January 2008


Chances are you’ve already caught the buzz over this Pepsi ad airing on Superbowl Sunday (go Giants!?), especially if you’re into accessibility issues. I had to throw it up for three reasons.

1. Accessibility

No, not the ‘we want to make our website easier/a great experience to navigate’ accessibility but the cultural challenge of accessibility or, in translation, the lip service that the ‘mainstream’ pays to the ‘marginals’. Deaf people on TV (deaf people other than Marlee Matlin) using sign has so many layers that two of them – hearing folks accessing deaf culture (and humour is a great culture coder) and deaf folks (or at least the actors and people behind the scenes who came up with the spot) accessing a hearing medium (sorry Voice Print) – illustrate just how well Pepsi gets the whole ‘community’ thing that brands are hungering for. Rather than pursuing the somewhat/sometimes artificial strain of community that’s architected on a web site, this ad illustrates how there are still so many communities that have yet to be linked in. As a peripheral participant and having done some work in the accessibility/disability community, I have to give props to Pepsi for all the talk and signing they’ll generate over this. I only wish they’d skipped the preamble of the ad. Like narration in a Hollywood flick, it sort of dumbs down the whole experience.

2. Humour

I still enjoy (and see the mini-genius behind) some TV ads. Unlike those who like to eulogize the 30-second spot, I still find some of them very funny, touching, original and – given how many viewers the game will have – an avenue that still offers a decent ROI to communicate with consumers. This one is funny, original and sly enough that a few dummies might not get the joke.

2. Pepsi

As a consumer I’m not much of a brand fanatic. My short list would include Mac, Google, Becks, Studio One and…Pepsi. No time to explain: it’s a history, memories, mother, Jamaica kind of thing. But Pepsi is a big part of my consuming life, even if I have successfully cut down since those PhD writing day. As someone with a great deal of loyalty to the brand who has seen little of interest over their TV spots except, to a minor extent, the Flock Of Seagulls-era Diet pitch, I’m just glad to see Pepsi stepping up to the small screen with something refreshing, culturally relevant and, yes, funny.

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Maybe a pen doesn’t quite free those of us who have toiled under 125 years (I’ll carbon date anthro to Lewis Henry Morgan, but entertain arguments from those in favour of Ibn Khaldun) of oppression in the field, but the folks at Live Scribe are about to drop a new tool on to the market that could unleash as-yet untapped ethnographic potential.

In a nutshell, the Live Scribe Pulse Smart Pen records audio while you’re taking notes. Then, when you go over your notes with the pen it plays back what was recorded at this word, that word, the next word and so on.

Details available at http://www.livescribe.com include:
-Samsung ARM 9 (32-bit, 150 MHz) processor
-high-speed infrared camera (over 70 images/sec)
-1 GB NAND (100+ hours of recording time or 16,000 pages of digital notes)
-2GB NAND (double that, baby!)
-300 mAH rechargeable lithium battery (but you can’t remove it)
-dual embedded, mono-recording mics
-embedded speaker for audio playback and an audio jack for 3D recording headset
-USB mobile charging cradle
-250 MB online storage
-My Livescribe Account
-and, of course, the must-have ‘community’ for posting and sharing content

For those who might take notes and want to check them for more detail, context or language, target customers like students (professors) and business people (clients) are obvious. But who knows what possibilities could open up for consumer researchers and ethnographers? As Rob Tannen, who maintains the http://www.designingforhumans.com blog for the Human Factors Professional Interest Section of the Industrial Designers Society of America (whew!) says, “Audio recording can be more than just a means of documenting what was said in an interview. It can provide high fidelity reproduction of an environment effective for communicating a situation or developing a solution.”

What does that mean? Well, surveys could be conducted in tandem with ‘interviews’. You could play back user/customer talk to clients in presentations. Field notes could be written and then framed in some (the audio) of the context in which they were written, adding new layers of narrative to analyses. The audio-visual spaces in which anthropology is presented could be enhanced. And then, of course, there are issues of accountability and consent.

Few, if any, anthropologists would go into the field and engage informants in any formal inquiry without requiring their consent. Yes, participant observation might lead you towards experiences and data that weren’t exactly negotiated at the beginning. And yes, had I had something like the Live Scribe during my informal fieldwork in Kashmir I might have returned with more ‘hard’ field data. But the Live Scribe could open up the research game to the grey-area rules of covert ops. It will, after all, be easier to conceal than a police wire, iPod or micro-cassette recorder. If researchers use it, I hope they remember to also carry the ethics of informed consent. Or lyricists penning their next ode to the Canadian tundra while on a noisy tour bus.

Then again, researchers, students and business people probably won’t even get close to cracking the potential of this simple little tool. Imagine recordings of the busy market place somehow encoded into the hand-written manifestos of the next Mao Tse Tungs of the world.

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Here’s a little ditty from the Palo Alto Research Center that speaks to where and how those trained in anthropology fit into the world of developing Consumer Insight beyond ‘market research’…

“To stay ahead in today’s rapidly evolving, saturated marketplace, companies must engage in strategic innovation. Ethnography – which is based on the systematic observation and analysis of people within their natural environments – catalyzes corporate innovation efforts. It helps companies better identify and address market opportunities, anticipate emerging trends, deliver superior products to customers, and create new businesses while minimizing risk.”

The blurb speaks to PARC’s work on a mobile gig they did for Dai Nippon Printing Ltd. There’s more info on their ‘in situ’ research approach (something still quite foreign to many north of the 49th) at http://www.parc.com/ethnography.

It could be you. It could be, perhaps, the greatest boss ever. Whatever, whatever – it’s a little Monday-style energy infusion to start off the week, courtesy of David Rodigan.

My daughter owns a Wii and a DS Lite. The Wii was a gift from this past Christmas, the DS from two Santa seasons ago. When the Wii came into the house I imagined the death of DS – another sad, dejected, little hand-held device gathering dust on a forgotten section of a shelf somewhere after being marched off into that non-eulogized realm of pre-teen toy-extinction littered with the graves of a dozen or so Tamagotchis and a summer of WebKinz. But that, it turns out, was not to be. Santa’s efforts were not in vain.

Even with a stack of Super Mario, HSM II, Order of the Phoenix, Monster 4×4 and other games beckoning from above the TV and opposite the couch, she turns far more regularly to the realm of private play than the public play that has so obviously boosted Nintendo’s stocks thanks to the Wii. In fact, unless her uncles are over or her parents willing to rip ‘round the track a few times, these games typically play second fiddle to what must be the absolute champion of DS games for young girls: Harvest Moon. And if you doubt the supremacy of the DS over its newer cousin know that Santa delivered Harvest Moon this year for the Wii, the Game Cube version that lets girls be girl farmers and marry boy farmers. Still, she turns to being a boy.

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I don’t think playing as a boy has anything to do with alternate identification, the fantasy play place where romance novels, horror movies, etc. let us live out the lives of the other. I don’t even think it’s so much about Harvest Moon’s whole new world. I think the DS offers a user intimacy and experiences of the liminal that the Wii (because it’s so much about good, clean family fun) just doesn’t, at least at this point. It’s more isolating from the mundane world, more time stretching and, as a result, maybe more interesting. Maybe it’s a case of social gaming vs. un-social gaming. Maybe it’s because a lot of the Wii games just don’t quite cut it yet vs. other platforms. Or maybe it’s because, as her dad, I just think FIFA plays better on DS or, for that matter, Xbox.

After 50-plus years of ripped jeans, leather jackets, funny haircuts, street slangs, covert parties, musical genres, spinning records, microphone fiends, loopy drugs and all the temporal, spatial, social, entrepreneurial, signifying and artistic intersections between them, youth culture has arrived in the mainstream like never before. At least, that’s what the youth culture pundits would have you believe.

First, an introduction: Hi, my name is Morgan and I’m a youth culture pundit. It all began in high school when a friend and I started a hardcore punk fanzine. Right away I was hooked on the rush of arcane knowledge (why Oxnard was a hot bed of skate punk), the hunt for obscure releases (those Polish tapes smuggled through the Iron Curtain), the bands and concerts (AOF at The Turning Point!), the us vs. them mentality (ie. all of you who wore alligator shirts and thought Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” was hot in 1982), the global networks (viva la fanzine distribution underground!), the unspoken rules of the mosh pit (catch, don’t drop), the guest-list privileges (thanks Jill) and the swag that co-validated membership, like a free album in the mail each month from Touch & Go.

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Hardcore was only the beginning, my gateway drug to youth culture. There was the Canadian lifestyle magazine that started paying me to write about reggae and indy rock, the stint at a North American DJ magazine just as rap was hitting major labels and rave culture was peaking in England, a period of infiltrating the mainstream press with stories on Kingston’s finest, and a tour of duty as the Editor of a Canadian street style magazine for a friend I first met at a Slayer concert inside the legendary Larry’s Hideaway.

You’d think parenthood would get me clean, but no – between my daughter’s birth and her 3rd birthday I had amassed 7 crates of drum & bass, techno and house 12”s. That vinyl is part of a collection that has been ebbing and flowing through various genre tides for years. Much of it, including all the AOF, has been sold off at one time or another to finance a plane ticket, pay a bill or purchase a 2nd 1200 to play records that needed one. Some I miss. Others I don’t. It’s better they have a good home. I hope they have a good home, somewhere that someone will continue to play them with love. I’m okay with not having them because after a few decades spent living in a soliloquy of ‘music, music everywhere…’ I’m much less obsessed with the stuff of youth culture than its substance.

If you subscribe the view that youth culture is about ripped jeans, leather jackets, funny haircuts, street slangs, covert parties, loopy drugs and all those records spinning between AOF, Slayer, Gregory Isaacs, Mr. Fingers, Schoolly D and Lemon D & Dillinja, you’re hooked on the stuff, not the substance.

Behind the stuff is the substance: exciting, transgressive, secretive, dangerous, dodgey, rebellious, fun, transformative and more, youth culture is the social engine of art and play that drives the exploration of new identities, the creation of new activities in performance and leisure, the morphing of scenesters into new style entrepreneurs and the rejuvenation of a mainstream economy that thrives on – you guessed it – the new.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the most driving of all social engines in youth culture is music. Nor should it be news that after decades of young people fighting the power through rock & roll, disco, hip hop and rave culture, it was music that won youth culture’s archetypal battle vs. the mainstream. No, I don’t mean being legitimized by major label signings, house music plugging car ads or ‘bling’ making it into the dictionary. I mean the radical shift in how the social engine actually purrs: the digital downloading that followed the music industry’s shift from vinyl to CD as the first wave, that tsunami of transformation that turned the cultural landscape upside down so that the underground is now facing up. At least, that’s what the youth culture pundits are saying.

One of those pundits is Matt Mason, the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism (Free Press). According to the sleeve notes, “Matt Mason is an award-winning writer, consultant, and entrepreneur based in New York City. He was the founding editor in chief (sic) of the underground fanzine RWD, which he helped grow into the U.K.’s number one urban music magazine and one of the world’s leading urban music websites.” He’s also got a link to the Vice Magazine crew, guys who live to take the piss out of spin like ‘number one’ and ‘leading’. Here’s Matt talking on the book….

I just finished my advance copy of Matt’s book, released by Free Press this week. Like Vice, I imagine that its effect on readers who haven’t been intimate with life in the mosh pit, at the blocko, on the dancefloor or any other ‘wild zone’ that youth culture has gestated over the years, will be one of profound out-of-the-loopedness. That is, if you’re a 40-something who spent their youth wearing Lacoste and listening to Vangelis, chances are you’ve missed the experiential meat & potatoes of Matt’s argument. But that’s okay. That’s what books and Bit Torrent are for, right?

Some of my favourite points from the book…

That punk, disco, reggae, hip hop and some forms of electronic music evolving from them (and other ‘wild zone’ practices like graffiti, pirate radio, sneaker pimping) fought the power, spoke for and created marginalized communities and expressed new creative juices through the remix/bricolage/pastiche process that Dick Hebdige wrote about in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) and Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (1987). Matt describes these activities as ‘pirate’. I prefer subcultural (pirates are just one citizen of the subculture). Either way, those creative juices, most once underground, are now the ones flowing in the mainstream and influencing its many ebbs and tides.

That piracy is good for innovation. Thanks to the digital revolution and with many examples throughout the books, Matt details how consumers (read: youth) get what they want from so many sources, some of them grey or illegal, that ‘legit’ businesses are being forced to play catch up. Those that play catch up in the courts, according to Matt, are just innovation babies: “If suing customers for consuming pirate copies becomes central to a company or industry’s business model, then the truth is that that company or industry no longer has a competitive business model. A company’s or individual’s ability to make money should be based on their ability to innovate and create value, not file lawsuits.”

That businesses and brands will need to recognize that (and how) the pirate-youth culture model + digital revolution has carved out a growing customer space where success will be increasingly built on an Open-Source Platform. Central to that platform is what Matt refers to as The Four Pillars of Community (think: community as business portal rather than community as Benedict Anderson model): altruism (inspiring customers to want to be a part of your movement, letting them collaborate), reputation (letting customers create new status and identities from their collaborations), experience (letting customers gain and improve on new skills) and revenue (paying customers for their work to engage them further).

That we can all expect to be making our own products in the future thanks to Adrian Bowyer and his 3-D printing by the Replicating Rapid Prototyper. You can check out video of the RepRap on You Tube. It’s being hyped as a reproducing machine that Matt envisions as spitting out homemade Jordans in the future. Right now it looks more like a Mechano set gone berserk. But the idea, something we’re all familiar with from sci-fi, can’t be that far off, right? And when it arrives, will anyone care about the official Jordan 30 or will the streets have taken over and collectively dropped us up to the Jordan 300?

And that youth culture is bigger and badder than the co-opting forces that seek to harness its powers to sell stuff. Matt asks, “Is youth culture now just a relic of a past era, which marketing men and cool hunters have overfished to the point of extinction?” The short answer is no, an answer firmed up by the fact that ideas are now communicated between youth at light speed (vs. the mail days of fanzines).

Getting a read on the latest cool stuff is just a Google away. But the stuff is not the substance. To know the substance requires being there, doing that. The Pirate’s Dilemma does a fine job of taking you there and showing how that was done, even if it lacks the kind of analytical framework academic readers might crave. As for where to go from there, especially for business readers – that’s something Matt’s probably keeping in the silver lining of his pocket to break out for all his Lacoste-wearing, Vangelis-listening consultancy clients.