Tag Archives: prediction

Time machine: a conceptual model for predicting culture

In Boston this January?
Come sit in on my course.
Here’s the outline.

Special Subject: Comparative Media Studies
Time Machine: Building a model for predicting culture
Grant McCracken
Wed-Thu, Jan 18-19, 25-26, 1-2, 03-05:00pm, 4-231

Pre-register on WebSIS and attend first class.
Listeners allowed, space permitting
Prereq: Permission of instructor Qualitative and quantitative skills.
Level: U 3 units Standard A – F Grading Can be repeated for credit

As our culture becomes more diverse and changeable, cultural prediction becomes more urgent and difficult. The point of this course is to build a model for making predictions. We will proceed in a practical way, taking on “real world problems.” How quickly could we have seen the influence Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were to have on American culture? Could we have predicted a shift in Hollywood that demoted the likes of Schwarzenegger and promoted the likes of Michael Cera? To build the model, aka “big board” or “time machine”, we have to solve theoretical and methodological problems: what is the unit of analysis, what are the best markers of adoption, what are the best metrics, how can we make and monitor predictions, how can we represent data according to best “infographic” practice? To my knowledge, a model like this has no precedent. Think of the course as something out of the early Soviet space program. The engineering will be dodgy. Failure is not unlikely. The process will be messy and frustrating. But the outcome is sure to be illuminating and instructive. Plus your heroism is guaranteed.
Contact: Grant McCracken

Harry’s Law: flourish or fail?

One test of our knowledge of contemporary culture: can we predict whether an innovation will flourish or fail?

For the record, then, I believe Harry’s Law, the show that debuted last night on NBC, will fail.

The debut suggests I may be wrong.  Harry’s Law got at 7.5 rating / 12 share, putting it ahead of the latest hit show from CBS, Hawaii Five – O.

Harry’s Law has other advantages that should give me pause.  It has a formidable talent in the person of Kathy Bates (pictured) and it was developed and written by David E. Kelley, a guy who knows a thing or two about making hit TV. 

This show has a time-warp quality.  Harry’s Law feels as if untouched by the cable effect. The rise of HBO and the participation of TNT and USA Networks has created new standards of granularity (most recently Nurse Jackie).  TV will never work its way to perfect granularity and a one to one correspondence with the world "out there."  But the ratio is changing.  The cable effect has pushed all TV, even genre TV, to new veracity.

And by this standard, Harry’s Law feels completely "sound stage," a reality created by and for the cameras.  There is veracity here, but it corresponds to the "veracity standard" as that stood in 1990. At it’s worst, this show feels a little Murder She Wrote.

To make matters worst, there is a "crusading do-gooder" thing here that is cringe-worthy. Great and noble white people coming to the aid of defenseless black people?  How very 20th century Hollywood.  It expresses the secret racism of some parties: that the downtrodden depend on them, and their secret vanity: that when people come to the aid of the downtrodden they make themselves glorious. It feels as if Kelley is skirting that horrible Hollywood construction, the one that says the point of social action is not "social action," but the celebration of the do-gooder.  (Surely, this is why so little ever comes from the Hollywood fund raiser.  By week’s end participants have a hard time remembering the point of the event because, well, the point was to revel in their own generosity, and, hankies out, that was performed brilliantly.)

There is a deeper problem.  There are moments when this show has Kelley’s signature whimsy.  Madcap stuff happens.  Weird combinations occur.  When Kelley introduced this to TV, chiefly, I believe, through Ally McBeal, it was fresh and interesting.  Kelley is one of the originators of what Lisa Schwarzbaum calls "magical comedy."

To be sure, we still like to disparate things brought together, on the screen, on the plate, in the ad, in the fashion outfit, in the interior design.  Reckless, unexpected combinations has become one of our cultural signatures.  But we have moved away from whimsy to combinations that are more raw and to use the language of art criticism, "disturbational."  By this new standard, Harry’s Law feels like culture lite.  

Ok, that’s my prediction.  I might be wrong.  I hope I am.  I take no pleasure in the internet sport of trashing strangers.  I am not holier than David E. Kelley.  He has shaped contemporary culture in ways that deserve my admiration.  

My last prediction, that The Good Guys would fail, was confirmed.  Privately, I told a colleague that Undercovers would fail.  (She may or may not be prepared to back me up.) So I am batting 2 for 2.  We shall see how I do with this one.  


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  The Good Guys.  This Blog.  here

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1998.  Pleasantville.  Entertainment Weekly.  October 30.  here.