Tag Archives: history

3 unexpected ways crime drives innovation

Innovation means doing things differently to do them better. That means breaking rules and conventions. And not all rules are of the ‘wear a tie to work’ variety.

When breaking rules, always be sure to make the typefaces off-horizontal

In order to make things work better, society as a whole needs people to test and break the ‘big’ rules too. These people are criminals.

99% of criminality is of course not socially productive. But, either by intent, or by the response it provokes, it does form an essential function in helping society to innovate and improve. Here are some unlikely examples:

1. Exposing flaws in outdated systems.

When you think of a criminal, one of the stereotpyes that first leaps to mind is one that was formed in the midwest of the US in the early 1930s. Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang – a flurry of iconic figures that all derived from a very specific time and place.

This spectacular outburst of criminality derived from two seminal technological innovations – the creation of cost-accessible machine guns and cars.

But what it exposed very rapidly was the Achilles heel of the American police system – the disunity between states. As huge as the United States is, the addition of the car enabled criminals to travel between 9 different Midwestern states, and thus 9 different legal systems, within a couple of hours. Once you got over the state line, you were fine.

Have car, will travel. 6 states in 2 years. 6 legal systems.

This had some negative consequences of course – primarily the militarisation of the FBI and subsequently the police. But the real innovation that they drove, and which J Edgar Hoover used their notoriety to champion, was a centralisation of shared criminal justice data. Which was the first great data project that began to make the United States a more unified society under law.

So think about criminals as like the ultimate QA testers of a civilised society.

2. Pioneering in the grey areas of the economy.

Sometimes, the rules simply aren’t very clear, because the dynamics of society, information and the economy are changing far quicker than the ability of legal processes to catch up. Particularly in areas relating to media and technology.

For example, from the moment of the invention of the internet, the entire principle of music ownership and copyright were effectively a Wild West…which the massed ranks of copyright lawyers, record labels and music publishers had little or no interest in exploring. Then came Napster (invented, of course by Justin Timberlake).

Whatever you think, or thought of Napster (and I am sure a few Metallica fans out there thought it was a bad thing) there is little doubt that they rapidly accelerated a wonderful burst of innovation in the music and content business. And without the Napsters, or Pirate Bays, or other people who by simply not caring about the law define themselves as criminals, it is difficult to make progress.

This need for legal flexibility in the area of content, media and technology continues to flummox us. They need to be answered at some point, but rigid initiatives like SOPA are not the answer. And to even see where the lines should be drawn, you have to allow pioneers to colour in the grey areas.

3. Destroying ‘holy cow’ legacies of the past.

Lest we forget, the legal standards of the present have not always been reflected throughout history – the law is evolutionary, not absolute. Nor is it always ‘progressive’ – it frequently oscillates between extremes and loops back on itself. This can lead to some surprising results, and even very trivial crimes can have significant effects.

For a spectacular example, we can look at one of the most frequently asked historian’s questions: why did the French Revolution occur. Everyone agrees that literature played an important role. Traditionally, people thought the seminal text was this:

It turns out that the flood of cheap political pornography in 1780s Paris, depicting Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Louis XIV in unflattering sexual poses, may have contributed somewhat more to encouraging people to overcome their religious scruples towards the position of the monarchy, and get behind regime change.

Absurdly, given the neo-censorship of the web, this is the closest I can get to finding a political cartoon that was considered only mildly risque at the turn of the 19th century

Fairly trivial crimes, driven by disrespect and entertainment, can have highly constructive outcomes – when they challenge unjustifiable authorities that are holding society back.

This seems like a fertile area. Any other thoughts on the relationship between crime and innovation?

POSTSCRIPT:

Elsewhere in the history of illicit entertainment, see the development of the internet and the explosion of personal photography/video equipment…and if you don’t believe me, check out how they sold the first Polaroids:

and digital cameras:

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The real NOTW headline – the age of broadcast political bullies is nearly over

This week saw the closure of an outdated and unprofitable Sunday tabloid newspaper. It also saw a feeding frenzy on the unholy relationship between broadcast media players and politicians. One of these stories is very important.

It is so easy to use pantomime villains like Murdoch and Brooks, or even Cameron and Blair, as the focal point of our righteous indignation. To do this is to ignore something much more fundamental at work. What we are seeing is an assassination attempt on the now long-standing axis of News International and the British Government.

There are some angry people out there.

The white blood cells of the Guardian, celebrities and the massed ranks of the Twitterati are in full onslaught against every chink in the Murdoch armour. They are determined to use this moment, in which News International should have been celebrating their impending ascendancy as masters of the convergent media battlefield, to bring their ambitions crashing to earth.

This is no mean feat. After all, this is one of the most potent power relationships in the UK. To an extent many certainly do not realise.

This is also in the context of an entire past century in which political power and media broadcasting have been inseparable. In fact the political history of the 20th Century can be seen just as clearly through the lens of media change as through the lens of political wings. After all, it was the era of mass newspaper distribution, of radio fireside chats, of movie newsreels, and live televised debates.

When you think of the icons of the political nineteenth century, you might think of them through their portraits. Or perhaps through their speeches, or their nicknames. When you think of the icons of 20th Century Media, you almost immediately think of them through their media appearances. To be a political superstar in the 20th Century, you had to be a master of the media.

Perhaps the greatest of all was Churchill – just one of a list (FDR being another great example) of true gurus of the radio broadcast.

JFK is of course one of the most iconic American politicians of all time – despite a decidedly patchy administrative and moral record. But he was great on TV. Nixon (at this point a hugely respected figure of great integrity) was not.

And to take things to their most logical and ridiculous extreme, let’s not forget that this man is now pretty much the most respected President of the 20th Century.

And played out to its worst extremes, of course the 20th Century brought us the tide of fascism, of Communist based dictatorship – usually established on a bedrock of broadcast-driven cultural brainwashing.

Even in the succeeding and supposedly more cynical age, the power of the broadcast media continued. In particular, still the press, with which politicians remain absolutely entranced, it being the only medium that is truly interested in them, and which enables them to keep score. Particularly the tabloids, which they perceive as being able to connect with ‘ordinary people’ in a way that they have forgotten. And of course to many of them, it is still the Sun wot won it (or lost it).

Some say Kinnock could have lost it without them

Blair and his ‘spin doctors’ were described as a new generation of super-cynical, media-obsessed politicians. In reality, they were the end of the old era – the last generation of effective media managers. They could still, just about, manage public opinion through 3 or 4 really big media relationships, with Murdoch as the centrepiece. But the mere fact that the world of spin is one of the first things we think of in relation to a government that brought peace to Northern Ireland and war to Iraq is testament to the unravelling failure of that form of message management.

And now, we see Cameron, the apparent heir to Blair, the PR man in Number 10, playing out the next stage of this decaying power structure. Suddenly his power base looks fragile, and his big bet on Murdoch and Coulsen looks rash and destructive. Not only because of ethical questions – but because when it really comes to the crunch, even Murdoch’s legions represent a pretty small part of the spectrum of opinion, and a tiny fragment of the playing field of active participation in political discourse.

The relationship with the media isn’t going away as a crucial success factor for politicians. It can only become more extreme as media itself becomes a bigger part of life. But the axis of politicians with ‘The Media’ – ie a small circle of powerful but venal owners and editors – is no longer a sustainable power model. It is more transparent than ever, and there is more of the political discourse outside of their control. It is a more fragile base than ever on which to build control.

Nor are the traditional skills of message management going to retain the same power as before. The idea of owning the ‘news cycle’ practiced so successfully by Blair and Campbell in their honeymoon period, simply do not work if your ‘workings’ can be scaled to the population at any moment, without the need for a broadcaster to drive the distribution. Which is why this kind of approach from Ed Miliband simply will not work any more.

A new generation of politicians will find a new way to bend the media to their ends no doubt, but retaining the kind of control they are used to won’t be possible in the future. We see politicians dabbling in listening exercises and ‘Twitter Town Halls’ as they dip their feet in the future. But it is fair to see we haven’t got it work out yet (I will consider this in a future post.)

One thing that is clear is that as with entertainment and marketing, a distribution model on its own will not be enough. Ultimately content – transparent and compelling actions – will be more powerful than ever.

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10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

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Here’s to the great Indian/Nigerian trade wars of 2055

So when we tend to conceive future development, it is easy to get fixated on a US/China polarity. The new UN population projections create some pause for thought.

Looks like India will be number one by population by 2025, and Nigeria will be bigger by population than the United States by 2055.

Start looking for good real estate in Nigeria now.

Added to the news yesterday that apparently one third of Africa’s population could now economically be described as ‘middle class’, it helps to give some food for thought around future economic development.

And the UK better work pretty hard to maintain its role as an educator, entertainer and innovator…because pretty soon its population will be less than Yemen.

Plucky little island

More on this subject shortly…for the moment some useful resources…

Full data is here:

http://esa.un.org/peps/Preliminary-Results/tables/preliminary-results_2011-02-25.htm

And some visualisations here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/interactive/2011/may/06/world-population-data-visualised

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Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  – but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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Filming the Jump: #2 Wayne’s World

I know it’s not normally seen like this, but as a 13-year-old in 1992, Wayne’s World felt like a moment of triumph – when the young, funny, irreverent and fun-loving took over the establishment of TV. Mike Myers’ Wayne was the monkey in charge of the banana factory. He was funny. He was rude. He listened to good music. And he was a thousand times funnier and more compelling than anything else on the corporate-driven TV networks.

Wayne’s triumph over the TV moguls was the real story of the movie. They tried to screw him, but he triumphed, by being funny, talented, and having an unbeatable group of friends. All culminating in a full rectal examination of the very creepy Rob Lowe…

Rob Lowe - post Brat Pack, pre rectal probe

Without taking the symbolism too far, it is interesting to look at the counterpoint between Mike Myers and Rob Lowe. Lowe was the poster child of the previous wave of youth empowerment…the Brat Pack. But Rob Low, and Molly Ringwald, and Emilio Esetevez had been part of an apparent wave of teen power that was in fact the old school movie system in new clothing. They were pretty to look at, and served up a convincing product of teen rebellion. But they were very much in front of, not behind the camera. Wayne’s World was about the kids (albeit, in Mike Myers case, a 29 year-old in a baseball cap) taking over the medium.

In a time when the big networks’ grip on broadcast was being broken by the proliferation of TV stations and the rise of cable and satellite technology, this seemed very plausible. Kids had gone wanting their MTV to wanting to run their own show. The kids were taking control of the airwaves, of the interaction, making it more real and direct, and they were bringing the audience with them.

Flip forward a couple of decades, and it is clear that this hasn’t happened.

It feels like there is less live music than pretty much ever before. MTV, the bedrock of teen culture for quite a while, is content to churn out reality TV and docu-soap that is more appealing to 20-somethings looking to vegetate with a hangover as it is to angry young kids.

money for nothing, and chicks for free

There are a couple of exceptions that prove the rule – Skins, for example, continues to fly the flag, particularly in the US where its launch has entranced teenagers and predictably outraged sponsors. South Park manages, just about, to sustain a balance of rage and gross out comedy. But overall, TV feels more and more like the playground of professional adults and corporate interests.

But this isn’t a rant about the sell out of TV to ‘the Man’…the point of course is that there is another show in town – the Internet. Why bother to try to seize control of the airwaves, and the means of cultural production, when all you need to create your own space and audience is upload to YouTube or set up your own online record label? When there is a media option that is so much more vital, immediate, interactive and sociable, why bother with TV?

The leadenness of TV is particularly clear when you see its attempts to feed from the internet. Behold the horror of Tosh.O.

The problem with all of this is that without the active participation of all the smart, funny kids in the world in the future of TV, we are missing out on a lot. We are missing our chance to create inspiring pop culture movements at one moment in time. We are under-selling the potential of the box in the corner, which can be interactive and vital, but is almost always generating passivity. And we are missing out on the sense of empowerment that each new generation gets from taking over control of the institutions of the previous generation.

And the fact remains that with production and distribution getting ever cheaper, media consumption fragmenting, the chance to make Wayne’s World come to life is greater than ever. It would be great to see someone do it – and as a 30-something marketing guy…to see it and feel like it WASN’T designed for me…

betty rubble has aged somewhat better than Madonna...

Instead, we have this. A Wayne’s World sketch on Saturday Night Live. 15 years after it ceased to be relevant. Actually it’s not unfunny. But it might be good to see something new…

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Filming the Jump: #1 Sunset Boulevard

When the movies went from silent to talking, who got left behind? How did it change the movie industry for the people in it? How did the change in the medium affect the world? That is the single-minded obsession of a film of obsessive, singular greatness – 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.

One very scary lady

The melodramatic black hole of a performance by Gloria Swanson in the lead, and the obvious symbolism of the title, draw you into a speculation on the end of something. But it is important to remember that at the core of this film is also the beginning of something – in fact of what you would normally consider the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’.

The era of Norma Desmonds’s seclusion after all is the era of Bogart, of Gone with the Wind, of Howard Hawks. This was an era where the script and the dialogue was king, where people went to the movies to hear people talk, and where the dialogue comes so thick and fast that it feels (perhaps rightly) like audiences at this time weighing their ticket price vs the volume of words and making their judgements accordingly. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall…all not only great actors but phenomenal when judged on words per minute…

Sunset Boulevard is thick with distaste for the world of words that seemed to have been unleashed by the new age of movies – and by implication, TV too. Its lead, lent almost-sympathy in the dramatic trick of making him narrate from beyond the grave, is profoundly unsympathetic as a word-churning writer. In fact writers across the board seem like a pretty tawdry lot, pumping on second-rate variations on formula, filled with plausible verbiage.

The chattering fast talk of journalists and writers alike is thrown into sharp relief by the Norma Desmond’s dramatic delivery and physical expressiveness. The intense drama of her declarations of affection are played off against the facile verbal fencing of the writer’s love affair. And the most powerful character, Butler/Director Max, is a man of very few words.

It’s also a movie in a grand tradition of pieces in which ‘I love you’ is held cheap. There is only one person who seems to mean it when they say it, if for all the wrong reasons – and that’s Norma Desmond. Particularly when she has it engraved in gold.

What we can feel in this movie is not so much a harking back to the golden days of the silent screen – much as you hanker for them as Buster Keaton flits across the screen – as an underlying unease about the world of chatter, of too many words from too many people signifying too little. And this was in 1950. Project this forward to the modern age of ubiquitous video, and you begin to get a sense of how much psychological pressure and acrobatic effort is placed upon the human mind by this deluge of words.

To end with a huge diversion – this line of thought leads me to reconsider what I consume with my ears, just as I do (sometimes) what I eat. On this subject, a great talk from the ever great TED. Maybe it is worth considering how to ration the chatter that we absorb every day – and to weigh and ration each word as people did when they first saw the Jazz Singer…and consigned Norma Desmond to a slow death of madness.

Fittingly, Sunset Boulevard also has two lines of dialogue, terse and perfect that are amongst the greatest in cinema.

“Mr De Mille? I’m ready for my close up.”

and, most appropriately…

“I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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