the intellectuals are still dragging their feet. They remain devoted to the idea that contemporary culture is flawed in its very heart. Acknowledging diversity makes it harder to make this case (though God knows, they are trying). In effect, the embargo is still in place. The anthropological, sociological, historical, literary, and media studies called for here all pretty much remain to be done.
But we can spot some of the machinery of our diversity from a simple reading of the newspaper. Heres a recent story from the Daily Telegraph. On Monday, David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary of the UK, called for a robust celebration of St Georges Day next month. St. George is, of course, the patron saint of England. St. Georges Day has not been much celebrated for fear of giving offense to the Welsh and the Scottish.
“We don’t need to be afraid of that because devolution has strengthened their sense of identity so that we can now assert Englishness without in any way damaging Britain.
In sum, there is something circular about plenitude. First, it maps out the margin. In the British case, it gives recognition to the distinctness of Scotland and Wales. This diminishment of the centers powers of hegemony ought to play out in a zero sum game. The new vividness of the margin ought to come at a cost to the center. But, no, if Blunkett is to be believed, the centre becomes more vivid, more marked. The recognition of the Scottish rebounds in a new recognition of the English.
There is a deeper cultural mechanism at work here. In the West, the more powerful political party chose at some point since the Renaissance to “dial down its political symbolism. Men began to dress more simply than women. Upper classes began to dress more simply than lower classes. And of course the English made something like a fetish of understatement in their self presentation, so to keep from provoking the colonials. These latter, like women, lower classes and other subordinates creatures, simply could not help but make a spectacle of themselves by comparison, and thus was the dance of differentiation conducted, understatement on high, overstatement below. This was the cultural logic of asymmetrical difference: high standing parties were subdued, low standing parties, overwheening and conspicuous.
Im not sure about this one, but I think we are seeing all the superordinate parties engage in a self advertisement that used to be forbade them. Thus do men dress more conspicuously. The wealthy, with the exception of very old money, are more striking in their self presentation. And now the English went through their own moment of self assertion with Tony Blairs “Cool Britannia.
And what goes around, comes around. Now that superordinate parties are engaged in conspicuous behavior, subordinate parties no longer pay a penalty for spectacular behavior. This as much as anything may be responsible for the extent to which things like the tattoo taboo is now over. Once an act of self stigmatization, tattooing is ok. (There are of course many other cultural factors at work here.)
Whats missing is any sense of trade-off. The recognition of subordinate parties provokes a new vividness on the part of superordinate parties which in turn provokes a new vividness on the part of subordinate parties. We dont see the operation of a pendulum, where the acknowledgement of some difference encourages finally the reassertion of some homogeneity. Weird.
We are a difference engine. There is no difference between the straight away and the round about.
[David Blunkett] spelt out his love of England, its culture and political and social traditions, listing many reasons to be proud of being English.
When was the last time you heard someone say they were proud of being English?
Fenton, Ben. 2005. Time to celebrate our Englishness. Daily Telegraph. March 15, 2005. here
Fletcher, Angus. 1968. Allegory In Literary History. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 1: 41-48, p. 42, 43. Angus Fletcher defines Plato’s plenitude as “the notion that an intelligible world would possess all possible forms of all possible things” and as “an infinitely subdivided universe.”
Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1950. The Great Chain of Being: a study of the history of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 52.
What a magnificent thing is the zip code. But it doesnt parse quite as finely as we would like. There isnt a distinct zip code for each building or residence. But surely, this should be easy enough to do.
This is the way the post office describes zip codes:
The nine digits of a ZIP+4 code (e.g., 12345-6789) may be grouped as follows:    [89 ]
 : Sectional Center or Large City
 : Post Office facility or Delivery Area
: The required “dash” or “hyphen” separates the first five digits from the last four digits; the +4
 : Sector or Several Blocks
 : Segment or One Side of a Street
Another 3 digits and we would have a discrete number for each residence. We would have digitized the entire country.
The good thing about a 12 digit zip code is that we would release the worded address to perfect acts of imagination. Once I have your 12 digit zip code, I can call you anything.
We can be fanciful:
Or we can imply that ordinary places are portals to extraordinary places. (This is a kind of Time and Again approach.)
The Count of Monte Cristo
18th century (c. 1770?)
When I send you an envelope addressed to Yabu Pushelberg, I have cast a new identity upon you. You will do with it what you want. I would hope at the very least that you would introduce yourself as “Yabu at least once in the course of the day. Or perhaps, while sitting in one of those interminable committee meetings, say to yourself, “how would a man who lives in Sofa World handle this?
Brands are identity propositions. Mostly, they are eager to get our identities exactly right. The brand wants to help construct us exactly as we think we are or want to be. How much more interesting the world would be if brands cultivated the spirit of the Mardi Gras. What I want from the Coca-Cola Company is a fleeting identity, one that ends, Count of Monte Cristo, only for the time it takes me to empty the can. Indeed, that identity becomes part of the value-add of the brand. Each can of Coke could come with a different identity. My portfolio of selves is a little richer or more capable of “churn.
More on this theme tomorrow.
“But I really do not expect people to agree with me. People haven’t agreed with me as a soft Marxist, as a social engineering transport economist, as a quantitative economic historian, as a Chicago School economist, as a neoinstitutionalist, as a libertarian, as a global monetarist, as a free market feminist. No wonder they don’t agree with me as a rhetorician of science.
Of course, like most people, I do assume that those people are wrong and I am right. (And in sober truth–can I confide in you as a friend?–I am right.)”
McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1998. The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 188.