Her tale begins in 1967, when both the Summer of Love and Our World, the first live broadcast to and from the entire globe, created a sense that a compassionate, progressive global village was in the making. Through the civil rights and ant-war movements to the birth of Second Wave feminism, from the wintery ‘70s to the shiny rise of corporate culture in the ‘80s, from the democratic early days of the Web to today’s social surveillance state, Wittes Schlack tells a story about idealistic energy and how it travels through time.
Personal and political, intimate and informative, bracing and comic, these linked essays take us to an abortion mill in rural Quebec, the Michigan home of numerous UFO sightings, an abandoned Shaker village, the dust-clogged air of garment sweatshops in Allentown, a philanthropic corporate breakfast, and a series of dystopian market research conferences. They ask: Are we at the gates of the digital Promised Land? Or are we exiles wandering in the desert with only tweeting Kardashians for company?
|Publisher:||Regal House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
Read an Excerpt
W Dallas (2015)
"What we have done over time with electronic media is to place our nervous system outside ourselves. This means that every private operator can own a piece of your nervous system as if it was a box or a hunk of bread, and he can stand on your nose, your heart, your head, and manipulate your inner being by these external means."
- Marshall McLuhan
Today I pored through the cell phone usage data of twenty-four male high school athletes who had given my company permission to passively monitor everything they did on their phones. Our client's hope — and every marketer's fantasy — is that they'll be able to predict consumers' behavior based on the data that smart phones capture about where their owners are, how long they stay there, what they do when they're at a given location, and in what proportion.
Not surprisingly, fourteen- to sixteen-year-old boys spend a lot of time on Instagram and ESPN. They use apps for tracking their workouts and performance. They listen to rap and heavy metal, play Angry Birds and Greedy Pigs. One apparently amuses himself and others with Fart Soundboard.
We can't read the words of their text messages or emails, can't eavesdrop on their phone calls, but we know what ball field or Burger King they're at when they're tapping and swiping.
My job is to bring people together in private online communities and get to know their needs, frustrations, passions, and opinions — all so that my largely Fortune 500 clients can better assess what consumers want, what they're likely to buy, what they're willing to pay for it, and why.
In my office, we spend our days hearing from tens of thousands of people around the world in chats and discussions, via Skype and surveys, in English and German and Mandarin translated in real time, through the videos they shoot on their smartphones and the collages they create, in the shopping receipts they scan and send us, in the voice mail messages they leave us.
We ask them questions, sometimes banal, sometimes profound; we text with them as they go bra shopping and show us what they're seeing on the racks and what they overhear sales people saying to each other. Now and then we send them ten dollar Amazon gift certificates and, in exchange, they record their daily snacks, their children at play, the contents of the Valentine's Day card they long to get. Thirteen-year-old girls take photographs of used sanitary pads so that the manufacturer can see the saturation patterns that will inform their next animated commercial. Newly diagnosed diabetics record their daily readings so that pharmaceutical companies can come up with the innovative insulin pump that will crush their competitors.
Over the years I've learned that everyone likes strawberry yogurt, while passion fruit (and strangely, pineapple) are polarizing flavors. I know that while the sound of laughing babies brings the most joy to the most people, many find quiet happiness in the hum of a refrigerator, the regular thump of clothes tumbling in the dryer, the beeping of a garbage truck as it backs up to the dumpster. I've seen the pictures that people upload to describe how they feel about their appearance — desolate women from Picasso's blue period; fat, crumb-covered cats; and photographs of broken toys and abandoned café tables in the rain.
My job is both mercenary and inspiring. I'm supposed to care about my clients' business success. What I actually care about are the people (referred to in my industry as "consumers" or "shoppers") who go to such extraordinary lengths when they believe someone is actually listening. Everyone wants to be heard. To be known.
I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of market research providers for a major food company, held at the W Dallas hotel. I'd arrived the night before. Loud trance music pulsed in the tiny lobby, and the check-in desk was barely visible in the dim light. In a black-lit room that I took to be the bar, chrome or platinum stalactites hung like fractured Mobius strips. Young men with moussed hair escorted bosom-boosted, spaghetti-strapped female colleagues in and out of the martini den; an occasional older woman whose fashion sense vastly exceeded mine strode past while speaking in urgent tones into her cell phone.
My room — well, it was hard to hate the room, with its excellent flat screen TV, its Eurasian contours, all black woods and burnished pewter-like moldings. The half-bottle of red wine, the honor bar that thoughtfully catered to one's hankering both for a Snickers bar and a Power Bar. Other than the bed, sublimely comfortable, the room was a triumph of form over function. The bathtub sat out in the open, the showerhead suspended from the ceiling, as if inviting the bather to rotate under it like poultry on a vertical spit, for the viewing pleasure of whoever reclined on that bed.
While waiting for my Wonderful, Winsome Caesar Salad, I noticed that everything around me was in some way branded and purchasable — the bedding, the pillows, the impossible-to-set clock radio, the CDs with their remixes and anthologies of carefully chosen mood music and clever titles like "W Hotels Warmth of Cool — Overture" and "W Hotels Rhythm and Muse." It was as if the experience didn't count unless it could be commoditized, but in that mass customization way, giving the illusion of choice, the patina of identity, by letting me choose the pillow firmness or music genre or shampoo scent that uniquely defined me (and the tens of thousands of other people who presumably made the same choices).
I felt ridiculously homesick, slept badly, and awoke eager for the day to be over.
This event, the "Research Odyssey," was convened to get some ostensibly innovative companies together to listen and explore ways we might collaborate to achieve new consumer insights. And what is a consumer insight?
It's the unmet need.
The decision tree.
The nostalgic attachment.
The influential recommendation that, if properly understood, could drive the engine of commerce toward a brand, a store, a purchase.
Our insights into female potato chip buyers with at least one child aged six to twelve, for example, illuminate the fact that chips are not primarily about potatoes. They're not even about salt. They're about tamping down road rage when stalled in traffic on the way home after work, about turning the sad predictability of another evening in front of the television into an intentional, festive event; about placating their children for pennies by the ounce.
Our brainstorms about flavors and scents in general with female Millennials (aged twenty to twenty-six) reveal a nostalgia for products that smell like bubble gum and cotton candy, for the sweet pink sensations that remind them of earlier years when they were hopeful and easily pleased. Their mothers, in contrast, are past nostalgia, drawn to shampoos and detergents and deodorants that smell of burning citrus or violent rain, of musk and wildness.
But for all of these people, these "market segments" — the Style-Leading Gen Y males and the Tech Savvy ones, the Health-and-Wellness-Focused Boomer women and the Food-as-Labor-of-Loves — consumer products are prompts and markers. They are both a feature and a symptom of their lives.
There are times when I actually feel that I'm doing something of value in using the anonymous intimacy of the web to enable people to connect in ways that start out superficial but evolve, their relationships taking on greater meaning and depth. The rest of the time I feel as I did when the working session began and our client Arlene, a perfectly nice and smart Dallas soccer mom and PhD in quantitative sociology, shared what she'd been working on for the past six months: How would consumers respond if, instead of getting two large boxes of crackers for $5.99, they were offered two large boxes, each containing 20 percent more crackers, for $7.99?
All of the data indicated that they'd take it in stride. Our community members perceived this new approach as still offering value; large-scale quantitative studies suggested no decline in intent-to-purchase scores. And in virtual 3D simulations of the shopping experience, focus group members, after scanning the shelves, would readily click their cursors on the more expensive boxes. Based on what they knew so far, the snack food company was poised to make the change. While Arlene felt this was the right thing to do, it was still a little scary, given the financial consequences if consumers turned to a cheaper store brand.
During the break, I headed toward the panel of multi-colored light bulbs flashing to the Europop-beat in the dim hallway, and went into the granite and steel bathroom. I hid in the stall as other attendees re-applied their lipstick, speculating about what would be served up as a W lunch.
They left and I stayed, welcoming the solitude. Unlike the pulsating barrage of sound in the hallways, the bathroom's muzak was a recognizable tune. I was listening to a highly processed techno version of "Sound of Silence." I found myself grinning. This was the step aerobics version of the song. I wondered if it was also playing in the W's fitness center, where one could no doubt purchase a W leotard — a Weotard? — and mindlessly Stepmaster in rhythm, going nowhere.
For a moment I was cast back to the front seat of my mother's turquoise Dodge Dart in the winter of 1966. We were parked illegally in front of the Kroger on West Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was staying in the car while my mother ran in for a few groceries because, she believed, my presence would somehow discourage a cop from ticketing her. I was twelve years old, listening to the radio. Paul Simon's voice quivered with reproach at our worship of a neon god, and though I didn't know exactly what he meant, as a bookish, friendless, relative newcomer to the United States and to the cruelties of middle school, I felt the song's meaning. Surely there were other kids like me bending close to the radio, bored by Sonny and Cher, who shared my sensibility. I leaned in, listening to Simon and Garfunkel's wrath and hope, finally believing that I'd find my tribe, people who understood me and would recognize me as one of their own. Hugging myself against the cold that seeped into the car that night, feeling my nose and cheeks warm from the faint churning of the tinny defroster, in that moment I heard what I believed to be the future. Mine.CHAPTER 2
This week, an editor in need of my photo breezily told me, "No need to send one — I'll just find something online." Curious to see what she'd retrieve, I went to Google images and typed in my own name.
The first six images on the page were headshots from my corporate website, a timeline of my increasingly middle-aged hair styles and colors from the past decade. The hundreds that followed made up a bizarre assemblage of conference logos and pictures, book covers, people who possibly knew other people I might have met — a motley collection including:
A Boston Globe photograph from July of 2013 showing an aerial view of workmen exhuming the grave of Albert Desalvo, the Boston Strangler;
Covers of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore — a book I'd reviewed in 2005 — in eight different languages;
A picture of a Hispanic woman in a gray Nike sweatshirt and handcuffs;
A single photograph of my husband, uncharacteristically bound in a buttoned-up white shirt and tie;
A stunning photo of Jon Hamm playing Don Draper, and less handsome images of Hillary Clinton cleaning her glasses and Barak Obama in khaki shorts, driving a golf cart;
The logo of the Alabama Crimson Tide;
An empty road running alongside a foggy river;
A newspaper drawing of Indian and Asian teens sitting cross-legged in a circle, accompanied by the caption: "Talking together is an effective way to develop good communication skills";
An annotated paragraph from a book chapter titled "Advanced Potion Making";
A grainy family photo of three women, their arms slung around each other's shoulders, associated with an article titled "Three Sisters: Joined at the Funny Bone";
Army photos, family reunion photos, and obituary photos of a man I've never met.
I've been ruminating about this last set of images, copious and more personal than the others. The Army private looks dapper and crisp, though in the black-and-white portrait taken what looks like a decade or two later, he's a bit doughier and less somber. The family reunion shots in faded color show a genial man surrounded by children and grandchildren, sunburned and dressed for Florida. They look just like the hundreds of photos of my parents and sibling, cousins and children, taken over years of ski trips, birthday parties, and eventually winter vacations in Sarasota.
But they're not my family. The man in the photos was the father of a professional acquaintance named Pete, an ad agency executive who was an early champion of blogging and Facebook and LinkedIn. I'd met Pete at a couple of conferences, friended him when that was a new verb, and offered some perfunctory condolences when he posted news of his father's passing. His prominence in social media since its inception has swept his family photos onto my Google image page, blowing those scallop-edged images of his dad posing for the camera (when it was a camera and not a phone) far and wide, like pollen in the wind.
Though it's not Pete's fault, I'm resentful. If Google is going to serve up a faded photo from the 1940s of a young man in an army uniform, I want it to be my father. If I'm going to see an elderly man reveling in the glow of his sun-painted grandchildren, I want those buttery little girls to be my daughters. But my father is absent from these pages and pages of images, as are my mother, brother, my daughters and granddaughters.
I should be glad that my online privacy settings are holding fast. Instead, these grainy, predictable, and precious photos of other people's families arrayed on page after page make me feel misrepresented and strangely robbed of my own past. If my name is going to be associated with pictures, shouldn't they be pictures of my own choosing, my own people? If it's only my public life that's durable, shouldn't I be posting more often, with care to crafting my online legacy rather than leaving it to Google's associative prowess?
But then I hear my daughter's gently mocking reproof in my head, calling me by my childhood nickname, telling me to "Simmer down, chooch." My life did, after all, begin long before the social web, and its dearest moments are rendered much more vividly in my mind than they could be in any visible image. Photos will never tell the story of how this life has felt. And, I suddenly realize, despite the cheap longevity promised by online storage in the cloud, they'll never make it eternal.CHAPTER 3
Many of my grandmother's errands on Saturday afternoons involved visits to frightening people. My eleven-year-old brother and I would climb onto the massive, marshmallowy front seat of her 1959 yellow and white Plymouth with the push-button transmission and head downtown.
The first stop was usually at the newspaper and tobacco store run by my great uncle, who took a tender, devoted interest in my grandmother after my grandfather's early and sudden death a few years before I was born. One-armed since the age of six when he was hit by a streetcar in Winnipeg, Uncle Charlie wasn't dashing, nor did his eyes twinkle from behind his thick, black electrical taped glasses. He and my grandmother would chat, and before we left, he'd press a damp nickel into my hand in honor of my sixth or seventh birthday, direct me to pick a treat from one of the big, dusty penny candy jars on the counter, giving me a quick, surprisingly firm squeeze around my shoulders with his stump. The contact ended like a cruel joke, as if his elbow and lower arm had been yanked away like a chair someone was about to sit in. Much as I loved candy, in every visit I dreaded that moment, ashamed of my squeamishness.
But more disturbing than Uncle Charlie's stump were the arms of some of the other people we visited, arms that had blue numbers tattooed on the insides of their white wrists.
"Don't stare at them," my grandmother warned my brother and me, thereby guaranteeing that we would. Why did they have these numbers, we'd ask. What did they stand for?
"They got them in concentration camps," she told us.
This was an answer, but not an explanation, so we continued to stare. We'd sum the numbers, look for patterns in the sequence of digits. (Were they always odd, even, odd?) There was little else to do in these small, stuffy apartments on the east side of Montreal, as my petite, stylishly coiffed grandmother, with her tinkling voice, strained to make conversation with these pale people in faded house dresses and lumpy suits, immigrants whose speech was guttural and thick.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This All-at-Onceness"
Copyright © 2019 Julie Wittes Schlack.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
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