I'm the author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011). I write about big ideas, culture, creativity, and the interaction of complex systems.

A great read on the corporatization of news from the Financial Times. What’s particularly interesting to me is that such established outlets like the Wall Street Journal in the US and The Guardian in the UK are participating in this evolution as much as they are. 

From the Financial Times piece:

"The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom is not involved in sponsored content but its commercial team tells advertisers it can “deploy sophisticated storytelling techniques in order to help brands create content-driven connections with audiences”. For some reporters and editors, this is tantamount to media being complicit in its own displacement. Yet few readers have protested."
"Guardian News and Media (GNM) today officially launches Guardian Labs - its branded content and innovation agency - which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences.

The official launch of the new commercial proposition is marked by the announcement of a pioneering seven-figure partnership with Unilever, centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling…

…Jon Goldstone, VP Brand Building Foods & Refreshment
Unilever UK & Ireland said, “Sustainable living is at the heart of Unilever’s purpose. We have made great progress to reduce the environmental impact of our own operations and are now focussing on helping the millions of consumers who use our products every day to live more sustainable lifestyles. Our partnership with Guardian Labs presents us with an innovative and unique way of engaging with a greater number of consumers than ever before, in their homes and on the move, on a subject which is core to both Unilever and the Guardian’s values - sustainability.

As content becomes more and more commercialized (and check out that FT article for some astounding developments in that field), the popular saying “content is king” starts to mean less and less to anyone looking for information that doesn’t count as PR - which is to say, anyone who was interested in the news.

We tend to think that a tomato is a tomato, a carrot a carrot, but over the years, farmers have introduced new genetic iterations of both crop and livestock. The wheat used to make bread today, for example, is different than the wheat used 20 years ago in that same recipe. Moreover, just like dogs, there can be many different of breeds – or in the case of crops, varieties – within a single species.

But mass-production in farming has caused a homogenisation of certain foods. “People started using just a couple of breeds for whatever they’re doing – meat, milk, eggs or fibre – in order to get the same sized animals to fit on an assembly line for processing and transportation and – more importantly – to make them grow as quickly as possible,” explains Ryan Walker, marketing and communications manager at the US-based Livestock Conservancy. “Agriculture today is all a numbers game.”

A perfect example of the economic story at work in the professions, law included.


"I’m not sure I’d recommend that a young person go into law."
"Why’s that?"
"When I was starting out, it was more of a profession, and your worth was determined by the service you provided. Now it’s become more of a business, and your worth is determined by the fee you’re able to collect."

The ongoing conversation, brought to you by the Chronicle of Higher Education…

"There is a drumbeat to look at the value of higher education through the value of the short-term earning power of college graduates," says John R. Kroger, president of Reed College. “The ROI argument is mainly looking at the return to the individual and the family. Another thing we ought to be measuring is the societal gain. When someone goes to college and decides, I am going to be a teacher instead of a patent lawyer, one of the things you might conclude is that even if the individual gain is rather limited, the societal gain is enormous. 

An education that treats people just like economic actors and is concerned mostly with training them to be producers and consumers is really limited,” Mr. Kroger says. “No one has ever viewed that as the purpose of education.”

Until now.

Read an interesting article on the BBC tonight about the decline of wine consumption in France. France! Where wine was once sacrosanct. (Decline, by the way, means that over half of French adults drank wine on a near-daily basis in 1980. Only 17% do today. And the proportion who don’t drink wine at all has doubled to 38%).

Two critics of the trend are Denis Saverot, editor of La Revue des Vins de France magazine, and French writer Theodore Zeldin. I thought both had an interesting take on where things have gone and are going, particularly in terms of the rise and effect of non-wine industries and what Zeldin calls the “business-style culture” that has taken hold in France.

Saverot says:

"It is our bourgeois, technocratic elite with their campaigns against drink-driving and alcoholism, lumping wine in with every other type of alcohol, even though it should be regarded as totally different," he says. 

"Recently I heard one senior health official saying that wine causes cancer ‘from the very first glass’. That coming from a Frenchman. I was flabbergasted. In hock with the health lobby and the politically correct, our elites prefer to keep the country on chemical anti-depressants and wean us off wine. 

"Just look at the figures. In the 1960s, we were drinking 160 litres each a year and weren’t taking any pills. Today we consume 80 million packets of anti-depressants, and wine sales are collapsing. Wine is the subtlest, most civilised, most noble of anti-depressants. But look at our villages. The village bar has gone, replaced by a pharmacy." 

Veteran observer of his nation’s way of life, Oxford-based French writer Theodore Zeldin agrees that a business-style culture has made huge inroads into France - the bane of all those who prefer to take the time to savour things. 

"Companionship has been replaced by networking. Business means busy-ness, and in that way we are becoming like everywhere else," he says. 

But Zeldin refuses to abandon hope. 

"The old French art de vivre is still there. It’s an ideal. It’s a bit like the ideal of an English gentleman. You don’t often find an English gentleman, but the ideal is there and it informs society as a whole," he says. 

"It is the same with our art de vivre. Of course times have changed, but it still survives. It is that feeling you get in France that in human relations we need to do more than just conduct business. We have a duty to entertain, to converse. And in France - thanks to our education system - we still have that ability to converse in a general, universalist way that has been lost elsewhere. 

"That is the art de vivre. It is about taking your time. And wine is part of it, because with wine you have to take your time.

I read this recent New York Times piece, An Overwhelmed Mother’s Departure Memo with interest. That overwhelmed mother in the article finally left Big Law to take care of her kids, because she couldn’t take the crazy work/life schedule anymore. What really makes for interesting reading, though, are the 144 comments (and counting) that other working parents have left in response.

Really, anyone who’s involved in giving care - whether to kids, your own parents, other family members, or whoever - seems to be struggling. I wrote about that a bit in Monoculture, noting that the decision to have children is increasingly viewed as an economic decision, because there’s a good chance that as a family, you’re going to take a financial hit. As the NYT article points out, if you’re a parent of young kids and you’re working fulltime, someone else is making that possible - your partner, a daycare, a nanny, a preschool, a babysitter, a cleaner, grandparents, whoever. And studies show that if both parents cut back on their career obligations, they both suffer career penalties. And that all assumes that you’re not a single parent.

My little guy is almost 13 months old, and while I’m lucky enough to be able to both stay at home with him right now while his dad works out of the house, and write at home (usually during his naps and then again in the evenings, assuming I’m caught up on other things like my own sleep, the cleaning, and the grocery shopping), I find myself wondering how other people are making it work. Because even with one child and the great situation I find myself in, it’s a challenge to keep all the balls in the air.

When I was in Phd-land, one of my fellow students was a mother of two. During our years in the program, she become a mother of four - and at the time, those four kids were all under the age of six. Her (male, father-of-adult-children) supervisor kept asking when she was going to get her kids into daycare fulltime.

Today, she works fulltime, her husband works fulltime, her kids are 10 and under, and she says they’re all heavily involved in about half-a-dozen extracurricular activities like track, piano, violin, and dance. I haven’t yet figured out a polite way to ask how she’s holding that all together. Does she have a nanny? A cleaner? A cook? A driver? Are the grandparents involved? How do they do it?

What sticks with me most from the research I did for the book on how the economic story is changing our family relationships is that the kind of individuality that’s espoused by the economic story means that we see this kind of work versus parenting problem as a problem of the individual - not a problem of the societal structures that we’ve set in place.

That means we’re all wandering around trying to solve the same problem idiosyncratically, meaning you solve it however you can using whatever resources you can find, and I solve it however I can, using whatever resources I can find. The economic story keeps us from imagining that this could be a societal problem - a problem of how our organizations are structured, a problem of how many hours we’re being asked to work (more and more all the time), a lack of recognition of how the shift from women-at-home to women-in-the-paid-workforce has not been addressed by corporations that assume that employees have someone at home looking after the domestic side of life.

Unfortunately, that individualistic approach suggests a whole lot of families are going to keep struggling. And a whole lot of families will keep addressing the problem individually - some leaving their jobs, some staying, some having fewer kids, some not having kids at all.

Bloomberg Businessweek printed an interesting piece on the growing trend of outsourcing chores you don’t want to do (weeding your lawn, cleaning your car, getting your coffee from the coffee shop) to people who make up what’s called “the distributed workforce.” That “workforce” bids against each other for these odd jobs, where low bids tend to win of course, and venture capitalists are betting big on the companies involved.

It’s another example of how outsourcing every aspect of our lives is becoming more and more normal. But what ever happened to cleaning your room because you had to?

Here’s an example of the economic story in action that I hadn’t heard of before - Big Trash - but it makes sense. In the U.S., for-profit garbage collection is affecting what kind of garbage makes it to the curb.

In some states, compost (lawn clippings, kitchen waste, etc.) is saved from the landfill (yard waste bans are a good thing, because landfills are filling up), but in other states, Big Trash sees keeping compost out of the landfill as a threat to its business model: less garbage means less money. So Big Trash gets politically involved, influences some laws, and there you have it - more garbage for everyone.

You can read about it here, courtesy of Mother Jones.

I was part of the TED Global Talent Search in Vancouver in June and gave a brief 4-minute talk about the idea behind the book: how one story is changing everything. If you think the rise of the economic story and the development of the monoculture is an idea worth spreading at TED2013, please visit the TED site and vote. And then feel free to share the link with your networks. Thanks for your support.


Street Poetry by Robert Montgomery

(via utnereader)