Tuesday, September 24, 2019


“We must therefore rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence.”  
 ― Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945)

Spectacle is a powerful artform and cultural artifact.  This artistry resides in an artform that is also a show of force that operates as an extraordinary showpiece of music, staging, dance, or drill designed to awe or impress--that includes the viewer as a partner in its power. It celebrates the singular human ability to cooperate adaptably.  In its ability to put is in step with each other, spectacle is the ultimate human art, and possibly even the original great artform, one that outshines cave art. 

Spectacles are a type of magic in their ability to overcome our differences and the feeling of being “slightly out of step with others,” as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan put it (1). Parades, pageants, and giant rallies raise that question: “How do they do that, all together?”  It has origins and ties to the rituals of religion in its sway of emotions involved in empathy, trust, and consilience—in every world culture.  The core of religion, as in the word origin, is to “tie together” in communal surrender to a higher order. 

The whole entourage is animated in the total synchronicity of a single mind, as in a flock or swarm, by following a few simple rules: match speed and direction, and stay an equal distance apart.  (This is also the rulebook in robot coding in AI.)  The rules are simple but effective algorithms –the way culture works.  Which is that no one is obviously in charge, yet the brain software seamlessly coordinates thousands of discrete thoughts and activities.  It is the perfect staging that celebrates the performers as well as those enthralled by them. 

This is because of the core arts of music and rhythm, with their hold on the social emotions of converge.  Both have an inborn power to connect us, something dance halls and the military are quite aware of.  Singing the national anthem together at the Super Bowl or “My Old Kentucky Home” at the Kentucky Derby delivers the thrill of deeply uniting force, creating a sense of belonging and safety and strength in numbers.  Melody and rhythm have the ability to activate the limbic brain, bringing the many into one at rock concerts, as in the iconic generational symbol for the baby boom, Woodstock.  In this way, thousands of heartbeats can be channeled just by sound alone, augmented by sight, a psychological showcase of performance or procession intended to unite, impress, and inspire. The fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock is this year, a low-tech event that shaped the Boomers in August 1969 and is still the milestone of Generation Woodstock coming of age.  Thanks to the same sound systems for the masses, Hitler programmed the sweeping music of Wagner for his own national theme at the Nuremberg rallies.

Why is spectacle so emotionally compelling?  Music, choreographed group motion, themed costume, immersion in a whole-brain experience among hundreds to thousands of others.

Spectacle creates a hyperreality we enter in real time and space.  Think of the legacy of such events – campfires, hunting ceremonies, processions, mass celebrations, funerals, warfare ceremony—modern sports are a ritualized version of war (the FIFA World Cup, like the Olympics, has three billion viewers worldwide).  Spectacle has a meaning quite fundamental to human bonding as well as creativity, with a profound effect on our capacity for diversity.  This is the same appeal to be found in current escape rooms, with their single-minded focus on solving problems in a group that is so clarifying (2).  There is a formula for this focus throughout cultural study. 

This is because spectacle operates at two levels as it connects them:  primal physiology and group encounter.  It is an integrative force. Spectacle breaks down the walls between individuals, allowing us to converge with thousands of other minds.  The dynamic that rules a Roman procession is in this way the same one that occurs in falling in love.  As synchronizing sound, movement, and expectation builds coordination, it promotes trust and theory of mind, our ability to read the motives and moves of others.  Oxytocin is boosted, increasing interest and direction toward social cohesion. 

Does Spectacle create community across groups?    

It is no accident that the highlight of the Roman Catholic high mass is its music, commonly cited by Catholics as the core of the Church’s continuing appeal.  Level of apotheosis, miracle, mind-reading: single mind and single heart convert and scale up from the micro level to the macro: group mind, group heart.  A show of force and skill becomes an artform in real time – to impress outsiders but also the performers themselves.   This artform showcases our best human talents: our capacity for solidarity, visible, immediate, and affecting.  Cathedrals and theaters are ornate and magisterial to match up to our impressive ability to move from the personal to processional ways of thinking and feeling.   The long-running Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland is an old-style example of a low-key techno-music parade with basic light show and simple melody that has become a national favorite moment.  The other park spectacle marks the end of the day at the World Showcase in EPCOT and consists of fireworks, spotlights that target the circle of national symbols, set to music keyed to each culture.

Music plus large-scale choreography does something extraordinary:  they tap into each brain to create an irresistible group psyche.   This artform is ingenious in drawing into concert two basic human impulses, the individual and social.  They are instantly immersive whole-brain and whole-body experiences starting with music and rhythm, going straight to our ancestral limbic brain for instant cooperative with other people.  This is our uniquely human capacity – add a cause or purpose, and the result is a form of theater that showcases a deeply human artform, perhaps the first ever – a performance that promotes both the noble social goals of civilization and the primal need for affect (expression) and belonging  at the most personal level.

There is a reason that rock concerts make more money than the tracks that make up the program.  The group virtuosity of orchestra, Carnival, the British coronation, military extravaganzas, the Olympics, the Million Man March (actually about half that number, the size of Woodstock) consolidate both private and social virtuosity. Nazi rallies were held to re-instill pride in Germans after a humiliating defeat in WWI.  Collective morale is showcased at the Russian May Day, ancient Roman games in the colosseum, the Super Bowl, and religious and triumphal processions so often portrayed on ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman monuments.

To celebrate the city and its ethnic enclaves, Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade is a classic example of an historic form that has survived and thrived, season after season, into the present as an emblem of identity.  On the west coast, it’s the Rose Parade.


1.      Yi-Fu Tuan, Escapism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

2.      Rachel Sugar, “The Great Escape,” Vox.com, August 7, 2019.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Big Data and Creative Disinhibition

“[Big data is] the ability of society to harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights or goods and services of significant value….Every single dataset is likely to have some intrinsic, hidden, not yet unearthed value, and the race is on to discover and capture all of it.”
      -- Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data (2013), pp. 2, 15

The swift advances in digital data mining began when astronomy, physics, and genomics, which first experienced the explosion in the 2000s, coined the term “big data.”  The concept is now migrating to all areas of human endeavor.
Facing an overload of information and unable to filter it all so that it makes sense--this is the common conundrum of contemporary brains.  So we must become practiced at selective perception, finding ways of annulling the many streams of data that daily wash over and around us.  Sensory, cognitive, and emotional—a tidal wave of input, far too much to manage or even take note of.  Most of what we see, hear, and read gets chosen out, relegated to deletion or just ignoring.  But for some brains, especially the highly intelligent, this doesn’t work – there is just too much we need and want to know.  Soon this editing technique may serve as a model for big data’s future as well as our future abilities to deal with megadata of all kinds.

Culture as Big Data
Culture, as one of the largest datasets on record or in theory, is a complex system.  But it runs on a handful of simple rules.  So no matter how large a data set it presents, or how many factors involved, there are ways into, around, and through culture to make sense of—and predict—its many perturbations.  Most refer to the social realm—human behavior on a group-sized scale. 

In my research into the problems of understanding the workings of culture, and in my consulting work using cultural analysis, I notice that our clients get stuck in several predictable junctures in their thinking. 
1) Assuming the axioms of their industry (such as advertising) are sufficient to analyze any product or experience for its meaning to the buyer / user.  These axioms are familiar, accepted, and reward users for knowing and abiding by them.   

2) Because short-term results are the usual basis for rewarding business behavior, focus is narrow, specific, and present-oriented.  They can’t be scaled up in time or across cultures. 
3) Confusing information with knowledge.  You can access all available information.  But without some sense of pattern recognition, still fail to see anything that information might be trying to tell you.  All the real estate screen saves on earth cannot say what the neighborhood is like…and people buy by location, which is what home shoppers are really buying, not the house.  Our biggest-ticket purchase is a big-data project, yet buyers operate mainly by intuition.

Because of big data, digital technology has given any research field the power to amass and distinguish enormous sets of data unimaginable before computer programming. 
But if that is true, then how or why would anyone have any issues around new product development, innovation, marketing, or sales? Why isn’t there a straight-line journey from consumer data collection (buying data, focus groups) to successful product?  While buying behavior as encoded digital information can yield insights about correlation, determining causation is a far more difficult problem.  Just because an industry knows its buyers in great detail, and asks them directly about their behavior, still doesn’t yield the golden ticket that tells that industry why people are buying—and why those who are not are not, but might under the right conditions.  Big data can correlate numbers without showing causation, or de-engineering those numbers to reveal even more fundamental insights. 

Understanding causation, through pattern recognition, is one of the virtues of cultural analysis.  In the 1990s news reports a series of workplace shootings in post offices brought the terms “postal rage” and "going postal” into the public domain. The first known publication of the term “going postal” was in the St. Petersburg Times in 1993. We once looked at the problem of postal rage and were able to trace the root cause not to post-traumatic stress in veterans (as the postal authorities themselves surmised – wrongly, as it turned out). A later investigation determined that postal employees were no more likely to engage in workplace shooting than any other industry. However, our own research located a larger pattern: the way the USPS recruits and qualifies its employees. Postal workers must memorize complex rules and regulations as well as understand when to apply them. Therefore the civil service test was designed to qualify employees with good memories.  However, hiring for this strong memory trait also means recruiting those who also can’t forget slights and grudges.

The Culture Question is a bigger one:  What is it that prompts us to pursue certain kinds of products, services, or experiences in the first place?  Why do we buy jewelry, for example, or visit theme parks?  What is an "office," as a concept evolution starting in ancient Egypt?  I get ads for car insurance by direct mail all the time (a product of big data).  Yet I’ve never owned a car, or even learned to drive.  Does it make sense, furthermore, to show me images on Amazon of a jacket I just purchased? All the consumer statistics in the world won’t help develop the next great product (like pizza, the circular symbol of group dining) unless you can somehow, through linking ideas behind the numbers, make sense of them in human (i.e., cultural) terms.
Clearly, there are problems—but they can’t be defined or addressed from the inside, or as Einstein put it, these are problems that can’t be solved at the level they were created.  That is why we go to the bigger cultural system for answers.  Plenty of information is available, but information does not equal insight.  Think of all the databases available that simply throw more balls into the air.

What is needed isn’t more information, but a way to select and prioritize what we have—the same principle used by professional organizers of homes and offices.  Otherwise we are doomed to continue amassing all kinds of information without any way of understanding why we are doing it or how it matters.  Are we even collecting what we should be collecting?  Is the data we are amassing targeting the right problems?

Cognitive disinhibition
Big data is not a solution in itself, but the gateway to discovering new analytical principles from seeing fine-grained patterns in correlations that couldn’t before be detected.  This ability pivots from an unexpected mental state called “cognitive disinhibition.”

Cognitive Disinhibition is defined as:  “Failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival.”
Compared to the average mind, creative thinkers are often unable to filter out nearly as much of the constant stream of incoming information.  These marginal brains require novel ways to process and organize and retain that information. “Creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information,” Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson wrote in her article “The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People are Eccentric” (Scientific American MIND, May/June 2011 (22-29)).

Cognitive disinhibition is closely linked to unconventional or eccentric behaviors.  While the average mind is adept at screening out the big data of the senses, memory, and stored imagery employed to make sense of incoming new information—most of this process operating beneath conscious awareness—reduced filtering and blocking tends to increase focus on inner reality at the expense of social reality.  This reduction in thinking inhibition allows more material into conscious awareness, which can then be reprocessed and recombined in original ways, resulting in creative new ideas.  John Nash, the schizophrenic Noble Prize mathematician played by Russell Crowe  in the film “A Beautiful Mind,” suffered from  cognitive disinhibition. What was irrelevant to other minds became the main material for original thinking in his ability to attend to the masses of data that roiled his fevered brain.    
The human brain is capable of making 100 trillion connections – more than the number of stars in the Milky Way.  No wonder the human thinking problem resides in discovering ways to keep these connections under control while at the same time unleashing their potential for creativity. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Are You Solving the Right Problem?

 “But problem solving, however necessary, does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results.” 
                                                      -- Peter F. Drucker, management guru
                                                          “What Makes an Effective Executive
                                                          Harvard Business Review, June 2004

In America, mobility has always equaled freedom

Over years of intelligence-finding for business across dozens of industries, I always focus on the most effective thing cultural analysis can do for the organizations we serve.  This is our ability to redefine business problems as cultural problems.  We do this by understanding and following the “cultural logic” that rules how people think and act.

For instance, people don’t buy products. They buy values that attach to those products. For example, in America, Mobility equals Freedom. That’s why car ads always feature happy couples or families in a car in motion, ideally on a long winding road. One of the worst fears of the elderly is the loss of their driver’s license. Lose that, and they give up their independence and freedom—including the option to live where they wish.  Mobility loss carries with it dependence on others, something Americans intuitively abhor and know to avoid at almost any cost.

At their root, all businesses provide something customers want and need.  Cultural analysis can laser through the details to see the outline of those values customers are in search of.   There is no more valuable piece of information in the puzzle that is consumer research.  The cultural question is the business opportunity every enterprise needs--but does not know how to ask. Culture shapes our decisions far below our conscious threshold.  Cultural value is the opportunity every business was built to pursue.  

That is why your core business problem may be a simple failure to appreciate and communicate your core cultural meaning, and the value of that meaning to the consumer. The number-one talent of cultural analysis is to identify the real opportunity to align your business—talent, effort, and expenditure--with the way customers understand, desire, buy, and put to use what you offer.  This talent is based on the broadest and deepest available knowledge about human thinking and behavior.
Basic to cultural analysis, this method of going broader and deeper with consumer research is the ability to see opportunities where conventional consumer research does not even look.  We discover exactly what motivates buying by looking at the largest possible human invention—culture—over the longest timeframe—human cognitive evolution, about 200,000 years in total. 

A few selected case studies will give an idea of how, by asking cultural questions (about people rather than business), you can much more readily define and frame the problem that business needs to focus on solving. 
Education:   We defined the identity of a small struggling New England college for both recruitment and operations, revealing market and student needs in cultural context.  Thanks to its location in the hills of New Hampshire, it was just a school to the faculty and administrators who worked there and went home at 4:00. To the students who lived there, however, it was a village.  That meant the services of the outside world were needed on campus – particularly a coffee shop and a convenience store.

Question: What is the school’s best value offering that has been ignored, under-estimated, or uninvestigated?  How can its real identity (rather than competitive market ranking) identify the best recruitment targets who will do well, stay, and graduate…and multiply recruitment efforts by word of mouth and successful achievement at the school?  The category is not excellent education by elite standards, but effective results proven by top students who benefit most, and why.

Diamonds:  A national jewelry chain came to us and asked how they could sell more diamonds. The Center rethought the equation as cultural: “How do people actually use diamonds and other jewelry?” A deep historical search yielded only one consistent answer over time. From the crowns and chains of office of European nobility to the wedding band created by ancient Romans, to military medals, to friendship bracelets, the use of jewelry as symbol to signal relationships is the single constant.
Instead of advertising diamonds by the traditional method – color, cut, clarity, and carat weight – the standards jewelers use when they buy diamonds--we suggested they advertise by celebrating the relationship. People already understand that diamonds are appropriate markers for important relationships.  We proposed simply reminding them of that fact. Sales rose 17% in the first quarter.

Question: Rather than ask how diamond sales can be expanded for Millennials (as the major target group), the cultural method is to pose a wider question, asking “How do people use diamonds and related precious stones?  And in what ways have various cultures done this over thousands of years?” This answer is far more revealing than gathering data about current sales, which is one snapshot in a centuries-wide ongoing panorama.  Cultural principle:  Whatever people have been doing for millennia, they are not about to stop doing anytime soon.  Current behavior is always part of a far longer story.
SeaWorld:  Discovered that the value set important to visitors at aqua parks is not animal care as defined scientifically (the client’s purview), but extending human perception by asking the general question, “What is good care?” (the guest’s perspective).  When it comes to perceiving feelings, we have only one reference point – ourselves. So we judge everything in human terms:  lighting, enclosure size, furnishings, feeding, and the animal’s projected response, read as how well this treatment works for the animal.  Everything in the park is judged through the human lens--from the way guests read animal behavior and expression as they ask themselves, “How would I like to be treated this way?” 

When dealing with animal attractions, the standard of care will be judged by the same standards guests apply for themselves. While humans closely identify with (other) animals—especially mammals—we do so on our own terms, transferring our opinions of what’s suitable for us to our animal counterparts, especially pets, or wild animals we can conceive of as pet-like.  Our recommendations used this base analysis for a large-scale pool build for orcas.
Question: How is the guest point of view based, and why?  No matter how dedicated the design of a project may be to science, education, and improving behavior, the bottom line is the category in the guest mind that rules in framing and judging – in other words, the cultural lens.

NASA:  Redefined the search for social value in space exploration by looking at public perception of value in historic exploration journeys.  The Agency’s question was what it would take to get the American public on board for future space projects, as the space shuttle was retired without a replacement transport system. This left only technology – satellites and remotely controlled rovers as the default for moon and mars missions. 
Question:  How do people find value in space exploration?  In other words, why do we do it in the first place, and what values does the public derive from space as a collective initiative?  This might seem  too general and open to yield anything actionable, but it turns out that by posing an open-ended cultural query, we were able to discern an important fact: that any space program has a humanistic mission – it must be about people facing and discovering the unknown, as opposed to technology like the Hubble project or space probes, robot rovers, or even the space station, which are more about projects and tools and the science quest than a human experience we can share by following US astronauts on a mission.  Robots won’t do the job for public support. Every story needs a hero. Technology is not the hero. There must be a human story to frame the technology.

While focus groups might still be considered a lode of valuable material for consumer research, they will not reveal the core proposition for your business, unless your facilitator knows how to guide the discussion by using a values-inquiry mindset. 
If you think that milk is a beverage and competes in a beverage market (as the industry still does), you won’t know how to elicit responses along the food / nutrient scale, which is where milk operates.  That is because it acts far more like a food (dense, rich, nourishing, filling) than a beverage (light, refreshing, hydrating, paired with food) in the consumer-life profile of habits, needs, wants, expectations, and aspirations.

What future is your business missing by being treated in a cultural a/k/a consumer category other than the one in which it actually lives?  You may have far more potential than you think because you are unnecessarily limiting your cultural category—who or what you are to your customers and would-be buyers.  And in most cases, it’s easier to re-label your product or company than it is to try to convince the world that it is misreading what you’re trying to do.   
Disney’s America:  Cultural Studies is here to help.  But note:  Call us for the MVP – the Most Valuable Principle—of your concept at the “fuzzy front end” (where direction is set), before you’ve already invested the whole budget in heading the wrong direction.  We are often called in as firemen when things are falling apart because the initial concept was flawed—as we were for Disney’s America – where we were the cultural advisors.  Remember that wonderful public history project from the mid-90s?  You don’t because it was never built. The reason was simple – they weren’t building it in “America.”

Disney picked a site in rural northern Virginia, not realizing that this was the sphere of influence of the elite who valued their privacy – inherited wealth (the Mellons, among others), the secret government (The CIA right down the road), and the “permanent government” (State Department employees retire there). They didn’t own the land selected but considered it within their sphere of influence. They had money and power and are pros at playing the political game. Thus began a well-funded media campaign to kill the project in every regional newspaper. In this case, they wielded influence that Disney couldn’t. By the time these realities surfaced, Disney had already lost the war of public opinion. All we could do was deliver a post-mortem.  Had we come in at the planning stage, this debacle could have been avoided.

And that was this: not knowing the political terrain, Disney had chosen a site that the elite had already sequestered to guard their privacy. At the time, if you got off at the Falls Church exit of the DC beltway, you would suddenly find yourself on narrow winding rural roads and long driveways leading to estates hidden discretely out of sight behind trees. There were no convenience stores, no gas stations. The environment clearly encouraged nonresident drivers to keep going. If Disney built nearby, a park would need highways, opening the area to development, the very thing the rich and powerful had settled there to avoid. They weren’t fighting Disney; they were fighting the roads and loss of their private preserve.  And humans fight hardest when their home is under siege.
Far better to know where you’re going before you set sail. Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The trick is to choose the right ones for the right reason. In Disney’s case, they saw it as a real estate deal. To their opponents, it was opening up the area to everything they had moved there to avoid.  

Question:  How do your opponents construct the equation you are trying to solve? 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Why Understanding Culture Is Good for Business

Decoding the social mind—using culture as evidence           


Why would it be important for business to study culture?  This question is just what the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis has been probing for the past 25 years, and there is in fact a great reason: because culture is where the consumer lives. 

Culture is the software of the mind. Operating below our conscious horizon, it shapes everything we think, say, and do - from what we buy to our entire social network.  It is the outward material expression of the inward values that drive our thinking and behavior. 

Over time we’ve been decoding the cultural mindset to see what it has to tell us about ourselves, the culture we live in, and why we buy. Although the college-educated think of culture as synonymous with the high cultural expressions of architecture, literature, music, drama, and the fine arts, this is just the elite aspect. 

If we widen the cultural lens, however, we take in a panoramic landscape that includes all of culture.  This view includes everything people have ever produced over time, including the thinking and behavior behind both the highly creative and the habitual mundane, from opera to soap. In the wide-angle format, popular culture is the evidence file containing everything needed to tell where we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Including the ability to extract the major values behind any single culture, like our specialty, the American model. 
This finding is arresting in itself because Americans don’t really think we share a “reality by common consent,” the software that drives our collective thinking. We think of ourselves as individuals, descendants of immigrants from many countries. We confuse heritage or race with culture. We focus on our differences precisely because our shared cultural imperatives operate below the conscious horizon.

We know that a shared set of cultural algorithms exist because their effects show up in our everyday behavior. Behavior is how culture is truly expressed. Without some means of relating to each other within a greater social mindset, there would be no way to talk to each other, no basis for negotiating agreements or governance, and no mass market for anything.  There is indeed such a shared reality, to be discovered across two and a half centuries of national history.

Cultural Studies & Analysis has isolated the basic values that inform and motivate Americans.  We’ve shared this short list with our clients—most of whom thought they understood their customers quite well.  Most often that belief turns out not to be reliable.  Our job as cultural analysts is to conduct a reality check on what companies think they know, in order to target our laser vision on exactly what’s behind customer buying.  We have plenty of information—but until that information is subjected to analysis, we don’t assume we know the answers it contains.
That is why there is no more important research question than the one we ask: “Why do people buy [x or y, your industry product], and what are the deep cultural needs driving both its sale and use?” 

Two decades ago we posed this question to the world’s largest entertainment company, The Walt Disney Company. First, we made the distinction between entertainment and amusement—rooted in the difference between theme versus amusement parks.  It turns out that these terms are not interchangeable, but actually channel opposing values. 

To entertain is to engage the mind, as in entertaining an idea, whereas to amuse is to distract, as in the magician’s diverting our attention by misdirection. This raised the question: if to entertain means engaging focus and attention, what subjects exert the heaviest gravity for any group of buyers?  
Through the theme park, arguably the most successful artform in the experience economy, this question can be explored to answer the next one:  What is this artform’s secret to success - the force behind its incredible repeat visitation record?  Surprisingly, it isn’t the rides, games, food, thrill-seeking, or merchandising, because these are also the stock of the amusement park and carnival. 

What Walt Disney did, because he identified so closely and positively with American people and their past, was to create an iconic cultural landscape that distills what we like best about ourselves—our favorite venues, values, and communal memories, starting with Main Street, USA as the entryway, and culminating in Tomorrowland – a three-dimensional positive view of the future. 
Unconsciously and not by design, but by natural affinity with his guests (as he preferred to call his customers), Disney’s genius was to build Disneyland on the way park patrons already thought and felt, without the least need—as companies so often assume—to “educate the consumer” about what he was trying to communicate or how he wanted them to respond. 

This is exactly the way The Center works, in a consciously focused way, to discern and define the natural fit between products, ideas, services, and experiences, and the mind of the consumer.  We use a suite of original tools, models, and definitions worked out against thousands of cultural cases using cultural intelligence.  Cultural Intelligence is our method based on the inductive logic of mining culture in order to reveal the rulebook of human thinking and decision making in groups over time.  This is decoding the social brain, the longest-running challenge in social psychology and consumer research. 

By drawing on the four principal dimensions of culture--community, context, age, and gender--our studies have derived high-value meaning from consumer issues presented by top businesses, agencies, nonprofits, educational and government groups.  Our laser compass is the secret weapon that gives our clients an extraordinary edge in understanding and strategic planning centered around the world of the consumer rather than based on their business or industry conventions.

 Our offerings include:

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., Director
The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis
1123 Montrose Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 592-8544







Thursday, May 30, 2019

Rewiring the Brain

“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible.”
Michael Gazzaniga, neuroscientist 

I was just asked by a writer at Forbes about inventions that have “rewired the brain,” especially with reference to our generalized use of Google.  I scrolled around under this term and discovered quite a few usages—too many, I think, because this term has a specific engineering reference, one that overestimates the direct effects of technology on human thinking and behavior. 

Steven Johnson’s bright book on the implications of technological innovation, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that made the modern world,” (2014) outlines six major themes, from glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, and time, ending up with light, but not one of these critical chapters from material history claims to have rewired anyone’s brain.  Instead, each domain is the story of inventions that altered human expectations and behavior worldwide, influencing the state of the art of civilization but also revealing the mechanisms of the exchange of ideas, creative teams, and the timelines of invention, as well as applied use in society. 

What has been studied with respect to thinking is the use of the internet search engine as a learning channel —but also as a storage device for memory.  The operating assumption is that once something has been discovered through Google, the user doesn’t devote any effort to memorizing the material, because we are aware we can always revisit the source to refresh that memory.  This was the same fear that developed around the printed word starting with Guttenberg’s press in 1453; that print would destroy memory--as the written word was predicted to do some 4500 years before.  Of course what happened was the proliferation of ideas fueling the Enlightenment and the freeing of thought from the confines of church doctrine and access to the riches of global knowledge. 

In the same vein, Artificial Intelligence doesn’t mean we will stop using our own brains or the discipline of thinking—AI just empowers our thought by amassing millions or billions of bytes into new patterns to inform in great depth the way we are able to see the world. Digital forms of information processing doesn’t make our brains digital, just extends our reach and grasp of data far too oversized to be absorbed through the normal senses.  The neuroplasticity of our brains, which is essentially what separates and elevates us from our primate cousins, is custom-made to benefit from the depth and breadth of big data.  

In the same way, the invention of lenses for reading in monasteries 800 years ago didn’t rewire our abilities to see and read ancient Latin manuscripts.  It simply revealed the nearsightedness that could then be corrected by a sweeping market for spectacles, then the microscope, telescope, camera, fiberglass, TV and film.  The Roman invention of clear glass cleared the way for the scientific revolution.  And glasses became a human technological wearable, the first since the invention of clothing. 

“Rewiring” is used loosely to refer to the impact of technology on human behavior and culture.  The brain is constantly reorganizing through neuroplasticity, meaning new networks of connections between neurons, which the brain does all the time with new learning.  This is a functional change, like those that occur under the influence of alcohol or depression, changing the volume of white matter and grey matter.  Gaming releases dopamine, which enhances attention and visuospatial skills, and is addictive, requiring greater and greater activity to produce the same level of reward—the same effect produced by long-term use of pornography.  Online and digital gaming by a hard-core percentage of daily users (like day-traders) get regular infusions of dopamine that promote addiction.  Meanwhile, the efficiency of attention, focus, and visuospatial skills actually bestow serious skill sets that find all kinds of uses in the world of work. 

However, this is not really rewiring, but adaptations of the brain to new stimuli or new situations that demand better efficiencies in one part of the brain versus another, which may lose potency as other areas take over.  The ratio of white to grey matter in the brain’s makeup is affected by habit and experience. Our brain seeks out rewards from the world around us—from TV, socialization, chocolate, smoking, sports betting, travel, or playing Tetris—there are as many forms of addiction as an outcome of these unending explorations.

By contrast, rewiring would be a change in structure—in the way the system works, not just adapts to new content.  This is a more fundamental level of change.  But the key trait of the human brain has always been its adaptability to new circumstances, a wide network of social demands, and the acquisition and integration of new knowledge and the creation of new ways of thinking about both new and old datasets—the adaptability implied by neuroplasticity. 

If there is a single technology that could be said to have effected such a change, it would be the invention of fire 200,000 to 400,000 years ago, the game-changing master invention of humankind that eventually led to culture itself through a biological shift.  The theory goes that the new ability to cook food over heat under control made early humans far more efficient because they could devote less time hunting and gathering raw foods and chewing and digesting them.  The high proteins of meat in greater quantities, digesting quickly after searing with fire, could be ingested and absorbed.  Meat-eating actually grew brain size to the highest ratio to body size in the animal kingdom, allowing the thinking revolution to begin that is the basis for human civilization. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

History at Theme Parks and “Disneyfication”

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

– David McCullough, biographer

“[Pedantry is] precision that has gone farther than necessary to shed light on a situation.  There is plenty of precision that is there to clear things up.…However, when extra precision does not help, I would call that pedantry….I think the difference is illumination.”

-        Eugenia Cheng, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World (2018)

Jamie O’Boyle and I are both speaking at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) in Hartford, Connecticut, on the “Disney and History” panel, covering the Disney Effect on history teaching and propagation.  Following are my remarks on the panel’s examination of “Disneyfication.”   

As Director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank, I study the deep cultural values that underlie the most successful public history projects ever, including museums and theme parks. I speak as a long-term consultant to the Disney enterprise and as an American Studies academic. 

My career as a cultural analyst began with the dissertation, “The Recycled Hero: Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett” (1976).  This was the first analysis of the 1955 Davy Crockett craze as America’s biggest generation, the baby boom’s, first encounter with history—and its signature experience.  Twenty years later I was directing the research think-tank Cultural Studies & Analysis.  Van Romans at Disney brought us in as cultural experts for Disney’s America—the park that should have been America’s ultimate history park. Romans recognized the need to identify the leading cultural values that drive collective interest in history.   

Recently we did an analysis for Disney’s legacy school, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which in October 2017 launched Experience Design to carry forward the skill traditions of Imagineering.

Overall, these projects have worked to define The Disney Effect on a range of topics, but this influence is especially keen in the history domain.  This lies a long way from the original animation and kid-centered content for which Disney is actually best known.  The most popular long-running theme park ride is Pirates of the Caribbean, still the highest-rated; other history-based long-runners are the Jungle Cruise, Liberty Square Riverboat, and the Carousel of Progress.  Frontierland, opening at the height of the Crockett craze in 1955, featured a Crockett museum, a Crockett-themed shooting gallery, adding the Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes in 1956. Today, Disneyland Paris offers a rustic Davy Crockett Ranch resort.   

To academics and scholars, this is usually referred to as “Disneyfication,” which is not meant as a compliment.  As a cultural analyst, though, I prefer to think of the term as positioning Disney as a catalyst of history made accessible through television, film, and theme park, and keyed to uniquely American values.  The famous profitability of the parks is an outcome of getting these values right and communicating them dramatically in making history come alive in three dimensions. In my professional experience, those who use the term “Disneyfication” don’t fully understand Disney – or history. Over the past 80 years, museums have become thoroughly Disneyfied, in that they replaced the traditional artifacts-under-glass with created immersive environments centered on compelling storytelling. Theme parks have set public expectations for public spaces and immersive environments. That does not mean they become amusement parks, but it does mean they focus on entertainment in the classic sense of the word: to hold the attention. When we entertain ideas, they hold our attention.  


History is always mediated.  There is no way to experience history directly.  It doesn’t exist for us except through narrative, drama, and the arts.  Never experienced directly, it’s always a channeled reality.  We depend on historical fiction as a main channel. The Disney 1957 film “Johnny Tremain” (based on the Newberry-award book by Esther Hoskins Forbes) made the Revolution immediate through character and story – opening the door to an era more and more “difficult of interpretation.” It was in fact on the reading list in many a grade-school classroom.  The Disney film “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956) gives a real-facts inside look at the Civil War and the otherwise forgotten Andrews Raid on the Georgia Railroad by Union soldiers in 1862.

But history, for the present day, starts not with the past.  It has to begin by catalyzing and filtering what’s already there in the public mind.  In that sense, history is a form of myth in Campbell’s sense of a universally shared human quest.  Such ideals anchor cultures to give them direction and meaning.  Showcasing and distillation go to the mind of the audience to decide how and what to profile—as Walt Disney did in his role as Editor-in-Chief.  Post-craze, grade-school history textbooks began to profile Crockett as an important national figure.  (Disney now co-owns the History Channel.)

What can be learned from Disney’s relationship with popular history as a master channeler, and since the 1950s film output, America’s Dean of Popular History?  First, public history is clearly a popular culture project, not an academic one. 

Public and popular history is concerned with narrative and personality rather than academic documentation.  The popular historical imagination is fueled by literature and drama (meaning film and television), by novelists, screenwriters, and artists rather than academics.  Goal: to inspire public engagement with the past.  (Consider the driving force of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a fictional story - on the antislavery cause from 1852.) Disney designed his first draft of Disneyland after American folk tales and heroes as a travelling exhibit. He always spoke about history as essential to our understanding of who we are--as an essential value to society (in the Council’s logo), “Where we come from, who we are, and where we are going.”  The quest for history as cultural artifact could be stated as the task of “How to capture what’s most vital about the past in order to understand its driving values for the future.”  This is the essence of capturing a spirit of the times or sensibility—the emotional power driving our bond with the people, places, and periods of our past. Those of an age to remember Disney films of the era will remember that they always started with the opening pages of a book. 

Those value narratives are what made the parks the most successful artform of the 20th century and split them off from their amusement park predecessors.  Disney’s invention is still the gold standard in design and audience response.  Museums and exhibits of all kinds show the Disney influence by their theme-park approaches and design, including front-end development based on the visitor experience and expectations.

However, later parks have proven problematic.  Disney’s America, proposed in the mid-1990s, was the logical culmination of the Disney magnets of historical interest, such as Davy Crockett, who Disney resurrected from obscurity in 1955 as the baby boom’s first collective history experience. Disney literally recycled a near-forgotten hero since the original Crockett legend was also driven by the popular culture of the era – a publication called Davy Crockett’s Almanac.  Disney’s America came from then-Chairman Michael Eisner’s interest in education (the Disney Teacher Awards was his pet project). When he asked educators what The Walt Disney Company, with its vast resources, could do to help education, one recurring answer was “Do something to get kids interested in history.” Disney’s America would have been the ultimate public history monument – one you could walk around in to experience the stories from America’s past.

But so far, it has never happened -- derailed by culture wars in the elite highlands of Virginia in 1994, the past overcome by the present.  The teachers who inspired the project were dismayed, because they know what a powerful effect the Disney lens trained on the past can be with his “Tale Tales and True” on the “Disneyland” TV series—themed by the week to match up with Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—as well as Liberty Square and Main Street, USA. Dean of American education John Dewey appreciated the need for consistent renewal by education when he declared that “Democracy has to be born anew every generation.”  The question is what sort of education is most effective for a useable past. 

The Historical Imagination

The success of the Disney parks is rooted in thematic historical imagination; in the theme park, “a place about times,” historical periods are themed to channel the inner shared American values, as Disney’s Crockett did: the supremacy of the individual faith and action for ideals, actions seen in a moral light, control of our own space, mobility and choice; and yes, distrust of big business and big government, and faith in the axiom that the future should be better than the past.

Disney’s output as theme park inventor and filmmaker is not a documentary project, but something much more difficult and compelling.  The model for all purveyors of history is Disney’s venture to explore the reaches of art, drama, film, and literature: to find ways to animate and energize the past ….to be relived together, as the great national experience it is.  This model is the core of cultural studies as well as historiography.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hierarchy and American Culture


“To be dominant means to a monkey that it gets the best of everything.  It is easy to test the status of two macaques.  All one has to do is toss a desirable object between them and see which one takes it.”

Primates, Library of Nature, 1984


The American Declaration of Independence proclaims “All men are created equal” as self-evident.  Equality is the cultural value we appear to value most highly.  But the equality assertion creates a values conflict when paired with our primate nature.  This nature is highly competitive, with asserting dominance the leading mechanism. 

The US Supreme Court cases dealing with affirmative action in the college admissions process have been forced to deal with this paradox of dominance versus group rights.  Most recently in the Harvard case in federal court last October, the outlines of the way we value and consider hierarchy are starting to coalesce.  The trial was the outcome of the 2014 suit filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who held that Harvard discriminates against highly qualified Asian students in order to favor other (less qualified) ethnic minorities—along with athletes, legacy students, and the wealthy.  It offers a showcase of reverse discrimination, one that Jews traditionally have faced as well for being an achievement elite that appears to threaten diversity mandates.[i] The federal court’s ruling is pending.

Why are hierarchy and equality so consistently on trial in our public debates?  Here is how a cultural analysis would begin to study this question, starting with college admissions as the “laboratory” for observing hierarchy dynamics at work.  Because college has long been seen as the opening channel to lifetime achievement, the admissions process for elite schools is the focal point for understanding the involved issues. 

So great has been the payoff of a college education in guaranteeing upward mobility that schools have been raising tuition at rates far outpacing general earnings.  It has taken the crisis of student debt across income levels to push parents past the assumption of higher education at any price.  The result: the value of the college degree is now no longer automatically assumed to lead to a decent career—or even job security. 

The equality tradition

Two and a half centuries since the Declaration’s equality clause, we are caught up in the crucible of the American class paradox: the self-made success (typically an entrepreneur) versus the level playing field to attain that status.  Nearly a century after our country’s founding, it took the 1866 Civil Rights Act, part of post-Civil War Reconstruction, to declare all persons born in the US to be citizens.  Two years later the 14th Amendment endowed voting rights on those same citizens.  In the past century since 1921, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been an ongoing bone of contention for ratification because of fears about how the general concept of sexual equality would be implemented, as well as women subject to the draft and to losing protections at work.  Ninety-eight years after it was first introduced the ERA is still circulating as a proposed Constitutional amendment.  More recently, The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) has been in circulation for ratification since 1994, with its main barrier to ratification transgender issues.

The search for equality—racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious, occupational, and age—are all part of an ongoing crusade using identity politics as the medium and measure.  These efforts are now under fire as championing special rights rather than equal rights[ii]. This problem illustrates that dominance—“specialness,” or American Exceptionalism—is woven deep into the fabric of universal ways of thinking about class dominance, power, and privilege.  The file folders in the case are ancestry, gender, age, achievement, influence, favoritism….every way in which people are either born or become who they are in the social world of family, community, political alliance, colleagueship, and religious affiliation.

In considering the role of social differences, we must think simultaneously along two lines.  First, who we are as humans and how we got to be the way we are across cultures and over time; and second, who we want or need to be as social primates, and how we move along that trajectory from our common ancestry as Americans.  For Americans, who celebrate success—a major differentiator of people—balancing the achievement ethic against general social fairness is a given cultural imperative. 

The paradox

Under affirmative action, well-meaning attempts at creating equality by counterbalancing discrimination somehow equate to elevating downgraded / denigrated groups to become chosen favorites.  This act, intended as a needed palliative measure, has become another kind of social leveling that results, again, in an uneven playing field.  As an example, savvy commuters on the London Underground protested the new system that marked off in green the spot where car doors would open, preventing congestion caused by the clash of on-boarders with off-boarders.  They argued that creating this type of advantage worked against their own hard-earned competitive advantage in learning the system on their own time and effort.

The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), long the top white group based on bloodlines plus aggregated wealth, can now be seen as a disadvantaged minority facing the end of legacy admissions with the ascension of rival elites from Africa, Asia, and the subcontinent.  There is already a rich legacy of WASP villains throughout popular culture.  The standard character is the evil banker, or hypocritical minister, or Machiavellian president.  Any other ethnic would have the basic right to protest this casting. Any other group so maligned would be heartily encouraged to seek social justice against such hateful portrayals (the Irish could qualify as well).

To follow the cultural picture along these lines, in the US, status is weighted toward the bottom.  This is the reason there is no virtue in having a rich upbringing, and why Humphrey Bogart, Alice Cooper, Edward Norton, Chevy Chase, and Spike Jonze all kept their well-off backgrounds a dark secret.  There simply is no dramatic interest in a riches-to-riches biography.  The idea is that against all odds, like Andrew or Dale Carnegie, one realizes the resilience, motivation, and character needed to make it to the top.  This is the American salvation story.

So, should admissions (for example), be race-blind? Or, perhaps better, class-blind? College admissions, like business, doesn’t like to talk about class, because in this country, it’s a mobile system that individuals can influence, and do all the time.  Logically, therefore, failing to make a success of oneself is clearly down to the individual, not the system. 

Surprisingly, though, even ad agencies don’t use the term, even at in-house idea sessions.  Although advertising is designed to further the goal of aspiration to raise one’s class through consumption and experiences, the industry doesn’t do this straightforwardly but by talking more obliquely about income, education, and occupation (as does the US Census) as a stand-in for privilege.   A second paradox is the concept of “earned privilege,” which fits the American cultural system and is in fact acknowledged in the idea that class is a mobile structure which individuals move into and around by their own genius--or fail to navigate as a lack of strategic acumen. 

Still, this mobility would still appear to favor some groups over others – making Martin Luther King’s exhortation problematic:  to judge on the basis of character, not skin color.  Should colleges, the golden tickets to success, follow this lead?  And how should we think about measuring character?

Perhaps we can measure race as a positive on some cultural scale.  But if race is considered positively, rather than as a negative, does that also work to disadvantage mainstream white groups in their efforts—aren’t Irish, Italian, French, Nordic, Polish, et al. bona fide ethnic origins?  Despite all the press about Latino and Black demographic growth, German remains, as it has been for decades, the largest single US ethnic group.  Global conflict puts Arab and other Middle-Eastern groups (non-Israeli) at multiple disadvantage as Muslim believers. How are these groups to be weighted and assigned handicap values in the game of educational one-upmanship?  And do we want to consider this a reasonable approach to a method of fairness in assigning credits to be redeemed in building careers, professions, and reputations as the basis for a successful personal future?  As a species of entrepreneurship, higher education is the coin to bid on all that wonderful potential we automatically assign (a bit uncritically) to growing minds.

Origins of dominance: Class

Back to primatology.  All primates, particularly monkeys and humans, have an easily observed dominance hierarchy that dictates every social relationship—including the exercise of personal space.  The measure of space an individual can command is a clear physical sign of status – to feel free to co-opt the best feeding and sleeping spaces, to move into others’ personal territory and invade their personal space[iii]. 

Hierarchy assures order and enables the quick decisions at the core of wild primate survival.  Baboons and macaques, aggressive by nature as part of their defense against predators on the ground, can be depended on to generate in-group conflicts that must be held in check by the alpha group—using symbolic threats (the long stare, bared fangs), short of all-out repressive action.   “The whole elaborate structure of dominance and submissions, of threat and surrender, is surely terribly familiar.  It is like a preview, a parody of status relationships between humans” – the teacher enforcing, with a long stare, order in the classroom[iv]. The power of cliques also provides the answer to the problem of succession when the alpha dies or is incapacitated, a close parallel to human oligarchy.  Survival insurance depends on rule by the top groups, both against predators from the outside and inner turmoil and insurrection.  Males from outside or lower orders are incorporated into the ruling class over time to assure ongoing vitality and diversity[v].

As in our own elites, qualifying for membership in the inner circle or white-shoe law firm is a matter of style and the achievements made possible by a clear, confident, self-possessed manner all primates recognize (the blue-chip college degree being one symbol of this style of belonging at the top), as well as birthright in having the right mother and/or father.  This styling goes beyond the social justice concept of fairness into identity based on a deeply embedded and reinforced class intelligence.  Such style intelligence explains why we grow up within homogenous subgroups—homophilly—that persist far beyond childhood into adulthood.  This is the reason for the avid pursuit of the “right” schools beginning with preschool—not for knowledge of subjects, but for the social networking.   

Social capital

But in the American version, such intelligence doesn’t have to be taught, although aspiring parents try through many channels like sports, the arts, dance, travel, and museum-going – to cultivate it in their offspring.  Class cues can just as well be picked up by the intuitive striver (like the artist Jack Dawson in “Titanic”) to create the self-made alpha identity—within or outside existing organizations and social structures.  We move our identities around the social board as a natural act, and expect others to do the same.  During the lifelong aspirational process, we draw upon the concept of equality as the means to mobilize our talents and ambitions with as little friction as possible by using social leverage to overcome blocks to progress.  But equality isn’t the goal.  It’s simply the means to the end objective: using the equality lever to climb or create the personal top of the mountain.

This dream of developing social capital into fame, status, and economic capital creates the microculture of the super wealthy, but at the same time is also the thinking and behavioral guideline for the most modest of households. The difference that always hangs between wealth extremes is the Matthew Effect, coined by Robert Merton in 1968 after the Parable of the Talents: the tendency of the rich to become super-rich and poor to remain poor or grow poorer (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” – Matthew 25:29, RSV).  Starting advantages of the class network accumulate quickly from birth to maintain and expand a “best of everything” lifestyle, which is the whole point of upper-to upper-middle-class attainment in a mobile class system like ours. These advantages, once earned, then become the legacy capital for children, grandchildren, and beyond—though many a fortune is squandered through bad management, a spendthrift ethic, and subdivision among many offspring. 

Celebrities, top athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals are self-generating systems of wealth, reputation, and power that are purposefully unequal (that is to say, exceptional, excellent, and successful through competitive advantage).  But getting to those heights is part of the pursuit of happiness endowed as an inalienable right.  Although any two people can be clearly unequal in their talents, or in the hard work they are willing to apply to develop them, Americans see social equity as expandable, a commodity that underlies the achievements available to be exploited as success breeds success. Not at the expense of others, but as available to all as a public good.

The American dream is not equality.  The goal is constantly working to develop one’s unique competitive advantage.  This project is assumed to be the shared goal of the work ethic, social relations, and striving.  Equality tests are just the baseline designed to prevent anyone from being barred from the race.  The rest is the test of mettle that wins our place in the fast-moving hierarchy.  

[i]Affirmative Action on Trial,” Insight into Diversity, Dec. 2018, p. 28
[ii] Jonathan Rauch, “Don’t Call Me LGBTQ,” Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2019, p. 16 
[iii] "Primates," Illustrated Library of Nature (Vol. 1), 1984. Westport, CT:  H.S. Stuttman, pp. 107-8
[iv] Ibid, p. 109 
[v]  Ibid, p. 111