Tag Archives: MIT

The rise of a celebrity culture

These images are from the Pantheon database at the Macro Connections group at Media Lab at MIT. They map what the Media Lab calls “historical cultural production” and the relative proportion of famous people by time, place and category.

I asked the database to report on fame in the US for three periods:
1900 – 1910
1900 – 1950
1900 – 2010

The most striking results:

Mattering more:


singers and musicians


Mattering less:


natural scientists and other academics

US in the period 1900 – 1910


Pantheon -  1900-1910.png

US in the period 1900 – 1950

Pantheon - Visualizations 1900 -1950.png

US in the period 1900 – 2010

Pantheon - Visualizations.png

The glib thing to say is that the sky is falling, that we are a culture that cares more about celebrities than “serious people” and this must be taken as a measure of our essential triviality and an indication that the end is nigh.

Intellectuals especially like to recite the line from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, the one that says that too many of our celebrities are “famous for being famous.” And it feels nice to stand on our high horse and scorn contemporary culture, but it’s not very instructive or intelligent. It just makes us feel good.

In point of fact, no one is famous for being famous. At a minimum they speak to and for something in our culture, and only thus do they climb from the obscurity that otherwise holds the rest of us captive (and especially and increasingly scornful academics). (Boorstin was a fine and incredibly useful historian but this his most memorable phrase was not his best moment. I believe it stands as a Kuhnian confession of the limits of his paradigm, as if to say, “I can’t understand celebrity so I am going to say it isn’t anything.” Historian, heal thyself.)

An anthropological point of view obliges us to take a culture at its face and reckon with what it is, not what we think it should or shouldn’t be. This work has yet to be undertaken, but a few notes:

  1. Celebrities serve at our collective pleasure in a way that other elites do not. When we are done with a celebrity we are so very done with them. Now we scorn them as “has beens.”
  2. Celebrities are superbly adaptable. We need a different model of selfhood, a new version of maleness, a transformed model of what is “funny,” “charming” or “tragic,” there is an actor out there somewhere who is prepared to serve. This makes celebrity culture a useful “complex adaptive system” in the language of complexity theory. We can swap in the new, and swap out the old, easily and without any real cost (to us). (The cost to celebrities of our capriciousness is cruel. Do we care? We don’t care. We make French monarchs look like models of compassion.)
  3. Individual celebrities are sometimes highly experimental and we should signify this as the US Air Force does with an “X.” When an airplane is called the X15 the Air Force is warning us that it is experimental and not to be completely surprised if it falls from the sky. Why not call him XRussellCrowe (and watch for flying telephones).


Source: Yu, A. Z., et al. (2016). Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies. Scientific Data 2:150075. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2015.75

Thanks to the Macro Connections group at MIT.

Give the database a spin here.

Thanks to Thomas Ball for the find and the head’s up. Hat’s off to Cesar Hidalgo and the Media Lab. We have too little data on culture in motion and America is nothing if not a culture in motion.

Kickstarting kickerstarter (new models of meaning and value)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media: once wild, now tame

Bud Caddell asks “Are we seeing a permanent stagnation for social media?”  He uses Google Insights to show that several terms are now beginning to plateau.  Nice spot.

And this may be.  Perhaps stagnation is upon us.

I tell you what I was thinking at the Futures of Entertainment at MIT this year.  “This has gone from a wild problem to a domesticated problem.”  By which I believe I meant that social media used to be extremely hard to think.  What it was, how it work, what difference it would make to communication, sociality, and culture?  Who knew?

Wild problems are problems that we “can’t quite get a handle on.”  What’s the vocabulary?  What are the terms?  Does anyone agree on the meanings of the terms.  We spend a lot of time saying things like “tell me that last part again.”  We spend a lot of time using Google to search for intelligent thoughts and comments.

But eventually this is terra cognito.  We get it in large and in small.  This is not to say that we don’t have lots of developments to look forward to.  But the basic shape of the phenomenon is clear.  And this means we start to slow in our Google search activity.  It also means that MIT discussion is vastly more productive, but it is a little less “all over the place.”

Bud’s right.  This is a kind of stagnation.  But I would prefer to think of it as domestication.  We have made this topic more fit for human habitation.  But of course it will go feral from time to time.  And we will have to look to the likes of Bud and other courageous players to make it sensible again.  But this idea has come out of the cold.


Caddell, Bud.  2009.  Behold the plateau of social media.  What Consumes Me. Dec. 22.  here.


Thanks to Bud for the image (now lost, see note below).

Thanks to Ana Domb for helping me design and execute the website, now in something like it’s final form.  This also marks my liberation from TypePad, my move to WordPress.  What a pleasure it is to live in a more sensible, reliable world.

Note: this post was lost about a year ago thanks to the unashamed incompetence of Network Solutions.  It was retrieved from the web yesterday and I am reposting it today December 24, 2010.