Tag Archives: creativity

Beth Comstock and 7 truths for the C-suite

beth comstock

(This post was first published on Medium, April 3, 2018.)

Anyone who works as a creative, a strategist, a planner, a story teller, a PR specialist, or a meme-maker knows the frustration of persuading the organization to grasp and act on culture. (No, not corporate culture. American culture.)

It should be easy but it’s not.

In fact, culture remains a kind of “dark matter” for the organization. Senior managers know it’s out there. They know it matters. They know things go disastrously wrong when they do not “factor culture in.”

But getting these managers to “get serious” about culture has been a struggle.

May I introduce Beth Comstock, until recently Vice Chair of General Electric and the person in charge of GE Business Innovations?

Here is Ms. Comstock on dual themes that are dear to everyone concerned with contemporary culture: multiplicity and fluidity.

In our lives, we are multidimensional people. We don’t want everything to be exactly the same all the time and we have different moods. I think there’s a huge segmentation going forward for marketers, for businesses where it’s state of mind. It’s contextually relevant at the moment. It’s not just, “I am a woman.” It’s not just, “I am X age. I am an American. I am a east coaster,” or, “a southerner.” I think those things are maybe more analog, and going forward, it’s much less binary; it’s much more fluid; we have gotten used to — culturally have much more gender fluidity. I think there is going to be much more interest and experience fluidity. It’s going to be challenging and exciting for certainly business and marketing people.

Who could ask for anything more? This remarks puts Ms. Comstock so far out ahead of the average manager, it’s impossible to measure.

In a more perfect world, this understanding would be “standard issue” for managers, one of the adaptions that help them navigate the complexities of contemporary capitalism. But as it is, there may be only one senior manager who grasps this point this well. Beth Comstock.

When someone doesn’t understand the new realities of the American market place, the following things become more difficult to grasp:

1. that the American consumer is now a creature of new complexity.

Shouting at consumers with dumb advertising is not just ill advised. It is an invitation to outright repudiation. It destroys brand and financial value.

2. that American marketing in general must surrender some of its “keep it simple, stupid” laboriousness for a new control of nuance and subtlety.

Let your creatives do their jobs. They understand culture, or should do. They know how to negotiate its subtleties. They know how to extract meaning that will become value. Don’t keep putting your oar in. You don’t ask their advice on a new M&A strategy. They don’t want your advice on meaning and message making. Leave it to the professionals.

3. that the American brand in particular must be a house of many mansions. It can no longer define itself in a monolithic way or speak in a single voice.

This is a special challenge for American marketing, so long the devotee of simplicity, repetition, and, um, well, repetition. Contemporary consumers, and the younger they are, the more this is true, HATE the obvious. They can do much more with much less. Stop yelling at them.

4. that American corporation can only speak to this diversity by containing some of this diversity.

There are many Americas out there. Perhaps once everyone was prepared to “go along to get along” with a set of shared meanings. Less and less so now. There are new and emerging fundamentals. But there are also differences that will never go away, and these are blossoming everywhere: race, gender, age, ethnicity, locality… Do you know them? Have you embraced them?

5. that some of the new richness and turbulence of the world out there comes from the new richness and complexity of culture.

(You’re afraid of “Black Swans” as a source of disruption? Many of these come from culture. You’re keen on “Blue Oceans” as a place to discover innovation? Many of these come from culture.)

6. that “culture” is something the corporation must devote itself to understanding.

A couple of years ago, I proposed that the organization appoint a “Chief Culture Officer.” This fell on deaf ears.

7. Let’s start with this fundamental truth, that when we say “culture” we are not talking about corporate culture. We are talking about American culture.

I wish people would stop conflating the two! The confusion was charming for a brief period. Now it’s beginning to resemble a chronic inability to distinguish between American football and European football. It’s really not a good look. Trust me.

It’s one thing to grasp these 7 truths. It’s another to put them to operationalize them as working assumptions and active ideas.

Ms. Comstock has taken the lead here as well. She grasps complexity in a practical way. Listen as she talks about Rachel Shechtman’s experiment called Story.

Meanwhile, I mean, there’s a store here in New York, I am a big fan of the founder and the store is called Story. Rachel Shechtman started it, and every six weeks it’s like a magazine and a media experience and an event. Every six weeks, she changes out and curates a new experience in retail every six weeks. So it’s hard to — it’s a hybrid. It’s hard — is it retail? Yeah. Is it media? Yeah. Is it experiential? Yeah. She has three or four different business models. That’s just one example. You are seeing more and more of those. So I think it really is this interesting mash-up of things. The winners are going to figure those two, the analog and the digital, out together.

All hail Beth Comstock. Let’s hope that, some day, all managers have her gifts.

Source of quotes:
From a podcast interview of Ms. Comstock by Mike Kearney in the Deloitte’s Resilient series here.

Conflict of interest:
None. I have never met Ms. Comstock. As far as I know, I have never worked for her, even distantly.

Photo credit:
With thanks to Joi Ito
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) here.

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

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

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

Here’s a summary:

SECTION 1

00:25 capitalism and its creative destruction

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

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

SECTION 2

01:38 strategy struggles

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

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

2:00 Michael Raynor and the death of strategy

2:19 Nassim Taleb on black swans and the unimaginable

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

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

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

3:40 strategy is struggling…and we can help

SECTION 3

3:45 corporations and brands are in crisis

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

4:00 brands are struggling…and we can help

SECTION 4

4:07 culture to the rescue

this world of commotion gets simpler if you get culture

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

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

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

4:59 culture is our competitive opportunity

5:02 culture is our difference

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

creativity requires culture

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

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

SECTION 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECTION 6

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

SECTION 7:
the case of the artisanal trend

9:08 food after World War II

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

10:02 the artisanal trend itemized

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

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

SECTION 8:
How can we help our clients?

11:07 first step: we map culture

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

11:23 the recent error of Democratic party

11:46 we want breadth of coverage

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

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

12:17 which meanings work for the consumer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tinderbox: Building an ingenuity machine

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

I almost always sign up for these updates.

I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.

I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diana mexico city - Google Search

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

And then I got this.

About Madewell - Learn More About Madewell - Madewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Value, a new book published today

Ember Library Mediator

Here’s the abstract for my new book:

Innovators like Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are creating dark value. They are creating features and benefits they didn’t  intend and don’t always grasp. And because this value is hard to see, it’s hard to monetize. I believe dark value is a chronic problem in the innovation and sharing economies. To observe one implication of the dark value argument: Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are charging too little.

We will examine dark value created by AirBnb, Uber, Netflix, Evernote, Fitbit, and Facebook. We will show how to make dark value visible in three steps: 1. discover, 2. determine, and 3. declare. Ethnographers, designers, VCs, creatives, planners, PR professionals, marketers, story tellers, curators, programmers, content creators, and social media experts all have a part to play. For all of them, Dark value represents a new professional opportunity and a new revenue stream.

You can buy Dark Value on Amazon here.

Why buy it? If you are a culture creative in design, marketing, planning, ethnography, advertising, curation, this is a treasure map. It will also help you find new revenue streams, as you find dark value for others.  (It now occurs to me that “A Treasure Map” should have been my subtitle.)

What will it cost you? The price is $2.99. It will take you about 30 minutes to read. If you buy a copy, please send me an email and I will put you on a mailing list for updates. I’m thinking about a Keynote deck, and you would get this for free.

 

The ‘wicked grin’ test (a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

An interview with Noemi Charlotte Thieves

I had a chance to interview Noemi Charlotte Thieves on January 10. We were at a going-away party in Brooklyn and fell into conversation. The conversation was SO INTERESTING that I asked Noemi if we could step outside so that I could capture our conversation on my iPhone. (The ethnographic opportunity is always now.)

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. We had to find a fire engine and cue the fire engine and the driver couldn’t hit his mark. Finally we just had him drive into frame. I mean does the NYFD not give these people ANY media training? (We love. We kid.)

Noemi was wonderful to interview, an ethnographer’s dream, a gift from the gods of ethnography. He’s thoughtful, clear, vivid, expansive, intelligent, and illuminating.

I think Noemi is perhaps also a glimpse of the culture we’re becoming.

This interview 20 years ago would have been painful and sad. We were a culture of two solitudes. Filmmakers could be popular or they be experimental. And they were tortured by the choice. They were forced to choose one side or the other.

Sometime in the last 10 years, the two extremes began to draw together. (And ironies of ironies, this was roughly the period in which the two extremes of American politics began to drive apart.)  Genre and art have yet to find one another, but, as Noemi points out, the hunt is on.

So far, as Noemi also points out, it’s been a happy rapprochement. The popular stuff, while democratic and accessible, was obvious to the point of being laborious and “jump the shark” awful. And the artistic work was, too often, obscure. It was, actually, as the phrase has it, “deservedly obscure.” (There was a time when Canadians refused to watch anything that came from the National Film Board. They were effectively boycotting the work they were as taxpayers helping to fund.)

To combine the two extremes is to begin to construct a single American culture, a place where democratic clarity and artistic risk work together. Now, we have to figure out what to do about the politics.

(Thanks to Jeremy DiPaolo and Katie Koch for the introduction to Noemi. (How is Sweden?))

 

Screw the gift economy, a reply to Clay Shirky

PhotosI came across a post today by Gaby Dunn called “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame.” Dunn gives us YouTube and Instagram celebrities forced to live hand to mouth. It reminded me of an essay I wrote months ago, shelved and then forgot. Here’s a piece of the larger whole.

Consider this crude calculation. Let’s posit 100 people each of whom is producing 10 artifacts a year for the digital domain. (Artifacts include blog posts, fan fiction, web sites, remixes, podcasts, fan art, Pinterest pages, and so on.) We are going to assume that these creative efforts are funded by day jobs, scholarships, and parental support. With this subvention, this “gift economy” produces 1000 artifacts a year. Some of this work is rich and interesting.

The creators are rewarded for their work with acknowledgment and gratitude. The exchange is ruled by what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would call “generalized reciprocity.” (See his Stone Age Economics.) Gifts are given without expectation of immediate or exact return. There is lots of cultural meaning here but no real economic value.

Let’s release economic value into the system. Now, the best work costs. We pay for ownership or for access. We could even use a “tipping” system. When we admire a piece of fan art, we tip the creator. This tip could come out of the $5 our ISP returns to us from our subscription fee. Or it could be supplied to us by Google which has been the overwhelming beneficiary of the content we have put online. A postmodern PayPal springs up to make this distribution system easy.

Thirty of our 100 kids are now accumulating value. The best of them are accumulating quite a lot of value. Let’s suppose that a piece of fan art, drafting on the success of a hit TV show, goes viral. Let’s say it’s viewed by an audience of 100,000 people, twenty percent of whom tip 40 cents on average. The result, eight thousand dollars, is not a prince’s ransom. (I would check these numbers. An anthropologist with a calculator is a dangerous thing.) And if it is used to allow someone to move out of their parent’s basement, it has no obvious cultural effect.

But if our winner uses the money to take the summer off from her job at McDonald’s, this is a difference from which real differences can spring. Now a good artist can become a more productive artist and eventually a better artist. And a virtuous cycle is set in train. More and better work brings in more income, more income becomes more time free for work, and this leads to more improvements in art and income. Eventually, the McDonald’s job can be given up altogether.

In this scenario, the gift economy loses…but culture wins. The supply of good work increases. Standards rise. Good artists get better.

I expect this vista will make Clay Shirky’s eyes water and possibly tear. (My text is Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.) He might well feel this is a brutal intrusion of capital into a magical world of generosity.

Not so fast. In point of fact, the internet as a gift economy is an illusion. This domain is not funding itself. It is smuggling in the resources that sustain it, and to the extent that Shirky’s account helps conceal this market economy, he’s a smuggler too. This world cannot sustain itself without subventions. And to this extent it’s a lie.

Shirky insists that generalized reciprocity is the preferred modality. But is it?

[In the world of fan fic, there] is a “two worlds” view of creative acts. The world of money, where [established author, J.K.] Rowling lives, is the one where creators are paid for their work. Fan fiction authors by definition do not inhabit this world, and more important, they rarely aspire to inhabit it. Instead, they often choose to work in the world of affection, where the goal is to be recognized by others for doing something creative within a particular fictional universe. (p. 92)

Good and all, but, again, not quite of this world. A very bad situation, one that punishes creators and our culture, is held up as somehow exemplary. But of course reputation economies spring up, but we don’t have to choose. We can have both market and reputation economies. But it’s wrong surely, to make the latter a substitute for the former.

Shirky appears to be persuaded that it’s “ok” for creators to create without material reward. But I think it’s probably true that they are making the best of a bad situation. Recently, I was doing an interview with a young respondent. We were talking about her blog, a wonderful combination of imagination and mischief. I asked her if she was paid for this work and she said she was not. “Do you think you should be paid?” I asked.

She looked at me for a second to make sure I was serious about the question, thought for a moment and then, in a low voice and in a measured somewhat insistent way, said, “Yes, I think I should be paid.” There was something about her tone of voice that said, “Payment is what is supposed to happen when you do work as good as mine.”

One data point hardly represents proof of my position. But it does suggest what might happen when the possibility of payment enters the world. A light goes on. The present internet is so much a gift economy and so little a market one, that it is hard for its occupants to imagine alternatives.

I am not going to take up the intrinsic — extensive distinction that matters here. Clearly, people are now being “paid” in intrinsic satisfactions. They are making great work online for the sake of doing so. But I believe it’s true that here too the intrinsic was never meant to be a substitute for the extrinsic. The luckiest people in the world get paid twice, with intrinsic satisfaction and extrinsic value. That’s actually what we’re hoping for. This is, mark you, the way the academic world mostly works. Surely, it’s wrong and a little odd to celebrate the intrinsic as an alternative to the extrinsic.

But let’s get to the very large elephant in the room. It is the career satisfactions of the so-called Millennial generation. This group has suffered diminished career options. They have been obliged to work as interns, always with the promise that this would prepare them the “real job” to come. But of course the “real job” often never comes. The obligation to work for free online reproduces the obligation of working for free in the world, as if life were one long internship, unbroken and unpaid. After a while it begins to look like one’s lot in life. My research reveals a culture of compliance in which members of this generation agree to agree that their present circumstances are not outrageous. Millennial optimism and good humor endures. (Let’s imagine if someone had tried to pull this on Gen X. Oh, wait, someone did. The reaction was an “alternative” culture and a ferocious repudiation of the status quo.)

But back to our academic contemplation of the gift economy. When Shirky says that work given “freely” on line is a great act of generosity, I think we’re entitled to say that generosity is only properly so-called when there are alternatives. And there aren’t. Forced generosity isn’t generosity.

Still more troubling, the gift economy has a second guilty secret. People can only participate if they have access to resources from outside the digital world. In fact, the moral economy excludes people who do not have wealthy parents, generous scholarships, or rewarding day jobs. If someone is poor, uneducated, and or underemployed, it is hard to participate. So much for generosity and connectivity.

Because the “generosity” view is an idealistic view, it feels somehow above reproach. Clearly for Shirky it is manifestly good. But when people are driven by generosity and rewarded with community, something goes missing. Good artists are denied the resources that would make them better. A generation continues to go underemployed. The next evolutionary moment is lost. A series of social and cultural innovations are not forthcoming. The real generative engine of our culture falls silent.

Some will object that there is an economy online even if financial capital does not circulate. They will say that people are paid in reputation, acknowledgement and thanks. Well, yes. But mostly no. The trouble with “acknowledgement” and “thanks” is that they are both mushy and illiquid. They are impossible to calculate. They cannot be exchanged for anything outside the moral economy. Acknowledgment and thanks are not worth nothing. But they verge on the gratuitous. We can “like” something with nothing more than the energy it takes to move the cursor and click the mouse. This is not quite the same as surrendering a scarce value for which sacrifices have been made. Choice, made carefully, at cost, in hope of gain and at peril of loss, this is the fundamental act of economics. Without it, all we have are bubbles of approbation. Our moral economy isn’t an economy, except in a disappointingly slack metaphorical sense.

Finally, I do not mean to be unpleasant or to indulge ad hominem attack, but I think there is something troubling about a man supported by academic salary, book sales, and speaking engagements telling Millennials how very fine it is that they occupy a gift economy which pays them, usually, nothing at all. I don’t say that Shirky has championed this inequity. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask him to acknowledge it and to grapple with its implications.

The gift economy of the digital world is a mirage. It looks like a world of plenty. It is said to be a world of generosity. But on finer examination we discover results that are uneven and stunted. Worse, we discover a world where the good work goes without reward. The more gifted producers are denied the resources that would make them still better producers and our culture richer still.

What would people, mostly Millennials, do with small amounts of capital? What enterprises, what innovations would arise? How much culture would be created? I leave for another post the question of how we could install a market economy (or a tipping system) online. And I have to say I find it a little strange we don’t have one already. Surely the next (or the present) Jack Dorsey could invent this system. Surely some brands could treat this as a chance to endear themselves to content creators. Surely, there is an opportunity for Google. If it wants to save itself from the “big business” status now approaching like a freight train, the choice is clear. Create a system that allows us to reward the extraordinary efforts of people now producing some of the best artifacts in contemporary culture.

Are you an Orderist? (Take the test and see!)

retro_x_ray_specs_comic_book_ad_iphone_4_case-r92617c30109740ffafa0166b278fdab7_a460e_8byvr_512Everyone in the creative professions lives or dies by their ability to detect change, see new patterns, invent new things.

And in a world like this, I think it’s possible we are developing new cognitive abilities in a rapid cultural evolution.

There are several new cognitive styles in the works.  But beneath them all is, I think, a brute feeling for order.   Whatever we do for a living, we are increasingly interested in order as order.

Are you one of these people?  Take this test and see!

I want you to answer four questions.  Be honest.  No cheating.

Question 1:  Do you like order more than most people?

You will know this to be true if (and only if) you are captivated by certain combinations of numbers, images, sounds, words, shapes and colors while the rest of the world just carries on.

Do you take pleasure when the world “falls into place,” when “things make sense?”  Some people experience a little buzz as if they have just been given a hit of a psychoactive drug.  The nervous system hums for a moment.  It feels like something has been illuminated, even when we can’t quite say what.

Question 2: Do you dislike disorder more than most people?

Do you find that commotion bugs you more than it does other people?  It might just be a scratching sound or a piece of furniture that’s out of place.  I’m not suggesting you want perfect symmetry or military precision.  I don’t mean an obsessive or compulsive interest in order.  You just don’t like noise in the signal.

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 and 2, congratulations, you qualify for membership in an emerging community of people who care about order for its own sake.  Chances are you’re someone who makes his or her living engaging in the part of the economy that creates ideas and innovation.   So it makes sense that you should care about orderly order.  But it’s more than that.  You care about order for the sake of order.  For you, order isn’t just a means.  It feels like an end in itself.

Some want to put this community on the autistic continuum and call you “Aspie” (aka someone with Asperger’s syndrome.  See the excellent essay by Benjamin Wallace called “Are You On It?” in New York Magazine here).  Others want to say your passion for order identifies you as having an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  To be sure, it is entirely possible that there is one or more neurological factors at work here.  But I don’t think that’s the whole story.  I think it’s possible we are cultivating new cognitive styles and preferences.  Some of us are orderists.  Some of us have orderism.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I have two more questions.

Question 3: Do you dislike order more than most people?

I know this sounds like I’m contradicting Question 1.  But I’m not.  I am granting that you like some kinds of order more than most people, but I am suggesting that there are certain kinds of order that really get on your nerves.  As when things are too tidy, too neat, too perfect.  You hate this order with a passion.

Other people couldn’t care less. They can “live with it.”  But what you see is a world that’s too tidy.   The pattern is too obvious.  There’s no contest.  It’s like watching genre TV.  You can see the punch line coming.  And it gets to you.  You would like to just nudge this order ever so slightly, to put a little disorder in.  Naturally, you don’t.  Because, well, you don’t want to look like a kook.  But tidy is often just too too.

Question 4: Do you like disorder more than most people?

Once again, no contradiction is intended  because we are granting that you dislike most disorder.  We are merely suggesting that there are certain kinds or moments of disorder you really like. Love, actually.

Again, this puts you out of step with the rest of the world.  Let’s say something nutty happens.  Everything comes pouring off a shelf.  There is a moment of pandemonium at the office. The rest of the world is offended, perturbed, upset.  You are thrilled.  You are energized.  Perhaps even liberated.  You like it when the world is released from the rules.

Answer “yes” to all four and you are part of a new elite.  You are part of a community that loves working with order, sometimes because it is so very orderly, sometimes because it is so very disorderly.  Some people like Late Night Television.  Some people like fishing.  You like working with order.  These “symptoms” aren’t signs of some physiological or mental disorder.  You’re not an Aspie.  You do not have OCD.  You’re just engaging in a new kind of pattern seeking.

And here’s why.

Order is harder to come by. The world is filled with variety and commotion.  If once we were a monolithic culture, we are now a heterogeneous one.  We produce variety effortlessly.  There are more groups, working in more media, from more and more various motives and objectives out there.  And together, they make our culture a place of astounding variety.  Don’t believe.  Try having one conversation with your 15 year old that does not contain a long silence as you try to figure out what she means.  Or drive around downtown and see if you can go more than 15 minutes before thinking, “what the hell is that.”  Or just spend some time wandering around online.  Or look at what is happening in the startup space.  The world is boiling with variety.

And that means every organization lives in a wind tunnel.  Every given moment is complicated and various.  And any given moment is almost instantaneously replaced by a succession of moments that deliver still more variety.  Things move so quickly Nokia  missed a major shift.  They move so fast Michael Raynor says strategy is dead.  They change so fast a new challenger or challenge can come from anywhere.

This means there is a new premium on early detection, figuring out what’s out there in the world and how to respond to it.  Our managerial window, always pretty broad, is now expanding as we peer around us looking for blue oceans and black swans.  For organizations to survive, new abilities are called for.  Early detection is everything.  Advantage will go to people with a ferocious feeling even for the slightest traces of order.

That’s why you are interested in order for its own sake because this is the surest way of capturing order for instrumental purposes.  We can’t tell what we need to notice.  We just need to notice everything.  An interest in every kind of order gives us first recognizance, first contact, first reckoning.  At this point, we are not particular.  Any order is better than no order.  Even trace elements of order are interesting also because we are virtuosee, capable of working with the faintest signals.

So if you are order interested, order observant, even a little order obsessive, consider yourself lucky.  You are cultivating an ability everyone is going to have to have to survive the world thats coming at us.  And perhaps this is the place to say, let’s perhaps cease and desist on our Aspie obsession.  Yes, there may very well be some neurological or physiological factor here.  But while we are all claiming Aspieness, trying to stuff ourselves into a DSM category, we are missing the bigger picture, dare I say it, the bigger pattern.

Time to stop treating our interest in order like it’s a symptom of Asperger’s or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and see it for what it is.  We are a society evolving at a ferocious pace and some of us have begun to adapt accordingly.  It’s not about brain wiring.  Its about how we see order, use order, order order.  The world is changing.  We’re adapting.

Thanks for the image to nicklilavois. See his website here.

Thanks to Pam DeCesare, my wife, for thinking of the term “orderist.”

Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation

My wife is taking a course in brainstorming, she told me today.  And I’m sure it will be  useful.  I once took a course in brainstorming and it helped a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes creativity doesn’t need a group or a storm.  It doesn’t need a process or a method.  All it takes is a cat or a cigar.

I ran across this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor and personal hero.  (Fessenden is famous for having applied to work with Edison, remarking, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”  Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.”)

fessenden“An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas, including a version of microfilm, that helped him to keep a compact record of his inventions, projects and patents. He patented the basic ideas leading to reflection seismology, a technique important for its use in exploring for petroleum. In 1915 he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water for a submerged object by means of sound waves, for which he won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929.  Fessenden also received patents for tracer bullets, paging, a television apparatus, turbo electric drive for ships, and more.”

We can’t organize or manage ideas.  We can’t regiment creativity.  But as innovation becomes increasing the first business of business, and the way we hope to survive a turbulent world, we are inclined to force the issue.

Cigars have gone out of fashion.  But are we spending enough time with a cat on our chests?  

The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

Grant McCracken and Bob Scarpelli

Take a look at this recent AT&T ad.  Notice what the actress does at the 16:00 – 17:00 second mark.  That little thing she does with her hand and her eyes.

Here’s a second ad for AT&T from a couple of years ago.  Watch what happens at the very end when the neighborhood woman sends a glance to the neighborhood kid.

Here’s an ad for Volvo.  Listen to what the little girls says.

We know ads are designed to deliver information, the USP, the product proposition, the value claim.  And we can see the bones of these things in a lot of ads, especially in those agonizingly bad ones that are really just someone reading the Unique Selling Proposition.

“This product is good because [insert USP here].  You will like it.  You should buy it.”

But I have long suspected that the informational mechanics and the persuasive objectives of an ad don’t work without the little details we’ve just been looking at.   The little details, the flicker of the hand, the flash of the eyebrow, the little girl chattering on and on.  These are essential to the ad’s ability to make the sale.  I think.  Maybe.

But how?  They are so little.  So minor.  So easy to miss.  It’s a question that has rattled around in my head for a couple of years.  How do tiny details make the ad?

And today, I sat down beside Bob Scarpelli, on a flight from NYC to Chicago.  I know Bob courtesy of Rick Boyko who was kind enough to put us both on Sparkstarters, his enterprise designed to help clients or agencies rekindle their powers of creativity.

Bob and I fell into conversation.  He is one of those guys who is really easy to talk to.  I was busy gabbing about myself when it occurred to me that I really should ask him about what he was working on.  (I do this with great reluctance and some resentment but then I am an anthropologist and really it’s my job to ask people about their lives.)

It turns out that Bob is teaching a course with John Greening at Northwestern’s Medill School called Brand Content in the Social World (aka “What’s the Big Idea?”)  Bob and John spend a lot of time talking about advertising and creativity.

“Great!,” I thought, “someone who might know the answer to the question ‘Why do small gestures matter so much?’”

And hey presto, he did.

“Oh, I call those ‘Magic Moments.’”

And Bob recounted the story of Joe Pytka on the set of an ad yell at his actors, “Stop acting!  Just be yourselves.”  No magic moments come from acting.  Whatever they are, they feel like life.

Bob described a Budweiser ad that shows soldiers in an airport and the people who gather to applaud them.

There is a lot to like about this ad, but Bob says that the “magic moment” comes at the very end when one of the soldiers looks back a little disbelievingly at what just happened.  That is many things about America in the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.  So magic moments are also revelational, suddenly revelational.  The tiny detail delivers a world of meaning.

Bob said that the magic moment is almost impossible to plan.  It is very hard to tell at the moment that strategy and creativity are being formed what the magic moment could be or should be.  Virtually impossible in fact.

You know it when it happens and in some cases not even then.  You have to wait for editing.  And there it is.   A gift from the gods of creativity,  spontaneity and the perfect telling detail.

You could call this a chasm problem.  (I borrow the term from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.)    On the one side, we can have the creativity and strategy, all the work performed by researchers, planners, strategists and creatives of every kind.  And on the other we have the spot which, if the gods of advertising are kind. is blessed with one of these magic moments.

But we can’t see the connection between the two.  We can’t figure out how things get from the left side to the right side.

Ember

So there are two mysteries.  The first is how to make a magic moment.  The second is how the magic moment does what it does.  How does it activate all the planning, strategy and creativity?  Something arcs across the chasm.  We just don’t know what it is or how it works.  How do these “hemispheres” talk to one another.

So things are a little clearer.  I now know what to call that telling detail, but I can’t say exactly what is, where it came from or how it works.  So there is some work to do.  Your comments, please.

More to come.  Watch this space.

Looking for balance in the Morrison Library

tumblr_m9chi4OD1y1rc828jo1_500One of the best places I’ve ever seen is the Morrison Library on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s a reading room outfitted with comfy chairs with books of poetry and travel literature scattered  here and there.

I was on the Berkeley campus as a tourist just nosing around, seeing what I could
 see. And I wandered into this room and thought, “So this is what heaven looks like.” When students are in the stacks, they are retainers in the service of professorial masters. It’s all rigor, discipline and nose to the grindstone. But here in the Morrison, they are free men and women. Now they can let ideas wander.

This is the world the sociologist Mark Granovetter imagined when he discovered that most social networks are redundant, filled with like-minded people. What mattered were the people who traveled between networks allowing them to communicate. The Morrison Library is this kind of conduit, encouraging ideas and students to travel.

It just so happened that I was in Berkeley to visit my girlfriend who just so happened to be staying
 at the Berkeley City Club and I was interested to hear that she was hearing in the club dining room racist language from people eating there, including, without apology – not even a Paula Deen ‘apology’ – the N word. So I couldn’t help look at Berkeley, as I snooped around, not only through the lens of the 1960s radicalism that had made it for me famous, but also through that of an old guard apparently still in place, still active, still nasty as anything ,and for all I knew, waiting for its counter-revolution!

From the point of view of the Berkeley City Club, the Morrison Library must have looked like the kind of place that would encourage loose thinking and dangerous ideas. It turns out these two institutions came into the world at roughly the same time perhaps as antidotes to one another. The Morrison Library was founded in 1928 and the Berkeley City Club in 1927.

But the contrast that really interested me was the one between the stacks and the Morrison. If the stacks represent the old order of intellectual labor and the Morrison the new, the Morrison won. In a postindustrial era and an innovation economy, what we value now 
is less the production of knowledge than the release of creativity. And the Morrison is perfect for exactly that, encouraging us to move the knowledge from one domain to another. To take a John McPhee New Yorker story about Roman numerals and apply it ever so metaphorically to a poem about the Russian steppe. Hey, presto.  A new idea, a better idea, a more creative mind is unleashed.

When the stacks lose, this ends the forced march insisted on by a Soviet professoriate, the one that rewarded those who prepared to make the epidermis of knowledge deeper 
by a cell, the one that rewarded people not for leaping between silos but for taking up residence in one of them and saying, “Shhhh, no talking!”

The Morrison victory was accomplished by revolutionary youth. People like Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand could imagine what would happen in a digital world, and machines that could remember, retrieve, organize and represent learning better than any mortal. Together the old citadels of knowledge fell and those few people who still occupy the ruins, scratching out small understandings, are increasingly bad tempered and alone. They might occupy the Senior Common Room or the Berkeley City Club. They might continue to serve as a petri dish for intellectual provincialism or indeed for racism. But their moment has passed. The academics will soon be removed from the world by a reformation of the university that will make the Henrician transformation of the Catholic church look mere by comparison. The racists, well, I don’t think they are reproducing themselves at anything like the pace they need for survival. Death will take them soon enough.

But it’s too soon to stage a celebration or declare the battle won. We are left with two problems.

1/ Now that we are all about creativity, and the recombination of knowledge, we are less good at mastering any one body of knowledge. Perhaps ‘body’ is something like ‘book.’ It’s an artifact created by the massive inefficiencies of intellectual labor and other problems that no longer matter. So don’t call it a body, call it a mastery. There has to be a place for people who really know village life in 14th century France or economic regulation in mainland China.

The trouble is we overcorrected. Now that we are all Granovetterians, skipping from silo to silo, the silos are in jeopardy. Again, there is a lot that is wrong about the way they are organized and still more that’s wrong with the organizers still in place. But we still need them. Perhaps less as silos and more as watch towers or light- houses. But we still need those solitary figures who live to make a single body of knowledge.

Maybe we should ask everyone to cultivate a specialty. There are people who can name all the alternative bands that played in Walla Walla in the late 1980s. That’s a specialty. Or we could ask people to master village
 life of the 14th century. Whatever else we know, whatever else we think about, we should know about something very particular.

And this can be our balance. We have the big picture. And we have a small one. I am thinking that the possession of a big picture will make us better at seeing the larger significance of our small study of a French medieval village. And that will be a big improvement on the present occupants of the Ivory tower who often don’t know or care less.

2/ We need to develop our idea of the Granovetterian – who and what we are when we take up the liberty and inducement of
the Morrison Library and combine knowledge in new and explosive ways. As it stands, there’s lots of brave talk about “failing fast” and “being wrong early and often.” In the worst of these clichés, we are urged to “think outside the box.” This language has been around for awhile. Take the phrase “stop making sense.” I believe this is an idea from the 19th century avant-garde that found its way into popular culture (and an album title from the Talking Heads) and the idea is now everywhere. In a time that prizes creativity and innovation, everyone is urged to go the edge of what we know and see what we can harvest from the new and strange possibilities.

What’s missing are methodologists who think about how we think outside the box. We don’t have enough skate parks or abandoned swimming pools, where the intellectual agile can assemble and wow one another with one stunt after another, pushing the envelope of possibility. This is what has always happened at certain universities and yeshivas. Kids talk and the implicit challenge is always, “Check this out. You couldn’t try. You wouldn’t dare!” And thus do the smart get smarter, and when they return to the civilian world, it’s like everyone 
is a victim of gravity untouched by any knowledge of escape artistry.

The balance here is how to combine our free flights of creativity with a clear idea of how
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Living in the Morrison we occupy a world filled with facts and half facts and possible facts. We address them with this interpretive frame and then that interpretive frame. We embrace an idea that is entirely emergent and have to decide is this something or merely an artifact of my thinking process. And then eventually we have to assemble facts, frames, ideas and illuminations into a something like a compre- hensive view. We need to tidy up. All of us need to be methodologists, paying attention to the way we extract order out of chaos and some of us ought to serve as methodologists who specialize in how this works.

Two balances, then. One between the global view encouraged by our Morrison liberty and the specialized knowledge of the old regime; and one between the great leaps of intuition with which we know order, the opportunities of Morrison enquiry and a new set of methods that improves our chances of ‘sticking the landing’ with leaping with Granovetter hither and yon.

This post originally appeared in MISC in the Winter Issue.

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/

Inspiration

SPRING-SHOWERWhere does inspiration happen? For lots of people, it happens in the shower. Yes, it’s soapy and sensual. Yes, it’s a break from the pressure of the day. But the real reason the shower is inspirational is all that water and all that sound.

The shower gives us a screen, a medium that’s message free, a perfect place on which to project and discover the ideas in our heads. Brainstorm? Sometimes a shower is plenty!

For the rest of this post, please go to MISC magazine.

Thanks to King and Blade for the image (see bottom of image for full details.)

Witness De-Relocation, a new game for summer.

Here’s a game that will give you hours of fun.

Play it with friends and family!  At the beach!

Three steps:

1. Assume everyone you meet is in witness relocation. Everyone.

2. Come up with the “real story” for each of them.

An example: My wife and I recently decided that our new neighbor was caught in the Bernie Madoff scandal, having served as one of Bernie’s assistants. In exchange for testimony, she was renamed and relocated. (As far as we know, this is completely untrue.)

Here’s how our “de-relocation” continued:

Life with Bernie was an odd outcome for someone raised by a woman who was raised on the commune founded by D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe in the Southwest many, many years ago, someone who had, as it happens, done time of her own for breaking into the Santa Fe institute and stealing top secret plans for complexity theory.

How would someone like this find her way to New York City and into the employ of Bernie Madoff, you ask? Well, because she had a heart murmur, a speech impediment, a lust for life, and/or served briefly as the President of Columbia University and, yes, Columbia Records, it just so happened… [Off you go.]

3. When you are introduced to the person in question, be sure to murmur, “Yeah, right” when given the “cover story,” and be sure to use broad winks and rolled eyes to let them (and your significant other) know “you’re not falling for it.”

Rinse and repeat.

Reenchanting the world, one green hand at a time

See the green hand? It’s there in the foreground of the photo, in the middle of an intersection in my little town.

It stopped me in my tracks this morning. It reminded me of discussions I had this summer with Peter Spear and Rainer Judd.

We were working on a project designed to stage dramatic and the counter-expectational outbreaks in a couple of towns on the eastern seaboard. (It does sound a little pretentious phrased this way, I know. Believe me when I say we were serious, sincere and not in any way carrying on or showing off.)

Our working idea: that all the creativity nurtured by and staged in the digital world in the last couple of decades is now prepared to bust out into the world. This meant specifically, that outbreaks of reckless creativity should now be able to happen anywhere, even in a small town on the eastern seaboard.

We had a measure of success. If we succeeded, we would have increased the possibility that any time a town member subsequently encountered something lingering at the edge of consciousness, something “odd, accidental, and ‘nothing, probably,’” they would be more inclined to treat it as “something, possibly,” and to attend to it.

If our project succeeded, we would have expanded the realm of the possible in this little town. This is in and off itself a good thing but we also believed that making the odd and accidental more interesting, we would also have struck a blow for what Max Weber called the “reenchantment of the world.”

It is our belief that a lot of creativity starts as a stray signal on the edge of work-a-day reality and ordinary thought. It is when we credit these stray signals and declare them worthy objects of our curiosity, that good things happen. Creativity becomes more possible. Innovation easier.

Indeed, that “box” everyone is always talking about gets easier “to get out of.” This might indeed be the very thing a small town on the eastern seaboard, especially if it finds itself captive of the rust belt and in need of recuperation.


Anyhow, you can’t work on a project like this and not remark upon a green hand when it appears in the middle of an intersection in your home town.  If it was a green hand.  
 
If it was a green hand, where was it pointing?  What was it saying? I thought I might be able to use the Google image search function.  And here’s what I got.  
 
Nothing helpful, I don’t think, unless I am failing to read one of these images as the next link in a series of images that must eventually reveal the significance of the green hand.  
 
Everytime I say “the green hand” I hear, in my mind’s ear, the sound of a church organ being used to exclamation effect, you know the kind of thing they do on a soap opera.  (I think these are called “suspense chords.”)  And this made me wonder if there was some connection between the green hand (suspense chord!) and the fact that the house in town once occupied by the man who wrote the Shadow was just knocked down.  I mean, like Thursday of last week.  On the other hand, there’s a remote possibility I’m over-thinking this.  
 
Wikipedia has three “takes” on the Green Hand.
 
A green hand may refer to:
  • a term for an inexperienced crew member of a 19th-century whaler on his first voyage, and who would typically have the smallest “lay”, or share, in the profits.

All of these are appealing, but being an anthropologist I am obliged to put my money on the middle one, the family of hobbits.  And this would tell us, I guess, that the hand in the intersection marks the spot where, were one to dig, there would be revealed a place containing hobbits.  And that would be great.  Because our town doesn’t have enough hobbits.  Actually, I don’t believe we have any hobbits.  

I will close with another stray signal that appeared some months ago in Rowayton. It appears to be a panda.  It is tiny, obscurely located, and repeated no where else in town.  I puzzle over it every time I pass it on Sammis Street.  Now of course I know there’s a pretty good chance it’s the work of hobbits.  But if anyone else has another explanation, please sing out.  It’s a very fine piece of work, not just a panda, but a panda descending as if from on high, luminous, with a choir singing richly.  (You know, one of those revelation chords!)