Google’s early warning of the rise of Trump

[This post first appeared on Medium, October 23, 2017]

screenshotAll social observers should (still) be asking themselves, “How did we miss it? How did we miss the rise of Trump?”

In a perfect world, we would have had some sort of “early warning.”

We would have detected “faint signals” that put us on notice.

I want to examine one strategy or tactic that we could classify as “early warning from big data.” I will attempt to show how Google helps twice, once with the autocomplete function and again with Google Trends.

Net worth

Some time around 2010, years before Trump was a presidential hopeful, something dramatic happened to the search term “net worth.”

(Much of what follows is speculative. Hang on to your hat.)

I think you have probably seen “net worth” pop up as a Google autocomplete suggestion. You are putting in the name of an actor, say, and Google anticipates that the object of your curiosity is how much money this actor has made.

And I think (here comes the anthropological speculation) there was a time when people loved their celebrities generously and without qualification. They didn’t care about net worth. They didn’t think about it.

And then around 2010 this changed. (Possibly.) According to Google Trends (see the image above), some people began to care what celebrities were worth…not as celebrities, where their value is, to a real fan, inestimable… but in an economic sense.

Now, to be sure, some of these inquiries might have been admiring. Net worth might have served as an additional measure of the celebrity, outsized not just in their beauty and accomplishments, but in their economic standing.

But some of these Google Search queries may have sprung from another motive. It is possible, now to engage in still more speculation, that “net worth curiosity” was an expression of incipient resentment. People were asking because they were no longer unqualified in their adoration. The attitude was something closer to, “Let’s have a look at how this guy managed to get himself paid.” Admiration was turning to scrutiny. Adoration to skepticism.

There may be a zero-sum thinking in evidence here. The searcher was asking, effectively, “how much value has gone to you that did not come to me.” Or still more inquisitively, “how much value has gone to you that came from me. How much did you profit from my adoration?” This is truly zero sum. Your win was my loss. Your celebrity came at my expense.

All speculative. We would need to do the ethnography and talk to people who are using the search term. If resentment is at work here, it will surface soon enough and we will have a chance to map its origins and logic and imagine its outcomes.

[Let me just say that the big data players are, some of them, still inclined to suppose that their data are so big as to be self sufficient. All we need, they seem to say, is quantitative data. We can detect, infer and/or extrapolate the rest. This is sad. All you need to do is ask. And if you are a trained anthropologist (or other scientist) and even if you’re not, you can get straight at motive and logic. It’s there for the asking.]

But back to the larger methodological, future-casting opportunity here. Google gives us two instruments for early warning. One is the auto-complete function which is itself a statistically driven exercise. Google is playing back what people are using as a search term. And this makes it a window for those of us in need of continuous illumination. I have to say it would never have occurred to me to consider the possibility that people were asking this question. Auto-complete worked for me as a kind of “head’s up display.” I was asking about one thing and the Google data flashed before my eyes. This happens with every search we make. We dismiss most of the autocompletes. But sometimes we say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why are people asking that?” We have just had one, fleeting, glimpse of a possible future.

There is a kind of serendipity function here. As a student of American culture and as a forecaster of American futures, I can’t possibly anticipate all the things I should be looking for. And in this event, it makes sense to have some device that peppers me with data points. Google’s auto-complete works just this way. It serves as a kind of “head’s up display.” Over the course of a day of Google searches, I will get, say, 50 opportunities to see something I would never have thought to go looking for. Effectively, Google’s autocomplete function is working as my “desktop dashboard,” a flow of messages from the deep space of the Google data sphere.

The second instrument is Google Trends. I enter “net worth” there and the results are very interesting. There is (see the image above) a clear starting point. So this is not a chronic, low level curiosity. It starts. And then it rises. We are looking at a social trend or cultural movement that erupts and then scales. Our attention is arrested. Am I right to think that these data can be read as early warning of a change in attitude towards the celebrity world and, perhaps, the creative class and coastal elites? Who knows? It would take a lot more research to know. But I am put on notice that there might be something “out there.” In a world filled with black swans, that’s valuable, especially when one of the swans is Donald J. Trump.

In the case of the ascendency of a Donald J. Trump, this “something out there” is a matter for something more than idle curiosity. Every strategist, marketer, design thinker, pollster and political party would have been well served by early notice. If there was something happening to the bed rock of American attitude and opinion, if there was a new order of alienation “out there,” we needed to know and the sooner the better.

Post script: Over the weekend I participated in an event on “Design, futures and happiness” at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Thanks to Bruce Tharp and Stuart Candy for including me in a very stimulating series of discussions. Thanks also to Hal Varian and John Deighton for conversations over the longer term on Google as a window on the future.

Goat Rodeo vs. dumpster fire

screenshotOne of the pleasures of American English is its gift for new and pungent metaphors.

My new favorite: goat rodeo.

I used it often while driving with my wife today. It is surprising how many opportunities presented themselves. Traffic jams, strip malls, bad drivers, urban blight, the back seat. I am sure I was overdoing it, but that’s how you learn.

Goat rodeo replaces my recent favorite: the dumpster fire.

The great thing about dumpster fire is how contemptuous it is. To call something a “dumpster fire,” I think, is to say that it is vivid, alarming, but, for all that, harmless. A dumpster fire looks bad but, hey, what’s the worst that can happen? The guys working in the kitchen at Denny’s gather in the parking lot to see what the commotion is and one of them says, “that’s gonna burn itself out.” And everyone loses interest immediately and goes back inside.

Which is to say, I get why “dumpster fire” enjoyed such a nice long run.

What is it that’s so appealing about “goat rodeo?”

Certainly, there is a standing American hostility for badly organized situations. This is expressed in words like SNAFU, herding cats, and cluster f***. Now that we live in a digital era and the world is so much less disorderly, anything that remains chaotic is a special offense. So we are, presumably, on the look out for new terms of scorn.

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

Plus, there is some slight implication that the people running a goat rodeo may not actually grasp how far off standard they actually are. “What? Horses? They wanted horses?” This would make the phrase a way of saying that the situation was wrong from the beginning. and that this tells us that it’s in the hands of idiots, and that this tells us it is utterly intractable. A goat rodeo stays a goat rodeo. (Even as a dumpster fire burns itself out.)

And then there is the choice of “goat.” Herding cats is sweet because cats are such dozy anarchists. They really just want to find a place to fall asleep in the sun. No harm, no foul. Goats on the other hand are, I believe, much more willful, and aggressive, and they really smell. And they will eat your shoes. Cats will never eat your shoes.

Finally, there is something so self flattering about the phrase. When you call a situation a goat rodeo you are saying that it wouldn’t be so if you were in charge. This is a bad situation, but only for people who are too dim or rural and clueless to put it right. The speaker elevates himself. And I love elevating myself. Someone has to.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Charles Dan for the photo. See his article here.

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for AncestryDNA.com. This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

CLIENT
23 and Me
AGENCY
Venables Bell and Partners
LOCATION
Los Angeles
DIRECTOR
Diego Contreras
EDITOR
Martin Leroy

 

Google Trends as life advice?

[this post first appeared on Medium]

I was in Portland last week looking for artisans to interview for the Artisanal Economies Project and stumbled upon a vintage clothing store.

A clothing store is not perfectly artisanal, but I figured it qualified. It is, after all, curatorial, small batch and non industrial.

The woman within was happy to help but she told me that her store was threatened by insolvency. We talked for maybe 30 minutes and it became clear she had stalled. She could not stay in her present location, but she wasn’t sure where she and her husband should move.

“We’re from the midwest…” Marie trailed off, “If you have any suggestions, please let me know.”

Back in my hotel room, I wondered if Google Trends could help. I had the honor of talking to Hal Varian about Google Trends several months ago, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore what it can do.

I searched “vintage clothing” and it was clear that this is in decline nationally. Marie is right to be concerned.

screenshot

Google Trends allows us to drill down by state. Oregon shows lots of volatility and a still more marked decline.

screenshot

Google Trends ranks the states. This chart shows the states that rank low. And it turns out that Oregon ranks very low indeed, 45 out of 46 states. By this reckoning, Marie lives in almost the worst state in which to have a vintage clothing store. So moving anywhere is probably a good idea.

screenshot

The next chart shows the states that rank high. It suggests that California or New York might be better choices.

screenshot

Google Trends let’s us drill down to the city level.

screenshot

This suggests Eugene would be better than Portland. (And Boise would be very bad indeed.)

There are several issues here.

1 The chief of these is whether Google Trends is, for Marie’s purposes, measuring what we want to measure in the way we want to measure it. I will leave this issue to readers. I would just say that these data must be dramatically better than the ones that Marie and her husband now have at this disposal.

2 Should Marie and her husband trust a life decision to these data. I think the answer has to be ‘yes.’ Again, at this point they have NO alternative data with which to work. (They appear to be considering a return to the midwest simply because they come from there. From an “industry” point of view, this is anti-strategic.)

3 The last question is the most obvious intellectual one. Why should vintage clothing be doing badly in Oregon? (Marie told me that there used to be 12 stores in Portland and now there are only 4.)

I would have thought that vintage clothing would be one of the best ways of ‘keeping Portland weird.’ That is to say, I would have thought that vintage clothing would have resonate with this and other cultural things that define the locality.

4 This bring us to the prize question. By the looks of things here, a change is taking place in Portland. Consumer taste and preference has shifted. It is an anthropological truth that a shift of this order cannot be trivial. It must indicate a deeper change taking place in the culture of Portland, in the very “mentality” (as the French social scientist would call it) of the city.

Any change of this kind is interesting to an anthropologist. But when it is something taking place in a city now famous for setting the trend for some part of the rest of the country, then, yowser, this is very interesting.

Best of all, this change is, at least for me, counter intuitive. I would never have guessed it. I have no ready explanation. I am mystified. And this means that the change in question is, at least for me, disruptive.

Now to figure out what it is…

5 Google trends has several clear and verified uses. Marie’s example that it might also serve for the purpose of life navigation. Career counsellors and life coaches, take note.

(post script: “Marie” is a made-up name.)

Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. So mean.

[this post first appeared in Medium.]

A friend told me about seeing a freshman on a university campus in the UK. The kid was clearly in agony. And it was easy to see why. He had made a terrible fashion choice for his first day.

Over the course of his first hour on campus, this truth began to dawn. His choice was appallingly bad. Everybody thought so. He could tell.

The kid was now trying to keep his composure until he could get back to his room. He wanted to run, but a gentleman never bows before the ridicule of others. He holds his sangfroid. Otherwise, everything is lost.

It was, my friend said, going to be a close call. Would this young man make it back to his room before his nerve failed? Or would he break into a run?

Fred Armisen, the musician and satirist famous for his work on SNL and Portlandia, would love this dilemma, this struggle for aplomb in the face of self-reproach. But then Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. He helps himself to the human comedy with no trace of empathy or compassion. Our discomfort is his opportunity.

Take Globesmen, the mockumentary about door to door salesmen that Armisen did for his IFC series Documentary Now. Globesmen is about guys trudging suburban streets trying to sell something no one much cares about on the dubious claim that a good globe (or even one from Amalgamated Globe) will make your kids as cosmopolitan as a jetsetter and your living room glow with sophistication.

Globesmen is a world of cheap suits, crummy motels, bald faced lies, and an endless stream of indignities inflicted by indifferent heads of household, rock-throwing kids, and fire-breathing managers, the last actually threatening physical violence. Being a door-to-door salesman in this period was better the bagging groceries…but not by much. You got to wear a suit and carry a briefcase. Just about everything else about this job was designed as if to humiliate you.

Armisen loves these humiliations. He documents and savors them in Globesmen. You have to be cold hearted to watch this kind of thing. But to make it? You can’t have any heart at all.
But his heartlessness is also fearlessness. Armisen can take on anyone. He even takes on cool people. This is unheard of. Everyone knows that cool kids are above reproach. We learned this lesson in high school and we have lived its truth every day since. The cool kids stand above us in the social scheme of things. It is for them to judge us. It is not for us to judge them.

Which brings us to Portlandia, Armisen’s long running series on IFC. Portlandia looks at bike messengers, locavore chefs, book store owners, and other “hipsters” sworn to keep Portland weird.

For satirists like Armisen and his comrade in arms, Carrie Brownstein, Portland is what you might call a “target-rich environment.” Over 6 seasons, Armisen and Brownstein set to work. It’s not a pretty portrait. Take their running treatment of two women who run a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. The sketches open with Candace and Toni chatting behind the cash register. Candace (Fred’s character) usually says something that is vertiginously untrue. (“All of your nerve endings are in your fingertips.”) But the skits don’t really get going until Candace and Toni take umbrage. Eventually we understand that this is what the store is for. It brings them things to loathe.

In one sketch, Steve Buscemi plays a man who enters the bookstore not to buy a book but to use the bathroom. And this is so very wrong. The bathroom is clearly reserved for customers only. Candace and Toni now have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But he may not make a purchase because he is not worthy of any book or pamphlet in the store. So he can’t stay, but he can’t actually leave.

There are many other wonderful moments here. Candace asks an air conditioner repair man to make a contribution to the store “tip jar” so that there will be enough money there to pay him for the work he is doing. This makes perfect sense to Candace and Toni. And one of the targets of this satire is the hermetically sealed logic of Women and Women First. This is a world with its own cultural properties, so to speak. Language and logic work differently here. Candace and Toni have seen to that.

Surely, it’s not for us, craven members of the bourgeoisie, to take issue with any of this. Candace and Toni are way out there on the diffusion curve. They are the first to pull away from the gravitation of the moment. They are the first to see the future. We don’t have any standing here, as the courts like to say. We don’t have any credibility. We are creatures of the mainstream, the middle class and the moment, thoughtlessly captive of the conventions Candace and Toni fight at Women and Women First.

Armisen does take issue. He holds this up for ridicule. He dares to examine the absurdities and contractions lurking at Women and Women First. He reveals Portlandia to be a place that practices a vigilance that beggars NSA snooping, and wields powers of reproach of which the colonial Protestant church would heartily approve. (It turns out we want a guy like Fred on that wall. We need a guy like Fred on that wall.) Armisen protects us from zealots.

But there is still a problem here. Armisen doesn’t show any more compassion or empathy for Candace and Toni than he did for the globesmen. And empathy is clearly called for. It’s not much fun being Candace and Toni. Being hyper vigilant is intellectually difficult and emotionally taxing. It complicates both your personal life and your social life. It is demonstrably true (by which I mean, anthropologically verifiable) that sexism is deeply, often imperceptibly, embedded in our culture. Only acts of real determination can dig it out. So we need people like Candace and Toni. They are not shock troops at all but social reformers of the Jane Addams order, people who exert themselves to create the world without which we would, most of us, be miserable.

What Armisen’s ridicule misses are the unavoidable costs borne by some of the people rebuilding American culture. Self-righteousness is the secret of self-protection.

Armisen doesn’t care. No one is safe around this guy. He takes advantage of pathetic and the sad. He ridicules the keepers of our ridicule. Cool or cruelly put upon, Fred holds us all up for derision. No one can avoid this dark satiric mill.

Photo credit: “Fred Armisen at 2014 Imagen Foundation Award” by (and with thanks to) Richard Sandoval. Used according to CC BY-SA 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hispaniclifestyle/14810641332/

Post script: Thanks to Hargurchet Bhabra for sharing the story with which this post opens.

Ken Burns, an anthropological portrait of an artist and the edge

[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]

In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.

In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.

But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.

The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.

The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.

Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.

This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.

The Ken Burns Effect

The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.

The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.

The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).

But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).

The voice-over says,

Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.

The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).

That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.

As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.

“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”

The camera moves in, and we think,

“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”

And finally,

“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”

Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)

This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.

This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.

I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.

This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.

All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.

Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.

post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.

The case for culture in business, as clearly and forcefully as I can make it

This is an abbreviation of talk I gave for the design firm Thomas Pigeon in early April.

It puts the “case for culture in business” as forcefully as I can make it. (NB I’m not talking about corporate culture here. I’m talking about culture as in “culture creative.”)

Here’s a summary:

SECTION 1

00:25 capitalism and its creative destruction

00:30 Schumpter
00:54 Alvin Toffler
01:11 Clayton Christensen

01:31 the world is turbulent
…and culture creatives can help

SECTION 2

01:38 strategy struggles

1:44 Peter Schwartz and the corporation in a state of perpetual surprise

1:56 we wake up one morning to discover that our business model can be ripped out from under us

2:00 Michael Raynor and the death of strategy

2:19 Nassim Taleb on black swans and the unimaginable

2:48 these guys are not the least bit defensive (a joke!)

3:07 Andy Grove, here’s how we do strategy now: act like a firehouse

3:24 all that talk of agility is Andy’s firehouse

3:40 strategy is struggling…and we can help

SECTION 3

3:45 corporations and brands are in crisis

3:48 CPG brands especially, all the big brands are down, all of them are struggling to live in this new world

4:00 brands are struggling…and we can help

SECTION 4

4:07 culture to the rescue

this world of commotion gets simpler if you get culture

4:17 getting culture makes the world less “black swany” and less “suprisy”

4:47 we can do better than Andy’s fire house

4:2 culture is the professional competence of the culture creative

4:59 culture is our competitive opportunity

5:02 culture is our difference

5:03 we have always said our difference is creativity and it is but we can’t do great creativity without a connection to culture

creativity requires culture

5:12 creativity that’s not rooted in culture has this calorie-free quality. It’s not lasting, it’s not impactful. It doesnt really change the brand. It doesn’t really touch the consumer, and it doesn’t really resonate with the culture in place.

5:25 that’s when you know there a cycle here: you’ve drawn from culture buy you’ve created something so good, it’s so powerful, it actually contributes to culture

SECTION 5

5:40 culture is 3 things, meanings, rules and motions

6:20 the difference between Roger A and Roger B
(Roger is a dog, he doesn’t have culture. Roger B is a person, he does.)

7:10 Aspies and culture (making conversation in the elevator)

7:44 three purses, one is a Birkin bag worth $14,000

8:18 culture defines how we think about self and the meanings of gender, age, ethnicity, race, and our preoccupation these days with celebrity

8:24…and how we think about groups, style, entertainment and communications are all established by culture

SECTION 6

8:48 is there a Canadian advantage?
Yes, there is (possibly)
e.g., Michael Ennis, Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan

SECTION 7:
the case of the artisanal trend

9:08 food after World War II

9:38 the rise of prepared food: Cheese Whiz!

10:02 the artisanal trend itemized

10:38 the artisanal trend created the CPG crisis, it took on prepared food and fast food

10:46 and big brands disrupted by the artisanal
Unilever, Nestle’s, Coca-Cola, P&G taken by surprise

SECTION 8:
How can we help our clients?

11:07 first step: we map culture

11:11 culture too often the latest hippest thing, the coastal stuff, the beltway stuff, the elite stuff

11:23 the recent error of Democratic party

11:46 we want breadth of coverage

11:50 we don’t want to only listen just to the coasts

12:00 second step: choose the meanings (on the map) that really work for the brand?

12:17 which meanings work for the consumer

12:28 third step: now we build an exquisite brand

12:35 fourth step: stage events in the world that create meanings for the world (culturematics: meanings in action)

13:05 fifth step: meanings in motion. we have to track meanings, we need to find metrics. the corporation runs on numbers, all numbers are made with numbers. and when we are asked for numbers we just say just trust us, your career will be fine, your kids will go to college, you can trust us, look how hip our glasses our

13:40 it’s no longer about “refreshing” the brand, we need to be able to show when we want the client to claim this meaning and when to exit the meaning

13:51 We are still inclined to step in, offer a big idea and then leave, as if to say “our work is done”

13:50 what we need to say is “this is when we want you to get into this cultural moment and this is when we want you to get out”

14:02 this is the stuff of an enduring connection with the client

14:27 culture is our competitive advantage, it’s time to see it clearly!

Link

This is the presentation I gave at Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University a couple of days ago.

The opening couple of pages of the deck refer to the “bingeing” metaphor that I had felt had been used too liberally and not very critically at the conference the day before. People used “bingeing” is if this were the unexceptional and indeed the best way to characterize how we watch TV now.  Weird, I thought. “Bingeing” is after all a meme that came spinning out of popular culture a couple of years ago. It is a very particular, very odd figure of speech. No one seemed to be “interrogating” it.

So those opening slides, now a little general, post a complaint. I wanted to suggest that “bingeing” may be a bad metaphor, and to propose another way of thinking about what is happening to TV and viewers. Call it binging and you miss almost all of this.

 

The Artisanal Economies Project, entry # 2: The Peacefield Farms interview

This is a clip of an interview of Kaelin Vernon of “Peacefield Farms” with Sam Ford, Grant McCracken and Josh Poling acting as interviewers. The interview was conducted in the second week of March some miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

We spent several days traveling around the hills of Western Kentucky. The objective was to glimpse various parts of the local artisanal economy. We met Kaelin thanks to his connection to Josh Poling.

There were several questions in play in the interview.

Sam in particular was looking at what he calls the “balance between the logics of the commodity and gift economies. If your customers are buying from you because of the story of your farm, who you are, and how you do things, then it’s decidedly not a transactional relationship. You’re selling to your neighbors. They’re buying from their neighbor.”

You are building on, and building out, a social relationship, but, as Sam puts it, “When you have to translate that relationship back into something transactional, it can be tough to do. You don’t want to overcharge friends. You don’t want things to get awkward with neighbors. And that leads many artisanal businesses to pricing themselves in ways that they barely make a profit.”

Second question: We also saw a version of the topic that showed so strongly in the Olives and Grace interview (posted last Friday). Without a consumer who grasps the artisanal proposition, your pricing is always going to look too high. As Sam puts it, “Pricing depends on people understanding/getting the premium for what you do.”

Sam adds a problem (# 3 in this list, for those using a scorecard) that must haunt every artisanal player: that consumer enthusiasm does not represent a full and lasting conversion, but may prove to be something that’s merely “passing through.” In Sam’s words, “Fad buyers may be attracted to “buying local” but only for the surface of it.”

As a student of American culture, this particularly concerns me. I have seen several deep seated ideas change often and dramatically. American culture has some ideas it treats as ballast. We can’t know at this point whether these will include the artisanal concept. It was be wrong (worse, it would be glib) to assume that they will. And this means we may have a relatively brief window to get the word out, to encourage people to “sign on” to the Artisanal economy in a substantial way. When the fashion changes and some part of it will, many of people who are now loyal Farmer Market’s patrons, will move on.

A fourth question is the “false claim” problem. Sam says, “Consider the story Kaelin tells of big restaurants that buy only a small bit of their product, so that they could list that they “buy local” but so that they could primarily serve product shipped from elsewhere. Consider the story we heard from the guy who runs the dairy farm about the employee at the chain grocery who said, “It’s local from somewhere.””

There is tons of fakery here. And several people we talked to in Kentucky feel this problem intensely. There are no easy answers. Part there are some promising solution. At some point, in these proceedings we will tell the story of farmer’s markets in Bowling Green as a useful case in point.

A fifth question: this interview clip is interesting because it shows one way of solving all of these questions. Kaelin is talking about a conversion. The guy he is working with suddenly grasps what Peacefield farms is about and this comes largely from the “power of the gift” (as we call it in anthropology). It’s when Kaelin gives him a pound of sausage and dozen eggs that the guy makes a reciprocal gesture of his own, and a transaction cash economy falls away. Suddenly, we see gifts in conversation, as it were, and a different relationship, one that helps the relative stranger grasp the point of the artisanal economy and draws him into its sphere.

A sixth issue. Sometimes these private reciprocities come to define the identity of the trading partners. Thus “Peacefield Farms” appears on the wall of Home Cafe, a restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky (and, as it happens, a restaurant owned by one of the investigators on the project, Josh Poling). This helps Home Cafe make good on their artisanal proposition, even as it drums up new business for Peacefield Farms.

Sam is right to say that the mutuality of the relationship in the Artisanal Economy can serve to constrain the amount of value the producer can extract. But in this case it also helps them cooperate in the creation of a visibility in the larger community, and this, we can hope, helps everyone, gradually, come to understand the proposition and the need to pay for it. As in, “Oh, I’m supporting a farm!”

Tons more data and more thinking are called for here.

Seventh question. This “marketing” or “profile” piece is a big issue for every individual player and the community as a whole. As Sam puts it, “If you don’t have deep knowledge of talent in marketing/PR/etc., how do you make progress?” One of my Uber drivers on this trip dropped out of his artisanal project precisely because he just couldn’t solve this part of the problem. I don’t mean that he failed to do marketing successfully. I mean, the marketing problem so vexed him, it proved to be his “final straw,” and he dropped out.

Eighth question. And if all of this were not enough to daunt the artisanal player, there is the issue of regulation. As Sam puts it,

“How do you navigate the labyrinth of regulation and services? Kaelin’s story echoed something we heard from throughout. An artisanal business may be run by someone who has great talents/resources at their disposal but not necessarily history with managing all the local governmental and community entities you have to navigate. We heard stories throughout the trip of people confronted with how to get support from “the system” without having much sway to bring to the table, being blindsided by regulations they knew nothing about, etc. (Remember the beer brewer constantly hit with regulations he didn’t know existed, or the dairy farmer trying to deal with the USDA guy from out of state versus the state regulators who get it and are just doing their job.)”

Ok, that will do for now. Enjoy the interview. More to come!

Thank you, Sam, for producing comments at such speed. Apologies for my ham handedness in using them here.

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.

screenshot

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.

screenshot

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

unnamed

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.