I felt like I was being chased up the beach by a tidal wave.
Run for your life, anthropologist, run for your life!
I was looking at a new ad for Lexis. Here it is.
So much going on.
See especially the opening chords which are, unless I’m mistaken, played on the gear box of a Lexus.
Then there’s this.
This really got me. The choreography of Zak Ryan Schleger on a parking garage roof top. Astonishing. Dance let loose in the world.
This is the Creative Sparks / No Ceiling campaign for Lexus. It represents a collaboration by songwriting duo Nova Wave, Korean-American R&B artist Audrey Nuna, Argentinian freestyle rapper Ecko, dancer and choreographer Zak Ryan Schlegel, director Sebastian Strasser, Mark Miller at Team One, amongst others, and Vinay Shahani at Lexus, amongst others.
It feels like something important has been accomplished here. (Sure they scared an anthropologist. But I don’t believe any other social scientists were frightened in the making of this campaign.)
Brands have been looking for this North West passage forever. In and of themselves they are the poor cousins, sometimes the idiot cousins, of contemporary culture. Shill machines that never really brought anything to the party. Indeed if you bought the Naomi Klein argument, brands were constantly extracting value and meaning from our culture.
But brands kept trying. And why would they not? They could see that all the action in our culture came from the worlds of music, video, subcultures, movies, memes, street fashion, cultural movements, blogs, fanfic, curation, YouTube, Instagram, etc. All the best meanings were being made by someone else. Brands wanted in. What if they could dress themselves in these meanings? Mon dieu. All the riches of Asia awaited them.
Sometimes it would work. More often it was painful. The brand would hire a band (or other creative) and rent a stage. The brand would stand stage-right with a hopeful expression that said something like “do you love me now?” No, the consumer did not love you now. They looked right past the brand to the band. There was no meaning transfer. The brand remained clueless and utterly out of it. And not just because the brander was usually wearing Khaki trousers and a branded golf shirt.
The very worse species of brands seeking culture is the celebrity perfume ad. How awful. Johnny Depp for Sauvage. Charlize Theron for Dior. Wonderful actors both. But as pitch people? Oi. And so bad for the celebrity. Routinely and without a shadow of a doubt, a perfume ad takes some of your credibility and creative accomplishment into the studio parking lot and sets it on fire. I expect that the actor thinks “wow, a vast sum of money and all I have to do is swan about with majestic music and sets in the background. What could possibly go wrong?” Here’s what goes wrong: you look like a self-absorbed ninny, the very creature we are beginning to suspect most celebrities are (and during COVID were), monsters of self consuming narcissism who have ceased to believe in the existence of people other than themselves.
But otherwise, good work was stirring. I love the determination and accomplishments of Jack Conte. There were celebrities prepared to act of design consultants to the brand. Will.I.am has done some interesting things. Years ago BMW hired directors to make short films. More recently Intel and Vice reached out to artists.
This work was brave and interesting. But nothing quite made it all the way to Asia. The Northwest passage remained a mystery.
No Ceiling is a miracle. It’s gives us diverse materials brought together but kept apart.
There are media, music, several kinds of music, music video, dance, movements, gestures, post its, traffic jams, parking garages, dance studios, recording studios, texts, artists trying stuff, symphonies, basketball courts, apparitions on roof tops, and yes that gear box, and a flat note (can you find it?), as artists converge on this magical exercise of meaning making for the brand.
And the Lexus is there, present, welcome, seen! There are one too many product features featured for my taste. But otherwise, the Lexus performs brilliantly as a car and the brand. It’s not all golf shirted and Khaki clad attempting to crash the culture. No, here it’s credible and interesting and alive to the game around it. The brand profits! It soaks up this creative fever til it begins to give it off. Indeed this campaign could be the brand’s fever dream. What a Lexus dreams of when asleep in that parking garage.
Who doesn’t want a car like that?
I showed the ad to my wife. She said, “wonderful but not for me.”
I said, “I want one. And I don’t drive. And I don’t care about cars.”
What’s the secret of this miracle?
Some of it comes from not flattening the composites. The song, the singing, the dance, the city, the rooftops, all these must be brought in undiminished.
We could think of this in terms of Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia. In this case, a single story is let out into the world to play out in lots of media, comic book origins, movies, fanfic, etc. All of this, Jenkins says, is one story and at a stroke he gave us a grouping that was rich and diverse even as the composites all somehow remain within shouting distance of one another, a thing, a we.
David Weinberger gave us the notion of “small pieces loosely joined.” Here too we were treated to a category that did not police its contents, a category that bloomed with an internal diversity, a category that teetered on the edge of the extra-categorical.
This is one of the secrets of the Northwest passage: how to bring things in while honoring their difference. How to bring diverse materials together even as we keep them apart.
No assembly required
How can this happen in a popular culture, for whom “keep it simple, stupid” (aka “keep it stupid, simple”) was the mantra. The lesson from contemporary culture, this too courtesy of Henry Jenkins, is that we can combine diverse meanings and media because the media literacy of the audience is so high. Somehow popular culture turned into culture and in the process we all get smarter.
There are a ton of questions begging for an answer. How do people combine things? Do they choose to work with the materials in the Lexus ad? How do these meanings enter and ricochet around in the brand? How do we engineer meanings, ads and brands that can rise to this occasion?
Oh, and one more thing. Formally speaking, the problem of the brand is very like the problem now faced by the whole of contemporary culture. What we know and what we learn could be applied to an American culture that’s on the verge of social structural collapse. Once a robust category, it’s now an ungodly mess.
Variety tells us that the new show called Only Murders is a comedy. And it could be.
But there’s a dangerous alchemy attempted here. Bringing together distant generations is hard to do. It almost always descends into an effort to find the funny in mutual incomprehension.
And nothing is sadder.
Different generations are different cultures. Strict rules govern the comedic possibilities. It’s ok if Selena doesn’t get Steven and Martin. Cool rules. Youth doesn’t understand age as a matter of principle…and pride.
But it’s not ok if Martin and Steve don’t understand Selena. This occasions embarrassment and drives every bit of funny out of the room.
On the other hand, maybe not.
Martin Short is a genius. Steve Martin is very funny. And show runner Dan Fogelman is gifted.
But here’s a solution. It comes straight out of the ethnographic data. Call it a gift from anthropology to Hollywood.
My interviews with Millennials tell me two things:
that Millennials are often “playing” boomers, creating the impression that they like and admire them. Boomers are so clueless they don’t know they are being played. And if you can’t turn this into funny, well. Make this a running joke and you have a comedic device that will return riches.
that Millennials sometimes conduct a private, coded communication with other Millennials as a way to comment on one another and Millennials. I studied an office in London where everyone sat around a table. Above table, they carried on an amiable conversation. Below table, chiefly in some social medium, Slack or Discord or something, they kept up a withering commentary.
So it’s simple, really. Let Steve and Martin not “get it” all they want, but allow Millennials this method of managing them.
Recently the marketing team at Twitter put culture at the heart of what they do, in that most precious territory, the value proposition.
This is great, I thought. A company as connected and powerful as Twitter using culture to describe what it does, that has to be good for us all.
Because, let’s face it, we have all struggled to put the culture idea on the agenda. People give it lip service, but when it comes to hiring people to supply cultural intelligence, not so much.
I see a lot of really big talents languishing for want of a more sophisticated approach. Culture is always and everywhere in the work of the creative, strategic, design, digital, innovation, social, marketing, content creator and curator. But it is almost never acknowledged as such. AND THAT MEANS THE PERSON WHO IS HELPING THE ORGANIZATION CONNECT TO CULTURE IS NOT GETTING THEIR DUE.
After work, everyone, including senior managers, goes to the bar and talks about culture. They talk about what they are watching on Netflix, and this is entirely cultural because a Netflix show cannot matter unless it resonates with something in us and that cannot happen unless the show resonates with something in our culture. But back on the job, the senior managers forget this. It’s back to business as usual. It’s back to business without culture.
Why isn’t culture identified in the value proposition of the corporation? It comes down to four problems. (Well, four will do for starters.)
1. OK boomer
Partly this is a generational problem.
This spring I wrote an essay on Culture and Design. (Let me know if you want a copy.) I had been reading Design Thinking statements, and none of them mentioned culture.
I opened my essay by noting this was like listening to an economist talking about economics without talking about value or a physicist talking about physics without talking about energy.
I sent this essay to someone in the Design Thinking field. Here’s how he characterized what he thought I was saying.
“I am the culture guy. I believe culture is super important. So I am going to write 22 more pages on why the culture guy thinks culture is more important than non-culture people do.”
For this person, my essay was a form of special pleading. Because for him, culture is a minority interest. And, no, you don’t need to know about culture to talk about design.
This person has been taken captive by all the old generational stereotypes. For him, culture is additional, superficial in both the conventional and the literal sense of the term. It’s a thing of surfaces, something we slap on, something we can therefore strip away. And that is the job of smart, tough minded people. They take pride in removing anything that doesn’t speak to the practical, the utilitarian, and the consumer’s pursuit of economic self interest narrowly defined.
This is what boomers think of culture. It’s the way they exclude it from business. Thus do they short-change their professional responsibilities. Much worse, thus do they force their organization to compromise its navigational instruments and understandings.
2. A branding problem to be sure
The culture idea has many variations on the theme. Time to rethink and relaunch. Some people insist that culture means “corporate culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “high culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “popular culture” (and it does…) The culture we care about sits above all of these. It’s like language in several ways but particularly this: it operates silently and invisibly to supply a grid that divides the world into categories. As William Gibson says, “We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.” We could think of culture as the software we install in that hardware called the brain to make the world make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of Ethiopia, France, or Scotland. It supplies meanings without which life in Ethiopia, France or Scotland is largely mystifying.
Culture means the rules and meanings with which people grasp the world around them. Imagine an hour in Manhattan if you were from, say, the Mongolian steppes. You would be in a state of astonishment. And this is not because Manhattan can be percussive and even concussive, but because you don’t have the cultural template in your head that lets you grasp what you are looking at.
But culture is also the rules and meanings with which people craft the world around them. Some people are very good at meme making. Others not so much. The difference depends upon whether you have managed to divine the grammar of this emergent form, figuring out how to use it, and put it to work. American culture is restless and innovative. It was only a few years ago that there was no such thing as a meme. Then, for a moment it was a wild experiment. Now it’s a standard creative voice. Ours is a culture under constant reconstruction.
3. Frankfurt School
We understand why the Frankfurt school was so deeply suspicious of culture, but their thinking helped create several generations of academics who could not see American culture except as an act of manipulation and false consciousness. And this created generations of students who loved culture, who lived culture, but struggled to find a way to take it seriously.
Now they take it seriously. Now they decode our culture with an eye for subtlety and nuance. Now they invent culture in the form of memes, fandom, blogging, pop ups, videos, remixes, and all that editorial comment on Twitter. But thanks to the Frankfurt school, these people don’t always have a formal idea of what they are doing. A meme has nothing to do with a blog post which has nothing to do with a video. The world is a collection of discrete events. For want of an idea of culture they cannot see the bigger picture or the deeper one.
4. Sloppy thinking
Take the notion of the gift economy. We all know to genuflect when this term comes up. We get a little teary eyed at the thought of people giving of their creativity freely. But let’s be clear about this. There are millions of kids writing many more millions of lines of culture. They are (almost) never compensated. As a result these authors will have to work at McDonald’s again this summer. Even a small amount of value would free them to refine their craft, in the process building their art and our culture. On reflection, it occurred to me that the only people who really profit from the gift economy have tenure and big fat professorial salaries. (See my bad tempered essay, (sorry, Clay,) called The Gift Economy: a reply to Clay Shirky).
The point: until we build an economy that rewards and funds culture creators, we are starving our culture and excluding a generation (or two). A 14 year old fan fiction writer doesn’t need to make much money, just enough to free her from the french fry line. I can’t believe that some brand hasn’t taken the leadership position here. Oh, wait, perhaps Twitter just did. Spotify recently made steps in that direction. And Patreon is of course one variation on direct fan support.
Given what we know, making a culture for culture shouldn’t be that hard. We understand the sociology and anthropology of how communities form. We know how to build networks. We know how to wire a world with Twitter and Instagram. Right?
The trouble is we are not pack animals. We’re quick to wear the culture badge on our sleeve, but not to join the lodge or pay the dues. This could change.
For starters, we want a bulletin board in which people talk about the problems they are working on.
I’ll start. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve.
▪️ Reading the future
I am working on a “big blue board.” (Yes, it’s a stupid name. But if you saw the Board you would understand.) This attempts to combine big data and thick data to create an early warning system to see the future coming. At the moment, I am tracking the crisis in retail, the effects of the gig economy, the change in the status of pets in America, the way we are rethinking status and privilege, the decline of ownership, something called “rewilding,” and 200 other trends. The problem here: as the world becomes faster, more chaotic, more disruptive, everyone is trying to figure out how to see what’s coming. (Rita McGrath at Columbia just published a book called Seeing Around Corners.) Can people who get culture make a contribution and if so what?
One of the big challenges: getting the data. In turns out, people would rather reveal the intimate details of their sex lives and financial standing than share corporate data. I don’t know how we solve this problem. But we have to.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the investors were unable to get their mitts on good data easily. And along came Michael Bloomberg and his terminals. Somewhere out there in our culture culture there is someone who will do for cultural data what Bloomberg did for financial data, and make themselves fabulously wealthy into the bargain.
▪️ Working on our novel
I’m finishing up a novel called Anna about a couple of guys who go to LA, install massive computing power in an old warehouse in Chinatown, and begin the hunt for the secrets of Hollywood. They are discovered by a Hollywood celebrity who understands that popular culture is capricious and that she must change to survive. The point of the exercise was to find a lively way to tell the story of culture. Did it work? Kinda sorta. I had to teach myself how to write fiction. Not sure how well I did.
The point of this there are lots of media in which to conduct our study of culture.
▪️ Working on theory and concept
One of the problems with culture is that it is so very amorphous. One of our first requirements then is a nice, clear, compact definition of what culture is.
My current definition says culture is meanings and rules. The trouble with most marketing, branding, design, strategy, and innovation is that it uses culture without ever treating it as culture, and it works with a small piece of culture without any sense of the larger architecture of meaning from which this comes. This is fine for clients. But those of us who work with culture need, I think, to construct a great vaulted ceiling that shows all the meanings of American culture and a sense of where they been and where they are going (hence the Big Blue Board). We need the entire “periodic table,” so to speak. (Apologies for the welter of metaphors. Anyone suffering whip lash or nose bleeds is asked to report to the Medium nursing station immediately.)
Here’s a good example of rules. Many young women (some men, and a lot of Canadian men interestingly) used to end a sentence with an interrogative upswing. This is sometimes called “uptalk.” We have seen some women undertake a new strategy. Now they end a sentence with a “vocal fry.” This replaces the upturn with a downturn. (Kim Kardashian may or may not be the innovator here. In any case she served as a super agent in its diffusion.)
This cultural rule says “end a sentence with a question mark even when it is an assertion.” And that rule is now being challenged by a new rule that says, “end a sentence with a down turn.” This rule springs, in part, from the gender meanings with which we define femaleness. This is American culture in action. It is almost certainly feminism in action. (The upturn communicates uncertainty. The downturn says, take it or leave it.) The actors rarely see that they are obeying rules. Because culture conceals itself. But these rules are nevertheless active and formative. We use a great many rules in the “presentation of self in everyday life” as Goffman called it. These days it feels like the famous Goffman formula could also be written the “construction of self in everyday life.” We are all works in progress. We change (as/and the rules do).
Clients don’t need to see the vaulted ceiling that shows the meanings of American culture. They don’t need to see the rule book that contains the instructions for “being American.” But our work gets better when we do. When we advise clients too often we do not give them detailed rationales for our recommendations. Worst case, creatives “just know” they are “on to something.” Eesh! In an age in which things change so fast, the cost of error is so high, and CMO tenures are so fleeting, we have to do better. We have to be able to say there is a system, a discipline, and a profession.
This will have a sorting effect. Clients will be able to choose their consultants more intelligently. And that means consultants will begin to get the clients they deserve.
I am always having a discussion with myself when I should be having that discussion with the culture community (aka the culture culture). Recently I have been asking whether it is enough to call culture merely “meanings” and “rules.” Maybe , I thought, I want to add “conventions” to my definition.
Here’s how that went. I was working for Netflix on how TV was changed. I needed a good way to talk about this change. Raiding the field of political science, I decided to posit a contract between viewers and showrunners. The old contract said things like “on TV, bad things can’t happen to good people.” Once we identified with a character, no harm could come to them. Now of course bad things routinely happened to good people. (I wrote this up for a Boston conference. You can find it on Slideshare here.) The argument to make here is that the revolution on TV can be seen as a rewriting of the contract between showrunner and viewer and this can be seen as a change in our cultural conventions.
Ok, now I have a problem. In the heat of the moment, I used “convention” to explain the data. But it’s neither meaning nor rule. So have I changed the model…or not? This is culture theory as an open question. I think we should all have models. And one of the points of culture culture is precisely to compare and contrast these models. There is a ton of work here. Let a 1000 models bloom.
▪️ Moving and making meanings
Culture does not confine itself to the conventional expression of conventional meanings. We are constantly inventing new meanings (e.g., new ideas of femaleness) and giving them new expressions (e.g., vocal fry).
In fact, our culture continues to rethink the way it works with meanings. We can posit 4 approaches.
In the first, we use marketing, advertising, design, innovation, social media, and PR as informed by research, planning and strategy, to put meanings (old and new) into brands and services. This is a simple process of transfer. The ad transfers meanings from culture to brand. It is almost exactly like metaphor. “Look, X is very like Y” invites us to take what we know about X and use it to think about Y. “He ran like a gazelle.” “The world began with a big bang.”
Thus in the early 1960s a print ad in Life would show the new Lincoln sitting at the verge of a fox hunt in Connecticut. “Look,” said the ad, “this car has the same meanings at the fox hunt. Surely you can see that.” Hilarious, yes, but it spoke to the status aspirations of a rising middle class. This is what marketing in general and advertising in particular spent most of the 20th century doing. (Except of course when the ad was merely an informational exercise. And in this event, no one, not the agency, the client or the consumer, could conceal their disinterest.)
Stage 2, starting some time in the 1990s, grew tired and resentful of this kind of meaning making and said, “Oh, please, this is just so dumb. Surely we can manage something more interesting.” The “alternative” 90s preferred a meaning-making strategy that combined unlikely meanings, meanings that did not “go” together. This would put Tarantino, Beck, Jay-Z, and Frank Black and the Pixies in the same category. The effects were arresting. We were looking at the systematic violation of the “combinatorial” conventions in our culture. The effect was “fresh.” We liked “fresh.” Increasingly, “fresh” came from combinatorial violation.
Stage 3 is an exaggeration of Stage 2. In this stage (still active) some of the best culture came out of a deliberate collision of genres. Because genres were dying. They were simply too predictable for our new interpretive gifts. So we put things into the particle accelerator and ran them together. The effects were explosive. “Cyclotron culture” was fascinating. See Jon Caramanica’s account of the album by 100 gecs. “This duo’s debut album, 1000 gecs, smashes electro-pop, dance music, punk and dozens of other rapid-fire reference points into something genuinely new and exhilarating.”
Stage 4 sees the advent of a new kind of meaning making. This is subtle and cunning. Less about colliding culture and more about braiding and splicing it. This is about acts of ingenuity that the culture creator cannot perform unless she is fully the master of culture and that the rest of us can only “get” because we are so much better at culture. Not everyone is. Nas X was asked why he thought Billboard had removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. He suggested “the song’s ingenuity might have intimidated them.” When this kind of meaning making works, it provokes the smile people wear when confronted by something really clever. You know the one. I wrote a book about Stage 4 meaning making called Chief Culture Officer.
Until we are prepared to put the idea of culture at the center of all these creative undertakings (advertising, social, PR, branding, design, planning, innovation, experience, activation, marketing), it is hard to see that there is one world here. It’s harder still for creatives to see what they have in common. Culture gives us the opportunity to embrace the whole of marketing and creativity in a single point of view.
There are several interesting puzzles here. I think the very gifted Mark Earls is wrong to say that all culture is the repetition of culture. I think there is a cultural grammar that is genuinely generative. But this too is an open question. What are the specific techniques with which people make movies, ads and memes? How is culture drawn upon and given to, that’s the question. (Mark has a new book out called Creative Superpowers.)
I think people are wrong to say that the only meaning that matters now for brands are the ones marked “social purpose” or “social advocacy.” These matter to be sure. But they are not the only meanings that can make a brand vibrate. Quite apart from the problem of cause fatigue, as Tanya Dua calls it, there are almost an endless provinces of meaning out there. And the good marketer is Marco Polo.
Peter Spear and I have been trying to have this conversation since December. (See his excellent blog That Business of Meaning.) I thank him for the provocation.
▪️ Working on method
We are pretty good, most of us, at using ethnography or something like it. Time to add new methods.
More and more, I am using big data and AI. There is too much waterfront in our diverse, changeable culture for us to depend on qualitative data alone. Or put it this way, only quantitative data can tell us where we should be collecting out qualitative data.
We also need to think more about how to present our work to the client. One method is “scenario planning” which I first got to see in action at Herman Miller. It’s a useful way to present alternative futures. But more important it helps engage clients in the problem solving. See the recent book by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon called Moments of Impact and The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.
Again, we are not pack animals.
But surely, we can build an institutional lattice work!
In a perfect world, we would have a university home. While Syd Levy, John Kelly and Rob Kozinets were still there, this was the Kellogg business school at Northwestern. Ditto the magnificent group Henry Jenkins built at MIT. (He has since moved to USC.)
I am always impressed by how many people with a gift for culture have a connection to Brown University. (Take a bow, Ken Anderson, Kate Hammer and Brad Grossman. See Brad’s Zeitguide here.) Who is responsible for Brown’s contribution to the cause? Suggestions please.
Londoners are unusually brainy when it comes to matters cultural. I couldn’t possibly name everyone who has impressed me there but I’m going to try: Russell Davies, Amelia Torode, Henry Mason, Andy Dexter, Leanne Tomasevic, Richard Wise, John Curran, Lee Sankey, Tracey Follows, John Willshire, Petar Vujosevic, Nick Morris, Johnny Vulcan, Nick Sherrard, Adam Chmielowski, Beeker Northam, Stuart Smith, Jon Howard, Martina Olbertova, Frederica Carlotta and Ben Malbon.
But what was I saying about institutional homes for the study of culture? Ken Anderson is at Princeton at the Keller School. Caley Cantrell is at VCU Brand Center. Rob Kozinets is at USC. I wonder if Michael Diamond could be persuaded to build something into the School of Professional Studies at NYU. Maybe Rob Fields could build it into his Weeksville Heritage Center. Or perhaps now that Amran Amed has colonized the world of fashion (see his revolutionary Business of Fashion) perhaps he would love to climb the vertical and assume control of the cultural high ground.
But of course we don’t need an academic locus. In a post bricks-and-mortar age, we have world-building technologies of our own.
But someone will need to stand up and nominate themselves as the still center of the storm. This person would need the networking gifts of a Napier Collyns. He or she will need the strategic genius of a Sam Ford (now preoccupied by his new assignment at Simon and Schuster.) I had a great conversation last year with Sam Hornsby at Havas. He would be great at this. Sparks and Honey is deeply capable when it comes to the culture idea. Perhaps CEO Terry Young would consider taking on a broader mandate. Robert Morais and Timothy Malefyt have created a home for Business Anthropology. Maybe they would be prepared to cast the net to include those who are interested in culture but are not anthropologists. Or maybe it could be Samantha Ladner, Patti Sunderland, Phil Surles, Eric Nehrlich, Sophie Wade, Ed Cotton, Collyn Ahart, Dan Gould, Faris Yakob, Martin Carriere, Clay Parker Jones, Garth Kay, Melissa Fisher, Rick Liebling or Gillian Tett. I wonder if we could persuade a brand or an agency to create a fellowship so that someone could spend a year setting up a “Culture College.”
Most of all, we need to establish a place in the minds of the clients who fund our work (those of us who live outside the academy). This has to be a shared task: books, conferences. The only thing we don’t want to share is the clients themselves. That would be wrong.
A change inside the corporation?
A change has to be made in the American corporation. This is what makes the revelation from Twitter marketing so exciting. Finally someone is prepared to lead with the culture idea. And if it’s good enough for Twitter, surely it’s good enough for Delta and American, NFL and MLB, Hertz and Avis, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Ford and Chrysler, CBS and NBC, Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft and Apple, and all the brands struggling for oxygen.
Surely, there is a change in the works. I read with interest a story in Variety called Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds.Yes, get rid of the Old Biz Models. Please.
And there was a great article on the HBS website called “NFL Head Coaches Are Getting Younger. What Can Organizations Learn?” It draws on a piece in the Washington Post by Adam Kilgore which includes this passage.
“For years the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses, and innovation taking root slowly.”
The HBS piece concludes,
“This conservative approach to hiring seems to have changed in recent years. As early risk-takers have been rewarded with high-profile success, others have become more willing to take chances themselves.”
Perfect, I thought. Perhaps we can hope for a changing of the guard at the American organization.
The younger you are, the more you treat culture as an obvious good, a useful instrument, and the very heart of your personal interests and identity construction. There are a couple of generations waiting to take their place in the corporation, to be valued by the corporation, to be paid by the corporation, to be advanced by the corporation to the C Suite. Enough with “let’s ask the intern.”
The time for culture is coming. But we keep saying that. How do we hasten the day? Thank you, Twitter, for taking the initiative.
A couple of things I’m liking
Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books, 2017.
Katarina Graffman has a wonderful TED talk about culture here.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Balsy for thoughts on the first draft.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Boston Book Festival, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House.
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as wereCaitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)
Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)
After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.
Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.
1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.
2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?
3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.
4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.
5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.
5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).
5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).
5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.
5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.
6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look. Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.
(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.
With thanks to Joi Ito
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) here.
The thing that strikes you about The Frankenstein Chronicles is how gruesome it is.
This was true too of The Alienist.
In both cases, the series begins with a child who has been tortured and murdered.
The Frankenstein Chronicles is especially grim. The child is pieced together out of other dead children.
I think this is a case of TV struggling to find its way, and, in this case, failing. This might be a sign that dumb TV is once more in the works.
The TV revolution broke the old rules of TV.
Here are five of these rules:
1. bad things must not happen to good people
2. a TV scene must never require a second look
3. if you have to choose between a beautiful actor and a talented one, choose the former.
4. TV must be modulated, not raw (i.e., the showrunner must pull her punches)
5. TV must be convention bound, not free (i.e., when there is a genre convention, you must use it)
The Frankenstine Chronicles and The Alienist appear to be exploring yet another rule.
6. There are some non combatants in TV story-telling, especially the weak, the defenseless, and children.
And now TV goes even there.
This has been some of the excitement of the new TV, looking to see what happens when you break the Aaron Spelling rules of entertainment and make TV more like literary fiction and less like pulp fiction.
When TV breaks a taboo, every showrunner has something new to work with, a new dramatic wheel to add to their narrative clockwork.
And for awhile, the new convention is raw and remarkable. But eventually the new and unruly gets domesticated. It’s gets ruly.
The expressive world of TV is bigger. The experience of TV is less predictable and laborious. But things are settling down.
But the anti-gruesome rule isn’t like this. Dead children will never be tolerable. We will never get used to them. We will never go, “Oh, ok, I get how this works dramatically.” We will never what to go there.
Sometimes, rules exist for a reason. Sometimes, nothing is gained by breaking them. In this case, the art of TV doesn’t get bigger. Sometimes, the medium is diminished.
Here’s what I worry about. Showrunners are now engaged in an arms race. They are now going to want to break even the rules that should be left alone. There are only so many viewers. And at some point, a new level of competition forces a new level of gruesomeness.
I happened to like Penny Dreadful. But this too seemed to exhibit an inflationary pressure. One monster was not enough. No, the writers ransacked every Victorian imagination for every monster.
Showrunners, here’s the thing about the new TV. You have vast new creative territories at your disposal. You have at least two generations of fantastically alert and thoughtful viewers. Perhaps most important you have access to a very larger community of gifted actors. They can do much more with much less.
Showrunners, heal thyself. Stow the gruesome effects. Scale down the canvas. Work small, delicate and subtle. Take that actors out of their Dracula make-up and see what they can do with story telling that’s taut, disciplined and thoughtful.
Gruesome TV is in some ways a return to the old TV. It feels like a daring bid for something unprecedented. But really, and let’s be honest, it’s just lazy showrunning. As if someone said, “Dead child made up of other dead children? This has to get their attention!”
I leave to others this question: why is Victorian London the place where showrunners like to go for horror?
Every organization operates out of an idea of itself. (We call this idea several things: our “business model,” our “value proposition,” our “core mission.”)
Of course, we would like to think this idea is perfectly adapted to reality, that it is the best, most sensible, way of extracting value from the world.
But sometimes our idea falls out of its “match” with the world. And now that the world changes so often and so fast, this happens a lot. “Idea” and “world” are no longer dance partners.
Part of the work of management is detecting these moments of disconnect and restoring the connection between our idea and the world.
If, on the other hand, we neglect (or refuse) to restore the connection, something bad happens. We are taken captive by our culture.
This makes for a grand sounding generality. So I was interested this morning to find an example from the Spotify boardroom.
Thanks to the magnificent curatorial work by Jason Hirschhorn at REDEF, I read this essay from Track Record. It describes a confrontation at Spotify between Blake Morgan and Spotify executives.
There are lots of issues here. I will focus only on the cultural one.
Here is Blake Morgan’s account of his meeting at Spotify.
I was a vocal participant in the meeting, and when it was over I found myself surrounded by several Spotify executives.
One said, “Blake, I just don’t think you understand, our users love our product because it’s such an amazing one.”
Another added, “You have to look past just numbers, our product is so great it’s actually turning the industry around.”
This went on for a while, until I finally said to one of the executives, “You keep using that word, ‘product.’ I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m really asking you: what do you think your product is?” The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly and said, “What do you mean? Our product is Spotify.” There it was. It was a shocking admission to me, in earshot of everyone, and one he obviously didn’t think was an admission at all. “No no…sorry,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Your product isn’t ‘Spotify.’” He continued to stare at me. I said, “Sir, your product is music.” The emboldened musicians standing around us started laughing. The exec smiled and backed away, “Well okay, if you’re going to be like that.”
I especially like the line:
“The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly.”
That’s when you know someone is the captive of their culture. They cannot “compute” the question that challenges it. They are “deep in.”
Cultural captivity is dangerous. It may be the single most reliable way to expose the organization to disruption.
What’s the best way to escape cultural captivity? Make sure that your ideas are not assumptions. Make them vivid and present. Make them visible. Work on your ideas as if they were the first and most precious of your “intellectual properties.”
I was in Portland last week looking for artisans to interview for the Artisanal Economies Project and stumbled upon a vintage clothing store.
A clothing store is not perfectly artisanal, but I figured it qualified. It is, after all, curatorial, small batch and non industrial.
The woman within was happy to help but she told me that her store was threatened by insolvency. We talked for maybe 30 minutes and it became clear she had stalled. She could not stay in her present location, but she wasn’t sure where she and her husband should move.
“We’re from the midwest…” Marie trailed off, “If you have any suggestions, please let me know.”
Back in my hotel room, I wondered if Google Trends could help. I had the honor of talking to Hal Varian about Google Trends several months ago, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore what it can do.
I searched “vintage clothing” and it was clear that this is in decline nationally. Marie is right to be concerned.
Google Trends allows us to drill down by state. Oregon shows lots of volatility and a still more marked decline.
Google Trends ranks the states. This chart shows the states that rank low. And it turns out that Oregon ranks very low indeed, 45 out of 46 states. By this reckoning, Marie lives in almost the worst state in which to have a vintage clothing store. So moving anywhere is probably a good idea.
The next chart shows the states that rank high. It suggests that California or New York might be better choices.
Google Trends let’s us drill down to the city level.
This suggests Eugene would be better than Portland. (And Boise would be very bad indeed.)
There are several issues here.
1 The chief of these is whether Google Trends is, for Marie’s purposes, measuring what we want to measure in the way we want to measure it. I will leave this issue to readers. I would just say that these data must be dramatically better than the ones that Marie and her husband now have at this disposal.
2 Should Marie and her husband trust a life decision to these data. I think the answer has to be ‘yes.’ Again, at this point they have NO alternative data with which to work. (They appear to be considering a return to the midwest simply because they come from there. From an “industry” point of view, this is anti-strategic.)
3 The last question is the most obvious intellectual one. Why should vintage clothing be doing badly in Oregon? (Marie told me that there used to be 12 stores in Portland and now there are only 4.)
I would have thought that vintage clothing would be one of the best ways of ‘keeping Portland weird.’ That is to say, I would have thought that vintage clothing would have resonate with this and other cultural things that define the locality.
4 This bring us to the prize question. By the looks of things here, a change is taking place in Portland. Consumer taste and preference has shifted. It is an anthropological truth that a shift of this order cannot be trivial. It must indicate a deeper change taking place in the culture of Portland, in the very “mentality” (as the French social scientist would call it) of the city.
Any change of this kind is interesting to an anthropologist. But when it is something taking place in a city now famous for setting the trend for some part of the rest of the country, then, yowser, this is very interesting.
Best of all, this change is, at least for me, counter intuitive. I would never have guessed it. I have no ready explanation. I am mystified. And this means that the change in question is, at least for me, disruptive.
Now to figure out what it is…
5 Google trends has several clear and verified uses. Marie’s example that it might also serve for the purpose of life navigation. Career counsellors and life coaches, take note.
[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]
In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.
In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.
But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.
The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.
The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.
Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.
This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.
The Ken Burns Effect
The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.
The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.
The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).
But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).
The voice-over says,
Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.
The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).
That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.
As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.
“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”
The camera moves in, and we think,
“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”
“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”
Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)
This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.
This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.
I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.
This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.
All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.
Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.
post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.
01:31 the world is turbulent
…and culture creatives can help
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
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
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
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
8:48 is there a Canadian advantage?
Yes, there is (possibly)
e.g., Michael Ennis, Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan
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
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!
I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.
I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)
It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were. So this letter is to you, too.
Dear Jarvis and Donte
While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.
When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.
The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.
It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.
But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?
There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.
This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.
Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.
Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock. I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.
Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?
The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.
But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).
That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?
This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.
Yesterday, the Charlie Rose Show repeated interviews with comics Billy Eichner, Amy Pohler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Seth Meyers.
A couple of comments jumped out.
Matt Besser: “You don’t have to appeal to 30 million people anymore.”
Ian Roberts: [the stuff we do can be] “a little rougher, more radical, more experimental.”
So what does that mean for popular culture?
Samantha Bee has an answer (at least for Full Frontal):
“We just do the material that appeals to us, the sort of thing we want to see.”
Does this mark the beginning of the decline of TV as a mass medium? Is TV, at least comedy on TV, now the artist’s playground, a place where artists can satisfy their own creative agenda?
This would spell the end of that glassy, packaged, patronizing, anti-improvisational work that popular culture produced in the 1950s, the stuff that made comedy look like an airshow: “Here comes a joke, this is the joke, how great was that joke!”
But have we moved to the far extreme? Let’s call this the Samantha Bee extreme (hold all jokes to the end of the essay, please) where it’s all about the cultural producer, and no longer about the cultural consumer. At all. (There’s another possibility: that Ms. Bee has become tragically self indulgent, the Nic Pizzolatto of late night, and not long for that. I ignore this option.)
Seth Meyers had an answer. Audiences are getting smarter, he said. They have all the comedy ever recorded at their disposal on YouTube and they are “self educating.”
So, yes, apparently we are moving to the Samantha Bee extreme. Comedy producers and consumers are less different. They are growing closer. What a change this is! Comedians were once aliens who infiltrated the human community by manifesting on a standup stage, there to outrage and delight the sensibilities of people who really had no idea what comedy was or where it came from. Not now. Now more and more comedic producers and consumers make up one community.
This changes the comedian. She was once a tortured soul, torn between the popular success that came from “safe” comedy and the professional esteem that could only come from “daring” comedy. To use that airspace metaphor again (hold your applause to the end of the essay, please) comedy producers and consumers occupy the same airspace. The comics can just do better stunts.
It also changes the audience. They are no longer yokels at a country fair marveling at the ingenuity of these city slickers. (“Dang, how’d he do that!”) They are more likely to scrutinize the architecture of the joke, wondering if Samantha Bee “didn’t maybe put a little too much stress on the last word. I feel.” and then taking (or as Henry Jenkins would say, “poaching”) the joke for their own personal purposes, to make themselves funnier Saturday night at the bar.
This is all great news for some purposes. It’s good for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It’s good for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and Seeso. It’s good for aspiring comics. Most of all, it’s good for contemporary culture, which gets funnier the more producers and consumers drive one another onwards and upwards. Call this the Apollo Theater effect, where the audience is so discerning, it forces entertainers to raise their game. (But now of course the effect is reciprocal.)
But it’s not all great news.
As two comedic worlds close, two cultural worlds tear apart.
As comedy producers and consumers get ever chummier, they take their leave of a large group of fellow Americans. I say, “fellow,” but of course that’s the point. As comedy gets better and pulls away, these Americans are less “fellow.” There are now millions of Americans who couldn’t find the funny in an Upright Citizens Brigade’s routine if their lives depended on it. They can’t actually see the point of it. And there are few things quite as alienating as this. You look a fool. You feel a fool.
There are two choices when this happens. You can accuse yourself of being witless and wanting. Or you can attack the person who has threatened you with this judgement, and call them an elite bent on taking your culture away from you. The only way to escape the “fool” judgement is to turn it on someone else.
And that’s where politicians like Donald Trump come in. And not just Trump, but an entire industry of pundits, experts, talk show hosts, religious leaders and other politicians have seized upon the “culture wars” as an opportunity to fan the flames of unrest, to mobilize dissent, to coax dollars out of pockets.
That’s where we are. Driven by technological innovations and cultural ones, there is now a dynamic driving groups of Americans apart, destroying shared assumptions, and putting at risk the hope that an always heterogeneous America can remain, in the words of Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.
This is not an accusation. There’s no obvious enemy. And there’s no obvious answer. No party, ideology, or interest can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We may self correct. We may not. But chances are slim that this cultural divide will make no difference, not as long as certain interests keep hammering away at it.
But it is a confession. I wrote a book in the late 1980s called Plenitude in which I argued that the coming cultural diversity would be a good thing and that we would survive it without descending into a tower of babel or a world of conflicting assumptions. And now it’s beginning to look like I was wrong.
Several weeks ago, Mark Bernstein announced the latest Tinderbox, the “tool for notes.”
I almost always sign up for these updates.
I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.
I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”
And that’s as close as I get to Tinderbox until the next edition rolls out.
This post is an attempt to figure out why the idea of Tinderbox continues to thrill me even when the reality never quite delivers. (I say this with all due respect to Mark. The problem, I’m sure, is mine.)
For me, the best description of Tinderbox comes from Naupaka Zimmerman who, when asked on Quora for a ‘simplest explanation,’ said this,
I think Tinderbox is most powerful for mapping ideas out of your mind and into something digital, especially when those ideas are not fully structured yet. If you have ideas and they are already all in order, you could use a simple text editor to make an outline, for example. Tinderbox is where to put thoughts when you don’t know where they go yet, or how they fit together. (my emphasis, full context here.)
This would make Tinderbox very valuable indeed. We live in an era that prizes innovation, that roils with dynamism. As a result, we are surrounded by ideas we struggle to identify and classify. We don’t “know where they go yet.” We can’t say “how they fit together.”
The app that helps us see where things “go” and how they “fit” would be useful. The app that suggest new categories and new combinations would be a very great gift.
Tinderbox does let me “pin” idea fragments. I can move them around. I can tag them. I can group them. I can look for new relationships.
But rarely does Tinderbox help me see the forest in the trees. So far it’s pretty much all just trees.
To put this in anthropological language, I want Tinderbox that gets me out of my categories. Categories are the units into which a culture identifies, distinguishes and organizes the world. They are the infrastructure of thought, if you want. They are the architecture of consciousness.
It is cultural categories that make the world look one way to an Ethiopian and another to a New Yorker. It’s categories that make the world look one way to someone from the upper east side and another to someone from Brooklyn. Think of categories as a grid. Hold up the Ethiopian grid and the world looks one way. Hold up the Brooklyn grid and it looks another. (Caveat lector: not a perfect metaphor.)
Categories are a big part of the box out of which everyone is constantly asking us to get. In this sense, categories are the enemy. They help us think, but they take us captive. To use the fashionable managerial lingo, categories are the reason we have such a hard time finding “blue oceans” and avoiding disruptions. They give sight and they take it away.
In a more perfect world, Tinderbox would enable us to escape our categorical, cultural schemes. It would take all those bits and pieces that we capture every day in the course of our excursions on line, and bring them into a series of relationships we have never seen before. This would really useful. New categories would form. New insights would swarm.
Think of this the way Granovetter thinks about networks. If I can be forgiven a too simple account of his interesting work on “the strength of weak ties,” Granovetter suggests that weak ties matter because they are the bridges across which novel information moves. (Strong ties are less likely to be this conduit because they exist between people who come from the same world and tend to know the same things.)
Granovetter is talking about social networks but his thinking applies, at least metaphorically, to information. Culture creates silos the way networks do. It puts like with like. That’s why we need “weak ties” here too. We need some way of bringing things from disparate categories together. Sometimes, the result will be unthinkable. But sometimes it will force a new category or a new reflection on a old category. This would make Tinderbox an ingenuity machine. As it is, Tinderbox has a way of encouraging my existing categories.
Steve Crandall has great stories about lunch time at Bell Labs. Someone would start talking, and a couple of people would slap their foreheads and run from the room. Ideas were leaping unbidden from one discipline to another. As it turns out, the only thing needed to provoke this “unofficial” transit of ideas was a lunch table.
The question is whether and how Tinderbox could serve as a lunch table. If only it would take the things I post to Ember, Evernote and Instagram and bring them together into novel, provocative, difficult, extra-categorical combination. If only it could promote new categories
As a completely non-rigorous test, I just reached into Ember and found three images sitting side by side. (I didn’t search. I just grabbed.) Images go into Ember in no particular order, so this “grab” is close to a random sort. (The overall category is “images that captured the attention of an anthropologist studying American culture” so it’s quite broad.)
Here’s are the 3 images I came up with.
First, this image from an Android ad. I love this campaign for the little phrase you see here. “Be together, not the same” is one of the best things produced by the advertising, branding world in a long while. (Hat’s off to Robert Wong, the Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Labs who is the author of this line or at least present at its birth.) It captures where we are now as a social world. It asks for unity without a compromise of diversity.
Then I found this. Sitting, innocently, beside the Android clipping was this photo of a sculpture in Mexico City. It’s Diana, goddess of the hunt.
Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Mexico City
I was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I kept driving past Diana here held high on Reforma boulevard as if by many streams of water. My Diana is the one from Ovid, the goddess who kills Actaeon for discovering her in the wild. He’s a mortal. She’s a goddess. He may not look upon her. (The part Ovid must have liked: Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer. He is hunted and killed by his hounds.) I assume the statue has its own significance for Mexico and Mexicans. I never did figure out what. (Some Mexicans, it turns out, aren’t sure either. The trouble may be that Diana is many creatures with many meanings.)
And then I got this.
I clipped it from the Madewell website as an interesting glimpse of the way one brand seeks to speak to one group of consumers, women with a quite particular sensibility. (An anthropologist is always looking for things that capture a particular way of thinking about, in this case, clothing and gender.) This went first into amber and then into Ember.
So now we have three images. All somehow caught the interest of an anthropologist, but they are otherwise unrelated to one another. Our Tinderbox “sort” invites us to imagine how they could go together.
The most obvious category is feminism. The opening image gives us one statement of our diversity. The second and third give us evocations of things that both express and propel our feminism. Diana is a feminist hero. Madewell clothing is one way our culture now expresses femaleness for some people some of the time. The Android tag line asks us to remain one community even as we continue to refashion gender and multiply our social identities.
This pretend spin of the Tinderbox wheel is, well, kinda interesting. But the outcome, (“feminism,” roughly) succeeds mostly in confirming a cultural category in my head. It doesn’t help me escape it. The trick is to look a little deeper and with this I find myself wondering whether I have quite honored Diana’s contribution.
What else does Diana bring to the Tinderbox sort? We could think of her less as a feminist hero and more as a warning. Actaeon dares do something mortals are forbidden doing. Hmm. Is there some correlate of this in contemporary culture? Who is Diana now and what would she object to? I think for a moment and then wonder if cultural creatives (in the Richard Florida occupational category) dare to engage in behavior that was once forbidden.
Culture creatives spend their lives trying to study, scrutinize, analyze, shape and reshape culture. We dare make and remake culture as if this were absolutely our right. And this is a marker of the world we’ve become, that we see culture as something that designers, anthropologists, writers, showrunners, studio executives, planners, strategists, app makers, software engineers, cultural creatives of every kind are entitled to have at. We even presume to give advice of every kind. (“Be together, not the same.”) We make free with culture and we make culture freely.
And it never occurs to us that this is daring behavior but I think there’s a good chance the practice makes us the odd ones out in the larger human story. I think a Victorian member of the middle class would have been astounded by our presumption. Culture was for admiring. It was for mastering. It wasn’t not for making, not at least by ordinary people. Poets, scholars, artists, yes. The rest of us, no. I think it’s unlikely that Roman centurion stationed in Gaul ended a grueling day building roads by composing fan fic versions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We don’t see that we engage in acts of Actaeon-scale presumption, but perhaps we do. And that means punishment, even Diana-scale punishment, for crimes of this order may have seemed not entirely out of the question, at least as a poetic conceit. (I am of course not serious when I propose there is something forbidden about cultural creativity. I embrace the idea because it is in the immortal words of Stanley Tambiah “good to think.” More to the point, it is “fun to think.”)
And this gets us somewhere. My Tinderbox sort has invited me to see something I used to take for granted. It gives me an opportunity to see “cultural creatives” not as unexceptional actors but as a daring, even transgressive ones. (Another clarification is called for here. I’m not talking about feminism as something transgressive. As an anthropologist, feminism is something that has been in the works for several hundred years. I’m surprised it took this long to transform us and I believe there is no likelihood that we will ever repudiate it. Feminism is here to say, and thank heavens.)
But is “transgressive creativity” this anything more than an odd idea? (Is it something more than a fanciful notion to add to that great collection of ideas with which we furnish our interior work shops?) Is there someone who believes that cultural creatives are transgressive? Is there anyone who would, Diana-like, punish them for this behavior?
Not at first glance. But when you think about it, you could say this is almost exactly what fundamentalists think (and threaten). Fundamentalists feel themselves captive of a culture filled with godless, immoral, reckless departures from the work and will of God. And if they thought about it in a detailed way (and for all I know some of them do) they would identify cultural creatives as precisely the people who are responsible for this systematic godlessness.
Hm. So is that it? Well, no. This Tinderboxian revelation leaves me with a problem…and a responsibility, even.
This is the place to ask ourselves whether any of us on the cultural creative side ever think to reach out to fundamentalists and encourage them to see the system, the genius, the good intentions of cultural creativity. I think the inclination of the cultural creative is to scorn fundamentalists as monstrously unsophisticated philistines “who just don’t get it (i.e., me).” But this is really not very empathic, or sophisticated, or cosmopolitan. It fails to see that, whether we like it or not, fundamentalists have a particular case to make. Most obviously, the “scorn” strategy destroys any hope of a rapprochement. If we cultural creatives really were liberal, they might be prepared to grasp the problem and commit to a solution. Scorn seems a little easy, a little glib.
The first order of business? Cultural creatives might want to demonstrate to fundamentalists that being “not the same” is not in fact a real threat to our ability to “be together.”
The second order of business? Cultural creatives might want to see if they can demonstrate to fundamentalists that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our cultural categories is NOT evidence that all hell has broken lose and that we are headed for moral collapse. We need to demonstrate (if we can and I think we can) that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our categories is another way of being a culture. It is another source for order.
One case in point here: gender categories. These categories were once quite clear. Men and women were frequently defined as mutually exclusive categories. In my (boomer) generation, men who displayed any female characteristics lost their claim to their masculinity. Gender (read “category”) conformity was policed with a terrible vigilance. Gender (read “category”) betrayal was punished savagely. Ours was a culture that terrorized people who did not honor their category into which conventional thinking (read “categorization”) had put them.
Gender categories have been rescued from this polarity. It’s no longer male / female. It’s now many kinds of maleness and femaleness, and lots of gender activity is substantially reinventing the possibilities. This transformation of the categories comes from many sources: Stonewall riots, feminism, the movies of Judd Apatow, TVs shows like Orange is the New Black, the LGBT movements. There are many forges for gender now.
To reach out to fundamentalists, this is to say, we will have to tell a historical, literary, anthropological story.
But let’s begin by giving fundamentalists their due. If you don’t have any way of thinking about gender categories except the conventional ones, it does rather look as if all hell has broken lose. We may scorn fundamentalists but from their point of view, chaos is upon us. From their point of view, sounding the alarm is the only sensible thing to do. Let’s be anthropological enough to grant that people are entitled to see the world as they do. And unless someone makes the argument to the contrary, they are entitled to revert to the traditional idea that only way to “be together” is to “be the same.” (And an Android ad is not enough to “bring them around.” Though frankly one of the reason I love this ad so much is that it does help, if only a tiny bit.)
So it’s up to us to make the anti-chaos case: that order can and does emerges from categories that are fluid, multiple and complex, that we can “be together” even when not the same.
Anyhow, whew! I can’t say this is a perfect exercise in ingenuity but my Tinderbox sort did help me think outside the categories that normally govern my thought. And this must be part of the reason why the idea of Tinderbox is so appealing. Imagine a software that helped us capture and combine notes in ways that can sometimes prove to be provocative of new categories.
Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”
I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.
Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)
Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.
If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.
This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.
In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.
The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.
My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.
Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:
And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.
Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.
At their most powerful, brands actually make culture. Creator brands, let’s call them.
Nike changed the way we thought about exercise, fitness, bodies and diet in the 1970s and 80s. Most of us look different and feel different for the work that came from this brand and those brilliant meaning-makers at Wieden + Kennedy.
A cluster of brands and industries after World War II helped create “mid century modernism” which in turn shaped how Americans lived and thought of themselves in a very fluid moment. Brands were minting fundamental ideas of who were we were, what we cared about, and how we lived.
In the present day, Uber and AirBnb are changing the way we think about travel and tourism. Netflix is changing the way we think about TV and storytelling.
More often, of course, brands are fellow travelers. They identify what’s happening in the culture and put themselves “in tune” with it.
Subaru and the agency Carmichael Lynch are now brilliantly in tune with culture. They continue to speak to (and speak for) a new feeling for community and family. Now that competitive individualism is in retreat, this is the way Subaru made itself a “brand of the moment.” (This is exceptional work and I hope the brand and agency are being showered with awards. And enjoy them. Principal Financial Group and agency TBWA now threatens to do still better work.)
Sometimes the brand resonates with culture in a painful, unconvincing way, as when a big processed food companies struggles unconvincingly to show us how “artisanal” they are. No one’s buying it, figuratively or literally. The brands of the consumer packaged goods world are really under challenge at the moment. It’s sad because they were so perfectly in tune in the first few decades after World War II.
Getting in touch with culture is hard. Creating culture is harder still. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. It takes intelligence, imagination, a virtuoso control of the organization, the message, and the moment.
The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. The brand that creates culture becomes a kind of navigational satellite in our world. It becomes one of the places from which we draw our ideas of selfhood and in the Herman Miller case, the work place. Most brands are “meanings made.” Creator brands are meaning makers. They help make the meanings that in turn make us.
With this in mind, I read with interest a wonderful essay in FastCo Design by Diana Budds about Herman Miller and its plan to change our culture. In the words of CEO Brian Walker, the firm has undertaken a
“shift from being just a contract company or just an industry brand to truly be a powerful lifestyle and consumer lifestyle brand.”
This is the language corporations use when it setting about to change culture. They talk about becoming a lifestyle brand. They are now embarked on styling life.
The trouble with this approach is that many people want to style life but they have no clue about what culture is or how to change it. And you can’t style life unless you are prepared to reckon with culture.
Too often, “lifestyle brand” means slapping a new coat of paint on the brand. Too often lifestyle branding is all “style “and no “life.” The brand remains an PET plastic soda bottle sitting on the surface of the Atlantic, incapable of any sort of real contact (thank goodness). It’s just another contribution to the detritus that flows from the land of bad marketing.
The good news is that Herman Miller hired a guy called Ben Watson (pictured here with his muse, a beautiful Burmese). Ben is a designer and, at their best, designers are good at helping connect the brand to culture. The best of them have an extraordinary combination of intelligence, imagination, strategy, craft, cunning. They grasp cultural foundations and the cultural moment. They can see culture in all it’s manifestations, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, material and emergent, and they have a way make these manifest in the brand in a way that points us in new directions, in this case away from old concepts of work and work place to new concepts of work and work place. This makes them a precious, possibly irreplaceably precious, resource. This makes them seerers where the rest of us are blind.
But it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes designers just don’t get culture. Pepsi and Tropicana hired Peter Arnell to “rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture,” and Arnell promptly engaged in what BusinessWeek called a “five week world tour of trend design houses.” (More details in Chief Culture Officer, pp. 161 and following).
This is a little like asking an astronomer to look for uncharted planets only to discover that he’s spend his time touring observatories chatting up other astronomers. Yes, of course, you can learn a lot this way, but at some point you have actually have to leave the design world bubble and talk to people who aren’t wearing really cool glasses. Anything else is threatens to deliver the provincial and parochial. Anything else is an echo chamber.
I don’t know Ben. Let me point out that there is no criticism implied or intended. For all I know, he is absolutely the most gifted “astronomer” in play and Herman Miller’s best chance to change culture. Fingers crossed! (I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have done several projects for Herman Miller. For all I know Ben is drawing on my work. In which case, god speed!)
Ben has an extraordinary Nike-esque opportunity. We are in a moment of real cultural confusion. There are several big questions in play. What is “work?” What’s a “workplace?” These things used to be defined by several pretty clear distinctions: work and home, work and play, work and life, public and private, instrumental and expressive, pragmatic and recreational, men and women, hierarchical distinctions of rank, exquisitely clear divisions of labor. nice, neat boundaries of inside and outside, them and us. These cultural meridians once so helpful in defining social life are now well blurred. Blurred? They are thoroughly tangled.
Ben could bring clarity here. He could create a space that accommodates these confusions, that enables what we hope for, and helps to “edit out” what we wish to escape. Ben can made a contribution to Herman Miller and through Herman Miller to us. He can actually clarify our culture. He can humpty-dumpty us back together again. He can help make us ready for a postmodern existence.
What’s especially interesting about Budds’ essay is the attention it gives to the way Herman Miller intends to use retail and display spaces to define the brand and through the brand the rest of us. Designers control the manifestations of culture in the world. And when we give them Herman Miller spaces (and furniture) we give them something with which to work.
Will Ben transform us? Will Herman Miller become a creator brand? It depends to some extent on how well Ben and Herman Miller understand culture. And if manifestations are designers’ strength, culture is, by and large, their weakness.
I think we are seeing public space and public events used more and more to stage the brand. Even as we avail ourselves of social media and digital content, we like to make the brand live in the “real world.” (Note to self…and anyone else who’s interested: we need a model that distinguishes all the media and messages at our disposal and shows how we can divide branding work across them.)
I was interested to see the work being done by a Canadian bank called Mojo. Here’s a photo of their interior. As a Canadian I can say with confidence that this is the first time any message even remotely like “IS U REALLY BOUT UR MONEY OR NAH” has even been by a Canadian bank.
Normally, Canadian banks prefer to look like this:
Which to be fair is it’s own very particular symbolic statement, and in its moment superbly in tune with Canadian culture.
Thanks to Gerald Forster for the photo of Ben Watson. Gerald is the founder of Here We Go Now.