Here we have part 6 of my cultural context series, in which I try to illuminate some of the hidden forces that define the world in which we strategise. Soon I’ll be able to piece these together into nice self-indulgent little book! Until then, the others are here:
Concentration – the untold story of the 21st century
Sugar, sex, and the supernormal
Remapping the world: the rise of horizontal loyalty
The post-cultural myth, and how it permeates everything we do
The schizophrenia machine: how brands remake our identities
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to”.
Yes, the refrain of nostalgic curmudgeonly luddites the world over. I should know, I’m one of them. There are very few things that I don’t believe were “better in the past”, which makes me a bit of a small-minded rube by most people’s analysis these days. We live in a world which doesn’t only believe in moving “forwards”, but couples that belief with an unshakable faith that whilst we don’t know what the future holds, we can be certain it will be “better”.
Now in one respect I agree that it is somewhat small-minded to reflexively assume that everything in the past was superior to everything in the future – but it seems to me equally small-minded to assume that everything in the future will be superior to everything in the past. I once heard someone say “people who accuse others of romanticising the past are simply those who think it’s somehow more mature to romanticise the future”, and of course they’re both wrong. Some things get better, and some get worse – that much should be blatantly apparent with even a moment’s reflection.
What I want to talk about today however is something more subtle than the question of whether things are getting “worse” or “better”. Instead I want to talk about the phenomenon whereby things get worse because they get better. Or in other words:
The crushing tedium of excellence.
At its most raw level, the idea goes something like this: things are at their best not when they are polished and optimised for maximal performance and effectiveness, but rather when they arrive at a balance between the effective and the ineffective; the smooth and the rough; the professional and the amateur.
To give you a simple example, think about the output of Hollywood in the 1970s.
Cinephiles are for the most part in agreement that this decade was “peak film”, bringing forth a deluge of masterpieces from The Godfather to Star Wars to Jaws which have few comparisons before or since. This was the age of the auteur, of excess, controversy, and glamour. And yet “good” as it apparently was, it didn’t last. It seems we weren’t able, or weren’t willing, to continue producing such a high level of artistry.
Why? Not because Hollywood got worse, but because it got better.
As I understand it the accepted analysis for why 70s cinema was so good tends to be that it was a moment in time when movie-making had been professionalised and optimised – but crucially not too much. For the first time they had great equipment, the technology for pretty much any special effect they fancied, and confluence of global talent into one geographical location, BUT the industry was also still fundamentally chaotic. There was little business sense, little accepted wisdom, little sophistication and little “science”. Studios were basically happy to throw money at different filmmakers, give them free rein, and hope for the best. This resulted in, yes, some of the greatest movies of all time, but also some of the most damaging and spectacular commercial flops – not to mention scandal, death, and outright criminality.
In time Hollywood managed to iron such kinks out of the system, and began to make a far more polished and reliable product – both artistically and moreover commercially. They started to realise what worked and what didn’t, and equally realised that they didn’t have to tolerate alcoholic egomaniacal jackasses to produce it. By and by this evolution brought us to the state we’re in today, when Hollywood is “better than ever” on every objective metric you care to mention, but also, on the subjective level, the level of our souls, is absolutely shit. A formulaic meat grinder of maximally merchandisable pap.
This identical process has taken place in literally hundreds of industries, always following the same pattern:
Step 1 – amateurish (boring)
Step 2 – amateurish / professional (thrilling)
Step 3 – professional (boring)
One example that’s very important to me is football, which I would suggest had its “1970s Hollywood” moment in the late 90s and early 2000s. The game had moved beyond the muddy, grey, hooligan infested gruel of the 70s and 80s, but hadn’t yet reached the machine-like instrumentality of the 2010s and beyond. Coaching was sophisticated, but not too sophisticated; there was still space for the maverick, the hard man, and surprise package.
I was keenly reminded of this the other day when a young Manchester United player, Anthony, was pilloried for doing an outrageous piece of showboating in the middle of a game. In the early 2000s pointless (and I would say joyous) moments of skill like this were fairly commonplace (Soccer AM Showboat anyone?), but today they’ve largely been phased out, because hey, where’s their utility? Do they, in the final analysis, have an instrumental purpose? If not then get rid of them – and stamp on any player who still has enough mischief in his spirit to try.
Now look, of course there is subjectivity at play here. I realise that there are plenty of people out there who would claim that, say, the 50s was the golden age of cinema, or the 70s were the golden age of football. Who’s to say that I’m not simply rationalising my own personal biases?
Well that may be so – but even in the objective analysis, the facts back the theory up.
For instance in America baseball fans would recognise what I’ve described at the “Moneyball Effect”, the analytics revolution that changed the sport completely a few years back. I won’t bore you with the details (largely because I know very little about baseball), but sufficed to say it boiled down to a bunch of maths making teams both far more effective and far more boring at the same time. This had led (or, if you prefer, coincided) with a collapse in the game’s popularity.
In basketball a similar collapse has occurred, in this case stemming from teams suddenly realising that prioritising 3-point shots is a far more effective (and dull) strategy than anything else.
In his great essay What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture (which explains the baseball and basketball examples, as well as touching on music and film), Derek Thompson puts it beautifully when he says:
“The quantitative revolution in culture is a living creature that consumes data and spits out homogeneity”.
Technology is making everything better and better until it breaks it. Until it reaches a point where the objective argument for the superiority of the new thing is unshakeable, and yet we all know in our subjective little hearts that it is nonetheless crap.
And given that subjectivity is “just opinion” and that money in the bank is the ultimate decision maker, who are we to argue?
My ultimate take here is that every system desperately needs inefficiencies. It needs flaws. It needs texture. I suppose, ultimately, it needs humanity. Recently I have found myself starting to Google things by adding “reddit” to the end of the search term, so it prioritises answers on the popular forum, rather than the internet at large. Why? Because at least those answers are real. At least they are human, unlike SEO optimised “perfect” answers which are otherwise served up and consistently fail to satisfy. Reddit answers are inconsistent, they’re not fact checked, and they’re not from a respected source – and yet they are all the richer in spite of those “flaws”.
As creators, I think we have a responsibility to allow such flaws, flights of fancy, and rough edges into our creations – not because this will make them “work better” or “earn more money”, but precisely because they won’t. Not every single thing we do needs to amount to a formula with a dollar sign at the end of it. Not everything needs to be instrumental. Not everything needs to be rational. Sometimes things can simply be expressive, and serve other parts of the psyche beyond the rigidly material.
For instance, when designing a brand, yes, you need to give due heed to what “works”, that’s clear. Indeed you can (and should) give 90% heed to that impulse. But also allow a bit of character into the mix. I was chatting with a designer friend of mine the other day and asked him what is behind the “blanding” trend of all logos moving from serif to sans serif font, and he said it was because people believe that sans serif works better in digital. Now I’m perfectly happy to accept this might be true, but it doesn’t thus follow that “all logos should be sans serif”. This is what I’m talking about. Sometimes you need to override what works in favour of what you just bloody feel like.
I’ll leave you with a more sophisticated and poetic explanation from the particle physicist Frank Wilczek, who Thompson references in his article. He says that beauty benefits, yes, from symmetry – or what we might call for our purposes here “optimisation” or “perfection”. But it also draws from what he calls “exuberance” – a beautiful word that perfectly captures the point here.
“Looking up at the interior of a mosque or a cathedral, or gazing at a classic Picasso or Pollock painting, you are seeing neither utter chaos nor a simple symmetry, but rather a kind of synthesis; an artistic dizziness bounded within a sense of order, which gives the whole work an appealing comprehensibility”.
Or in my way of looking at things: Eric Cantona may not be as good a footballer as Kevin De Bruyne, but he’s a far far greater one. And in our hearts, that’s what counts.