Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Culture Concept

Deep culture undercurrents structure life in subtle but highly consistent ways that are not consciously formulated.  Like the invisible jet streams in the skies that determine the course of a storm, these currents shape our lives, yet their influence is only beginning to be identified. 
                                                                                    ---   Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, 1976

A half century ago, in Beyond Culture, anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward Hall exhorted what he called the enterprise of “cultural literacy.”  Understanding that cultures were different solution sets to recurring life problems—resulting in cultural relativity--can help us to appreciate, then reconcile, the cultural distinctions causing problems on the world stage. 

Cultural Analysis, as worked up over the past three decades, is one of the outcomes of that enterprise.  How can insights from culture as an integrated thinking framework, as mind frames, not just a collection of customs and costumes, be unearthed and deployed?

How culture works – American style
As a shared pragmatic toolbar, culture condenses and clarifies decision making by supplying a subtext of shared values.  This background acts as a screening device for all sorts of decisions.  From the allocation of time and attention (who do I spend Christmas vacation with this year since my parents divorced—Mom or Dad?)  to career (If I decide on medical school, what will this career cost me in time, attention, energy, and family resources?  Should I leave my tenured teaching job to start my own consulting business?)  

In answer to this last dilemma, in the US, as a center for entrepreneurship: yes, go for it—even though the ten-year success rate for new businesses is just one in three (Small Business Administration, 2019).  While this less-than-half statistic argues clearly against, the culture says do it anyway—the risk is considered worth such a noble independent effort, which is a showcase for our ultimate faith in personal genius.  The same endorsed effort drives professional sports, media celebrity, venture capital, science, music, art, and literature.   Because American culture values individuality above everything else, the entrepreneur is the American national hero, and a lifestyle model for free-market capitalism worldwide.

Besides the free market, US cultural values inform these decisions by rubrics like majority rule, a future (ahistorical) orientation, and general tolerance for risk-taking—including the failure rate, like the two-thirds majority for businesses (with a full 50% failure rate at the five-year mark).  Building in a value directive that works on autopilot across groups and centuries converts the natural stress of such decisions into a far easier-to-manage set of habitual thinking habits that don’t require constant problem-framing setups, idea-searching, or group debate.  This releases time equity for other projects that don’t operate on the basic survival or well-being ground level, but require group consensus at some level. A prime example is the US space program of the sixties, which President Kennedy exhorted the nation to push not because it was going to be easy, but for the opposite reason – because it was intrinsically hard to achieve.  This equation is in perfect alignment with US cultural values, meaning “We can do this. It’s a challenge, so we’re going for it.”   This same message, that “It will be difficult” read into a Japanese context, would be taken to mean “It’s impossible.  Don’t try it.”  In the Japanese reading, “difficult” could be projected into “failure,” which implies social disruption and possible disaster.  Americans (the space program again) accept failure as a necessary component of trying new and difficult ventures. Of course, to read the differences goes much deeper than language because it’s culture speaking.  (Lindsay McMahon, 11.17.11, 

Beyond description
Such judgments are the bread and butter of cultural analysis, whose mandate is to deconstruct artifacts, events, behavior, and language to discover their “inner life” as value markers.  What is the most relevant information that can be de-engineered from the big data of culture?  What are the most telling clues about what people say, do, and think within their home culture, then compared to another culture?  This means determining what questions need to be asked.  This goes beyond ethnographic description in order to elicit insights to yield salient cultural intelligence we can use to understand ourselves and others in terms of core beliefs and motivators.  My favorite starting question about any cultural feature is “What is this for?  What are people trying to do and be in terms of core values through this tool, artifact, ritual, habit, or belief?” 

Useful answers depend on following a trail of clues based on posing the right question. Museum labels and consumer research aren’t often helpful here.  Culture insight requires another level of perception and evaluation.  It isn’t easy to get at, which is because cultural core value is the highest-ranking kind of knowledge to hold.   It asks not just what, or how, or who, but the million-dollar research question, which is “Why?”  Asking the Why question can lead to the alignment of practice and theory (values) that can reveal the ideals that drive culture as a motivational engine.  It explains, for example, the heavy stress that is the cost of freedom of choice in America.   This can be discerned as different in kind from the Japanese stressors as the outcome of commutarian cultures, with different causes and attempted solutions.

Cultural inclusion
Ever since Richard Hoggart at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England coined the term Cultural Studies in 1964 (The Uses of Literacy in 1957 was the start-up document), the influence of culture – the invisible yet irresistible force—now includes mass media and digital technology.  This inclusion extends the domain of culture, ancient to current, to become a focus of study in its own right, beyond a descriptor of foreign ways of life, extending back to antiquity (and prehistory) and into future inquiry as global and extraterrestrial human mind frames.  Going back to my own work in the field of Popular Culture, the boundaries of what culture can be have now far surpassed the older liberal-arts meaning of Culture as the elite in art, literature, architecture, music, and media, or as ethnic rites and customs in exotic environments. 

We can now regard culture as the great universal system that unites all people around their encounter with problems, potentials, and opportunities, however much the detail and description of those cultures may differ in what they advocate (their lead values).  Culture is the single most powerful force that all humans obey and have followed for at least the past 50,000 years as worldwide human migration was completed.  This historical period marks the final emergence of modern humans as evidenced by established civilized group life—jewelry, art, tools, and ritual objects.  At this point, the shape of the human vocal tract allowed for the sound range of modern speech.  Language is learned by childhood just by hearing it in one’s group, just as culture is embedded in the brain of a certain size—based on a measure of 1450 cc—ours as well as the first homo sapiens sapiens.  This leaves 95% of our common past without written language, far more recent at just 5,000 years ago.  This is important because cooperation allowed by communication is the bedrock of civilization--as Exhibit One of behavioral modernity.  Civilization marks our coming of age as cultural creatures.

Anthropologists have been at this enterprise many decades without a uniformly accepted definition for the field of studying “what makes us human—including biology, communications, and the history of humankind” (Hall, 1976).  So far cultural analysis can distill this study into a working definition of culture:

Culture is the uniquely human invention, passed on and built across generations, that works as the mind frame shared within the group, designed to solve problems across the board from individual to social goals and purposes.  Culture works to ensure survival, guarantee group cohesion, and inculcate the next generation, while self-perpetuating its own set of ideas and ideals across generations. 

James Burke’s The Knowledge Web (2000) takes apart the history of informational networks from “electronic agents to Stonehenge and back.”   As the most extensive integrated information system of them all, “enculturation” acts as a kind of instant expertise available to any and all, built up over thousands of years by millions of humans living in every environment.  This expertise is the outcome of the neural network of culture’s multiple knowledge webs, echoed in the learning activity that can now be visualized in the structures and wiring of the brain itself.  Language and mathematics, the twin basic means of encoding information, along with visual intelligence, are the leading tools of knowledge-sharing produced by culture.  It is the leading toolkit of humanity.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Mission Impossible Part II: State of the Art for Customer Service

How could a passenger disappear on a flight from New York to Singapore because their ticket was miscoded to show the wrong date of arrival?
Why can’t a mother of three with a husband under a Domestic Violence Order get a divorce decree after six years in and out of court, despite her many expensive attorneys’ attempts to find out why?
Why did it take four years of repeated applications and inquiries to renew an ordinary passport through the mail?
Why does a healthcare system declaration of Patient Rights apply only to its hospital in-patients, excluding the thousands more getting out-patient care in its many department clinics?  When the patient finally got the right person to answer their phone, he was told that out-patient problems had to be resolved at the specialty department level even though the problem was with the department manager herself. The hospital saw nothing odd in telling the patient to take their complaint to the very person they were complaining about.
Why does no one at the Philadelphia city government level recognize their own new City ID cards, nor can explain what they cover?  How is it that no one at the many City Hall desks seems to know where to direct cardholders to a simple list of covered benefits?
Why does a low-vision eye clinic not answer its telephone, nor post its location in an assisted-living building without an identifying sign? 
And so on.  Of course there are millions more consumer horror stories to add to these.  The consumer complaint narrative has become the latest form of self-expression, arguing for the right to fair treatment in the face of the uncaring big company. Fairness – not to be confused with the legal concept of Justice — is a uniquely American cultural value. 
Seventy percent of the US economy is consumer-driven.  It would seem there would be effective methods of resolving the inevitable conflicts of interest that result. The old term ombudsman, though hardly ever used anymore, once provided a disinterested third-party mediator who could resolve these problems.  Starting in the 1950s, such an agent began to appear as an impartial, independent “legal representative” (following the Swedish definition) who could be relied on to investigate “maladministration” in response to complaints by the public.  This role seems to have disappeared from the consumer issue landscape, however, since the 60s.
Consumer dissatisfaction now extends far beyond a few stray complaints about shoddy manufacturing or persistent auto-repair problems; it has become a way of life for the majority of Americans who spend their spare time between phone and internet trying to work their way through the labyrinth of help programs and customer service for medical, legal, insurance, banking, schooling, and governmental issues that have gone awry at the personal level. 
You would think that the world revolved around the customer and customer satisfaction, given the fierce competition for every dollar spent in the consumer marketplace.  But no, that’s not the case.  Business, government, and even nonprofits have just devised more and better ways to evade customers—sending us online, without telephone access—or when we do succeed in breaking the telephone or text barrier, finding ways of making things so complex that even experts have trouble wayfinding through the clutter.  That clutter now includes confusing the pathways to solutions and creating dead ends without alternative pathways to get directions or information needed to solve even the simplest-sounding problem.  Rude, unhelpful customer service has become the norm, the latest iteration of “You can’t fight City Hall.”
Mega-companies--the ones with customer service--are the prime adversaries of their own customers.  Given the term “customer service,” companies should have the best interests of the consumer as their core motivation. Experience demonstrates, however, that they are more about customer management. These companies make profits, often huge ones, and their goal is to maintain profitability. When dealing with customer service, it’s not unusual to find yourself in an adversarial relationship.  It’s not an equal fight by any measure.  The sophistication of big business, big healthcare, and big government is many times that of their customers, and they are fully aware of this fact.  For the customer, efforts to be dealt with fairly amount to an ongoing Mission Impossible. 
This is because expecting a company to cure its own complaints is akin to expecting that everyone who is a patient can also negotiate like a health-care lawyer—and understand the system, its rules, definitions, and intentions.  This is unrealistic.  It’s difficult enough just to learn enough to navigate the departments, procedures, doctors, support staff, locations, price structure, let along start in on your own insurance coverage and what that means in payments due.  Patients don’t even appreciate how to frame questions to produce the answers they need—or what do with the answers.  In response to your questions—if you can manage to understand how to frame them—customer service agents can’t tell you why anything happens, just cite policy.  Leaving the patient to try constructing a logic framework to explain what’s going to happen, when, where, and how much it will cost out of pocket.  Add to this conundrum the coded messages, abbreviations, and proprietary terminology that make up just one bill (or even “This is Not a Bill”), and the average person is overwhelmed before even beginning to see any useful answers.
Perhaps this is the reason that less than 4% of customers complain formally (TARP Research, 1999).  Instead, they spread negative world of mouth.  One in ten leave the business and never return—harder to do with a hospital or health system.  The White House Consumer Affairs Office reports that unhappy customers will tell  9-15 people about their bad experience; 13% tell 20 or more.(Nov. 2, 2017).  But essentially, complaining is just too complex, too time-intensive, and requires too much effort.  Too many steps involved, too much time and anguish for an uncertain outcome.  Relating the same story again and again to each new agent without any quick fix, the problem balloons into a bigger one and becomes an anger-inducing project that won’t go away but keeps magnifying the initial wound with ongoing frustration.  With government agencies consumers suspect the agency doesn’t care, and might even penalize efforts to correct its own mistakes.  A firm belief rules dealing with the IRS, postal services, city government – that these entities have no interest in improving their service through customer feedback and get no reward for resolving problems. 
The larger consumer reality—the core situation, really--is that we depend on these many organizations in order to operate.  They are no longer optional luxuries.  Our computers and smart phones must be functional to connect us to everything we need to get done—including all the tools, data, and services needed on any given day.  However adept  we’ve become in navigating all these necessary systems, we aren’t savvy enough to advocate for ourselves against the bureaucratic forces that operate outside and against our own best interests.  Calling itself a “service” makes it an arrogant pretender.  The company that can devise better ways to champion the consumer—as Amazon appears to do—will emerge as winning competitors in the customer services arena by assuring their customers that they don’t have to go it alone.  Can customer service be said to be a failure—one that takes over our time and mindspace?  Many would say it needs to be fixed.
Consumers need a champion.  The battle between big and little players means that some service is needed to step up to the plate to give a wide-range assist to Joe Customer.  This will eventually begin to happen as the outcome of consumer rights fueled by the big data needed to build expert systems with the human help of practiced experts across many fields of consumer activity--from finance to health care, social media and computers, social security, travel, home buying, assisted living, college applying, etc.  As Charles Schwab has said with reference to an on-line consumer rights attorney group, “The idea of bringing even a small percentage of the professional services market online, in the way did with retail, is a multi-billion-dollar idea.“

Monday, October 28, 2019

Mission Impossible Part I

Thanks for nothing!
A personal rant on system thinking

This is a rant –I hope a higher-level one – about healthcare customer service, “service” we all endure just by being self-insured and/or Medicare clients.  As I hope my ongoing Cultural Intelligence blog is showing, I’m a reasonably educated person, having served as a consumer reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper, and an investigator of group behavior and the social mind.  If I’m having this kind of difficulty in dealing with routine healthcare, I shudder to even imagine what less well-equipped patients (and their families) are enduring.   So I’m judging that if I’m having this much trouble, others must be, too.  (Part II talks about customer service state of the art as the broader set of issues.)

I’m closing in on the 125th hour (all unpaid) of trying to get ordinary patient information from my prize-winning national-reputation healthcare organization in Philadelphia.  At some point, as a new patient, it occurred to me to actually research their mission – in just three words, “We Improve Lives,” the pledge to make my life better.  So far, it has done the opposite: by chewing up my work schedule, domestic tranquility, and sleep, and indeed making my healthcare mission an impossible journey. By forcing me to repeat-call many offices, very few of which call me back.  Then it’s back in my court to begin again the next day, telling my war stories over again to whatever office or functionary will listen.  I’m in constant contact with the Billing office, the Rheumatology department, Internal Medicine, my primary doctor, and three other specialists.  I have insurance through Medicare, but they seem to be less than able to help me out in my dark quest around the medical campus in search of answers.  All this effort is just in the service of trying to understand the system’s errors as these affect me.  My health is actually fine.  At over 65, I am interested in keeping it that way by following a solid screening schedule.  For the very sick and injured, this bumpy ride through the healthcare system has to be an unimaginable unmanageable nightmare. 

First, as one of my colleagues, a psychiatrist, put it, these days medicine is an inherently defensive practice.  So just contacting anyone is a tricky wicket.  At the other end of the scale is the mandate of Patient Rights, which you would think would open up dialogue everywhere on every topic of concern to patients.  I assumed the patient was at the center of any practice and the whole organization (again, this headlines the hospital’s home page: "People First").  But acting as my own advocate over the past three months has shown this to be a weak philosophy in practice.  Across the many offices and practices where I’m becoming notorious is great variability in how I’ve been treated and regarded – almost as if they have no relationship except payroll and signage.  The fact that these entities consider themselves almost sovereign states for policies and accountability reflects the problems of all organizations without a strong cultural ethic.  Or, it seems, accountability for their attitudes and actions.

The patient rights issue is probably central to explain my continued suffering.  I trust this parallels the human rights movement.  My review of this policy: 80% of all statements refer to hospital in-patients, while I’m an outpatient only.  When I pointed this out, the Patient Experience office told me that this hospital-based policy is nevertheless applicable to every patient type.  I have difficulty seeing how smoking policies and nursing care have any relevance to getting information from a busy front desk at the billing office.  My questions are around why I’ve been billed twice directly as a first-person (self-pay) case, when my insurance should be billed first, me second.  I had a horrified period when the first bill arrived by mail and I had to assume my insurance had denied payment.  It took a week just to get Billing to call back to explain that this was a back-office computer error that had happened not just to me but many other patients.  Nevertheless, there was never anything like a notice to give those affected a heads-up that this error had occurred.  When two months later the same thing happened in exactly the same way, I wondered how much my healthcare had paid for this terrific new “integrated” EPIC program that couldn’t bill properly.  A search on the internet under the EPIC name confirmed that millions are being spent in fixes across the healthcare landscape for this programming.

When I went up the ladder into the third month of this malfunction, I got a curious response:  the billing VP said he was going to be honest about the mistakes made.  Apparently this approach did not include any notice to anyone.  I tried to explain system theory to him – systems have their own dynamic of reward and punishment, or inattention and denial – regardless of the moral character of those who live and work within it.  I don’t think he paid much attention to anything I said.  The ethic seems to be to get through any discussion asap, asking along the way, “Is there anything ELSE I can do for you?” establishing the fiction that anything at all has been taken care of. 

Time and again the agents for the organization would insist that their efforts were genuine and that they were doing their best job under the pressures of an ever-expanding healthcare empire.  That’s not possible to prove or disprove, and it does nothing to help the patient find out what is going on—with charges or with outliers like security breaches. Two phrases are the litany of customer service: “I don’t have any idea,” and “You will have to call ____ office for that.”  I am often misdirected to inappropriate people and places, costing additional time--and always added frustration--for all parties.

Soon after the “system theory” came up, I received several lab test orders by mail.  I assumed they were all mine, until I was ready to walk over to the Outpatient Lab.  (No office seemed to know any room numbers within the large medical building where the lab is located – I had to physically research and inform the organization of the exact room number.)  I noticed I had, not my own, but another patient’s name, date of birth, patient account number (patient ID is actually a billing code), full address, and a list of ordered tests. 

This is called a PHI privacy breach.  What is the first thing any patient thinks of when they get someone else’s record?  It’s “Where is MY record, why did I get someone else’s, and what happened to breach my right to patient privacy?”  Many hours and calls later, I am still trying to find out, but this is at least considered serious enough to send to the Privacy / Compliance office.  That manager is out sick for awhile, so I need to wait a week or more to find out what the drill is to get that sorted.  Meanwhile, if my lab order (which I never received) is out there with another patient, I hope they don’t have criminal intent.  There’s quite enough of my personal information there to open bank accounts and much more. 

Finally talking with the practice manager in charge of said information, she was notably focused on getting the wrong patient order back in her hands.  I reported that the lab had confiscated it when I showed it off (and caught the fact that it was not my order, a fact I wanted to confirm for myself).  When I asked what had happened to my information, everything was done to dismiss my interest in the privacy breach—as personal opinion or hopped-up anxiety.  And then the topper – “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  This is the Number One Phrase to Never Say to a Patient.  I had a rare laugh to hear that coming from a practice manager.

I don’t think HIPAA will take that view – at least, I expect vigilance to be more active higher up.  I was shut out of any emails I could use to send a list of the normal clarifying questions to find out how the practice handles such security breaks.  Meaning I am going to be forced to walk the document over to their offices myself.  And have it signed for at Reception. 

Meanwhile I’m without answers on either issue, and seriously wondering what has happened to patient care, and whether the same clutter, obfuscation, and confusion is reflected on the clinical / medical side, where it could do real harm.  The Hippocratic Oath, Do No Harm, still rules the practice of medicine.  It’s just that patient care doesn’t know about or adhere to it.   So where is Quality Control and Standard of Performance in all this mess?  No one ever mentions them.  Why not?  Because there is no comprehensive way of dealing with these standards.  Yet it’s very clear how absent they are, and how much leadership needs to do to begin to grapple with the service fundamentals. 

Above all, however, medicine is now all about the UX or user (patient / client) experience, as is all else in the emerging world of the Experience Economy.  And yet service is worse, costs are higher, and answers are harder to come by than ever before.  It is astonishing how much verbal punishment and time abuse attends just trying to find, understand, and fix the system’s problems – not caused by patients, but left to them in order to hold their own healthcare services together.  Of course medical staff is paid to answer my questions and fix breaches in billing and privacy; I’m not.  Yet my sources for damage control are disconnected, siloed, largely uninformed outside their own m├ętiers and titles, and often within as well.  I’m calling it patient hazing.  It violates my rights across many aspects, from simple policy requests to holding me responsible (on the “MyChart” website) for big bills my insurance should pay.  I’m thinking hard about whether I want to sign again next year.  The problem is that I just changed over all my providers, including my primary doctor, to this system – if you have ever had to endure this, you know that no one really wants to repeat this process, much less twice in one year.  (This transfer was the outcome of insurance changes, not any issue with my former plan, which covered another hospital center.) 

Now, you must be thinking – haven’t you tried to contact the Patient Advocate?  Of course.  There just doesn’t seem to be one, or it remains disguised under another title, or their office doesn’t return calls.  So, with my growing file folders of notes and documents I’m constantly generating to document my encounters and clear up inconsistencies and fill gaps…I’m heading into my 125+ hours in the coming week (and maybe this weekend), as a lone advocate for myself.  I really wish I knew who had my back, but I think I can safely say that to the system I’m Patient Zero in a whole new sense.  And this is one of the country’s leading-reputation centers.  What are things like in rural areas with less money, fewer high-end specialists, skilled nurses, and billing clerks? 

Probably better, would be my guess, because people at least have some chance of knowing one another, other departments, how they operate, and the System may have an intelligible culture. 

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,”, 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