(Roughly) Daily

“I’d ask, ‘Is this dish good enough to come downtown and wait in line for’ If not, it’s not what we’re after”*…




We’re in the middle of a global crisis of extraordinary proportions. This is a memo we started writing months ago. It was meant to be a sort of elegy to the economic and cultural cycle in which we were living, which was clearly coming to an end – the experience economy in particular. However, that cycle came to a rapid conclusion before we managed to hit publish. We’re publishing it now, knowing things are likely to get far worse in the coming days, making the reality during which it was conceived feel increasingly distant. Nonetheless, we hope it will be entertaining to you during quarantine….

We believe that umami has been both literally and figuratively the key commodity of the experience economy. Umami, as both a quality and effect of an experience, popped up primarily in settings that were on the verge of disintegration, and hinged on physical pilgrimages to evanescent meccas.

We also believe that the experience economy is dying, its key commodity (umami) has changed status, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

What do we mean by umami? Not only the meatiness of the French dip sandwich at that restaurant, but also the light as it refracted through the amber liquid of the cocktails, the reflection off the back bar, the quivering of the cake, and, most significantly, the way those elements read in a photo. Umami was the quality of the media mix or the moodboard that granted it cohesion-despite-heterogeneity…

Umami could have been anywhere, but we smacked our lips in the moment. It was liquid in the sense that it flowed from place to place, airy in the sense that it was ungrounded, and earthy in the sense that it might have been in your mouth.

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.

Umami is what you got when you didn’t get anything…

The recent historically long market expansion began with the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis – and its inevitable end seems to have arrived via virus. Your impression of these high times might vary. You might remember the period for austerity, the Arab Spring, Trump, Brexit, Yellow Vests, the rise of the far right, rising costs of housing and health care, the student debt bubble, youth unemployment, and to top it all off, an accelerating climate crisis. But if you worked in finance, received tech compensation or VC money, or just happened to be rich in the first place, you’ve had a pretty sweet decade.

But now, amidst market turmoil and a public health crisis which much of the world – in particular the US – is fully unequipped to handle, it’s a flaming question mark whether any real growth occurred during this period, or if the high times were merely a fantasy created mainly by capital injections (or “money printing”) from central banks in the US, China, and Europe. What was actually happening was the enrichment of financial assets over the creation of any ‘real wealth’ along with corresponding illusions of progress.

As very little of this newly minted money has been invested into building new productive capacity, infrastructure, or actually new things, money has just been sloshing around in a frothy cesspool – from WeWork to Juicero to ill-advised real estate Ponzi to DTC insanity, creating a global everything-bubble.

With interest rates approaching zero, or even going negative, it simply means capital is having difficulties finding profitable places in which to invest itself. Or, to phrase it differently, those in charge of capitalist societies were failing to see worthwhile futures in which to invest. The market expansion of the past 12 years has felt like a very inappropriately timed self-congratulatory party, situated at the end of a much longer period of stagnation and decadence.

Value, in an economic sense, is theoretically created by new things based on new ideas. But when the material basis for these new things is missing or actively deteriorating and profits must be made, what is there to be done? Retreat to the immaterial and work with what already exists: meaning.

Meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new.

How has this manifested? For example, by calling things that were actually old → new; mediocre → premium; bad → good; low value → high value etc. This was Premium Mediocrity. Or by taking existing meanings and mixing them into increasingly novel, bizarre and random combinations and calling them new. This was creative direction. Or by putting people into proximity with newly created meaning of dubious status, and selling it as an experience. This was festival season.

The essential mechanics are simple: it’s stating there’s a there-there when there isn’t one. And directing attention to a new “there” before anyone notices they were staring at a void. It’s the logic of gentrification, not only of the city, but also the self, culture and civilization itself.

What’s made us so gullible, and this whole process possible, was an inexhaustible appetite for umami…

Cultural umami is the vague sense that yes, for some reason, it is. ““This shouldn’t be good but it is” “this doesn’t seem like what it’s supposed to be” “I shouldn’t be here but i am” “this could be anywhere but it’s here” If you tried to unpack your intuition, the absence of the there-there would quickly become evident.

Yet in practice this didn’t matter, because few people were able to reach this kind of deep self-interrogation. The cycle was simply too fast. There was never time for these concoctions to congeal into actual new things (e.g. create the general category of K-Pop patrons for Central European arts institutions). We can’t be sure if they ever meant anything beyond seeming yummy at the time.

Let’s take an example. The luxury sector, fashion in particular, has increasingly become a key theater for umami. Throughout the history of human civilization, luxury was premised on being expensive, meaning it resulted from investing an unreasonable amount of work, material or other scarce resources into the making of a thing.

But today’s rich don’t generally wear the 2020 version of royal purple, something like parametrically fitted garments made of nanofibers embellished with synthetic mother of pearl (which might be the results of real growth). Instead, they wear $500 cotton t-shirts with inscrutable references and visual motifs pulled from a smörgås-moodboard that makes little “sense” in any generalizable way. The t-shirt’s price clearly isn’t a function of its material makeup, but rather a result of some form of manipulation of meaning associated with it. But because meaning (or its substrate information) is infinite, it can only become a luxury once it carries the illusion of scarcity.

Meanings that only a few have access to are secrets. In the absence of meaning, the illusion of a secret is created by imposing a subcultural barrier to entry where only through an opaque process of scene work can one ‘get’ it (or, if you’re unlucky: if you gotta ask you’ll never know…). Alternatively, they are wrapped in the veil of an elusive X-factor, to which only a privileged few, i.e. the creative director, have direct access.

The key referent of luxury brands used to be one thing they made really well at great cost. But today they have gentrified themselves by discarding any fixed material basis: the only referent that does any work is the price, and the wealth associated with it.

By combining the traditional symbols of wealth with a pool of meaning that was made to seem scarce but was in fact infinite, brands created the umami equivalent of free energy. Everyone wanted money and everyone wanted umami. And there was more money around than ever before. What could go wrong?…

Excerpts from a fascinating essay by Emily Segal (forecaster, writer, and former principal at the pioneering K-Hole) and Martti Kalliala (architect, musician, and designer), the partners in Nemesis; do read it in full: “The Umami Theory of Value: Autopsy of the Experience Economy.”

* chef David Chang (Momofuku, et al.) in his 2016 essay on umami


As we contemplate consumption, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that police descended on a Clovis, NM middle school after a report of a concealed weapon (a student carrying something “long and wrapped” onto the premises).  The force posted armed shooters on nearby roof-tops and cordoned off the classrooms.

The lock-down was lifted when an eighth-grader realized that he was likely the source of alarm.  He approached the principal and explained that he was carrying a 30-inch, foil wrapped burrito, part of an extra-credit assignment to create commercial advertising. “We had to make up a product and it could have been anything. I made up a restaurant that specialized in oddly large burritos.”

20060827-School_huge_burrito_weapon_1 source


Written by LW

April 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

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