2016-04-09

模倣子 Liberal Arts Redemption

My poet buddy pointed me to an article about how high-tech companies are finally recognizing a need (if not the need) for "creative" folks to help "humanize" their latest "bot" technology, i.e., administrative assistants that are engaging for humans to use. This reminds me of a piece I wrote, which got a disproportionate number of hits for quite some time, about liberal arts majors making major bucks by bringing their skills to bear on what I call Internal Branding.  Let's go nuts and call it IB, so it seems more like "a thing", which is another exercise in memetic engineering, by the way. An example of this process is my 60-plus-page comic strip magnum opus, Running Scared. My Japanese class and I have nearly completed a Japanese translation of the manga, and I began a Spanish translation, which I may yet complete one day1.

What is the point, and why are liberal arts majors needed here? The fundamental problem with the fundamental tenet of art and artists everywhere, that is, ars gratia artis, or "art for art's sake", or more to the point, turning around and trying to sell said thus-produced art, being frustrated in the attempt, being a "frustrated artist", or "the would-be great artist working at McDonald's", and such, is that, obviously, the given art was not produced to fill a particular well-understood need. This is probably the source of the disgusting love of TV and movie producers for sequels. Yuck. But this seems to be the predilection of marketing people everywhere.

Accountants love a steady return. Consultants love repeat customers or steady buyers. This may be a driver of the perverse US drug testing and treatment and private prisons industries -- what huckster or snake oil salesman wouldn't love his "clients" to be dragged to him in chains...by the state?
Even people who make Disney "princess movies" which the whole society and generations of young girls are brainwashed to consume without thinking are pandering to a faceless audience, an invisible consumer base. They don't truly know what's going to happen. Evidence of this is how we swoon over how "original" or "gutsy" or "revolutionary" movies like Frozen were. Even with armies of fawning, adoring fans, every talent secretly fears that their next oeuvre will be a flop.

Some are just more honest about it than others.

A great problem is that if any creative work is not merely for oneself, then one's effort is consecrated to the enjoyment of some audience, and that's the problem.  The audience for the latest Batman movie, unless we're talking Kickstarter (which is an interesting example) do not pay full price for their tickets years in advance, before the movie is even started. Any such creative production is a gamble. I'm a creative person. I come up with creative and original ideas and solutions all the time. I also happen to create actual "art" such as writing, drawing, poetry, and ceramics, to name a few. Many of the other engineers I work with are the same. But all of us, at our day jobs, are paid to be creative on spec. We're going to be creative, but we're told what to be creative about and we're told we're going to be paid. People who's job it is to just "be creative" usually have no such guarantees of payment (or any such guarantees will evaporate with repeated failure). Also, many so-called creative people with degrees in liberal arts have effectively spent their careers studying the history of human creativity4, in addition to the techniques of it.

The problem is that there has never been much actual demand for the potential output of the students of the history of human creativity...until now.  What changed? We are in an information age. All animals have to spend their time reärranging atoms to provide for their survival, i.e., finding food, building shelter, and humans like to build machines for some of these things. Humans also spend a great deal of time trying to persuade other humans of things, usually against their wills, also by reärranging atoms for this purpose. Most of human history has involved building impressive temples and other buildings, armies, and so, and a great many humans getting killed in order to get everybody (else) on board with the idea. It's all an effort to create culture. After a brief period of going from reärranging atoms to reärranging electrons, we have arrived at an age where you could say that we have a generalized information infrastructure where we no longer have a build a bunch of stuff (or, hopefully, kill quite as many people) to get the ideas out there. We have a vast cultural infrastructure that pushes the ideas directly into the waiting eyeballs of billions. No longer is there a need to say "look I'm going to kill a bunch of you so the rest shut up, all look over here at me, pay attention, and start doing what I say in the way I say it," or "look at these impressive buildings or food resources that if you act a certain way I'll let you use" or "look at all this interesting and sparkly artwork I've made that makes me seem all impressive and makes you want to imitate me." Everybody is already paying attention, they are willing to interact with the system as it is set up5, and they are hungering to imitate whatever comes through the "magic window."

So what's the point? Humans have thousands of years of cultural history, iconography, legend and literature, and so on, whether they know if or not. To tap into this you need two things:
  1. People who know the details of this history
  2. People who are storytellers
Why?

What are we tapping into, again? Oh, yes, it was about mass-controlling with precision the minds of millions if not billions of people. Okay, I'm with you now. I don't necessarily believe that you have any real answers in this domain, but I'm all ears.

Humans respond to iconography because it has been hammered into them for millennia, but also because that is how the human brain works (or, more importantly, how collections of human brains work). We think in terms of stories. We think in terms of icons. Stories may be, and must be, attached to elements of iconography6. Ever heard of the Christian Bible7? The cohesiveness, and ultimately the strength, of a culture is based upon it's iconography, shared metaphors and stories, including language itself.

People who are trained to know that this iconography exists, what it consists of, and then are able to tell stories, create art, and create further images and iconography built on top of this preëxisting edifice are the ones uniquely suited to create the kind of on-demand culture that organizations need to help them to function, to make them enjoyable places to work, to succeed, and when they do succeed, to manage the out-of-control growth that will inevitably ensue.

One thing I long suspected, and have demonstrated in my own experiments, is that cultural iconography may be manufactured, almost from whole cloth. Although they represent the pandering, see-if-it-sticks, shot-in-the-dark, mass-marketing approach, Disney films, Japanese manga and anime and the amazing phenomenon of "fan art" and "fan fics" are ringing examples of how vast and complex cultural subsystems may be created from nothing and enthusiastically adopted by millions with no resistance, to the point of being imitated and proselytized with uncanny fidelity, again, absent the urging of the original creators. So the project of the liberal arts graduate cum would-be consultant is to rely on cultural  history for examples, possibly to occasionally allude to, and to use sheer fine art creative force to create culture on demand, to spec, and on contract.

An organization so imbued will have a labor force which will be self-enforcing of organizational values, these values will be able to be changed globally by tweaking the cultural iconography as needed, growth won't be painful or destructive since new employees will receive the culture by osmosis and exposure to the body of artifacts and iconography and new offices will have the same materials to keep them in sync, even those in foreign countries with different cultures and languages9, and perhaps most of all, communication will be streamlined and much more efficient because there will be a body of language specialized to the objectives of the organization, setting aside ambiguïty and the need to constantly reëstablish context.

Organizations say they want these things, however, I have been unsuccessful so far in getting the point across. My conviction is that this is the only way for an organization to be more than just a loose collection of individuals. Every organization that is not just a loose collection of individuals does these things (whether it is widely recognized or not). Those that do have a complex culture often have attained it (like a church or the military) over a long period of cultural evolution. It is very complex, but it is ill-understood, it may contain some very ugly and embarrassing aspects, and there is a great fear of making changes or adjustments. Organizations seem to be content to just let this kind of culture develop organically. The more "revolutionary" ones pat themselves on the back and are held in awe by others because they make "Statements of Values" and leave it at that. Cultural manufacture, Internal Branding, provides a way to make those values happen and to make them self-enforcing rather than make management "crack the whip" (which is what invariably happens). Even the strictest of principles and practices may be put into place with total efficiency by an internalized system of group culture (real or manufactured).

Oh, by the way, you also have to be able to work semi-regular hours, be punctual, deliver on deadlines8, and not be a prima donna.


1If you'd like to see a French version, please comment here and ask for it, and I may actually try to produce one. If you can offer assistance in producing a German, Russian, Chinese, Yiddish, Finnish, Dutch, or Hebrew version, please let me know.

4And not all who have are in fact very creative themselves, which is another problem.
5Or as it will be changed from time to time in culturally acceptable ways.

6I call these MIAOs (Memetic Iconic Anchoring Objects).

7Or the Torah version 1.1 as I sometimes like to call it.

8"Artists Ship." as Steven Jobs was wont to quote.

9Materials can all be translated, localized terms invented, and so on.

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