Who Will Fight For Thee? An Ode to Sewer Grates

March 12, 2010

This country is falling apart – really. At least, that’s what Margaret Wente claimed last month in an article about Canada’s ancient infrastructure, the physical underlay that allows us to live in a modern city, such as water mains, and bridges, and roads.

The trouble is, nobody wants to stand up and fight for the sewer systems and corroded pipes by shelling out the estimated $33-billion needed to upgrade them in the next two decades. Why not? Wente claims that it is a symptom of our country’s progressive “demosclerosis,” that is, a government’s propensity to, in a democracy, hand out cash to those special interest groups that agitate for money the loudest instead of the more silent but necessary projects like infrastructure that represent no gains in political capital.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it has more to do with our overall lack of emphasis today on the physical aspects of nation-building, in favour of the intangible ones. When Canadians are asked about what makes their country great, and modern, and progressive, most talk about health care, or civil liberties, or multiculturalism. Few comment on our excellent bridges or highways, or public buildings.

Improving the solidity of the built environment used to be a key element of national and imperial pride, two hundred years ago. Improvements in infrastructure are one of the few positive things that are generally associated with imperialism (though, of course, there are ways that one could quibble with the claim that they were beneficial in the long run). Good planning and solid civil engineering were considered the hallmarks of modernity and progress – and were appropriately celebrated.

Consider the London Sewage System. When it was built in the 1860s and 1870s, under the far-sighted direction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, it was (rightly) lauded as a triumph of engineering and public health. It was an extensive project, constructed for the then-largest metropolitan area in the world, and it led to a reduction in cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks that had plagued the city for years. Bazalgette himself was knighted and there stands to this day a memorial to his genius on the Victoria Embankment.

There are Canadian examples also: the Prince Edward Viaduct was a celebrated work of art when it opened in 1918, and of course, one needs look no further than the stunning architecture of the Ontario Provincial Legislature, opened in 1860, or Union Station, built 1914-1920, to see the kind of pride that was placed in public buildings in this country as well.

I can’t think of any sewer engineers who’ve been knighted recently. (If you can, by all means, send them over.) And most public buildings constructed today lack the opulence and grandeur of their predecessors. Today, functional utilitarianism and beauty don’t seem to be compatible, and the emphasis rests on the former. Consider the Victorian Abbey Mills pumping (sewer) station near London:

Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And its modern equivalent:

New sewer station

Also consider another celebrated imperial building, the Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus in Mumbai. It was built during the British Raj, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and still stands as a glorious example of functional beauty:

Victoria Terminus

Now consider Shanghai’s main railway station, built in 1987:

Shanghi Railway Station

It is all evidence that physical infrastructure today is little more than that – it does not represent national prowess so much as an uninteresting feature of daily life. In fact, as Wente points out, things like water mains or electrical grids are really only ever noticed when they cease to function as they should. And no wonder: they are ugly, or uninteresting, and certainly not celebrated. Quite the opposite: I’ll admit that I too find the endless reconstruction of Bloor Street a pain – and I don’t even have to drive through it.

The root cause, I believe, is a change in how we speak of ourselves as a nation, and what we consider to be important. These days nation-building in the developed world is associated with ideals: democracy, equality of opportunity, or winning many Olympic gold medals, for example. It isn’t really building at all.

Is it that these things are no longer new and shiny (literally) and revolutionary enough to be worth our notice? Are we “beyond” physical infrastructure and public buildings as markers of progress? Is there some national hierarchy of needs (similar to Maslow’s personal one) that puts basic infrastructure at the bottom and higher-level ideas at the top of the pyramid? Or is it that we consider freedom and democracy and health care so basic, so integral to our idea of ourselves as a nation, that these examples are what populate our speeches?

I wonder. For now I’m going to be thankful that my internet connection is fast enough that I can upload this post before heading out onto our barely functional, disastrously ugly subway to go for dinner. And along the way I’m going to make a point of noticing the sewer grates, and feel proud to be Canadian.

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Suitable – For Men Only

March 11, 2010

Clothing is a funny thing. Some people argue that it means nothing, and is a mere distraction from what lies underneath (figuratively speaking). Many others argue that is sends critical messages about its wearer, and obsess over what those messages are.

The most polarizing issues are always related to women: everything from whether Hillary Clinton’s sensible trouser suits make her qualified or matronly to whether followers of Islam should be permitted/forced to wear clothes that cover their faces or hair. I once heard a model claim that all fashion is women’s fashion, and that we only let men borrow it periodically. It was a joke, but one that implies that the control lies in the hands of women. I believe that it is the opposite, and that because they are free from all the attention, it is really men who have the power in this regard.

I wrote a paper a few years ago about how men’s fashion in the nineteenth century was instrumental in shifting feelings of “otherness” from those of class to those of gender. That is, the key differentiators in society before the 1800s were class-based, and reflected in clothing styles. After the 1800s, the key differentiators were between the sexes. Now, before all of you political historians tune out because you think I’m going to start using wacky postcolonial/postmodern/psychoanalytic/feminist arguments, let me say this: what people wear, and especially what they wear to work, speaks volumes about the values of the society in which they live.

(And, for what it’s worth, most of this post will be about men anyway.)

The nineteenth century was notable for spawning the first modern ideas about working: there was a real middle class for the first time, and it generally participated in a public sphere of manufacturing and commerce. Trade was no longer considered dirty by the upper classes; instead, it was England’s “nation of shopkeepers” that was leading the charge of modernity and Empire, and entrepreneurs were raised to the level formerly attained only by military men and the aristocracy. For the first time, hard work and professional expertise had respect, and this sense of respect bonded men together. Of course, it also separated them from women, who were rarely if ever allowed to participate in this glorious public work – they had to stay at home and raise children (which, of course, isn’t work at all, right? It’s pure joy! That’s why women don’t get paid for it!).

Thus arose the suit. Ah, the suit. That most modern uniform that signifies utilitarianism, seriousness, and piety (through its emphasis on black exterior and white collared shirt overlay, like priests!) all at once. The package that is so simple, easy and flattering that men (and those who see them) don’t even have to think about it. The modern suit was so revolutionary, after so many years of tights and funny short pants and ruffs and wigs, that one eminent historian of fashion has said that since its adoption, women’s fashion has been reduced to its imitation.

Because before the suit, all fashion was men’s fashion. Think ducks: men had to be ostentatious and showy while women merely had to be pure and able to produce offspring. And after, it was only women who had clothing that was complicated, deceptive, and silly. (Don’t even get me started on the kinds of mishaps that could occur while wearing a hoop skirt.)

So what’s changed? Is the suit still master of the professional clothing universe? I think it still represents all of the above (with maybe the exception of ‘piety’) and is still the defining answer to the question of what is appropriate to wear to work. Of course, there are signature looks (Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks, Richard Branson’s lack of ties, and “Casual Fridays”) but these are remarkable because they stand out from the norm. The suit is so powerful because it is a uniform and gives the wearer immediate currency in the professional world because he does not need to talk about it. But women aren’t included: if a woman wears a suit proper, she stands out. If she wears a pantsuit, she stands out for being too much like Hillary Clinton. If she wears something more feminine, she stands out for that too – perhaps for overly expensive designer elitism, a la Sarah Palin. If she doesn’t wear a suit, she is unprofessional — or worse. Whatever she wears, she stands out. If you don’t believe me, check out this picture of world leaders and tell me who stands out to you.

In casual wear, of course, it doesn’t matter – the separation between work and fun is clear and thus lacks a value judgement about competence. And besides, everyone, of all classes and both genders, wears jeans. But overall very little has changed on the professional world: the classes may mingle, but the genders remain distinct.

So what? you may ask. Clothing doesn’t actually change how competent (or incompetent) a person is. Of course it doesn’t – but isn’t it interesting that as a society we still can’t get past using the outside packaging as an excuse for our real opinions? Without all of the discussion about pantsuits, would Hillary still be considered “traditional” and a “feminist”? And don’t even get me started on shoes…

What do you think? Does it matter to you what people in positions of power are wearing? Do you respect a suit more than a skirt? Do you think clothing enslaves us? If so, how do we escape?

What’s Your Personal Brand?

March 8, 2010

The last post I wrote looked at how countries are attempting to portray themselves internationally through their brands. It is perhaps a bit odd to speak of nations through the lens of branding, as though they are things that can be commoditized and “sold” like sneakers and cola. However, I believe it is part of the zeitgeist; everything these days seems to have a commercial lens, and anything can be processed, packaged, and marketed for a profit. Call it the triumph of capitalism. (Lloyd Dobler would be unimpressed.)

Because the commoditization of everything has come to make a bit of sense to us, I want to examine in a bit more detail another concept I think is novel, and more than  slightly alarming: personal branding. I do a lot of workshops about this at work because of its seeming ubiquity as a concept in the business world right now. But what does it really mean, and why is it so popular?  Is it a change in how we see each other, or just an iteration of something else?

Some have criticized personal branding as emphasizing “packaging” oneself well over focusing on self-improvement. I don’t think that’s actually true. I went back to what some have identified as the first extended discussion on personal branding, a 1997 article in Fast Company titled “The Brand Called You,” by Tom Peters, to see how he positions it. Peters posits that in the late twentieth-century knowledge economy and era of the Internet, workers are no longer mere employees in others’ corporations – they are instead “CEOs of Me, Inc.” The new professional world is all about the individual. He advises readers to describe, in 15 words or less, what their unique skills and contributions are – their “feature-benefit model.” This is their personal brand.

I decided to do a bit of historical contextualization to determine if the advent of personal branding really did up the ante for artifice in the business world, of if it was just another incarnation of self-help advice. I started with one of my favourite books, Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” first published in 1989. His opening section discusses the history of self-help books, and distinguishes between what he refers to as the “personality” and “character” ethics. The character ethic – a long-term approach to self-improvement that gets at the fundamental roots of behaviour in order to integrate sound principles into one’s life – dominated the literature until about the 1920s, when a new idea, the personality ethic, rose to prominence. The personality ethic, he says, was much more about strategies for achieving success by, essentially, showing others what they wanted to see. By implication, what others wanted to see may not have been one’s genuine self, and in time those who subscribed to the personality ethic might be exposed as insincere frauds. (The implicit criticism of books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People” here is hilarious.) Covey calls for a return to the character ethic – a principles-based approach, over a superficial one.

So we see that, according to one of the leading writers in the genre, packaging oneself for success is not a new thing. Moreover, those who advocate personal branding do emphasize self-improvement. Peters in “The Brand Called You” clearly advocates building one’s skills in order to improve one’s personal product suite – but what he cites as the benefits are largely extrinsic. The difference, then, is not in the lack of focus on personal improvement, but in the desired outcomes from it. According to Peters, the beneficial outcomes are more power, more authority, and, most notably, more visibility. Presumably these benefits add up to personal happiness and fulfilment, but the link is not made explicit. Visibility in particular seems to be an end in itself. I suspect this is a change over the “personality ethic” kind of self-help, because that was much more focused at the interpersonal level.

To tease out the differences some more, I went back to the original in the self-help genre, Sam Smiles’s 1859 work Self-Help, widely considered the literary embodiment of liberal-progressive Victorian morality.  Contrast the personal branding mantra of visibility with what Sam Smiles says about anonymous self-improvement:

Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety, and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come.

Not exactly the same as buying a building to have one’s name on it, or founding a scholarship program, or sponsoring a business school. And the return to Smiles highlights another difference. A key part of the visibility end is that it stops at the individual, whereas Smiles advocates self-betterment for the “greater good.” National progress is the Victorian self-help goal, whereas advancement of the self is the personal branding-era goal.

Perhaps the most alarming difference is in the means by which personal branding achieves its goals of visibility – through the commoditization of the self.  Such a concept had to be American, the true home of capitalism and democracy. It seems sometimes as though the history of the United States is the story of competition. Everything is settled through democratic process, and the best “product” wins. Think: religious freedom, competition among school districts, election of neighbourhood dog catchers, etc. (You can debate this concept with me in the comments section, if you like.) These days, it’s all about the money. How can I “sell” myself in a way that people want to invest in me?

Further evidence can be found in the fact that “self help” as a genre has gone from an offshoot of liberal political philosophy to sitting largely within “business literature,” because it is practical and concerned with, at the root, the effectiveness of capitalist organizations and the individuals within them. At least, that’s where the legitimate self help authors have gone, having geared their advice toward executives, or else they face relegation to the “New Age” section.

All of this leads me to believe that a desire for fame (or perhaps notability or notoriety would be a better word) is one of the defining characteristics of our era. But what do you think? I am taking too much from the visibility angle? Do you think self help does reside primarily in the business section now? And are you as alarmed by people casually discussing how to “brand” themselves as I am? I’d love to discuss this with you, so please leave a comment below if something is on your mind!

What’s Your National Brand?

March 6, 2010

Countries attempt to brand elements of their history, geography, and produce in order to “sell” them to tourists and buyers – think champagne, parmesan cheese, and America’s National Parks, to give just a few examples. It is advertising on a large scale, and the different brands combine to form a larger idea of what each country represents. But how do countries communicate their existential selves in short, catchy words and logos – brands – when people hold conflicting ideas about what they really are at the core?

Branding is, in essence, an attempt to distil very complex ideas and feelings into a simplified name or image. It is powerful when it succeeds because humans need heuristics, that is, ways to make optimal decisions easily based on mental shortcuts and approximations, and successful brands are among the most reliable heuristics. This is why advertisers don’t sell products or services but feelings: early Listerine ads promoted fitting in by not succumbing to the horrors of halitosis; Absolut Vodka ads (by virtue of their relatively early association with the gay community) signified open-mindedness, style, class, and wealth; the ubiquitous Coca-Cola Christmas ads signify all the joy and anticipation and childish delight of the holidays in a neat, 30-second spot (I dare you to watch the linked ad and not feel gleeful). Brands are so simple and powerful that even three-year-olds can identify their favourites and what they represent.

In the history of producers and consumers, branding is a remarkably modern concept, dating back to the late nineteenth century. In the days before urbanization and the growth of communities, supply chains were no longer than neighbour-to-neighbour. Consumers knew the producers and could make their own decisions about what to purchase. As soon as more steps were introduced into the supply chain, consumers lacked this direct knowledge of the products and had to rely on the expertise of those selling the products – the retailers. Before brands, small-time retailers were immensely powerful, and not always objective, but consumers had to trust them. With brands, manufacturers sought to shift the balance of power by reaching the consumers directly, through advertising and the promise of consistency in the product. Consumers could bypass the retailers, and even influence their businesses, by demanding specific products from specific producers.

Major world events are rare and powerful opportunities for countries to bypass international “retailers” (travel agents, government investment boards, mainstream media) and reach potential consumers directly. In particular, sporting events, with their viewership in the billions, represent a major branding opportunity for a whole nation. I’m going to stay within the Commonwealth and talk about two upcoming (and one recently passed) major sporting events that exemplify this idea: the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. What are the national branding strategies associated with these events and what do they signify?

Making a profit and developing the local infrastructure is always the ostensible rationale behind hosting major events such as these. Getting tourists and investors to notice a nation is (hopefully) a great recipe for future profit. And obviously, being sporting events, a large part of the brand idea is centred around the sporting prowess of the host. Much has been made of Canada’s desire to Own the Podium, and how success in sport will spell an enduring run of national pride. First among the UK’s 2012 Olympic “Legacy Promises” is to “make the UK a world-leading sporting nation.” And South Africa is no doubt hoping for a miraculous home win in the vein of their 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph (I’ve thought for months now that Invictus is just a very expensive morale booster and marketing campaign for the South African football team). But the really interesting part of the brand images is everything else these nations are attempting to associate with their brand at perhaps the world’s most visible advertising campaign. And because brands must be simple ideas that represent more complex ones, the focus really narrows to what the host nations consider to be most important to their international reputations at this moment. What do organizers want people to think when they see a maple leaf, or a Union Jack, or funky African font? Their brand images are revealing.

Modern Canada, to those not living here, is all about beer, hockey, and politeness. Historically, it is about Pierre Trudeau and lumberjacks. (This cartoon sums up the stereotypes quite amusingly.) Surely, as the Economist suggests, Canada would use the event to attempt to re-brand itself as a “modern, youthful sporting power.” Perhaps that is so – though I believe Canada has always been seen as fairly modern and youthful internationally, so this is no great stretch. Yet the extra-sport, extra-developmental goals of Vancouver 2010 were all about uniting Canada as a nation – of many languages, regions, ethnic groups, and historical conflicts, one. They were to be Canada’s Games. This is a surprisingly insular goal, considering only those fairly well acquainted with our history and politics would consider Canada a truly fractured nation. Perhaps Canada’s diversity (and consequently potentially confusing contradictions) meant organizers had to subsume the whole nation – in all its natural beauty and dynamism and multiethnic glory – into one idea. On that score, I think they succeeded, as we do seem to be more unified (at least for the moment). And if tourists and investors believe that all of Canada (and not just British Columbia) is “super, natural”, I’m sure nobody will complain.

It may be harder for Britain, given that so many have already formed an idea of the country from its long historical and cultural global dominance. Yet the stated goals for London 2012, apart from the obvious sporting- and infrastructure-related ones, are surprisingly modest. They mainly involve inspiring young people to “take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity,” and showing that Britain is a “creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.” Terrible grammar aside, these aims seem to have a theme of regeneration, which reflects the general undercurrent in the media that Britain is on the decline. Inspire the youth of today? Check. Attract new, wealthy residents and investors? Check. Attempt to stem the floodgates of brainpower and cultural capital that burst when we lost the Empire? Check. Unlike Canada’s stated goals – to show people what we are – Britain’s goals are to show people what they could be again someday. (No wonder their coverage of Canada’s Olympics was so bitterly critical.) And judging from the logo, the future of Britain is bright…pink.

South Africa is facing an even tougher challenge, as it prepares to host this year’s FIFA World Cup (currently 95 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 3 seconds away, not that I’m counting). It is the first on African soil, and South Africa is aiming to re-brand not only itself, but the whole continent of Africa as modern, safe, and open for business. The main media page for the event contains an article on safety preparations. This would have been unheard of for Germany 2006. The fact that the World Cup organizers had to confirm that it would proceed despite the fatal attacks on several members of Togo’s soccer team over one thousand miles away in Angola signifies that South Africa is representing the whole of Africa, and that the pressure is on. The main branding idea seems to be “surprise,” as in “the whole world will be surprised by what we have to offer.” Again, a chance for re-invention. My personal hope is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by England surviving past the quarterfinals for a change.

The Vancouver Olympics were a great success, not only for our athletes, but for our image. I’m excited to see how the World Cup and London 2012 Olympics brands evolve while the world’s eyes are watching.

What do you think? Do these national brands sum up Canada, Britain or South Africa to you? What would you add or change about them? And do you think England has any chance of making the finals?

Further Reading:

From Antimacassars to Tweets: Clutter Through the Ages

March 4, 2010

Victorians loved their clutter. There are whole classes at my alma mater dedicated to studying things like doilies and antimacassars, Adam fireplaces with clocks on them, and the inevitable fern, and determining why they were all integral to the middle class Victorian existence.

 As I have written before, it was all about conspicuous consumption. Middle class families needed all the accoutrements of the age to show they understood and supported the progressive goals of the society in which they lived. Clocks prominently placed on the mantel showed the importance of the awareness of time and regulating one’s work day to more standardized, industrial hours, as well as support for new trends like standard time, firmly established at the global International Meridian Conference of 1884.  Gas, and later electric, light fixtures showed that residents were wealthy and knowledgeable enough to be moving to new technologies. Books were finely bound in leather and treasured in specially constructed libraries. There was comfort in things.

Today, progress seems to be signified by owning fewer things, at least in material terms. It’s conspicuous rejection. Today we praise clean lines, simplicity and functionality in design (note the rise of Ikea) over complexity and clutter. There is a whole profession dedicated to selling houses by taking away everything in them that indicates that someone who lives there has a personality.  The desired aesthetic of today is less, not more.

 Our intelligence is measured now not by what we keep with us and inside our homes, but what we have access to and are aware of, signified by our wall comments on facebook, our video uploads to YouTube, our digitized music collections and playlists. There are, of course, also material indicators: computers, mp3 players, electronic readers, cell phones – things that help us to gain this access – but the idea behind these is to get as much access from the smallest size as is possible.

 Russell Smith laments the loss of bookshelves in the Globe & Mail today, saying that in the future without them we will have less of a window into the minds of our friends and lovers. Instead, all of this valuable information will be hidden from us, locked away in an electronic box of some sort. We will never know if our friends read and enjoyed Patrick Swayze’s autobiography (yes, he actually wrote that).  Our access to our friends’ preferences will be restricted to the type of computer they own, or their preferred ISP.

The nature of our clutter is changing, but the nature of our access is changing too. Victorians accessed the “big ideas” of the day (and of all time) through investments in weighty tomes of classics (preferably in Latin, of course), and extensive decorating. They chose their clutter with care, in an effort to have “talking pieces.” Their furniture was designed to allow for observation, and they had nifty things like conversation chairs so their guests could look around the room while talking to each other. The middle of the room was considered the best place to put things – why bother having space there for silly things like walking through? Victorians also invested their time in large blocks, conversing at dinner parties and spending weeks of their summer in London or visiting various grand country homes. In general, they spent more time doing fewer things. Many then feared the rise of the train would eliminate time for thinking. Now many of us consider train rides a welcome rest from our days and an opportunity to do just that. Ironic.

Our investments in physical pieces of interest are less, but I am more interested in our decreased investments of time. Not overall, of course – I think we all read and write as much now as anyone ever did – but in focused time. Recently, a writer for ars technica complained of his eroding attention span, the result of technological progress (I highly recommend you read the whole article – if you can focus your attention on it long enough). The urgency and quantity of blog posts, twitter updates and an endless stream of emails, phone calls, and other e-news from those we know or follow, mean we rarely focus on any one thing for very long. What does this mean for our understanding of and engagement with the great questions, the ones Victorians loved to ponder with their weighty tomes? Another commentator in ars recently wrote about how our intelligence is shifting from a “contemplative” sort to a “utilitarian” sort, that is, we focus now on how to categorize and stay afloat in all the information we have instead of considering what it really means. Our ability to discuss content is limited to how much we know about it (and from where) and less what we really think about it. As another wrote in the same column:

 Most writing online is devolving toward SMS and tweets that involve quick, throwaway notes with abbreviations and threaded references. This is not a form of lasting communication. In 2020 there is unlikely to be a list of classic tweets and blog posts that every student and educated citizen should have read.

A term I read that describes our reading style now is “promiscuous.” Lots of exploration; little commitment. It just sounds dirty. I want to be a serial book monogamist – but the global proliferation of articles and updates and general nonsense is so tempting! Has our society evolved beyond bibliomonogamy?

And instead of our bookshelves and material clutter telling everyone who we are and where we get our information, our brain clutter and how we articulate our sources perform this job. I would go so far as to say resourcefulness (i.e. knowing where and how to find information) is prized in most jobs over measured thought. Terrifying decline, or positive change? How quickly will our brains evolve to process all of this information – or will they not evolve at all? Will we overwhelm ourselves with triviality?

 I note, with irony, that this post is very linky. There are at least 10 different ways here to distract your focus from this piece, and redirect it to obscure Victorian furniture or semi-professional associations liked to real estate. Perhaps the new clutter is virtual, to the extent that much of it is accessible only to those who look for it. But, like the best discoveries in a Victorian curiosity shop, some of the best discoveries today are the result of someone else’s interests cobbled together to form the whole of their personality. And the diversity allowed by our narrowed attention span is tremendous. For those who have access to it, the whole world, in a sense, is now someone’s Victorian living room. Feel free to come in and have a conversation in my comments section/conversation chair below.