Tag Archives: knowledge

Bosco 3.0: ethnography and design to the rescue

I’ve been thinking some more about Bosco, the kid who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

It’s a problem that demands anthropology, ethnography, design thinking, strategy, marketing, several of the intellectual practices we now have on tap.  (See the preliminary posts here and here.)

One approach: transfer the knowledge possessed by kids of privilege.  So that Bosco does not suffer that pernicious disadvantage of constrained horizons or what we might call a “cosmopolitan gap.”

There’s an inclination to say, “Perfect!  It’s a simple transfer.  We find out what Tommy (child of privilege) knows and send this knowledge to Bosco.”

EmberBut of course it’s not this simple.  Knowledge is not data organized according to a single scheme.  It is not something that exists independent of communities and practices of knowledge.

So it’s NOT the case that Bosco’s knowledge of the world looks like this on a grid of knowledge.  (B = the things on the grid of knowledge that Bosco grasps.)


Tommy’s richer knowledge of the world does NOT look like this:.  (Where T would stand for the [many more] things Tommy understands.)


So it’s NOT the case that all we need to do is to communicate Tommy’s knowledge to Bosco.

Instead, knowledge is variously assembled and framed so that what is knowledge in one system may not show as knowledge in another system.  Or knowledge in one system may show in another, but it takes on a new place or significance.  This is an elaborate way of saying we don’t just need to know what Tommy knows but what Bosco knows.  And then we have to build a translation table.  Not a Rosetta stone, but something more complicated and calculating.  Less a translation table, more a translation machine.

Notice that we are not taking the postmodernist bait and sliding into that sophomoric relativism that says Tommy and Bosco live in  worlds so different that communication or transfer is impossible.  This is good fun to debate in a university seminar.  But when it used to frustrate our rescue mission, specious nonsense turns dangerous too.

Off the bat, I can see two ways that cultural creatives can help.

architecture of knowledge

This is what ethnography is for, after all.  We can sit down, and capture the categories of Bosco’s knowledge, how these go together, what assumptions they rely on.  We can build a rough model of the inside of Bosco’s head.  And with this we can begin to figure out when, whether and how to begin the transfer of knowledge from Tommy to Bosco.  We noted in previous post that this transfer will have real implications for Bosco’s relationships with friends and family, but that’s not the problem we are solving here.  Our task is to discover what Bosco knows and the way he thinks and to use this to prepare the way for a transfer of knowledge.

visualization of knowledge

This is the really interesting part.  And now I am at the edge of my competence.  The idea here is to represent Bosco’s existing knowledge and to help Bosco see how new knowledge attaches.  Because as we know knowledge is adhesive.  This is why it’s easier to get knowledge if you have knowledge.  And of course knowledge is also hierarchical.  It’s hard to learn some things if you don’t already know other more general things.

This is a job for the designer, to create a visualization of what Bosco knows and to use that to introduce him to new knowledge and show how he can “attach” it to existing knowledge.  Where necessary we will build some intermediating pieces of knowledge, so that Bosco can learn something for which his existing system of knowledge does not yet have points for adhesion.  (Or we hold back knowledge until other knowledge is in place.)

Effectively, the cultural creatives will occupy a lab that might as well be called “the inside of Bosco’s head.”  We will know what he knows, what he is ready to learn, and what he has to learn to learn something new.  We will constantly be working on a grand visualization that helps Bosco assimilate new and useful Tommy knowledge.

These are thoughts only.  Your comments, please!

Looking for balance in the Morrison Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared in MISC in the Winter Issue.

Culture Quiz

My nephew is up for an interview at the college of his choice.  Everyone is thrilled.  His speciality is the classics so I am no use at all.

But what, I wondered, would be a good way of quizzing someone about how much they knew about contemporary culture.

As it happened, I was working on a Keynote deck for which I produced the image above.  It has several bits and pieces.  We could just to hand an applicant the image and invite them to comment.  This would be one of several “quizzes” and is not meant to be the only useful test.  

There are no right answers.  But I think we would be able to judge very swiftly whether someone had depth, range, intelligence, and what do they call it in tennis, “touch.”   I want you to identify each of these images and tell us how and why what they represent matters to contemporary culture.  You should be able to speak for 5 minutes on each image…and that’s just for starters.  

Please have a go and if you feel like banding off a thousand words I would be happy to put together a set of judges with the winner getting a Minerva award.  

Or just work out your answers “in your head” and let’s discuss our various answers in a later post.  

Click on the image to see the whole test!

I can’t supply attribution for these photos.  If you recognize where they came from originally, please let me know!

What business are we in? Just business, actually

A couple of days ago, in the WSJ, I noticed an ad for Chevron.  They claimed to be getting out of the dirty energy business into the clean energy business.   The other day I was surprised to see that Nike Plus has embraced a new model that dispenses with one of their revenue sources, the chip.

Nimble business are learning to abandon the existing business model before someone rips it out from under them.

This marks a move away from the literalism of capitalism.  The old corporation was founded to make a particular widget and these widgets came to define this corporation’s essential concept of itself, its identity, sometimes its very soul.  People who made heavy equipment saw themselves (sexist language warning) as "tractor guys forever."  A company like this might branch into monorails, say.  But they were unlikely ever to contemplate book binding.

But I think that has to change.  Especially if we are a big corporation.  To survive in a really dynamic marketplace, we have to be prepared to reinvent ourselves very substantially.  That might be the only path to survival.  So the corporation can no longer say, "we’re in this business."  The best it can hope for is, "we’re in business."

Even Theodore Levitt’s famous dictum, "What business are you in?" is beginning to feel a little literal.  He asked this question of the people who owned the trains.  When they came up with the wrong answer ("the train business?"), the Professor was obliged to chide them, "You are in the transporation business."

Yes, Levitt helped them out of the literalism, but "the transportation business" is still too narrow.  Even this larger idea is too small.

The trouble here is that it is a deep familiarity with one particular industry or sector that makes some companies so good at what they do.  The devil is in the details, and these companies know the details all the way down to the nitty gritty.  This matters a lot less now that so much is outsourced, but this problem remains a problem.  And I intend to set it aside.

I think every company has a purview.  This is the part of the world that’s visible while it gets on with business as presently defined.  (If we make heavy equipment, we can "see" monorails. Bookbinding, probably not.)  The corporation doesn’t act on everything it sees in this purview but it has this ambit or peripheral knowledge.  The purview is all the knowledge the corporation ends up knowing in order to know things it really needs to know about.  Whew.

The trouble with the purview is that it may be partial but it’s just so very available.  Indeed, the purview may even masquerade as a comprehensive view of the world.  In any case, this is where the average corporation is going to go looking for new opportunities when it is having second thoughts about its present ones.

Bad luck.  The purview is spectacularly partial knowledge.  Nothing appears here unless it happens to be near useful knowledge.  Or let’s put this another way.  The corporation is a kind of glass bottom boat.  It makes a window on the sea.  But what gets into this window depends entirely on proximity. The new opportunity, the new industry, may well not be visible from here.

We know that there are very good reasons for the corporation to have something like a 360 degree view of the world.   After all, blind side hits can come from anywhere.  To pick them up early, we need to be looking everywhere.  But now it looks as if there is a positive reason to have a comprehensive view of the world.  Only this will guarantee that we see all our options in the event that we will have to up and suddenly change our stripes.

And this will take a Chief Culture Officer and a big board.


Levitt, Theodore.  1986. Marketing Imagination, New, Expanded Edition. Free Press.

McCracken, Grant. 2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  Basic Books.