Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2010

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.

[…]

Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?


Unbranding and the hipster backlash

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

I have an awkward but passionate relationship with academic discussions of popular culture. Expansion: I’ve always found popular culture more interesting as an observer than as a participant, but I think the line between those two states is becoming thinner and fuzzier (if, indeed, it ever existed at all beyond my own desperate, continuous and largely futile attempts to see myself as separate from any form of cultural majority in my current social environment*).

You see, I had a minor revelation on the way to Tesco the other evening, in which I realised that part of the difficulty with, say, writing reviews of books or music in a networked world, is that you can’t isolate any one cultural artefact from the world in which it exists, or from its creator (not entirely), or from its consumers and detractors. To review effectively – to critique – is an act of comparative cultural anthropology, performed in a room lit only by a Maglite velcroed to one’s own forehead. Context is everything. The character and intellectual history of the critic is crucial to your understanding their understanding of the subject of their critique. The critic’s greatest insights (and, by the same token, greatest blindspots) are necessarily invisible to her. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the critic can’t see her biases for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

And so much for rambling pseudophilosophical cultural discourse. (Hey, it was a fun paragraph to write. I may even have meant most of it.) But back to the point: culture, fashion, trends, memes. Cyclic shifts. The mainstream’s need to reappropriate marginal culture (because, based as it is on a pattern of consumerism, it cannot create, only refine and reiterate); marginal culture’s parasitic defiance, goading and mockery/pastiche/satire of the mainstream’s current obsessions (because the urge to create is almost indistinguishable from the urge to destroy).

What am I going on about?

Like, hipsters, y’know? Right. Wired UK piece, academics and psychology types talking about the pivot point where a self-identified outsider culture reaches a critical mass and becomes a self-parody, attacks its own body-politic like cancer or some sort of immune system failure; Pop Will Eat Itself (dos dedos, mis amigos). Swarms of Johnny-come-latelys displace the boys and girls from back-in-the-day to the sound of chorused mutterings of “sell-outs and cash-ins”,  “we-were-here-first”, “the-early-albums-were-waaaaay-better”. In-group identifiers become terms of disparagement outside the group; inside the group, further divisions of nomenclature attempt to reposition the speaker in relation to the recent immigrant influx invading their cultural space (“he’s no hipster, he’s a scenester; sooooo bogus”). Meanwhile, businesses spring up and rot away in parallel with the swells and breakers of cultures rising and falling, happy remoras (remorae?) on the big dumb whale-shark of Youth. (RIP, American Apparel; couldn’t happen to a more horrifying homogeniser of urban try-hards.)

Whoa, check myself – still waffling b*llocks! Cut to the chase with academic concision:

In order to distance themselves from the hipster caricature, true indie consumers** use a number of techniques.

The first is “aesthetic discrimination”, whereby you tell those who accuse you of being hipsters as uninformed outsiders who don’t have sophisticated enough tastes to be able to discriminate between the hipster caricature and the authentic indie consumer.

The second technique is “symbolic demarcation”. Those indie consumers who engage in aesthetic discrimination tend to have an intellectual command of indie culture and are socially recognised as people who are in the know. Because of this status, they can afford to dismiss any resemblances to the hipster icon as irrelevant.

They might also rename the hipster caricature as something else, eg “scenester”, thus placing the worst traits associated with a “hipster” into a new, distinct definition. Creating a new category helps solidify the contrast between legitimate indie consumers and those who simply want to be part of a fashionable scene.

The third technique is “proclaiming (mythologised) consumer sovereignty”. This sees the person consciously reframe their interests in the indie field to show their autonomy from the dictates of fashion.

“Our findings suggest how backlash against identity categories such as hipster or metrosexual could generate complex and nuanced identity strategies that enable consumers to retain their tastes and interests while protecting these tastes from trivializing mythologies,” the authors conclude.

(Before you feel too smug, we all do this. Granted, most of us reading this site don’t do it while wearing ironic Rayban knockoffs or penny loafers under rolled-up drainpipe jeans, but we all do it. Genre fandom especially is full of this stuff, though it moves more slowly. Hell, even the transhumanists do it, though they use even bigger words than anyone else in the process. Othering is a hard-wired human thing, goes way back to pre-speech phases of socialisation. Them-and-us; hard habit to quit.)

But so what? Well, say you’re a marketer for fashion brands (or for a new author, or an advocate for a new school of transcendent philosophy). Making your own brand/author/philosophy look good is incredibly hard to achieve reliably… even more so nowadays, with the memetic flux swirling so fast. Yesterday’s viral sensation is today’s lingering and sniffly common cold. So what to do? Instead of giving your brand to cultural icons that reflect the aspirations of your target subculture, you give your rival brands to cultural icons who embody the opposite of those aspirations [via BoingBoing]. Couture-marketing psy-ops. Sounds ridiculous, a possible indicator of the end of civilisation (wring hands, mutter about the Romans, miss point entirely). But with clarity born of hindsight, this morning’s revelation, triggered by the two articles linked above and prompting the rapid-fire unedited writing of this little screed:

William Gibson’s been writing this stuff for years.

How does he keep doing that?

Related: Slate “interviews” Kanye West by slicing up his Twitter output. The Village Voice claims this as the chiselled headstone of the music magazine: who needs the middleman to broadcast their personal brand, if all they’ll do is distort it? The Village Voice fails to recognise that pop culture consumers are like fuzz-rock guitarists: distortion always sounds better than clean signal. Boutique stomp-boxes all round!

[ * So, yes, science fiction fandom was a pretty inevitable landing-spot, I suppose. But which came first, the estrangement or my enjoyment of the literature thereof?*** Answers on the back of an Urban Outfitters till receipt… ]

[ ** Not entirely sure about these notional “true indie consumers”. Neophiliacs would probably be a fairer word, albeit an arguably less flattering one. ]

[ *** And so much for pathos. ]


Tokyo billboards can guess your age, gender

Paul Raven @ 16-07-2010

The technological evolution of billboards continues apace. Three years ago we mentioned billboards that can track the attention paid to them; then there were the billboards that could beam directed soundwaves right into your ears (and your ears alone); then there was the suggestion of billboards that you could hit with a high-5 from your Body Area Network in order to receive more relevant ads. The next step? Hi-tech billboards are on trial in Tokyo, and they’re supposed to be able to assess your age demographic and gender.

This is another one of the arms races of evolutionary psychology, I suspect; the smarter advertising becomes, the more resistant to its more basic forms we’ll get. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking… after all, the only reason there’s money in spam emails is because people are stupid enough to click on the damned things.


The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company

Jonathan McCalmont @ 31-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

###

“Welcome to the Desert of The Real” announces Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus as he introduces The Matrix’s (1999) Neo to images of the charred remains of what was once human civilisation. A civilisation that has since been digitised and placed online while the real world crumbles beneath an ash grey sky. Morpheus’ drily ironic line would later be re-invented by the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek in an essay prompted by the September 11th attack upon the World Trade Center. Žižek’s point is a simple one : The 9/11 attacks destroyed not only some buildings, but also America’s conception of what the real world was really like. Since the end of the Cold War, the West had fallen into a cocoon of smugness created by the comforting belief that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all opposition to liberal democracy had simply dried up and blown away; that, as the Berlin Wall came down, Humanity found itself united in the same set of desires for elected governments, human rights and consumer goods – desires for the kind of things that the American people had. It was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, The End of History. Continue reading “The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company”


Outside the media: the geofenced future of advertising

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2010

Geolocation + smartphones + permission marketing – [old media channels] = ?

The campaign was created by Placecast, a location-based mobile ad company in San Francisco. It uses a practice called geo-fencing, which draws a virtual perimeter around a particular location. When someone steps into the geo-fenced area, a text message is sent, but only if consumers have opted in to receive messages.

[…]

Placecast created 1,000 geo-fences in and around New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, cities where the North Face has many stores and areas that get a lot of snow or rain, so the company can tailor its messages to the weather. In urban areas, the fences are up to half a mile around stores, and in suburban areas they are up to a mile around stores.

Stowe Boyd reckons it’ll stick, and I’m inclined to agree.

It is going to be huge, especially with young people who text preferentially over talking on their phones. And of course, the retailers will pay for the messages.

And even better than come-ons like these will be the coupons. I am driving past the local Giant supermaket, and I get a text message with an attachment: 2 coupons for brands that I have registered at the Giant website. […]

But what Miller completely forgets to mention is that this is direct advertising, like direct mail was. This will end run the media companies who have made their bread and butter from advertising and coupons. If Domino’s can text me a code to get two pizzas half off today, why would the[y] advertise in the local paper?

If the future of advertising is direct and opt-in, through mobile devices to the consumer, the media lose the support of retail and local advertisers.

Yes, consumers still need to learn about PF Chiangs in the first place, but that is much more likely to be a direct experience, too, like going there with friends and then signing up for text-based promotions because it’s mentioned on the menu, or a friend uses a coupon or discount code.

The future of advertising is moving outside of media, and that’s another nail in the coffin for traditional print media.

And of course, there’ll be ways to game the locational ads system, too; step beyond the text message coupons and into mobile map apps, and suddenly there’s an incentive not to send you by the shortest route, but by the most lucrative – a brainwave courtesy of Jan Chipchase, caught in traffic in Virginia:

… the result I suspect of a sat-nav that decided that every possible road-works was a Point of Interest. Which might sound a bit far fetched today, until you consider that someone somewhere is drawing on ever more reams of data to serve up your your route – and someone else somewhere else is using every tool in their disposable to cajole individuals of interest past places ‘of interest’.

When the company pitching you advertising *also* calculates the most ‘efficient’ route to take from A to B you need to ask the criteria by wh[ich] efficiency is measured. And keep asking – the answer will likely change with the ebb and flow of financial results.

Of course, you could always turn off your phone, foregoing the navigational assistance in exchange for freedom from interstitial marketing. But then there’s a 93% chance that your route will be guessed by analysis of your previous movements, so you might as well leave it on and hope for a good open-source ad-blocker app…

… though this is almost certainly more worth worrying about than geolocational robbery crews.


« Previous PageNext Page »