Short Term Memory Loss

My brain used to store scores of phone numbers back before cell phones. Today while I was trying to dial a phone number I had to look at it the whole time I dialed it. With technology taking over more and more of the mundane mental tasks that keep our short term memory in shape (GPS and remembering directions also comes to mind) I wonder about the cognitive implications of losing those little mental exercises.

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The Ins and Outs of Cultural Consumption and Production

I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide since I picked it up on a whim in an airport (I purchased it to find out why) I’ve also started reading his blog. This guy is an impressive young thinker, and as someone in the under-30 writer/thinker/intellectual community I have to say he’s at least on my level, if not even brighter. Needless to say a request for a guest post has gone out to him, I will let you guys know when I hear back.

He recently posted his review of the new Clay Shirky book Cognitive Surplus on his blog over at The Frontal Cortex which prompted some thoughts for me on inputs and outputs in the digital age.

Lehrer lays out his interpretation of Shirky’s conclusion: that the anesthetic of the post-WWII culture was the consumptive escapism of the television sitcoms, and that in the digital age we are spending less of our leisure time passively consuming and more of our leisure time actively creating. Even when what we create is something as mindless and mundane as LOLcats, Shirky argues this is nonetheless an important evolution from consumption to production.

Lehrer argues against Shirky’s blanketing of all cultural consumption as worse than any kind of cultural production, calling for an examination of the quality of both what is being consumed and what is being produced and an appreciation for the act of critical consumption.

Furthermore, I think Shirky misunderstands the nature of cultural consumption. In Cognitive Surplus, the unstated assumption is that all culture is roughly equivalent to a bad sitcom: it’s entirely mindless and utterly passive. But I think this dismal view is mostly wrong. One doesn’t need to invoke Derrida to know that reading a text is often a creative act, that we must constantly impose meaning onto the ambiguity of words. (And this isn’t just true of poetry. A few days ago, I had a long chat with an adolescent about the deep themes of the Twilight Saga.) Sure, there is no lolcat to post online after a session of critical reading, but we have done something; the mind has not been squandering itself. And that’s why I find Shirky’s definition of creativity so peculiar and soulless: he seems to conclude that, unless there is a physical or visual residue of our thought, we haven’t dont anything worthwhile. I think that’s wrong. I certainly had absolutely nothing to do with the making of The Sopranos, but I’ve wrestled with the unresolved ending for the last three years. I’ve contemplated the meaning of Journey lyrics and ruminated on the implicit moral message of the show (or lack thereof). Shirky thinks such thoughts are the intellectual equivalent of a gin binge or an afternoon spent with Zack Morris. But I would disagree. In some peculiar way, if I hadn’t watched and re-watched The Sopranos then this sentence wouldn’t exist. (And I would have missed out on many interesting, intelligent conversations…) The larger point, I guess, is that before we can produce anything meaningful, we need to consume and absorb, and think about what we’ve consumed and absorbed.

Which brings me right up to my own experiences consuming, processing and ultimately creating.

We all consume a lot of media. TV, film, internet, print… we are constantly bombared. Most college-educated consumers have taken a media studies course or two and are relatively trained in the process of critical consumption. But even if it is all critical (which it definitely isn’t by the way, how could it be given how much media we both intentionally and unintentionally consume? But that’s another essay altogether). Even if it was all critical, you’ve still got an imbalance of input and output. And in any system (I’m talking about everything from the economy to waste management to weight loss) an imbalance of input and output is unsustainable.

Since beginning blogging I’ve witnessed the connection first hand. Blogging has become a prominent outlet. Not just for me, but for an entire generation of cultural consumers-and-producers.

Not because there is anything special or significant about blogging. In fact its exactly the opposite. If I were charged with writing books or scholarly papers out of all of my thoughts the outputs would never balance the inputs. With blogging you can fire it out there right away and get instant feedback from a community of like-minded thinkers. The barrier from idea to product is incredibly low. This post is the product of my consumption of Lehrer’s book and blog and all of the other hours of inputs I’ve been taking in all week. But the production of it took under an hour.

We are no longer content to merely consume. Now the thinkers among us are ALL behaving like critics: consuming, ruminating and responding. Be it on a blog or in a conversation, all those inputs need to find an output.

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Haterism: More Thoughts

It can’t be a coincidence that the day after I went to see Dane Cook do comedy I awake up to a sudden flurry of interest in the “Haterism” article I never had time to finish my thoughts on almost a year ago. My original piece on haterism was mentioned in a Huffington Post article here and on an impressively researched and written blog I just discovered called Just Above Sunset here. The universe seems to be conspiring to encourage me to expand my thoughts on Haterism.

Dane Cook happens to be the perfect case study. Dane Cook is a great comic, but that’s not a popular opinion these days. It’s an opinion that would land you out of favor pretty quickly if you ever let it slip to the comedy-rati that you laughed at one of his bits. Dane Cook is probably the most widely detested comic on the scene today. Why? Because he is very good at what he does. And he’s popular (at least he was). And other comics can’t stand that.

Dane Cook is one of the biggest stars to make it out of the insular world of “comedy” (the kind practiced in small clubs in New York and L.A.) and into the larger world of mass pop culture Comedy. Probably the biggest to cross over since Chris Rock.

Wherever there is success there will be some extent of jealousy and hate, but there are certain factors that can amplify that hate and make some success stories even bigger targets. The major factor in the haterism equation is the community of the achiever in question.

In a healthy community the high achievers are praised, congratulated, and allowed to continue. In an unhealthy community the high achievers are targeted, ridiculed, and dragged down by their connection to that community. There is a reason all the rappers, dealers and hustlers that rise out of the ghetto to any kind of success not only move away but, if they last long enough, also distance themselves from their relationships to that community. Ghetto communities are ones where haterism is deeply entrenched.

So too, sadly, seems to be the world of comedy. You’ve heard the stereotype that underneath all that joking comedians are deeply bitter angry people, and it is true to an extent (see David Letterman). They have not been quick to cheer the mainstream success of stars who crossed over like Dane Cook or Chris Rock or Jay Leno (a lot of comedy community hate flowed his way during the NBC fiasco this winter). A star like Dane Cook is to the comedy community what 50 Cent was to Southside Queens. Both have success. And both have plenty of haters.

So what do the ghetto and comedy communities have in common with the current Republican party?

A lot. At least psychologically speaking. The hater effect is alive and well in the pundits who would rather tear down Obama than watch him steer this country right, in the politicians who stubbornly obstruct rather than engaging in productive dialogue on the issues, and in an entire class of Americans who don’t seem to understand that their well-being is directly tied to the success of Obama’s domestic agenda and would rather see a political victory by their party than an increase in their own quality of life.

As a country we need to stop the hate. We need to pull together and realize that the tension produced by politics is natural, but we should all agree on the end goal being a better America to live in and turn over to our children. That means taking care of the people that live here with basic things like healthcare that every person can access. And protecting civil liberties so that every Hispanic person in Arizona doesn’t have to live in fear and carry papers with them everywhere they go. That means putting aside some of the political struggles that have come to define this excessively partisan era in American politics and focus on the outcomes we want. Republicans and Democrats aren’t that far apart: we all want to use the resources of this country to make it a strong country and a great place to live. That includes fixing a badly broken healthcare system. And fixing a badly broken immigration system. Let’s stop looking at the differences and start coming together to fix the problems that both sides know we have.

Haterism, after all, is based in fear. And fear is the enemy of progress. So let’s quit the hate, all of us, and get on with fixing what’s broken.

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Conan, Comedy, and Entertainment

It’s been three months now since the ugly divorce of NBC and Conan O’Brien and almost as long since the last Culture Wharf update. The Culture Wharf has not gone away, we’ve just been busy saving the world with socially astute observation elsewhere.

So after this hiatus for both The Wharf and Conan, CoCo is finally beginning to re-emerge into the public consciousness with his live comedy tour. It’s a smart move for Conan to keep his buzz up this summer while he’s shopping himself for a show (which he almost certainly will get on one network or another) in September.

But the re-appearance of Conan got me thinking about the real crux of NBC’s Conan fiasco: the difference between comedian and an entertainer.

Conan is a comedian. Jay Leno is an entertainer. The real difference? An entertainer is an evolved comedian, or perhaps an evolved singer, somebody who can fill a room with the force of his or her personality. For a comedian its about jokes and humor. For an entertainer it’s all about the show. That can make some entertainers weak on comedy, but they always make up for it in showmanship. That’s what Conan couldn’t do on the Tonight Show. He’s too much of a comedian.

When the entire comedy community came out against Leno for being a sellout and an NBC shill the difference had never been more clear between comedians and entertainers. Comedians are, by nature, anti. Anti-corporate, anti-culture, anti-self. Entertainers are pro. Pro-laughter, pro-audience, pro-self in a big way.

Conan got his start as a writer, and not as a stand-up, and I think that tells the whole story. Conan was an anomaly in Late Night, a gawky non-performer thrust into a performers role. And it worked because Conan was great at comedy. He evolved the meta-comedy of being a non-performer, a goofy big-haired writer that some idiots put on television! It was Late Night for people who prize pure comedy over showmanship, weird off-beat comedy for insomniacs, writers, and intellectuals. As nervously self-aware, deconstructed, and self-deprecating as the people that watched. It was a likeable schtick, but someone other than me should have realized it could only ever play at 12:30. The Tonight Show, always and forever, will be a seat reserved for a confident performer. An entertainer like Jay Leno. Love him or hate him, Leno knows how to put on a show that his audience will want to watch.

So it’s good to see Conan taking back to the comedy clubs. TV changes comedy, TV entertainer-izes comedy. And the more popular the show and timeslot the more it has to be done. That’s why Conan’s comedy could work at 12:30. And I hope, for comedy’s sake, that he lands not at 11:00 on Fox where he would be as neutered as he was on The Tonight Show. Conan belongs somewhere like FX at midnight when nobody will be expected to watch. Only in a situation of similarly low expectations will he be able to do his thing, his way, and build a real audience and a real space for his comedy on T.V.

And in the mean time I hope all the bitter Conan fans out there will stop crying (see previous post entitled “Fragile Gen-X Syndrome”) and realize that this was the best thing to ever happen to him.

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Fragile Gen-X Syndrome: The Public’s Embrace of a Whiny Hero

Everybody has an opinion in what has become the entertainment story of the year, the NBC Late Night War between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. There is a lot to be said on both sides, and much of it has been said already. But one thing I don’t hear anybody talking about is the rhetorical implications, especially along generational lines, of embracing a “hero” who’s only accomplishment is doing disappointing numbers, refusing to move his timeslot to accommodate the network, and then whining about it. Whatever you believe about who got screwed and who did the screwing we can all agree that Conan-as-victim has been embraced as the master narrative. Stories need good guys and bad guys, and among the blog and Twitter-savvy set (the place where, like it or not, public narratives are constructed these days), Conan is the victim, the martyr, and the hero. NBC and Jay Leno are the bad guys.

Now again, before this page is overrun with “Team Conan” comments I’d like to re-iterate that this has nothing to do with who’s right or who’s wrong, who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy. A case could be made for Conan having gotten screwed because 1. He never really got a chance to establish himself, 2. His lead-in from the news was hurt by Leno’s own low ratings at 10 p.m. leading into the news, and 3. NBC set him up to fail by arranging the schedule around Leno in the first place. All fair points. An equally good case could be made for the fact that Jay Leno was faced with some tough decisions based around the fact that 1. He was the king of late night and never should have been pushed out in the first place 2. Conan’s ratings were disappointing even before Leno started at ten and 3. All Leno did was what was best for himself and his employer, which no employee should ever be blamed for.

My frustration with the whole scandal is based on what I see as a difference in generational values. My own generation seems to be ignoring a lot of evidence that this was a sticky situation where tough business decisions were made, choosing instead to buy into a more emotionally charged trope about “a guy getting screwed.” We didn’t even question the facts before jumping into the pity party (after Conan’s brilliant statement invited us to, of course). But let’s rewind time a few weeks before all those “poor Conan” tweets you sent out of a sense of injustice on behalf of your favorite late night host: we have a clear case of two guys put in tough professional positions. One of those guys played ball and acted like a professional. And one of those guys acted like a whiny child. And which one is walking away with 40 million dollars and a new legion of adoring fans?

I think the fact that the young public is so ardently behind Conan shows how much as a culture we’ve come to identify with the “poor-me” victim story. That’s not a good thing. It makes sense, Generation X has made a lifelong habit of whining (look where that’s gotten them) and as the official comedian of the generation I think Conan is just playing to his audience. And that’s fine, Conan has his fans and they’ll follow him to Fox or whatever network he goes to next. What worries me more is that the younger, call us Gen-Y, are being swept along with Gen-X into this wave of victim identification. As a culture Generation-Y has been steadily entering the workforce and pulling us out of this tailspin by focusing on results. I think Generation Y has the intellect and work ethic to put the disastrous epoch of post-baby-boomer mess behind us, but not if we embrace as whiners as heroes, and not if we follow Gen-X’s tired tropes of helplessness.

Here’s how I hope Gen-Y will come down on the debate, not emotionally but logically. Maybe “poor Conan” should have put up better numbers, or maybe he never belonged at 11:35 in the first place. Sure, maybe he didn’t get a fair shot, but what about showbusiness gives anyone the idea that a fair shot is what to expect? This is a business, and a business decision was made. Here at the Culture Wharf we advocate a kind of extreme realism based on perception, seeing the world as it is, and resisting the easy bandwagon answer of jumping on Generation X’s embrace of a whiny hero.

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Tiger Woods Ads Keep Getting Better

These are still up in many airports, despite Accenture having dropped Tiger.

UPDATE: Apparently Fallows and The Culture Wharf have a similar sense of humor. Notably The Wharf published first:
http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2010/01/behind_the_curve_ahead_of_the.php

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Variety’s Pay Wall and the Future of Print Publishing

Variety print newstand

Variety, that institution of showbusiness news that arrives at Hollywood executive desks each morning, quietly began rolling out a new pay wall for their website this week. Variety.com will ask one in ten randomly selected users for a log-in and plans to have access shut off completely by early next year except for paying subscribers.

With all the noise News Corp mogul Rupert Murdoch has been making about pay walls I was surprised to see the media giving so little attention to this Variety story. By blocking free access to its content Variety joins the Wall Street Journal as the only other major publication on the frontier of this pay-for-paper/protect-the-website model. Whether or not this can save journalism the way that veteran ink-slingers hope is up for debate, but there are important implications in this decision for the larger media world. Here’s why it’s a great idea for Variety:

Variety has a relatively small highly defined niche readership of people working in the entertainment industry. Like the Wall Street Journal many of these subscriptions are addressed to offices and paid for by corporate budgets. You won’t see too many film execs batting an eyelash at the cost of their Variety subscription, or at the pay-wall, as long as it’s covered by their employer (and the web designers make the pay-wall gates convenient for print subscribers to pass through, a consideration which proponents of this model can’t afford to overlook). Variety subscribers will have the choice of seeing their news in print with their morning paper, or online, a choice that most people enjoy. The presence of the print edition feeds our 20th century bias that things on paper are more serious than things that exist only in pixels, even if we choose to read the news on a screen.

Sure they’ll lose lots and lots of eyeballs, which might mean some diminishing of ad rates for the website, but is anyone (other than Google) really making much on website ad sales? So the number of unique views goes down, but investment of the readers will begin to creep back up.

Which brings me to the three part Culture Wharf theory of why pay-protected online access combined with print edition could become a sustainable model for the future of publishing: Nichification, Identity, and Investment.

Nichification is the trend that media has been going through since, well, the very beginning. It has accelerated recently and nowhere is it more prominent today than in the cable TV market where every subgroup or interested has its own channel. Magazine publishing was the first to go through nichification as mass market general interest magazines like Time and Life gave rise to many smaller publications. Micro interests were able to spawn their own magazines with only a few thousand subscribers and still come out profitable (provided they were owned by a larger magazine publishing company with distribution resources).

The point about nichification is that it is a rule of media consumption that people will seek out the media that gives them the most direct and focused set of their interests available. This is already sort of happening with Google Reader, essentially you’re able to build your own “My Exact Personal Interests” set of articles from the available publications all over the internet. Google has the nichification thing figured out by allowing people to take what they want from the cafeteria of everything.

But it’s a legitimate question whether most consumers of media really want to be that active. Publications could step in by nichifying well to markets and providing quality content that is relevant to them without all the effort of tracking it down yourself. Nichification works well in a specific subset of information like the world of entertainment business and production like Variety. This information is already highly nichified, and since it isn’t widely available elsewhere, Variety may be able to survive and thrive by forcing those who want this highly nichified and arguably valuable information to pay for it.

Identity follows logically from Nichification. Obviously being a New York Times reader means something to a lot of people, a certain east-coast-liberal-intellectual brand that has a lot of identity value for a lot of people. Variety too has a strong brand and associated identity, that of someone working in the entertainment industry. The strong brands of these publications are forged and strengthened by nichification in the marketplace, but to the individual they represent something more. Something personal and psychological that affects one’s self-concept. That’s been a part of publishing from the very beginning, and there’s something much stronger about that brand-identity connection when you attach it to a physical paper. For one it’s more public – it appears on your desk every morning for everyone to see, someone has to deliver it to you, and you willingly pay the bill every year that connects you to the publication.

Which segues nicely into my last point: investment.

People value things more highly that they have to pay for. By choosing to subscribe you are investing in a publication, investing in their editorial staff, investing in the niche and identity described above, and investing what you believe to be a fair price in the information they have to offer. Now this concept might seem quaint in an age where the price of information has plummetted, but I don’t think it’s all together gone. Investment still plays a huge role in decision making and attachment, and it’s a human psychological quirk that Variety is depending on for keeping it’s subscriber base.

More importantly what Variety is really doing is setting a price for information, something nobody has really been able to effectively do in the (free) information age. Whether it works or not will depend on whether subscribers deem the value of the information to be commensurate with the price.

It may well not work out for Variety if the marketplace isn’t ready and they are undercut by cheaper, free-er competitors, but in the end if real news room reporting is going to survive, and not just it’s impoverished forms of social networking and blogging, someone has got to set a price for information that people are willing to pay. Variety has taken a major first step toward doing that, and aided by the patterns of Nichification, Identity, and Investment, they also may well succeed.

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