Business book review: Culturematics

17 Oct 2012 by BusinessTraveller
The subtitle of this book is over 40 words, but it sums up the magpie-collection of observations and insights contained within, as well as the whimsy of the writer, anthropologist Grant McCracken. I gave up on this book twice in the first 15 pages because I just did not have a clue what it was about and felt the author was never going to get to the point. By the end I was still not sure what it all added up to. Summarising McCracken’s argument is impossible because he doesn’t make one, preferring to add observation after observation. So what is the Culturematic of the title? Well there’s no definition offered here, or no one definition, anyway. The word however appears so often in the text it becomes like a verbal tick and eventually makes sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph very difficult to read. Perhaps in small doses it is bearable, but reading 100 pages in one sitting as I did with jet lag one evening was like being locked in a room with someone with very serious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It also means you can get quite irritable when reading it, and I did. Here’s what McCracken says in the introduction “A Culturematic is a little machine for making culture.” Except it isn’t, of course, as machines don’t make culture. “It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value.” To which the reply might be, "This doesn’t mean anything". What’s more, the examples given in a later chapter, “Twenty Culturematics” don't demonstrate these three things. Instead they seem to be quirky ideas which are judged as being successful more often than not if they appear on You Tube a lot. But tens of millions of people watch utter rubbish on You Tube (we can all think of the most stupid thing we’ve watched on it) – so what does that add up to and why should you read the book? At times McCracken seems to be saying we (as in, business people) should simply try lots of things to see what works – a version of the throwing spaghetti against the wall until a bit sticks. But it is more than that. McCracken has an incredible range of references here – it seems like he has read the majority of business authors of recent years. You want his thoughts on disintermediation? You’ve got it. Disruption a la Clay Christensen? Check. Gary Hamel, Jim Collins, Tim Hartford, Peters & Waterman, John Kay, Malcolm Gladwell…, the notes at the back give a weight to his often lightweight musings that can make you a little dizzy. How can he have read all of that and still write paragraphs such as this? ”Pity the corporation. There is trouble on the one side. The future is going dark. Strategy and planning are losing their powers of illumination. And trouble on the other. In this murky, muddled world, the corporation is being asked to solve a new and daunting problem, aggressive innovations that sometimes give us entirely new worlds. Argh! That’s the standard anthropological term for problems of this order: argh.” In part the difficulty here might be the subject matter, and in part it is McCracken’s style, which veers between stating the obvious in a chummy way to extremely well written personal revelations and an ability to write some pithy conclusions such as this “When future archaeologists and historians gather to give accounts of the present day, they will treat Twitter as a sign of the time and Wordle as a signature.” In conclusion: if you work in media, this is probably worth the effort. If not, I’d give it a miss. Tom Otley
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