Take the curious phenomenon of the TED talk. TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – is a global lecture circuit propagating “ideas worth spreading”. It is huge. Half a billion people have watched the 1,600 TED talks that are now online. Yet the talks are almost parochially American. Some are good but too many are blatant hard sells and quite a few are just daft. All of them lay claim to the future; this is another futurology land-grab, this time globalised and internet-enabled.
Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has an astrophysicist friend who made a pitch to a potential donor of research funds. The pitch was excellent but he failed to get the money because, as the donor put it, “You know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired … you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Gladwellism – the hard sell of a big theme supported by dubious, incoherent but dramatically presented evidence – is the primary TED style. Is this, wondered Bratton, the basis on which the future should be planned? To its credit, TED had the good grace to let him give a virulently anti-TED talk to make his case. “I submit,” he told the assembled geeks, “that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilisational disaster.”
Bratton is not anti-futurology like me; rather, he is against simple-minded futurology. He thinks the TED style evades awkward complexities and evokes a future in which, somehow, everything will be changed by technology and yet the same. The geeks will still be living their laid-back California lifestyle because that will not be affected by the radical social and political implications of the very technology they plan to impose on societies and states. This is a naive, very local vision of heaven in which everybody drinks beer and plays baseball and the sun always shines.
The reality, as the revelations of the National Security Agency’s near-universal surveillance show, is that technology is just as likely to unleash hell as any other human enterprise. But the primary TED faith is that the future is good simply because it is the future; not being the present or the past is seen as an intrinsic virtue.
Bryan Appleyard, “Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians: From predicting AI within 20 years to mass-starvation in the 1970s, those who foretell the future often come close to doomsday preachers”, New Statesman, 2014-04-10.
January 25, 2015
October 3, 2014
Among those currently imagining our possible futures, one of the most persuasive is the novelist William Gibson, who, having evolved quite a bit past the man who wrote Neuromancer in 1984, can hardly be said to be imagining futures at all, with his most recent novels constituting, in his words, “speculative fiction of the very recent past,” more oriented toward social situations than technological situations. With the possible exception of David Foster Wallace, no novelist of whom I am aware has ever written with such freshness and imagination on the subject of advertising and marketing, which is a big part of what Wallace called “the texture of the world I live in.” Nor has any novelist quite so precisely identified what is sinister in our world of ubiquitous sales pitches: that something whose entire purpose is to be at the center of our attention still manages to be somehow covert. The marketing mentality is an invasive species; earnest young people now speak entirely seriously about their “personal brands” at the same time they complain about the commodification of this or that. Gibson understands the strangeness of our times, and my own mental shorthand for the odd little details one sometimes encounters, particularly in urban life, when one identifies something that is entirely ordinary and yet feels as if it were not in its right time and place, is “Feeling like I’m living in a William Gibson novel.”
Kevin D. Williamson, “Futures Trading: We are no longer thinking about the future because we believe we are there”, National Review, 2014-10-01.
September 4, 2014
The American craft beer boom continues, but making the beer is only the start of the process of getting the beer into the hands of eager consumers. CEI’s Michelle Minton explains how rules crafted for the end of Prohibition now artificially restrict the craft beer marketplace, reduce consumer choice, and add unearned profits to favoured corporations:
After Prohibition ended, Americans could sell, produce, import, and transport alcoholic beverages, but home-brewing was still illegal until 1978 when then President Jimmy Carter signed legislation to legalize brewing in the home for personal or family use. In that year, the number of breweries was at its lowest point after the repeal of Prohibition. But in the 1980s, after states began to legalize brewpubs, the number of brewers began to rise. This development, along with easy access to capital in the 1990s and 2000s, aided efforts of modern craft breweries to change the laws in their home states so that they could brew more, self-distribute, and start the microbrew revolution.
Another hindrance for craft brewers are franchise laws, enacted among the states in the 1970s and 80s due to fears of brewers’ market power. With less than 50 brewers in the nation at the time — most of them large — there was a fear the big brewers could hold wholesalers hostage by threatening to walk away unless distributors bowed to the brewers’ demands. Since then, however, the landscape has completely shifted.
Although the number of wholesalers nationwide has declined, those remaining are larger and more powerful than almost all of the breweries in the nation. Yet, the laws remain, giving the wholesalers “virtual carte blanche to decide how the beer is sold and placed in stores and bars,” according to Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy.
In almost every other industry, a manufacturer unhappy with a distributor’s performance or price can terminate a contract in search of a better fit. This is not the case for beer manufacturers. Brewers wishing to switch from one distributor to another must go through long and costly legal battles. Hindy, for example, paid $300,000 to get out of a contract with a New York wholesaler. Yuengling COO Dave Casinelli’s experience was similar. In a phone interview, he noted that in his 24 years with the company, he couldn’t recall any attempt to switch wholesalers that didn’t end up with some legal ramifications.
Most state franchise laws not only make leaving a wholesaler hard, but they also create regional monopolies, known as “exclusive territories,” where a brewer is prohibited from selling through more than one distributor within a given area. This undermines incentives for wholesalers to compete by improving performance, increasing efficiency, or lowering prices. After all, distributors have little or no fear that a brewer will leave — because most of them can’t. As for consumers, they end up paying more because of this lack of competition.
August 15, 2014
I recently cancelled a contract with a different provider after some gizmo broke. The company first told me the whole thing was my problem, then at the last moment offered me hundreds of pounds to stay. When your phone company starts using the playbook of an emotionally abusive spouse, this is not a market in good working order.
March 31, 2014
Virginia Postrel has an interesting take on the current brouhaha over Facebook’s acquistion of formerly crowdfunded Oculus:
Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo represent a classic entrepreneurial phenomenon: Once you roll out your great idea, customers use it in ways you didn’t imagine, and you wind up in a different business than you expected.
Kickstarter’s founders wanted to help artists raise money. Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann pictured aiding capital-strapped small-businesses owners like her parents. Neither intended their site to act as a test market. But, as the rags-to-riches story of virtual-reality firm Oculus shows, that’s what they have become.
“It’s a way to access capital, but what it’s also become is a market-testing and validation platform,” Ringelmann told the Dent the Future conference on Tuesday. “What we’re doing is creating pre-markets for ideas,” she said.
Now that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion, critics are reverting to the original assumption that crowdfunding is primarily about raising money. “Talking people out of $2.4 million in exchange for zero percent equity is a perfectly legal scam,” wrote my colleague Barry Ritholtz.
But it’s not a scam at all. It’s market research. In effect, customers placed pre-orders and received early products; why are they griping that they don’t own a part of the business?
The backlash is largely Kickstarter’s fault. It may not be running a scam, but it definitely sends mixed messages. Unlike Indiegogo, which prides itself on operating a neutral platform giving anybody’s idea a market test, Kickstarter hasn’t embraced its de facto transformation. It strictly curates the campaigns it hosts and, although it makes its biggest profits on technology products, it still exudes an artistic sensibility that isn’t entirely comfortable with disruptive technology or large enterprises. It still talks as though it’s PBS. “Kickstarter is not a store,” it declares.
March 22, 2014
Wilfred McClay noticed the increasing use of the term “narrative” over the last few years:
We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?
I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief — nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever” — and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity — acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.
These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.
One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.
February 26, 2014
Published on 25 Feb 2014
Featuring the author Megan McArdle, Columnist, Bloomberg View; with comments by Brink Lindsey, Vice President for Research, Cato Institute; moderated by Dalibor Rohac, Policy Analyst, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute.
Nobody likes to fail, yet failure is a ubiquitous element of our lives. According to Megan McArdle, failing often — and well — is an important source of learning for individuals, organizations, and governments. Although failure is critical in coping with complex environments, our cognitive biases often keep us from drawing the correct lessons and adjusting our behavior. Our psychological aversion to failure can compound its undesirable effects, McArdle argues, and transform failures into catastrophes.
Video produced by Blair Gwaltney.
February 20, 2014
In sp!ked, Rob Lyons looks at the way e-cigarettes are being marketed in the UK and how it’s driving anti-tobacco campaigners absolutely insane:
For the tobacco-control lobby, an advert like Dorff’s is an absolute nightmare. It makes no health claims. It is clearly targeted at adults. It plays to the fact that even smokers dislike aspects of old-fashioned cigarettes, and are happy to compromise in order to get most of the pleasure of smoking without the hassle or the irritation to others. And then – God forbid – it even plays to the annoyance of smokers at the health fanatics. The last thing smoke dodgers want is for anyone to be able to take their freedom back. Even the existence of the sanitised offer from Vype’s say-nothing advert is anathema.
This was made abundantly clear in a report published by Cancer Research UK last year, The marketing of electronic cigarettes in the UK [PDF]. The authors are forced to admit that e-cigs ‘are accepted as being much safer than their conventional equivalents, so if smokers can be encouraged to switch there is the potential for significant public health gain’.
However, this message is quickly lost in a cloud of public-health cant. The threats, say the authors, include concerns that ‘hard-won tobacco-control policies (smokefree public places, the ad ban, age restricted sales, tobacco industry denormalisation, POS [point-of-sale] restrictions) are being undermined’ and that ‘there is evidence that young people, who have always been the key to the long-term viability of the tobacco industry, may be being pulled into the market’. The danger, say the authors, is that tobacco companies don’t want you to give up your addiction, just switch to a different delivery system. The problem with this argument is that the new delivery system is much, much safer. Why shouldn’t corporations try to sell us safe products?
In reality, what the anti-tobacco lobbyists (and their fans in Westminster and Whitehall) are really afraid of is the loss of their power and influence over our lives. They fear they will be helpless against the tide of e-cigs, like a great bunch of puritanical Cnuts. (Note to sub-editor: that’s definitely ‘Cnuts’, as in the Danish king who famously – probably apocryphally – tried to turn back the sea. Honest.)
E-cigs are a safe, practical alternative to smoking. For all the huffing and putting-a-stop-to-puffing, tobacco control has been an illiberal failure. E-cigs are encouraging smokers to switch, cut down or stop altogether far more successfully than all the bans, taxes, restrictions and useless nicotine-replacement therapies that have gone before. ‘Vaping’ is an unexpected but nonetheless happy success story.
February 19, 2014
Even as a child, I was vaguely annoyed by the LEGO kits that allowed you to recreate something you’d seen on TV or in the movies. The greatest thing about LEGOs is that you can use them to build anything your imagination can create. Castles, cars, airplanes, you name it: If you had the blocks and a mild spark of ingenuity, you could do just about any damn thing you pleased.
But the LEGOification of every aspect of popular culture is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the triumph of imagination. This ideal asks you to take something endlessly changeable and shove it into a tiny mental space already dominated by every other facet of popular culture. It’s a perversion of the LEGO ideal, a slap in the face of everyone who grew up tinkering with their building blocks in the hope of creating something new and exciting, something just for themselves or their friends.
Also, if you could get off my lawn, that would be great.
Sonny Bunch, “Knock It Off with the LEGOs, Jerks”, Washington Free Beacon, 2014-02-19
February 17, 2014
Unwanted telephone canvassers are a pain, and there aren’t many ways to end the unwelcome interruption without being rude. Amy Alkon has a new method she’s been trying out: I don’t think I’d have the nerve to pull this off, but it seems to be working for her:
I have a new tactic, and it’s fun. I turn it into a sex call. I started out asking the woman, “Are you wearing any panties” and then got into whether or not she was bucking the trend to go back to the full bush.
January 13, 2014
Virginia Postrel is interviewed at Paleofuture:
I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object — something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car — and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.
Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”
And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.
Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.
January 4, 2014
Tim Bray despises the word “content”:
I’m thinking about successful new communication channels, and how we talk about what’s in them. On Twitter, we say tweets. In the blogosphere and on Facebook, posts; also rants, reviews, and flames. Facebook has likes and now everything has links.
But I note the entire absence of “content”; the word, I mean. Yay! I’ve loathed it ever since its first powerpoint-pitch appearance, meaning “shit we don’t actually care about but will attract eyeballs and make people click on ads”. Except for they don’t say “people”, they say “users”, a symptom of another attitude problem.
With every year that passes, it’s increasingly clear that the appearance of “content” in any business plan is a symptom of (likely fatal) infection by cluelessness; and a good predictor of failure.
H/T to Charles Stross for the link.
January 2, 2014
When it comes to crafting winning political narratives, progressives have a natural advantage over conservatives. That’s because progressives have a free hand to project rosy visions of the future while conservatives must constantly defend against progressives’ distorted depictions of the past.
Two fundamental techniques undergird progressives’ success at narrative spinning. The first is skillful framing of the debate through investing heavily in public opinion making machinery. This disarms critics while giving lawmakers cover to vote for bills they’ve neither read nor understood. Thus framed, policies are judged only by their stated intentions, never their actual results. This allows politicians to promote new pieces of legislation named for their lofty objectives, even if the thousands of pages of vague and contradictory content deliver just the opposite.
The second is dodging all responsibility for failure. This is accomplished by blaming insufficient resources, the prior administration, the greedy 1 percent, sabotage by Republicans, or even the people’s obdurate failure to appreciate the progressive benefits conferred upon them. When the going gets tough, reality can be dismissed with a slogan. Forward!
Bill Frezza, “2013: The Year The Progressive Narrative Collided With Reality”, Forbes, 2013-12-30
November 20, 2013
Virginia Postrel on the legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy:
When she was 22, the future Jacqueline Kennedy won a Vogue contest with an essay in which she dreamed of being “a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century.” As first lady, she proved herself a genius at visual persuasion. She crafted her own image, refined her husband’s, re-created the White House’s, and even shaped America’s abroad.
Her most evocative and enduring image-making came when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago this week. She art-directed the funeral’s pageantry and then, in an interview with T.H. White for Life magazine, memorably linked her husband to one of the most powerful legends in the English-speaking world. Jackie created the myth of the Kennedy administration as Camelot: the lost golden age that proved ideals could become real.
The Arthurian legends traditionally operate as what the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “displaced meaning.” Every culture, he observes, maintains ideals that can never be fully realized in everyday life, from Christian charity to economic equality. Yet for all their empirical failings, such cultural ideals supply essential purpose and meaning, offering identity and hope. To preserve and transmit them, cultures develop images and stories that portray a distant world in which their ideals are realized — a paradise, a utopia, a golden age, a promised land, a world to come. Camelot is such a setting.
“When they are transported to a distant cultural domain,” McCracken writes, “ideals are made to seem practicable realities. What is otherwise unsubstantiated and potentially improbable in the present world is now validated, somehow ‘proven,’ by its existence in another, distant one.”
[…] The Kennedy administration ended with sudden violence from without, making Jackie’s analogy doubly potent. It suggested a parallel with a legendary Golden Age while simultaneously implying that, left to itself, this new Golden Age might have continued indefinitely. This Camelot was pure glamour: a frozen moment, its flaws and conflicts obscured.
Glamour invites projection. For 50 years, Americans of various persuasions have imagined their ideals embodied in a Camelot that might have been. Advocates of a vigorous Cold War foreign policy claim John Kennedy. So do their opposites. He did less for the civil-rights movement than his unglamorous successor, Lyndon Johnson, yet in imagination he would have done more. Above all, people imagine that somehow a living Kennedy would have prevented the tumult of the 1960s.
November 9, 2013
At the Daily Beast, Virginia Postrel argues that far from being dead, glamour is still a powerful force in our lives:
In a world that prizes transparency, honesty, and full disclosure, the very idea seems out of place. Glamour is an illusion that conceals flaws and distractions. It requires mystery and distance, lest too much information breaks the spell. How can its magic possibly survive in a world of tweeting slobs?
But glamour does in fact endure. It is far more persistent, pervasive, and powerful than we realize. We just have trouble recognizing it, because it has so many different incarnations, many of which have nothing to do with Hollywood or fashion.
Glamour isn’t just a style of dress or a synonym for celebrity. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that triggers a distinctive emotional response: a sensation of projection and longing. What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, depends on who we are.
One person who yearns to feel special finds glamour in the image of U.S. Marines as “the few, the proud,” while another dreams of getting into the city’s hottest club and yet another imagines matriculating at Harvard. For some people, a glamorous vacation means visiting a cosmopolitan capital with lots to do and see. For others, it means a tranquil beach or mountain cabin. The first group yearns for excitement, the second for rest. All of these things are glamorous — but to different people.