Apocalypse chic, and outrunning the (un)professionals

A couple of apparently unrelated things appearing this week, to keep things moving in the meantime. 

The (un)Professionals and outrunning change

A couple of articles in the New York Times today about the unintended consequences of pricing plans were interesting in the quickening stream of business model redesigns.

In his article, “Is There a Method in Cellphone Madness? Saul Hansell reflects on the apparent inversion in the philosophy of pricing in cellphone plans that appear to cost the best customers the most. There’s a psychology at work. He quotes one consultant – “You give people a really good bargain on this bucket of minutes,” explained Roger Entner, a senior vice president for telecommunications research at Nielsen. “People are risk averse, so you have a relatively high overage charge, which gets people to overbuy. You also get really predictable revenue out of it, which Wall Street loves.”

In another place in the same day’s paper, Nicolas Carr reflects on “The Price of Free” in internet-accessed entertainment. “With broadband becoming the norm and connection speeds continuing to quicken, what has happened to music companies and newspapers is beginning to happen to broadcast networks and cable companies. People like me are using the Net to bypass the customary providers of television programming, along with the ads they show and the fees they collect.,” he says, and worries that higher-cost, higher value programs will disappear.

Somewhere in the midst of all this (and reported on in the same day’s paper) was Apple (!), quietly seeking a patent on a technology that would make watching ads on any medium, any technology, compulsory.

Closer to home, but in the same vein, was a posting on BuildBlog expressing concern about the consequences of fee pressures, including free work and “dealing with reality later,” brought to the architectural and design professions.

There are, of course, many other data points in this conversation, but it is interesting to note the acceleration of the conversation brought by technological change and impacts on business and the professions from the Great Compression overall. I think that what people are calling (again) the “New Normal” is really not yet defined. Gary Hamel’s avoidance of book writing, and his advisory on adaptability here and here seems right in the middle of this stream.

Apocalypse chic
I attended an event in Detroit earlier this week centering on the media and Detroit, or more specifically, potential roles for “new media” in and about Detroit. A panel of “new media” people provided insights. These things are always great rah-rah’s but always very unsettling at the same time.

The panel was made of six people who were generally presented as, and accepted the creds of, being Detroiters. Their voice was generally the type that says, “if you want the story told in a different way, tell it yourself,” with the either direct or implied, “like me.” (This tone, even, from one of the chief popularizers of ruin porn.) If I recall correctly, five out of the six came from somewhere else, recently. There seems to be a number of significant implications in this stat, but not now.

Instead, these concurrences on the condition of Detroit and shared aspects American urbanism –

  • In Design Observer, Mark Dery writes about the “Dawn of the Dead Mall” and reflects on the architectural fiction of their remaking and revival. “As we cling by our hangnails to the historical precipice, with ecotastrophe on one side and econopocalypse on the other, that consumer fantasyland is an economic indulgence and an environmental obscenity we can’t afford — the dead end of an economic philosophy tied to manic overdevelopment…”
  • Richard Brich does a nice job of exploring what’s left after a city designed for autos in his article, “A Void Paved Over with Concrete.” “Our cities are dead zones with small pods of life barricaded between the elements that support the passage, storage and care of cars. In our most densely trafficked sidewalks, it is a hundred feet between businesses whose windows have a chance of being interesting to look in at while walking past. Throw in a bank or two and one has to take a taxi to get between shops where people congregate over a cup of coffee or buy a shirt.”
  • Steven Malanga, writing on the City Journal blog about “Feral Detroit” references a must read from the Harvard Institute for Economic Research by Ed Glaeser in which he details the intentional policies of Mayor Coleman Young to empty the city of Detroit. “Though some blame Detroit’s population losses on larger economic forces, economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer argue in a groundbreaking paper that the city’s problems are mostly self-inflicted. (The paper, called “The Curley Effect,” gets its name from legendary Boston mayor James Curley, who favored Irish residents and pushed other groups out.) After winning election in 1973, Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, consolidated his power, driving white residents, who had voted against him, out of the city by withdrawing services from their neighborhoods. Eventually, Glaeser and Shleifer write, Detroit became “an overwhelmingly black city mired in poverty and social problems”—and shrinking fast.”
  • Detroit figures prominently as Brian Finocki reflects on the use of space for political aims in his article, “The Ruin Machine.” “For example, Detroiters are often accused of being in a state of denial about their situation (they are perceived as being victims of nostalgia by longing for what was once a booming city and by operating under the illusion that one day those factories will return operative and a prosperous life will resume.) Yet the media’s predisposition is to reduce the conversation around Detroit to photo ops of abandoned buildings and glossy infographics highlighting the statistical extremities of vacancy achieved by the city.  How hypocritical is this?  Who is perpetuating nostalgia here?”
  • A piece (also reflecting on the “zillions of pictures to illustrate the vast emptiness of Detroit) in the Urbanophile blog by Aaron Renn on “Detroit as the New American Frontier” was resurrected in the New York Times and Time magazine. “One thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit.”

Anyway, what I think I liked better this week were these two responses to the growing urban portfolio with similar sets of conditions –

Updates 11/16/09

In Detroit, Agencies Compete to Sell City as a Creative Haven

and

Apple and Bloomberg: Old Champions in the New Economy

,

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6 thoughts on “Apocalypse chic, and outrunning the (un)professionals

  1. Fascinating blog. Thanks for the shout-out. “Ruin porn”: a Ballardian concept for our times. If you hadn’t coined it, Geoff Manaugh would have had to invent it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark. Yours was a great article, and the Design Observer is such a truly great site.

      There is such urgency these days to reoccupy that which went quickly vacant in this recession, but there seems to be little critical thinking in the speed to fill the empty space with imagination. Your background on the subject and your critique were great to have as perspective, and your optimism and vision for the “post-mall, post-sprawl suburbs” is a great call to action.

      I yearn for better days, but I fear the implications of “recovery.” As you point out, “The extreme turbulence that hit the American economy in 2008 offers a rare window of opportunity to hit the re-set button on consumer culture as we know it — to re-tool market capitalism along greener, more socially conscious and, crucially, more profoundly satisfying lines.” Thank you!

      • Thanks for the props. Keep me looped (if you have the time and inclination) on any conferences or posts or papers you think might catch my wandering eye, and I’ll consider them as grist for the essay mill. Best, M. Dery

  2. Thanks for the mention. Sometimes I guess, porn-merchants can’t help but sleep with their talent. Noticed the other day in Fortune magazine that the editors at Time Inc. bought a house in Detroit – three stories, five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, yard, basement, $99k. I wonder whether now, as investors with an interest in value uplift, their ‘narrative arc’ of Detroit will change? http://bit.ly/8inw2j

  3. mr. meredith did not coin the term “ruin porn.” I did:

    http://tomorrowmuseum.com/2009/08/20/ruin-porn-photography/

    while mr. meredith’s disdain for me is palpable here on his site (where, I presume, he’s “telling his own story”) I would only add that while I am not a native Detroiter (I grew up in that exotic, foreign land known as Kalamazoo) I share more than just ruin photos with my audience of 380,000 monthly readers. I do not focus only on nor ignore the ruins that are a part of our lives. You may perceive me to be “one of the main ‘popularizers’ of ruin porn” but everything I do is in the context of living here and trying to find beauty and meaning in a place that the rest of the world has written off. I see something different in what I do and the product of out-of-town photographers (as well as suburban photographers) who parachute into the ghetto with $30,000 worth of camera equipment and then jet back to wherever it is they’re from.

    I have had to deal with this sort of snide accusation before.

    http://www.sweet-juniper.com/2009/04/miss-pickens-porch.html

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