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I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and lead strategy at PlaceIQ.

These are reactions to things I feel are important.

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Posts tagged culture

Biggest clue the Pebble design team is from Canada: the solid rubber band that doubles as a wrist-based sweat lodge in New York.

There’s Juicing in Every Arena: Pitch Inflation

In competitive cultures, actors will seek out untapped opportunities in the system to gain an edge.

Sometimes these opportunities are systematic inefficiencies. Once they’re identified, everyone jumps on. In baseball this was sabermetrics and Money Ball. Once Beane consistently took an underfunded team to the playoffs, everyone took note an adopted the system.

In other cases, these opportunities threaten the sustainability of the culture, either by doing harm to the participants or by preventing other required participants from keeping up. Once the advantage is taken, the culture evaluates its contribution versus its detriment. If its detrimental, the system attempts to shut it down. In contemporary baseball this is steroids and HGH.

My favorite example of a detrimental efficiency is that of pitch inflation, as in musical pitch:

During historical periods when instrumental music rose in prominence (relative to the voice), there was a continuous tendency for pitch levels to rise. This “pitch inflation” seemed largely a product of instrumentalists’ competing with each other, each attempting to produce a brighter, more “brilliant”, sound than that of their rivals. (In string instruments, this is not all acoustic illusion: when tuned up, they actually sound objectively brighter because the higher string tension results in larger amplitudes for the harmonics.) This tendency was also prevalent with wind instrument manufacturers, who crafted their instruments to play generally at a higher pitch than those made by the same craftsmen years earlier.

On at least two occasions, pitch inflation had become so severe that reform became needed. At the beginning of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius reported in his encyclopedic Syntagma musicum that pitch levels had become so high that singers were experiencing severe throat strain and lutenists and viol players were complaining of snapped strings. The standard voice ranges he cites show that the pitch level of his time, at least in the part of Germany where he lived, was at least a minor third higher than today’s. Solutions to this problem were sporadic and local, but generally involved the establishment of separate standards for voice and organ (“Chorton”) and for chamber ensembles (“Kammerton”). Where the two were combined, as for example in a cantata, the singers and instrumentalists might perform from music written in different keys. This system kept pitch inflation at bay for some two centuries.

The advent of the orchestra as an independent (as opposed to accompanying) ensemble brought pitch inflation to the fore again. The rise in pitch at this time can be seen reflected in tuning forks. An 1815 tuning fork from the Dresden opera house gives A = 423.2 Hz, while one of eleven years later from the same opera house gives A = 435 Hz. At La Scala in Milan, the A above middle C rose as high as 451 Hz.

Something to keep in mind while we wait for the Biogenesis and A. Rod scandal to conclude.

Google Glass is Just Like the Segway – and Similarly Doomed

The Segway was an achievement. It was nimble and simple, balanced on two wheels, and moved with barest of intents. The Segway delivered on its lofty technical goals. It was magical.

But the Segway was doomed. After summiting its technical challenges the Segway hit a brick wall of cultural challenges. It was too fast for sidewalks and too slow for roads, a liminal mode of transportation that mowed down pedestrians and held up cars. To ride a Segway is to be antisocial, to implicitly admit to not being of the culture one glides through1.

Google Glass faces the same roadblock as the Segway. Both products focus too heavily on their users while ignoring the societies users exist within. Both products are (and will be) significant technical achievements brought down by the cultural challenges encountered.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume Glass works perfectly. Information is delivered smoothly, image capture is instinctual, notifications are subtle yet effective and the display is balanced and clear.

“We created glass so you can interact with the virtual world without obstructing the real world,” explained Isabelle Olsson, who is leading the design efforts for Google glasses. “We don’t want technology to get in the way.2

The imporant question to ask is for whom the technology doesn’t get in the way. We should note the Segway was intuitive and welcoming to it’s users only, a fluid means of removing the distance between A and B, but cars and pedestrians were apparently never considered. Glass is similar in that it’s product design is focused on purely the user, never on those around it.

Glass’ screen is visible only to it’s user and it’s camera looks out documenting everything except the user, storing content to be shared at the user’s discretion. I believe that these always on, core functions of Glass will prevent it from being welcomed in social settings. Those around the Glass users must implicitely trust the Glass wearer, for they have no idea where the Glass user’s current attention lies and cannot visually confirm whether or not they are currently being captured by Glass.

Google is working so hard to keep technology out of the way that they’re forgetting why it’s important to see technology when it’s present.

If someone holds a cellphone sideways to frame a shot, we can assume we’re being photographed. If a conversational partner starts fidgeting with their phone, we can read into that as well. With Glass all these options are constantly on the table because their functioning is imperceivable to anyone but the user, creating a feeling of unease among all present.

In an article on Mashable yesterday, Chris Taylor makes the case that all personal technology starts with a wave of handwringing like my own. Eventually, he says, the tech becomes the norm and we forget to protest. Headphones, cellphone cameras, and even PCs started this way.

While this acceptance cycle does exist, the always-on but never-apparent nature of Glass is unlike any the cases Taylor cites. Headphones can be taken out and cellphone cameras pocketed or checked at the door. This awkward dance can go on for a year or two without sacrificing the benefit to the user, affording the new tech and culture time to understand each other. But Glass is all or nothing. I’m certain they’ll be occasionally placed on table tops or cases for the first couple years, but because they’re active at most times (and this is largely the selling point) these explicitly ‘off’ periods will be the exception, not the rule.

Glass is doomed because of social imbalance, an ignorance of culture. Glass empowers it’s users technologically for social situations that don’t exist yet, just as the Segway deployed to a world filled with ill-suited sidewalks and roads. I believe non-users will begin to shun Glass just as the masses shunned the Segway. We will see restaurants, gyms, and bars banning the device to keep their patrons at ease. Offices will fear a world where all conversations are on the record, especially large corporations, doctor’s offices and legal firms. Social settings will not emerge for Glass and its usage will be confined to places where it was never an issue to take out your cellphone in the first place.


  1. It’s no coincidence that the last vestige of Segway use is confined to tourists and security guards, two groups explicitely outside of their current social setting. They’re observers and referees, respectively, not participants.

  2. Nick Bilton, in the New York Times, emphasis mine.

Cultural Variations on “Have one’s cake and eat it too.”

Know the idiom, know the culture:

  • Bulgaria: “Both the wolf is full, and the lamb is whole.”
  • Denmark: “You cannot both blow and have flour in your mouth.”
  • France: “To want the butter and the money from (selling) the butter.” (The idiom can be emphasized by adding, “and the smile of the female buttermaker”)
  • Germany: “Please wash me, but don’t get me wet!”
  • Switzerland: “You can’t have the five cent coin and a Swiss bread roll.”
  • Greece: “You want the entire pie and the dog full.”
  • Italy: “To have the barrel full and the wife drunk.”
  • Russia: “It’s hard to have a seat on two chairs at once.”
  • Spain: “Wishing to be both at Mass and in the procession.”

Ah, Italy… (Via Wikipedia)

Ignore the IPO noise for a moment: the criticisms, the estimates of earnings, and other buzz. These pale in comparison to Facebook’s largest achievement, which is worth putting into context.

Facebook has organized roughly 1 in 7 people on earth, or 900 million people.

They’ve built a design and interaction system used across the world by a massive amount of cultures. Mandarin, with its 1.1 billion speakers, is the only language or medium with more native participants than Facebook. Other companies certainly fill out this club: Ikea, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, and Apple come to mind. But none of these live so closely to their participants, acting and reacting with them.

You may be over Facebook, but Facebook’s cultural impact has yet to peak. Facebook itself is a tremendous feat of design and engineering, no matter what network is on top in 5 years.

If you look at what we’re rooted in, it’s kind of obvious what we’re looking for….The most challenging problem we have right now is discovery of video, that’s the most challenging problem on the web. Social is one enabler, tagging is one enabler. It’s not like we need to solve social for YouTube, we need to solve discovery on YouTube and social is a natural enabler

David Lawee, Google VP of corporate development and M&A chief, interviewed by Business Insider.

One large problem the web has yet to crack is the sorting, valuation, and distribution of culture –– point to point. Parts and pieces have been taken on, but none have done it on a dependable scale. People are messy and fickle, which is hardly ideal for automated systems.

And so I look to you, Tumblr. Anyone can sell ads. No one has developed, or is in a position to develop, a flexible yet predictable (a handful of post types, tags, reblogs…) system for addressing culture at scale. Pinterest, and sites like it, are––at best––socially edited catalogues, arbiters of shopping not culture.

What lessons can we draw from the Facebook flameup? Lifecycle changes can trump generational change and cultural values perceived as crucial at the age of 13 can be very different at 20. A business founded on the values of a generation, such as Facebook, has to keep up with, and respect, evolving lives and needs.

Bruce Nussbaum.

Perfectly said. I haven’t seen this observation yet: digital change spurred cultural change at a rate faster than lifestage change. In doing so, we tripped up when the digital generation became adults, undoing some of the cultural trends bleeding-edge companies had been banking on. Fascinating. (Via Harvard Business Review)

The trouble with tradition, they’d found, is that it can be remarkably thickheaded. Ignore it, and your shiny new stove may get turned into a flowerpot. Cater to it, and you may end up with a new version of the same old problem.
But I guess where I was originally going is that nobody wants to write endings in television. They want to sustain the franchise. But if you don’t write an ending for a story, you know what you are? You’re a hack. You’re not a storyteller. It may not be that you have the skills of a hack. You might be a hell of a writer, but you’re taking a hack’s road. You’re on the road to hackdom and there’s no stopping you because stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

David Simon. Vice has an absolutely huge interview with Simon online. If you’re done with The Wire, go read it now.

A few months back I was talking trends with a colleague and we started talking about death. The question we asked, and I’m not even sure it can be answered, is whether a society has ever been more detached from death and dying than contemporary America. Even are wars are mediated and detached, background noise for a slow news day. Celebrity deaths remain our one shared grief, and we both agreed that the fracturing of channels and the emergence of digital has created a world where more celebrities can exist at once so we can look forward to more Celebrity death summers in the coming years.

But Simon inadvertently raises an interesting point with the quote above: is our cultural distance from death the result of years of syndicated television programming? Characters don’t die because you need each episode to end exactly where it began, so it can start from ground zero next week. Perhaps the emergence of larger narratives in television (The Wire, The Sopranos, Lost, etc) combined with a steady diet or reality TV (where people die because they’re real) will start to shorten our cultural distance from death.

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