Rick Liebling Q&A:”Cultural Singularity” Blew Up Our Culture In 1986—Now What?



Rick Liebling wants you to know that in 1986 American culture changed forever.

In fact, he pinpoints the moment of transformation on the music video by Run DMC of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”  In the video the wall between black hip hop and white hard rock is literally broken down.  That was just one of the first symptoms of a massive rendering of culture as we know it.

Rick Liebling

Rick is Director of Digital Strategy at Coyne PR in New York City, and a huge fan of music, social media, sports—pretty much anything about American culture.  Starting in the mid-1980s, with music like that created bv Run DMC,  Rick asserts this combination of music and urban culture, propelled by a huge shift in the technology, breeched the wall of monolithic white man American culture forever.

On his blog How Soon Is Now? Liebling recently published his “The Cultural Singularity Paradox,” which proposes that this combination of technology, music and urban culture combined to bust up cultural tribes, paradigms and tropes in our country.   He sees the emergence from Rap and Hip Hop of mass culture stars like Will Smith and NWA as the vanguard of the massive cultural shift away from mass media-controlled American culture to……to what?

To an era now where Liebling says “everything is mashed together. Where will the next rebellion come from? There’s no way of knowing because it’s nearly impossible to rebel against The Man anymore. When you can have your own blog, YouTube channel and Twitter stream, how exactly are you “Fighting the Power”? You have the power. Everyone has the power.  Yes, the Internet has made all this possible, but the Internet is merely a tool. It has given us greater vision, but that vision is far outpaced by the volume of content and speed of change it has brought with it. The ability to track new movements sounds great, until you realize there are thousands of movements out there and you can’t possibly track them all. ”

Liebling borrows the idea of “singularity” from computer science—the notion that by 2030 computers will have so far surpassed human intelligence they will begin to create intelligent works and opportunities we cannot predict.

The “cultural singularity” Liebling says is fueled by an “exponentially accelerating technological progress will lead to the creation of super-intelligence; and that a post-singularity world would be unpredictable to humans due to an inability of human beings to imagine the intentions or capabilities of super-intelligent entities. “

And it was music, Liebling says, that led the way, because it was the first cultural form cut loose from the boundaries of monolithic mass media controls.  The Beastie Boys and whole herds of newcomers created the last great musical paradigm of Hip Hop / Rap—and led the first great cultural shift caused by the singularity of cultural technology—the means of creation, distribution and promotion became completely distributed.  And now white boys in Fargo wear their baseball caps sideways and rap along with Kayne West.  And Ice-T is a presenter at the the Nickelodeon Children’s Awards.  And Charlie Sheen and Sasha Grey are treated like rock stars.

And nobody really knows what American culture will produce next.

The Cultural Singularity Paradox made me stop and think very hard.  Perhaps in this idea of “singularity” of technology we can see the path that’s lead to our micro-fragmented culture, and also the definition of the challenge marketers, Internet developers, and social media practitioners face in 2011 and the future.

Kayne West and Lady Gaga

Will we see cultural memes and ideas propelled into public acceptance almost without reason, or at least without predictability?  If we no longer have “outsiders” and “insiders” in American culture, who decides what’s beautiful, sexy and important?

What follows are some excerpts from a telephone discussion I had with Rick a few weeks ago about “The Cultural Singularity Paradox.”  I wanted to know more, not just about his view of what happened starting in 1986, but what the hell we’re supposed to do about it now:

RJ: You use the word “paradox” in the title of the essay.  Here’s the definition of paradox:

“A statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.”

So in what sense is your observation about The Cultural Singularity a paradox?

RICK: Yeah, I thought about this some before I went with the title.  It made sense to me. Let me see if I can explain myself better:

30 years ago culture was more distinct than it is now. There was high culture and low culture, slow culture and fast culture, pop culture…  Over the last 20 or so years as these things began to come together, it should in theory have become easier to understand them.   Example: urban kids didn’t get hard rock, then RUN-D.M.C. exposed them to Aerosmith, the Beasties brought in hard rock to via Rick Rubin; and now those two different cultures understand each other.  But then things got so blended that it actually became harder to understand what’s going on and where new trends are coming from. That’s the paradox – as things have come together it isn’t easier anymore (as you would assume), it’s more difficult.

RJ:  You talk about “When porn stars and profane rappers are not just accepted but embraced by the mainstream, in fact become the mainstream.  Brands can no longer identify safe ground to establish their base.”  This is the paradox you see in the Cultural Singularity?

RICK: Yes, it’s interesting in a couple of ways.  Traditionally those outlaw groups, specifically porn stars have always been on the forefront of technology—DVD, VHS, Affiliate marketing, whatever.  Porn was usually the group that was the early adopters.  You’re right, now it’s very hard to see where the change is coming from.  In the past you had, you know these five major channels in front of you, and the stuff on the outside (of mainstream culture) was the outside. But now you don’t have five things in front of you; you’ve got a hundred things, a thousand and more and more.


Jay-Z and producer Rick Rubin


So there is no more “outside” anymore.  As a result you can’t say the next thing is coming from “over there,” because you don’t know where “over there” is.  And that’s where I’m trying to build on what Grant McCracken wrote about when he used football metaphors to say we need to protect our clients from “the blind side” attack. (NOTE: See “Chief Culture Officer, by McCracken: http://amzn.to/iqhNPy )   I started thinking, wait a minute—there isn’t a blind side any more.  I called it “exotic blitz schemes,” meaning you can be hit from anywhere.

How do I determine what  the outside is when Ice Cube—who 20 years ago was as outside as you could get—is now a presenter at the Nickelodeon Children’s Choice Awards?

RJ: Snoop Dog as spokesman for Sprint

RICK: Yeah, that’s right.  I have started thinking about Elvis, who was an outsider in the 1950s and ended up doing Vegas shows, so perhaps this idea isn’t as unique as I first thought.  But the sheer volume of change is so big that now there’s a million on the inside, not just five (gatekeepers.)

RJ: Given the Cultural Singularity Paradox, what are professional communications managers like you and I supposed to do for our clients?

The Beastie Boys

RICK: I struggle with it every day.  How am I supposed to figure out where things are coming from?…Here’s what I think we can do: Rather than try to guess what the next wave is going to come from, we can look to identify new and intriguing combinations for our clients to get behind. I’m intrigued by the idea of “asymmetrical partnerships.” How can brands see what else their customers do/use/like and bring that into the fold in an interesting way. Playing the ‘crystal ball’ game is too difficult; we need to help brands carve their own path.

RJ: How did / does the rise of online social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn effect the Cultural Singularity. It seems like they came to prominence more than a decade after the key year you identify, 1986.

RICK: I think social networks are important to it, but not essential. They lowered barriers of entry or brought people together faster, but ultimately it’s the people that use them and how they choose to use them that matters.  It would be interesting to see if there was a tipping point in Apple Mac sales around that time period (1986). That’s probably more important than the social networks.

RJ: I want to come back to the idea of singularity, that we’re (overrun) by this “system of systems,” that no one person or group is the steward of. I know it’s a lot more fun to be in marketing in 2011 than in 1986, but aren’t we overrun to the point that we’re doing our jobs worse now than back in that day?  It’s sort of the glass is half empty?

RICK: Back in 1986 I was listening to the Beastie Boys, not thinking about them from a marketing perspective.  Man, all I know is there are some crazy smart people in the marketing/advertising industry, or whatever we call it.  I think those people are doing the absolute best they can.  When I look at people like Bud Caddell, or Ben Malbon, Faris Yakob, or out near you, Paul Isakson—I have to believe that they’re thinking about the problem on a level that’s way beyond what Stephen King, the God of planning, could imagine.

RJ: Jeff Greenfield (of CBS) once said that the entire history of the US since World War II can be seen as the “breakdown of hierarchies.” Now it seems like we’re almost down to “hierarchies of one.”  Mainstream media keeps fragmenting, but those few really popular shows like American Idol become even more powerful because they’re the only big media left that really works on a mass basis.  So taking those two ideas as poles—culture and media fragmenting, but these few big shows and newspaper columnists remaining—what do you think about how to work (in that landscape)?

RICK: Is American Idol more powerful, like the Oscars, the Super Bowl—these fewer water cooler community moments?  The next question is how do we use social media, these tools for the fragmented networks to enhance what you can still do with traditional media.  You look at what Volkswagen did releasing that Star Wars ad the week before the Super Bowl, rather than waiting to show it during the game, and how they were able to steal huge mindshare leading up to the event.  It was still about that “one big moment,” but they figured out how to leverage the big moment in a new and powerful way.

RJ: That leads me to a final question. Tomorrow you’re going to go to work.  When you think about this essay and the thinking you’ve done about this subject, how do you apply it to what you do?

RICK: (laughs) I think the best things I write, I write for me.  I didn’t write that post thinking, “hey, maybe Rohn will really dig it.”  I wrote it to help me clarify my thoughts.   Not just writing about this subject, but really trying to train myself to think about things at a deeper level.  I wish I did that kind of thinking more, because when I try to write a post like this,  then I’m fortunate enough to receive feedback from people, people like you. So what do I take away from a post like this and use in my work with my clients? It’s trying to think deeper about a problem, looking at it from multiple angles.  What’s behind the thing that’s behind the thing?  That’s the win for me.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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