Tag Archives: anthropology

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

The office party: a bad idea we cannot live without

Office holiday parties are a wreck we can’t resist. Talk about asking for trouble. And, yes, joy.337px-Gift_box

We spend all year in captivity and on our best behavior, proceeding diplomatically, saying and doing the right thing. No one doubts that this protocol is necessary. This is not the burden of our conformity or a failure of the imagination. Something as complicated and fraught as an office can’t run without drama that is tightly written, exquisitely acted and fastidiously dispatched. Shonda Rhimes, eat your heart out.

For the rest of this post, go to the New York Times here, please.

What are we looking for in those FB photos?

In an article called The Machine Zone in The Atlantic, these breathtaking stats about on-line photos are revealed:

“Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

In 2010, Facebook had uploaded 65 billion images, and they were served up at a peak rate of 1 million per second. By 2012, Facebook users were uploading 300 million photos per day. And early this year, Facebook announced users had entrusted them with 240 billion photos.

If we assume the ratio of photos uploaded to photos viewed has not declined precipitously, users are probably pulling up billions of Facebook photos per day at a rate of millions per second. Click. Photo. Click.Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

In 2010, Facebook had uploaded 65 billion images, and they were served up at a peak rate of 1 million per second. By 2012, Facebook users were uploading 300 million photos per day. And early this year, Facebook announced users had entrusted them with 240 billion photos.

If we assume the ratio of photos uploaded to photos viewed has not declined precipitously, users are probably pulling up billions of Facebook photos per day at a rate of millions per second. Click. Photo. Click.”

Predictably, The Atlantic and author Alexis Madrigal harbor dark suspicions about what drives our interest in these photos.  

What if the 400 minutes a month people spend on Facebook is mostly (or even partly) spent in the machine zone, hypnotized, accumulating ad impressions for the company?

Here’s my contention: Thinking about the machine zone and the coercive loops that initiate it has great explanatory power. It explains the “lost time” feeling I’ve had on various social networks, and that I’ve heard other people talk about. It explains how the more Facebook has tuned its services, the more people seem to dislike the experiences they have, even as they don’t abandon them. It helps explain why people keep going back to services that suck them in, even when they say they don’t want to.

This seems to me, as a piece of criticism, almost entirely habitual.  The only thing more certain than each new wave of technology is the generation of intellectuals who exert themselves to show how this technology puts our agency, autonomy and liberty at risk. Note especially the term “hypnotized.”  Any time a deep thinker can find evidence that we are hypnotized, well, mission accomplished.  Put down your pen and walk away from the table!  

I don’t doubt that there is a darker side to our consumption of all these photos, but let us cast the net a little wider.  I think we are looking at all those photos in search of something. Actually, in search of many things.  Let’s have a wonder what.  


“The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook.” 2013. The Atlantic.  (August 4, 2013).  For the full article, click here.  


To Steve Crandall for pointing out the article.  To Martin Silverman and his book Disconcerting Issue which opens with his respondents reading the newspaper looking for stories that make their lives make sense.  

Silverman, Martin G. 1971. Disconcerting Issue; Meaning and Struggle in a Resettled Pacific Community. University of Chicago Press.


Advice to an aspiring anthropologist

This morning I got a note from someone who wanted to know whether a master’s degree in anthropology would be useful to his career as a consulting anthropologist.  

Here’s my reply:


Thanks for your note.

A couple of things spring to mind.

The anthropology consulting world does not sort very well, so the good does not rise nor the bad fall away. Partly this is because there are no real barriers to entry. Lots of people hang out a shingle, despite the fact that they don’t have credentials or any real clue.

Second, clients don’t seem to care that someone doesn’t have a substantial career training, education or accomplishment. Procurement just goes with the low-cost provider.

So I am not sure that a master’s degree makes as much difference as it would in another field.

The second thing: to judge from your background, you have a breadth of experience, and you have engaged with the world, and that means, I am assuming, you are prepared to go places other angels fear to tread.

Many organizations are saying things like, “Geez, I wonder if there is an opportunity/problem opening up in this new place, new industry, new community.” More and more, organizations are confronted with “unknown unknowns” and the best thing to do is to drop someone into the place/industry/community and have them think their way home again.  This takes a kind of pattern recognition (aka problem cognition) that anthropologists, some anthropologists, are particularly good at.  (My clients used to ask me for “to find the right answer,” increasingly they ask me “to find the right question…then the right answer.”)  

In my intro to Steve Portigal’s new book on ethnography, I praise him for being a Mars Rover, someone you can send anywhere to capture the culture in place. A lot of anthro-consultants would wilt under the pressure. So they eliminate themselves from the competitive set. (On this website, about 4 posts ago.)

This is not to say that I can identify the exact clients out there who would want to hire you. But I believe once you had established yourself as someone who perform this kind of problem recognition, you will have many clients largely to yourself. (For more on being a “self sustaining anthropologist,” see my contribution to Riall Nolan’s Handbook on Practicing Anthropology. http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Practicing-Anthropology-Riall-Nolan/dp/0470674598/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2.)

So my advice comes down to this.  In the absence of a really strong program and clients who are sensitive to professional credentials, it might make sense to take the year (or two) you would give to a master’s program, and spent in a “proof of concept” project where you go after a big problem and in the process deepen your skills and show what you can do.

Blog it, then turn it into a book.  And that’s your calling card.  Lead with a total, open, intellectual curiosity and an eye to problem-solving pattern recognition. (Lots of people can do the first or the second. Advantage goes to people who can do both.)  This is a “self invention” scenario, but if you trust your powers and experience, I suspect you can transform yourself more effectively than a Masters’ program can.  

I hope this is helpful. I hope you don’t mind but I am going to post this note to my website. Naturally, I will not use your name or pass it along.

Best, Grant

p.s., I am writing this from a Hilton in Columbus, Ohio where a philanthropic foundation has me for the week, talking to Americans about politics and community.  It is absolutely interesting.  I am listening to people reinventing their ideas of who they are and what community is.  In almost real time.  So keep at it.  This is a spectacularly interesting career. 

Why do we sometimes binge when we watch TV?

Three paragraphs from my recent Wired essay on binging on TV:

Why do we binge watch? One way to answer this question is to say we binge on TV for the same reason we binge on food. For a sense of security, creature comfort, to make the world go away. And these psychological factors are no doubt apt.

But the anthropological ones are perhaps just as useful and a little less obvious. Because, as I’ve suggested here before, “culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets,” and the anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second to figure out what’s going on.

I believe we binge on TV to craft time and space, and to fashion an immersive near-world with special properties. We enter a world that is, for all its narrative complexity, a place of sudden continuity. We may have made the world “go away” for psychological purposes, but here, for anthropological ones, we have built another in its place. The second screen in some ways becomes our second home.

See the rest of the essay here

Lance Armstrong, through the lens of Anthropology

Please come have a look at my post at Wired.  Click here.

Wired did a great job editing as they always do.  But some small differences emerge in the process.  I append my original wording below.  As you will see, the Wired version is better, much better. (Still learning after all this blogging.)

Why ritual rehabilitation will not work for Lance Armstrong
Grant McCracken

Celebrities serve at our pleasure. We make them. We break them. We lift them up again.

We are prepared to endow the celebrity with riches, fame and glory beyond the hope of any ordinary mortal. But the moment we are done with them, we are done with them. (If it pleases the court: Andrew Shue, Peter Fonda, Josh Harnett, Loretta Swit, Judd Nelson, Karyn Parsons, Lea Thompson.)

Some celebrities remove themselves from grace by their own hand: shop lifting, drug abuse, domestic violence, endless court appearances, bad behavior of one kind or another.

But, noblesse oblige, we are prepared to be generous. Under the correct ritual circumstances, we will restore the celebrity to glory.

First, the celebrity must flame out and fall low. 

Second, we insist on self abasement. The celebrity can’t just look humiliated. They have to say they are humiliated. In the ritual of rehabilitation, there can be no doubt that the celebrity understands 1. how far they have fallen and 2. how much they need us.

We won’t return the celebrity to favor unless our status as favor-maker is itself renewed. In a vulgar turn of phrase, before we return these people to the status of a God, we like to make it absolutely clear that we are in fact the boss. These gods, they depend on us.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, the ritual of rehabilitation is tested to its limit. He misbehaved so profoundly. He lied so often. He corrupted team mates and a sport. He fell so swiftly and so far that his might be the limiting case, proof that there are some falls from which people just don’t come back.

He performed credibly last night on Oprah. He rolled out the sincerity. He looked Oprah and the nation in the eye. He abased himself with something like artistry. No special pleading. No presumption that we would forgive him. The important thing: he made it perfectly clear that he serves at our pleasure, that he is nothing without us.

Every talk show can serve as a theater for ritual rehabilitation. Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, Anderson Cooper, Ellen, Wendy Williams, Kathy Griffin. But there is no ritual officer quite as powerful as Oprah. No ritual platform quite as potent as her show. If anyone can raise Lance Armstrong from ignominy, it is she. Indeed without this interview, Armstrong could have spend years in the wilderness, unable to state the case, to perform the ritual.

And last night Oprah worked her magic. She listened with her special brand of intelligence and feeling. She gave him a hearing. She gave him a chance to confess and repent. She created an opportunity for contrition. My wife was unpersuaded, but I for one believed that he fully understood his predicament. Not so much the fall from fame and glory, but the terrifying movement from a world where he had absolutely control to one in which he doesn’t have very much at all. What can that be like? I think he gave us a glimpse of the terror. Just a flicker. But yikes!

For all this, there is no real hope of rehabilitation. It showed most clearly on an ESPN show called Mike and Mike In the Morning. Without making a big deal of it, Mike Greenberg recited the instances of deceit, bullying, and villainy. He played the Nike ad in which Armstrong asks, “What am I on? I’m on my bike.” He told the story of people driven from the sport and the country by this man’s power and arrogance.

I think this is a little like lying to Federal prosecutors. You don’t want to do it. Ever. Because they are professionally, and perhaps personally, obliged to make you pay. Armstrong used journalist for his own aggrandizement. In the process, he stripped them of their professionalism. He turned them into shills. And they will make him pay. They will do this as Greenberg did it, by quietly insisting that we not forget how corrupt and corrupting this guy was.

But there is a second injured party. The rest of us. Anyone who has suffered at the hands of a bully had to look at Armstrong on Oprah last night and see, if only for a moment, the face of their tormentor. All of us can remember being made the victim of arbitrary power.

The ritual of rehabilitation depends on a collective amnesia. We all agree to forget and forgive. But it won’t happen in this case. There will be no rehabilitation. Journalist will not forgive the man who diminished them. We will not forgive the man who stands for the people who diminished us. Done and done. You had your moment on Oprah, and if she can’t repair you, no one can.

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist. He has appeared on the Oprah show. He was not there for ritual rehabilitation.

Your faithful correspondent at Futures of Entertainment 6 last month at MIT

Click on this image for an excerpt of remarks by Grant McCracken in a session called “Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human” at Futures of Entertainment 2012, MIT, Cambridge, November 9, 2012.

Thanks to Sam Ford for organizing and moderating this event and to fellow participants who are, cruelly and unreasonably, excluded from this edit: Lara Lee, Carol Sanford, and Emily Yellin. For the full video, please go to http://bit.ly/WTy3dE.

Comments please.

The anthropologist’s briefcase

I am planning ethnographic interviews for the new year and I’m putting together an equipment list. 

An ethnographic interview is a delicate thing.  You are trying to build trust with a perfect stranger, sometimes in their own home or workplace.  

The trick is to keep distractions to a minimum.  (Because from distractions, suspicions, detachment and alienation often come.)  

Two principles follow from this.

1.  If you can help it, you don’t want an extra person in the room, fiddling with equipment, gazing around, and otherwise distracting your respondent.  In a perfect world, you would operate everything yourself, setting it up and letting in run.  (There is lots to be said for having someone worry about the tech while you worry about the interview, so the jury is for me still out on this question.)

2.  You want as much video/audio fire power as possible in the smallest form factor possible.  You don’t want the camera, mics or lights to get in the way.  

This camera pictured here is the JVC GY HM 150U.  It has good picture and good sound.  It has time code that consumer cameras doesn’t.  It records in .mov so which means files can be sent directly to Final Cut Pro.  It has the capacity to record great chunks of testimony.  It is reasonably inexpensive (~$2100.00) and it is surprisingly small.  (This picture makes it look larger than it is.)

We are an image-crazy culture so some people think their work is done when they buy a good(ish) camera.  But sound is absolutely key.  

And that means buying a good microphone.  The Sennheiser EW ENG G2 gets good reviews on Amazon.  It’s around $700.00.

Good lighting is also important and I am just not sure what the best/smallest kit is here. Dec. 18 addition: just came across the Westcott Icelight and while not cheap, this looks little and light.  Here it is on Amazon.  

Your comments please!


I asked Rob Kozinets for his advice on this matter a couple of years ago, and I believe the Sennheiser microphone system was his suggestion.  So thanks to Rob for his advice.  All other suggestions are my own and I wouldn’t act on any of them without a “second opinion.” 

Reality TV: not as bad as we think?

Here’s a post I recently published on Wired.

I argue that Reality TV might not be as bad as we think.  Notice how ferociously the comments resist this idea.  Talk about provoking the orthodox(y)!

Please click HERE.

Ethnographic reportage: one tweet at a time

I love people who tweet from inside their lives. 

I really love people who tweet from inside an event.

Here, first image, is someone tweeting from inside a visit to the printer. (Read from bottom to top.)  

[I apologize for the quality of this image.  I am using Skitch and WordPress, and this appears to be the best I can do.  Click on the image for clarity.]

Confined to 140 characters, a tiny keyboard, and the discomfort of texting while waiting and standing, this can’t be ethnographic in any conventional sense.  But what it lacks in cultural background, it makes up in vividness and emotion.

Here, in the second image, is “Johann Gutenberg” reporting the frustrations of having to sit in a meeting that presumes to rally the troops with vapid, brainless generalities.  As Johann reminds us, it’s like being forced to witness the death of your own intelligence.  

Working in the moment has a certain heroism.  ’Johann” is acting as a kind of war correspondent, bravely posting under fire, vulnerable to discovery at any moment. 

“This close to heckling.”  Brilliant.  

How many millions of times has this impulse gone repressed in corporate America. Well, why just corporate America?  Educational, medical, governmental America, too.  There is no shortage of stupid people keen to colonize our consciousness with their personal limitations.  

In a more perfect world, we would know who WWGD really is.  (I am betting he or she is not really a 15th century goldsmith, not unless someone got their time machine working.)   We would also know the person who staged the Sales 101 meeting.  The light of public revelation can sometimes discourage stupidity.  Not always but sometimes.

I believe Twitter sprang from a technology designed for emergency personnel, people who needed to send tiny messages in the heat of the moment to solve very immediate problems. But it is learning to serve other purposes, and in some cases, and the right hands, it becomes a new observation platform for the study of American culture.

I think there’s a pattern here, but you decide

With thanks to Alf Rehn for copy editing the original.  

Kickstarting kickerstarter (new models of meaning and value)

My remarks at the recent Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT are now up.  Click here to see it. 

It starts slowly.  And I now look at the hand surfing with a little embarrassment.  In this photo, I am captured trying to demonstrate the mutuality of meaning and value.  (My idea of a special effect.)  

I was opening up the second day, and Sam Ford has asked me to contemplate what we had heard in the first day.  

FoE is always an exercise in severely compromised air traffic control.  The moment you think you have a fix on the array, a new idea, fashioned according to unprecedented aerodynamic properties appears in the heavens, and you have to factor this in.  

As you will hear, I fix upon the distinction between value and meaning.

We are inclined to think of these as mutually exclusive categories.  Value belongs to markets, to pragmatism, to self interest.  Meaning belongs to creativity, to exploration, and self expression.

But I think it’s a false distinction.  It keeps us from creating two things:

1. a model that would show us how value and meaning interact in our world.

2. a market that would allow us to source new value to fund new meaning.  

Have a look at the video to the full argument and please let me know what you think.  

I am especially interested to hear from people in the capital markets on the question of whether we could indeed create venture funding and investment markets for cultural projects. (Whether and how we could kickstart kickstarter, so to speak.)  

Boris Vian and the mysteries of self invention

I am holed up in a London hotel room, sick as a dog.  

Paging through, the Times Literary Supplement, I came across this passage:

Throughout his thirty-nine years Vian made up life as he went.  When the world declared that his invention did not fit, he spun his own planet, in a parallel orbit, where the laws of Boris applied.

People like Boris are interesting studies for anthropologists,  Because most of us are quite fully formed by our culture.  It supplies ways of seeing, feeling and acting, and we commit to these.  

We do not make up life as we go along.  We don’t spin our own planets.  And when the world is unhappy with one of our innovations, generally we say, “Oh, sorry!  What was I thinking?”  

People like Boris should be impossible.  So should have been Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummell and that guy you went to high school with, the one who was his own world.   

We need to know about how these people invent themselves and then a world.


Campbell, James.  2011.  The Prince of Saint-Germain.  TLS.  November 11, p. 17

Medieval marketing

Please come have a look at my thoughts on the revolution sweeping through the world of marketing and the rise of secret messages in contemporary culture.

You can find them here at the Harvard Business Review blog.  Click here.  

Music and Culture Now (Oh, and voices, too)

Please come have a look at my latest post at the Harvard Business Review Blog, The Conversation.  Click here.  

I am trying to think through the argument made by Simon Reynolds in his new book Retromania.  

Here’s the graphic I used.  

Also please come have a look at the post I put up yesterday on Psychology Today.  It’s about an anthropological oddity, that we should buff and polish every aspect of the social self except the voice.  

Considering how much time and money we spend on hair, skin, teeth, clothing, scent, fitness, we ought to be working our voices like topiary.  

Please click here.