Case Study 1: Alcohol’s falling trend

The Griff is following alcohol
Data points collected for alcohol

The Griff is tracking alcohol. Actually it’s following beer, aperitif, spirits, wine, and mixology because alcohol is a bundle of things.

But if we take alcohol as a category, we see decline. In an interesting metric, Pinterest says that searches for “sober” are up 746%. The WSJ says that Americans drank less wine for the first time in 25 years. Young consumers are generally drinking less. There are a couple of counter trends. Aperitif, spirits and White Claw are rising, with the last assuming a cult status on Twitter and Instagram.

America was once obsessed with drinking. Movies and musicals literally sang the praises of mixed drinks. Hollywood darlings “Nick and Nora” were endearing precisely because Nick was smashed most of the time. Being drunk or at least “tipsy” was thought to be attractive. That’s a culture that loves alcohol.

This is interesting to track because it shows a big piece of our culture in play. And for futurists, this is important in and of itself. But it will show us the directionality of still larger changes plus the smaller ones that serve as cultural cause and effect.

I won’t explore this change here. But let me just this. Some younger consumers are disinclined to drink because, as one of them told me, “I just can’t afford a photo that shows me drunk and drooling.” This is a cluster of trends at work, including the rise of Instagram, the rise of a “performance, aka celebrity” culture.

A fine irony. In the 20th century, alcohol gave people permission to behave in unconstrained ways. What it did to and for our social performances was thought charming. Now, alcohol is a threat to the social performance and our public presentation of self.

Alcohol is, to this extent, a window on how we think about ourselves, present ourselves, and construct ourselves for public purposes. What will mean for the way we interact privately and publicly?

Many methodological challenges confront us here. What are the best metrics with which to spot and track this trend? Where can we get these numbers? How do we measure speed and deceleration? What are the competing intoxicants or states? What are the scenarios that suggest how this trend might reverse itself?

Storytime 1: fast culture and slow culture on Oprah

One of our fundamental principles on M-T-F is that the future is not just for cool-hunters. It’s not just about the latest fads. That’s fine for the fashionable futurist. But real futurists are interested in the whole of the future. We’re interested in both fast and slow culture

Here’s a little story from my ethnographer’s notebook. Years ago, I did an Oprah show. As it turned out, I was on Oprah to make the case for slow culture. A designer was there to make the case for fast culture. And we fought. Well, collided.

Slow culture

I was sitting at my desk, working away, minding my own business.  A junior academic living in obscurity.  An ink stained wretch hoping for tenure.  Think something out of Dickens…with a Canadian accent, eh.  My life was about to change.

The phone rang.  It was Amy from Harpo Productions in Chicago.  Amy wanted to talk about my work on homeyness.  We chatted for awhile.  And that was that.

A week or so later, Amy called again.  Would I like to come on the show and talk about my work?  I said, “Sure, I would.”

Nothing happens in the academic world without the knowledge and approval of the department secretary.  I took my news to Barbara.

“Oprah Winfrey?” she said with reverence.

I nodded.

“You?” she said dubiously.

Barbara revered Oprah.  Me, not so much.

Barbara made further inquiries.

“On the Oprah Winfrey show?”

“In Chicago?”

“On television?”

I nodded.  Barbara’s eyes narrowed.  Something was wrong with the universe.

I arrived at O’Hare Airport on the appointed day.  I’d been told where to look for the Harpo limo, and sure enough, there it was, purring curbside.  I stepped inside expecting to have the car to myself, and I was surprised to find someone in place: a woman dressed all in blue.  She was wearing a blue Chanel suit with blue matching stockings.  The suit had those little black bands over the pockets.  Her hair was pulled back in the socialite manner, held by a little black band in the back.

A look of instantaneous dislike passed between us.  Conversation inched forward.  It turned out that the woman in blue was the other expert to appear on the show.  She was a New York designer and the author of a recent book on design in the home.

“My publisher has printed an extra 50,000 copies,” she said, “What about you?”

I had no book and no publisher.  I had a photocopy of my original, academic paper.

“Oh, you know, we’re talking about it,” I lied.

We made our way to a Chicago suburb and stopped in front of an attractive middle class home.  Taping commenced.

The first shot took place on the outside, to show the “experts” entering the home.  We were supposed to climb the stairs, hit the doorway, look to the camera and say,

“Hi, Oprah.  We’re here at the home of the Sullivans, and we’re going inside to take a look around!”

The blue-suited woman dispatched the task effortlessly.  She hit her mark, dispatched her line, and the producer said, “Perfect. You’re a doll.”

My turn came.  Repeatedly.

“Grant, let’s do it once more.  But this time maybe a little more oomph.”

I tried a couple more times, but it was clear I was hopeless.  I could see the producer thinking to herself, “Where did they find this guy?”

“Can you be a little more…vivid?” she asked me.

“Um,” I said finally, “you do realize I’m Canadian.”

No one thought this was the least bit funny.

The next shot was to capture our reaction to the Sullivan’s home.  The designer strode down the hallway into the kitchen.  She said something like, “Well, it’s obvious this is a family with no sense of design.  None!  Look, at these curtains.  Wrong shape.  Wrong size.  Wrong color!”

I cast a glance at the poor Mrs. Sullivan who was cowering against a kitchen wall.  She was beginning to have doubts of her own.  I couldn’t watch.  Nursing the terrible knowledge that I was bad television, I slunk into the living room.

And there were Dan, the father, and Danielle, the daughter, doing what they called the “Pocahontas dance.”  A couple of days before, they had been to see the Disney movie.  Danielle, blond, sunny, and about 6, had “memorized” her own scrambled version of the theme song, and father and daughter, oblivious to the commotion in the kitchen, were now performing it.  Dan picked Danielle up, threading her across his shoulders and sliding her back down to the carpet.  Danielle sang throughout these exertions, and as she dropped to the carpet, she finished with a joyful flourish.

The designer had swept out of the kitchen and was now, it seemed to me, laying waste to the living room.

She said something like, “Oh, look at this furniture.  I mean, really.  Everything is pushed to the wall.  No sense of proportion.  No sense of placement.”

I took this as my cue.  I signaled for the camera, and as it swung towards me, I said,

“Well, actually, there’s a reason the furniture is pushed to the wall.  It’s to make room for the Pocahontas dance.  Would you like to see the Pocahontas dance, Oprah?”

The producer looked around in panic.  She spotted Dan and Danielle and cued the camera man with a desperate, pointing gesture.

Just in time.  Dan and Danielle were already exuberantly lifting and singing.  It was perfect.  Had Dan and Danielle known they were going to be performing for national television, the performance might have been anxious or labored.  As it was, they were merely sharing a private joy.  It was about the sweetest thing you ever saw.

The producer gave me a look of new regard.  I might not be good television but I could see what was.  The designer, on the other hand, was staring daggers.

We went to a couple of homes.  The designer was predictable.  No one in suburban Chicago seemed capable of grasping the simplest precepts laid down by the New York design community.  Her job was apparently to mock and diminish.  My response was predictable too.  I kept suggesting the Sullivan home represented something remarkable, that this family had turned 2000 square feet of concrete and drywall into something happy, homey, and theirs.

The contrast could not have been more clear.  For the designer, these homes were a scandalous descent from the Platonic perfections of New York design.  For me, they were an ascent from a very different alternative: a cruelly anomic room at a Motel 6.  Designer and anthropologist were utterly different students of what was happening in the Sullivans’ home.  The Oprah producers had chosen us well.  Out of this tension came a show.

We were talking about two kinds of culture.  The designer was talking about fast culture.  I was talking about slow culture.

[an excerpt from McCracken, Grant. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books.] 

Case Study 2: Steampunk is flat

The contents of Steampunk tile tell a story. The first tile introduces the term. And then through the next six tiles, we show IBM’s noble effort to study Steampunk and then declare it the big trend for 2013.

As it turned out, IBM was wrong. The trend had in fact peaked. And that’s what makes Steampunk such a precious case study for futurists. It shows us a trend that appears to scale up beautifully. Here surely is a trend that’s taking the world by storm. And there are futurists who talk as if every “next big thing” must be triumphant. They make no allowance for trends that look for destined for greatness only to flatten out.

Here is the trend beginning it’s decline around 2013, a year before the IBM declaration.

And the peaks? The peaks come every October. Guess why? You got it in one. Halloween. Steampunk went from being a trend that looked like it would dominate the center of our culture only to be reduced finally to fancy dress, to a costume.

I know I sound like a know-it-all. Don’t forgive me. I’m being an idiot. Trevor Davis, the man in charge at IBM, was wrong and this makes him a hero. Because almost no one in the futurist community actually makes a public declaration and lives with it. Most everyone walks away from their errors…silently.

And this means we don’t learn from our errors.

I sometimes wonder whether this problem, not exposing our bets to contradiction and ourselves to ridicule, happens because cool hunting is infected by the same rules as cool. To made an error when it comes to fashion is to risk ridicule. But we cannot let that rule apply here…and we’re idiots if we let it.

Case Study 3: GHE20G0TH1K is going nowhere fast

GHE20G0TH1K is a tiny trend.

It’s not the future. It’s not even a future. It is a community of enthusiasm that started small and will stay small.

I came across it by accident. What, I wondered, is this? How did someone make “ghetto” and “gothic” go together.

It was one of the favorite conceits of the Complex Systems crowd that in a world of true dynamism a butterfly can flap its wings in the Philippines and eventually there’s a hurricane in Hawaii.

GHE20G0TH1K is not a butterfly. Like millions of trends, it will “eddie” out. Think of the ripples (aka eddies) we create when we throw a rock in a pool. For a very brief moment, order emerges. A wave runs outwards in all directions from the point of impact.

But almost immediately the eddie is extinguished. There wasn’t enough oomph there to help it get to Tsunami status. (Tsunami status is every eddie’s dream.) And there are other activities taking place on the surface of the pool. These “push back” and, hankies out, our eddie dies.

Most things eddie out. Almost everything eddie’s out. Unlike trend-watching in the 1950s when there were relatively few contenders for the “next new thing,” today there are many thousands.

This means three things:

1. We have to cast the net wide. There are lots and lots of trend candidates out there.

2. We need great pattern recognition skills that allow us to separate noise from signal.

3. Perhaps most important, we need metrics that help us perform steps 1 and 2, to survey and sort.

I scratched my head for a way to spot and measure GHE20G0TH1K.

Spotify had helped me see GHE20G0TH1K in the first place. And I was thrilled to see that it also supplies a metric.

These data are positively talkative data. They tell us GHE20G0TH1K is almost completely stationary.

-March 26, 2018: there were 51 followers.
-October 20, 2019: this number soars to 52 followers.
-August 22, 2020: 91 followers.
-August 24, 2020: 93 followers.

And, yes, sure, there must be other, better measures. But in these early days of M-T-F, we are data opportunists (aka data scavengers), using whatever we can find.

Still, and my unforgivably sneering tone aside, we want to audition lots of candidates because in the early days most things will look like GHE20G0TH1K.

Case Study 4: Celebrity fatigue

Until quite recently we were unapologetically in love with our celebrities. They were the last elite standing.

Experts, academics, social elites, politicians, civil servants, artists, authors, intellectuals, all of these had fallen.

Celebrities seemed to rise inexorably, taking over TV journalism, magazines like Vanity Fair, the best seller list, marketing and even innovation.

And then trouble came even for them.

Madonna proved to be the poster-girl.

Asked to give a tribute to Aretha Franklin, she managed to talk almost exclusively about herself. This seems to capture celebrity as a self-absorbed, narcissistic mess, a creature of clueless privilege. The world was outraged.

Suddenly it was open season on the material girl. Matthew Dessem wrote a piece in Slate entitled “Madonna’s Eurovision Performance Somehow Fails to Solve Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Perfect.

Poor Gal Gadot is the new target of the anti-celebrity movement. She dared comfort the COVID world from the splendor of a well stocked home.

Clearly, Gadot walked right into it. “What,” she must have thought to herself, “could be wrong about joining together to sing a song with my friends?”

Well, nothing except that it made her look like a creature of clueless privilege.

This much is clear. Mapping the future is not just for politicians and the C-suite. Now now also a good idea for celebrities.

Here’s the long term “mapping” question?” Who will replace celebrities as our creatures of influence. And why are they losing altitude in the first place?

And here is the most recent piece on celebrity fatigue, appearing in on July 24:

Sigee, Rachael. 2020. “Is the Age of the Celebrity Over?”

Acknowledgements: I have chatted several times with Mauricio Mota about celebrity fatigue.

Case Study 5: the eclipse of the cool hunter?

In late 2019 I had a meeting with Jodi Harris in NYC.

She looked at me across her desk, and smiled, and said,

“Look, we don’t need to hear about the latest thing. We don’t only care about cool. We want a bigger picture than that.”

I looked at her with astonishment. Actually what I wanted to do was shake my head sideways, as if to shift water from my ear. But that would have been odd. You know. And weird.

First rule of consulting: try not to look weird, especially on the first meeting.

Jodi continued, still smiling.

“We want to see the trend in context. Tell us about the “before.” You can go back to the 50s if you want to. Show us culture in motion. Like, give us a 70-year time horizon. That’s fine. That’s good.”

Jodi’s HQ sits on the east side of Grand Central Terminal. I wandered out of the meeting and through the station. People flying in all directions, miraculously without collision.

I pulled into the Campbell apartment to mull things over. “The Campbell” is tucked away in southwest corner of Grand Central. It was built by John Campbell in the 1920s to serve as his office and has since been turned into a bar and cocktail lounge.

The Campbell Apartment (then)
The Campbell Apartment (now)

Good for mulling. Because whatever they do to doll the place up, it will always feel like Mr. Campbell is going to stroll back in any second now.

Jodi had surprised me twice.

She was using “culture” correctly. Some clients are still wrestling with the culture idea. Fair enough, it’s a mess. But this client was using it precisely.

But what about the other big thing? Asking to see culture in motion? Asking for a picture that went back in time many decades. I mean, WTF.

Until very, very, very recently, clients wanted the latest thing…and that’s all they wanted.

WTF, indeed. What happened to those people who trafficked in cool? Was the cool hunter dying? Feeling poorly? Head cold? Sniffles?

Could this be the beginning of the reign of the cool hunter? Clearly, the cool hunter would have felt entirely out of place sitting across from Jodi. The meeting might have been uncomfortable, a little like falling asleep in the “before” Campbell apartment and suddenly waking up in the “now” Campbell apartment.

If the cool hunter is in decline, we can see three ways he created this destiny for himself. (I am gendering the cool hunter “male” because the good cool hunters were often “female,” witness, for instance, William Gibson’s character “Cayce Pollard” in Pattern Recognition.)

FIRST, the cool hunter was too often a Peter Pan, someone who used his professional work to fund his personal identity. He hunted cool to be cool. This is clearly a problem. This meant that he never looks at things that will not fund his hipness. He will never study housewives in Milwaukee, factory workers in rural Georgia, a hardware store owner in Olympia, Washington. No, if he was going to go to Olympia, Washington, it was to visit that hyper hip institution called Evergreen State College. This was the kind of place you could see the future. Hardware stores? Please.

SECOND, the cool hunter treated the client as if she were an idiot. In fact, he demanded obeisance from the client. Because, hey, to the cool hunter the world will always be high school. Some people rank high. And the rest of us should know our place.

THIRD, the cool hunter is never wrong. And this is true because he never takes a position or acknowledges his errors. Compare this to the diligence performed by one of my Harvard Business School students, now working in the investment world. At the end of each week, Gregory (not his real name) checks his errors, to see why he was wrong. And then he checks his successes, because, as he told me with astounding humility, “I might have been right for the wrong reasons.” Imagine a cool hunter saying that.

The cool hunting model has problems. Eventually, it’s going to be destroyed by its internal contradictions.

But there are also external factors that threaten the cool hunter with eclipse.

Reason 1: the speed of the game and the futility of catch up

The amazing Marilyn Batchelor helped me make connections in the world of big media in the 1990s. Specifically, she introduced me to a guy who signed new talent for a label in Los Angeles. (I forget his name, all apologies.) James, we will call him, said that he was often sitting across the desk from a youngster who was all dewy with expectation and gratitude for their big break. They apparently felt they had made it, but James can’t help thinking, “God bless you, kid. But there’s a good chance that your career is going to last as long as a NFL lineman. You know, two and a half years.”

The problem, James knew, is that music would change and the “kid” couldn’t keep up. Or worse, James would watch him descend into a tragic game of catch up, reforming his sound to match the latest thing just as it moved on. This would leave the kid sitting captive of the scorn that sits in the wake of the new.

When change was slower, things weren’t quite so bad. There was time enough to adjust, adapt and catch up. But now cool hunting brings only fleeting victory. For brands who come too late or stay too long, it’s better not to try at all. Cool hunting costs them more brand currency than it creates.

Reason 2: the rise of data

As long as we had no way to see contemporary culture changing, well, relying on the cool hunter’s “gut” was our best option.

But now we have things like Google data to help us see.

Here is a Google’s Ngram chart for “cool.” It shows us that even cool has a trajectory. Horrors, it looks as if cool is cooling!

Here is Google trends for yoga. We no longer need the cool hunter to “detect” that something is happening here. The data makes it clear that something is. Who needs the cool hunter’s hunch when the data are this clear?

Data trumps the hunch! Or, better, data plus intuition is illuminating in a way that the cool hunter can never be.

Reason 3: too many cools

At Culture Camp, I like to put up an image of the breakers at Waikiki beach. Something like this:

“This,” I say, “is what trends used to look like. Big, fat, changes rolling into shore. Easy to see. Easy to track. Easy to choose which one the brand wants to “surf.”

Then I put up an image of a seascape in chaos. And say, “Now it’s a perfect storm. No pattern. No warning.”

In the old days (aka the 20th century) there were relatively few creators, relatively few channels, relatively few experts playing gatekeeper. So the cool hunters didn’t have to monitor a lot to stay current. For many, it was enough to live in New York City or LA, and keep their eyes open. It was amazing what you could learn about pop culture from the window of your taxi as it took you to the airport.

But in the 21st century, we have millions of creators, channels too numerous to count, and many of the super influential gate keepers are gone.

There are just too many cools for the cool hunter to hunt. (That’s why the Griff is tracking 250 trends.)

Summing up

Over the years, cool hunters have done good and noble work. For all their abuses and indulgences, they helped us with the problem William Gibson identified when he noted that “the future is here but badly distributed.” Cool hunters knew where to find the future, when the rest of us had no clue.

Some of cool hunters actually helped shaped the future. If you told enough clients what was coming, you could make it so. (Li Edelkoort take a bow. The Guardian calls her “fashion’s best-known soothsayer.” I met her in Paris on an investigation of culture with the remarkable Charlotte Oades. But that’s a story for another time.)

Let’s salute the cool hunter. Let’s acknowledge that they helped us see. But let’s also acknowledge that they were too often an exercise in arrogance, intuition, and guess work.

And this leaves us looking down the barrel of the scariest trend of all: the decline of cool hunting itself. Now that we have better maps, better ships, and better navigational gear, it’s maybe time to bid the cool hunter adieu. Then again we don’t really have to. It’s there in the trajectory.

Google Trends: “The Cool Hunter” in the US, 2004 to present day.


Mapping the future versus flying blind

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for The Antioch Review. (You can find the entire essay under the title Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century in Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2016, 324-332.)

We are all confronted by organizations that are “flying blind.” Ten years ago, this condition was a confession of managerial incompetence. Well run organizations were supposed to be sentient, well formed, well managed and, usually, beautifully articulated to the tasks of creating value and avoiding risk. The universe was orderly. Management was rational. Only bad organizations were “flying blind.”

But these days “flying blind” is, for most organizations, an ordinary fact of life. It’shard to know what the future holds now that, as Harris Collingwood puts it, “idiosyncratic volatility is the signature of our economic age.” Strategists say that the world is more inscrutable, that planning is more difficult, that “disruption,” and “creative destruction” are the order of the day. 

Bryan makes a nagging doubt explicit.

[S]uppose we no longer believe that the future is foreseeable. What if defining and achieving an enduring competitive advantage is really just a conceit that must be abandoned? What if the outstanding fact of business, as John Maynard Keynes once described it, is the “extreme precariousness of the basis of knowledge”? […] In fact, this is the confusing, complex, and uncertain environment that corporate leaders now face. […] The variables that can profoundly influence success and failure are too numerous to count. That makes it impossible to predict, with any confidence, which markets a company will be serving or how its industry will be structured—even a few years hence. [Bryan, Lowell. 2002. “Just-in-Strategy for a Turbulent World.” McKinsey Quarterly June.

Responses to an inscrutable world are diverse. Some organizations have given up strategy altogether and have fallen into a mode that’s purely reactive. Once planning in cycles of a year or more, these organizations are now largely improvisational. They respond to the moment. 

Others have outfitted themselves with brave ideas. We are told that the corporation must “pivot,” be “nimble,” and “iterate.” This is better than absolute improv. But it’s not much more than a better “firehouse,” to use Andy Grove’s cautionary metaphor. The firehouse model says you can’t anticipate where the fires will break out. You just hope to get to there sooner. 

This is not a promising strategy. After all, there is an absolute limit to how much faster and more nimble an organization can become. And there’s no reason to suppose that the world will cease speeding up. Eventually, it must exceed even our new capabilities. The firehouse model is therefore flawed. It forsakes early warning, contemplation, and choice, and must eventually take us back to blind reaction.

I wonder if this isn’t a Hakluytian moment. Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, private secretary, and deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there. By our standards, Elizabethan explorers could be spectacularly casual about what they felt they needed to know to pilot a wooden ship across a forbidding sea in pursuit of landfall, contact, riches and glory. While his contemporaries were risking everything on scant knowledge, Hakluyt was gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. In the place of scant knowledge, rough ideas and blind reaction, Hakluyt was building a system of knowledge. 

So should we all.

It’s a lot to ask for. The new disorder means that the organization has to work harder just to stay abreast of day-to-day objectives. Taking up a Hakluytian function demands a different kind of problem solving and a different frame of mind. Some say it’s wrong to ask an organization to manage the present world and future ones. A couple of years ago, I proposed a new model with a “second corporation” wrapped around the first. The interior organization would devote itself to the conduct of ordinary business. The exterior organization would look out at possible futures and imagine new configurations for the organization. 

It will be a long time before the organization solves this problem on its own. We are asking one creature to invent its opposite. So few do. Every organization needs a Hakluytian function but virtually none is inclined to make one. (I leave this problem for future discussion: that something in capitalism refuses the adaptations required to survive the world it is creating.)  

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity. 

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.  

I think of the window as a large visual array, something like a weather map or less benignly a big screen at NORAD. (I am a Canadian and a baby boomer. My images are predictable. I apologize.) On this map, we would post “events” we think are in the works or, to use the aviation metaphor, “on approach.” Some are imminent. Others are ten years “out.” Each event is tied to a body of assumptions and bodies of qualitative and quantitative data. The array is driven by metrics. (In an era of “big data,” we are on the verge of measuring everything and therefore increasingly in possession of useful indicators of an event’s speed and maturity.)

We could have used a screen like this to identify and track the artisanal trend, nascent in the 1960s, suddenly clearer when Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in 1971, clearer still when a diaspora of chefs left Chez Panisse for other restaurants, and finally unmistakable when Michelle Obama installed a vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House in 2009. I have a client in the food business who not very long ago was still asking me to “take me through the whole artisanal thing again.” A Hakluytian center could have given her decades of advance notice and managerial clarity. She might still be in business.  

Event prediction is performed by the center’s skeleton crew and sabbaticants as they monitor the data and work and rework predictions. There will be heated debate, ongoing controversy, minority opinions but not we hope the kind of enmity and rancor that attends some academic discussion. This is a rough calculation, much more than it is a fine art. “Generally plausible” will always trump “precisely right.” To use that aviation metaphor again, this is less a problem than an air space. Many kinds of data, many kinds of opinion, many different and opposing surmises are welcome. 

Every innovation in the museum world is challenged by a chronic shortage of funds. The good news is that a Hakluytian center doesn’t need a faculty, just that skeleton crew. Much of the intellectual work will be performed by sabbaticants, people from some professional world who come for a day or a weekend. They will pay a fee to participate and this could be very handsome indeed. After all, visiting the Hakluytian center is the difference between flying blind and “having a clue.” (Clues are always better.)

There is a more narrow quid pro quo: between what the sabbaticant gives and what she gets. What she gives is the data and perspective that preoccupies her professional life as a University president, the director of an addiction recovery institute, the CEO of a large consumer packaged goods company, or a senior manager of a professional association. This will be the sabbaticant’s “parting gift,” the intellectual resources she leaves behind. What she gets is a new sense of clarity about what the future holds and how she might hope to navigate it to best effect. 

I would hope that the Hakluytian center would be very profitable, not just self-funding but a net contributor to the museum of which it is a part. The ROM makes do with around $60 million a year, a sum Victor Rabinovitch properly calls “totally insufficient.” A mature Hakluytian center could reasonably hope to increase this amount by 5%.

I can hear someone complain, “Someone else could do this. Surely, someone else is doing this.” Well, no. There is lots of strategy work in the private sector but it remains proprietary and under wraps. Academics remain silo-ed and in general they are disinclined to collaborate in the ways that a project of this kind demands. (I know this because it took a thorough reeducation before I could collaborate.) To my knowledge, no one has created a public window on the future. And I believe this much is clear: it is impossible to satisfy the tremendous intellectual demands of a project like this unless it is “under glass,” open source and the work of many minds.

Let’s close with the Richard Hakluyt given us by Peter Mancall in his wonderful book Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America. This book satisfies an anthropological objective: it helps us see into the mind and the experience of this extraordinary man as a nation wrestles with fateful decisions about whether and how to colonize the new world. Mancall demonstrates how much of Hakluyt’s “knowledge” was partial, unreliable, fanciful, in some cases positively mythological and absolutely wrong. Working from the resources available to someone living in Elizabethan England, even someone as intellectually acquisitive as Hakluyt, the new world was very hard to see. It’s easy to be smug about this now. Virtually everything obscure to him is clear to us. But it would be wrong. We have challenges of our own. 

Case Study 6: the Griff spots youth weaponizing youth?

While walking on Sunday, it occured to me that two parts of the Griff might be connected in ways I hadn’t seen.

Thus did “Failure to Launch” seem to connect to “Incel.”

Part 1: Failure to Launch

The Griff has been tracking the Failure to Launch problem for some time. This is the phenomenon that finds young men sitting at the verge of adulthood as if immobilized. They cannot see a path into adulthood.

Here are the various “mapping materials” we have collected with, and stored in, The Griff.

Veta Bates

(Thanks, incidentally, to Veta Bates [pictured] for her help with naming conventions in the Griff. As you will see in the introductory posts, I somehow thought “tile” was a good name for a part of the Griff. Veta didn’t come right out and say this was a bad idea, but I could hear her thinking it even at a distance of 60 miles.)

Lil Peep, photographer Miller Rodríguez, aka Pretty Puke, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Failure to Launch part shows a mixture of articles, screen shots, notes to self, etc. The data are compelling. We may see the crisis in the lives of Mac Miller and Lil Peep (pictured). The Griff also records “adaptive styles of masculinity” (in this case, possibly, the Ryan Reynolds character in Dead Pool) for sake of contrast and, when possible, intervention. The crisis is also evident in a slew of long-form journalism and academic studies. We are, as a culture, gnawing away at the problem.

In an essay, published in 2010 in the New England Board of Higher Education, Lane A. Glenn and Suzanne Van Wert said:

Only 43% of men are likely to graduate from college, compared with 60% of women. In addition to these bleak educational statistics, almost nine out of ten alcohol and drug violations are perpetrated by males; 95% of juvenile homicides are committed by boys; and 56% of men ages 18 to 24 live at home with their parents.

The bottom line: Young men are becoming less educated, less employable, less appealing as potential husbands and a greater burden to themselves and others.

The Griff is also drawing upon a series of ethnographic interviews I did in 2016. One interview in particular stays in memory. I had managed to corral 3 guys into conversation on the side walk of a strip mall in Los Angeles. After awhile, a kid turned up. He looked 16. He stood 15 feet away, just standing there, staring at us. (As an anthropologist I can report what I already know as a more or less successfully socialized male: when interacting with other males, staring is almost always a bad idea.)

One of us waved the kid over. He was thrilled to join us, clearly honored to be treated as “one of the guys.” Just as clearly he had no idea how to join the conversation or what to do once he got there.

Failure to Launch is a part of contemporary culture. It is in fact a giant crisis. Something in the way we define maleness is now broken and the effects are debilitating. I have sought funding to study this. No success. (If you, dear reader, want to fund me or join me, please do get in touch.)

So there it was. Failure to Launch. Sitting on the Griff. Blinking with alarm. Clearly this is something we need to reckon with. A damaged maleness has implications for education at every level, and especially the university and college levels. It will have implications for family life, the work force, parenting…well, maleness is so central to whether and how an individual participates in contemporary life, it appears to matter everywhere. Failure to Launch is an urgent part of our future.

Part 2: Incel

Incel is short for “involuntary celibate.” A superb Wikipedia treatment defines Incels as:

“members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. Discussion in incel forums are often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity, and self loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people… Incels are mostly male and heterosexual.”

That Incels exist is interesting and, for the Griff, noteworthy. But I put Incel on the Griff for three more specific reasons.

Reason 1: What interested me about Incels was less their spectacular inclination to hatred and violence than their robust sense of entitlement. Incels believe themselves entitled to a sense of injury. They believe they deserve better. I couldn’t help feeling this amounted to a contradiction. Incels withdraw from the world and then insist the world is withholding something from them. (But of course it doesn’t matter what an anthropologist thinks. We are obliged to accept what the respondent says and feels. This is something to be explained, not judged.)

Reason2: Entitlement is usually something that belongs to insiders, especially high ranking insiders. But here was a group of self declared outsiders, people who had failed a social expectation (that men will be sexually active) but who believed themselves entitled to an acknowledgement of the “injury” inflicted on them, a special status because of this injury, and, finally, some kind of redress.

Reason 3: Once outsiders can feel the sense of entitlement normally reserved for insiders, our culture is decentralizing, disaggregating. It has lost its gravitational field. And when that happens, well, we only need to look at politics to see what follows. In the language of Rousseau, we are becoming less an association of people than an aggregation. Or, to use the words of Erving Goffman, we are ceasing to be a “we.”

Incels are technically interesting. But that was not the reason the Griff was tracking them. I was in effect using Incels as a measure of something else. They have broken loose from a more conventional, shared, point of view. They are abrogating cultural powers of self invention. (And what could be scarier?)

You can see how the Griff is acting on me here. I am concentrating on Incel to the exclusion of all else. Or better, I am treating it as a rabbit hole or, more flatteringly, a thermal. I am going up or down within the confines of the idea. What I am not doing is looking at Incels in a broader context.

This changed Sunday when it suddenly occurred to me to connect Part 1 (Failure to Launch) to Part 2 (Incels). I think I was prepared to do this because I had just listened to the interview of Laura Bates by Sonia Sodha on YouTube. Bates has done ethnographic work of her own, and her comments are highly recommended.

Suddenly there it was. The possibility that some Failure to Launch males were being mobilized and in a few cases weaponized. Someone had found a way to turn a sense of personal crisis into a shared grievance and, sometimes, an agent of terror.

The problem was clear. I had been thinking about the Failure to Launch respondents according to what I had learned from that 16 year old kid in Los Angeles. By this reckoning, they were innocents of the first order. These were kids too clueless to be an agent of evil. These were kids too out of it to be a threat to anyone.

In fact when I go back to the Failure to Launch (FTL) part of the Griff, I find myself looking at language that suggests that FTL males are indeed innocuous. The pieces here talk about “snowflakes,” “overparenting,” “simp,” “failure,” and “suicide.” Only three entries “mass shooter,” “toxic masculinity,” and the essay on techno suggest more aggressive sentiments and motives.

But there is also a methodological failure. I had logged two parts of the Griff and just never stopped to consider the possibility that they might be interacting with one another. This tells me I need a method that prevents this from happening. I need to spend less time adding to the Griff and more time working with it.

And why not? I know enough about American culture to know that Americans believe this right to be inalienable: anytime we find ourselves defined by culture in a way that defames or diminishes us, we are free to refuse and redefine that culture. More simply, no one remains stigmatized for long.

So I should have looked to see if Failure to Launch was producing a reaction. (And indeed I still have to undertake this study to see if there is one.)

Ok, let’s sum up.

The blog is meant to do two things.

1) Share some of the things we have put on the Griff. And in this case there is I think grounds for alarm. Failure to Launch is by itself terrifying. That we are a culture that can no longer socialize young men must be close to a fundamental flaw. Fix this, the anthropological handbook says, or suffer lasting consequences and guite spectacular damage. But when we add to this, the Incel phenomenon, we are now looking at one trend being sharpened by a second. And that means the FTL trend has already began to metatize into something far scarier and more danger. (How we measure, track and predict this interaction is PRECISELY the thing the Grift is designed to do, but that piece of mapping the future will have to wait for a future post.)

2) To share the methodological issues that spring up when you are trying to map the future. Clearly there are good and bad ways to run something like the Griff, and clearly I am still learning what these are. I share them here so that you can build a better Griff.

Thanks to Robert Hall for several illuminating discussions on topics raised in this post.

Richard Hakluyt, master mapper

Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616)
Hakluyt (pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, private secretary, and deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there. By our standards, Elizabethan explorers could be spectacularly casual about what they felt they needed to know to pilot a wooden ship across a forbidding sea in pursuit of landfall, contact, riches and glory. While his contemporaries were risking everything on scant knowledge, Hakluyt was gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. In the place of scant knowledge, rough ideas and blind reaction, Hakluyt was building a system of knowledge.

The Griff

This is my map of the future.

I know it doesn’t look like a map of space, but then it’s a map of time.

Each of these tiles represents something I think could transform us.

How did I compile it? Over several years, I have kept a list of things that made me go “hmm.”

There are around 250 tiles here. This is beginning to feel like a useful number. There is one futurist who tracks 200,000 trends. Too many, surely. Others prefer to trumpet just one thing (the next big thing, dammit!). Too few.

The idea is to start small. With a thought, a glimmer, a thing that might be a thing. Or to use the language of engineering, “noise” that doesn’t really qualify as “signal.”

That is the challenge here. We have to see things early, when they don’t really look like things at all. And then we have to be prepared to repudiate them in the event they were really just “noise” after all. Or to watch them transform themselves into something entirely unexpected.

I have a bias when it comes to mapping the future. As an anthropologist, I’m interested especially in the social and the cultural things that will have shape our future, sometimes as causes, sometimes as effects.

Continue reading “The Griff”

2 How the Griff works

outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

Empathy may seem like a weird thing to spot and track. What can it possibly have to do with our future?

Well, we all listened to the 2020 Democratic nomination of Joe Biden. The term “empathy” featured so prominently, it has been called the theme of the conference.

“Asked and answered,” you might say. “The Dems were distinguishing themselves from Trump, a man widely seen not to care about the feelings of others.”

Well, yes, and no. The point is that all presidents are now measured on their empathy. With Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon no one cared.

In fact, the Google Ngram (below) suggests that empathy didn’t use to matter at all. And then it began rising steadily.

Google Ngram Viewer on “empathy”

And this leaves us with a question: why the stratospheric rise? What is it about empathy that appeals to us so deeply? Why is this a feature of contemporary culture? Why does so much “heat” attend the term?

So, yes, I am keeping a watch on empathy and the puzzle it represents.

The software I’m using here is called TheBrain. It helps us visualize all the things we’re trying to track. And it allows us to attach research materials to any one of our tiles.

If we click on the term “empathy” below…

outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

…we can see what’s beneath the empathy tile.

There are a variety of data points. Some are blog posts. One is the Wikipedia entry for empathy. The Ngram data is there. I had a conversation with Lenore Skenazy that touched on it. This is stored in Notion, and I have a pointer to it there. And you can see me asking myself “does empathy make a diffusion journey?” This is me wondering whether “empathy” began in some corner or class of our culture and spread.

This subentry also captures a passage I have clipped from a good book by Susan Lanzoni on the topic. (See on the right-hand side of the image below.) I have a strong hunch that Lanzoni’s definition of empathy is NOT the one now circulating so widely. And that’s a “finding” all on its own.

So the watch is on. I will continue to look for evidence that tells me what the empathy trend is, where it comes from, where it’s going, and what our interest in empathy tells us about the state of American culture.

By itself, this tiny fragment of American culture is neither here nor there. It doesn’t really tell us very much. But added to lots of other fragments, it begins to give us a larger picture, something like a map. Especially when we wire this map up with ethnographic data (person to person, talking data), survey data, statistical data and someday, AI.

As we approach the completion of this map, there will be strange and wonderful discoveries. Take, for instance, what happens when we ask Google Trends to break out empathy data by state. It turns out (below) that the part of the US where people are least interested in empathy is Washington, D.C. How very telling!