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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Post-Hiatus Notes: Kudos and Quixote, Markets and Soup-Kitchens, Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits, Podcasts and Dante

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 10, 2007

During the September to October hiatus in my postings to this site (see Turkey’s Ban on WordPress), I was unable to respond to a number of links and comments …

Kudos and Quixote

In a September 28 posting to his weblog, Doc Searls delved into the dichotomy between individuals’ and society’s passive acceptance of manipulative “marketing” and the possibility of “consumers” actually raising their voices and marshaling emerging technology to turn the tables on corporations and “marketeers” by articulating, broadcasting, and demanding responsiveness to their own needs and desires. Doc ended his post by pointing to our conversations and collaborations over the past four decades. In Doc’s words:

“By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.”

My thanks to Doc for this acknowledgment. Doc has always been generous in his references to me. In a piece he penned seven years ago, he compared me to both Raul Julia and Lenny Bruce, an honor that I still try (albeit ever more quixotically!) to live up to.

Markets and Soup-Kitchens

At the moment, Doc and I are examining the human and infrastructural aspects of traditional markets and marketplaces as models for using the internet to reestablish the modes of interaction and responsiveness that were once the hallmarks of face-to-face commerce. Traditional markets were tangible physical places, powered by the integrity and quality of goods and running on reputations and trust. In the modern age, however, the word “market” become a metaphor for statistical abstractions and the word “marketing” for the artificial creation of demand and the manipulation of the economic behavior of individuals and groups. Doc dug into this theme in his contributions to the 1990’s business bestseller Cluetrain Manifesto. For the subjective underpinning of my own take on the issue look at Markets and Marketing, Fishes and Faces on my alter ego weblog Bubkes.Org.

My part-time studies and work at the fringes of the field of Ottoman history has kept me close to the vision of markets as accretions of individual interactions, conversations, and trust. Over the course of more than a half millennium, the Ottomans evolved physical infrastructure and institutions that enabled commerce and information exchange as well as conquest. One facet of this infrastructure was the Imaret — a publicly- or foundation-financed combination of travelers’ lodge and soup kitchen — a veritable “internet” of which dotted the roadways of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Middle East and North Africa. Those interested in this aspect of the dynamics of Ottoman infrastructure, travel, and trade should turn to a newly published volume of essays edited by historians Nina Ergin, Christoph Neumann, and Amy Singer: Feeding People, Feeding Power; Imarets in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul, 2007).

Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits

In a comment on this post, hip-hop commentator Rafi Kam expressed surprise at “being on my radar.” As they used to say in the Bronx in the 1970s: “What can I tell you?” I may prefer Louis Jordan to Fifty Cent — and certainly have more of a weakness for Borsalino hats and zoot suits (reat-pleat, stuff-cuff, drape-shape and all) than for sagging jeans and baseball hats worn backwards — but I am still open to new music, ironic humor, good writing, and all that cuts through common wisdom and accepted ideology.

Apropos of both Kudos and Markets above, Rafi Kam’s and Dallas Penn’s YouTube clip Bronx Bodega (which I have mentioned previously on this site and on Bubkes.Org) is not only disarmingly humorous but in its 7-minute length portrays exactly the same point that Doc Searls and I are trying to examine in our far more pedantic styles, i.e. that marketing in its extreme is a one-way affair that targets people’s’ weaknesses rather than strengths. Marketing reduces people to “consumers” and attempts to dictate what they can buy and limits their access to competing outlets, goods, and services — a demographics-driven twist on plain old imperialism.

The same combination of wit and debunking that go into the Bronx Bodega clip also characterizes the weblog of Rafi’s fellow self-styled “Internet Celebrity” Dallas Penn. Dallas Penn’s blog lights up the integrity of street-driven hip-hop and pinions the marketing-driven cynicism of the music industry; his takes on the marketing of political “personalities” (e.g. US Republican presidential “wannabe” Giuliani) are delightfully unsparing. Most remarkably, Dallas Penn seems to have the rare talent of being able to write exactly as he speaks (or is it the other way around?).

Podcasts and Dante

To close: A confession. I have not always been as kind to Doc Searls as Doc has been to me. Three or four years ago, I was vocally skeptical when Doc was amongst the first to enthuse about the Copernican revolution podcasting was about to occasion by liberating content from limits of time and geography and by enabling listeners to choose and pull broadcasts rather than having them pushed at them. At the time, I saw podcasting as technology without worthy content. Events proved me totally wrong; I now live from podcasts. I reload my I-Pod daily, supplementing my usual mix of Bartok, Turkish and Armenian Oud virtuosi, Monk and Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland, and the like with the latest podcasts from the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg, PBS’s Bill Moyers, the New Yorker magazine, NPR’s Car Talk Plaza, and WNYC’s Sara Fishko, Leonard Lopate, Brian Lehrer, and John Schaeffer. A few days ago, I admitted to Doc that if there isn’t a special circle in the Inferno for those of us who doubted podcasting, there should be. With magnanimity, Doc offered to release me from such a fate if I posted my confession on this site … thus this entry!

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One Response to “Post-Hiatus Notes: Kudos and Quixote, Markets and Soup-Kitchens, Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits, Podcasts and Dante”

  1. DP said

    Props go out to you for getting through my academically inverse prose. I imagine myself to be the Huff Post slash Economist for the ‘hood. That is the part of the ‘hood that owns computers and uses them for reading my vain brain droppings. All seven of you.

    I tell Raf that we live in a post-literate society, not because people are illiterate (many of us are), but because we want to receive our information not from the written word but from moving image content. Books will still be useful again one day – as firewood to stoke the kilns during the nuclear winter to come.

    Thanks again for the love, but I would argue that you still reside in a special circle of the Inferne. The circle for motherfuckers that actually gave a fuck.

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