Innovating our way to oblivion

(Summer re-run: first published 16 June 2008)
Out-of-control buzzwords are like locusts: you can swat handfuls of them down with a bat, but more will come to take their place.
I’ve been swatting away for ages in this blog at all things Conceptual, Cultural, Clustered and (especially) Creative.
But now we’re suffering a massive counter-attack by the word Innovation – 137 million uses of which are known to Google alone.
A good proportion of these mentions probably belong to the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK.
Nesta’s mission is to “make innovation flourish,” and one way it does this is by using the world innovation in every second or third sentence of the emails it sends me.
Now Nesta is staffed by smart and well-connected people. And most of my clients think innovation is the very elixir of life itself. So I probably shouldn’t say this. But I have to, because it’s important:
INNOVATION IS NOT GOOD IN ITSELF – IN FACT, MORE INNOVATION DOES HARM, THAN DOES GOOD.
My evidence for this statement is contained in a breathless announcement from Mintel, the market research company, that a “Record-Breaking Number of New Products Flood Global CPG Shelves” and that (the numbers are for 2006) “close to 182,000 new products were introduced globally, with key booming areas focusing on mind, body, and general good health”.
Well over half of these of these innovations – 105,000, to be precise – were food and drink products.
This flood of innovations enable us to profit from such trends as “brainpower foods, age-defying treatments, increases in portion control, and “just for you” customised products”.
Now I may have misunderstood something here, but surely the Mintel numbers mean that more than half the innovations that reach the market all over the world – 300 innovations, every single day of the year – decrease the resource efficiency and hence sustainability of global food systems?
Good, so that’s Innovation dealt with. Bring on the next killer word!

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Marketing, me, and the future of tv

(Summer re-run: first published September 2009)
A marketing whiz I know in New York asked me to do her a favour: answer some questions about the future of tv.
At least, that’s what I thought she asked. But when, a couple of days later, a FedEx package arrived, it contained a tiny digital voice recorder and the instruction: “tell us your views about the future of the television” – ie, the product, not its content.
Although deprived of the opportunity to pontificate about the evils of reality television and Fox News, I nonetheless narrated the following into the little machine and FedExed it (at my friend’s insistence) back.
For some reason, I never heard from her again.
[Transcript]
“For me, big televisions are like gas-guzzling SUVs: fat, wasteful, and paid for with debt.
These fat objects don’t just waste energy – they’re toxic, too. The big old ones, the Cathode Ray Tube ones, were bad enough: each one contained as much as four pounds of lead.
But the new flat ones are also full of heavy metals. When improperly dismantled – which is most of the time – they release dioxins and poison the air and water systems.
Adding insult to injury, the biggest screens aren’t even used for anything useful. Most of them are used for push advertising.

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Doors of Perception seeks editor/writer to volunteer for special project

Doors of Perception seeks a very capable – but under-employed – editor/writer willing to volunteer for a special project. It’s to compile a New Yorker style listings that will be published as a stand-alone feature. I’m guessing that it will entail three to four weeks of intermittent work – and that it can be done from home. Interested? Email john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com

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Toxic sludge machine

I was critical last week of commentators who describe the financial crisis as “psychological”.

Those who blame a “lack of transparency” are on stronger ground – although ignorance of the facts or the law is not a valid excuse in other domains of life.
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The process chart above describes something called a Financial Products Markup Language which is said (on its website) to be “the business information exchange standard for electronic dealing and processing of financial derivatives instruments”. The idea is to “streamline the process supporting trading activities in the financial derivatives domain”.
The chart looks neat and orderly – hygienic, even, with all that blue – but reflect a moment: The system has been programmed for deranged individuals who, as we now know, believe that exponential growth to eternity is a right and proper basis for the design of the world’s financial system.
GIGO – or Garbage In, Garbage Out – is a phrase used by computer programmers to remind laypeople that computers “will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data and spew out mountains of erroneous information in a short time”.
Where we’re at now is that systems designed to “streamline” the market have been spewing out financial derivatives which, insofar as anyone can count them, now amount to eight hundred times global GDP.
This mass of red stuff (the red wedge on the inverted pyramid above, also known in financial circles as “toxic sludge”) has now started to leak out of the balloon. And that’s why this crisis is not psychological.

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Heathrow chaos: time to start digging?

(Summer re-run: first published 31 March 2008)
The chaos at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is an excellent example of what happens when the logic of finance interacts with the logic of large complex systems.
As Will Hutton wrote at the weekend, shareholders in British Airways (its sole tenant) and BAA (which runs the airport) demand perpetually growing dividends. Financial returns on this scale can only be achieved by cutting people out of the system: This is because big shiny buildings, although expensive, are capital costs that can be written off through time; people, on the other hand, appear in a company’s accounts as recurrent costs that directly reduce profits.
Willy Walsh, the cost-cutting hard man put in to run BA, has duly cut people costs to the bone. As a result of his ministrations morale has crashed, many experienced midde managers took early retirement before T5 opened, and a recent survey reported that nearly 30 per cent of staff claim they had been bullied.

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You can’t grow food with an iphone app – –

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– – but Tana Sprague *can* sample the sounds of Caciocavallo cheese maturing. I was curious, when I first heard about it, as to the meaning of ‘’Rurality 2.0′ – the theme of the Interferenze festival in Italy last week. So now I know. It would miss the point to ask “why?” – and besides: this is my favourite summer picture so far.

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The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.
Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. “We’ll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort” pledges the firm in its Plan A.
In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.
But M&S’s Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions – a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday.

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Could ‘green’ energy kill the desert?

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(Summer re-run: first published 22 February 2009)
One of the more remarkale sights on my recent trip was this vast wind farm outside Palm Springs. Located on the San Gorgonio Mountain Pass in the San Bernadino Mountains, it contains more than 4000 separate wind turbines and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.
But for critics, large scale wind power used to generate electricity is not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace.

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The economics of attention

(Summer re-run: first published 8 October 2006)
In his review of Richard Lanham’s new book The Economics of Attention, Adrian Ellis says that “its core argument (is) that everyone is straining for distinction in a late capitalist global economy jammed with commodities and information, and that culture and creativity are what affords the producer the possibility of distinction.
(This) explains the universal prevalence of shock tactics in both art and advertising (and) offers insights into the changing role of the creative artist and the artist’s sensibility in contemporary society”.
I’m not so sure. Are attenion-seeking artists really a new phenomenon, economic or otherwise? After all, it’s 135 years since artist Emile Zola assured the world, “I am here to live out loud” – and few artists before him were shrinking violets.
Ellis goes on to attribute the phenomenal increase in the number of people describing themselves as artists, in the past half-century, to “the changing balance of power between the technical and the creative (and) the inexorable logic of The Economics of Attention”.
Surely traditional job market economics are a simpler explanation. As I’ve been telling everyone recently, a Dutch survey found that only two percent of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed.
The government should introduce compulsory art education for all – and thereby abolish unemployment at a stroke.

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