So we’ve reached the end of 2007, and with it the end of my experiment with Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle.
Unlike every other design-minded blogger I know, I’ve avoided weighing in on Monocle until I felt like I at least had a reasonable sense of what the magazine was, and what it aspired to become. With all nine extant issues of the magazine now sitting stacked up in our living room, furnishing me with a fair basis for critical consideration, it’s time to report my findings.
I am sad to say that, in large part, my final verdict comes back in the negative, and not by a little. Since, as a charter subscriber and a longtime admirer of Tyler’s audacity both, I’ve been pulling for the magazine’s success from the beginning, it may be worth looking into just why this state of affairs should come to pass; I’m therefore going to go into some detail in examining my disappointment. (Full disclosure: in the months between its announcement and launch, I pitched Monocle on a story idea, and never heard back from anyone over there. I don’t believe that colors any of what follows.)
If you prefer the thumbnail version, at core all of my issues with Monocle boil down to this iron fact: at £75 annually, I simply don’t feel that my subscription delivers sufficient value for me to want to renew it. But there’s more to it than that, a great deal more.
Why have I come to feel this, about something seemingly so unerringly crafted to suit my own personal predilections, tastes and desires?
- First and foremost: the magazine just never felt essential to me. That is what Tyler promised and that, above all, is what I wanted it to be, or at least contain: a crisp, concise, deeply clued-in briefing on the state of global play, like something a younger, hipper Economist might put together for the front of the book.
I understand that the pace of change being what it is, timeliness is going to be an inherently difficult thing to pull off as a monthly. But currency can be measured in many ways, and one of them is indubitably providing the sort of canny strategic insight necessary to contextualize and properly understand the daily onrush of events in business, politics and culture. This is what I was looking for, not bemused dispatches on the lives of Danish fishermen (issue 07, October) and vintners in the remote Chinese west (04, June).
Not all weak signals are portents of things to come. In the context of Monocle‘s value proposition, the desire to report on the under- or entirely unheralded is only as laudable as the degree to which the subjects of these reports eventually signify. Otherwise it’s arbitrary, nothing but whimsy and window-dressing.
- Tyler’s persistent and intrusive Nippophilia has always been a bit much – especially, perhaps, for those of us with some actual long-term experience of living as foreigners in Japan. It was always part and parcel of wallpaper*, but in Monocle he really gave it its head; my own personal tipping point may have been that one paean too many to Tokyo governor, notorious immigrant-basher and avowed “fascist” Ishihara Shintaro, whose recent conversion to green enthusiasms reminds me that there’s nothing at all incompatible between environmentalism and authoritarianism.
There are plenty of things to admire about Japan, but calling things Japanese out for higher praise than you would grant the directly-equivalent Western item isn’t appreciation, it’s fetishism.
Case in point is the magazine’s elevation of Porter luggage to iconic status. Believe me, I know my bags, and I’m sorry, but Porters just aren’t all that. As an owner of two or three, acquired during my years in Tokyo (and at Tokyo prices), I can tell you that they’re unexceptional items made with the mayfly Japanese fashion cycle in mind, not the long haul; treating them like they’re simultaneously blessed with the looks of a Valextra and the durability of a Filson is just silly.
What goes for Porter bags is true of so many of the magazine’s other Japanese enthusiasms. Would Monocle heap nearly so much praise on a Ohioan Tadao Ando, or an Angeleno Tokyo Midtown? In your heart, you already know the answer to that question…and that’s just exactly the problem.
- As the unwonted praise heaped on world-class bad actors like Ishihara indicates, Monocle consistently lacks anything resembling a critical voice. At times it plays at being serious, raising ethical questions about, e.g., Chinese stem-cell research (issue 08, November), only to accept an interviewee’s dicier assertions without follow-up, comment or raised eyebrow. At others, it simply fails to engage the obvious ethical dimensions of what it chooses to report on (the newly-resurgent Japanese military, issue 01, March; Abu Dhabi’s biennial IDEX arms fair, issue 02, April; the Christian retail industry, issue 06, September; an Israeli antimissile system, issue the latest).
The magazine’s relentless focus on high-end consumption as a literal way of life is, of course, itself a major ethical stumbling point, and clearly one whose implications are not engaged in any way other than the superficial acknowledgment of “sustainability” as something to be aspired to in urban design. Your mileage may of course vary, but this strikes me as not particularly cutting it.
- Monocle blurs, like no Western magazine I’ve ever seen, the boundary between advertising and editorial. Advertiser products and services are frequently mentioned in features, reviews and articles, without any indication that there is a business relationship involved. In almost every issue, cross-branded advertorial is delivered in the house design vocabulary, typeface, and copy voice.
Color me naïve, but I find this among the magazine’s most distasteful qualities. (Perhaps it’s another Nippocentric innovation Tyler admires; it’s certainly nothing new to books like Casa Brutus, and marginal callouts like “PANASONIC X MONOCLE” even ape the Japanese convention.) Risibly, the product placement even extends to the (awful) manga, where it stands out like an orangutan with an erection might at, say, an office Christmas party.
- More subtly: over the course of its first year, at least, Monocle evinced a persistent tendency to turn to surprisingly hackneyed “usual suspects” when looking for insight from SMEs. I had hoped that a magazine predicated on its ability to deliver a certain novelty of insight would in turn acknowledge a generational turn in the wellsprings of expertise. Not to name any names, but this hasn’t been the case. Color this one more a missed opportunity than anything else.
- Most seriously, Monocle suffers from serious confusion in the way it positions itself. The book comes across as cloying, precious, and auto-parodizing, not at all, as one recent reviewer would have it, “ultra-stylish and ultra-global.” This is in part for its comically disproportionate attention to things Japanese, in part for its willful hipster-doofus obscurity, and in very large part, because I find thick lashings of name-brand luxury the sure mark of a pathetic arriviste, and not anything to be aspired to.
Let’s strip this down to the basics of social performativity so crucial to both perception and business reality, and you can think of me what you will: on finally receiving my very first, highly anticipated copy of Monocle, I held it proudly cover-outward and for all to see as I walked down the street. I, too, wanted to participate in its fantasy/value proposition of discernment, global reach and access. (OK, I’m sad that way.) But here’s the thing: I no longer wish to do so.
In a mere ten months and ten issues, Tyler Brûlé has, without question, succeeded in one of the most daunting tasks faced by contemporary enterprise, that of establishing a resonant brand ex nihilo. The trouble is that the brand he brought into being says all the wrong things about me and what I value.
I think that about sums it up, on the major counts. Throw in the fact that the ostensible added value provided to subscribers by the magazine’s Web site just doesn’t seem to exist – I’ve visited monocle.com exactly three times in the last twelve months, all apologies to m’learned and admired colleague Dan Hill, who, by all accounts, has tried to do something genuinely novel in his stewardship of Monocle‘s online presence – and there’s little to justify plunking down that £75 or equivalent.
Tyler’s to be applauded on quite a few, nontrivial counts: for trying something distinctive, personal and new in the first place; for paying painstakingly close attention to type, paper weight and texture; for pumping new life into one of my favorite words in the English language, “bespoke”; for commissioning pieces that, whatever their ultimate value, undeniably do not tread the usual path; and above all for believing, as I do, that in any consideration of the material, hard-to-quantify things like provenance finally do tell. (Of course, I would believe these things: wallpaper* was a big part of my education in the first place.)
These are all wonderful qualities, but they’re not quite enough to build a business on entire. I’d argue that if I’ve come to feel as I do – as one of a mere 5,000 charter subscribers, and doubly as someone who must to a fairly close approximation reside center-mass of the Monocle audience in terms of taste, vocation, air miles, etc. – then something’s wrong. In this, that piece in BusinessWeek strikes me as getting it just about right: the magazine “is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn’t exist.”
That’s almost on point, anyway. It is, of course, unquestionable that my one data point is insignificant in terms either of Monocle‘s business plan, or Tyler’s ambitions for the book. But whether its audience can be said to exist in the absolute or not, it is now smaller by one. Monocle is so far from what it could have been, and my world, anyway, is the lesser for that.
We all know how much I love to bellyache about bad customer service here on Speedbird. The less-often-acknowledged flipside, though, is the still-greater pleasure I take in giving maximum props whenever and wherever such props are due. This next account, in its simplicity and cheer, struck me as one of my best CS experiences of a year thickly strewn with same, and I want to publicly call it out as such in the hope that it’s able to serve as object lesson in some wise.
I’m not much of a graphic designer, though, and when I have cause to set something in type I all but invariably resort to Helvetica or Akzidenz, with maybe the very occasional excursion as far afield as Transport or DIN. So Eidetic sat in my font folder, appreciated but unused from that moment to this, across four laptops and five OS upgrades.
Well, comes a day that I have the perfect application for it. And guess what? I find now that I am utterly unable to actually set text in Eidetic Neo. All of a sudden, for whatever reason – perhaps the resource files got corrupted somehow, perhaps some eldritch underlying requirement of OS X shifted between versions – the font lacked that fundamental requirement called “spacing.” WhatevertextIsetinEideticgotmungedtogetherjustlikethis; I could futz around with kerning to approximate spaces, but it looked just as awful as you’d expect. It was basically a total no-go.
So hoping against hope, rather, and considering in some corner of my mind whether I should just bite the bullet and repurchase the package entire, I wrote to Emigre on Wodinsday, at 13.50 EST.
By six o’clock my time, I had in hand a direct response from a named human being, Tim Starback. Tim not merely offered me immediate access to replacement downloads, but stayed with me through some hiccups I experienced when one of those proved to be unusable. By ten minutes after I opened up my machine this morning, the problem was completely resolved.
I have my Eidetic, and something else besides: the knowledge that Emigre stands behind its products, however long ago they were purchased and however trivially small the transaction involved. What’s more, Tim offered this support rapidly, unconditionally, patiently and cheerfully. Hearty thanks to him, and my congratulations to Emigre. With service this exceptional – and sadly, it is quite literally exceptional – I only wish I had more opportunity to support you.
A thought triggered by a recent flight on jetBlue. Look at the explicit arrangements or alliances the company has entered into:
- Branded inflight mapping by Google;
- Entertainment content by DirecTV, Fox, XM Radio and the New York Times (this last a particularly oddly-nested proposition, the offering’s full name being “Times On Air, presented by the jetBlue Card from American Express”);
- “Coffee” by Dunkin’ Donuts.
I’ve expressed my disappointment around the coffee issue before, of course. But here that sharp, one-note sadness blends into a larger feeling of loss – admittedly mild, but real nonetheless.
For me, anyway, one of the joys of flying in the 1970s was that everything in the cabin was slathered with the airline’s identity: forks, trays, coloring books, headphones. (This was so true that a shot in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that strikes present-day audiences as being parodic – the one where the orbital stewardess’s Velcro booties are seen to read “PAN AMERICAN IN-FLIGHT SLIPPERS” – was merely factual, or a solid extrapolation, anyway. Too bad Stanley didn’t see deregulation coming.)
Handled properly (and miraculously, it generally was, at least in memory), this kind of branding was a major part of what made the in-flight experience what it was: sleek and optimistic, sheathed everywhere in futuristic glamour. You really did feel you were trying the “Wings of Man” on for size. Even at Tomorrowland, Goodyear and Monsanto were allocated their attractions on a one-to-one basis.
By contrast, what we’re approaching now is a state in which every potentially revenue-generating surface the airframe offers has been pimped out to the high bidder, whether or not the result is a particularly coherent proposition. It feels…like NASCAR.
Not too long ago, NPR’s Morning Edition had me on to discuss the near-term prospects for “behavioral marketing.” Inevitably, in a five-minute radio segment, you’re going to wind up focusing primarily on something ready to hand and easy for the mass audience to wrap their heads around – in this case, Yahoo!’s introduction of so-called “Smart Ads.”
As we know, though, such ads are only a small part of a much larger discussion on the use, wisdom and reliability of behavioral modeling. Here’s the “script” that I ginned up for myself, mostly to clarify my own thoughts on the topic before going on the air and having to represent these issues fairly to a very large, non-specialist audience.
For years, marketing firms like Claritas have organized consumers into ZIP-code-derived clusters. Their argument, more or less, is that “you are where you live” – that where you live is a reasonably accurate predictor of your behavior as a consumer. What kind of beer you buy, what sorts of magazines you read, and so on.
The Claritas clusters themselves make great magazine fodder. They have cutesy names like “Money and Brains,” “Rustic Living,” and “The Affluentials,” and they’ve been pretty widely reported on. In fact, I think at one point there was even a deck of cards featuring the 66 PRIZM clusters.
It hardly needs to be said that these are pretty reductive descriptions. The Claritas description for the “Difficult Times” pattern, for example, describes the residents of such areas as “very low-income families [who] buy video games, dine at fast-food chicken restaurants, and [use] non-prescription cough syrup.” Whether or not this bears any resemblance to any actual American neighborhood, the pernicious thing is that the clients paying good money for the PRIZM dataset certainly believe it does. And they act on that belief. They build their marketing and advertising campaigns around that belief.
And not surprisingly, people tend to buy and consume the things they’re offered. It’s a vicious cycle.
This is all problematic enough already. My own concern is that, as digital information technology pervades more and more of everyday life – as not merely mobile phones but iPods and Nike+ shoes and digital artifacts of all sorts are networked, and transmit a rich variety of data points relating to each person’s location and current activity – we give away enough to build some vastly improved models of personal behavior.
Location in itself, it turns out, is enough to build some pretty interesting pictures with, given a long enough timeline, and, of course, your mobile phone is giving away your position all the time whether you’re using it or not. (To cite just one fairly recent example, the FBI used this method to locate the body of Kelly Nolan, a University of Wisconsin student who went missing last summer.)
Just how full a picture of activity can be built up from such data? I’ve gotten a much better idea of the possibilities from listening to an MIT researcher named Nathan Eagle describe his work. Nathan calls his project “reality mining“: given the ability to install a few lines of Java code on your mobile phone, he claims to be able to reconstruct some pretty high-level phenomena.
Even without knowing anybody’s name at the start, given a large enough mobile data set, he can build very detailed models of social networks and activity patterns. All he’s starting with is anonymous patterns of mobile-phone use, and he can essentially tell you who you are, who you hang out with, what you’re likely to be doing at any given time.
There are two reasons that this is even scarier than it sounds.
The first is that Nathan only has data from your phone. Imagine now that there’s someone in a similar position, but with less benign intentions. And they’re able, in building their models, to draw not merely from the mobile-activity dataset, but from information stored in databases strewn across the Web. Height and weight information, health history information, histories of contributions to political candidates, records of what you’ve downloaded, book purchase and video rental histories – imagine being able to pull all of these sources together into one query, and to build behavioral models on that one query in real time. (I have some friends whose company, Metaweb, is building a “database of databases” that will essentially allow you to do just that.)
And then consider that it doesn’t even take that level of sophistication to tie people back to their online behavior. Here’s an example of what I mean by that. As part of an academic outreach program not too long ago, AOL released a block of 20,000,000 search queries. They had of course very conscientiously scrubbed all potentially identifying details from this stack of requests before releasing them to the academic community. There was ostensibly no way that you’d be able to tie the requests back to any given person. But through the sheer application of good journalistic research practice – time on the phone, lots of good ol’ shoe leather – New York Times reporters were able to correlate and cross-reference these innocent, trivial search strings until in the whole world, there was one best candidate to have produced them. And when they called her up and asked her if she was the originator, she confirmed it. Of course, she was flabbergasted. Who wouldn’t be?
The point I take away from Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon is that it isn’t necessarily important whether we’re actually under surveillance at all times and in all places or not. No: it’s enough for us to believe that we’re under surveillance at all times and in all places, to internalize this belief, to get us to change our behavior. To be “docilized.” And what Nathan Eagle’s work and the efforts of the Times reporters suggest to me is that any sufficiently interested party even now has access to datasets large enough not merely to model my current behavior to a reasonably high degree of resolution, but to be able to make meaningful predictions about my future choices. And if anything ever was, that’s docilizing.
It’s precisely this that worries me about the next-generation equivalents of the Claritas clusters: their superficial gloss of scientism, empiricism and pinpoint accuracy, and the sense they so easily give us that we are not merely knowable-in-principle, but actually known. Again, my concern is not so much whether “reality mining” à la Eagle actually says anything meaningful about people, but as to whether or not people using it think it does. So I think we’re in for some pretty scary times.
Flat assertion: “the new” AT&T needs a “new” ad agency, and yesterday.
Or that, anyway, is what I’d be arguing if I actually cared one whit about their fortunes in the world. If you thought their outdoor couldn’t possibly get any worse – any less passionate, less convincing, less enthused by its own proposition – than the utterly weak “Delivered” campaign (“Podcasting…delivered!”), you should see the latest series to hit the streets.
Now, “Delivered” struck me as the flaccid, joyless effort of a shop that had long ago soured on the client and was actively, if surreptitiously, trying to lose the account. I wasn’t exactly sure how AT&T proposed to deliver to me the various services namechecked in the ads, given that they’re not in the consumer ISP business. Nor could I quite believe that a would-be hegemon of that scale would sign off on the attempt to rebuild their brand on such amateurish imagery (what there was of it), typography (ditto), and copywriting (double ditto). It was, in so many ways, a perfect storm of incompetence, and I truly expected their next effort to improve on it, however marginally.
So I’m dumbfounded at the appearance of a proposition seemingly still more witless and braindead. Ready for it? I should choose AT&T…because they connect me to more places…like Hongyorkadelphia.
Or Sanshangcago, or Amseoulona.
I mean, come on, now. That’s not even clever. It’s just…I forget the word. Ah, yes: decrepitarded. Maybe even catastroflatulent. You see how quickly this sort of wordplay wears out its welcome? Why, why, why would anyone even nominally sensate base their ad expenditures for the quarter on a ploy like this? If I live to be three hundred, I promise you: I will never understand it.
OK, enough ranting for now. Certain of you, beloved, have warned me that of late my posts have tended to sound all cranky and bitter, and that’s a place I truly don’t want to go.
But tell me: does advertising have to be this stupid?
All these years later, I’m still occasionally caught off-guard by how profoundly two-way the medium of the Web can be. I still find it delightful when someone on the corporate side totally gets the “markets as conversations” idea.
In my experience, the gold standard here has to be a thread on Joi Ito’s site in 2002, when a representative of Shure popped unsolicited into an ongoing discussion on their – excellent – e2c earphones to talk audio. His frank responses sold me on the merits of picking up a piece of gear I would otherwise have regarded as entirely too minty for me.
I was so satisfied with the e2c’s that I wound up not merely buying a pair for myself but recommending them to everyone who asked me about them for a good year or two; Shure’s ROI on that one conversation had to be off-the-charts ridiculous. (It’s also true that being carried over that particular price threshold also paved the way for my eventual surrender to the Ultimate Ears ue10 Pros, but that’s another story.)
Point is, when organizations as diverse as Vitsœ, Shure and Mojo Cosmetics pay such close attention to what’s being said on the enthusiast blogs, they reap a double benefit. On the one hand, I’d imagine they get a far better understanding of actual customer wants and needs than any suggested by the intellectually shoddy and ludicrously overpriced “research” most marketing insight firms are only too happy to sell them. And the loyalty thus inspired can be impressive, verging on pathological: so pathetically reduced to a state of learned helplessness are we by contemporary customer-service practices that it makes you want to cry tears of gratitude when you realize that someone’s actually listening on the other end.
If only, say, United Airlines was as responsive. Ahem.
I want to show you the Vitsœ Web site, because it’s one of the few I’ve seen in a long career of looking at same that so perfectly harmonizes what it is and what it does.
Vitsœ basically sells one thing, Dieter Rams’s 606 Universal shelving system, and they sell it well. The site communicates the product’s qualities, virtues and potentially surprising stringencies with a high degree of clarity, while allowing customers to speak their satisfaction in their own voices. It’s clearly just one component of a long-term relationship designed to unfold across multiple channels, going so far as to promote a healthy-sounding market in used pieces. And while it evinces a pleasing sense of attention to detail, it nevertheless achieves what it does with a absolute minimum of fuss, allowing the product to stand on its own. In so many of these ways, it meshes perfectly with the 606 system itself.
One of the reasons I’m no longer interested in commercial Web development is that clients so rarely seem to want this kind of refinement. So many of them want their sites to be heavy-handed experiences, rather than the kind of practical and effective tool exemplified by Vitsœ. (Maybe it’s that they mistrust their own products and services, doubt their ability to thrive on their own merits? After all, not every product can be a Dieter Rams.)
After a while, though, I find the parade of bells and whistles depressing, both as designer and as user. Less is still more. Tact is also an experience. Show me what you’ve got, and let it go.