Category Archives: plenitude watch

A briefing service for contemporary culture


Today, I have three problems: American Idol, Second Life, and Yellow Arrow

Last night, thanks to American Idol, Fox triumphed on the airwaves.  Triumph is not too strong a word.  AI voting has assumed immense proportions.  Thirty-five to forty million votes are common place. 

Certainly, there are some idolators who are voting, like, 40 times, ok?  But that’s what I mean, Stephie.  You voted 40 times!

As an extensive or an intensive measure, 40 million says this little show has taken contemporary culture by storm.  (Everyone has to have their favorites and here are mine: Elliott Yamin and Katharine McPhee, Yamin because he looks like George C. Scott and McPhee because she does not.) 

So American Idol is a problem I have to solve.  This show is telling me something about contemporary culture but I’m not sure what.  I took my own stab at it here a couple of days ago.  American Idol may be the last gasp of a mass culture, popular because it defies the long tail markets and the plenitude that has transformed the music industry.  Actually, AI should be both a last gasp and fresh air for the mass culture proposition.  The more we fragment, the more we will embrace mass shows like this, the better to sustain our we-ness. 

But I have to do better than this, and in a more perfect world, I would be attached to a social network of commentators who could give me the 411 on American Idol in say 400 crisply worded words.  Or I would subscribe to a room full of really smart people, who track everything of interest in the contemporary world and who have 400 crisply worded words on all the things I need to know about.  As my briefing team, this group keeps me posted.  According to my subscription level, they know who I am and what I care about.   And according to my subscription level, they feed me briefing notes that help explain among other things why the new show Heist is so disappointing and Thief is so good.  (Actually, the magic words "Andre Braugher" are all the explanation I really need.)

And what about Second Life?  I joined.  I got a name (Moral DaSilva).  I got an outfit (plaid shirt, jeans, sandals and a really stupid hat.  My second life is a hippie life, apparently.)  I learned a few gestures (I think my best is the "shrug.")  I got a back story (I am a Marrano, a Sephardic Jew concealing religion and identity, who has been living under deep cover for so many generations that I have forgotten my cultural traditions, and now hunt the Second Life to rediscover or reinvent them.)  I got a house (though frankly that turned into a disaster and I haven’t spent so much as a single night there).  And I go to SL from time to time, but usually I run into people who are just standing around.  "What are you doing?" I ask and usually they say, "Oh, just standing around.  I’m new." 

The marketer in me is horrified.  Much of Second Life is like a ghost ship.  There is plenty of evidence of intelligent life and activity but not many signs of life.  All I see are beautiful houses, interesting shops, and little else.  What I need here is a guide, someone who can give me an illuminating tour.  I am told there are such creatures on Second Life, but I can’t find one to save my life.  Here too I am prepared to pay handsomely for the insider’s guide.  We have seen every kind of commerce spring up in Second Life.  We have seen the in-world economy draw in real world wealth.  So where the hell are the guides?  They surround every real world hotel.  Why are they so scarce in Second Life

Even with a guide, there’s a good chance that the larger significance of Second Life will pass me by.  Perhaps my briefing team could help here too.  Tell me about Second Life in the context of the virtual realities that have existed in the last 15 years and perhaps the pre-virtual realities (movies, novels, plays) that Second Life may or may not supplant. 

Yellow Arrow is an amazing experiment.  I learned about it today thanks to PSFK.  Here’s the way they describe themselves

Yellow_arrow I think of this as an wikipedia invisibly attached to the surfaces of the city.  Everywhere you see a yellow arrow, you are given a number that allows you to get more information about the place in question.  If you go to "secret New York City" and click on "traffic in souls" you get the video version of this feed.  An account of Ellis Island and a glimpse of what it was like to arrive as an immigrant at the turn of the 19th century.  Brilliant, now the city tells its stories.  Yellow Arrow has managed to turn the city into its own museum.  (Splendid.  Museology was too important to be left to museologists.)

The trouble with Yellow Arrow is that it is way too much information.  I had a quick look around this morning and ended up with the feeling I get in Second Life.  There is just way too much here here.  Millions of points of data.  Thousands of interpretive possibilities.  Hundreds of larger "take-aways."  Goodness, but I need a guide here too.  (And of course it turns out that the Second Life people can solve their problem with a Yellow Arrow solution.  The place should be plastered with yellow arrows and lots of information about who did the building and what they were thinking and conversations that happened there…and so on.)

Information Exchange

So when does the marketplace step up and supply this kind of intelligence that makes American Idol, Second Life, or Yellow Arrow manageable realities.  I don’t doubt that if I wanted to devote myself to any one of these I could have it mapped it in pretty quick order.  But like everyone I am interested in all of them, and many more things besides, so I just don’t have the time to make myself a devotee.

I need a briefing system.  (And it’s not just me.  Every marketer, educator, politician, cultural producer, and retailer, needs this too.)  This would supply me with a steadily supply of intelligence on what is happening on TV, on line, and in the world.  It would give me advance notice of the forces shaping my world.  And it would give me early warning of the things that are going to change the way I make my living, raise my family, live my life.  It would be nice to have a little notice.  I mean, come on.

This could be a briefing exchange that would allow me to trade insights with other suppliers (using some kind of credit system).  I would also allow me to sell new insights to clients for cash.  Where would I fit in the system?  Oh, I guess an anthropologists chattering away as I do could create something useful, if only by bundling all these daily posts into aggregates of illumination.  (Hah!)

I am grateful to know of the magazine subscriptions suggested a couple of days ago here by John Galvin and I will subscribe to one or two of them.  But what I really need is John Galvin or someone like him, supported by a subscription system, patiently sifting through the great mass of music that appears each day in our culture, giving me clips of this and clips of that, and a voice over or a video iPod treatment that lets me see the bigger picture. 

We can imagine what a model might look like: how many subscribers, at what subscription rates, with what level of customization.  Maybe it’s 10 first tier subscribers who for $300 a year generate $3000.  The second tier might be 100 subscribers who come up with $60 and this gives $6000.  Then 1000 consumers who get the newsletter at $60.00.  This brings in $60,000, and all together we have $69,000 and that’s not enough.  Time to get out a spread sheet and figure how many tiers are called for and the best pricing per.   

One of the questions here is how many people are capable of scaling down to the fine detail and up to the big picture.  It would extraordinary elasticity to manage this movement.  Actually, to shift metaphors, it would take the nimbleness of a mountain goat.  It looks like this market should have an over supply of supply, open to everyone with an enthusiasm for popular music.  But in fact I think it will prove to be a relatively small group of people.  (As I got to know popular music better in the 1990s, I noticed that my ability to describe it to newcomers began to deteriorate.)

This is a market waiting to happen.  Why is it taking so long?  Who will build the exchange?  Who is going to enjoy first mover advantage?  There is no money to be made at this level of the blogging world.  At least, I haven’t managed to make any.  With millions of us producing posts each day, content is free for the asking.  Actually, it’s free without the asking.  The value opportunities lie, plainly, in aggregation and pattern recognition.  And there are relatively few of us who can actually do this.  Time to band together, build an exchange, and make some dough. 


The Yellow Arrow website here

The "Secret New York" project of Yellow Arrow here.

Look for "traffic in souls" in the right-hand column for the page in question.

Fawkes, Piers.  2006.  Access To cool.  PSFK. here.

For a Canadian experiment that looks a little like the Yellow Arrow enterprise, see murmur Toronto here.


Thanks to Piers and PSFK for the head’s up.  This part of the briefing system is already in place! 

Thanks to Suzanne Stein for the Murmur Toronto connection.

Upstream from Whole Foods


[S]mall farms are actually surviving and even flourishing to an extent no one guessed 20 or 30 years ago.

So says Bruce Gardner, dean of the Agriculture College at the University of Maryland.

The United States had 6 million farms in 1944, and by 1970 that number had declined to 3 million, a rate of loss of almost 3 percent each year. If the pattern had held, we would have just over a million farms today. Instead we have 2.1 million, and the rate of decline has slowed to a trickle, with today’s total essentially the same as that of 1990.

Gardner suggests that this uptick in the fortunes of the small farm is due to labor performed off farm.

I am wondering, though, if this might not also reflect the Chez Panisse “eat local” philosophy and the Whole Foods retail phenomenon. All that “natural produce” has to come from somewhere and this probably isn’t going to be Monsanto.

Consumer taste and preference is fragmenting in a plenitude effect. Markets follow suit. Small suppliers were once swamped by economies of scale. Now smallness, especially when it confers speed and adaptability, confers advantage.

In the food category, this advantage is multiplied by a preference for freshness, local origins, and a state of chemical innocence. Of course it makes no earthly difference whether something was harvested by hand or machine, but we still like things that are “hand picked” (read: not entirely alienated from human contact).

All this should put small farms in a nice position. If I read Gardner correctly, the small farm slide stopped in 1990. It would be fun to match this against the dissemination of the Chez Panisse trend and the rise of Whole Foods. Might match.

And this is the thing we didn’t anticipate. Even the writers who invented our “cyber punk” view of the future missed it. Smallness would flourish. Big corporations would have their place in the world. They would, like Microsoft, do what they could to eat their way through all the little, smarter companies. But there would still be lots of little companies left. (Clearly, I am on the verge of a children’s story here. Consider these parentheses a prophylatic.)

The rise of the new economies would not mean the triumph of bigness. It was going to mean the triumph of bigness and smallness. And the death of the middle.

That the small farm should return to us, that’s really not something anyone anticipated. Intellectual bowed their grave and noble heads to mourn the passing of ‘the world we have lost” and the rise of the “cash nexus.” Most sanctimoniously did they agree that small farms were a goner, the first and perhaps most final fatality of the rise of the industrial world.

Darn, wrong again.


Gardner, Bruce. 2005. The Little Guy is OK. New York Times. March 7, 2005.

Food I: good food


Everything that matters in our culture must eventually manifest itself at table.
Here are some of things that have been happening in the period 1994-2004.

Farmers’ markets: from 1,755 to 3,137
Organic farms: from 4,050 to 11,998
Cooking schools: from 338 to 930
Wine imported: from $1.0b to $3.2b
Dry pasta: from $1.66b to $1.98
Olive oil (tons): from 115,000 to 190,000
Viewers Food Netwk: from 7 m. to 79 m.

In the words of Darrell Corti:

Ten years ago, to eat sushi you had to go to specialized restaurants and even in big cities you’d find only a few. Today sushi is an industrial commodity. (87)

We have also seen the emergence of the celebrity chef with a mainstream profile.

More tomorrow on the cultural significance of this change.


Andrews, Colman. 2004. Ten Years of Cooking and Eating in America, 1994-2004. Saveur Magazine, 10th Anniversary Special. October 2004, pp. 87, 94.