How to listen for the future: A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

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This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

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Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

how to make TV now (the “whole world” approach)

Natalie Chaidez is the show runner for Hunters (Mondays, 10:00 eastern, SyFy). Recently Sean Hutchinson asked her what she was aiming for.

Our idea of aliens is cliched, she replied. She wanted to “flip everything you think you know going into an alien series.”

Mission accomplished. The aliens on Hunters are not your standard-issue “monsters from outer space.” Monsters, yes, but complicated monsters. We can’t quite tell what they are up to. Bad stuff, yes. But the exact whathow and why of their monstrosity is unclear.

Chaidez explains:

I wanted to do something different. That led me to a neurologist from Brown University named Seth Horowitz, and he and I collaborated about the planet, their anatomy, and how they’d operate on earth. It gave it a level of originality because we approached it from the inside out.

Hutchinson:

Why did you want to dive in and be that thorough if most people won’t know those details?

Chaidez:

Because it’s fun! But you also just want to know so it feels cohesive. 90 percent of the stuff Seth and I talked about will probably never make it into the show.

This is interesting because it breaks a cardinal rule of the old television. And this is do exactly as much as you must to fill the screen…and not a jot more. To invent a world and leave 90% of it un-shot, well, we can just imagine the reaction of a standard-issue producer.

“It’s my job to make sure shit like this never happens! [Wave cliche cigar in air for emphasis] Artists! You have to watch ’em every goddamn second!”

This is a parsimony rule of the kind that capitalism loves. No expenditure must ever be “excess to requirement.” Some producers are uncomplicated monsters. It’s their job to make sure that creative enterprises are starved of the resources necessary to turn popular culture into culture. It’s what they like to call their “fiduciary obligation.”

The parsimony rule helps explain that dizzying sensation we get when we go to a TV production or a film set, and notice how “thin” everything is. Not rock but papermache! Not an entire world but just enough of it. An universe made to go right to the edge of what the camera can see, and not an inch beyond.

What Chaidez and Horowitz have done goes completely beyond requirement. They made an entire world, much of which we will never see.

Why?

This could be a case of the recklessness of the new TV. With the rise of the showrunner, people are no longer making TV as half-hour sausages. They have bigger ambitions and sometimes bigger pretensions. Budgets will bloom!

Or is there something going on here?

I think the Chaidez-Horowitz approach, let’s call it the “whole world” approach, has several assumptions (each of which, if warranted, is a way to justify additional expenditure):

1. A pre-text is better than a “pretext”

Our standards of richness, complexity and subtlety on TV have risen. “Thin” TV is now scorned. We want our culture to feel fully realized and in the case of the story telling, this means that we want the story to feel as if it predates the production. Novelists are good at this. But TV, ruled by cigar-waving producers, has been less good. Too often, the story world feels served up. Something tells us that it will disappear the moment the narrative has moved on, that it will cease the moment the camera is sated.  (For the pre-text impulse in the worlds of computers and cuisine, see my post of Steve Jobs and Alice Waters and their “exquisite choice” capitalism.)

2. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan interest

When we sense that the showrunner has taken a whole world approach, we engage. Shafts of light show through. We begin to try to construct the whole world from the available evidence. (We used to do this at the Harvard Business School. We would give students pieces of the spread sheet which they would then reconstruct.)

The “whole world” approach is a great way of turning viewers into fans. The moment we detect a whole world behind the narrative, we rouse ourselves from couch potato status and begin to examine faint signals very carefully. What does this stray remark tell us? If X, then we can assume the larger world looks like this. But if Y, we can construct something altogether different. (Remember when Star Trek viewers began to map the ship. The showrunners were astonished.) This is astounding engagement, one that every showrunner dreams of. And all we have to do, it turns out, is engage in complete acts of invention instead of “good enough for television” ones. And “good enough for television” (aka “partial world” TV) is a place no one wants to live anymore. It’s always less than the sum of its parts. That way lies creative entropy and fan discouragement.

3. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan fiction

Whole worlds made available in shafts of light invite something more than engagement. They say to the transmedia fan, “here’s a place to start. Make this glimpse your point of departure. Or that one.” Whole worlds make a thousand flowers bloom. And this too is the stuff of showrunner fantasy. To have fans who love your work so much they seek to invent more of it. To make work so provocative it sends fans racing to their key board, can there be any greater compliment? There is a whole world paradox, too. It says “the more complete your world, the more worlds it will help birth.”

4 a “whole world” approach is generative of transmedia

As Henry Jenkins has helped us see, transmedia is that extraordinary creation in contemporary culture where certain stories are so prized, they attract many authors. Eventually, the “one true text” gives way to a story that lives in all its variations, on all its media.  Now that our whole world is generating lots of fan fiction, it has like William Gibson’s Mona Lisa, slipped the confines of a single medium and put out into a vastly larger imaginative universe. Another paradox then. World worlds give rise to an entire universe. No, our cigar chomping producer cannot “monitize” all these variations but really that’s no longer the point. This will come…but if and only if you make something that our culture decides is worthy of its contributions. The life of a cultural “property” depends as Jenkins, Ford and Green say, on the willingness of the fan to distribute it. But as I was laboring to say yesterday, it also depends on the willingness of the fan to contribute to it.

It’s hard to write this post and not think how much it evokes the spirit of USC. First, there’s Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the USC Annenberg School. Then there’s Geoffrey Long, recently appointed Creative Director for the World Building Media Lab at USC. Geoffrey is my guru when it comes to the question of building worlds. And just today, I got the very good news that Robert V. Kozinets has been appointed the Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair in Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication at USC.

I am sometimes asked where people should go to study contemporary culture. Now I know.

The ‘wicked grin’ test (a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

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