Notes from Joan Didion’s “White Album”

The White AlbumThis is one of the rare books I kept highlighting as I read through it (or would have underlined and dog-eared, if I’d read it on paper). Joan Didion was fascinated with complex systems such as waterworks and dams, highway operations centers, jails and prisons, orchid greenhouses. Joan Didion suffered from migraines. Joan Didion had no patience with a women’s movement concerned with “the litany of trivia” used to politicize “women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves” (The Women’s Movement, 1972):

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did.

A woman who starred in Céline ads in 2015, aged 80, Didion never tries to be anything else than a woman of her time; yet her notes on political sentiment in Hollywood in the 1960s (Good Citizens, 1968-70) sound as if written about today’s Silicon Valley, a place where public life “comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony”, and where she describes the attitude of the screenwriters of the McCarthy era just as if she were writing of today’s tech philanthropists: the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals.

She is also oddly prescient in her encounter with biker movies, a genre started by Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda. She watches nine of these movies over a short period of time, “the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook… I was not even sure why I kept going” (Notes Toward a Dreampolitik, 1968-70). Remember that Didion, a child of the West, loved John Wayne, and that she is believed to have voted Republican through most of her life; Didion’s obvious discomfort with the behaviors and ideology that these movies portray – and that scared her, even back then, as “ideograms of the future” – are a measure of the gaping void between the conservative values of Didion’s screenwriting years, and those of an “alt-right” so shamelessly blandished by an American President today:

I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The NewYork Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future. To watch a bike movie is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a “right.” A biker is goaded on the job about the swastika on his jacket, so he picks up a wrench, threatens the foreman, and later describes the situation as one in which the foreman “got uptight.” A biker runs an old man off the road: the old man was “in the way,” and his subsequent death is construed as further “hassling.” A nurse happens into a hospital room where a biker beats her unconscious and rapes her: that she later talks to the police is made to seem a betrayal, evidence only of some female hysteria, vindictiveness, sexual deprivation. Any girl who “acts dumb” deserves what she gets, and what she gets is beaten and turned out from the group. Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or “hassling”: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.

To imagine the audience for whom these sentiments are tailored, maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up. Bike movies are made for all these children of vague “hill” stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.

Sadly, more than one.

Céline Joan Didion.jpg

Fiat 500 Abarth, or On Stereotypes in Advertising

Just hearing the Fiat Superbowl commercial on the radio as I was driving home today made me think: is this straight out of the Mad Men era? Wasn’t it a trite cliché years ago to personify a desirable car in the image of a desirable woman? And all that copy about ogling, undressing, owning? Do women not buy cars, in the world as Fiat sees it? Do women not buy small cars, for heavens’ sake?

Then I watched it on YouTube and I was further dismayed. Feel free to tell me that I have no sense of humor, but it is not clever if you make white latte foam trickle down between the woman’s breasts; it is sophomoric. There must be other ways to get a young single male target segment to take an interest in a zippy car with a shift stick. I hope. I do hope.

Is Volunia search or social? It doesn’t matter.

The launch of Massimo Marchiori‘s new search project, Volunia (live streaming tomorrow, Feb. 6, at 12 CET on the University of Padua site), could not come at a more interesting time for the discussion of what the Web will look like in the next five years.

This weekend we have been variously entertained by the discussion between Robert Scoble, John Battelle, Dave Winer and many others about whether the Web we have known and loved for the past 15 years or so is melting away, like polar ice caps (Battelle’s metaphor), under the heat of our planetary addiction for Facebook’s “walled garden” (an odd term from the ’90s era of AOL, but one that is making a far bigger comeback – under Zuckerberg’s leadership – than we ever thought it could).

And that’s just the PC- and browser-based Web, and now the Android-based Web, the one that was defined by Google and that Google defined. But search is changing, morphing beyond recognition. As a user, one of my most common search question is “where on my iPad is that app I downloaded two months ago but whose name I don’t remember”. As a business leader, I need to deal with whole new domains for SEO, such as ensuring the in-Market and in-iTunes Store ranking of my company’s apps. As a strategist, I wonder whether the whole debate between the open search model and the social silos model is somewhat overblown: they’re really two sides of the same coin, and the heft of that coin is the solid metal of advertising, the business that funded search for years and that is funding social today, as Facebook’s IPO filing confirmed just last week.

So, is Volunia going to be a search platform or a social platform or both? “Seek & meet”, says the company’s tagline, hinting at both. But it does not really matter. It is going to be – sometime, at a later stage, post-launch – an advertising platform. It will need to be. Because Marchiori’s backers, led by Mariano Pireddu, have reportedly invested a couple of million euros in the project; and even with the best researchers and engineers, even at Padua-level salaries and not Silicon Valley- level salaries, a couple of million barely gets you a workable beta, if at all.

So, consider Volunia a nascent advertising platform. To attract advertisers, it will need to attract eyeballs. Details are hazy, but today’s paper edition of Nòva, the Sunday supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore, reveals some hints (and promises a video with Marchiori showing off his creature, on the site later today).Many are rooting for Volunia, but early screenshots seem disappointing. The search box searches for sites, within a site, or for Volunia users; you can see which users have been to a certain page, and which ones are there now, with an interface oddly reminiscent of the Rockmelt browser. You can comment and chat on a Web page with other users (Google Sidewiki, anyone?) You can make friends with people who share your interests, based on the pages they visit. According to Pireddu, the engine can be used anonymously if one wishes, users will not be profiled, and navigation data will not be tracked – so there is a bit of DuckDuckGo in there, for now.

If Marchiori and Pireddu get traction, they will be able to raise serious money and build up their dream. If the Volunia beta disappoints (and disappointments loom large in both search and social: remember Cuil? remember Color?), they will have to pivot very quickly and downscale to lesser ambitions. But I am an optimist, and an Italian: so I wish them all the best and I look forward to being wowed by their creature.

(Updates: screenshots here; video – in Italian – here.)

The Illusionists: Help fund it on Kickstarter

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a young filmmaker I had started following on Twitter months ago. Her name is Elena Rossini and she lives in Paris. We talked extensively about her feature-length documentary project, The Illusionists. I’ll let her explain it in her own words:

As you may know, in late June I’ve launched an ambitious fundraising campaign for my feature-length documentary The Illusionists, which I wrote and I am co-producing and directing.

Here is the synopsis of the film:

THE ILLUSIONISTS is a feature-length documentary about the commodification of the body and the marketing of unattainable beauty around the world. The film will explore the influence that corporations have on our perceptions of ourselves, showing how mass media, advertising, and several industries manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies for profit.

The Illusionists’ Kickstarter page has a video teaser and a longer explanation of the project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (its themes, style, and my motivations for making the film).

There are amazing experts already lined up for the interviews, including author & filmmaker Jean Kilbourne (best known for her iconic film series “Killing Us Softly”), psychotherapist Susie Orbach (best known for her books “Fat is a Feminist Issue” and “Bodies”) and Jenn Pozner (author of “Reality Bites Back”; she was recently featured in the New Yorker and on NPR). I’m also hoping to interview Umberto Eco, Gloria Steinem, Oliviero Toscani and Maurice Levy of Publicis, amongst others. 

Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends, friends-of-friends, Twitter and Facebook followers, the fundraising campaign has already achieved some amazing milestones. 12 days in, I’ve reached 43% of the total funding goal, with over 110 backers and more than 1,100 Facebook “likes” of my Kickstarter page. In short, I’m on cloud nine. But the road ahead is still long… if I don’t reach 100% of the funding goal by August 5th, I will lose all the pledges made so far.

On Kickstarter, I am offering “regular people” pre-sales of the film and various other gifts as rewards for donations:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (the column on the right). I’m also developing a special package for sponsors whose mission is aligned with the message of the film that would offer exposure on the site, in all press material, and in the end credits of the film.

If this is something that resonates with you, go to Kickstarter.com and fund it. I just did.

Zurich police welcomes EuroPride 2009: for “a tolerant and free society”

stapo-zurichThis is the advertisement supplied by the Zurich police department for publication in the EuroPride-Magazin, in anticipation of the festivities that will run in Zurich from May 2 to June 7.

A spokesman for a local gay group, according to a media report, has commented on the ad saying that it is “etwas klischiert, aber es ist ja Werbung”: a bit of a cliché, but that’s advertising.

The home page of the Zurich police department says that their central preoccupation is “Sicherheit als Grundlage einer toleranten und freien Gesellschaft”:  safety as the foundation of a tolerant and free society. How many of your local police departments have this mission on their home page?

I’m right and the world is wrong (Unicredit Group campaign)

Love the picture, hate the copy.

Maybe I\'m right and the world is wrong

What a lovely and whimsical image to shake off that stodgy bank feeling. And yet, what an arrogantly nonsensical statement they chose to go with it.

Eliminating the “Maybe” in “Maybe I’m right and the world is wrong” means no healthy skepticism. No awareness of what we don’t know. No willingness to learn more. If that’s what you aspire to, we’ve got a bank that’s ready to serve you. In fact, in its desire to foster certainty and eliminate ambiguity, this campaign stands as the polar opposite of the thought-provoking HSBC “Your Point of View” campaign, the one you’ve seen gracing several airport walkways over the last couple of years. In that campaign, who’s right and who’s wrong is about different points of view, and HSBC apparently maintains that celebrating differences is better than eradicating them. Feel free to call its cultural relativism naive and dangerous, but I find it a rather more appealing brand statement than UniCredit’s monolithic erasure of doubt.

More about the UniCredit campaign in the Advertising section of the bank’s site. The print ads show a campaign URL, www.be-free-of-maybe.eu, but that site doesn’t seem to be quite ready yet (as of today the URL merely redirects to the corporate site).