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December 31, 2006

Newson_chair David Byrne has some  very interesting thoughts on art and creativity as status goods, spurred by his visit to Miami's Art Basel. Walter Benjamin famously argued that art had lost its magical quality or "aura" in the "era of mechanical reproduction."  Riffing on Geoffrey Miller's book, The Mating Mind on Art, which argues that art evolved as "display" useful for sexual selection, Byrne argues that industrial techniques supplant craft and skill, shifting desirability to intentional "crudity" in which value becomes little more than a game who's rules are set by artists, scenes,  and taste-makers.  The pictures are from Byrne's post as well.

Transam_1 "Art, amongst other pursuits, is, according to this idea, one of a number of gauges of deeper fitness, creativity and skill. The maker may have genetic fitness not immediately apparent, especially given the fact that the typical creative person’s uniform is not a power suit ... Miller quotes Thorstein Veblen who says it used to be that the better made a spoon was, for example — the smoother, more symmetrical it was — the more highly regarded the artist and his work would be. But now machines can easily, quickly and cheaply make spoons that are more perfect that anything any artist can make by hand. Quality, in the traditional sense, has been devalued, as now anyone can afford the perfect spoon...In a clever lateral move, the arbiters of taste — and the artists as well — now seem to value everything in inverse proportion to its perfection — lumpy, imperfect and even crudely handmade items are now more valued than the clean elegant lines a machine can produce. Poor craftsmanship is valued above skill and elegance... Mere sloppiness is not enough; it must be intentional sloppiness, primitivism or borderline psychotic behavior... Painting subverts this subversion of its traditional nature by redefining itself — art is idea, not simply skillful execution. So, a work can be crudely made, or even machine made — but it has to be practically and functionally useless."

"Artists and tastemakers have taken this even further: they have created a rarified world in which only they — the in-crowd — can determine what is good and valuable. This is simply a re-establishment of animal hierarchies but with a new set of rules. The choices, the rules that define what is to be highly regarded and what is not, are often based on obscure heuristics (as well as market desirability and scarcity) but the basic idea is to create a world of aesthetics that is beyond the comprehension of the ordinary punter. A host of arbiters arrive on the scene to do the job of determining which items fit the bill... we have intentionally primitive art made by sophisticates, from Picasso to Basquiat to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, as well as found objects and typewritten instructions that are like modern Zen koans, minus the elegant brushstrokes..."

"Is it all just a game by the upper and moneyed classes, or a con pulled by a small in-group, achieved by convincing museums and the media that there is something of innate worth there? We know that in this world value is assigned for seemingly arbitrary reasons — or at least they seem arbitrary to an outsider. In the art world, if you can convince someone that a scribble is worth a million bucks it’s actually truly worth that as soon as the buyer writes the check. The check is confirmation, as would be prime placement in an art book or museum...It may be a crazy game of high stakes poker, but it also confers, in this case, a certain level of class and sophistication to be allowed entry into the playing field ...In Miller’s view, this world is no longer about the objects or the art, just as poker is not about the way the cards actually look, but about jockeying for position and status…with some financial payoffs and museum wings in your name to boot..."

The rest, with lot's more pictures, is here.

The question this brings to mind is: What does this mean for music?  Seems to me that the shift from industrial to digital technology (sampling, voice-correction, and so-on) exacerbates the trend away from craft and skill and toward status factors of one sort or another. Could this in part be what is behind the fissure between popular music with its emphasis on hyper-celebrity and indie music which has splintered into narrow taste-making scenes reflecting just such "insider" status.

Any thoughts?

Most scientists pursue "normal science," but every so often a truly great breakthrough comes along that is truly revolutionary. So which universities are best at attracting the sorts of scientists who generate such breakthroughs?  According to research by Bruce Charlton on trends in Nobel prizes since 1946, American universities dominate as centers for revolutionary science. But within the US, advantage has shifted considerably over the past couple of  decades  (hat tip: Tyler Cowen).  And note how geographically concentrated or "spiky" revolutionary science is.

"Over 60 years, the USA has 19 institutions which won three-plus Nobel prizes in 20 years, the UK has 4, France has 2 and Sweden and USSR 1 each.  Four US institutions won 3 or more prizes in all 20 year segments: Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech.  The most successful institution in the past 20 years was MIT, with 11 prizes followed by Stanford (9), Chicago and Columbia (7). But the Western United States has become the world dominant region for revolutionary science – with Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech now being amplified by a new generation of elite public universities: University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Washington at Seattle, University of California at Santa Barbara, UCSF (University of California at San Fransisco), University of California at Irvine, UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) - also the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at Seattle ...MIT and Princeton have both overtaken Harvard to become first and fifth among Nobel prize-winners. Columbia declined in the middle period, but recovered strongly to reach equal-third in the rankings. The NIH and Yale have significantly declined during the most recent 20 years.  Harvard is particularly interesting ... Harvard has more than double the number of citations of Stanford (which is second) ...Harvard also tops the respected Shanghai Jiao Tong University world rankings. Yet there are signs of a decline in revolutionary science at Harvard. From 47-86 Harvard was the top Nobel-prize-winning institution, but for the past 20 years it has been overtaken in prize numbers by MIT (11), Stanford (9), Columbia (7), Chicago (7) and Princeton (6) – all of which are considerably smaller. The implication may be that Harvard is evolving towards being a ‘normal science’ university – albeit unusually large and successful."

  The full article is here.   

Google_2 The real legacy of the '60s is not Woodstock (or even Greenwich Village in its halcyon hippie days), it's Silicon Valley's style of  free-spirited, laid-back, blurred-boundaries, around-the-clock work. 

Now,  Google 's new downtown campus is bringing the no-collar workplace to the veritable  belly of finance capitalism, New York City, whose high-rise towers filled with those men in gray-flannel suits defined the epicenter of '50s-style organization man corporate culture.  According to the New York Times:

"The campus-like workspace is antithetical to the office culture of most New York businesses. It is a vision of a workplace utopia as conceived by rich, young, single engineers in Silicon Valley, transplanted to Manhattan. The New York tradition of leaving the office to network over lunch or an evening cocktail party has no place at Google, where employees are encouraged to socialize among themselves. There are groups of Gayglers, Newglers and Bikeglers (who bike to work together) ...For a Thank God It’s Almost Friday gathering on Dec. 14, Laura Garrett, a sales operations specialist, organized an art show. “Being a Googler and being part of Chelsea, I wanted to do something that was more downtownish than a typical Google event,” said Ms. Garrett, a blonde wearing Marc Jacobs heels. Williamsburg artists created the work on display, for prices from $225 to $8,000  ...The Empire State Building glowed red and green in the background as if color-coordinated to the Googleplex’s interiors rather than Christmas. By 6:30 p.m., Steve Saviano, 22, a software engineer, was hanging out with his fellow Googlers at a table littered with empty beer and wine bottles. "This is academic life all over again,” Mr. Saviano said. “But I’m getting paid. This is a 100 percent better option than graduate school.”

The rest is here (Hat tip: Rana/ Tim Gulden).

Three things crossed my mind as I read the story and scanned its pictures, which interestingly enough appeared in the fashion and style section and not the business section.

  • (1) You can't pump creative work out of people, assembly-line style.  Motivating this kind of mental work requires a new kind of  workplace, one that appears to be nurturing,  attuned to individuality, and "fun"-  a trend I dubbed "soft-control" in Rise.
  • (2) It's a mistake to see this stuff as all frills and perks. Companies are doing it because it is increasingly required to attract top talent.  Offering a stimulating environment, flexible work hours, and the ability to be "yourself" is an effective and relatively "cheap" way of competing against, say, investment banks and hedge-funds.
  • (3)  Scanning the photos, I was struck by the similarity between these new work-spaces and college dorm rooms, where so many of these high-tech companies come from, or even the play-spaces of middle age teenagers. Could it be that the demographic trends toward postponed marriage, extended single years and what Ethan Watters dubbed the "urban tribe" are being projected into the work-place?

Question: What does this re-framing of work as part "play" mean for the way we define our work and ourselves, and for our society? Your thoughts.

December 30, 2006

Richard Florida

Mini-me McMansions

Mini_mansions In what has to be one of the most hilarious stories I've read all year, the Wall Street Journal profiles a growing trend of people building miniatures of their homes as playhouses for their kids (Hat tip: Rob Walker).

"House-proud Americans have a new way to show off their trophy homes. Taking the pricey playhouse concept to the next level, some homeowners are building Mini-Me McMansions for their kids. The lavish replicas, which can include such grown-up amenities as hardwood floors and media rooms with satellite TVs, generally cost from $10,000 to $100,000. Some run even higher than that, exceeding the median price of a single-family home ($218,000 in November). In some areas the playhouses are running afoul of local zoning ordinances, building codes and housing-development covenants, annoying neighbors who object to the backyard estates and racking up substantial fines."

Read the rest here. The pictures are the best part.

The always provocative Robert Reich looks back on '06.

It was perhaps the worst congress of the twentieth century -- not a do-nothing congress, a do-awful congress. It was a congress that dispensed so much lard you’d think they had a pig-slaughtering house in the cloak rooms. At last count, the 109th Congress handed out over $50 billion in earmarks to lobbyists who bundled campaign contributions on their behalf. This congress also spent billions more in corporate welfare for Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Telecom.

And don’t forget the congressmen who put both their hands into the trough and got back corporate gifts, junkets, and outright bribes. The Congressional Hall of Shame grew bigger this year with the notable additions of Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham, all of whom got caught up in the Abramoff scandal. There was also that $90,000 that turned up in Congressman William Jefferson’s freezer.

Also feeding at the trough this year were defense contractors like Haliburton, who were found to have been wasting tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan on projects that don’t work or never got built in the first place.

In addition, the chief executives of some of America’s biggest companies who handed themselves the largest salaries and bonuses on record, and – we now know – stock options back-dated to maximize their value.

It was a year when investment bankers on Wall Street raked in even more. Bonus time on the Street yielded tens of millions of dollars to some traders, hedge-fund managers and private-equity managers. How did they make all this money? Some, by timing trades. Others by taking companies private, loading them up with debt, cutting their payrolls, and then taking them public again. Others by monopolizing Initial Public Offerings and getting in on the juiciest ones before the rest of the public.

Most of the cost of this feeding frenzy by politicians, defense contractors, and Wall Streeters was borne by average workers, normal taxpayers, and small investors. Most of them did only modestly in 2006. Median wages rose slightly but adjusted for inflation were still below what they were in 2000, and health and pension benefits shrank, overall. Small investors did a bit better than last year but many still have not caught up with where they were in 2000.

But the biggest cost of all this has been to our democratic-capitalist system itself. When people at the top abuse their power, the average person loses trust in that system. The result is widespread cynicism. And if most people are cynical, how can anything ever change?

And then forward to '07

In an effort to prevent domestic social upheaval and to appease the Bush administration, which has asked it to spend more money domestically, China embarks on a large-scale program to improve its environment and social services. This, along with rising world oil and commodity prices, leaves China with less money to lend to the United States. The resulting drop in the value of the dollar causes Opec nations to stop transacting in dollars. It also prompts Warren Buffet, most global corporations, and several giant hedge funds to put more money into euros and yen, causing the dollar to drop further and faster.

With everything Americans purchase from abroad suddenly costing much more, and the nation still needing foreign money to support its budget deficit and personal spending, US interest rates rise considerably. Millions of American homeowners are unable to pay their mortgages, resulting in a wave of bank foreclosures. Housing and auto sales plummet and unemployment rises. Median wages drop, but America's global rich, who have hedged their savings in foreign currencies, are richer than ever. This fans the flames of economic populism and nationalism. In June, Congress refuses to renew Bush's fast-track authority to make trade deals.

Meanwhile, the carnage in Iraq worsens as Shiites take control of Baghdad and Sunnis begin lobbing missiles into the capital. A surge of American troops at the start of the year further inflames radical Islamists and renders the American-backed Iraqi parliament helpless. President Bush says he seeks "peace with honor" and asks for more time but congressional Democrats threaten to withhold further defense appropriations unless American troops are withdrawn by the end of the year. In July, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces Britain will be pulling its soldiers out of Iraq by October. Polls show that only 15% of Americans approve the job Bush is doing. He says he "doesn't care".

At the start of September, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton officially announces she will run for president in 2008 to "get America back on track", harkening back to her husband's administration, but polls show her trailing Senator Barack Obama among Democratic voters although Obama has still not yet announced. At the same time, Senator John McCain, the Republican front-runner, lays out a plan to make the US "energy independent" by 2020, and says China is a greater long-term threat to the US interests than al-Qaida.

In October, Lou Dobbs, an anchor for CNN, declares he will run for president as a third party "America First" candidate, promising to revive the economy and recreate good middle-class jobs by shrinking the size of the US military and forcing other nations to pay their "fair share" of policing the world, blocking the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S., and preventing American companies from outsourcing jobs abroad. Early polling shows Dobbs with a surprising 35% of likely voters.

Richard Florida

Mega-star cities

LondonLondon tops NYC has the center for world's priciest real estate, according to a recent study by CB Richard Ellis Hamptons International.  The highest-end London properties, according to the study,  go for as much as $5,860 per square foot compared to $5,276 per square foot for similar NYC properties.  On average, central London properties cost around $2,300 a square foot, compared with $1,900 in NYC, the study reports.

Driving this, the report finds, is demand for space and the appreciating pound.  According to a related story in the San Jose Mercury News, as British sterling approaches "the $2 mark for the first time since 1992, such exorbitant property prices have kept many an American expatriate at bay. "If we were to buy in London, we would lose half our down payment money with the current exchange rate,'' said Erin Maury, an American who rents a home in London. "Unfortunately, at this rate -- and with prices so high -- there is no way we can afford to purchase a home here.''

But I suspect there may be more fundamental forces at play. In Flight, I argued that America's creeping anti-immigration posture and general retreat from openness was nearing a tipping point. The argument was not that Americans would leave the US, but rather that, at the margin, foreign talent might redirect toward other countries and city-regions - yes, like Britain and London - that were investing in creativity and developing a more open and welcoming posture. I pointed to several American scientists as well cultural figures who had relocated to England. And I further suggested that when such tipping points are reached the shift can and does occur very quickly. Consider, for example,  the mass migration of European scientific, artistic and entrepreneurial talent which propelled NYC ahead of its once dominant European counterparts including London during the early-mid 20th century.

Could it be that London's rise reflects such a tipping point in the location preferences of top global talent?  NYC retains many assets and continues to attract a huge number of immigrants. But London is clearly gaining ground.  Has the playing field shifted in ways that grant London significant competitive advantage?

Add to this the effects of rampant globalization which changes the equation in potentially powerful ways. World-city experts typically name four global mega-cities - London, Paris, NYC, Tokyo. But what if globalization and especially open talent flows change the terms of this competition?  We can already see results of growing competition in how regional centers like Chicago or Washington DC are luring economic activity and talent away from other smaller cities. And there is the increasing specialization of economic activity in cities - innovation in Silicon Valley, film in Hollywood, music in Nashville.  Could it be that globalization will eradicate national and regional urban-systems leaving in their place a single global system with a single dominant global city?  Far-fetched? Perhaps. But the computer models we've built with Robert Axtell suggest that is exactly the case.  Gradually, they suggest, an evolution to a single global city-system with one dominant mega-city.

Could it be that it's precisely this growing competition that is motivating Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bold moves to remake NYC's education system and dramatically improve its quality of place?  Hmmmmm.... what ever happened with that bid for the Olympics...?

Your thoughts?

December 29, 2006

Richard Florida

Best of 06

Here are my 2006 "best of's" for music, books, television and film, roughly rank-ordered.

Sometimes I get down on music, but looking back it was a really great year. There are still many 06 releases, like Bob Dylan's Modern Times and Joanna Newsom's Y that I've yet to listen to.

  • TV on the Radio,  Return to Cookie Mountain. The most original and exciting new(ish) band in years.
  • Gomez, How We Operate
  • Corine Bailey Ray, Corine Bailey Ray
  • Cat Power, The Greatest
  • Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
  • Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
  • Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar
  • Sondre Lerche, The Duper Sessions
  • The Ranconteurs, Broken Boy Soldier. Proof that one really good song can carry an album. 
  • The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
  • The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
  • Beck, The Information
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium. Frusciante's brilliant guitar work makes this record.
  • The Who, Endless Wire
  • Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird
  • Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Books (non-fiction):  A lean year for books, but some solid ones out there.

  • Bill Buford, Heat.  The year's best by a wide margin. One of the best I've read in years.
  • Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.  Proof that academics can communicate to a broad audience without dumbing things down.
  • Chris Anderson, The Long Tail
  • Alain De Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
  • William Taylor, Mavericks at Work

Television and Film: Ever since The Sopranos, television has shown it can compete with motion pictures. This year it did much more than that.

  • The Wire. Television and film at its very best.
  • The Office
  • 24
  • 30 Rock. The most hilarious thing I've seen in a long time.
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • A Prairie Home Companion
  • Weeds
  • Big Love
  • Arrested Development
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
  • The Daily Show/ Colbert Report
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Borat

It's that time of year.  Trend-time if you will. But let's do this one differently. Open-source it. So I'll start it off with my own top 10.

(1) The American economy will grow modestly but regional divides will worsen.  The bi-coastal mega-regions plus greater Chicago and a few other places will continue to drive innovation and growth, attract talent, and consolidate economic advantage.  The demographic trends of the past decade will accelerate, and the bottom will fall out in a number of older city-regions which have seen their economic functions erode.  Housing markets in these places and in resort destinations will hemorrhage badly, much worse than '06.  Close-in neighborhoods in  super-star cities (NY, DC, San Fran, Chicago and the like) will see prices rebound.

(2) Not surprisingly, 2007 will  be a year of political convulsions.   Despite predictions to the contrary, the culture wars and political polarization will deepen - as  social conservatism gains ground in "conservative" circles and economic populism does the same among "liberal" elements. Of the two,  I actually think populism (read: economic nationalism/ anti-immigration) is the more dangerous tendency. Worse yet, is the possibility that these two trends could come together. Certainly, both will try to extend their "appeal" through the politics of  fear-mongering and scape-goating.

(3) Distrust with national political figures and institutions will grow as a result. Not good news for John McCain, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, or Barack Obama for that matter.  Pop quiz: when was the last time a national politician, that is Senator or House member, won the presidency?

(4) Gradually, "surprise" figures from outside the national scene will emerge as strong candidates  in both parties. Mayors and governors will offer new ideas and new options, and begin to influence the national dialogue in constructive ways.  And no, I don't mean Rudy.  Look for someone like Tom Vilsack, Tommy Thompson, or even Mike Bloomberg to cut through the chatter and begin to shape the agenda.

(5) There will be a growing movement against brands, conspicuous consumption, and vulgar materialism.  Label-mania will finally end, as consumer trends shift toward quality and authenticity.

(6) Our popular culture will finally reject hyper-celebrity.  As it does, the publicity-seeking antics of Paris, Lindsay, Britney, Trump, Cruise, et al. will surge to new levels of tastelessness and vulgarity. But fewer and fewer people will actually pay attention, as cultural relevance, like consumer trends, shifts to those who reflect quality, authenticity, and integrity.

(7)  We'll begin to take control of  the technologies that have invaded our homes and lives and take back our time, as we come to recognize the social and mental fallout caused by 24-7, always-on technology.

(8) 2007 will be the year when America finally "goes green" - as environmental awareness exerts more and more influence over both popular culture and the marketplace.

(9) The pendulum of social and cultural aspirations will shift toward happiness and fulfillment and away from money and power.

(10) The biggest trend for 2007, and the one that will effect all others, will be the growing reckoning of America's declining economic and cultural influence. I'm not just talking about the Iraq debacle and growing "anti-americanism" around the globe.  The dollar's decline will accelerate and the greenback will lose its status as the world's reserve currency.  All of this will set the stage for a tumultuous 2008 which will doubtless emerge as the most pivotal year in modern memory.

Now it's time for you to weigh in. Have at it!

December 28, 2006

Richard Florida

Seattle challenge

Here's how one perceptive Seattle blogger challenges his community and all of us.

"Seattle has an enormous number of Creative Class members as well as a ridiculous amount of creative potential...Microsoft, Adobe, Starbucks, Tully’s, REI, The North Face, Nordstrom, Washington Mutual, Amazon.com, Safeco, Jones Soda, Taco Del Mar, Getty Images, Real Networks, Sur La Table, Red Robin, The Little Gym, Nintendo...All of these companies are pioneers for there industry ... People in Seattle are constantly using their individuality to invent, rediscover, and engineer ... As reported a number of months ago, Seattle, a very affluent city, was found to be the least philanthropic ... Seattle was found to be the least generous city in the country ... So here is where I am left…can a city that is highly creative change their lens? Can we begin to use our creativity for positive influence? Can we stop relying on Bill Gates and Paul Allen to carry the load of influence? How do we move high creatives to have positive influence on the world? Can Seattle stop waiting for their arts to leak to the main stream and begin to see ALL creativity as a movement that can inspire hope to those who are in desperate need? Can we stop looking to use our creativity to make money and gain popularity and see it as a gift that we possess that can move other’s to a common good?"

Those are the right questions.  Do you have any answers.

Innovation Grant McCracken has a series of terrific posts on the university and innovation. He summarizes a presentation by Linda Sanford, IBM Senior VP, on the "changing tectonics of innovation."

"Sanford pointed out that the 20th century CEOs would likely have identified the university world as an important source of innovation, even as they gave pride of place to their own internal research and development departments.  This has changed.  Now both come in at the bottom of the array...The annual investment made in the academic world is very large.  And now it looks as if the ROI is beginning to disappoint."

McCracken on business schools:  "The innovators produced by b-schools are hampered in two ways. First, the b-school discourages the the full creativity that innovation requires.  Second, it artificially constrains the problem set, so that students are discourages from combining creativity with insight, that is, with a full reckoning of the world in which the creativity must make itself useful... it looks as if the University might be failing in the production of both innovation and innovators.  This is scarier, still. " 

McCracken on D (design) schools: "design schools have a good shot at helping the university turn out capable innovators...For one thing the d-schools believe in consulting carefully with the consumer... the design field believes in ethnography, and this method flourished there well before its present popularity in business research circles.  For another thing, the d-school believes in culture.  As it stands, the b-school tends to think about the product or brand in terms of utilities,  functions or benefits.  Brands and products create value by doing work in the world."

What do you  think?