Culturematic by Grant McCracken


RATING: 8/10…READ: August 19, 2012

An exploration of the culture change from Reality TV, Burning Man, Starbucks’ Third Space, Pie Lab, to the Old Spice Man Commercial. This book does a great job of making sense how and whey we got to our current culture combined with practical how-to advice. With a general theme urging for continual experimentation and constantly asking “what if…” Culturematic offers a sobering view culturally of where we are going and how to thrive in uncertain times.

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Start with “What If…”

What if I made my own content for SNL (Lonely Island)

What if I went searching for myself in Italy, India, and Indonesia (Eat, Prey, Love)

What if I ate McDonald’s for 30 days straight? (Supersize me)

Don’t look for big ideas. Seek small ideas that can grow. (starting with a piece for the NY Times, that may lead to a book)

In examining the history of the visionary companies, we were struck by how often they made some of their best moves not by detailed strategic planning, but rather by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and ‘purposeful accidents.’

Culturematics Start Playing in Our Heads Immediately

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. “Hmm,” we say, “how would that work?” Alisa Smith, the author, could have called her book Eat Where You Live, as Lou Bendrick did. Or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, as Barbara Kingsolver did. But neither of these titles works quite as well as The 100-Mile Diet. It’s catchy, and we’re caught. The title inducts us into a problem.

Culturematics are riding a clear cultural trend. We have a new appetite for experience. We are no longer a culture that prices conformity. We cultivate a multitude of selves. We take this as our due.

The clever thing about Celebrity Autobiography is that it didn’t depend on stealing anyone’s intellectual property. The play consists of having people reading what is there for anyone to read. It takes only a change of emphasis and a knowing look to invite the audience to think about the text in new ways.

A Culturematic isn’t about stealing value. It’s merely repurposing value. It discovers value in the artifact the maker does not know is there. Who owns this value? Surely, this is a case of finders, keepers.

Only if we are intrinsically interested in something are we likely to follow it into the unknown. Intrinsic interest matters here because it means we’re “getting paid” even if the Culturematic fails. Native curiosity is its own reward.

TAKEAWAY: Find things that do not go together, and put them together. Collect what spills out of the collision, and publish it. i.e. the Onion’s story on Alan Greenspan’s fake antics – economic news combined with rockstarism

In the comedy of Steve-O, it shows itself as the damage that can be inflicted upon that most precious value of bourgeois society, the value of the physical body. In the comedy of Ben Stiller and Larry David, it comes from the humiliation that can be inflicted on the social self. In the comedy of Ricky Gervais, it comes from the ridicule little men bring upon themselves through their pomposity and self-regard. All of these are social misbehaviors that a middle-class culture had banished from the charmed circle of polite company. Bad was corralled. Then it broke free.

Bad attacks a world that is so controlled and harmonized as to be, finally, insipid and a little dull. Bad says it is better to be in violation of some social or aesthetic code than bland.

TAKEAWAY: Find the rules that govern middle-class taste, especially those that govern the presentation of self. Now break these rules. Publish the outcome.

TAKEAWAY: Find genres and other cultural categories. Splice them together. i.e. Daily Show, Colbert Report, Run DMC and Aerosmith Walk this Way

TAKEAWAY: Play the trickster. Find soft rules, and break them. i.e. Kathy Griffin.

The spirit of the Culturematic says it is better to mix in messages that are not anticipated by the grammar.

Information theory and classical rhetoric insist on redundancy. Good communication is over-determined. Repetition is the road to clarity. Coding the same message in several media is, traditionally, the path to precision. But Culturematic theory says otherwise. Defying expectation is the secret of storytelling.

Caan was quadruply bound: familiar genre, familiar show, familiar role, familiar character. He was virtually obliged to phone it in. Caan found a way out of this artistic captivity. As he told Entertainment Weekly, “The last thing I wanted to end up being was a cliché. I wanted to be fresh and different, so I actually based my character on a criminal.

-Hey presto, Caan plays criminal, and when he gets strained through cop, something interesting happens. We, the audience, can’t actually see the criminal. But somehow it’s bleeding through. As a result, this cop looks like something we haven’t seen before, a character who seems to zig when we expect him to zag.

We can decide whether something is a prank or a Culturematic by asking a simple question. Is there an open curiosity, a certain literlaness, at work here? Or is it self-conscious, perhaps even coy? If the art in question is looking for effect, it is not a Culturematic. It must be sincere in the what-if. If it knows what’s going to happen, because it is looking to make an impression or create an effect, then it isn’t a Culturematic.

When Reason Magazine asked Stewart Brand “What do you think has placed you at so many interesting early stages of American cultural movements,” he had this reply:

“A mixture of curiosity, boredom, and absence of being a dedicated to one big organization or one big ideology. I guess I agree with [science fiction writer] Bill Gibson’s line that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. I look for places where the future is turning up and look for a sense of “if this plays out, it’ll change the world.” And I go hang out when it’s still taking shape. That led me to hang out with psychedelic drug people, then personal computer people, then MIT’s Media Lab.

We are mad scientists mixing unstable cultural materials. The more disparate these materials, the more likely we are to get a chemical reaction. So if we take the TV show The Real Housewives of Atlanta and mix in Arianna Huffington, we get one thing. But if we mix in Hillary Clinton, we get something more explosive. And this is because Hillary Clinton is father (in cultural space) from Housewives of Atlanta than Huffington is.

The future is interested in the minutia of daily life. In a couple of hundred years, every detail of our existence, however insignificant it is now, will be a matter of fascination.

The well-stocked laboratory would have a station that contains a video camera at the ready. No set-up. Instantaneous access. Any time we want to record a comment or interview someone on camera, we can get right to it. At another station, we might have the map we are making of our hometown. Decorate this with various images in the manner of designer’s inspiration board. At another, we might have our time traveler project. At a fourth, the memes, stories, and ethnographics we are working on. At a fifth, notes and images (and an inspiration board) for the spectacle we are making of ourselves. Our computer might move between the stations. The point of many stations is to collapse the time needed to engage with each project.

In the old model, as we have seen, the CEO was called to answer the question posed by Levitt: what business are we (really) in? The post-Levitt approach, as we have also seen, insists on something broader. As it turns out, the real answer to Levitt’s question is, “We are in business, plain and simple, and we go where opportunity takes us.”

Scenarios, strategy, projection, planning, are going dark. The more we think about the future, the more we realize it is “more besides.” More besides, and we’re not sure what. That’s what our Culturematics are for. Fire when ready.