The death of isolation, and what it means for generating ideas
Does our always-on world and culture of sharing mean we’re missing out on the benefits of letting ideas and projects develop in isolation? By Steve Sammartino.
This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue, our August/September 2017 issue of Marketing mag. Subscribe today and receive a free copy of Steve’s new book ‘The Lessons School Forgot’.
In the early 1970s, in the middle of an urban dystopia, on the fringes of Manhattan Island in New York where people had access to few if any resources, a global multibillion-dollar industry emerged. The industry itself though – that didn’t happen until a decade or so after this thing started.
In fact, the industry was a surprise externality; for years this thing had lived in a tiny space of a few square kilometres where it had bubbled up, and been shaped and formed by a local cohort who had exactly zero intention of turning it into money. The thing itself was what mattered to the people creating it.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about hip-hop culture.
In the South Bronx in the 70s among burnt-out apartment blocks, high unemployment rates and a bankrupt city, the locals – like everyone – wanted to enjoy life despite the economic hardships of the time.
Whoever had the good fortune to own a decent stereo system would put on a party in their house, or even blast the music out of the windows onto the street for other locals to enjoy.
Everyone would come along for a drink, a dance and a good time. As time went by the best party houses grew in reputation. More of the locals would turn up and get involved. The story has it that the type of music at the parties only happened because of the economic hardship, and it is mostly because they didn’t have musical instruments and couldn’t afford to have bands play at the parties.
In fact, the three tenets of hip-hop emerged from these parties – break dancing, the music (DJs and MCs) and aerosol art – because of a lack of resources.
These three art forms evolved as a function of affordability. Anyone could turn up and dance, all an MC or DJ needed was themselves and their musical creativity, and the artists didn’t need canvas or art classes – a wall, a train and spray made do.
Local DJs would ‘invent new types of music’ by over playing two records against each other, and extending the break beat so the local kids could perform their new and cool acrobatic dance moves – which became known as break dancing – they were dancing to the ‘break’.
The MCs would rap their stories about the dance battles happening in front of them, and then have contests with other rappers. Meanwhile local artists would be decorating the walls of the burnt-out apartment blocks they partied in.
All of this thrived and evolved in one physical space over a large number of years without any external influence or involvement. A small community led by people like Kool Herc, Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa added layers to their micro culture until it was an entirely new form of art and entertainment.
The period of development was iterative, local and very long before it blossomed into something amazing and beautiful. Hip-hop culture was the veritable flower growing through a crack in the pavement. It didn’t appear in the discotheques of Manhattan until it had fully developed. Only when this flower began to blossom and turn into a garden of undiscovered originality and urban culture, did any tastemakers and marketers start to take notice.
Only when it was fully developed could it turn into a global phenomenon where big dollars were made via the TV industrial complex.
I don’t think this could happen today, not in a physical sense at least. The connected world just wouldn’t allow it. And, while I’m a technology evangelist, it’s true that all technology changes the flow in the physical world. Isolation is one of the cultural impacts technology has changed forever.
Certain things need the condition of isolation in order to develop to their true potential – to develop in a single environment without external influence. Hip-hop culture both needed and thrived in this exact kind of environment. It’s why it was so pure and so real. It had to find its way with limited resources.
The three tenets of hip-hop are what they are because the founders had to invent culture from what they had. They couldn’t afford instruments – so they used record players and microphones as instruments.
They used spray cans and train sides as their canvas. They took the only nutrients their environment of urban decay provided.
Today, the entire connected world is looking for something interesting to put on Instagram, to post on the fan page, to put on Snapchat and to post on their YouTube channel.
Anything that looks remotely interesting gets mashed up, promoted, storied and presented to the world before it has even taken its own shape. The original community of anything different and interesting can’t own it and nurture it like they could pre-web. And I’m starting to think that we may be missing out on some of the cultural benefits that evolve from simple unadulterated time to develop.
If the first blossom of a new species is picked, replanted or repurposed, will we ever really see what that species may have turned into?
While we are urged to promote and share all that we do and find, maybe it is time to consider the opposite. To cocoon our idea in development until it has evolved into something worthy. To let the culture actually emerge, and find its place and take its own shape before others start to reshape it on our behalf. Maybe it’s time for us to step back and let some things be, before we interrupt them.
How can we possibly do this in an omni-connected world?
Maybe something of real cultural value needs to put up a digital barrier around itself. Maybe we need to resist the temptation to promote and monetise it before it matures so that it has a chance of sustaining itself?
Cultural cool has become gamified to a point where anything that could be turned into digital money is over before it even starts. It gets hashtagged and hacked until the people who started to build something interesting move onto something untainted by us, the marketing community. The opportunity for a rapidly connected world full of shooting cultural stars may just be counterintuitive.
Or maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe the new cultural order is itself the fact that nothing is long- lived, permanent and isolated? Maybe the new culture of all things is an emergent order where physical things get dematerialised into ones and zeros, and data is the new culture itself, where everything physical is only a short-term ingredient to a larger re-set of a global omni-culture?
One thing is for sure: the way something bubbled up over time yesteryear, now takes a heartbeat. Its spots change before we even know what it looks like. And if we want to tap into anything cultural, we need to be prepared to be nimble enough for a quick and brilliant ride, or patient enough to develop something for a long period where no one is looking.
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