Monday, March 08, 2010

Welcome to the Particle Culture


There's a line in the movie Crazy Heart that struck a chord with me. Down and nearly out country music legend Bad Boyd is softly playing his guitar while laying on (the character deftly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) Jeanie's bed as he recovers from the car wreck that is not his life. Jeanie seems to recognise the tune and asks who played it. "I did,…I wrote it just now…the best tunes are the one's you feel you already know." - or words to that effect.

Ironically I have long believed that to be true. Paradoxically people are drawn to novelty, but we are also suspicious of it.

In the marketing classes I taught at Massey University I defined the syndrome as 'New vs. Knew'. We like innovation to progress by degree, more so than by disruption.

There are, of course, apparent exceptions to the rule - the Apple iPod had no obvious design or conceptual precedents, but it was such an intuitive response to the problem of portable music, it simply made sense. It was also so well conceived and executed that there was no reason to be afraid. It was as if the iPod had been missing, in the way that it is hard to imagine life without a new born baby.

Apple may have reinvented 'the wheel' on the original iPod, but it paved the way for the iPod touch easily by continuing a humanistic design metaphor that stretched back to the birth of the Macintosh: pointing and clicking, desktops, trash cans all seem so familiar even though they were incredibly strange by the rustic conventions of the day.

iPhone is successful not because it is a better telephone (I've never heard anyone make a single mention of the iPhone's telephonic quality) but because it continues a conversation that Apple has been having with people since the Apple II - accessible, humanistic design (including the design of its marketing language).

Apple has cleverly constructed a series of platforms from which we can leap to the next level of technology with confidence and ease. Better still, for Apple at least, we are conditioned to anticipate the next level, the same way we eagerly await the release of new songs from our favourite music artists.

Going back to the thought that new music can seem familiar, the rock music of the 50's that so horrified parents was probably more shocking culturally - for its adoption by the newly invented social group 'teenagers' who were shaking off the stiff conventions of their parents for the first time in history - than it was musically. Rock 'n' Roll's lineage extends back through many forms including Blues, Jazz, Big Band, Swing, Rhythm & Blues…In fact much of Rock music sounds so familiar because its structures extend back to the music of the Middle Ages where the Perfect Fourth structure originated. Much of Rock is written in fourths in because of the predominance of the guitar. The instrument is easy (and accessible) to play because the strings are mainly tuned a fourth apart.

Interestingly, when new music discards the melodic structures we have become familiar with its popularity is often limited. Punk Rock may be musically less accomplished than the atonal stylings of Arnold Schoenberg but it conformed to conventional structures and progressions - even harmonies that had been familiar in the past.

The shock of the new often comes with novel packaging but conserves the essence of the past. For novelty to succeed it must, by definition, be new, but it must also refer to what we knew.

It may be apocryphal but I have heard that, when human infants are born, the social convention is often for family members to express with confidence how much the child looks like its Dad. There is usually, post-partum, little doubt about maternity. Most newborns actually look like E.T., having been squished through an astonishingly small birth canal (in comparison to their size), but the recognising the father supposedly protects the child from harm. Even the imaginers of the iPod, share behavioural links that extend back to Neanderthal times and probably beyond.

In many respects I suppose we are still somewhat like monkeys - reluctant to let go of one branch until we have a firm grasp of the next.

For makers and marketers and communicators there are lessons. Creativity is the process of taking existing things and combining them in new, sometimes surprising ways. Technology progresses to find new efficiencies (the internal combustion engine may soon have done its dash, but new technologies will rise to replace it so long has we crave movement at speed across moderate distances).

That said, many technologies will emerge and simply fail, because people don't see themselves reflected in them - a need to be satisfied. Sometimes the timing is simply wrong. Plenty of innovations get a second shot (Xerox invented the G.U.I. but didn't see the opportunity that Steve Jobs did to apply it to a person friendly PC).

The trick is to put people at the centre of innovation, not the product or technology. What do people crave? In the 50's teenagers craved independence and freedom, they rebelled against a culture that cultivated a monumentally destructive war. Hedonism and living for the day was married to the technologies of mass production and surplus. With more time and money on their hands than any generation before them the term 'consumer' embedded itself and endured for the rest of the 20th Century.

The 'known' is, of course a relative term. it is a definition of a personal experience. For an 18 year old today (my son) to be discovering the music of The Velvet Underground there is novelty - much in the same way that Europeans 'discovered' the 'New World' - although said New World had been developing quite happily for thousands of years. The 18yr old is, in fact, discovering himself - following the same tradition of The Velvet Underground themselves - whose influences, circuitously via John Cale included Erik Satie, looking beyond the conventions of the day - today mediated by popular music video channels and in 60's and early 70's by popular music radio. Their shared drive is individualism and rejection of 'the man'.

By virtue of plural access to media by almost everyone the things that drove the sub-cultures of the 60's might well have gone mainstream. The mass culture may have become that of sub culture - or Particle Culture, every individual expressing their wants and needs, their opinions and ideas - an infinite loop of combination and recombination. A train wreck that has already happened. A big bang expansion of the human universe. A post-modern paradise. A classical hell.

It way be a strange, unglued, unhinged time but adopting a humanistic approach seems to me to be your best bet. Put people at the centre of your thinking. The chaos out there will drive us back to embrace the things we have always known, our values and virtues, our fear of the dark, our fascination with fire, rediscovering things through the compound lenses of new technologies and new anxieties, bending and shaping, mashing and rearranging, making and consuming; choosing and choosing not to choose.

It will all be strangely familiar…but all-new at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. John Ralston Saul voices much the same sentiments in "Voltaire's Bastards" and pretty much every work since. Look at what people do. Address what people need. Have society, technology - anything - organised around an awareness and understanding of how people are. Rationalism and corporate profit-driven amorality and unconsciousness are ultimately hostile to people.

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