Archive for Social Theory

On Loving Conformity

Notes from the forthcoming “PoPoMo Manifesto” —

Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl, if you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, is a webcomic diamond in the rough. I was reading through the archives the other day and there’s this really awesome one that she does where she introduces the idea of Strummer’s Law, which states that —

Any rebellion against external conformity just reinforces internal conformity.

Which, while initially sounding like something profound and non-obvious, actually makes alot of sense when you think about it. In substance, the underlying principle of Strummer’s Law greatly resembles the Uncertainty Principle of Relationships, which states that —

One cannot define relational momentum and position simultaneously. For a relationship to exhibit motion, it must become ambiguously defined. Similarly, for a relationship to become more discernable, it must by necessity approach stasis.

That is to say, tautologically, that once you know for sure what a social phenomenon is, it ceases to change, or show unpredictability of behavior. Or, in short, that the act of defining defines — it sets boundaries on what something is. Strummer’s Law just states that rebelling against something requires the rebels to enforce some standard on themselves, to define who they are as a community.
In doing so, the community of rebels requires its members to be a certain way, follow certain rules, or believe in certain credos. Indeed, the very act of advocacy is a call for conformity. That is, advocacy is the act of expressing that others should. True, maybe a different code of conformity than what is commonly enforced, but a code of behavior nonetheless.

Of course, there’s an asshat meta-ing that you can do with this argument too. That is, that even advocating for choice is in itself a kind of conformity (conforming to the need to choose). Simply put: believing in ‘freethinking’ is just as constricting a belief as less traditionally free doctrines.

This much is a pretty unoriginal old hat critique on counterculture. What’s more interesting, I think, is how one deals with this.

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2008: Indie Dies

So given all that, what about indie hipsterdom?

Certainly the arrival of a commoditized form of culture in the form of something like Urban Outfitters would signal a movement in the very least from lead-user to “cool,” but there’s alot of evidence to suggest that we are now safely blending from cool to the realm of the popular.

If Hippel’s application to cultural innovation is really applicable, then, I’m thinking that 2008 will be the year that indie effectively stops evolving and developing, as signaled by the existence of mass-media televised parody, and the appearence in that most mass form of mass media — the commercial.


Peter Bjorn and John — Levi Jeans

A gallery of indie songs that have been used in commercials, after the jump.
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Von Hippel, Cultural Innovation, and Measuring Cool

In my spare time, I’ve recently been reading through the work of Eric Von Hippel, prof and all-around awesome guy at MIT. Hippel’s work centers mostly on innovation theory, and he has focused much of his research in demonstrating the suprisingly large role that at-home DIY amateur (or at least non-explicitly R&D) inventors play in technological development, what he calls lead users. He’s come up with a number of great examples to support this thesis.

Roughly, his research leads him to suggest that the path of innovation looks something like this.

At the far left of the curve are the lead users, who are defined by the fact that they –

  1. face needs that will be general in a marketplace – but face them months or years before the bulk of that marketplace encounters them, and
  2. are positioned to benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to those needs.

As time goes on and these needs are expereinced by a greater proportion of the market, the innovation gets picked up by larger manufacturers, who commercialize, standardize, and make the product widely available in a largely static way. (See Hippel Ch. 2) As these needs are satisfied, new needs arise, or other market shifts occur, the number of users perceiving a need for a particular innovation declines (the right-side of the curve)
What’s interesting I think, is that this conceptual model is applicable not only to technical innovation, but cultural innovation as well.

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Oh You Kids

Wall Street Journal is reporting in today’s Weekend Journal segment explaining why “kids these days” are so self-indulgent.

This is continued from a previous article, alleging that Mr. Rogers led to the “epidemic” in spoiled children.


Heh, funny coming from a guy whose generation pioneered slacking off, enjoying yourself, and the luxury of being disaffected. If kids today are spoiled, they’re no less spoiled than their parents — I think they’re just more Las Vegas than Santa Fe.

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Why Harvard Needs The Culture Jam

Although by now it’s no longer accurate to hip-smugly call the culture jamming/Reclaim the Streets movement “underground” (Banksy was in the New York Times and the Yes Men were in the Washington Post for god’s sake), it’s critique, so nicely put together by Naomi Klein in her canonical No Logo, is still pretty terrifically viable despite coming together close to a decade ago and being severely rhetorically ripped a new one in Heath’s The Rebel Sell. In its broadest construction, the idea is pretty simple: we used to have a public space, which provided the positive room for discussion and creativity. But this got enclosed. We need to take it back.

Though it applies broadly to all sorts of situations, I think Harvard itself desperately needs active culture jamming, if not only because the space it creates is so symptomatic of this critique.

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What Makes Gen Y Gen Y?

[Reprinted by request from the old Impressive Most Impressive team blog from last summer. It’s rough, but still pretty cool — if I may be so bold. Though now hipsterdom is on its way out, I think we’ll see if the prediction holds

I’ve been out of commission working on an article for JZ lately, we’ll be back as soon as I get it in today]

First, to lend some concrete definition to what I’m talking about — sociologists define the Generation X period to include those (generally) born between the period 1961-1981, and whose teen/young adult experience was defined primarily by the 1980s. Generation Y, on the other hand, includes those born 1981 and onwards, and therefore has much of their formative youth experience based in the 1990s.

When my brother and I get down to talk, we almost inevitably end up touching upon a few favorite themes, one of which is the relationship between the most recent two generations in American culture, the Xs and the Ys. It’s brought alot of interesting questions to the fore, but perhaps the most intriguing is how best to deliniate the line between the two groups.
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Situationist Activism and the Uncanny Valley

There’s a superbly cool hypothesis in robotics that I’ve been in info-fatuation about lately called Uncanny Valley, which discusses the comfort that humans feel in relation to the “humanness” of a machine. Essentially the argument goes something like this: human empathy and familiarity with a robot increases as it becomes more human-like until a vague point very close to a complete human likeness — during which there’s a sudden drop in a human comfort with the object. (a good example is fear of zombies, or clowns –thanks Xtina–, or mannequins)

This much seems intuitively true, but non-obvious. However, I feel that the Uncanny Valley hypothesis doesn’t go far enough. I think the insight isn’t limited to the way robots are constructed, but to the way environments exist more generally, and to the way situationist activist movements have worked in the past, and how they might work in the future.

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