Managing cultural complexity, 3 options courtesy of Tom Friedman, Chance the Rapper, and Maggie Siff

(Originally published Feb. 16 on Medium)

Tom Friedman was interviewed by Al Hunt on Charlie Rose Tuesday night. He was pitching his new book: Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. And he offered, as he always does, a modular understanding of the world.

There are, Friedman says, three things driving our acceleration. I always feel a certain ambivalence when listening to Friedman anatomize the world in this way These “modules,” let’s call them, are both disturbing and useful. Disturbing because they feel like intellectual decelerations, the world too simplified. Useful because these modules do give him coverage and breadth. And that’s the good thing about Friedman. He has a courage for coverage.

The intellectual strategy here is to “chunk” the great complexity of the world into thinkable parts. And when Friedman gives us a module, we are meant to treat this almost as a digital icon that signals the existence of an understanding more fully treated and crafted elsewhere. Take this as a placeholder, Friedman seems to be saying. (And he says this as much in manner as in content. He rushes through his exposition as if to insist that we consult the larger argument.) Still it feels sometime like a “near thing,” as the English say.

Things are more appealing when Friedman begins to put the modules together. And this he does as well as anyone. Because lots of people don’t even try. We live in our silos. We work from our silos. People ask for our advice and we proceed as if it doesn’t matter that all we know are our silos.

But of course it does matter. Especially in a world as dynamic as our present one, so filled with black swans and other disruptions. The good thing about Friedman is that he accepts that he should be talking about most everything if he wants us to take seriously his treatment of anything. Who else is doing this? Not many people. (My one complaint about Friedman coverage: not nearly enough about the cultural matters here. This is a blind spot.)

But surely we need to cultivate Friedman’s courage. Because there are more and more silos. So mastery of one silo gives us less and less. To make matters worse, the silos are coming alive, so to speak. They are increasingly conscious. They know about themselves. (Which wasn’t always true by any means.) They are better at spotting their limitations and blind spots. They are more mobile. To make matters still worse, they know about other silos and they are prepared to visit these competitors without permission or notice or any sort of sympathy. (In the contemporary world, disruption is never not the plat du jour. I was giving a talk in the investment world recently and I thought to say, “somewhere out there there is a disruption with our name on it.” A hush of recognition fell upon the room.)

The problem is not just achieving breadth and coverage. The problem is also the skill, the nimbleness with which we can move from top to bottom, and back again. It’s a question of control of focus even as we change the focal plane (and metaphor, sorry!). Can we move faultlessly up and down? The historical community prizes people who are nimble in this way. (I’m reading Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop. Holy Toledo!)

Is this part of any curriculum? Is anyone training us to hold understanding even as we scale? If you watched Chance the Rapper on the Grammys, you got to hear someone who has figured out how to manage scale. (His Someday in Paradise, not performed, is even more remarkable. By my count, it changes “altitude” 15 times.) But as far as I know, Chance the Rapper isn’t teaching anywhere. Though clearly he should be. (Somewhere out there, there is [or ought to be] an academic chair with his name on it. Someday…in paradise.)

But the problem is not just a) knowledge side to side and b) knowledge made manageable even as we scale. The problem is also knowledge writ broad and fine. This is, I venture to say, the single most pressing problem for communicating in our new culture. The advent of better story telling gives us the ability to speak with great nuance. But not everyone has risen to the new literacy. There are still some people who are using the old rules to read TV and Hollywood and every other kind of culture content. They find the new culture a little daunting, impenetrable even.

The solution is broad plus fine. We want big fat themes that are sit unmistakable at the opening of the story “view corridor.” And then we want a series of less obvious story points built into the view corridor and moving away by stages until we get to the far horizon where plot points are vanishingly subtle. Something for everyone.

This allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Popular culture is allowed to get better, so to speak. Eventually, it drops the adjective. It becomes culture plain and simple. But even as it becomes something Matthew Arnold would admire, it remains stoutly democratic, the sort of thing that is intelligible to readers who like things kept simple. (And all of us are that reader some time. This is pop culture’s holiest cause, its deepest promise. No viewer left behind.)

Our case in point here could be Maggie Siff who was interviewed by John Micklethwait on the same Charlie Rose episode that gave us Thomas Friedman. Siff was talking about her role on the FX show Billions. This is a show with themes big and unmistakeable. Two men contesting. But how thrilling to hear Siff talk about how her role. There’s no actorly pretense, no ‘observe how impossibly sensitive is my craft,’ just a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate treatment of “Wendy Rhoades,” the woman she becomes.

As popular culture got better, this was a question. Would there be a short fall in the supply chain? Would this cultural form have all the talent it needed as it got, quite suddenly and ferociously, better? The answer is Maggie Siff. (Smart studios should be reaching out to the best and brightest talents in the writing and acting world. They must improve their chances to access this top talent when particular projects come along.)

Summing up: 3 options

The world gets more complicated.

We remain rooted in our silos.

We need to cultivate several very particular intellectual abilities to survive the new complexity

(This list is not exhaustive.)

The Tom Friedman option

We need to get better at let’s called it the Tom Friedman option: learning to craft particular arguments and climbing up into the high rigging of real generalities. This is the single biggest problem for academics who do not train for it or encourage it enough. This means, tragically, academics are not very good at making it an outcome of the liberal arts education, or any education for that matter. (They are of course free to disappoint themselves. We should be less forgiving when they disappoint the rest of us.)

The Chance the Rapper option

This is a matter of managing scale. As we move from the finely crafted observation to the honking great generalization, can we control the argument? Or do these bust apart? Can we emulate Chance the Rapper and manage knowledge even as we move swiftly between altitudes?

The Maggie Siff option

This is a matter of communicating our “stories.” We want to step up and take advantage of the sudden improvement of popular culture and craft our work with new subtlety. But we DO NOT want to abandon those who are not (or not yet) transformed by this astonishing trend. We want to remain democratic. We want to continue to talk to everyone. The solution is the Maggie Siff option, to make stories that accessible to all even as they explore complexity and nuance.

Creator brands: Brands that make culture

At their most powerful, brands actually make culture. Creator brands, let’s call them.

Nike changed the way we thought about exercise, fitness, bodies and diet in the 1970s and 80s. Most of us look different and feel different for the work that came from this brand and those brilliant meaning-makers at Wieden + Kennedy.

A cluster of brands and industries after World War II helped create “mid century modernism” which in turn shaped how Americans lived and thought of themselves in a very fluid moment. Brands were minting fundamental ideas of who were we were, what we cared about, and how we lived.

In the present day, Uber and AirBnb are changing the way we think about travel and tourism. Netflix is changing the way we think about TV and storytelling.

More often, of course, brands are fellow travelers. They identify what’s happening in the culture and put themselves “in tune” with it.

Subaru and the agency Carmichael Lynch are now brilliantly in tune with culture. They continue to speak to (and speak for) a new feeling for community and family. Now that competitive individualism is in retreat, this is the way Subaru made itself a “brand of the moment.” (This is exceptional work and I hope the brand and agency are being showered with awards. And enjoy them. Principal Financial Group and agency TBWA now threatens to do still better work.)

Sometimes the brand resonates with culture in a painful, unconvincing way, as when a big processed food companies struggles unconvincingly to show us how “artisanal” they are. No one’s buying it, figuratively or literally. The brands of the consumer packaged goods world are really under challenge at the moment. It’s sad because they were so perfectly in tune in the first few decades after World War II.

Getting in touch with culture is hard. Creating culture is harder still. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. It takes intelligence, imagination, a virtuoso control of the organization, the message, and the moment.

The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. The brand that creates culture becomes a kind of navigational satellite in our world. It becomes one of the places from which we draw our ideas of selfhood and in the Herman Miller case, the work place. Most brands are “meanings made.” Creator brands are meaning makers. They help make the meanings that in turn make us.

With this in mind, I read with interest a wonderful essay in FastCo Design by Diana Budds about Herman Miller and its plan to change our culture.  In the words of CEO Brian Walker, the firm has undertaken a

“shift from being just a contract company or just an industry brand to truly be a powerful lifestyle and consumer lifestyle brand.”

This is the language corporations use when it setting about to change culture. They talk about becoming a lifestyle brand. They are now embarked on styling life.

The trouble with this approach is that many people want to style life but they have no clue about what culture is or how to change it. And you can’t style life unless you are prepared to reckon with culture.

Too often, “lifestyle brand” means slapping a new coat of paint on the brand. Too often lifestyle branding is all “style “and no “life.” The brand remains an PET plastic soda bottle sitting on the surface of the Atlantic, incapable of any sort of real contact (thank goodness). It’s just another contribution to the detritus that flows from the land of bad marketing.

83338-Ben-Watson_edited1

The good news is that Herman Miller hired a guy called Ben Watson (pictured here with his muse, a beautiful Burmese). Ben is a designer and, at their best, designers are good at helping connect the brand to culture. The best of them have an extraordinary combination of intelligence, imagination, strategy, craft, cunning. They grasp cultural foundations and the cultural moment. They can see culture in all it’s manifestations, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, material and emergent, and they have a way make these manifest in the brand in a way that points us in new directions, in this case away from old concepts of work and work place to new concepts of work and work place. This makes them a precious, possibly irreplaceably precious, resource. This makes them seerers where the rest of us are blind.

But it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes designers just don’t get culture. Pepsi and Tropicana hired Peter Arnell to “rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture,” and Arnell promptly engaged in what BusinessWeek called a “five week world tour of trend design houses.” (More details in Chief Culture Officer, pp. 161 and following).

This is a little like asking an astronomer to look for uncharted planets only to discover that he’s spend his time touring observatories chatting up other astronomers. Yes, of course, you can learn a lot this way, but at some point you have actually have to leave the design world bubble and talk to people who aren’t wearing really cool glasses.  Anything else is threatens to deliver the provincial and parochial. Anything else is an echo chamber.

I don’t know Ben. Let me point out that there is no criticism implied or intended. For all I know, he is absolutely the most gifted “astronomer” in play and Herman Miller’s best chance to change culture. Fingers crossed! (I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have done several projects for Herman Miller. For all I know Ben is drawing on my work. In which case, god speed!)

Ben has an extraordinary Nike-esque opportunity. We are in a moment of real cultural confusion. There are several big questions in play. What is “work?” What’s a “workplace?” These things used to be defined by several pretty clear distinctions: work and home, work and play, work and life, public and private, instrumental and expressive, pragmatic and recreational, men and women, hierarchical distinctions of rank, exquisitely clear divisions of labor. nice, neat boundaries of inside and outside, them and us. These cultural meridians once so helpful in defining social life are now well blurred. Blurred? They are thoroughly tangled.

Ben could bring clarity here. He could create a space that accommodates these confusions, that enables what we hope for, and helps to “edit out” what we wish to escape. Ben can made a contribution to Herman Miller and through Herman Miller to us. He can actually clarify our culture. He can humpty-dumpty us back together again. He can help make us ready for a postmodern existence.

What’s especially interesting about Budds’ essay is the attention it gives to the way Herman Miller intends to use retail and display spaces to define the brand and through the brand the rest of us. Designers control the manifestations of culture in the world. And when we give them Herman Miller spaces (and furniture) we give them something with which to work.

Will Ben transform us? Will Herman Miller become a creator brand? It depends to some extent on how well Ben and Herman Miller understand culture. And if manifestations are designers’ strength, culture is, by and large, their weakness.

Post script.

I think we are seeing public space and public events used more and more to stage the brand. Even as we avail ourselves of social media and digital content, we like to make the brand live in the “real world.” (Note to self…and anyone else who’s interested: we need a model that distinguishes all the media and messages at our disposal and shows how we can divide branding work across them.)

I was interested to see the work being done by a Canadian bank called Mojo. Here’s a photo of their interior. As a Canadian I can say with confidence that this is the first time any message even remotely like “IS U REALLY BOUT UR MONEY OR NAH” has even been by a Canadian bank.

Ember Library Mediator

Normally, Canadian banks prefer to look like this:

bank_montreal_detail2_lge.jpg (450×301)

Which to be fair is it’s own very particular symbolic statement, and in its moment superbly in tune with Canadian culture.

Thanks to Gerald Forster for the photo of Ben Watson. Gerald is the founder of Here We Go Now.

For more on culture, try this.

CCO cover 1 breathing

 

 

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