Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You can't tag a teen

Now I'm all for a bit of geo-tagging. Stuff that not only has its place in the world, but let's you know precisely what that place is, seems pretty cool.

The geo-tagged photos on Flickr and the geo-tagged twitterings on Twitter - accessible to developers through open APIs - have given rise to the brilliantly pointless Flickrvision and Twittervision, which present a Web 2.0 version of watching the world go by.

Geo-tagging is also new-best-friends with mobile. The latest smartphones, and everything (calls, SMS, other data) that comes out of them, is, or can be, geo-tagged. (Strictly speaking, this isn't a new thing - complicated calculations based on triangulation or something have long enabled the location of mobile users, but the addition of GPS functionality makes it all much simpler and more accurate).

It seems that not a week goes by without some self-styled marketing industry prophet (not me, honest) forecasting mass demand for location-based mobile services. Apparently, uber-consumers - the sort who regularly suffer a price / existential crisis in the chilled dairy aisle at Milton Keynes Tesco Extra - will soon be demanding geo-specific recommendations and price comparisons, so that they can walk half a mile across town to save 4p on a Yakult multipack.

All well and good.

But the purveyors of geo-tagging technology and geo-tagged goods have a tendancy to get a little over-zealous in their apparent pursuit of a 100% geo-tagged panacea. (Imagine a world where hide-and-seek ceases to require traditional seeking skills).

Can't forsee a geo-armageddon? Then read this.

Seriously, what teenager is going to agree to leave the house wearing a $300 geo-tagged coat? I've written previously about how kids' neurobiology can be altered by their early experience of digital media, but it will take one hell of a video game to indoctrinate them into the cult of parental surveillance.

I can only assume that some entrepreneurial type observed the willingness of Diginative teens to accept parent-bought mobile phones and the obligation to call home every 2 hours in exchange for increased liberty and a pocket full of gadget, and concluded that geo-tagged clothing would be likewise welcomed by Western youth. Unfortunately this reasoning fails to consider the possibility that said kids are only happy to accept said offer because it represents de facto permission to do whatever the hell they want, whilst keeping to a strict lying schedule.

Escaping the parental radar is a fundamental part of growing-up. Excessive attempts to monitor and control teen behaviour promote what scientist call reactance, otherwise known as doing-the-opposite-of-what-you're-told-to.

So those parents who purchase geo-tagged coats can expect their kids to refuse to wear the coat; to leave it at a friend's house whilst they roam the streets; to hack the GPS system; to do anything other than give big-mother the opportunity to watch over their every move.

I guess it comes down to this: successful applications of any technology - those which find mass adoption - tend to augment natural human behaviour and pervasive lifestyle choices, not battle against them. This is especially the case with teens, as evidenced by a recent global study of digital youth, commissioned by MTV.

Rant over.

I'll get my (non-geo-tagged) coat.

Monday, October 15, 2007

APR is cool

Radiohead are the coolest thing in the world right now. Well, at least in my world (excuse the cod-relativism) and the worlds of several million other music / technology fans.

The cause of this cool spike is, of course, their decision to let each individual choose the price that he or she wishes to pay to download In Rainbows, the band’s latest album. (Note that in these digital times the concept of an album has been eroded so as to mean little more than an ordered collection of tracks. If you want an album in the traditional, material sense – plus a bunch of limited edition goodies – you can mail order it for £40 and await a December delivery date).

But I’m not too interested in discussing the merits or otherwise of Radiohead’s pick-a-price venture. Not directly, anyway. These music-industry-rattled-by-new-media-innovation stories tend to attract a glut of identikit reportage, which I’d really like to refrain from adding to in this case.

What I am interested in is the nature of that venture, the music-buying public’s reaction to it, and what that reaction says about the macro-zeitgeist – if such a thing exists.

The nature of the venture I will come on to. The music-buying public’s reaction I will take to be something along the lines of ‘very cool’. But what could that reaction possibly say about the macro-zeitgeist?

Well, sometimes, when an extreme cultural event such as the In Rainbows release comes along, it can shine a light on current usage of apparently banal terms – terms like ‘cool’. In other words, the supreme coolness of Radiohead’s honesty-box ploy allows us to take a peek inside the concept of cool and confront its bare semantics.

So what are those bare semantics? Put bluntly: what is the current meaning of cool? I would argue that it’s something like authentic prosocial rebellion (APR).

Now before I say any more on the matter, it’s worth noting that this meaning may actually be one of several current meanings of cool. As Mark Penn would no doubt quip, the current climate of conflicting microtrends demands that whatever is cool for 30% or 80% or even 99% of the population will likely be cultural anathema for 1% – the awkward, unswerving niche. And if the coolness of some thing can be wildly subjective, then it seems possible that the very notion of cool can mean different things to different people, too. Meaning is pretty malleable stuff, after all.

But back to Radiohead. And back to APR (that's Authentic Prosocial Rebellion, in case you've forgotten already) – which I’m suggesting is at least a part of the story of contemporary cool.

Three questions: Why authentic? Why prosocial? Why rebellion?

First up, authenticity feels like an essential ingredient of contemporary cool, perhaps because so much of society is plagued by pretence, duplicity and charlatanism (sweeping generalisation ahoy). On this view, people and brands that give the impression of sincerity and integrity – whatever their domain of interest – should at least be candidates for that sparkling reverence we call ‘cool’.

But what about the layers of recursive irony that post-post-modern scenesters lavish upon their every act? Are those scenesters not utterly inauthentic, but also the epitome of cool? At risk of tying my brain in knots, I’d say that where a person’s tastes are truly ironic, and any pretence is paraded rather than concealed, then what you have is a complicated form of authenticity, but authenticity nonetheless. Think fancy-dressing with conviction. Think mock-voguing to Madonna hits. By revelling in the absurdity of such acts (rather than the acts themselves), the cool gang undermine any accusations of fakery, instead radiating a playful honesty.

When you combine authenticity with rebellion, you get to a definition of cool that has survived for generations. Whilst the rebel cool presented by 50s and 60s Hollywood was – by virtue of its presence on the silver screen – a skin-deep phenomenon, manifested in appearances, its conceptual successor drew from more substantial reserves. Rebel cool in the Punk era was tied to an authentic sense of anger and disillusionment. In the 1980s, Boy George and his Blitz Kid chums radiated authentic rebellion through their colourful pursuit of a gender-bending hedonism. And the Rave, Grunge and Britpop scenes all prized genuine rebel credentials, despite their idiosyncratic fashion and music aesthetics.

But whereas the Punks, Grungers and Britpoppers were famed for their oft-antisocial brand of rebellion, and the Blitz Kids and Ravers were locked in a drug-fuelled self-obsession masked by a smiley facade, an emergent strain of rebel cool – exemplified by the In Rainbows release – has overtly prosocial sentiment at its heart.

Prosocial rebellion is a touchstone of the digital age. Just look at Wikipedia and the wider open-source movement, which rebels against the old, oligarchic model of knowledge. The rebellion in question simply involves flinging open the doors, and inviting the public in to observe, contribute to, and self-police an emergent knowledge community. Then there’s the Web 2.0 phenomenon, so beloved of the tech and media press, which is essentially just one big media revolution, with mass sharing and participation as its goals. Interestingly, Diginatives growing up with prosocial rebellion are taking it offline, too, as evidenced by the DIO (Do It Ourselves) Underage scene, promoted and populated by a gang of like-minded and like-aged kids who don’t want to attend gigs with their clingy, babyboomer parents.

Working backwards through our three elements of contemporary cool, we can surely classify Radiohead as rebels. Yes, they are a big band with lots of money, but this one stunning act of subversion may just trigger a revolution in the way every other major (and minor) band markets, prices and distributes its music. You only have to look at Oasis circa 2007 to see what a big band with lots of money but no sense of rebellion (or direction, or talent) looks like.

The In Rainbows release, as I’ve already suggested, is an indisputably prosocial act. Prosocial because it promotes access, trust and autonomy (by leaving the pricing decision up to the individual) and because it actively enables the cross-platform fluidity and shareability of content (by omitting DRM restrictions) that music fans have previously been denied.

Finally, this prosocial act of rebellion is an authentic one, essentially because Radiohead have gambled a whole album’s worth of creative capital on its success. Not just any album, either. Critics have called it their best in a decade – a masterclass in musical pluralism – and the band themselves describe its creation as a torturous, multi-year process fraught with tension and dispute that nearly broke-up the band. To stick to your experimental guns both musically and en route to market, despite internal and external pressure, is surely the essence of authenticity.

So, then. Radiohead are cool right now, cool right now is authentic prosocial responsibility (APR), and – just in case classical logic doesn’t hold true for rock bands – Radiohead have been shown to emphatically meet the APR criteria.

Perhaps APR is just one part of contemporary cool. Make of it what you will. As a Diginative Radiohead fan, all I can do is share it unconditionally, invite you to choose its value and welcome any response.