(This post was originally published a couple of days ago on Medium. I’ve added a post script which does not appear there.)
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and was shocked to hear the guests talk about their clothing brand as if it were very special and blindingly original.
They insisted that their brand spoke to young women with a feminist message of empowerment. I kept waiting for the host to gently point out that there were a couple of precedents here.
For starters: One hundred years of suffragette feminism, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Walker (pictured), to say nothing of the work of Dove and the brilliant “Throw Like a Girl” videos by Lauren Greenfield for Always.
But no. He sat by while his guests sang their own praises. The best he could muster were obliging prompts on the order of “so tell me, would you say you were totally awesome or merely utterly fantastic?”
The host is from the creative world, so he’s not trained as a journalist. And podcasts are, as we know, a planet still forming.
More’s the pity.
Edison Research found that 48 million people listened to podcasts last year. The number grows steadily. This universe expands steadily. But it’s not clear that it is maturing as a form of discourse. My fear: that it is expanding but a little witless, that it’s agreeable but a little toothless.
The world of journalism has taken this question on, and the podcast has something to learn from this precedent.
The Society of Professional Journalism has code of ethics. The code asks that members adhere to four principals:
1. Seek Truth and Report It.
2. Minimize Harm.
3. Act Independently.
4. Be Accountable and Transparent.
In the podcast world, this might be boiled down to a simple imperative:
cut out the shameless glad handing and ask real questions in the pursuit of real answers. Do not suffer fools.
No sooner had I published to this post to Medium than I found myself listening to a Recode Media interview by Kurt Wagner of Nick Bell, Snap VP of Content. I was impressed by Wagner’s willingness to ask the difficult question. Several of them. How well was Bell’s company doing and what did he (really) think about the share price? Why does Bell use “sexy selfies” when we might expect “serious journalism?” Most devastatingly, Wagner asked Bell if he regrets having failed to engage the creator community. (This is a difficult question because it suggests a fundamental failure to grasp perhaps the biggest change ((and opportunity)) in the digital world.) Bell took these questions in stride, but the interview was now richer and more illuminating. No glad handing here. (It occurred to me that one behavioral marker of the difficult question is the awkward silence. There were a couple. You could almost hear Bell thinking, “He did not just ask me that!”)
I looked Wagner up and was interested to see that he puts the “ethics question” at the center of of how he describes himself.
Senior Editor, Social Media
Kurt Wagner has been a business and tech journalist since 2012 and was previously reporting for Mashable. He also covered general tech and Silicon Valley news in his first job as a tech reporter with Fortune magazine, based in San Francisco. Originally from the Seattle area, Kurt graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.S. in communication and political science. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Santa Clara, the university newspaper, for two years.
Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.
In June 2016, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a job as an administrative assistant with Instagram’s marketing and community team. She is now a member of Instagram’s brand marketing team. She does not share material information with me about specific company projects or plans. She has been awarded a small stock grant as part of her compensation package, in which I do not have any ownership or control.
I have various 401K and IRA accounts, as well as non-retirement mutual fund stock accounts that invest in a wide-ranging basket of stocks, over which I have no control. I do not own stock in any individual tech companies.
I do not consult for any companies, nor do I accept gifts or products of value from companies I cover. I do not accept travel or accommodations from companies I cover.
Recode is owned wholly by Vox Media, a company with an audience of 170 million worldwide. It has eight distinct media brands: The Verge (Technology and Culture), Vox.com (News), SB Nation (Sports), Polygon (Gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (Shopping, Beauty and Fashion), Curbed (Real Estate and Home), as well as Recode (Tech Business).
Vox Media has a number of investors, including, but not limited to, Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal, both of which are owned by Comcast Corporation.
My posts have total editorial independence from these investors, even when they touch on products and services these companies produce, compete with, or invest in. The same goes for all content on Recode and at our conferences. No one in this group has influence on or access to the posts we publish. We will also add a direct link to this disclosure when we write directly about the companies.
Blogger, heal thyself
It’s all very well to play the “J’accuse” card. In point of fact, I do not have a Wagnerian statement of ethics that lets the reader know what standards they can expect of this blog. And I should. (And it says something about the haze of self congratulation that surrounded blogging in the early days that it never occurred to me to criticize blogging in the way I am now criticizing podcasting. Bitter? Ok, a little.)
I will leave the full statement for another day. But I can say this much.
1) I have never expected, solicited, or extracted any sort of payment for a blog post.
2) I have never written in a laudatory manner about anyone for whom I have served as a consultant.
I have written a lot of laudatory pieces. My “beat” at this blog is contemporary American culture and I am especially interested when I see people (by which I mean creatives, writers, agencies, brands, journalists, bloggers) making interesting (witty, rich, powerful) contributions to that culture. My guiding assumption is that much of American culture comes from commerce and we have done a poor job looking at the intersection between culture and commerce. Inevitably this means I look at the work of branders and agencies in an approving way. How does they express culture, how does they improve culture? But in 1.5 million words, I have not got any sort of payment for these posts. Before or after the fact. I’ve never even got so much as a bottle of scotch or a note of acknowledgement. (Agencies like to think they exist sui generis. And this says a lot about why the creative and commercial world struggles so much these days. But it’s also a good thing. It keeps temptation at bay.)
3) It’s one thing never to write in a laudatory manner. If we are to follow the example of journalism in general and a journalist like Wagner in particular, we are obliged also to write negatively. This blog has lots of criticism. I have criticized Gillette, P&G, and Coca-Cola, to name just three. Bad work (i.e., lazy, stupid, craven work) deserves to be called out and scorned. I am sure this has cost me clients who supply the income that keeps my “self-funded anthropology” enterprise afloat. So this has been something more than a cosmetic gesture. It’s cost me.
There may be an official anthropology code here. (And it is almost certainly an exercise in the field’s solipsism, effectively discouraging all interactions with all parties. God forbid, the field should let in data that might disturb its orthodoxies.) But certainly there is an unofficial “University of Chicago” ethics code. This says, “you are in this inquiry for the inquiry, and the moment you start to shill, you cease to inquire.”
Charlie 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.
The 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.
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.
Several 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.
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, 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.
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.
Several 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
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.
Ethnography has grown in the last couple of decades from a moody, friendless method in the social sciences to the belle of the business ball.
But clearly it has suffered in this rise to stardom. In the wrong hands, ethnography is now a license for the methodologically slap dash. To use the immortal words of Errol Morris, ethnography is now sometimes “cheap, fast and out of control.”
Part of the problem, I think, is that ethnography has been shorn away from anthropology. It was created by anthropologists (and to a lesser extent sociologists) and used in conjunction with anthropology (or sociology).
The advantage of adding “anthro” to “ethno” is that it allows us to put things captured in the life of consumer, user, or viewer in a larger, illuminating context. We can see, more surely, what it means. Without this larger context, ethnography devolves into simple observation, as in “this is what I saw when I was in a consumer’s home.”
Adding “anthro” to “ethno” also give us access to theoretical resources and intellectual traditions that contemporary ethnographers rarely seem to bring to bear on the problem at hand. (And I’m sure that I don’t need to say that the “problem at hand” for any ethnographer studying the ferocious dynamism of contemporary culture is usually formidable. We need any and all the powers of pattern recognition available to us. Airily dismissing the patterns made available by intellectual discipline and years of theoretical development is just dumb.)
How can we tell that someone is adding “anthro” to “ethno?” We are entitled to ask “where did you study anthropology?” (We could also use “sociology,” “film studies,” or “American culture.”) We are asking, “what do you bring to the table beside a claim to method?”
But this is only part of the problem. Too often, the researcher has no “depth of field.” He or she is incapable of seeing that this family, this home, the user, this community is a creature in motion changing in real change. Good observers have an acute sense of the historical factors at work here. They know what has happened in a very detailed way since World War II and they have a general sense of what has been happening in Western and especially American culture over the last 300 years.
This gives us a glimpse of “slow culture” as well as “fast culture.” (For more on the distinction, see my Chief Culture Officer.) And now we are really testing the abilities of the self appointed ethnographer. Do they have depth of field? Now we are entitled to ask, “tell me about any big, enduring trend in American culture. How did it take shape over time?”) (Don’t be surprised if they are astonished by the question.)
Here’s the problem. Most of the work being done by ethnographers is being done here.
But this ethnography is stripped of the things that gives it real explanatory power.
What we need is something that heads in this direction.
If ethnography is to evolve, we want to migrate in the direction of “anthro” + “slow culture.” We could think of this as a “Northwest passage” strategy. Until we find a way to connect these worlds, the Southeast sector must remain poorer and less cosmopolitan.
It’s not clear to me what the practical solution is. I did a couple of posts about the C-school idea a few years ago and discovered some of the following programs, any one (or several) of which might take up this challenge. (Notice that I am not saying these places have a solution, merely that they are the kind of places that might come up with one.)
The D school at Stanford (David Kelley)
W+K 12 (Wieden + Kennedy school, Victor a German Shepherd pointer)
The Miami Ad School (Ron & Pippa Seichrist)
The VCU BrandCenter (Helayne Spivak)
The Berlin School of Creative Leadership (Michael Conrad)
EPIC (Ken Anderson and Tracey Lovejoy)
UC Berkeley School of Information (AnnaLee Saxenian)
California College of the Arts
Royal College of Arts
MIT Media Lab
Rhode Island School of Design
IIT Institute of Design (Laura Forlano, thank you Sergio)
Ethnography Training (Norman Stolzoff and Donna Romeo)
Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology
Ohio State (Liz Sanders)
University of North Texas
Columbia Business School (Bob Morais)
Fordham Business School (Timothy Malefyt)
Savannah College of Art and Design (Sarah Johnson and Susan Falls)
Finally, I recently had lunch with John Curran and he tells me that things are afoot in London. I will leave it to him to reveal the details. (John, please send me a link so that I can include it here.)
I am hoping readers will let me know the programs I have missed.
A note on style: I wrote this in a hotel room somewhere. I used Scapple from Literature and Latte to do it. It was really just a note to myself. But then I thought, “maybe this is a better, more visual, way to present the post.” Tell me what you think about the form as well as the content, please.
Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.
I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)
I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.
Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.
Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)
Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.
And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)
To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”
But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.
When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)
This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.
Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)
What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.
We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.
We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.” At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.
Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”
Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.
But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well. But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.
There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)
Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.
Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)
I did this interview for a project called Automated Anthropologist. (I went to San Francisco and let it be known that I was prepared to do anything anyone told me to do, within the limits of morality, legality, and being Canadian.)
With the help of Maria Elmqvist (now a Strategic Planner at Perfect Fools in Amsterdam), I talked to Craig Young.
I like this interview for a couple of reasons but chiefly it’s Craig. Really clear, forthcoming, and helpful. I paid him, so I was making some small contribution to his economy. But he went above and beyond the call. (Maria and I approached another guy for an interview and he said, “not so much” in a way that sounded unmistakably like “go f*ck yourself.” Craig’s generosity was especially welcome.)
Another thing I liked about the interview was the glimpse it gives of city life. In this case, of the invisible distinctions of space that are perfectly clear to Craig and a surprise to the rest of us (if and when discovered by the rest of us). The world is filled with this invisible distinctions. They surround us all the time. The secret of ethnography: keep an eye out. Ask everyone.
A third point to make is methodological. Interviews a guy like Craig is difficult because you are (I am) concerned that you are (I am) going to ask something insensitive. In addition to invisible spaces, there are invisible sensitivities, and the last thing you (I) want to do is blunder into them.
Hence my tone, which is deliberately convivial, kinda loud, and bit clueless. The cultural logic is this: if this guy (me) is incapable of certain subtleties, he may give offense, but he doesn’t mean to give offense. (We may think of this as the “big stupid labrador” defense.) I know this is counter-intuitive, but then it is a cultural logic, not a logical logic. Ironically, the more you signal an effort not to give offense (by agonizing over choice of words and so on), the more likely you are to give offense.
A fourth point, this one moral: there are people in the research community who believe that an interview with Craig offends morally and politically. The notion is that I am taking advantage of a power asymmetry. Yes, it’s true, asymmetries raise the possibility of exploitation. And then it’s incumbent on me to see and say what my motives were. The answer is that for the purposes of Automated Anthropologist I was talking to anyone who would talk to me. Did I take more than I gave? That’s a tough one. I paid Craig. So there was an exchange of value. Only Craig can decide whether he was properly compensated. The danger is that if we decide that we shouldn’t interview Craig for political reasons, he is denied the engagement and the pay. I think it’s for Craig to decide whether he wants to do the interview, and to remove this choice from him really does enact a power asymmetry. Apparently, we know better than he does. We decide for him. But this is not an easy issue.
A fifth point: I am glad to know even a little more about Craig and what life is like in the street. The idea of having to worry about people “stealing your stuff” is a revelation. I can’t imagine this order of disorder in my life. It’s all interesting to see that there is more order than I would have expected, certain work arounds, a schedule, a support network. All of these discourage the idea I tend to have of life on the street, that it is radically unstable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic. And I guess that’s one thing to take away from the interview, that life on the street is both quite stable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic.
A sixth point: the defense of this interview, the defense of all ethnographic work, is perhaps that the other is a little less other. I don’t think I carry diminishing ideas of people who live in the street. (I don’t romanticize them. I don’t blame them.) But it’s also true that, beyond that, I don’t know what to think. Ethnography, even a very brief interview of this kind, helps give us access to one another. And this is a necessary condition, I think, of empathy and aid.
One last point, everyone with a smart phone is now in possession of a fantastically good piece of recording technology. I wish I were doing more of these interviews. I wish we all were.
Post script: thanks to Maria Elmqvist who did the camera work and participated in Auto Anthro with intelligence and a real ethnographic sensitivity.
This is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.
My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.
A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”
This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.
This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.
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 their own culture.
Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,
“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”
Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.
This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.
The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.
Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.
Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.
This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.
This post first appeared on Medium.
Photocredit: Center for Design Research
This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).
Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.
“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”
Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.
Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.
Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)
But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.
This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular. (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.
Things are easier in the world of the brand. Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.
It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.
For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.
You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.
More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.” See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.
Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny. Highly recommended.)
I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment. But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.
After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval. But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying. If people agree with us, fine. If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.
And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own. The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist. It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.
So how about this? We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.
I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”). So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else. Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.
Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.
Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation
[None of these names is used by permission. I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]
Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.
But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.
This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.
Which brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.
I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.
And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.
When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say. You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic. Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.
But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all. They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email. They got digital celebrity the easy way.
So what’s the easy way? Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most.
As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper. He gave us an insider’s view of the agency. The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was. Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show. (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.) Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do. What, in effect, it was for. For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.
With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear. Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.
Talk about ROI. Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.
Jonah Peretti won fame a different way. He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused. An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden. Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality. This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new. And cheap. And forget answering all your email. Just publish the interesting ones.
This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.” Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.
Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”
There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.” Your heart and your head is glad. Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other. (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.
Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns. We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s. Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.” There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.
Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about. I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough. I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity. If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi. People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless. Highly profitable but almost entirely costless.
We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb. You take a really great idea. Coat it in just enough materials to get it started. And then hurl it into the world. And stand clear. Actually, stand close. You are about to be covered in glory.
For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.
post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.