Protecting Cultural Norms: How We Project the Present onto the Future

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

cd-stackLet’s be clear
…  In our discussions regarding the traditional album and its future, one might come to the conclusion that some of us think that there will no longer be albums or, at the very least, if you were actually reading, that it’s not apparent to some of us that the album can continue on forever as it is now.

The problem, as Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in his release Stumbling on Happiness, is that, “[Humans] almost always err by predicting that the future will look too much like the present.”  In other words, we tend to project the present cultural norms of the Recording Industry onto the future.

In the minds those whom built big businesses around albums, they don’t almost always err by predicting that the future will look too much like the present. However, they do almost always fail at trying to demand that the future should be like the present, just because that’s the way things have always been.

Yet, when you look around, it becomes clear that the Recording Industry is not the only one that has faced reevaluating their business model in the wake of a digital age.  Not because of “piracy,” but social change, wherein the behaviors an up-and-coming generation don’t seem to reflect the previous cultural norms.

Recently, as reported by The Dallas Morning News, Jessica Meyers documented why companies like 'Dallas' Taylor Publishing Company and 'Minneapolis' Jostens Yearbooks might be in trouble, because, as the title of her great piece reads, “In digital age, interest in traditional yearbooks wanes.”

She goes onto say that, “The nostalgia of this decades-old relic hasn't faded completely from the Frisco School, but the 'students' actions represent a growing detachment with the hardbound encapsulation of geeky high school moments.”  Continuing to write that, “The traditional yearbook is no more.”

Why though?  These established cultural norms trickled down from parent to child, until one day, it stopped.  That what the smartest kids in the high school did was realized that buying a yearbook didn’t make sense anymore, because, as one student noted to Meyers, "I don't think memories should cost anything."

Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr didn’t have any intentions of challenging how the Yearbook Industry operated nor did they think initially that they would have a mass impact on the way that people share memories, but it’s apparent that they’ve played a role in changing how people think about sharing memories.

Consider where we are today, without the advent of file-sharing, as a natural progression of how the culturally inherited norms and values of a generation shifted and the market failed, time and time again, to realize that these Millennials, these digital natives, were in fact different from their parents.

Regardless, much like Meyers concluded, in the digital age, interest in owning traditional albums has waned, not simply because of file-sharing. But, due to the reentry of the single, increased streaming capabilities, and detachment from the physical product, these previously established cultural norms are shifting.

Whether you reflect on the decreasing listenership in broadcast radio, the Newspaper Industry regretting putting news online for free, the book publishers becoming afraid that e-book versions cannibalize higher-price print sales, or the Yearbook Industry’s increasingly lowered sales, it becomes more obvious.

“When imagination paints a picture of the future,” Gilbert writes, “many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.”  Thus, these execs have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.

However, rather than trying to project the present onto the future, Bob Garfield of Advertising Age has concluded that, “The future is bright.  But the present is apocalyptic.  Any hope for a seamless transition – or any transition at all – from mass media and marketing to micro media and marketing are absurd.”

Although it may be within the vested interest of the content industries to protect established cultural norms at all costs, it is undeniable that they have arrived at a crossroad, wherein they can accept the change that technology brings or continue to demand that the future should be just like the present.

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  1. Good piece Kyle; yes, I too feel our cultural norms are shifting, probably faster than ever before. Social nets like Facebook & twitter allow ideas and trends to spread on a massive scale almost instantaneously…one idea sparks another and so on. Perhaps the rate of shift will accelerate even further with the advancement of even better social tools.
    The industry never even recognized that the shift had started. In terms of music, it was definitely the mp3 file that started this IMO. File sharing accelerated the shift massively, but it had already started even before the mainstream really caught on to napster.
    The massive obstacle facing major labels right now is that they allowed the cultural shift to continue unabated without somehow getting in on the ground floor. They’ve allowed the shift to essentially devalue their product to $0. Now, after 10 years of allowing sharing to become the cultural norm, I’m not sure they can recover.

  2. We never perceive the present. We project the past onto the future, and like McLuhan perfectly put it, we watch our lives through a rear-view mirror.
    Just wanted to point out that reality is even more disjointed and depressing than you made it sound here — not a commentary on the essay itself, which was a good read. I always dig your thinkpieces.

  3. Enjoyed the article, Kyle. It makes me wonder whether during the advent of electricity, the airplane, the television, it was possible to observe the effect of transition on industries. Because certainly now it is possible to perceive the specifics of the dying process. BTW, the album concept has one institutional vestige going for it: It is still cheaper to copyright a group of songs.

  4. “When imagination paints a picture of the future,” Gilbert writes, “many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.”
    Does it surprise you that I made it through high school without once having my picture in the yearbook? For that matter, does it surprise you that I made it through high school? Great piece, killer Gilbert quote. Sadly, it applies to even the most prescient among us, as when Philip K. Dick casts a protagonist as a “computer mechanic,” or Neal Stephenson has characters in the post-USA Snow Crash

    using VHS tapes.

  5. Jackie and Rod, as always, thank you for reading.
    Jackie I’m not sure as though such changes could be as prevalent due to the lag of the communications of the time and the lacking of the networked world. Although, times of change may have been observable still, those involved wouldn’t have the wealth of information that we have and the diversity of views.
    Therefore, even with the foresight, getting a large number of people informed to the point where they could not only see but understand change wouldn’t be as feasible.
    Rod, no, somehow that is all too believable. *smiles* Great to see you around the blog world.

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