Monday, March 10, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XV

Mikela Tarlow and Philip Tarlow: Digital Aboriginals

Mikela and Philip are corporate consultants and the co-authors of Digital Aboriginals. Here is a rough transcript of their talk.

Philip: Digital Abroiginals is the name of a book we wrote.

Mikela: I was working on a proposal for our second book, Charting Your Career in a World Without Rules. The proposal was kind of bogging down. I was talking to our agent, and I said I was getting a little bored. He said, "What do you want to do?" I said I'd write a book called Digital Aboriginals.

10 years ago I was in a museum. I've always had a passion for aboriginal paintings. We were in the Museum of Modern Art, and there was a new show getting hung. They were paintings of circuit boards. It began this journey of what was encoded in those images that could lead to a deeper understanding of what was happening in the digital landscape.

What we do when were not writing books is consulting to corporations. We walk into places like Coca-Cola and Philip Morris and play stuff like this. We do consulting on future trends and the big picture.

Philip: Mikela's background is in anthropology. My background is in the fine art. I'm a painter. We're both interested in trends but in different ways.

Mikela: What you see there is a picture we took last year at SXSW.

Philip: And up in the upper left-hand corner is a segment of a tribe of aboriginals from north Australia. They were just having a meeting, sitting around. There is some connection and relationship betwene these two photographs.

Mikela: The aboriginal photograph just shows men. Women participated in those circles, but the women are very shy. As we put those two images together, even the number of people was identical. The ideal number for small group work is no more than 12. When you put together more than 12, it becomes difficult to do complex tasks. And if you look at the distance, its about the right distance for sitting around a fire.

There's another number that begins to appear. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the number 200. That number 200 is interesting because it's about as large as a tribe ever got. Once they got bigger than 200, a power struggle would occur and the tribe would break apart. 12 is the family unit. And 200 is the economic unit. It's just the last couple hundred years that were tryign to work in these mega-corporations. We're going against our biology almost.

Philip: Another level of talking about these photographs is that these aboriginals assumed that they were connected, connected in a way that’s hard for us to understand because of their connection to the earth, to plants, and to animals. Digital aboriginals means that we're coming full circle. We're relearning what it means to be connected.

Mikela: A lot of what's happening in the digital landscape, like blogging, is triggering this biological memory.

This is where our research is. Is there something happening in our culture that's very similar to what's happening in the business landscape and in our journey of consciousness? How we describe that centerpiece is with four platforms. The first one is Who Owns the Wind, which has to do with the dissolution of ownership as we know it. Ownership is not working. The second piece has to do with the return of the storytellers and the collapse of traditional advertising. Advertising people say that as soon as Tivo households hit 10 million they're going to stop doing TV advertisements. Even people who listen to the ads don't remember where they heard what. What does that mean if advertisers can't reach you with traditional advertising? The only way to connect with us is authentic stories.

Philip: Authentic and compelling. Our feeling is that this is just the beginning. You can't fool the public.

Mikela: The third platform is Tribal Mind, which has to do with collaborative work structures. And the fourth platform is Riding the Songlines, or the capacity of new models of leadership and consciousness.

When the dialogue space is transformed the power relationship is transformed. Whenever the power relationship is transformed we must change our perception of what is important. When Matt Damon was in Japan, teenage girls held up their cell phones to stream video to their friends. The traditional media was also there. Who is more important in that equation, the teenagers or the media? Those teenagers are the ones who are going to create the buzz about the movie, not the article in Teen People. Now you have to consider how to connect with the teenagers. A traditional press release is not going to connect with them.

Philip: Gere are some of the things that go along with storytelling. They're all ages. Nobody's bored. And nobody, I can assure you, is asking whether this is his original story. This is a story that has been told since time immemorial.

Mikela: This is how the big stories happen. When stories were conveyed by oral tradition, storytellers revised stories when people looked away. The oral tradition gives you tremendous feedback. These stories become fully tweaked.

Philip: It was also considered a work in progress. It was never a finished product.

Mikela: You were not allowed to create an original work until you had copied all of the masters.

Philip: Original work was not a concept. Copyright? There was no question about that

Mikela: What Lessig is describing is the way things have been since the beginning of time. We're returning to an oral culture. I think we're the last generation that's going to write the way we write. The average person use to know 50,000 words. Kids today know about 25,000 words. When was the last time you said "I sauntered across the room?" You don't. That's a written word, not a spoken word. If we're approaching the characteristics and number of words of an oral tradition, what does that mean? In an oral tradition, reputation is extremely important. Relationships are extremely important. Intimacy is extremely important.

I grew up in a strange household where we had a lot of books about Zen tradition. There was a story about a teacup that I used to hear all the time. When we began telling these stories in corporations, we decided we needed a story that communicated the importance to open your mind.

Philip: This is the story of a student who had been wanting his entire adult life to visit with the master and watch the master perform the traditional tea ceremony. Finally, the opportunity arose. As he watched the master pouring the tea, he felt privileged to be in the presence of the master. He noticed that the tea was getting dangerously close to the top of the cup. Before he knew it, the tea had overflowed and was staining the table. He continued to pour. At a certain point, he couldn't hold back any more. "Master, the tea is overflowing! The cup is full! It can't take any more!" And the master said, "Yes, just like your mind."

Mikela: I heard this story many times. It wasn't until we started telling this story until we discovered the meaning of it. The reason why he gained enlightenment? There are two reasons. One is that the tea ceremony is a profound part of their cultural context. It's a metaphor for all life. In anthropology, it’s the difference between a high-content culture and a high-context culture. The second thing is his relationship with the teacher. He had such profound intimacy and trust with the teacher that everything the teacher said was like a pebble in a pond.

Philip: He was listening differently.

Mikela: The story used to just be a stupid story, but when I began to think about it in a different way, it came to life. We don't spend a lot of time doing things over and over and over and over and over and looking for deeper meaning in things. I think blogging is going to shift our society, and it's because of the storytelling.

Something happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper. These core archetypes have formed in every culture of the world. As storytelling is being introduced not just into the cultural space but also the corporate space, the ancient creative is being tapped into in ourselves.

These are some of the things you would learn if you studied with a mystic. You're not your personality. Everything is connected. You are the storyteller. Does that seem familiar? Is it something that you kind of know at some level? We came up with this phrase: digital sutras. Those are statements designed to shift your consciousness in a certain way.

Philip: They're sounds. They're like a scientific experiments.

Mikela: What are our big predictions for the future? Virtually enhanced real-life events are going to be more and more where the artistry is going to exist. We're also in an age where complexity is going to reclaim control. The third is established redundancies. The capacity to utilize social networks will be the work of the next generation.

In an information dense world the unrepeatable present moment will become a highly valued event.

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