October 31, 2006
Two Events This Saturday
I'll be talking this Saturday in NYC about social software in action at MetroNYC's "Beyond Boot-Strapping: Take-Home Lessons on Growing a Sustainable Enterprise or Organization"
Then at a yet unset time that afternoon/evening there will be some Payphone Warriors in the streets of New York. Write me if you want go out and play...
October 27, 2006
Waistline Banging Like a Bassline
You can call it a general lie, a lie so big yet so harmless that no one really cares that it's a lie. Like many American boys and to a lesser extent girls, I was introduced to the general lie via comic books. Comics for whatever reason tend to arrive in the stores about three months before the date on their covers. I've never heard the definitive story as to why, but the common explanation is that it makes them seem newer, but really, even avid comic book fans don't really think they are getting shipped in from 3 months in the future do they? Instead they just accept the general lie, a small quirk of a medium that thrives on quirks.
I've been slowly testing and exploring a venture into producing a line of clothing and it's there I stepped upon another general lie. One that lies around the waistline. Women's clothing comes in more or less abstract sizes, a size 2 or size 12 connotes nothing in itself, any information it communicates comes from it's relationship to the other sizes and to past experience trying on clothing of a similar number. Men's clothing on the other hand is often sized in inches, a shirt with a 16 and 1/4 inch collar, a pair of pants with a 34 inch waist and 32 inch inseam. These are numbers I always took for granted where pretty much true, and sometimes they even are. But when it comes to the waistline, well the truth is far fatter than the numbers, at least when it comes to American (and British) garments... About four inches fatter by my calculation. A size 32 waist in a garment is closer to 36 inches on the tape measure, a 34 closer to 38...
Has it always been this way? I doubt it. When I told my patternmaker that the first sample would be a 32, she took it literally, on her side of the garment industry the numbers don't lie. The lies don't start till the inside of some factory, maybe it's in Guatemala, maybe in Turkey, maybe in China, maybe in a few cases even in the US still. There the garments are put together under one number and with just a few swift stitches to a label walk out under another number altogether. All for the sake of protecting the male ego it seems, for at least in the eyes of the garment industry Americans just can't handle how fat we are getting...
As I inch closer to actually producing garments, this presents an interesting dilemma. I could tell the truth, sell pants with the actual waist size labeled. But to do so would mean I'd be out there making people feel fat as they try on my clothes, not exactly the best sales tactic, no? More than that I'd be paddling upstream, pitching garments that just don't fit the way people expect them too, despite being more honest about their size. One can imagine comic publishers faced with a similar dilemma as they slowly inflated the dates on their covers. On one hand they all knew the dates where a farce, yet at the same time no one could turn back without risking looking like they where behind the times. So as the American waistline slowly creeps up undercover of the garment industry, don't blame me, I'm just following the crowd towards bigger and better things...
October 10, 2006
It's the year 2006, how do you get away with publishing a book without ever googling your title? I have no idea but Richard Lanham's new book The Economics of Attention curiously has no references at all to Michael Goldhaber's The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net, hmmmm. Goldhaber's work was published online in a peer-reviewed journal nine years ago. It's core premise is practically identical to Lanham's. Google the title of Lanham's book and Goldhaber shows up as the third full result, behind only references to Lanham's book. I'm all of nine pages into that book so who knows how it stacks up, but it sure hasn't started out right, at least if your a nerd like me who reads the bibliography first...
October 09, 2006
"Corporate Social Responsibility" and the "Bottom of the Pyramid"
Can a corporation have a conscience? Nobody really asked that at Columbia Business School's Social Enterprise Conference 2006, but the question underlaid it all uneasily. Well, at least for me. The fact that the conference exists at all clearly indicates that plenty of business school students have some conscience, but they fact that they are in business school in the first place also clearly indicates that conscience is modulated by a certain faith in enterprise.
The buzzword that resonated loudest to me in this buzzword filled environment was "corporate social responsibility" or CSR for short. The idea is that companies need to healthy citizens or something, but in practice it seemed more like a way for people embedded deep in giants like Citicorp or Alcoa to soothe their own consciences with a small diversion from the corporate cash flows. Strikingly absent from the discussion was any sense of how CSR spending, when it exists at all, might stack up against the rest of these giant's budgets.
Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, at least talked real numbers as he accepted an award of some sort. He proudly threw up a quote about how it was better to be a Costco employee or customer than a shareholder. The Costco philosophy is to cut costs everywhere except when it comes to employees, who if I remember his sliders correctly represent 70% of the companies operating cost! But even as he deflected personal credit away from him and out towards his entire management team it was quite clear this approach is merely an iteration of the age old concept of the enlightened dictator. The employees/serfs may be happy, but only because the situation is enforced from the top. Like his counterparts at the head of Starbucks and American Apparel, Sinegal has no structure in place to ensure that his enlightened approach can be anything other than a management decision.
This situation has deep roots in the history of management theory, it's something of a Taylorism versus Fordism approach. Happy employees is clearly a successful business style, but so is the far more exploitative bean counting tight ship way of management. Costco might be better for employees than Wal-Mart, but both still are out there and both perpetuate hierarchies that pump money into a small upper class. Some kings were better to their serfs than others, but either approach meant the existence of a kingdom. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the corporate organizational form emerged just as democracy began to unstabilize the aristocracies of old.
It's not the aristocratic side of this corporate finishing school that's really disturbing though, it's the religious one. Most people in these environs have some sense, however watered down, of their privilege and the larger inequalities out there. It's the people who truly have a faith in "The Market" that really freak me out. The ones that really believe that "CSR" will spread because consumers demand it or scarier still those that believe in BOP. BOP stands for the "bottom (or sometimes "base") of the pyramid", the billion strong poorest of the poor. The idea is that by turning these people into entrepreneurs partnered with multi-national corporations and selling to their equally poor peers poverty can be eradicated.
One of the key mantras of BOP believers is that it can not be reduced to just selling goods to poor people, but instead requires a far more intense and interlocking relationship with the target market. This is absolutely true. What BOP is about is not selling products, that's just a corollary to all. What it is about is selling an ideology. Like the centuries of missionaries before them the BOP proponents think they are saving when actually they are converting.
Poverty is an issue with far more ramifications than can be explored here, but the simple point is that not having a lot of money can only be seen as an absolute bad thing if you follow a faith that revolves around the accumulation of wealth. Certainly there are probably problems that we as westerners see in the populations at the "base of the pyramid" that the people themselves might also agree are problems. But there are also problems that are far less physical and far more religious in nature. Like the heathens of old these are people with different value systems than us, and like missionaries trying to save souls, it's quite likely some of the problems the BOP practitioners are out trying to solve are only problems of faith. And as well meaning as they may be I for one have no faith their little enterprise...
October 08, 2006
Why is it that anytime you read about the advertising or video game industry, both of which are massive profitable and pretty much icons of our culture, they always claim to be struggling? Are industries based upon rapid fire information inherantly less stable than ones based on selling material goods?
October 02, 2006
The Ghost Map
When Steven Johnson says his next book is going to be about cholera, you can't help but be a little surprised. Yet while it has very little to do with Johnson's recent books on video games, television and brain machines, The Ghost Map is much less a departure and much more of a welcom return to the territory of his first two books. Follow the paths set by Interface Culture and Emergence till the point where they converge and you will find The Ghost Map. It's easily Johnson's best work yet and perhaps the first classic urbanist text of the new century.
The setting is precise, a handful of blocks in London's Soho neighborhood, late summer 1854. The stakes however are impossibly large, with London at the lead, the world in 1854 is getting increasingly urban, and the more urban it gets the greater the threat of cholera becomes. Cholera's vector of transmission is the digestive tract. It comes into the body through drinking water, and exits the other end, taking with it an extraordinary amount of a person's internal fluids, and usually their life with it. This leaves the cholera bacteria with a rather nasty biological challenge, it's main point of reproduction is the small intestine, yet getting from one person's small intestine to another is quite a journey. For most of history this meant cholera played quite a minor character.
As the industrial revolution pushed more and more of the world into cities, a unique opportunity for cholera arrived. When hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people squeeze into the tight streets of a city, their shit tends to flow downhill, and often straight into the same river that their drinking water is pulled from. The city literally began to function as a shit eating, or more accurately drinking, machine and cholera epidemics began to pop up regularly. The result was often tens of thousands of deaths in short periods of time. If the urban form was going to continue to grow, and all the pressures of the industrial age were pushing in that direction, it would need to deal with the problem of cholera. In London, in Soho, late summer of 1854 in a remarkable series of events the city essentially learned how to deal with cholera and this is the story of The Ghost Map.
Johnson approach to history clearly owes a certain debt to Manuel DeLanda's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History but this book is almost it's inverse, centering on a highly specific point in time and space, and following a potent narrative. Perhaps you can call it "A Thousand Hours of Linear History". Those compact hours that form the core of the book are in a way an intricate tracing of something straight out of DeLanda's work, the crossing of a material threshold which then allows humans to settle into entirely new urban formations. For only by conquering, or at least learning to manage, cholera can people and cities evolve towards the massive scales we see today. DeLanda however labors hard to produce almost entirely material histories, invoking odd concepts like robot historians and the viewpoint of minerals themselves. Johnson follows something of this form when he talks about bacteria and cities, but then interjects two intensely human actors into the picture to produce a radically different sort of book.
The most striking academic parallel to The Ghost Map is not DeLanda's work at all but Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France. It's been a long time time since I cracked upon that tome, and honestly I'm not certain I ever finished it, but Latour is telling a strikingly similar tale to Johnson, tracing the complex interplay of factors that lead Louis Pasteur to his ideas and the world into adopting him. Latour of course is almost deliberately obtuse in his explorations, his goal at the time was to multiply the possible explanations, so once again Johnson again takes a somewhat inverted approach. Johnson is of course one of the clearest and must lucid of the current crop of science and technology writers. Given Latour's recent exhalation of the art of writing as core to the successful application of his Actor Network Theory, one has to wonder if Johnson may have inadvertently produced one of ANTs finest documents.
Like Latour Johnson breaks from the hero model of scientific discovery. But while Latour and his ANT practicing colleagues attempt to introduce as many actors, both human and non-human, into the story as possible, Johnson finds a much more coherent middle ground. The traditional telling of this story focuses around John Snow the lone scientist fighting against prevailing opinion, and Johnson does not try to discredit him, but instead adds three more actors to the stage, the microscopic cholera bacterium, the massive water infrastructure of London itself, and the very human and very social figure of Reverend Henry Whitehead. The result is a complex yet compellingly clear tale of social, scientific, organic and urban forces interweaving to produce both a tragic outbreak of disease and ultimately it's solution. It may well be the best book on urbanism since City of Quartz, yet way more optimistic, and well worthy of a space next to Jacobs on your urbanism shelf.