Saturday, October 8, 2005

The Tinker and the Price of Gas


At 39 years old, I'm in my 7th career. If you count being a student for 16 years as a career, it would be my 8th. Here's the quick overview:  Arts & crafts counsellor/director at a day camp;  high-school English teacher;  PC technician / Novell network admin / software tutor / database admin;  cellular telephony -- technical writing;  cellular telephony -- marketing; legal marketing; library services marketing. This doesn't count lots of piddly-ante stuff I've done in-between jobs and on top of the "real jobs." Food service, a brief forray into sales, etc. This is all stuff I've done enough to feel comfortable saying "Yeah, I've done that." It also doesn't count being a writer, even though many of those jobs other than "technical writer" require lots of writing, and even though that's what I went to school for, and even though I've been published a bit and even occasionally paid for writing. It also doesn't count my vast criminal enterprises, for obvious reasons.

I was told, at the age of 25, when talking with one of the HR cats at Cellular One, that the average number of major career / industry shifts for people in our era is four. At that time I was on my fourth... Well, third, since the Arts & Crafts thing was a summer job, and didn't really count. But still. To be on #3 or #4 at the age of 25 meant that I was already pretty much guaranteed of being well past four during my professional career.

And now gas is $3 a gallon.

What's the connection?

In all the places I've worked, in all the industries I've seen, with all the agencies and vendors I've worked, there is one constant driver of success, happiness and long-term value. One that transcends retail marketing vs. B2B, service sector activities vs. products, project planning vs. process planning, management vs. labor, old-economy vs. new, bricks vs. clicks... everything. Everywhere. There is one constant fuel that never fails to grant power to its wielder in measures greater than any other resource:


It's a constantly misused and abused term. On the one hand, bandied about casually like something that can be brought into being at a staff meeting if you just put enough spongy, brightly-colored squeeze balls on the table and let people use scented markers on the big flip charts. On the other, it is often said that some people are "simply not creative." That creativity is inherent. A gift. A trait. Like the color of your eyes or being really tall.

Both of those angles on the subject -- casual and congenital creativity -- are crap.

Creativity is a study and a craft. Yes, the practice of it in certain ways can certainly be related to intelligence or artistic abilities. But just like learning to read, use a computer, hit a baseball, sing, swim, garden or whistle through a blade of grass, creativity is a skill -- a set of skills -- that can be learned.

And now, more than ever, we need to be learning and teaching and focusing on those skills.

Why? Because we have entered something that I called, in an article I wrote in 2004, "The Age of Content." The highest economic value today is now placed on the ability to engage in "knowledge activities." And the product of knowledge activities is content. Some examples of knowledge activites include:

  • News: all kinds, depending on what you value

  • Sports: both the playing of sports and the viewing and the news of it

  • Music: lyrics, songs, arrangements, covers, concerts, recordings

  • Art: all kinds; from the fine arts to industrial design to advertising to performance

  • Opinion: essays, letters to the editor, blogs

  • Spectacle: the circus, reality TV, game shows, magic, politics

  • Stories: dramatic or comedic, on film, in books and plays or on TV

  • Character: the details and actions of personalities in fiction or the public eye

  • Consultative services: doctors, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, publicists, marketers

  • Metadata & Reference: Ontologies, tagging, links, blogrolls, lists, descriptions, friends-files, IMgroups, social ganging, wikis

I'm going to get some strong arguments against some of the above categories, and that's cool. Lots of folks are going to say that I'm confusing "service" functions with "knowledge" functions. I disagree. For example you won't find waiters or dry cleaners on the above list. Although you would find chefs that invent new recipes or create interesting new dining spaces, and entrepeneurs who figure out ways to make dry cleaning easier on the environment.

Just "doing" something doesn't make you a knowledge worker. Being able to effect a change in the minds or lives of your customers / audience through the application of your knowledge in your sphere of understanding does. In many cases the change only occurs in the mind of the customers themselves, or because of changes they decide make based on your work.

In short, for knowledge work, the mind is often some combination of the map, the transportation, the toolbox, the store, the delivery mechanism and the marketing playpen. Often it is all of the above.

Take, for example, lawyers. Most of the work they do is mental. "The law" does not exist in the real world. It is symbolic. There is no "box of law." There are words on paper and on computers. They talk. They send email and faxes and reams of paper. They go to court and talk more. They take depositions. More talk. But in the end... money changes hands, rights are granted or taken away, people go to jail and sometimes live or die. It's a pure knowledge profession. The consequences are felt in the real world, but the craft is content.

Putting the broken images back together

In the Industrial Age, the assembly line was the most important new invention of value delivery. They had all the pieces... they'd been taking "stuff" out of the ground for a long time and making parts by hand for centuries. But it took Henry Ford to figure out how to really, seriously shave major time off the process of putting those parts together into bigger elements. That was very important. It was creativity writ large on a worldwide, societal, economic and, eventuall, geopolical scale. Neither of the World Wars would have been possible without the assembly line. Hitler's idea of "The Final Solution," too, owed something to the idea of rapid manufacturing processes. We apply these big, sweeping changes across the board in many aspects of our lives. We can't help it.

Putting smaller parts into bigger parts is one decent definition of creativity. And when you're talking about making cars or sewing machines or toys or guns, it makes sense and it's easy to talk about cost per unit and scale economies.

But what about when we talk about knowledge work? How does creativity apply in the Age of Content? How do we put smaller parts together to make bigger parts when all the parts are in our heads?

The problem is, our collective, social, worldwide mental head is still stuck, to a large degree, in the Industrial Age. We still think in terms of push-pull, click-clock. We still think in productivity terms that were invented for cars and bombs and dolls. And the world that came out of those terms and that thought process is the world that gave us the 700,000 casualties of The Battle of Verdun. It gave us the Cold War and the Atom Bomb. It also gave us the Internet and disco and micowave ovens and antibiotics and NASA and yogurt with fruit on the bottom and tongue piercing and Pol Pot and... you get the picture.

The Industrial Revolution fueled a world of enabled insanity on a huge scale. It brought together nations in manners neverbefore possible, in numbers unthinkable just a generation before. The Renaissance and then the birth of modern science in the 18th century had led people in Western Europe to believe that ultimate answers were possible. The general term for this set of thought was Realism, a pre-cursor to the Modernist movement in late 19th century Europe.  The Modernist movement was, in many ways, a reaction to the horror of the two world wars and an attempt to make some kind of sense in a world seeminly gone mad.

Then, of course, the Postmodern movement came along to mash-up Modernism and take into ironic question everything that Modernism stood for. So you now have a choice:

  1. You can look at any subject from one, classical standpoint (Realism)

  2. You can look at it from several, balanced standpoints (Modernism)

  3. You can look at yourself (and everyone else) looking at it and question your (and their) ability to look at it and even your right to look at it because of the inherent problems involved in the process of language and examination (Postmodernism)

  4. You can give up and go home and play Xbox.

My undergraduate degree from Cornell is in English Literature. I studied poetry during the early part of the 20th century, and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is one of my favorite poems from that period. One of my favorite parts of that poem is:

     …for you know only
     A heap of broken images,
     where the sun beats,
     And the dead tree gives
     No shelter…

That, to me, is the essence of Postmoderism. "A heap of broken images." The sun, which is supposed to illuminate, only beats down -- it causes harm, not growth. The tree -- which should be the source of root images, the trunk of the Golden Boughs -- gives no shelter or comfort. It is dead. All we have to work with is this heap of broken images. Because the world we knew, the classical, sensible, realistic, modern world is gone.

And gas is $3 a gallon.

Well, you know what? Tough shit. I like my heap of broken images. And it's time to stop whining.

We've had almost 90 years since Verdun. And we've had plenty of time to figure out that people aren't cogs in assembly lines. And now we've got this Internet thing and wireless phones and the space shuttle and aquaculture facilities and nuclear power and the Human Genome project and more cool stuff than you can swing a cat at. Kids in Kalamazoo are playing World of Warcraft online with kids in Karachi. GE is outsourcing its legal department to India. It's time to start putting the heap of broken images together again.

Tinkers used to travel from town to town repairing broken tools and household items, sharpening knives and scissors and doing odd jobs. Jacks-of-all trades. They also brought news and stories. That's what this blog will be about. Putting the tools of the Age of Content together, with an emphasis on creativity. Sub-topics might include:

  • Marketing

  • Communications

  • Gaming

  • Memetics

  • Sourcing

  • Technology

  • Communities

  • Metadata / tagging

Who knows what else. Why the "X?" Because I still highly associate myself with GenX. I didn't know I had a generation until I read Matt Rushkoff's "The GenX Reader." I thought I was just a little too young to be a Real Baby Boomer. After plouging through that book, though, I knew, "Yeah. I'm an Xer." You don't hear the term much anymore. The new genz are in the news. The Echo Boomers -- the kids of the Baby Boomers. The Gamer Generation, who are, I guess, GenXers, kinda, but a few years younger or something. One article I read said Boomers stopped being born in 1960 and Gamers started being born in 1970. I was born in 1966. Whoops.

So this is TinkerX. Flux for the Age of Content. "Flux" being that gooey crap you put on metal when you want to solder it together. The stuff that helps aid the creative process. Which is weird, because flux also means "constant or frequent change." Ain't that odd? That when you want to make something stick together, sometimes you have to ensure that parts of it stay more fluid...

Creativity is the fuel. Let's tank up.

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