Tag Archives: culture

Bud Caddell

Whenever I have the chance to talk to Bud Caddell, I take it. This’s because while I know the future is badly distributed (in Gibson’s famous phrase), I fervently believe it must be somewhere in the near vicinity of Bud Caddell.

In this 10 minutes of interview, Bud talks about the following things

00: 37:00 mark (~) that with his new company Nobl Collective, he is learning how to configure the culture inside a company to articulate it with the culture outside the company.

00:58:00 the digital disruption changes these things in succession

  1. culture
  2. how brands communicate
  3. how products are made
  4. the teams within the organization

1:39 On joining the world of advertising and why he left.

3:43 the thing about that very famous Oreo campaign (that it took 6 different agencies, and a lot of money). This was not the “safe to fail” experiments the world now holds dear.

4:20 companies are having to learn to both optimize and futurecast, and that these are opposing challenges.

6:00 there is a tension in the corporation between pushing the innovation team too far away or holding it too close. (Amazon is the case in point.)

6:43 Nobl believes that companies take human choice away from teams. The point of Nobl is to restore that choice.

10:20 Bud is concerned that, all the noise to the contrary, we are actually moving away from small startup entrepreneurialism. Bigness is not dying, it’s once more on the rise.

11:56 Bud is concerned that with this culture inside, the culture outside (i.e., American culture) could narrow and something like a 50s monoculture

11:18 organizations are inclined to treat employees like errant children or robots. The point of the exercise find their strength, not assume their weaknesses. Give them autonomy. (Because they can’t navigate the future, they can’t create value, without that autonomy. My words, more than Bud’s. Sorry!)

??:?? Nobl aims to construct core teams with 4 properties

  1. customer obsessed (prepared to “leave the building” to find out more
  2. closely aligned with one another
  3. autonomous, free to discover an idea and test it
  4. organized by simple rules

Thanks to Bud for the chance to chat.

I am hoping to do more of these interviews. My assumption is that we are all works in progress working on a work in progress in a work in progress, and that to listen to one another as we configure works1, works2 and work3 is interesting.

One last note on method. This interview might stand as a grievous example of “leading the witness.” I was shocked when listening to it again to hear that my questions were more about me and less about Bud. Yes, you have to start somewhere. And yes, inevitably you are going to speak from what you know. But the very point of ethnography and the thing it does so well is to discover things you don’t think and hadn’t ever thought to think. It’s always a chance, more vividly, to get out of our heads into that of the respondent. Or to put this another way, I was insufficiently curious in this interview.

 

 

Screw the gift economy, a reply to Clay Shirky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

The real message of advertising?

If the art of advertising (one of them anyhow) is closing the distance between the brand and the consumer, you can’t do much better than this.

Do we know you?  Yes, we know you.  This is sometimes the most urgent question advertising has to answer.

I’m told that the people responsible for this work at Digitas were  Michael Frease and Jeremy Bacharach.  Hats off to Jon Hall, Senior brand manager at Whirlpool  (See Dale Buss’ interview of Hall in Brand Channel here).  I would especially like to know the names of the people who did the ethnographies.  Really top notch work all around.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the magnificently talented Scott Donaton.

Creativity, innovation, and the space between cultures

iPhotoAnthropologists are drawn to places where culture is a little shaky.

Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.

But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.

This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.

iPhotoWhich brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.

I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.

And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.

Design: cycles and heroes

WJOC PhotoBill O’Connor was kind enough to send me an early comment on my recent blog post on Design and the corporation.  He has given me permission to reproduce a portion of these remarks here.  Thank you, Bill.

His remarks:

I wondered, is design in some recurrent cycle of boom and bust affected by the patronage of the essential economic engines – manufacturing, finance, IT et al?  Design by it’s essence seems to be a creature of, well, design, and like so many activities that thrive at the pleasure of the culture design seems to be frequently in need of reinventing itself, more frequently, it seems to me, than other creative, problem-solving enterprises.

When design du jour becomes unfashionable and creativity yields to manifest rationality design looses its business patron, its economic platform gets shaky and design businesses close or contract or morph into some other expression.

Maybe we’re in one of those periods now and design stars, whose lumens are dimming, are navigating to the safe haven of the corporate port. Fickle corporate patrons in their search for the next new advantage that they’re unable to conjure themselves discover and then devour these weird and wild odd-thinkers.

The predictable MO seems so let’s acquire it, keep it from our competitors, bring it in-house and mange it better – better for our purposes and our bottom line……..like capturing the butterfly, putting it in a controlled, safe space in the study and observing it and taking care of it.  We know where that goes.

The design business seems to suffer from perilous dilution by pretenders, poseurs, immitators and wannabes. The word itself seems over-extended and over applied to the point of dilution. Design is a transitive verb.

Design needs more heroes.

Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

RobertFabricant-620x415Have you seen the piece Robert Fabricant wrote for Wired as a year-end review?  I think you’ll find it both chilling and cheering.

Fabricant says “leading design firms are contracting or exiting the business.” Where did all this talent flow? Fabricant says it went to Fortune 500 companies.

Cheering?

Well, yes. This is good news for those of us who believe that the corporation is systematically challenged when it comes to capturing and thinking about culture. No, not corporate culture. I mean the body of ideas and practices with which each of us (and all of us) construct and negotiate the world. (AKA “trends” but of course so much more than merely trends.)

THIS culture is an essential knowledge for the corporation. It is the source of “black swans” and “blue oceans,” the dangers and opportunities, that confront the corporation. Mastering culture will help the corporation flourish even in a world of terrible, otherwise inscrutable dynamism. But no. The corporation prefers to treat culture as a dark matter. It knows culture is out there, but it can’t retrofit its models to account for it. The result is tragic.

So it’s good news that designers are now joining the corporation. Though we can just imagine the moments of first contact as the C-suiters look out of their princely offices over the parking lot to observe…anomalous data.  Colors, shapes and models that break the otherwise uniform sea of sensible sedans. Minis, Fiats, BWM i3, Teslas, cars that say the owner pays attention to the world around her, prizes the exquisite visual choice and the witty design decision, likes that shock of recognition when a shape in the world gives voice to an idea in our heads, who actually lives for a material culture that makes culture material.

This is not the C-suiters reaction. No, their reaction is “wait, what?” This is their idea of pattern recognition, noticing when things look, like, weird. Welcome to the designers. They are, like, weird.

I remember my first contact with designers. I was a freshly minted PhD and I went to a conference on built form staged by Setha Low. I was doing the anthropological thing, which is, when in the presence of people different from yourself, trying to guess the grammar, the culture, from which their view of the world springs. And the best I could do in the early days was to notice that designers managed a paradox that seemed beyond the rest of us (or at least me). They had their feet on the ground, even as they kept their heads in the clouds. Weird, yes. Wild, too.

Designers managed to be more or less fully domesticated, capable of adult behavior and professional careers, even as they harbored an enfant sauvage within, a creature who put creativity above conventional niceties, who was in fact not so domesticated after all. To use the cliché, designers somehow managed to think inside the box and live outside of it.  This impressed me deeply.

Which brings us to:

Chilling?

Is there something chilling about the fact the design is now taking up residence in the corporation? I think there might be. For all these years, designers kept a careful distance. They were in but not of the world of business. But now, if Fabricant is correct, they are at risk of falling into the gravitation field of the corporation, into what for some may be an incinerating embrace.

What if we are looking at the domestication of design, the end of its ability to think in restless, anarchic ways, the very extinction of the discipline as the fount of creativity in our midst. Those of you who have the ethnographic data, please do comment.  Do you see any of the early signs? Designers getting complacent? People going home at 5:00? The end of that thrilling charrette-mentality where it’s all hands on deck and we’ll sleep when we have to, eat when we must. The real sign may be this: when the designer’s car in the parking lot begin to go out, now good grey sedans, no longer colorful, provocative, counter-expectational “vehicles” for passengers of any kind. Then we will know the thing is done, the field is dead.

I suggest designers think of this as a hostage negotiation. They must insist on a trade. We the designers will bring you this precious knowledge, the ability to use design thinking and cultural knowledge, if and only if we may remain an edgy, disturbational, counter-intuitive presence in your midst.

More probably, the outcome will look like this. The corporation will hold designers in its thrall for a couple of years. Then two things will happen. Noticing how miserable they are, some designers will leave. The corporation will see they have so wounded the golden goose that culture and creativity is no longer forthcoming. It will then turn into a willful child, throwing away its “broken toy” and moving on to some new enthusiasm. Released from their Babylonian captivity, designers will return eventually to form.  And the world will be, like, weird again. And wild.

post script

I set this post to Darrel Rhea for comments and he came back with a beautifully observed response.  I will post this tomorrow.  Please come back!

Secrets of Key and Peele

iu-3I started watching an episode of Key and Peele (Comedy Central, Wednesday, 10:30) recently.

Before long I got mesmerized by a movement between two things:

1. how good the performance is, how agile is their mastery of contemporary culture, how detailed and exacting is the performance. There’s apparently no place these two can’t go. And, in the old metaphor, they go not as tourists but as anthropologists.

AND

2. the point of the skit.  It was funny. But not so funny that it rewarded the length to which K&P played it out.  Like every other viewer, I could see where the skit was going and now I was obliged to sit through the mechanical production of the joke.

The smaller problem is clear. Everyone gets the joke sooner than we used to.  A great river of content has run through us and we get good at consuming it.  So good that we can reverse engineer most anything and see where it is going.  But jokes especially in skit comedy come wrapped in a certain format. For practical reasons, and perhaps for cultural ones, they have to run for a certain duration.  In the old days, this was fine.  We were working hard to get the joke.  These days it feels like a trial.

The larger solution is, I think, is that tension between 1 and 2 with which we opened and that mesmerizing movement between them.  We need this movement and it works, possibly, because it takes us between two intellectual operations, mapping the joke and watching the performance.

Now it doesn’t matter how labored the joke is.  The “other half” of the skit, the cultural performance and passage, sustains us.  As does the movement between joke and performance which is just so interesting.

To say how and why the movement works so well you would have to be a cognitive psychologist or someone with ready access to a MRI. It’s something to do with the effects of a serial continuity.  Two things the run against one another but in parallel. Novelty interrupting continuity and vice versa.  Or something.

It’s a mystery. But an essential mystery, one that helps us see how culture works these days.

Word herds: are they changing and why?

Get_On_Up_posterRichard Corliss describes Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in Get On Up as something that “radiates sex, drive, menace and spirit.”

Oh, I thought, that’s kinda new.  Normally, a series like this (“sex, drive, menace and spirit”) would have a little more redundancy.  The “word herd” repeated itself to aid comprehension.  In effect, the terms in the word herd meant roughly the same thing.

Words in the herd might even be near or actual synonyms.  Thus the performance might be said to be “deft, subtle, nuanced.”  The first term sets up the meaning, the last one spikes it.  (To use a volleyball metaphor.)

But these days it is much more likely to see word herds that are diverse, with meanings working not together but happily in opposition.  Each word does it’s own work.  These word herds are heterogeneous.  If terms used to be synonyms, now they are a little closer to antonyms.  And the pleasure of reading comes less from going “Oh, that’s what she means.  Got it.” to having to read the whole thing through, admiring the bumper-car effect of unruly language.  Good writers aim for whip lash.

The methodological question: could we examine a large body of texts and see if indeed word herds are changing?  The tricky part, I’m guessing, picking word herds out of millions of words of text.  If this problem can be solved, then the question is whether there is some technique for judging the semantic distance between terms.  What we are looking for, for the sake of this suspicion, is a “before” with relatively little distance and an “after” with lots of it.

Not to rush things, but I think there probably confirmation is waiting to happen.  And not to really rush things, but my guess is that word herds are more heterogeneous for the same reason that so many things in our culture are more heterogeneous.

If once we were monolithic as a social and a cultural order, now we are various.  And we are learning to live with this variousness.  Homogeneous word herd are really training wheels of a kind.  They were designed help us grasp the meaning of a text.  And now they feel like a tedium tax the author is forcing upon us, as an unreasonable condition of entry.

It does feel like everyone is getting smarter.  Certainly, and against the odds, popular culture is getting smarter and this lifts all boats.  But the reason might be there in the everyday act of thinking.  There was a time when we staggered beneath a weight of unanswered questions.  Yes, we could go to the library and find an encyclopedia, but, Dude, really?  All that indeterminacy created, to shift my metaphor, a film, a gauze.  Meaning was hard to see.  Distinctions hard to make.  So it was left to the author to make everything clear, definite and precise.  Got it?

Got it???  How laborious.  Now that we can answer almost any question almost instantaneously, some of that film is gone.  The world is windexed.  The homogeneous word herd just feels like we are being struck about the head and shoulders by a schoolmaster who resents the fact that we are more interested in stray and playful meanings than his lesson plan.  This is language acting like genre, setting up meaning over and over again to remove all doubt…in the process removing all surprise.  We don’t need training wheels.  Not any more.

This is a question for people with methodological skills I do not have.  Maybe Tom Anderson  might care to have a look.  Or perhaps Russ Bernard might have a student who cares to take this on.   Please, if you have a way of solving this problem, sing out!

From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

Omnicom and Publicis: their kingdom for an anthropologist

john-wren-1_416x416We break our usual Saturday silence to bring you this astonishing quote from John Wren.

It was issued yesterday as the head of Omnicom discussed the failure of the proposed merger with Publicis.

Apparently, the causes went beyond tax and regulatory challenges.

“We knew there would be differences in corporate cultures of Omnicom and Publicis.  I know now that we underestimated the depths of these cultural differences. I want to emphasize these were differences of corporate not national culture.”

Very smart lawyers were working on the tax and regulatory issues.  If only they had had an anthropologist working on the cultural ones.

Source for quote: Laurel Wentz in Ad Age, see the full coverage here.

Feminism, how far?

LittleSnapperOver the weekend, I gave a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, my old stomping grounds.

My task: to cover some of the changes that have happened in culture since I left the ROM in the early 80s.

How our culture defines women, that has changed immensely.  But how immensely?  How far have we got.  I presented the following images as a way of suggesting that we have actually stopped defining women as women.

I ended this part of my talk with this slide:

Ember

 

And as I ended with this conclusion, a little voice in my head said “but is this true?”

It sounds plausible.  Even as it is riddled with problems.

Someone is sure to object that gender is defined by nature.  They are obliged to explain how many variations there are on the “women” theme in the world.

“Exactly!” others will say.  “There is no single way of being female, but there are 12 (or 120) variations.  So when you tell me someone is a woman, I can assume that she is defined by one of the 12 (120) variations.  So gender still defines identity.”  This might work.  It might be a better argument.

But I think if we look at the trajectory, it probably fair to say that we are at least moving towards a time when knowing that someone is a woman won’t tell us very much about her.

Here are the slides with which I set up the slide above.

charlies-angels-colors

I started  with Charlie’s Angels.  Remember.  These characters all came with an “identity.”  One was the sexy one.  One was the sporty one.  One was the classy one.  As if a woman had to choose.  (Or viewers were so dim, you didn’t dare confuse them with anything more complicated.)

Satc-sex-and-the-city-1282776-1280-1024

The next slide was this one: Sex and the City.  This characters are still defined by a kind of character genre.  (One is the sexy one.  One is the classy one.)  But the characters are more full blooded, more individuated.

Charlie-s-Angels-charlie-27s-angels-217248_1024_768

 

Next up, I used this slide.  When Charlie’s Angels was recast and presented as a movie, we got characters who were less defined by character (and gender) and still more individuated.

bachelorette07

Perfect.  These characters are not standing on ceremony.  They are not constrained by gender expectation.  They are not constrained by much of anything.

0101_HBO_Girls_S1_615x335

I ended with Girls.  These women are wrestling with gender issues to be sure.  But they are not much constrained by them.  As Mary Waters says of ethnicity in America: it’s a matter of choice, not biology, history or community.  These women have chosen who they are.  And they are largely and increasingly free to choose who they are.

And today we end with a new feature.  A poll to see what you think.  Please vote!

 

 

Contemporary culture: 25 years of change in 15 minutes

In the early 1990s, I founded and ran the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.

On Saturday, I’m going back to the ROM to reflect on some of the changes that have taken in culture in the last 25 years.

And it’s dizzying to see how much is now changing: the home and the family, the way we think about women, the revolution taking place in TV, the way we are now defining the self and the group.  (I have just 15 minutes to talk, so it’s a short list.)

As you will see, this presentation is  less about technology (the thing with which most people lead nowadays) and concentrates much more on the cultural changes that have taken place.  These are, I would submit, every big as large and astonishing as the tech changes.

You can see the presentation here on YouTube.   Like most everyone, my speaking style has shifted from too many words on the screen to images.  The burden of exposition falling to the speaker (me) when speaking (on Saturday).  Apologies when this makes the deck a little cryptic.  Please do come join us if you are in Toronto this weekend.

Cultural arbitrage

This video by Ingrid Michaelson, called Girls Chase Boys, uses this video by Robert Palmer called Simply Irresistible.

If intellectual arbitrage is the movement of meanings or models from one academic field to another, cultural arbitrage is the movement of meanings or models from one part of culture to another.

So Michaelson moves the theme, the meme, the dream out of Palmer and uses it for new purposes. Men become sexual objects (where before it was women).  Michaelson describes an independence from men (where before it was Palmer claiming a “dependence” on  women). The idea of a sexual object is put in play.  Our culture changes course…a little.

This is a complicated maneuver.  A cultural artifact is being created out of existing cultural materials.  With a twist.  Meanings are being lifted, changed and reapplied.  (Something burrowed, something blue.)

Sampling is the simplest example of cultural arbitrage.  Jay-Z took a show tune from the Broadway production of Annie and dropped it into his song “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”  This is not the first thing you would expect to hear in the music of self proclaimed “Marcy Projects hustler” but it worked beautifully, giving a strange vitality to both the song and the sample.

Michaelson had finished her song when she saw the Robert Palmer video and went, “oh.”  Somehow you just know at once that something when transplanted will give off new meanings.

The academic world has spend a lot of the time thinking of cultural arbitrage as a matter of “appropriation.”  Who owns the original?  Is this originator properly acknowledged and compensated?  This is an important question…though I am not sure why we felt we had to devote the whole of the 1990s to talking about it.

But the bigger, more pressing question is how to take advantage of  cultural arbitrage.  The Onion does a fine job.  After all, most metaphor and a lot of humor turns on arbitrage.

If I may quote myself, here’s what I said in Culturematic about what may be my favorite example of arbitrage:

Some years ago, The Onion pictured Alan Greenspan and his Federal Reserve Board team destroying the penthouse of the Beverly Hills Hotel.  In their “coverage,” The Onion gives us a dispassionate treatment of televisions being kicked in,  mattresses hurled from the balcony and the inevitable police intervention.

“Monday’s arrest is only the latest in a long string of legal troubles for the controversial Greenspan, who has had 22 court dates since becoming Fed chief in 1987. Economists recall his drunken 1994 appearance on CNN’s Moneyline, during which he unleashed a profanity-laden tirade against Bureau of Engraving & Printing director Larry Rolufs and punched host Lou Dobbs when he challenged Greenspan’s reluctance to lower interest rates. In November 1993, he was arrested after running shirtless through D.C. traffic while waving a gun. And some world-market watchers believe the international gold standard has still not recovered from a May 1998 incident in which he allegedly exposed his genitals on the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The Tokyo case is still pending.”

Thus did The Onion bring together two things: the dour keeper of the economy and the self-indulgent chaos of the rock star.  It performed a careful act of transposition.  Every line of The Onion “story” is lifted from a typical newspaper report.  Journalistic details are lovingly preserved.  (“The Tokyo case is still pending.”)  Only the names and occupations are changed.

Some of the power of cultural arbitrage comes from that double movement it inflicts on us.  As when we read this passage, the meaning takes and then fails.  We transfer the meaning and then stop transferring it.  We say, “Yes, got it.  Greenspan as a rock star” and then we say, “No, this is impossible.  I can’t think this!

Arbitrage is an engine of creativity.  And often the trick is to bring together parts (aka meanings) of our culture that rarely go together.  As in the case of this account of the Fed on a rampage.  It takes an outrageous act of imagination to glimpse the possibility.  And then we delight in the difficulty of thinking it.

But some cultural arbitrage comes from much smaller, more subtle acts of comparison.  Finally, we can collapse this strategy to the vanishing point.  As when Stephen King talks about the horror of discovering that everything in a home has been replaced with a perfect replica.  No real difference, accompanied by a whiff of oddity, this is the small act of arbitrage, but it carries, as King shows, big effects.

Popular culture is in the arbitrage business, as one actor is cast against type, or a picture is made to migrate across genres.  Morning television is in the arbitrage business when it puts Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell in the same studio.  It’s the differences and the emergent harmonies that make this show work while others struggle.

Speaking of TV, here’s another outtake from Culturematic.  It shows a casting machine for NCIS.  The idea here is to see what difference a different set of actors would make.  The sweet spot is in the middle of the chart.  (Don Cheadle territory). The alternatives close in are insufficiently different to release much frisson.  The ones far out (towards the bottom of the chart) are too different for the narrative to hold.

recasting NCIS

We spent so much time debating appropriation that we have yet to make a systematic study of cultural arbitrage.  But this is one of the workhorses of contemporary culture.  And with conscious study we can make it still more productive.