Trends: A rant

At CHI, I attended a talk on management in UX, on the reasoning that understanding what managers think would help me strategize better as to how to get hired. Indeed it did, but a final question from an audience member also stuck in my craw and took me in a totally different direction.

The question was, how best to encourage a team one is managing to cope with change and adapt to trends. The panel quite reasonably tackled the question of change and answered it well (summary: communication, duh) and left the word “trend” largely out of it. And I am glad they did.

I am perhaps too aggravated by the word “trend” these days. My students in the communications department at Marist — many of whom were in PR and advertising tracks — leaned on the word as heavily as they did the phrases “in today’s society,” “people today,” “popular,” etc. This was like nails on a chalkboard to me, perhaps after years in conversation with my anthropology advisor, Herve Varenne, who couldn’t even abide the use of the terms “society” and “culture” when they were used uncarefully. I tried to explain to my students that they simply hadn’t the evidence to support grand sweeping claims about society or all people everywhere. “Trend” and “popular” annoy me for other reasons.

Because my students were mostly in advertising and PR, they were very excited by whatever was new and whatever is enjoyed by as many people as they could imagine. They imagined themselves to be professionally interested in defining these things, I guess.

Frequently, though, they didn’t even know what’s new. Their history and cultural knowledge was shallow enough that they made claims to me on the order of “Eminem just wants respect,” “Nirvana was the beginning of the punk era,” “there’s a whole website out there devoted to Harry Potter fanfiction!” etc etc. And forget, forget, forget about any of them knowing anything about historical fads before the 1970s much less social or cultural or fuck it, political history, anything about cultures outside of the suburban ones into which they were born. (I continue to blame No Child Left Behind.) I told them that their understanding of “trends” and “popularity” sounded about as sophisticated to me as that of a bunch of kids in junior high. It’s as if most of them never even watched a John Hughes movie and developed a way of thinking about hierachies in high school subcultures.

My students looked to me like they would be dangerously susceptible to shiny things, buzzwords, and hand-waving when it came to “trends.” I tried to inoculate them against the kind of empty hype that springs up around TED talks, South By Southwest, and other hotsprings of happy-clappy tech industry vapor development. They’re not even going to be winning advertisers if they keep betting on the kinds of duds that are frequently promoted as The Next Big Thing. So even if I can’t get them to understand what I’m saying in media literacy class, I can at least get them to not to be a bunch of gormless suckers within their chosen profession.

Why did I care? By rights, I shouldn’t. Let the little dears go into advertising. Let the privilege of New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester, and Long Island waste itself on empty effort. Encourage their tendency to be unreflective; it’ll make the campaigns they put together less effective, achieving by opposite means the goals of media literacy.

I do not forget, though, that they will be citizens of a democratic society, as well as cogs in the advertising machine. They will be parents who will look to articles on Yahoo! News (yes, that seemed to be their default news source, as it showed up when they headed for their email) for scientific advice on how to understand the developing minds and bodies of their children. Can’t help but care to that extent. (Some of my friends mockingly worry that by teaching them media literacy, I’ll also improve their ability to develop ad campaigns that are not bathetically ignorant of human needs. I’m really not so worried about that.)

There is no simple education that can make it clear to an observer what is really not new, or won’t be popular outside of one’s circle of friends, or is being obscured in a smog of inexact language. (Well, the latter may be achieved through a course in logic and rhetoric, I guess, but who gets that anymore?) That seems to take some kind of liberal arts education (ahem), plus years of accumulated knowledge about the human lifespan, people from other countries, what’s going on in the newspapers, a few decades of watching fads come and go. But I think a certain skepticism and a few basic principles can be introduced to students which can help them build that framework.

And one of those basic principles is that the capitalist system we live in relies on a steady stream of novelty to generate fake needs in the population, to which more goods can be sold so that more profit can be made.

The importance of “trends,” “popularity,” and everything “new” in our society is tied in some way to these artificial needs. Without them, we might have a society which values elders more, or sticks to tradition. (Not that this is a certainty, but cultural values tend to come in bundles.) The world has not always been the way it seems to those growing up in ad-driven capitalist society. And it isn’t all that way, not everywhere, either.

We know this, my colleagues and I. But my visiting year at Marist was an exercise, for me, in being reminded how few Americans might actually know this. My students’ schedules were so locked into the requirements of their major that they were unlikely to take the courses that would teach them about the relativity of their own understanding of the requirements of human life. And in fact, there were worryingly few places at Marist where I felt like they could learn these things. There were no sociology or anthropology programs in their own right; rather, there were education and criminal justice and I think psychology, and then history, but whether it was social history (a field I have personally found hugely important in my understanding in the transformation of human life and values), I don’t know.

This misapprehension of trends and novelty is troubling for one great reason: we are living in a time of radical worldwide change on a number of axes. Climate is changing where people can live, what they can grow, what diseases will arise. Economic factors are changing whose culture will be dominant worldwide. Technology, obviously, blah blah blah; it changes what can be known, what can be trusted for financial or informational reasons, who can speak to whom, who can produce what, what productions are worth money; you know the song and dance. There’s potential for a lot to go bad. We need as many people as possible to have a good toolkit for deciding which changes to go with. It’s really, really troubling to be working with people who look ready to run themselves and everyone around them off a cliff.

The fact that a slavishness to trends in new, expensive gadgets, particularly, is not a worldwide universal leads to what we talked about at the Reclaiming Repair workshop at CHI, about which I owe this blog a follow-up post on my first one. I’ll get to that soon. Just wanted to clear out my queue, and this rant came up first.

Comments 1

  1. Itamar T-T wrote:

    Re love of trends, TED, etc. you may enjoy the June 13 Behind The News interview on the ideology of Bono-ism: – there’s even a mention of public relations.

    You may also enjoy or possibly hate a classic rant (with a very different ideological perspective) about how The Youngs Today Aren’t Taught How To Think:

    Posted 15 Jun 2013 at 8:09 am

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