Imagine going into an espresso bar, as I did in Tokyo, ordering a single shot, and being told that it’s not on offer. The counter at No. 8 Bear Pond may feature the shiniest, spiffiest, newest La Marzocco, as well as a Rube Goldberg–esque water-filtration system, but the menu, which lists lattes and Americanos, makes no mention of espresso or cappuccino.
"My boss won’t let me make espressos," says the barista. "I need a year more, maybe two, before he’s ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I’ll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos."
Only after 18 years as a barista in New York did his boss, the cafe’s owner, feel qualified to return home to show off his coffee-making skills. Now, at Bear Pond’s main branch, he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure.
Such obsessive—some might say insane—pursuit of perfection, in coffee and cuisine, clothes and comforts, isn’t unusual in Japan: In a tiny tapas place in Kyoto, while drinking perfectly poured cañas—small draft beers—and eating deep-fried croquetas de jamón, I reach for a napkin, which turns out to be just a thin sheet of waxy paper that doesn’t so much absorb oil as push it toward another, cleaner, part of my hand.
"I think these are Spanish napkins," Gonzalo, my Bilbao-born companion, says in disbelief. It’s almost too ridiculous to think that anyone would import such a shoddy implement from halfway around the world. But the owner of this restaurant tracked down these servietas, priced them out, shipped them in, and stacked them up in custom metal dispensers, all because, in one frustrating wipe, they re-create the experience of consuming tapas in a packed barroom in Spain. Whether or not the diners appreciate this is beside the point.
It used be that the Japanese offered idiosyncratic takes on foreign things. White bread was transformed into shokupan, a Platonic ideal of fluffiness, aerated and feather-light in a way that made Wonder Bread seem dense. Pasta was almost always spaghetti, perfectly cooked al dente, but typically doused with cream sauce and often served with spicy codfish roe. Foreign imports here took on a life of their own, becoming something completely different and utterly Japanese.
As a result of this quest, Japan has become the most culturally cosmopolitan country on Earth, a place where you can lunch at a bistro that serves 22 types of delicious and thoroughly Gallic terrines, shop for Ivy League–style menswear at a store that puts to shame the old-school shops of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spend the evening sipping rare single malts in a serene space that boasts a collection of 12,000 jazz, blues and soul albums. The best of everything can be found here, and is now often made here: American-style fashion, haute French cuisine, classic cocktails, modern luxury hotels. It might seem perverse for a traveler to Tokyo to skip sukiyaki in favor of Neapolitan pizza, but just wait until he tastes that crust.
For many years, before Japan opened itself to the world, the port of Kobe was one of the only places in the country where locals could view the styles, hear the music and taste the food of foreign cultures. It’s here, in a cavernous industrial building, where Hitoshi Tsujimoto rules his men’s fashion empire, the Real McCoy’s, specializing in better-than-perfect versions of classic American clothing, everything from James Dean–style red windbreakers to denim cut like it’s 1955. (He also owns seven Real McCoy’s stores and three NYLON stores in Japan.)
Tsujimoto’s obsession with American clothing began on a 40-day road trip across the U.S. in 1978, when he was 18. He brought home jeans, athletic jerseys and sweatshirts, and sold them at a swap meet in Osaka. The Japanese vintage industry was just beginning to boom; he soon opened a small used-clothing shop in Amerikamura, an area of Osaka that became a magnet for U.S. fashion and youth culture.
None of this would be particularly surprising—blue jeans, college sweatshirts and other American fashions were then popular the world over—if not for the fact that Tsujimoto and others like him would go on to design and construct versions of iconic American wardrobe staples that are far better than anything now, and probably ever, made in the U.S. These designers didn’t open their businesses to beat Americans; Tsujimoto started the label because he wanted to sell the best vintage clothing in the world, but the good old stuff was running out. His solution was to make his own flight jackets, chambray work shirts, loop-wheeled cotton sweatshirts and selvage blue jeans.
"The biggest innovation in clothing history was the invention of jeans," Tsujimoto says, standing in a stockroom filled with his denim. "It’s the garment that conquered the world." But with jeans, as with everything Tsujimoto makes, it’s not about merely imitating classic styles. "It’s not so difficult to make something that’s 100 percent the same as the original," he says. He holds up a heavy, metal zipper, American-made new old stock. "I’ve got 500,000 of these. Enough for the next 40 years.
"But the key isn’t just getting the details right—it’s knowing when to change things," Tsujimoto continues. "My style has to be an improvement: With 1 percent more here, 2 percent less there, we create something that looks better. You have to change the fit because all these classic garments were designed with extra room to carry tools or weapons."
He takes a deerskin-lined flight jacket off the rack and points out the colorful American military design stitched onto the back. He passes me what appears to be a standard-issue ’50s-style gray cotton sweatshirt until I actually touch the thing. The heft of the loop-wheeled cotton makes it the thickest, heaviest sweatshirt I’ve ever felt.
These kinds of items might suggest that Tsujimoto aims for a young, casually dressed clientele, but his price point tells a different story: The jacket retails for about three grand, the sweatshirt $250. “My customers are guys age 30 to 50 who grew up obsessed with this kind of clothing,” he says. “They bought American stuff at thrift stores when they were younger. Now they’ve moved on to my stuff.”
That Tsujimoto dissects the details of great American clothing of the ’50s and then brings that style to life again in new and better ways indicates the extent to which the pure, unadulterated power of obsession drives brands like the Real McCoy’s. But it also signals something else: Tsujimoto is the poster child for a highly specific Japanese male subculture, and it’s the connection to this subculture that drives his customers to spring for $350 jeans in the midst of a two-decade recession.
Tsujimoto’s clothes have been featured in Japanese men’s magazines like “Lightning” and “Free & Easy,” which are categorically different from anything in the U.S. or Europe. The November 2011 issue of “Lightning” weighs in at a whopping 482 pages, while November’s “Free & Easy,” at a more modest 290 pages, devotes 42 of them to the World Navy Blazer Championship.
There’s a reason J.Crew men’s stores in New York City now sell these magazines even though they’re without English translations: These fashion bibles reveal just how much more educated and sophisticated Japanese consumers are than others in the world. These publications don’t just help readers understand the subculture they want to be a part of, but they also explain in fetishistic detail why garments like Tsujimoto’s are the ultimate expression of that identity.
'The nirvana would be if the questions raised by Oprah Winfrey would be answered by the faculty at Harvard'
“My dad was a slightly stricter version of Richard Dawkins,” says Alain de Botton. “The worldview was that there are idiots out there who believe in Santa Claus and fairies and magic and elves and we’re not joining that nonsense.” In his new book,Religion for Atheists, he recalls his father reducing his sister Miel to tears by “trying to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time.” It’s one of few passages in his unremittingly mellifluous and genteel oeuvre that sticks out with something like anger.
Before the interview, his publicists warned that De Botton didn’t want to talk about Gilbert de Botton, Egyptian-born secular Jew and multimillionaire banker. He was especially keen not to discuss his father’s business dealings and the repeated suggestion that his literary career was bankrolled with daddy’s money.
But asking about De Botton’s father is irresistible because Religion for Atheists is, he readily concedes, an oedipal book. “I’m rebelling,” he says. “I’m trying to find my way back to the babies that have been thrown out with the bathwater.” He’s elsewhere described his father as “a cruel tyrant as a domestic figure, hugely overbearing”. He was also surely crushingly impressive – the former head of Rothschild Bank who established Global Asset Management in 1983 with £1m capital and sold it to UBS in 1999 for £420m, a collector of late Picassos, the austere figure depicted in portraits by both Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and an atheist who thrived without religion’s crutch.
"He was extreme. I think it was a generational thing." And yet Gilbert, who died in 2000, now lies beneath a Hebrew headstone in a Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north-west London because, as his son writes pointedly, "he had, intriguingly, omitted to make more secular arrangements". Disappointingly, Alain doesn’t explore in book or interview what intrigued him about that omission.
Instead, he connects his father’s militant atheism to the affliction that he reckons made Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so caustic in their bestselling attacks on religion. “I’ve got a generational theory about this. Particularly if you’re a man over 55 or so, perhaps something bad happened to you at the hands of religion – you came across a corrupt priest, you were bored at school, your parents forced it down your throat. Few of the younger generation feel that way. By the time I came around – I’m 42 – religion was a joke.
"I don’t think I would have written this book if I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia as a woman. It’s a European book in the sense that we’re living in a society where religion is on the back foot. It rarely intruded on my life."
This isn’t quite true. In his mid 20s, De Botton had a crisis of faithlessness when exposed to Bach’s cantatas, Bellini’s Madonnas and Zen architecture. What was the crisis about? “It was guilt about my father. I was disturbed by the intensity of the feeling. Bach was moving, but not just because of music but because this guy was talking in a tremulous voice about death. Secular culture tells us to respect Bach, but it doesn’t tell us that we’re going to be moved. I felt like I might go to the other side.”
He didn’t. Rather, in Religion for Atheists, he writes as a non-believer cherry-picking the world’s religions. “I guess my insight was: ‘What is there here that’s useful, that we can steal?’” He admires 18th-century Jesuits. “They wanted to put a Jesuit priest into every aristocratic family in Europe because they’d get to eat with the family and teach the children. That’s a fantastic idea.” It’s tempting to think of De Botton as a latter-day Jesuit seeking to install his books in every home in order to make us, even if faithless, good. “Secular thinkers have a separation between thinking and doing. They don’t have a grasp of the balance sheet. The doers are selling us potted plants and pizzas while the thinkers are a little bit unworldly. Religions both think and do.”
He, similarly, wants to put his ideas into practice. In 2008, he established the School of Life, a former Bloomsbury shop with books on the ground floor and a salon downstairs where he and his fellow teachers teach “ideas to live by”. He’s also creative director of Living Architecture, aiming to put into practice his neo-Platonist idea that beautiful buildings might make us good. He recently commissioned the Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to build a secular retreat. “The idea is to create the most useful aspects of a monastery without the ideological aspects of monasticism.”
In this, he follows 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte, whose Religion of Humanity plundered religious ideas to improve a godless people. De Botton shows me a photo on his phone of a Comtean temple in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “I’m fascinated by Comte’s clear-eyed analysis of what was wrong with modern society, which is that you’ve got industrial capitalism on one side and romantic love on the other. Those, along with non-instrumental art, are supposed to get you through the day?
"But the whole business of Comte as supreme father and his girlfiend as supreme mother is obviously nuts." Nuts, but suggestive: I imagine a berobed De Botton as supreme father of his 21st-century secular religion, with wife Charlotte or stepmum Janet as supreme mother, and sons Saul and Samuel as choirboys improving us with Bach.
We’re sitting in his publishers’ offices overlooking the Thames. Downstream is a secular institution he believes needs a religious-inflected makeover. Imagine, he writes, if museums really lived up to their billing as secular society’s churches and devoted themselves to making us good, happy and wise (rather than, as he suggests, baffled, tired and desperate for coffee). On page 245 he produces a floor plan of Tate Modern to show us what he means. On the seventh floor is the self-knowledge gallery, beneath it galleries of love, fear, compassion and suffering. Each displays art directed at making us feel a certain way – just as Giotto’s frescoes of the cardinal virtues and vices in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel were aimed at doing.
One wonders what Gilbert de Botton, leading art patron, would think of this curatorial revolution, since one of Tate Modern’s galleries currently bears his name. In terms of the book’s oedipal struggle, this suggestion reads as typically urbane symbolic castration.
Can’t society get to where De Botton wants it to go without plundering religion? He argues not: “Politicians want people to be nice neighbours but the tools at their disposal are just the tools of modern liberal society, which are nothing.” What about the Tories’ notion of a big society? “They’re sitting in the cockpit and they haven’t got the buttons.”
Religions, he thinks, have the buttons and know how to use them. His book considers the Catholic mass, early Christianitiy’s ritual of agape or love feasts, and Jewish Passover rituals to explore how religions encouraged us to overcome fear of strangers and create communities. He then tentatively imagines a so-called “agape restaurant” where, instead of dining with like-minded friends, you would be invited to eat with strangers. It would be the antithesis of Facebook. “Social media has lots of benefits but compared to Christianity it tends to group people by interests. Religion puts you with people who have nothing in common except that you’re human.” It might be a welcome challenge, he suggests. “I think that’s what we need at a societal level – hosts who are able to produce the benevolence, charity, curiosity and goodwill that are in all of us but we can’t let out.”
His strong point is that religion never lost faith in using culture to improve vulnerable, childlike souls. It understands, he contends, human frailties and how to work on them better than godless polities. He’s at his most bracing when he proposes wholesale educational reform, suggesting that universities’ humanities departments should be overhauled to do what John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold hoped for them, namely to instil wisdom. He recommends: “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would thus be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions in marriage instead of in one focused on narrative trends in 19th-century fiction, just as the recommendations of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in the syllabus for a course about dying.”
Doesn’t instrumentalising culture thus involve traducing it? “Religion is very unembarrassed about this – culture should have a purpose. I agree with it. Arnold said that culture should be a salve for society. Then in the late 19th century you get the late romantics, Oscar Wilde and then the modernists, Joyce and TS Eliot, who say ‘No – art is a privileged sphere and shouldn’t have a purpose’. But I have a practical attitude: I’ll use a particular poet or particular music or art to get me through something. I would be even more of a basket case without culture. “
De Botton’s scepticism about education is born of his own experience of it. Born in Zurich, he was sent to England aged eight by his father to study at the Dragon School in Oxford. After failing to get into Eton, he attended Harrow. After a double first in history at Cambridge, he did a master’s in philosophy at London, began a PhD in French philosophy, but gave up. Why? “I had a long night of the soul. I wanted to be an academic but I discovered that the whole thing is set up in the most devilish way to kill that enthusiasm.
"I love the idea of a university as away from capitalist values, where people can do things that don’t immediately have to pay their way. It’s like a monastery in a way, and that beautiful refuge has been destroyed by dogma about what this stuff is for." Especially in academic philosophy? "The arrogance that says analysing the relationship between reasons and causes is more important than writing a philosophy of shyness or sadness or friendship drives me nuts. I can’t accept that.
"I had a line in the book I cut that said ‘The nirvana would be if the questions raised by Oprah Winfrey would be answered by the faculty at Harvard.’ The questions she asks are the most central – how do we live with other people, how do we cope with our ambitions, how do we survive as a society – though she fails to answer them with anything like seriousness."
He thus suggests he and Oprah, unlike our philosophy departments, have a surer grasp on society’s anxieties. “I once very politely raised the thought that one reason philosophy departments have been cut is the fault of philosophers. The answer always comes back: ‘The point of philosophy is to ask questions, not to give answers.’ I can’t help but think ‘No. It can’t be!’ Imagine if you applied that question to other areas – is the purpose of rocket science to ask questions about rockets?”
We need, he insists, answers to Oprah-like questions now more than ever. “We’re quite adrift. Civilisation should be about the transmission of the best ideas and we don’t seem to believe in transmission. We’ve no effective mechanism.”
After abandoning his doctorate, he resolved to answer philosophy’s big questions outside academia through the mechanism of popularising books. He wrote the novels Kiss and Tell, Essays in Love and The Romantic Movement in which characters appealed to Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Montaigne for romantic guidance, before settling into what he calls “my schtick”. That schtick first appeared in How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), where he strip mined the Frenchman’s great novel to produce a self-help manual that became a global bestseller (thanks in part to John Updike’s New Yorker review describing it as “dazzling”). But the idea that A la recherche du temps perdu could be distilled scandalised some Proustians.
After instrumentalising Proust, he ransacked philosophy for soothing thoughts. Reviewing The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) for the Guardian 11 years ago, I noted that while Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation sold 230 copies on publication in 1819, De Botton’s relatively negligible book, with its marketing hoopla and attendant TV series, would sell many, many more. How, I howled, were we to be consoled for that?
But that was to underrate De Botton’s schtick: his questions are regularly cannily and, in business terms, astutely attuned to our zeitgeist. The Art of Travel (2002), Status Anxiety (2004) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006) tackle Oprah-like questions: why does travel so rarely match up to our daydreams? What makes people judge me as a success or failure? Why don’t architects design buildings that make us happy?
His schtick has savage detractors. Charlie Brooker wrote in the Guardian that De Botton was “a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious”. The Times’s Sathnam Sanghera wrote of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009): “When people are losing their jobs, struggling with mortgages, swapping Waitrose for Aldi, the last thing they need is someone who has never really had to work (De Botton’s late father was a Swiss financier who apparently left him a trust fund of £200m), pretentiously encouraging us to ask such questions as: ‘What do I get from work apart from money?’; ‘What makes work pleasurable?’; ‘Why do we daily exhaust ourselves?’”
De Botton snapped. He wrote to Sanghera: “I find it utterly disgraceful that you rake up as a truth a piece of utterly unresearched gossip about me being worth £200m. Do you really want to know ‘how much I am worth?’ OK, well, as you asked, as of this morning, I have £7.45m in my Cahoot interest account. This represents the fruit of 15 years of hard labour selling books which you might find (hilariously) to be utterly ‘pretentious’, but which clearly other people don’t always find repulsive.”
That was mild compared to what he wrote to Caleb Crain for his New York Times mauling of the same book. “You have now killed my book in the United States … I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”
It’s hard to believe the sanguine, incessantly polite De Botton wrote these words. But he did. “My response was ridiculous. It was silly. It was a cry of pain.” If only he’d taken to heart what he wrote in The Consolations of Philosophy about Seneca’s counsel on the futility of anger and the importance of stoic self-possession. But his response to that failure shows he has learned something from religion, especially its conviction that we are fallible and childlike: “As we know,” he says, “none of us is mature, particularly me.”
Two hours into Mr. Lai’s second shift, the building started to shake, as if an earthquake was under way. There was a series of blasts, plant workers said.
Then the screams began.
When Mr. Lai’s colleagues ran outside, dark smoke was mixing with a light rain, according to cellphone videos. The toll would eventually count four dead, 18 injured.
At the hospital, Mr. Lai’s girlfriend saw that his skin was almost completely burned away. “I recognized him from his legs, otherwise I wouldn’t know who that person was,” she said.
Eventually, his family arrived. Over 90 percent of his body had been seared. “My mom ran away from the room at the first sight of him. I cried. Nobody could stand it,” his brother said. When his mother eventually returned, she tried to avoid touching her son, for fear that it would cause pain.
“If I had known,” she said, “I would have grabbed his arm, I would have touched him.”
“He was very tough,” she said. “He held on for two days.”
After Mr. Lai died, Foxconn workers drove to Mr. Lai’s hometown and delivered a box of ashes. The company later wired a check for about $150,000.
Foxconn, in a statement, said that at the time of the explosion the Chengdu plant was in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations, and “after ensuring that the families of the deceased employees were given the support they required, we ensured that all of the injured employees were given the highest quality medical care.” After the explosion, the company added, Foxconn immediately halted work in all polishing workshops, and later improved ventilation and dust disposal, and adopted technologies to enhance worker safety.
In its most recent supplier responsibility report, Apple wrote that after the explosion, the company contacted “the foremost experts in process safety” and assembled a team to investigate and make recommendations to prevent future accidents.
In December, however, seven months after the blast that killed Mr. Lai, another iPad factory exploded, this one in Shanghai. Once again, aluminum dust was the cause, according to interviews and Apple’s most recent supplier responsibility report. That blast injured 59 workers, with 23 hospitalized.
“It is gross negligence, after an explosion occurs, not to realize that every factory should be inspected,” said Nicholas Ashford, the occupational safety expert, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”
In its most recent supplier responsibility report, Apple wrote that while the explosions both involved combustible aluminum dust, the causes were different. The company declined, however, to provide details. The report added that Apple had now audited all suppliers polishing aluminum products and had put stronger precautions in place. All suppliers have initiated required countermeasures, except one, which remains shut down, the report said.
For Mr. Lai’s family, questions remain. “We’re really not sure why he died,” said Mr. Lai’s mother, standing beside a shrine she built near their home. “We don’t understand what happened.”
On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:
1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.
Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.
If, I’ll pretend for a moment, you were swallowed, it would happen like this: You would first be chewed. Sperm whales’ teeth are 8 inches long – longer than most blades in your knife drawer. Then you would be gulped to the fauces, the back of the mouth, and forced down. Here is where Bartley apparently touched the quivering sides of the throat. You would also touch the throat, perhaps claw at the sides of the throat like you would sliding down an icy slope. There would be no air, and you’d suffocate in acid and water, but, we’re saying, you somehow survive. Imagine a black and mucous-smothered tube sock slipping over you.
You would then enter the first stomach, coined by 19th century naturalist Thomas Beale as the holding bag. It’s lined with thick, soft and white cuticle. At 7 feet long by 3 feet wide and shaped like a big egg, the first stomach would easily fit you. If you were kept in the holding bag for over 24 hours, you would likely be joined by squid, but a coconut or shark might come, too. Most squid that sperm whales swallow are bioluminescent — the neon flying squid is a favorite. So in no time at all you’d be bathing in a pool of phosphorescence, a slew of green-yellow light winking around you like you were standing in a field in Maine come July when all the fireflies are sparking up. The rest would be black, very black.
As the stomach acids broke you down, you would continue through three smaller stomachs — a chain of membranous, acid-filled cavities. The second stomach is S-shaped, and the third is more like the first, only smaller. Then, liquidated, you would ooze into the intestine, and eventually leave the whale as excrement, floating out of the anus and into the cold deep ocean, dissolving still further until you had become so small as debris that you were indistinguishable from the ocean itself. You would lap against whaling ships looking for whales.
The only part of you that might not be digested would be your bones. Squid beaks, equally, aren’t digested — they pass through the sperm whale’s intestines wholly. Along the way, the beaks scrape the intestinal lining, creating scar tissue, which is then passed in its new form, ambergris — the intoxicating, aromatic substance used in the most potent perfumes that was worth, in 1869, $97.50 per pound. That’s $1,600 per pound today. The Egyptians burned it as incense. Your sharp fingerbones or splintery skull would rub on the whale’s intestinal lining, and your remains would scrape up the most beautiful smell on earth.
With Search Plus Your World, Google is undermining itself as the most trusted source of all the world’s information. The artificial algorithm was objective, he explained, but SPYW is not only self-serving but will inevitably serve up biased results. So with SPYW, he suggests, Google goes from being the core of the Web 2.0 economy to just another social play in today’s Web 3.0 world of ubiquitous personal data.
Hollywood appears to have peaked. If it were an ordinary industry (film cameras, say, or typewriters), it could look forward to a couple decades of peaceful decline. But this is not an ordinary industry. The people who run it are so mean and so politically connected that they could do a lot of damage to civil liberties and the world economy on the way down. It would therefore be a good thing if competitors hastened their demise.
That’s one reason we want to fund startups that will compete with movies and TV, but not the main reason. The main reason we want to fund such startups is not to protect the world from more SOPAs, but because SOPA brought it to our attention that Hollywood is dying. They must be dying if they’re resorting to such tactics. If movies and TV were growing rapidly, that growth would take up all their attention. When a striker is fouled in the penalty area, he doesn’t stop as long as he still has control of the ball; it’s only when he’s beaten that he turns to appeal to the ref. SOPA shows Hollywood is beaten. And yet the audiences to be captured from movies and TV are still huge. There is a lot of potential energy to be liberated there.
How do you kill the movie and TV industries? Or more precisely (since at this level, technological progress is probably predetermined) what is going to kill them? Mostly not what they like to believe is killing them, filesharing. What’s going to kill movies and TV is what’s already killing them: better ways to entertain people. So the best way to approach this problem is to ask yourself: what are people going to do for fun in 20 years instead of what they do now?
There will be several answers, ranging from new ways to produce and distribute shows, through new media (e.g. games) that look a lot like shows but are more interactive, to things (e.g. social sites and apps) that have little in common with movies and TV except competing with them for finite audience attention. Some of the best ideas may initially look like they’re serving the movie and TV industries. Microsoft seemed like a technology supplier to IBM before eating their lunch, and Google did the same thing to Yahoo.
It would be great if what people did instead of watching shows was exercise more and spend more time with their friends and families. Maybe they will. All other things being equal, we’d prefer to hear about ideas like that. But all other things are decidedly not equal. Whatever people are going to do for fun in 20 years is probably predetermined. Winning is more a matter of discovering it than making it happen. In this respect at least, you can’t push history off its course. You can, however, accelerate it.