Thursday 19 November 2009

Cultural Media Studies

I wrote most of this on paper and so you may detect a different tonality and flow to the text. I guess I need to start somewhere on the long road to another vast topic I want to connect with here, and that's culture, but I'll start with media, move on to books and then scratch the surface of culture: something I think I'm qualified to comment on. I pride myself on living with real people in different countries and have managed to achieve that with a bit of planning and a little bit of luck including what may have seemed like bad luck at the time but often yielded gems along the way. So here goes.

I've blathered on about the awe I have for Marshall McLuhan and particularly his 1964 classic "Understanding Media". It's a seminal tour de force that contributed greatly towards my  never ending discovery of communication theory and for that I'm very grateful. It's rare that I find the view reflected upside down in my retina as unintresting or unable to provide questions I need answers to. 

I recall a long time ago in a distant agency within the M25, that I was the first to request the retro-tech short message service from HR, who explained what it was or why our banana Nokia phones had the alphabet on the keypad. Fortunately and unlike fax machines I didn't have to wait for anyone else to subscribe and immediately had a lot of fun 'interrupting' the creative team with SMS messages sent from the de facto 'planners room' called the library a place where we tended to cluster.

It was not a service like today where all mobile providers automatically make revenue from service provision. Back in the day (1998) it was a service that so few used, it needed to be subscribed to seperately. This was around the cusp of when it was about to take off, big-time and globally. The rest is history and we now see it as a utility of life that cannot be substituted and is arguably the basis for status updates on messenger platforms and the increasingly ubiquitous Twitter.

Why am I once again resurrecting, McLuhan's 'medium is the message'? Well I've never stopped giving it consideration and I guess in some way it's finally losing (or at least occasionally feels like diminishing) its overwhelming philosophical momentum, despite the internet and it's mind bogglingly immense challenge to the twin notions of hot and cool media conjured up by Marshal's book nearly derailing me totally. Perhaps it has forever.

I've since reconciled most of the neurological dynamics that constitute media temperature, engagement and distraction (a critical and too seldom discussed dimension) with the content; you know, the bits we brief and that the creatives deliver on).

In any case my recent enforced seperation from the internet means I was once again consuming printed words from a creative underground's bookshelf in a manner that would shame a Hoover into mutating mechanically into a Dyson.

"Suck it". "Suck it and see" I was once told by someone who didn't want to answer all my questions. Well I'm sucking it now. Hoovering up printed works for the first time in a long time and I'm pleased to see that my early thoughts immersed in digital are confirmed. It's   possible I've concluded, to neurologically rewire my brain back to the state it used to be. 

One where I would devour long thick chunks of printed text for hours on end, day after day, week after week and well, you get the picture. That was before RSS snacking became the best god damm information buffet one could wish for. When the information highway suddenly cranked up a bit, resembling the 1993 Corvette I wrote about in this post over here.

Since writing this I've dined on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (over rated and dripping with inconsistency - the sort of book I imagine I'd be guilty of writing) as well as the insufferably over stretched "Wikinomics" which is not so bad when picking and  choosing the chapters that matter, but is nevertheless borderline sea sick boredom if compelled under orders or circumstances like myself to eat the entire spread.

Wikinomics is, compared to RSS, like enforced consumption of no-label crisps and curling  and dried salmon-spread sandwiches before say a cool dip on a hot summers day in an inflatable pool with the kids in a back garden over freshly sliced prosciutto wrapped around bread sticks, ace deli pickles, avocado and vinaigrette with bruschetta and black olive tapenade and hell, let's go for it, a yellow bell pepper coulis - just because I can.

It's a good book in parts, but fuck me (metaphorically) it has whole chapters that are more iterative and circular than Marble Arch roundabout playing Hotel California on a car stereo, looping endlessly on a scorching hot day with bumper to bumper traffic. Ah the Eighties - how I loved you.

So you don't believe me eh? Well feel free to read what I wrote a few months before Hong Kong Clown Investigation Department (CID) busted my intravenous digital drip compelling me to read all these books.

OK, I'm only into my third book while dipping sporadically into the Holy Quran before hitting the Talmud and the Torah while taking a never ending feast on Therevada Buddhism (which I interrupted recently with a book on Mormonism - The American Religion), and keeping an eye on The Tao 'n stuff. I can't take the Bible too seriously these days despite some awesome chapters, but that may be over familiarity breeding testimonial contempt. I do however like the observation I read recently over on Lee Maschmeyer's blog, that the Bible is an early example of open source collaboration which brings me (as only the Bible could) on to Tapscotts & Williams Wikinomics. There's an inverse proportionality to Wikipedia content and value itself. This highly padded (and thus time wasting) book Wikinomics is a 21st century publishing irony of the highest order?

There are however in this book, as I've mentioned, great parts. I loved learning about the LAMP stack. Linux, APACHE, MySQL (Database) and PHP (Perl Scripting). Frankly that is one sexy fucking combo and they should cut out the nonsense we often teach kids and introduce infants to that lot from Kindegarten age - I'm serious, it's a language isn't it? 

Or is it the case that since English became the Lingua Franca we no longer entertain ideas of placing emphasis on learning languages. I can imagine George Orwell with his Spanish(or was that Catalan?), Urdu and several Burmese dialects would have recognised this as a national and systemic weakness brought on by globalization. Yet we feel this everytime as a Brit we sit in meetings where people are arguing their case more effectively in their second or third language than we can in our first. It's awe inspiring and only my own understanding of Thai, Burmerse, German and weak French provide succour against this overwhelming feeling of inferiority. You'll feel worse if you speak just the one. I'm just saying.

Despite the ace LAMP stack chapter in Wikinomics, there's waffle McCheesy summertime specials like the chapter on IDEAGORAS which  could be wrapped neatly into a couple of concise blog posts or bundled into an Harvard Business Review circular, for corporates who want to play with the new boys on the block - that's us isn't it? I mean, come on! That part about printing on cakes as one memorable example illuminates what the writers of Wikinomics perceive as the peak of  intra/extra corporate innovative collaboration? Do me a favour. Fucking cup cake printing. Don't believe me? Check it out. It's a weak book and riddled with stretched arguments though that doesn't mean a weak argument will never manifest itself as an argument that is proven robust through subsequent realization.

Yeah right.

So anyway, in pursuit of complexity, inconsistency, contradiction and general woolly thinking. I would like to now pull out of Gladwell's skinny and twitching ass (complete with walnut timbre voice) a real nugget of a find which he begins to tease out of his latest book Outliers. It runs beautifully consistently with what I imagine not too many of you are aware (though it's all in the archives here) are my own views on culture. That mile wide and inch deep tarmac of delusional self construct. Beautiful for pulling away at speed in our own directions but less suitable for landing a plane without buckling the surface up under the pressure like fresh linguini. You get the picture.

Because culture both matters and it doesn't. Or maybe it's just inconsequential if the spirit has the courage to overcome the cultural conditions imposed on us and then enforced by us in yet another myopic loop of recursive patriotism. In other words "You're as big or as small as your culture" but never bigger than the ultimate fighting club called humanity. United we stand so to speak.

Here's the evidence to support it, because me and Malc are at one on this.

In Gladwell's outliers, he tiptoes round an inch of culture that is easy to drill through and set up some cone induced traffic jams around, for as long as John Major's hotline is a telephone call away. You see Macolm introduces Geerte Hofsteder's cultural dimensions. Don't let that scare you off because I"ve stuck the boot into Hofsteder about four years ago while working on the Unilever business regionally and in this presentation I wrote over here. It is now dated somewhat, by a lot of new thinking and reading I've done. However Geert's work is pertinent as is Malcom's chapter on Korean Air's little accident streak which I'll talk about a little later 

Because It's Gladwell's ionospheric 10 000 hours - Practice makes Perfect (ubung macht den meister) mantra that beggars  belief. Rather than rip to shreds "Talcum Malc" equating the whole U.S. population into four outliers which is inconsistent with the books theme in so many ways, I'd prefer to hone in on that point about The Beatles who Malcom writes, riffed for a couple of thousand hours while in Germany but actually improvised from sheer boredom rather than a manic obsession with perfection that Malc implies (Beatles Anthology - 2000) in Hamburg's Star Club. And don't even get me started on why a few thousand hours isn't even close to 10000 hours. No. The Beatles were Spesh because they were spesh. I'll never forget that Mexican kitchen I talked about in LA (in The White Album Post) where the kitchen staff had only two words in their vocabulary for me when I turned up for work and explained in crap Spanish that I was English - The Beatles. Hooligan. They grinned. That's the Brits isn't it. Off the scale creative or out of order repugnant.

So instead I'll pick up on the interesting chapters or is it chapter because sport isn't interesting, sport is a media/social object for (generally speaking) allowing men of questionable masculinity, the self confidence to talk to each other (often passionately) unhindered by accusations of homosexuality permeating the air. One only needs to observe the silence on Australian Football and tight fitting shorts, America's obsession with Canadian Ice Hockey and anal sex (or is that just right wing nut US obsession? Probably) , steroids and poppers for American Soccer and/or well hung African American (strange fruit hangs differently) basketball players. Did I just write that? Yes. But nobody will question it. Nobody ever does.

I digress. Where was I?

Oh yeah. Gladwell's Outliers, but not in the hung, drawn and quartered black American populace (see how I revived the last paragraph's ending) there's a chapter where Malc writes about Korean Air going through a bit of a rough patch. It's important for the cultural question that keeps on cropping up all round the world in the planning game because Korean Air's history was beginning at one point to be littered like a Lockerbie bomb's cadaver sprawl with aviation accidents and so the Korean Aviation authorities compelled the airline to do the unthinkable and contact the Federal Aviation authority to see what was the cause of the unmistakable trend for ditching Jumbo Jets in awkward circumstances.

Could it be a cultural issue? Fuck no. Culture is only ever a good thing. It's what we wrap out inner pride and outer flags around. It's worth going to war for and is never flawed. In short Culture is King. It's magnificent where ever one travels which is why when in Rome one makes praise for Prada. Nobody inside an entire country could point out that Korean air needed outsiders to investigate the insider issue because the Feds can only be invited in an emergency and not imposed on a nation. Which is why the US needs to listen right now to criticism of foreign policy because Hillary and even Obama are already spoiled persimmons. Capiche?

Could one culture be less perfect than another? This is the sort of dangerous question that can lead to justifiable accusations of racial bigotry or prejudice. The answer is in all cases. Sometimes.

The issue that led to a series of aviation disasters (it's always a disaster isn't it when an Afghan wedding isn't involved) was the power distance ratio mentioned earlier and which draws on Geerte Hofsteder's principle that different cultures have different hierarchical language constructs  for engaging with senior (or subordinate) ranks.

For example, in this instance the senior air pilots were unable to be addressed by the second in command pilots in a direct manner that would avert impending doom. Much like my argument with Hong Kong CID as I tried to convey they should get off their asses and talk to the cab driver sat outside with my suitcases in his cab. I could say what I like in that instance but my urgency wasn't their urgency so everyone got even more overtime.

The power distance ratio which varies from country to country meant that immediate danger could not be averted through direct language. Formality is a cultural protocol in Korea (and across Asia). This is where culture needs to be examined more closely as ressponsible  for and contributing towards less than satisfactory solutions.

Korean culture is (or was) structured in such a way that safety could not be maintained.

It's so funny it's not funny for those in the research influenced business but even the research findings  were so sensitive a subject to broach that the presenter to Korean Air was unable to say directly "Look it's our  culture that is the problem". That's a self referential joke of the highest order isn't it?

Eventually the problem was defined and the Federal Aviation Authority was brought in to culturally 'retrain' the pilots and crew to address each other in a manner that once implemented, saved their own lives. It's like a scene from Black Adder isn't it. With the men in the trenches jumping through hoops to point out the bleeding obvious to the donkeys leading the lions.

But it took the US to make the emphatic point that some cultures (as Morrissey might have sung) are bigger than others. And it's true they are. Though context is everything, like those Afghan weddings bombed by war drones can testify.

The conclusion?

Like I've said many a time (though even the observation is culturally biased), culture is a mile wide and an inch deep. If Pilots to cabin crew can retrain, then so can all of us. It's not insurmountable and it's because of this that while I'm endlessly fascinated by culture (I like to live outside of my own), I'm also deeply unhappy with an all too frequent dependancy by different nationalities to pull the culture card out as either a mark of superiority. Or an excuse to do less than is internationally up to standard. The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed.

As a last example of counter cultural exceptionalism I suggest Windows by Microsoft. My answer to the "we're different card" is that if the world is so diverse, then why is it that with different scripts and reading directions. Left to right, right to left and top to bottom that there is only one position for Start in Windows and one for minimise. The drop down menu is global. But if you focused grouped it there'd be pandemonium.

So culture is great, and culture is important, but it's also not necessarily essential that things need to be different given the extent of our commonalities. So few actually get that. 

Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)