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A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

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This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

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Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

The Artisanal Economies, Entry # 1: the Sofi interview

Yesterday, walking to see friends in Boston’s South End, I stumbled across Olives and Grace

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I am working on a project called The Artisanal Economies. So I had to go in.

Olives and Grace is run by Sofi Madison. It’s been open for 5 years. (See more details here in a Boston Globe article. ) That I should come upon an interview opportunity this rich virtually at random encourages my suspicion that god is an artisan. (It would explain so much.)

Sofi and I spoke for about half an hour and the conversation was far ranging. In the spirit of Jerry Michalski (my favorite anatomizer of conversation), I will extract a couple of points.

1) Artisanal economies are robust in some ways, less so in others. One of the special challenges is “paths to market.” Farmer’s markets are useful. Etsy is super useful. But many artisans struggle to get their work before the public. Target isn’t going to carry it. Malls may be dying but they are for the moment closed to the artisan.

So a place like Sofi’s is a proof of vital concept: specifically that you can make a go (for 5 years no less) of bringing artisanal goods to market and flourish doing it.

2) A second big problem for Artisanal Economies has to do with what Eric Glasgow calls “cheap food.” (This idea may come from another source. I heard it first when interviewing Eric Glasgow of Grey Barn Farms,). The idea here is that consumers are addicted to the cheap prices that industrial economies, producing at scale, make possible. Confronted by the prices charged in the world of the hand made and the small batch, we sometimes balk.

In a sense, solving this problem is precisely what Olives and Grace is for. It is little, inviting, curiosity provoking, engaging. You are drawn in, as if into a children’s book. And you’re then engaged by Sofi in a conversation that moves effortlessly in the direction of anything you might happen to want to talk about. Sofi is there. Drawing you forward, gently shooing you along, helping you find that question you just have to ask. She calls this “intimate retail” and it deserves a study all on its own.

Several things happen in this conversation but one of them is that we begin to see into the history, we might even say the “intentions,” of the objects on the shelves. We begin to see that these things come from someone, that they were crafted to a purpose that begins with “coffee mug” and then scales up to include the lifestyle, the community, the economy, the culture that might be loosely designed artisanal.

Ah, now we get it. That’s why things cost more. That object on the shelf of Wal-mart doesn’t have a story. It was made by a stranger in a factory in Chengdu, shipped across an ocean, and banged around in the distribution system until it just happened to roll to a stop here on a shelf. It doesn’t mean very much because capitalism was so busy giving it value, it forgot to give it meaning.

And that’s what Sofi is for, to gently help you see what the mug means. Yes, we can buy a cheaper mug somewhere. But ,by this standard, cheaper doesn’t feel better, it feels poorer. As if everyone in the production – consumption chain as been diminished by the effort.

So, we could say, if we were rushing to conclusions (and that is what we do here), that retail is not merely the last moment in the distribution chain. It completes the meaning making process. And more to the point, it helps consumers understand and grasp the “artisanal premium” they are required to pay. It’s always true to say “we get what we pay for.” The very point of Olives and Grace is to help us see what we’re paying for. It helps solve the problem of cheap food.

3) Olives and Grace sits in a tiny shop in Boston’s south side, a neighborhood that continues to gentrify at speed. And this is another problem for the artisanal world. The best retail space is only temporarily affordable. A change in the surrounding neighborhood will eventually push us out.

Sofi has a plan for preventing gentrification, and it is a larger version of the education process that happens when you visit her in her shop. With the help of other shop owners, she is trying to tell the artisanal story in a way that makes it clear to people who live in the neighborhood how much value comes from shops like hers, how these shops transform the local style and spirit of neighborhood, and what happens, cue Frank Capra, when the big brand boxes come in. (Reebok has just set up shop down the street and while it is calling itself a collective and trying it’s hardest, people are nervous.)

So Olives and Grace is solving this third problem. Let’s call it the “where do you want to live?” problem. And to put this boldly, and much more bluntly than Sofi ever would, the proposition is this: you moved here because you found the neighborhood charming. But this charm doesn’t happen by accident. If you want this place to remain charming, you know want to do. You want to patronize local shops. And not “patronize” in the diminishing sense, as in dropping by every month or so. No, you want to make Olives and Grace the places you get your olives. Routinely. That’s if you want this neighborhood to be a place you get (some of) your grace. There is a connection.*

That was one of the pleasures of the conversation, listening to Sofi show how all these things things, the artisan, the olives, the coffee mugs, the scented candle I bought Pam, the store itself, the neighborhood, the local economy, American capitalism, all thread together. Pre-artisanal capitalism breaks these all apart. Sofi sees them (says them) whole.

Olives and Grace, and Sofi’s mission, comes down to the child’s art she has taped to the wall. It was done by a local kid who likes to come into the store and look around. She prizes this. Not because it’s good. And not because Wal-marts discourages people from bringing in children’s art. She prizes it because it completes the circle. All that’s hand crafted comes down finally to this thing that’s hand drawn.

More details at olivesandgrace.com

Thanks to Sofi for the impromptu interview.

*  A last point here. Sofi is working with other shop owners, many of whom happen to be women, and there is, she says, a fierce, “mama bear,” intensity to the way they protect their community.. We swept past this topic. I would have liked to have heard more.

Managing cultural complexity, 3 options courtesy of Tom Friedman, Chance the Rapper, and Maggie Siff

(Originally published Feb. 16 on Medium)

Edit Post ‹ CultureBy - Grant McCracken — WordPress.comTom Friedman was interviewed by Al Hunt on Charlie Rose Tuesday night. He was pitching his new book: Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. And he offered, as he always does, a modular understanding of the world.

There are, Friedman says, three things driving our acceleration. I always feel a certain ambivalence when listening to Friedman anatomize the world in this way These “modules,” let’s call them, are both disturbing and useful. Disturbing because they feel like intellectual decelerations, the world too simplified. Useful because these modules do give him coverage and breadth. And that’s the good thing about Friedman. He has a courage for coverage.

The intellectual strategy here is to “chunk” the great complexity of the world into thinkable parts. And when Friedman gives us a module, we are meant to treat this almost as a digital icon that signals the existence of an understanding more fully treated and crafted elsewhere. Take this as a placeholder, Friedman seems to be saying. (And he says this as much in manner as in content. He rushes through his exposition as if to insist that we consult the larger argument.) Still it feels sometime like a “near thing,” as the English say.

Things are more appealing when Friedman begins to put the modules together. And this he does as well as anyone. Because lots of people don’t even try. We live in our silos. We work from our silos. People ask for our advice and we proceed as if it doesn’t matter that all we know are our silos.

But of course it does matter. Especially in a world as dynamic as our present one, so filled with black swans and other disruptions. The good thing about Friedman is that he accepts that he should be talking about most everything if he wants us to take seriously his treatment of anything. Who else is doing this? Not many people. (My one complaint about Friedman coverage: not nearly enough about the cultural matters here. This is a blind spot.)

But surely we need to cultivate Friedman’s courage. Because there are more and more silos. So mastery of one silo gives us less and less. To make matters worse, the silos are coming alive, so to speak. They are increasingly conscious. They know about themselves. (Which wasn’t always true by any means.) They are better at spotting their limitations and blind spots. They are more mobile. To make matters still worse, they know about other silos and they are prepared to visit these competitors without permission or notice or any sort of sympathy. (In the contemporary world, disruption is never not the plat du jour. I was giving a talk in the investment world recently and I thought to say, “somewhere out there there is a disruption with our name on it.” A hush of recognition fell upon the room.)

The problem is not just achieving breadth and coverage. The problem is also the skill, the nimbleness with which we can move from top to bottom, and back again. It’s a question of control of focus even as we change the focal plane (and metaphor, sorry!). Can we move faultlessly up and down? The historical community prizes people who are nimble in this way. (I’m reading Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop. Holy Toledo!)

Is this part of any curriculum? Is anyone training us to hold understanding even as we scale? If you watched Chance the Rapper on the Grammys, you got to hear someone who has figured out how to manage scale. (His Someday in Paradise, not performed, is even more remarkable. By my count, it changes “altitude” 15 times.) But as far as I know, Chance the Rapper isn’t teaching anywhere. Though clearly he should be. (Somewhere out there, there is [or ought to be] an academic chair with his name on it. Someday…in paradise.)

But the problem is not just a) knowledge side to side and b) knowledge made manageable even as we scale. The problem is also knowledge writ broad and fine. This is, I venture to say, the single most pressing problem for communicating in our new culture. The advent of better story telling gives us the ability to speak with great nuance. But not everyone has risen to the new literacy. There are still some people who are using the old rules to read TV and Hollywood and every other kind of culture content. They find the new culture a little daunting, impenetrable even.

The solution is broad plus fine. We want big fat themes that are sit unmistakable at the opening of the story “view corridor.” And then we want a series of less obvious story points built into the view corridor and moving away by stages until we get to the far horizon where plot points are vanishingly subtle. Something for everyone.

This allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Popular culture is allowed to get better, so to speak. Eventually, it drops the adjective. It becomes culture plain and simple. But even as it becomes something Matthew Arnold would admire, it remains stoutly democratic, the sort of thing that is intelligible to readers who like things kept simple. (And all of us are that reader some time. This is pop culture’s holiest cause, its deepest promise. No viewer left behind.)

Our case in point here could be Maggie Siff who was interviewed by John Micklethwait on the same Charlie Rose episode that gave us Thomas Friedman. Siff was talking about her role on the FX show Billions. This is a show with themes big and unmistakeable. Two men contesting. But how thrilling to hear Siff talk about how her role. There’s no actorly pretense, no ‘observe how impossibly sensitive is my craft,’ just a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate treatment of “Wendy Rhoades,” the woman she becomes.

As popular culture got better, this was a question. Would there be a short fall in the supply chain? Would this cultural form have all the talent it needed as it got, quite suddenly and ferociously, better? The answer is Maggie Siff. (Smart studios should be reaching out to the best and brightest talents in the writing and acting world. They must improve their chances to access this top talent when particular projects come along.)

Summing up: 3 options

The world gets more complicated.

We remain rooted in our silos.

We need to cultivate several very particular intellectual abilities to survive the new complexity

(This list is not exhaustive.)

The Tom Friedman option

We need to get better at let’s called it the Tom Friedman option: learning to craft particular arguments and climbing up into the high rigging of real generalities. This is the single biggest problem for academics who do not train for it or encourage it enough. This means, tragically, academics are not very good at making it an outcome of the liberal arts education, or any education for that matter. (They are of course free to disappoint themselves. We should be less forgiving when they disappoint the rest of us.)

The Chance the Rapper option

This is a matter of managing scale. As we move from the finely crafted observation to the honking great generalization, can we control the argument? Or do these bust apart? Can we emulate Chance the Rapper and manage knowledge even as we move swiftly between altitudes?

The Maggie Siff option

This is a matter of communicating our “stories.” We want to step up and take advantage of the sudden improvement of popular culture and craft our work with new subtlety. But we DO NOT want to abandon those who are not (or not yet) transformed by this astonishing trend. We want to remain democratic. We want to continue to talk to everyone. The solution is the Maggie Siff option, to make stories that accessible to all even as they explore complexity and nuance.

Culture churn, aka TV with a very short shelf life

imgresJason Lynch recently suggested that Fox is keen to make Tuesday night a little more robust in the ratings department. There is trouble, apparently, in paradise.

The network’s double-digit declines in the new season are due in part to the anemic performance of its Tuesday night lineup: New Girl and Brooklyn have both averaged just 1.0 in the past two weeks, and Scream Queens plunged to a 0.7 in its most recent episode.

This surprised me because I’ve come to like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

And I didn’t think I would. I remember telling my friend Richard Laermer that it had no hope of succeeding.

My reasoning: that Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta character was so much less imaginative than his creations on SNL that the audience (by which I always mean me) would feel short-changed.

I was wrong. I grew to like Jake. He was sweet, funny, quite deliberately adorable. (He connects perhaps to the sweetness trend we noted recently.)

But last week, I had an awful ‘jumping the shark’ moment. Suddenly Jake went from being adorable to predictable. All of a sudden, all the “business” Samberg does (the goofy word play, the goofy scenario building, the goofy self criticism, the goofy pop culture referencing), all of it suddenly felt “done” and a little forced. Brooklyn Nine-Nine was over. For me at least. (And let me hasten to add that I am not claiming prescience here. My prediction that Brooklyn Nine-Nine would fail was wrong. And nothing about the current bad ratings vindicates me. I’m still wrong.)

This sudden shift in my opinion of Brooklyn Nine-Nine made me think about the a Pip Coburn conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. It was filled with investment people, a Rabbi, a poet or two, some journalists, and an anthropologist (me).

Over two days, things got quite remarkably philosophical. We observed how quickly successful companies can descend from profit and glory. And we contemplated the terrifying idea that maybe it is wrong to suppose that robust companies will have a long life span. Maybe, someone suggested (and it might have been Brynne Thompson), maybe we should expect even successful companies to live only a short while, less than a decade or so.

In other words, the idea went, perhaps we live in a world so turbulent, so filled with angry black swans and fleeting blue oceans, so turned upside down by commotion, disruption and creative destruction, that successful companies will only live a little longer than unsuccessful ones. The difference between the good and bad companies won’t be duration but merely (please hold the line for my salute to Ernest Hemingway) that the former “have more money.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. Unless a show is Law and Order or the unaccountably enduring Supernatural, all TV shows, even really popular ones, die young.

Yes, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is just in it’s third season, unless I’m mistaken. That will mean it was vital and interesting for just two seasons. The fact that it was really vital and interesting (with great ratings and awards) did not protect it from its present decline.

That’s the scary idea. That Wall Street and the world of TV can no longer bank the successes they way they used because they just won’t last. Even as the ratings, reviews and awards pour in, the smart show runner will have to fire up new shows…cause this too shall pass. And soon.

Call it “cultural churn.” But we wear through things faster than we used to. And this must challenge the economics of the industry, which used to rely on the hits to pay for the failures. Now that there is not much difference in their longevity… well, something’s gotta give. It is time to rebuild the model, to rewire the industry, to redouble our creativity. How we make culture is going to have to change.

iPhone combat: Bloggers: 1, Jean-Louis Gassee: 0

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I’m a big fan of Jean-Louis Gassée. So I was pleased to see a new post from him today

It’s called iPhone Nonsensus: Apple’s Debt To Bloggers.

Gassee goes after bloggers, specifically Steve Kovach of Tech Insider, for their criticism of the iPhone 7. He believes the bloggers failed to see that the 7 has an market shifting advantage after all, the new dual camera.

How did the pundits miss the obvious advantages of a dual camera? The improvement is indisputable and easy to demonstrate: The second “telephoto” lens is more appropriate for many pictures; faces, for instance, aren’t seen at their best advantage by the usual wide-angle lens.

Gassee contends that bloggers have failed to see that picture-taking is where the iPhone creates extraordinary value.

We now reach the absurdity: One of the most popular picture-taking devices on earth (the iPhone is either the world’s number one digital camera, or very close) is heavily rumored to be gaining a significant improvement — a second camera — but no, the blogosphere reached a “nonsensus” and steadfastly stuck to it. Nothing to see here…move on to the sure-to-be-groundbreaking 2017 iPhone 8…

Gassee is right to say that cameras matter. A couple of years ago I wrote a post called ARE PHOTOS A SECRET INGREDIENT OF THE INTERNET ECONOMY?

Here’s my argument:

We tend to think that photos matter because they are a record of the world. But this is only the necessary condition of their significance. The reason they really matter is that they are the single, smallest, richest, cheapest, easiest token of value and meaning online. We mint them. We trade them. We accumulate them. We treasure them.

So I agree with Gassee in general terms. But I think he is wrong in the particular.

Yes, photos matter. But the real question here is: do telephoto photos matter?  And the answer is, probably, not really.

The reason photos matter is that they have social significance.

Individually, photos are content coursing through our personal “economies.” They are the single most efficient way to build and sustain our social networks. We gift people with photos. They reciprocate. Hey, presto, a social world emerges.

Collectively, photos create a currency exchange. They are a secret machine for seeing, sharing, stapling, opening, sustaining and making relationships. Want to know where networks are going? See who is giving what to whom, in the photo department. Photos are in constant flight. They are a kind of complex adaptive system out of which some of our social order comes.

The iPhone camera got better. But consumers won’t care about this particular improvement because the existing camera is already doing the social job that needs to be done. A telephoto photo will not improve the iPhone as a social instrument, as a means by which we see, share, staple, open, sustain and make our social relationships.

In sum, the iPhone 7 does not have a realistic hope of an extraordinary consumer response…at least not because it has an improved camera. From the essential social point of view, there is no improvement.

Bloggers 1, Gassee 0

How to save luxury brands (and American capitalism)

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amElizabeth Segran has a nice essay in Fast Company: The Decline Of Premium American Fashion Brands. What Happened, Ralph And Tommy?

As a teen, Segran admired ads by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. That’s over.

Today, at 33, none of these brands interest me. They conjure up images of outlet malls.

The problem is widespread

I’m not the only one who feels that these iconic American brands have lost their luster. Many are on a downward spiral, hit by sluggish sales. Ralph Lauren is facing plunging profits resulting in the shuttering of retail stores. Coach is in a similar boat, having lost significant market share. Michael Kors recently devised a strategy of cutting back on discounts, since markdowns appear to have killed the company’s cachet. Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, which are owned by the same parent company, have seen decreasing sales in the U.S. market.

Luxury brands are, in short, a mess.

Segran consults several experts and they roll out the probable causes:

Luxury brands:

■ were pushed by Wall Street to grow
■ growth forced offshore manufacture and this created diminished quality
■ searching for larger markets lead to production overruns
■ overruns forced brands into the bargain and outlet channels.
■ finding Ralph Lauren in a discount bin at T.J. Maxx made it seem a little less luxurious

Other factors

■ new brands rose with a new, more social, sensibility, Everlane or Warby Parker

But something is missing here from this account. We are looking at a fundamental change in sensibility.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amConsider the Ralph Lauren ad that Fast Company used to illustrate this essay.

Almost everything is now wrong with this image. But not one of these errors in the image is remarked upon.

Errors in the image: 

That this picture has a center to it.
(Younger consumers are social animals. They are networked creatures. They are distributed souls. Practically, for content creators, that means dump the “focus” and go for “foci.” See recent work by Fitbit and Android for the social “foci” view, and my thoughts here.)

That the center of the picture is a white male, apparently WASP and privileged.
(Do I really need to explain the rise of diversity and what it means to the models we want to see in our ads?)

That the male in question has a woman wrapped around his arm.
(This too should be unnecessary, but everyone is now a feminist. And this posture is absurdly subordinate and subordinating.)

That this woman has the strangest look on her face.
(It’s an expressive that appears to say, “This is all I want from life, to be by my man.” I mean, really.)

That there is a steely eyed friend.
(what is this guy dressed for? A trip to his place in the country, the ancestral home, all brick, beam and ‘old money made material’?)

That the surrounding group glows with youth, ethnic specificity, and privilege
(the first motive for luxury consumption used to be upward aspiration. A consumer culture fanned the hope that we too could rise in the world, into exalted social realms, away from the ordinary, “common,” “coarse,” “little” people. But this idea is now openly ridiculed.)

Attention, sellers! The single most important idea driving your market place is dying. This idea of status is dying. It is now a recipe for ridicule.

So let’s be clear. Yes, there are plenty of “internal” reasons why luxury brands are struggling. And thank you, Elizabeth, for discovering them. But there are external, cultural ones, as well.

These cultural changes are not recent. These have been in the works for several decades. And it is a perfect storm as we rethink our ideas of privilege, status admiration, upward aspiration, sexism, and the adoration of the wealth and privilege.

imagesWhat to do? How could luxury brands have prepared themselves for this cultural disruption? At the risk of repeating myself, the single simplest strategy is to hire a Chief Culture Officer. For instructions, read this book ➼.

There’s a ton of talent out there. A few names come to mind. Tom LaForge, Barbara Lippert, Steffon Davis, Ana Domb, Philip McKenzie, Sam Ford, Joyce King Thomas, Michael Brooks, Jamie Gordon, Monica Ruffo, Rochelle Grayson, Kate Hammer, Drew Smith, Rob Fields, Parmesh Shashani, Shara Karasic, Ujwal Arkalgud, Tracey Follows, Eric Nehrlich, Bud Caddell, Barb Stark, Mark Boles, Mark Miller, Helen Walters.

(For a longer list, see this Pinterest page filled with candidates.}

If only Ralph Lauren had had anyone noted above as their Chief Culture Officer. How much share holder value would have been protected? How many careers saved? How much more fun would it have been to work at Ralph Lauren?

American capitalism has become a bit of a punching bag. There are so many cultural disruptions in play. A crisis now haunts CPG and Hollywood. So that’s three of the great workhorses of the American economy. And it’s at this point when we can see a crisis running right through our economy, touching things as diverse as luxury brands, CPG brands and Hollywood pictures, that’s it is time to rethink what we’re doing.

Take a smart person with good credentials, give them resources and give them power. It’s time to make our marketing, design thinking, branding, and innovation intelligence responsive to the simple truth that’s visible to most cultural creatives and virtually every Millennial. It’s time to make the organization as responsive to culture as it is to everything else in the near environment. All other options are stupid and embarrassing.

 

Spielberg: 1, Harvard: 0

Hollywood used to know what Americans wanted.

Then came the new diversity of moving-going taste and preference. Hollywood was in trouble.

In the words of Tom Hanks:

“Nobody has any idea why people are going to see a movie. Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit or what’s going to be irrelevant. There are no new models. The new paradigm in Hollywood is that there is no new paradigm.”

Hollywood made a fateful decision. It gave up figuring out what people wanted or might like. It resorted to “shock and awe,” aka the blockbuster.

Hollywood said, in effect, we will give you story lines so fat and familiar, stars so big, effects so special, and marketing so inescapable, you will be FORCED to come see our movies.

steven_spielberg_masterclass_cinematheque_franc%cc%a7aise_2_croppedThe strategy worked…for awhile. Then trouble set in. About 3 years ago, Steven Spielberg warned,

“There’s eventually going to be an implosion—or a big meltdown. Three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

There was a sharp intake of breadth through all those beautifully capped and polished teeth. Could the end be in sight? Could Hollywood’s make-shift strategy now be coming apart? Could it be time to return to reading American taste and preference instead of trying to force it?

It was a critical moment. The industry was poised for change.

Spielberg had opened the conversation.

And a Harvard Business School professor stepped up to slam it shut.

In Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, Professor Anita Elberse argued that Hollywood should continue to produce “a smaller number of expensive products aimed at mass audiences, rather than a larger number of cheaper ones aimed at selective niches.” “Forget the worry-warts,” she seemed to say, “You had it right the first time!”

Elberse declared:

“The future of blockbusters in the entertainment economy shines bright.”

BusinessWeek called her the “Harvard professor [who] knows why the bloated blockbuster will never die.”

The Spielbergian conversation stopped right there. The Harvard Business School had spoken. Return to your battle stations, everyone. Keep making blockbusters. You are good to go ever bigger and blockier.

That was three years ago.

The numbers for the summer of 2016 are in. And the results are clear.

Spielberg 1, Elberse 0.

In a piece called Hollywood’s Summer of Extremes: Megahits, Superflops and Little Else, Brooks Barnes delivers the bad news, noting

“a cavalcade of summer disappointments, including “The BFG,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “The Nice Guys,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Warcraft,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Hands of Stone,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Now You See Me 2.”

One particular blockbuster was particularly disappointing: Ben-Hur cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures at least $150 million and failed to shock or awe anyone.

The summer of 2016 was bad news for several players including Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. All suffered smaller or zero profits.

With it’s deep regard for the social sciences, we might have thought the Harvard Business School would have seen this coming. Some things are obviously short-term plays; short term because self destructive. And indeed it now looks like the blockbuster approach is consuming itself. Barnes quotes Doug Creutz: “There are now so many sequels that they are cannibalizing each other.”

What’s new and especially alarming about the Barnes’ essay is the possibility that people are now just done with blockbusters and to this extend with Hollywood.

Barnes describes the last hope of the film biz: those people who go to the movie theater and only then decide what movie to see. Could it be that Hollywood has destroyed even this precious, last group of enthusiasts? Perhaps now that all movies are blockbusters and that all blockbusters are the same, “blockbuster exhaustion,” aka “Hollywood exhaustion,” has set in. And this would mean that Hollywood’s shock and awe strategy has damaged the entire movie ecosystem, alienating even the deepest loyalists, the ones who sustained the industry through thick and thin. If this is true, the crisis is deeper than we thought.

What now? It’s time to put Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm back on the table. Have we learned anything in the interim? I don’t mean to be mean, but with the benefit of three years hindsight, we might say that Elberse’s book actually looks like a block buster in its own right: a large, relatively unthinking gamble on an idea that was already dead. We may not know that the new paradigm is going to be. But it’s pretty clear we can’t go with “same old, same old.”

The tragedy of Elberse’s book is not just that it was wrong. Anyone writing well with good intentions is entitled to be wrong. The tragedy is that Elberse’s book arrived at the very moment the industry should have been responding to Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm.

Time to get the debate going again. And there’s no time to lose. Careers, fortunes, and an entire industry hang in the balance.

Charlie Rose vs. George Lucas

la-et-st-charlie-rose-new-pbs-weekend-show-201-001Charlie Rose recently interviewed George Lucas. At the 16 minute mark, we see these two great men cross swords.

It’s a good talking point for those of us who are interested in the art of the interview (and especially the ethnographic, anthropological version thereof).

There are a bundle of strategies that make an interview work. One of the most important of these is not just the tone of questions we ask, but the tone of the attention we give to answers we get.

The idea, call it the “total approval rule,” is to indicate by body posture, facial expression and follow up questions that we approve of what the interviewee has said.

The idea, generally speaking, is that this initial approval will encourage the interviewee to be more forthcoming. In a perfect world, our initial performance of approval encourages answers worthy of a more genuine (less performative) approval.

(This strategy works in the real world. Today at lunch lean in and pay very careful attention to something said by your lunch partner. Nod and smile with a Southern’s grace. Hey presto, your lunch partner will instantaneously become 15% more interesting, [margin of error: +/- 3%.])

But something happens in the Lucas interview. No matter how much Mr. Rose tries to draw the great man out, Lucas will not be moved. He has a set of stock answers. He has a stock attitude. The fact that these answers are not very interesting, sophisticated or intelligent does not trouble Mr. Lucas.

He is, after all, George Lucas. (I have a friend in Silicon Valley who says that the moment you make your first handful of millions is the moment you stop growing. If you are not very careful you will always be that person, trapped in a haze of self congratulation, persuaded of your own sufficiency, your veritable perfection.) George Lucas has been a big sneeze for many years. He is the inhabitant of a celebrity culture in which every answer he cares to give is normally celebrated as completely riveting. He is now a great man grown a little tired of the pomp and ceremony of popular culture who doesn’t quite grasp that this popular culture has claimed him. It has forgiven him so many banal answers, these are the only answers he has left to give. Irony of ironies, this consummate story teller is now telling his own story badly.

But of course Charlie Rose is Charlie Rose. He is now so powerful and important in our culture that an interview with him is a little like being called to account by St. Peter. It is probably better, on balance, to bring your “A” game. You are now longer talking to 7:00 TV, those Entertainment Tonights of the world that are just happy if your mouth is moving once the film rolls.

It was interesting to watch the tension grow.

At around the 16 minute mark, Mr. Rose asked Mr. Lucas how he feels about his impending Kennedy Center award.

“Well, I could be glib.”

Something in Mr. Rose snaps, apparently, and he breaks the “total approval rule.”

“No, just be real.”

Holy toledo. This is Mr. Rose making clear that he will not stand for a rhetorical brush off. And now he dares actually instruct Lucas. He talks about the importance, the honor, of the Kennedy Center event.

Lucas is having none of this and reverts to the contempt with which Silicon Valley, Hollywood and people fashioned in the 1960s have always regarded the shadow puppetry of Washington.

“I don’t much care about awards.”

“But there are awards and there are awards,” Mr. Rose fairly explodes. He is now obliged to lecture Mr. Lucas on what the Kennedy awards are and why they matter.

Methodologically speaking, this is normally not done. It is almost the first thing they teach you in anthropology school. Don’t lecture the respondent. You are there to capture what they think. It doesn’t matter what you think.

Lucas will not be moved, “We get awards all the time.” And this draws the match to a stand off, both parties having made themselves clear.

In a sense this is a geo-cultural contest between different parts of the country. George Lucas takes the West coast position that doesn’t think much of conventional politics. Charlie Rose, a man who knows exactly that, and how much, these politics matter, begs to differ.

But this is also a study in the internal dynamics of the interview from which something can be learned. There are moments in an interview when I think we must be allowed the, let’s call it, “Charlie Rose allowance.” We can only be expected to indulge the unthoughtful (and the sanctimoniously unthoughtful, at that) for so long. And then we are allowed (perhaps obliged) to let the respondent have it, to lecture them on all the light (read “world”) they cannot see. This lets them know that we are rescinding their indulged status as respondent, the one that says, I am interested in everything you say. We are putting them on notice: up your game.

It’s a calculated call. But when the quality of the interview is at risk, we must object and evoke the Charlie Rose allowance. Sure, the respondent may respond by, gasp, unclipping the microphone and quitting the interview. But the risk is worth taking. Nothing matters more than the data. Not even the respondent.

comics on culture on Charlie Rose

IMG_6204Yesterday, the Charlie Rose Show repeated interviews with comics Billy Eichner, Amy Pohler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Seth Meyers.

A couple of comments jumped out.

Matt Besser: “You don’t have to appeal to 30 million people anymore.”

Ian Roberts: [the stuff we do can be] “a little rougher, more radical, more experimental.”

So what does that mean for popular culture?

Samantha Bee has an answer (at least for Full Frontal):

“We just do the material that appeals to us, the sort of thing we want to see.”

Does this mark the beginning of the decline of TV as a mass medium? Is TV, at least comedy on TV, now the artist’s playground, a place where artists can satisfy their own creative agenda?

This would spell the end of that glassy, packaged, patronizing, anti-improvisational work that popular culture produced in the 1950s, the stuff that made comedy look like an airshow: “Here comes a joke, this is the joke, how great was that joke!”

But have we moved to the far extreme? Let’s call this the Samantha Bee extreme (hold all jokes to the end of the essay, please) where it’s all about the cultural producer, and no longer about the cultural consumer. At all. (There’s another possibility: that Ms. Bee has become tragically self indulgent, the Nic Pizzolatto of late night, and not long for that. I ignore this option.)

Seth Meyers had an answer. Audiences are getting smarter, he said. They have all the comedy ever recorded at their disposal on YouTube and they are “self educating.”

So, yes, apparently we are moving to the Samantha Bee extreme. Comedy producers and consumers are less different. They are growing closer. What a change this is! Comedians were once aliens who infiltrated the human community by manifesting on a standup stage, there to outrage and delight the sensibilities of people who really had no idea what comedy was or where it came from. Not now. Now more and more comedic producers and consumers make up one community.

This changes the comedian. She was once a tortured soul, torn between the popular success that came from “safe” comedy and the professional esteem that could only come from “daring” comedy. To use that airspace metaphor again (hold your applause to the end of the essay, please) comedy producers and consumers occupy the same airspace. The comics can just do better stunts.

It also changes the audience. They are no longer yokels at a country fair marveling at the ingenuity of these city slickers. (“Dang, how’d he do that!”) They are more likely to scrutinize the architecture of the joke, wondering if Samantha Bee “didn’t maybe put a little too much stress on the last word. I feel.” and then taking (or as Henry Jenkins would say, “poaching”) the joke for their own personal purposes, to make themselves funnier Saturday night at the bar.

This is all great news for some purposes. It’s good for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It’s good for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and Seeso. It’s good for aspiring comics. Most of all, it’s good for contemporary culture, which gets funnier the more producers and consumers drive one another onwards and upwards. Call this the Apollo Theater effect, where the audience is so discerning, it forces entertainers to raise their game. (But now of course the effect is reciprocal.)

But it’s not all great news.

As two comedic worlds close, two cultural worlds tear apart.

As comedy producers and consumers get ever chummier, they take their leave of a large group of fellow Americans. I say, “fellow,” but of course that’s the point. As comedy gets better and pulls away, these Americans are less “fellow.” There are now millions of Americans who couldn’t find the funny in an Upright Citizens Brigade’s routine if their lives depended on it. They can’t actually see the point of it. And there are few things quite as alienating as this. You look a fool. You feel a fool.

There are two choices when this happens. You can accuse yourself of being witless and wanting. Or you can attack the person who has threatened you with this judgement, and call them an elite bent on taking your culture away from you. The only way to escape the “fool” judgement is to turn it on someone else.

And that’s where politicians like Donald Trump come in. And not just Trump, but an entire industry of pundits, experts, talk show hosts, religious leaders and other politicians have seized upon the “culture wars” as an opportunity to fan the flames of unrest, to mobilize dissent, to coax dollars out of pockets.

That’s where we are. Driven by technological innovations and cultural ones, there is now a dynamic driving groups of Americans apart, destroying shared assumptions, and putting at risk the hope that an always heterogeneous America can remain, in the words of Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.

This is not an accusation. There’s no obvious enemy. And there’s no obvious answer. No party, ideology, or interest can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We may self correct. We may not. But chances are slim that this cultural divide will make no difference, not as long as certain interests keep hammering away at it.

But it is a confession. I wrote a book in the late 1980s called Plenitude in which I argued that the coming cultural diversity would be a good thing and that we would survive it without descending into a tower of babel or a world of conflicting assumptions. And now it’s beginning to look like I was wrong.

You can hear something tearing.

The Intrinsic Economy (why the Republicans must lose in the long term)

lady bugsThe shouting! The hyperbole! The balloons!

Thank God the political conventions are finally over. Cleveland, Philadelphia, and television can finally get back to normal.

But the ideological turbines continue to turn. The underlying ideas that drove the conventions do not fall silent but carry on. We harness them every 4 years. In the meantime, they get more powerful.

New ideas of incentive and reward

The only answer that really mattered in the 20th century, certainly the only one that counted as far as economics was concerned, were “extrinsic” rewards.

We worked in the world for “income.” Some people were lucky enough to get intrinsic benefits as well. Doctors got the satisfaction of saving lives. School teachers knew the reward of helping kids grow. Waiters got to wear a tuxedo off duty (Veblen’s “vicarious consumption”). Fitness instructors kept their weight down. The rest of us were paid more or less entirely in dollars, and the intrinsic benefits (if any) were neither here nor there. “Nice but not essential,” as the phrase had it.

Those who worked chiefly for intrinsic benefits were called “inspirational”…but only rarely did they actually inspire anyone to follow suit. They were called “selfless” but this rather implied that intrinsic rewards weren’t really rewards at all. (If they were, we would have said these people were not selfless but well compensated.) Those driven by intrinsic satisfactions were the odd ones out.

That’s changing. You could say that the artisanal tilt in our economy, whatever else it is (and it’s many things), is a shift from people working chiefly for the extrinsic benefits to people working for chiefly for intrinsic ones. Unless you are, say, the Mast brothers, you’re not making a fortune. You are doing it for the joy, the pleasure, the satisfaction. What matters is less what you “make” in the way of income and more what you make in the way of satisfactions.

Some people look askance at those who follow the old model and continue to prize extrinsic benefits. They call them opportunistic and “on the make.” This an irony of the artisanal economy: when you pursue rewards that have intrinsic value to you, you create rewards that are good for the community. Conversely, when you exert yourself to create goods and services for the conventional marketplace, you are seen as old regime, industrial, adulterated and otherwise anti-artisanal. The extrinsic “tribe” acts in the service of discredited consumer tastes and preferences. Fast food, dry cleaning, aluminum siding, that sort of thing. The intrinsic tribe is seen to be a vanguard, fashioning new ideas of economy and community.

This is a big change. Caring about the social good that comes from economic value, this used to be a distinctly minority enthusiasm. For most of us, it was something only contemplated in the tearful last moments of a Frank Capra movie. The rest of the time we were hard-charging, self-seeking individualists. If we are no longer this, but some other kind of creature, well, it’s hard to say how big a change this is.

The rise of an “intrinsic economy” makes for a shift in politics, too. It says that people are less interested in employment rates than the larger robustness of the community. They are asking for a world that employs “the whole of me,” not merely the individual as a skill set and a problem solver. They want to work for an organization (if they want to work for an organization) that says “give us the better, larger part of your selfhood,” and not the usual “please hang that complicated selfhood of yours at the door and let’s get down to business.”

We ask something new of our politicians. We move from “get me a job” to “help me build me a community.” The person we want as politician begins to look less like Mit and more like Hilary, and, eventually, less like Hilary and more like Bernie. The Republican idea has always been: “‘here’s a job in an economy. Let’s see how the rest of the world falls out.” Back to the drawing board for party strategists. When people care more about self fulfillment than status advancement, the Republican party is obliged to revamp. It will respond to this deeper trend in American culture or it will find itself on the wrong side of history.

I can hear several objections:

1) This is all about a weak economy. People care about intrinsic rewards merely because the extrinsic rewards are in short supply. (See an excellent article on this topic by Noreen Malone here.) I take this challenge seriously, and I am setting it aside for the moment.

2) The “artisanal thing” is the preoccupation of an elite group of chefs and patrons in high-end restaurants. This objection does have an answer. The extraordinary growth of Whole Foods tells us that we are no longer talking about a tiny elite inspired by Chez Panisse. And the recent declaration by WalMart that says that it will transition to organic food tells us that still later adopters are signing on. We are beginning to enter the middle of the diffusion curve.

3) The artisanal thing is an episodic trend. It will come and go. It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and then it went away. It will go away again. Yes, agreed, this trend is episodic but it is also cumulative. Each time it comes back, it gets a little more powerful and a little better established. In this last iteration it leapt from food to the world of spirits (aka the mixology revolution) to the world of retail (the new ubiquity of farmer’s markets). It colonized neighborhoods, cities (Brooklyn, Detroit, Portland, Boulder, etc.) and entire generations. The “installed base” is growing.

The intrinsic economy is changing what we define “incentive” and “reward” and that changes what we want from our careers, our politicians and our parties. None of this is good for the Republican party.

New ideas of the individual: complementary parts or competitive wholes?

The conventional wisdom, well established as a social practice in the period following World War II, was that an individual was a whole unto him or herself. The individual was the unit of decision, the unit of initiative, the unit of membership. The individual was free standing. In the post-war period, there were sexist and ageist exceptions that said some women and all children were subsumed in a “family.” But otherwise the world was comprised of individuals.

In the classic view, individuals competing with one another for resources and the outcome of this competition would decide where they stood relative to one another in the larger social scheme of things. Advantages that came from beauty, grace, family, ethnicity, race, and education existed but, if acknowledged, they were seen to make an incremental difference. The real momentum came from effort and accomplishment.

Competition took place in several media. People competed especially with their consumer purchases. People weren’t so much “keeping up with the Jones” as trying to get ahead of them. They were claiming status by showing status. Successful efforts helped you rise. Bad performances made you fall. Claiming status in a consumer culture helped fashion status and your location in the status hierarchy.

The idea of the free standing individual is changing too. A certain sense of solidarity is emerging. There’s a growing sense that we’re “all in this together.” There’s a refusal to insist on one’s specialness, a disinclination to mark ourselves as special. Trump would have been a narcissist in any era, but he’s especially conspicuous now.

There are measures of this “solidarity reflex” everywhere. There is “norm core” clothing that refuses specialness. The wedding trend moves away from lavish and spectacular. We police social situations by objecting to the “humblebrag.” Luxury cars now engage in “just folks” advertising. A strange example came my way recently when I posted an essay called “Who will be our ethnographic hero?” I got a note from someone saying they would never wish to be seen as a hero.

Or consider this. Wikipedia is the work of 80,000 contributors. With the exception of cofounder Jimmy Wales, these people are unsung. I think it’s probably true that people in the 1950s would have found this anonymity intolerable. They would have preferred not to contribute than to be denied credit.

Perhaps the best measure is the extraordinary rise of social enterprise. Once there were only a couple of enterprises like Tom’s, the company that made shoes available to the Third world on a “one pair given for one pair sold” basis. Now there are thousands of enterprises that do this or something like it. These are not considered “acts of generosity”or “philanthropic gestures.” This is an simple part of the business model. Ask someone why their enterprise behaves this way, and at first they are surprised that you asked. The answer almost always returns to the idea that “it’s important to share” because “we are all in this together.”

This is a big change. We are a culture that invited individuals to individuate, to define themselves as separate, to mark themselves as different, to show themselves to be “special.” (And, please, let’s acknowledge there were always eddies of solidarity, chiefly family and home. And let’s acknowledge that individualism was always in several ways a myth we told ourselves about ourselves. Let’s also remember that exceptions prove the rule, and that myths make a real difference in the world.) If there is a feeling that individuals take as much or more of their meaning and direction from the fact that they are part of a larger social whole, something big has happened.

If we are no longer “free standing” but embedded in something larger, we have changed the way we think about our selves. Competition is diminished. Status matters less. Conspicuous consumption begins to look merely odd. Luxury goods look vulgar and overweening. The status hierarchy becomes the preoccupation of a few. In the unflinching gaze of the social scientist, we have always been embedded in a whole, less free standing that we wanted to think. But now Americans are catching up to the scientist. We see themselves as embedded too.

Summing up

To look for intrinsic benefits of a social kind and to define ourselves as parts of a social whole, these change what we want from politics and parties.

There is no evidence that Republicans are alert to either of these cultural changes. (To be fair, how would I know? I have no access to the Party’s internal contemplations.) Indeed these changes appear to have happened right under the noses of the Party. A few years ago, the party decided to pursue radio as an essential party organ and with the rise of people like Rush Limbaugh it succeeded. But the Party stood idly by as the ideas considered here crept into early childhood education and elementary school. And this much is probably indubitable: story time in the American kindergarden meant more to our present politics than the playing fields of Eton ever meant to the English ruling class.

But then the Republicans have always been a little tone deaf when it comes to culture. It believes that it was always about economics. Where the social and cultural matters appeared to matter, the idea seemed to be that bourgeois conventions of self definition and presentation should stand. (This might be why Fox newscasters all have the same hair style.) And otherwise, we could rely upon individuals to enter the marketplace in pursuit of extrinsic rewards which they would deploy for the purposes of hierarchical ascent in a status competition. At Republican HQ, the old model still pretty much prevails. At Republican HQ, it will always be 1956.

It’s a salutary lesson for us all. Drift this far out of the orbit of American culture and your days are numbered. But let’s not be smug about this. The Republican problem is pretty much everyone’s problem. Some version of it haunts nonprofit institutions like MET, the consumer packaged goods industry like Unilever, luxury automobiles like Mercedes, magazines like Vanity Fair. The intrinsic economy threatens a Tsunami-like disruption.

Thanks to Margarethe Brummermann here.

Who will be our ethnographic hero?

There is now only one path to the White House for Donald Trump. There has to be a Brexit-type surprise in November.

This is the hope of the Republican party faithful. When confronted with numbers that show Hilary in the lead and the refusal of their candidate to pivot to a more presidential presentation of self, this is what they say. There is massive support out there. We just can’t see it. Because conventional polling cannot pick it up. People are concealing their real intentions. Trump will win.

The only person outside the Republican tent I’ve heard make this argument is Megan Murphy of Bloomberg who last night on Charlie Rose said,

Putting this into the context of Brexit, [I wondered] ‘are we all getting this wrong?’ [Maybe] something much more profound and disruptive is going on… and this is going to be a moment when the establishment is broken. And not just the Republican establishment but establishment writ large. … Even we can’t step back and see the profound dislocation that’s going on.

Ethnographers consume this kind of problem for breakfast. The clipboard crew are obliged to take an answer at its face. But ethnographers live to dig. We are always looking for the world of meaning, the hidden assumptions, the basic thinking beneath the first reply. The clipboard crew has a box to check. We dig and dig and dig.

There is no hiding from an ethnographer. We can see inside your head and heart. We can tell what you’re really thinking. This is not interrogation. We don’t force you to tell. We just let you talk long enough until your lies begin to come apart, until their is a mountain of evidence about what you really think, whatever you just said to the pollster.

There is a HUGE opportunity for some ethnographer to make herself the hero of the moment. Someone who can talk to people who claimed “no opinion” and find the “shy” Trump supporters out there, the Trump supporter under deep cover. Spot them and map them, dear ethnographer, and, well, celebrity awaits you.

This is the stuff of which national reputations are made. Come up with this answer , and you become a national hero. To be the person who in late August says, “Trump will win. The ethnographic data tell us so. You may now adore me and don’t forget to consult me every Sunday morning forever and ever amen.” This could be the beginning of your Nate Silver ascension. And it wouldn’t it be grand to have a ethnographer who could do for qualitative data what Mr. Silver has done for quantitative data?

The problem is that we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. We are nervous nellies. I like to think that the reason that I don’t take on the challenge is that I have two projects on the go that are going to turn August and September into a forced march…but the truth is also that I am a nervous nelly.

This is a call the best and the bravest of the ethnographic world. A couple of names come to mind: Samantha Ladner, Steve Portigal, dana boyd, Patti Sunderland, German Dziebel, Ken Habarta, Panthea Lee, Jan Chipchase, David Art Wales, Peter Spear, Griffin Farley, Bob Morais, Carol Greenhouse, Phil Buehler, Jamie Gordon. (Apologies to those who are not on this list. This was totally top of mind.) People who are prepared to swing for the fences. Or maybe we are all of us nervous nellies. Who else can we turn to? Morgan Spurlock? Redscout?

Someone, please. If Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, we have to stop saying the thing that pundits have been saying for months now, “Oh, that can’t possibly happen and here’s why…” Because it could possibly happen. And if it does happen, we have to fire up our what-if machines and make ready for a very different world.

Who will be our hero?

[This post appeared first on Medium.]

Is music dead? (more evidence)

Here is Rich Cohen on Charlie Rose last night discussing his new book The Sun and the Moon and The Rolling Stones (with Jeff Glor sitting in for Mr. Rose.)

I quote Mr. Cohen as a follow up to the post I did on Medium called Is Music Dead? in which I asked whether music as a cultural force and an “identity forge” was in decline.

Here’s the way Mr. Cohen sees this development.

“I have a 12 year old son and I was driving with him listening to his music.

And it suddenly occurred to me, this music sucks.

That’s honestly what I thought.

And then I thought, ‘Wait a second, this is probably because I’m old. I’m an old guy.’

Let me do some research and see if I’m right.

And I realized it does kind of suck. That’s the way I thought about it.

And I thought about the way we thought about rock and roll when I was a kid, you would wait for the next record the way the way people now wait for the iPhone.

If it was the right record with the right songs, you had a good chance at having a pretty great summer.

The right record could change your life.

And at some point, that energy, not just of a great band here and there but of a whole movement that was heading somewhere, ended. It died.

And to me personally it ended when Kurt Cobain died.  I was working at Rolling Stone and it felt like the air went out of the balloon.

And I thought this thing that was so important, that was to us like a religion, it kinda died. And nobody has stepped back and told the whole story.”

Post script: Thanks to Charlie Rose for the interview portion excerpted here. This remains the intellectual property of Charlie Rose Inc. and is protected by copyright law.

 

Tinderbox: Building an ingenuity machine

2476581071_7a55c565ddSeveral weeks ago, Mark Bernstein announced the latest Tinderbox, the “tool for notes.”

I almost always sign up for these updates.

I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.

I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”

And that’s as close as I get to Tinderbox until the next edition rolls out.

This post is an attempt to figure out why the idea of Tinderbox continues to thrill me even when the reality never quite delivers. (I say this with all due respect to Mark. The problem, I’m sure, is mine.)

For me, the best description of Tinderbox comes from Naupaka Zimmerman who, when asked on Quora for a ‘simplest explanation,’ said this,

I think Tinderbox is most powerful for mapping ideas out of your mind and into something digital, especially when those ideas are not fully structured yet. If you have ideas and they are already all in order, you could use a simple text editor to make an outline, for example. Tinderbox is where to put thoughts when you don’t know where they go yet, or how they fit together. (my emphasis, full context here.)

This would make Tinderbox very valuable indeed. We live in an era that prizes innovation, that roils with dynamism. As a result, we are surrounded by ideas we struggle to identify and classify. We don’t “know where they go yet.” We can’t say “how they fit together.”

The app that helps us see where things “go” and how they “fit” would be useful. The app that suggest new categories and new combinations would be a very great gift.

Tinderbox does let me “pin” idea fragments. I can move them around. I can tag them. I can group them. I can look for new relationships.

But rarely does Tinderbox help me see the forest in the trees. So far it’s pretty much all just trees.

To put this in anthropological language, I want Tinderbox that gets me out of my categories. Categories are the units into which a culture identifies, distinguishes and organizes the world. They are the infrastructure of thought, if you want. They are the architecture of consciousness.

It is cultural categories that make the world look one way to an Ethiopian and another to a New Yorker. It’s categories that make the world look one way to someone from the upper east side and another to someone from Brooklyn. Think of categories as a grid. Hold up the Ethiopian grid and the world looks one way. Hold up the Brooklyn grid and it looks another. (Caveat lector: not a perfect metaphor.)

Categories are a big part of the box out of which everyone is constantly asking us to get. In this sense, categories are the enemy. They help us think, but they take us captive. To use the fashionable managerial lingo, categories are the reason we have such a hard time finding “blue oceans” and avoiding disruptions. They give sight and they take it away.

In a more perfect world, Tinderbox would enable us to escape our categorical, cultural schemes. It would take all those bits and pieces that we capture every day in the course of our excursions on line, and bring them into a series of relationships we have never seen before. This would really useful. New categories would form. New insights would swarm.

Think of this the way Granovetter thinks about networks. If I can be forgiven a too simple account of his interesting work on “the strength of weak ties,” Granovetter suggests that weak ties matter because they are the bridges across which novel information moves. (Strong ties are less likely to be this conduit because they exist between people who come from the same world and tend to know the same things.)

Granovetter is talking about social networks but his thinking applies, at least metaphorically, to information. Culture creates silos the way networks do. It puts like with like. That’s why we need “weak ties” here too. We need some way of bringing things from disparate categories together. Sometimes, the result will be unthinkable. But sometimes it will force a new category or a new reflection on a old category. This would make Tinderbox an ingenuity machine. As it is, Tinderbox has a way of encouraging my existing categories.

Steve Crandall has great stories about lunch time at Bell Labs. Someone would start talking, and a couple of people would slap their foreheads and run from the room. Ideas were leaping unbidden from one discipline to another. As it turns out, the only thing needed to provoke this “unofficial” transit of ideas was a lunch table.

The question is whether and how Tinderbox could serve as a lunch table. If only it would take the things I post to Ember, Evernote and Instagram and bring them together into novel, provocative, difficult, extra-categorical combination. If only it could promote new categories

As a completely non-rigorous test, I just reached into Ember and found three images sitting side by side. (I didn’t search. I just grabbed.) Images go into Ember in no particular order, so this “grab” is close to a random sort. (The overall category is “images that captured the attention of an anthropologist studying American culture” so it’s quite broad.)

Here’s are the 3 images I came up with.

screenshot-2016-02-29-at-1-05-02-pm-e1456780007526

First, this image from an Android ad. I love this campaign for the little phrase you see here. “Be together, not the same” is one of the best things produced by the advertising, branding world in a long while. (Hat’s off to Robert Wong, the Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Labs who is the author of this line or at least present at its birth.) It captures where we are now as a social world. It asks for unity without a compromise of diversity.

Then I found this. Sitting, innocently, beside the Android clipping was this photo of a sculpture in Mexico City. It’s Diana, goddess of the hunt.

diana mexico city - Google Search

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Mexico CityI was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I kept driving past Diana here held high on Reforma boulevard as if by many streams of water. My Diana is the one from Ovid, the goddess who kills Actaeon for discovering her in the wild. He’s a mortal. She’s a goddess. He may not look upon her. (The part Ovid must have liked: Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer. He is hunted and killed by his hounds.) I assume the statue has its own significance for Mexico and Mexicans. I never did figure out what. (Some Mexicans, it turns out, aren’t sure either. The trouble may be that Diana is many creatures with many meanings.)

And then I got this.

About Madewell - Learn More About Madewell - Madewell

I clipped it from the Madewell website as an interesting glimpse of the way one brand seeks to speak to one group of consumers, women with a quite particular sensibility. (An anthropologist is always looking for things that capture a particular way of thinking about, in this case, clothing and gender.) This went first into amber and then into Ember.

So now we have three images. All somehow caught the interest of an anthropologist, but they are otherwise unrelated to one another. Our Tinderbox “sort” invites us to imagine how they could go together.

The most obvious category is feminism. The opening image gives us one statement of our diversity. The second and third give us evocations of things that both express and propel our feminism. Diana is a feminist hero. Madewell clothing is one way our culture now expresses femaleness for some people some of the time. The Android tag line asks us to remain one community even as we continue to refashion gender and multiply our social identities.

This pretend spin of the Tinderbox wheel is, well, kinda interesting. But the outcome, (“feminism,” roughly) succeeds mostly in confirming a cultural category in my head. It doesn’t help me escape it. The trick is to look a little deeper and with this I find myself wondering whether I have quite honored Diana’s contribution.

What else does Diana bring to the Tinderbox sort? We could think of her less as a feminist hero and more as a warning. Actaeon dares do something mortals are forbidden doing. Hmm. Is there some correlate of this in contemporary culture? Who is Diana now and what would she object to? I think for a moment and then wonder if cultural creatives (in the Richard Florida occupational category) dare to engage in behavior that was once forbidden.

Culture creatives spend their lives trying to study, scrutinize, analyze, shape and reshape culture. We dare make and remake culture as if this were absolutely our right. And this is a marker of the world we’ve become, that we see culture as something that designers, anthropologists, writers, showrunners, studio executives, planners, strategists, app makers, software engineers, cultural creatives of every kind are entitled to have at. We even presume to give advice of every kind. (“Be together, not the same.”) We make free with culture and we make culture freely.

And it never occurs to us that this is daring behavior but I think there’s a good chance the practice makes us the odd ones out in the larger human story. I think a Victorian member of the middle class would have been astounded by our presumption. Culture was for admiring. It was for mastering. It wasn’t not for making, not at least by ordinary people. Poets, scholars, artists, yes. The rest of us, no. I think it’s unlikely that Roman centurion stationed in Gaul ended a grueling day building roads by composing fan fic versions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We don’t see that we engage in acts of Actaeon-scale presumption, but perhaps we do. And that means punishment, even Diana-scale punishment, for crimes of this order may have seemed not entirely out of the question, at least as a poetic conceit. (I am of course not serious when I propose there is something forbidden about cultural creativity. I embrace the idea because it is in the immortal words of Stanley Tambiah “good to think.” More to the point, it is “fun to think.”)

And this gets us somewhere. My Tinderbox sort has invited me to see something I used to take for granted. It gives me an opportunity to see “cultural creatives” not as unexceptional actors but as a daring, even transgressive ones. (Another clarification is called for here. I’m not talking about feminism as something transgressive. As an anthropologist, feminism is something that has been in the works for several hundred years. I’m surprised it took this long to transform us and I believe there is no likelihood that we will ever repudiate it. Feminism is here to say, and thank heavens.)

But is “transgressive creativity” this anything more than an odd idea? (Is it something more than a fanciful notion to add to that great collection of ideas with which we furnish our interior work shops?) Is there someone who believes that cultural creatives are transgressive? Is there anyone who would, Diana-like, punish them for this behavior?

Not at first glance. But when you think about it, you could say this is almost exactly what fundamentalists think (and threaten). Fundamentalists feel themselves captive of a culture filled with godless, immoral, reckless departures from the work and will of God. And if they thought about it in a detailed way (and for all I know some of them do) they would identify cultural creatives as precisely the people who are responsible for this systematic godlessness.

Hm. So is that it? Well, no. This Tinderboxian revelation leaves me with a problem…and a responsibility, even.

This is the place to ask ourselves whether any of us on the cultural creative side ever think to reach out to fundamentalists and encourage them to see the system, the genius, the good intentions of cultural creativity. I think the inclination of the cultural creative is to scorn fundamentalists as monstrously unsophisticated philistines “who just don’t get it (i.e., me).” But this is really not very empathic, or sophisticated, or cosmopolitan. It fails to see that, whether we like it or not, fundamentalists have a particular case to make. Most obviously, the “scorn” strategy destroys any hope of a rapprochement. If we cultural creatives really were liberal, they might be prepared to grasp the problem and commit to a solution. Scorn seems a little easy, a little glib.

The first order of business? Cultural creatives might want to demonstrate to fundamentalists that being “not the same” is not in fact a real threat to our ability to “be together.”

The second order of business? Cultural creatives might want to see if they can demonstrate to fundamentalists that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our cultural categories is NOT evidence that all hell has broken lose and that we are headed for moral collapse. We need to demonstrate (if we can and I think we can) that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our categories is another way of being a culture. It is another source for order.

One case in point here: gender categories. These categories were once quite clear. Men and women were frequently defined as mutually exclusive categories. In my (boomer) generation, men who displayed any female characteristics lost their claim to their masculinity. Gender (read “category”) conformity was policed with a terrible vigilance. Gender (read “category”) betrayal was punished savagely. Ours was a culture that terrorized people who did not honor their category into which conventional thinking (read “categorization”) had put them.

Gender categories have been rescued from this polarity. It’s no longer male / female. It’s now many kinds of maleness and femaleness, and lots of gender activity is substantially reinventing the possibilities. This transformation of the categories comes from many sources: Stonewall riots, feminism, the movies of Judd Apatow, TVs shows like Orange is the New Black, the LGBT movements. There are many forges for gender now.

To reach out to fundamentalists, this is to say, we will have to tell a historical, literary, anthropological story.

But let’s begin by giving fundamentalists their due. If you don’t have any way of thinking about gender categories except the conventional ones, it does rather look as if all hell has broken lose. We may scorn fundamentalists but from their point of view, chaos is upon us. From their point of view, sounding the alarm is the only sensible thing to do. Let’s be anthropological enough to grant that people are entitled to see the world as they do. And unless someone makes the argument to the contrary, they are entitled to revert to the traditional idea that only way to “be together” is to “be the same.” (And an Android ad is not enough to “bring them around.” Though frankly one of the reason I love this ad so much is that it does help, if only a tiny bit.)

So it’s up to us to make the anti-chaos case: that order can and does emerges from categories that are fluid, multiple and complex, that we can “be together” even when not the same.

Anyhow, whew! I can’t say this is a perfect exercise in ingenuity but my Tinderbox sort did help me think outside the categories that normally govern my thought. And this must be part of the reason why the idea of Tinderbox is so appealing. Imagine a software that helped us capture and combine notes in ways that can sometimes prove to be provocative of new categories.

Remaking the Museum for the 21st century

reviewLogoBlock-1Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”

I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
Grant McCracken

When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.

If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.

This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.

In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.

The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.

My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.

Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.

Why Anthropologists Don’t Whisper Well

CEOs should hire anthropologists. After all, these CEOS speak to a complex set of stakeholders. How useful to have someone, an expert, whispering in their ear.

But it turns out that anthropologists are bad at whispering. Why?

It’s a distinguished art, this whispering is. Early modern courtiers and counsellors made a fine art of it. For a scholarship boy, for whom status and power always belonged to someone else, whispering was a way to rise in the world. Get the ear of the monarch, or someone close to her. Direct the hand that directs the state. Make the monarch your agent, perhaps even your puppet. Hey presto, you could be a monarch in disguise.

This is standard stuff, documented and disseminated by that proto-anthropologist Baldassare Castiglione. Call it ‘whispering for power and profit.’ Good for the counsellor and good for the monarch so “puppetfied.” Good in any case for the state. (Anything’s better, usually, than a monarch left to her own devices.)

The art of whispering flourishes in the present day. Every diplomat has someone whispering in her ear. Thus does precious knowledge come to her just in time. Who is the person who stands before her? Friend or foe? Should she must charm, hoodwink, and/or mystify? The counsellor can tell you.

Anthropologists should be good at whispering. After all, their academic specialty is seeing into the head and heart of the other. And these days, the manager is surrounded by a lot of others. Increasingly otherish others, in point of fact. Stakeholders have many dubious, difficult and fleeting ideas. They are hard to read. The anthropologist can. Pity the manager who must speak not just to one but many, diverse, stakeholders, sometimes with a single message. The anthropologist can.

Anthropologists can master most of the languages and logics of the stakeholder. They can craft statements that people will find not just acceptable but agreeable, not merely indubitable but illuminating. The anthropologist can help the manager craft a semiotic miracle, a cultural artifact so fiendishly complicated it makes even difficult computer programing look…well, not that difficult.

Trouble is they don’t. On the whole, anthropologists don’t get invited to the party. The ones who make it to whisperer status is probably fewer than 10. This out of the 299,000 people who have a degree in Anthropology. The “whisperer ratio” is 1 in 30,000. This is bad. That a field so rich in intellectual gifts should have contributed so little…it’s very bad.

Academic anthropologists are quick to wail it’s not their fault. “Oh, they don’t understand us. We get culture. They are philistines.”

Well, yes. When managers do think about anthropology, they are likely to think about Margaret Mead and exotic cultures. And in any case, culture is the dark matter of American management. People know it’s out there, but no one is quite sure what to do about it.

But no. Anthropologist have in some cases actively disqualified themselves from c-suite service. First, the field has moved from studying the world to studying itself. Many acts of curiosity are snuffed out by a torrent of anxieties, moral, political, and epistemological. Anthropologists have decided, on the whole, that they shouldn’t or mustn’t or can’t engage in an anthropology that looks at the world. They have stopped contemplating the other. So they’re not much good when it comes to helping others.

There is one “other” anthropologists are pretty sure about, and that’s enterprise. For many academic anthropologist, this is the devil. These anthropologists don’t know this from their own experience, generally speaking. But they have seen the Hollywood view of capitalism, which generally prefers to treat profit-seekers as the villain of the piece. This too limits the anthropologists’ usefulness. You can’t give useful advice to party you fundamentally misunderstand.

Third, anthropologists don’t know about a lot of things in the contemporary world. If I may quote myself:

“Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about.”

But there is a broader problem. Our individualism leaves us with a “tender” selfhood. We don’t like giving advice to certain parties for fear we’ll be swamped by said parties. We don’t like whispering because it feels too much like an act of deference or moral eclipse. The scholarship boy was eager to whisper. It was his path to power. For many people in the contemporary world, it feels like an act of self diminishment.

The National Portrait Gallery, the one in London, tells the story. In the early modern period, the artist is a servant to the sitter. His or her job is to render the image, the pretensions, the self regard of the sitter. Editorial comment is unthinkable. The artists’ ideas do not matter. He or she is a medium that brings the sitter to public viewing, the more transparently the better. But as we move away from the early modern period, artists become more active in their “constructions” of the sitter. Editorial comment is allowed and finally obligatory. Finally, the portrait is as much a reckoning of the artist as the painter. The sitter takes her chances, because anyone with real talent will refuse to subordinate his or her selfhood to that of the sitter.

I believe anthropologists feel this sensitivity keenly. They fear being used. They fear being made a handmaiden of power. (There is an unhappy history here.) It doesn’t help that the anthropologist doesn’t know who the senior manager is or what she does. It doesn’t help that she suspects the corporation must necessarily be a dangerous creature. It doesn’t help that the anthropologist knows so little about the contemporary world that she can’t distinguish advice that is benign from advice that is in fact antithetical to the general good. It’s a tender individualism because the agents and the boundaries are unclear, so moral and political considerations are hard to calculate, and when these are your chief considerations, the things that make up most up of your education in anthropology, whispering feels fraught with peril.

That’s the thing about counsellors and courtiers. Serving as they did at the pleasure of a difficult monarch (and all monarchs are) and in the midst of competing factions, they got good at reading the complexities of the world. They could figure out what belonged to the Cesare of the moment and the Christ of their own inclinations. They could advise the monarch without giving away their autonomy or compromising their morality. (To be sure, this can’t always have been true. I have allowed a presentist individualism into this discussion.)  They could make themselves useful without forgetting themselves or their personal missions. They could whisper with obscuring the whisperer.

We’ve lost that now.

For its own reasons, the occupants of academic anthropology have decided that any truck or barter with the real world must be refused. But there is a vicious circularity here. When we refuse all participation in the world, we impoverish our knowledge of that world. Now we can’t begin to grasp the boundaries or the realities they must be finessed. And when this knowledge is missing, we really do have to refuse all contact. Every thing is “too close for comfort.” Every CEO looks the same. Every corporation (even the not-for-profit one) look identical. The manager’s opportunities and dangers are invisible, and, gasp, when not invisible, indistinguishable. The anthropological whisperer has made himself good for nothing.