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Making Culture Through Experiments – Notes on Culturematic

I just read Grant McCracken’s new book Culturematic. (Finally, an anthropologist who writes like a human!) Here are some notes, not a review, just notes to help me keep track of ideas.

– A culturematic is a little machine for making culture. It is designed to test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value (p.3)

– Objectives of the book: 1. To catch up the cultural side of innovation to technology 2. To take innovation from trendy to practical 3. To save innovation from bureaucratic bludgeoning 4. To describe what’s happening “out there” 5. To create a new model of business creativity 6. To keep branding/marketing experimental 7. “Fix” startups so that they experiment more 8. Help individuals put things out in the world that will reward them (both monetarily and emotionally)  (p.5-8)

– Culture is changing faster than ever and the future is inscrutable. Old models and frameworks can’t help us predict what is to come. Corporations are in trouble if they don’t break old patterns/find new patterns. “An inscrutable future is antithetical to the corporation.” Only when problems are clear, are the systems within a corporation setup to efficiently manage and resolve them. (p.31)

– EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT. Create a “photo pour, a stream of possibilities neither too formed by our expectations nor completely random.” “A series of experiments.” (p.42)

– Labs within larger institutions should not hold their ideas prisoner, but let their ideas go into the world. The more tests you throw out there, the more information you get back.

– Super interesting because I know a bunch of people living in France: “The French…have lost some of their feeling for cultural invention…Paris, with its centrist tendency, state sponsorship, and patrician intellectuals, is a dangerous place for ideas.” (Boom!)

– Culturematics do not have a clear objective, they capture our attention, are focused (limited scope – often bounded by time or place), they are doable by others, are exploratory but clever enough not to be 1000 random ideas hoping that something sticks. They are playful, yet serious, and aim to change the way we think about something, often by splicing together unexpected things/people/ideas.

– My new fave word: jejune.

– Examples of culturematics: James Franco, Dan Harmon’s Channel 101, SNL Digital Shorts,…many, many more. So many great examples in this book.

Anthropology love

I love how McCracken puts culturematic successes into (mainly US) context, bringing in examples from post-WWII  food consumption (p. 82) to the rise of “low brow” taste in middle class suburbs (p. 127).

I also love how he makes anthropology accessible to the masses by explaining what it can do in plain language, sometimes explicitly citing anthropology/-ists and sometimes injecting it directly into the culturematic concept.

– Challenging assumptions. “Designed to dig down into the cultural assumptions that organize our world, and then rework these assumptions to create new value.” (p.88) AND “for the CEO…find the assumptions inside” (p.225)

– “Bad is often better than bland.” (p. 124) Working with designers, I noticed that they are much more concerned with “good” and “bad” behavior and “good” and “bad” design, outcomes, etc. than any anthropologist I know.

– Breaking down categories, splicing them, mixing and matching (p. 136), blurring boundaries (p. 159)

– “Be an anthropologist” and write your own local ethnographies (p. 191)

– Discussion of “third places” (p. 214)


“Culturematics…should aid the corporation, encouraging it to play, embracing even projects that are quirky and inconsiderable.” I’ve worked in corporations where play was limited to keep up appearances. Especially during a recession, it was not appropriate to even seem like we were having too much fun while working because it could be misconstrued as wasting time. How do you build play into corporate culture if it’s not there from the beginning?

Does a culturematic have to be successful to exist? How is success or value defined? What is a failed culturematic?


Now time to make my own…

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