Topic: Trending

Scott McLemee reviews Devon Powers's On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future.

October 25, 2019
 
 

There is a growing trend, it seems, for people to be sick of hearing about growing trends. I thought it was just me! But as Devon Powers indicates in the concluding pages of On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future (University of Illinois Press), "a backlash against the power of trends was brewing" as she finished the book, with Facebook's discontinuation of its "Trending Topics" section last year being indicative.

Now, one overhaul at a social media site does not a cultural transformation make. But by that late in the book, the reader has ample grounds for trusting her judgment in the matter. Powers, a professor of advertising at Temple University, characterizes her work as having "a blended scholarly genealogy, drawing from business history, cultural studies, future studies, media studies, and branding and promotional culture, with a hardy journalistic sensibility." This is not hype. The blending is remarkable and merits study in itself.

On Trend draws on interviews with a few dozen people working professionally as trend spotters and analysts, as well as the reports and memoranda they produce. The author goes to futurological conferences in different parts of the world and attends "many futurist and trend gatherings where [she] was the only or one of an extremely small number of black people." (The gender ratios, while leaving something to be desired, sound not quite that skewed.) Her reporting comes in tandem with a well-considered historical and conceptual framing of the trend as a phenomenon -- one typically taken as a given, as an inevitable fact of modern life, like consumerism or celebrity.

But the incessant churn of new trends can feel toxic and out of control. (Again, and not so coincidentally, like consumerism or celebrity.) "The negative response to trending," Powers writes, "is commentary on how opaque technologies that govern arenas of public discourse adversely affect our sense of reality and self-determination … Even if most of us do not fully understand how trending works, we react to and exist within the frames it creates."

The "opaque technologies" in question are not exclusively, or even primarily, digital. They include an array of freelance think tanks and business consultancies, as well as the occasional social scientist gone a bit rogue. ("Technologies," then, in Foucault's sense: a term that encompasses institutions, disciplines and what we could broadly call "management tools" applicable at every level from the self to society as a whole.) Aspects of the trend-spotting industry have come into public awareness over the years through the best-sellers of Faith Popcorn ("the Nostradamus of marketing") or Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker feature on "cool hunting."

In the meantime, of course, we've seen the advent of big data, with its ever-upgrading capacity to harvest just about any signal emitted by human activity and extrapolate emergent trends, seemingly in real time. But the parts of the trend industry that Powers focuses on involve qualitative methods of observation and analysis that sound like a hybrid of ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation and market surveys. It yields a kind of "industrial knowledge parallel to yet distinct from academic research," writes Powers -- and conducted, notably, without the bother of an institutional review board.

Relatively little of the industry's output -- the newsletters, conference presentations and other fodder for brainstorming -- is available except to those who pay for the research itself. "Trend-oriented thinking on an industrial scale," observes the author, "means that quirky developments exist not on their own terms but as indicators of possible new consumer groups or marketable social arrangements. Likewise, when 'trended,' major social shifts -- around family and romance, ethnicity and identity, health and the environment -- become significant primarily for the kind of corporate response they will engender."

A number of consequences follow, though two seem particularly significant. One is an obligatory narrowing of attention of the sort mentioned by one of Powers's sources, who reported that "very few clients take any interest in income brackets below $60,000 per year and recalled another only interested in customers with more than a quarter of a million dollars in wealth." The other is a need for a trend-spotting firm simultaneously to (1) offer clients something useful, preferably in the reasonably short term and (2) persuade them so much in the world is changing so fast that the firm should remain on retainer, preferably for the long term.

While not mutually exclusive outcomes, a degree of strain is probable. Powers quotes from one firm's "report on Middle America" from 2017, which "explains that automation 'bears some of the responsibility for hollowing out the middle class and contributing to the class divide,' whereas another briefing from the same year calls automation 'good for creativity' and encourages business leaders to 'educate [themselves] and [their] employees about the upsides of at-work automation.'" The recommendations here are not too explicit, except on one point. “We have to contextualize what is happening," the firm advises, "consider positive adaptations that humanity is already making, and consider the implications.” Here the distinction between trend spotting and platitude-mongering is drawn very fine.

On Trend is wide-ranging (I haven't even mentioned the enigmatically central role of the Dutch as trend forecasters, let alone grappled with the book's suggestive chapter on Afrofuturism), yet it holds together through a fusion of scholarly reconstruction and engaged critique. Such a combination is often intended but seldom so well executed.

Oddly, Powers cites relatively few examples of specific trends identified or analyzed by those whom she interviewed. The one exception that comes to mind is a reference to hipster Laundromats, which seems like one of those combinations of words best left ungoogled. The omission is not a flaw in any case, any more than the author's deliberate underemphasis on technology. It is an example of thinking about the present by clearing away the distractions surrounding it.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top