In Culturematic… (2012), the MIT marketer-anthropologist Grant McCracken advises companies to do more than respond to contemporary culture. He urges them to try their hands at making it.
They can do so, he explains, using culturematics, or “culture-making machines.” These tools aren’t combinations of silicon and plastic made by some pioneering engineer in an H.G. Wells story. They are—to impose a different vocabulary on McCracken’s invention—industrial essais: little attempts to launch ideas, many of them and all at once, simply sending them out in the world to see what happens.
McCracken’s culturematic concept introduces corporate manufacturing to a Romantic stylization of creativity. In the tradition of Walt Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider,” each industrial essai explores “vacant, vast surroundings” by “launch[ing] forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself; ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding” ideas, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing—seeking the spheres, to connect them;/Till the bridge [it] will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;/Till the gossamer thread [it] fling[s], catch somewhere.”
In other words, corporate innovations are subject to the same rules as writers: put an idea out there, and wait to see if anyone likes it. Nobody will pay attention to most of them, so industries should hedge their bets.
Thus, using an approach anchored in the coupling of creativity with fast-failure techniques, companies can be authentically inventive without taking on potentially crippling risks. In doing so, they can simultaneously manufacture new product and service designs right along with the culture in which their innovations succeed. Designers call the practice “co-creation,” a process in which makers and users collaborate in the product and service construction project.
Culturematics are less technology than techne, but McCracken offers a formula for the mathematically inclined, which industry leaders are, or at least want to be. Call it a “culture analytic.”
It goes like this: take something. Take something else that’s different. Add them together, and send these strange new things out in the world. See if anyone likes them. If not, stop doing that. If so, you just made culture, and you will probably make money, or (like Facebook) more than money.
McCracken lists familiar examples in the second part of the longest book title since Jeremy Bentham’s Victorian titular benders. The full title of the anthropologist’s book is Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football, Burning Man, the Ford Fiesta Movement, Rube Goldberg, NFL Films, Wordle, Two and a Half Men, a 10,000-year Symphony, and ROFLcon Memes Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas.
In the book, McCracken makes a chart of combinable opposites to use as inspiration. He urges would-be culture-makers to try them out, but keep some guiding principles in mind. Effective culturematics, for instance, will be inherently interesting, narrow in scope, and feel like accidents. There should also be something contagious about them: people need to want to try them.
The term “culturematic” might be new, but the concept is ancient. The Greeks’ philosophical drinking parties, called symposia, have all the requisite parts. First, they combine two apparently opposite acts: drinking and thinking. Since people tend to associate drink with drunk and drunk with stupid, the idea of an ancient “Drink n’ Think” sounds improbable and therefore alluring.
Like a good metaphor, the combination is all wrong, but also feels intuitively right. The juxtaposition of a “yes!” and a “no!” causes the mind to cast about for understanding. This is an inherently poetical act, one inspired by the very idea of the Classical symposium.
The Greek symposia were designed to encourage conversation among citizens. We tend to think of parties as private acts, and as opportunities for escaping rational thought. But the Hellenic symposium was once an important social institution, where the act of drinking-together acted simultaneously as a kind of religious and civil ritual designed to promote playful thinking and provide an opportunity to try out ideas on others. In this way, the events made something big and difficult (social engineering) into something small and fun (a party).
The combination of social experiment with play feels too strange to be intentional. The use of drink to inspire ideas also gives each symposium, and any product of it, an accidental quality. Call it innovation’s unconscious. And of course, nothing is more contagious than a good party. Parties are all about invitations; they only happen when invitations are accepted, so approval is built into the event.
The Fair Game Beverage Company is a new distillery located in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Pittsboro is a small town in Chatham County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Chatham County neighbors the three cities and industrial park that make up the notorious “Research Triangle” in North Carolina. “The Triangle” cities are Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which respectively house North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina. More recently, the Research Triangle includes a new industrial park that has become one of the most prominent research and development centers in the United States.
Fair Game manufactures local spirits in a state that legislates strict liquor sales and manufacturing restrictions, in a region where craft cocktails, big thinking, and globally-oriented technical entrepreneurship are all the rage. Beginning in early September, they will launch an ongoing Drink n’ Think symposium designed to revive the ancient Hellenic practice of using drink as a tincture for exploring new ideas and testing them out in gamesome conversation with others. The distillery’s scheduled symposia invite citizens of the ’Triangle to gather and…
- learn about aspects of western drinking traditions that have been suppressed, but still have have value, in our time
- learn to mix – and taste! – featured cocktails made with locally distilled spirits
- renew the anacient practice of using cocktail consumption to promote conversational communion
The launch of the Fall 2014 Drink n’ Thinks will coincide with the beginning of the academic semesters at NCSU, Duke, and UNC. Colbey Reid and Gary Phillips will lead the workshops. They are, respectively, an NC State professor and Chapel Hill mixologist. Together, Reid and Phillips will explore the art and rituals of distilling, fortifying, blending, and aging.
They will also explain specific religious and civil traditions that inform American, and southern, attitudes toward spirits. The sessions are designed to help participants figure out how taste literally functions as social glue, by sampling wines, spirits, and cocktails and investigating the range of lost cultural contexts that have, historically, shaped the simple act of mixing drinks.
As a culturematic, the success of the contemporary Drink n’ Thinks is yet to be determined. But the beauty of the culturematic, like the Greek symposium, is that the success or failure of each structure works a little like American Idol, without the panel of expert judges.
That is: if you like the idea, “vote” for it by signing up for the Fair Game workshops, responding to some aspect of this blog, starting your own series somewhere else, or coming up with some other way to register your approval and participation. That’s the “ductile anchor” that transforms filament into culture.
Here is a summary of the upcoming sessions:
Local/Global Mixology (9/7 at 4 p.m.)
Fair Game Beverage Company is committed to making quality wines and spirits from local feedstock in a way that supports local farms, local businesses, and local people. Each sip of the Company’s NC-grown and produced wines, ports, cordials, brandy, and sorghum cane spirits allows visitors quite literally to taste and absorb something of the beverages’ place of origin.
Fair Game is part of a long tradition of American wine- and spirit-making evolved from highly specific regional religious, family, and community customs. And yet, the moment we mix a Brazilian-style Caipirinha using NC sorghum cane rum, concoct a Sidecar with local brandy and French Cointreau, or mix a Manhattan using North Carolina spirits, we are acknowledging the amenability of local spirits to global mixing. Cocktail mixing is at once a way to imbibe the characteristics of local lands and even local people, on a global stage and in surprisingly cosmopolitan combinations.
Come explore the local-global paradox swirling in your cocktail glass! Learn how what appears to be the most modern, secular, and cosmopolitan of acts—drinking a cocktail—catapults us back into bygone traditions, over to far-flung lands, and deep into places and people both strange and familiar.
Colbey Emmerson Reid is Director of the Consumer Innovation Consortium (CIC) and professor of practice in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. Reid has over 16 years of teaching and research experience in literature and composition as well as experience creating and overseeing study abroad programs and an interdisciplinary research and lecture forum. Reid has also chaired an institutional grant-awarding committee to promote faculty development at York College, where she was formerly Associate Professor of English. Her scholarly activities have focused on the topics of communication, innovation, creativity and design. She received the Leon Edel award in 2009 for her essay on the language of accounting in Henry James and the Fredson Bowers awards in 2011 for her essay on the relationship between early 20th century design innovation, consumption habits, and avant-garde poetry.
Originally published August 16, 2014. Copyright GLOBAL ART & IDEAS NEXUS.