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CMS.S62 Special Subject (For Credit): Time Machine: Building a Model for Predicting Culture

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - Thursday, January 26, 2012

Grant McCracken

Wed-Thu, Jan 18-19, 25-26, 1-2, 03-05:00pm, 4-231

Pre-register on WebSIS and attend first class.

Listeners allowed, space permitting

Prereq: Permission of instructor Qualitative and quantitative skills.

Level: U 3 units Standard A – F Grading Can be repeated for credit

As our culture becomes more diverse and changeable, cultural prediction becomes more urgent and difficult. The point of this course is to build a model for making predictions. We will proceed in a practical way, taking on “real world problems.” How
quickly could we have seen the influence Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were to have on American culture? Could we have predicted a shift in Hollywood that demoted the likes of Schwarzenegger and promoted the likes of Michael Cera? To build the model, aka “big board” or “time machine”, we have to solve theoretical and methodological problems: what is the unit of analysis, what are the best markers of adoption, what are the best metrics, how can we make and monitor predictions, how can
we represent data according to best “infographic” practice? To my knowledge, a model like this has no precedent. Think of the course as something out of the early Soviet space program. The engineering will be dodgy. Failure is not unlikely. The process will be messy and frustrating. But the outcome is sure to be illuminating and instructive. Plus your heroism is guaranteed.

We are going to do three things in class.

  1. I will give a small lecture on the problem at hand.
  2. We will work as a group on a general model for monitoring and predicting cultural
  3. We will work as a group on the trend that each individual has chosen for his or her own study purposes.

We will be doing one thing out of class.

Each individual will be thinking about the trend they choose for his or her own study.

People are encourage to investigate any trend that interests them. This could be Steam Punk. It could be the vampire trend responsible for so much recent film and TV production. It could be the trend that made “geek” a term of approbation. It could
be the trend that brought Yoga and or Pilates out of the wilderness into the mainstream. It could be the return of street racing. It could be what we might call the “Lady Gaga” trend. Or it could be something that is now merely a slender possibility, a mere murmur in our culture. This would be especially interesting…because especially difficult to study…and the truest test for the model.

Someone got in touch with me to say he’s interested in studying the punk trend. Brilliant choice. We know a lot about punk at this point. The literature is rich. The thinking is mature. The scholarship is there. He will be thinking about this trend on his own, seeing how he can apply our common model to this trend, and then playing back what he has learned from his study, so we can refine the common model.

This is a shirt sleeve enterprise. We will just keep working at the model ’til we have something.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
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MIT Building 4, Room 231
Cambridge, MA 02139 United States + Google Map