My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.” This was both too grand and untrue. Fine for politicians but not websites.
So now it’s “How to make culture.” For the moment. Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.” Is that better? I can’t tell. Please let me know.
Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV. And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators. Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.
All of this is culture made by someone. And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly. Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this. Anyhow, I’m going to try.
I have four convictions. Open to discussion and disproof.
1) that our culture is changing. Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple. Our culture is getting better.
I have believed in this contention for many years. Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto. (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it. “It’s not popular culture anymore. Forget the adjective. It’s just culture.”)
This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all. Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument. And the voices were many. (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal. I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)
My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon. To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced. The wasteland was flowering. The intellectuals were wrong.
2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture. So what are the new rules?
I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules. See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture. Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.
3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.
This argument is I think much discussed and well understood. We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology. What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive? We are beginning to see. Watch for codification here too. (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)
4) We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.
I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely. Two things here. 1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments. 2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.” Guru, please. Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.
I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem. Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want. I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion. They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.
To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.