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One story that's made its way into WHO Radio legend suggests that Brian Gongol backed his car into Jim Zabel's at the Iowa State Fair sometime in the mid-1990s. The story isn't really true, even if Brian Dean likes retelling it: The truth is that Brian actually damaged the pickup he was driving at the time while following some pretty awful directions from a parking attendant standing in his blind spot. It was a concrete pillar that did the damage to the truck, not a fender on Jim Zabel's Cadillac. But the funny thing about the story is that today, about a decade or so after the fictional event "happened", we can buy new cars that will park themselves. And many new cars are being sold with GPS units built right in, not to mention rear-view cameras and collision-avoidance systems.
The new Transformers movie and the non-stop coverage of Michael Jackson's death are putting us in a retro mood, as does Brian Gongol's current project of transferring old family movies from videotape to DVD. (See some related notes on saving old family photos, too.) These events are making us notice once again how some things change a lot in a short period of time, but others don't seem to change at all.
Many of the changes we encounter have a commercial aspect to them, and it's interesting to note how some institutions are very good at preserving their identities in the long term, and just how anxious we can become about those that change without winning us over first. The sale of the Hummer brand from General Motors to a Chinese firm makes us wonder about the future of Jeep. Both Hummer and Jeep have been successes in branding, but for very different reasons. Jeep has been around since World War II, while Hummer is an offshoot of the HMMWV military vehicle from American General (even if the consumer version of the Hummer H2 is built on the platform of a Chevy Suburban). Like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Jeeps are often the kinds of vehicles that people develop a taste for when they're young -- often well before they can afford them.
Keeping that sort of brand loyalty alive all the way from a person's childhood into their peak adult earning years can take a great deal of investment, not just in cash but in institutional memory. Institutional memory explains why a game like baseball can become so ingrained in our national culture that we care wildly about it, even when the rest of the world votes it out of the Olympics. Baseball can teach us a thing or two about institutional memory, and how to keep a good thing going. Commercially and socially, we want to keep good things working in the long term so that people stay employed, companies keep making money for their owners, and consumers keep getting the things that they want.
China's decision to ratchet up the power of the Great Firewall its government uses to filter the Internet is only going to hobble their economy in the long run by teaching people that unapproved ideas won't be tolerated. The greatest thinkers in our history have been our contrarians: Jefferson, Franklin, Edison, and even Jobs. One of those cultural convictions we have as Americans is that our contrarians, rebels, and outside-the-box thinkers are to be celebrated, not sent off to prison camps. That cultural conviction plays itself out in our economy, making us all wealthier as a result.
The nearly-simultaneous passings this week of Ed McMahon, Billy Mays, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson certainly took us by surprise. All were well-known because they were commercial successess. Even if our national celebrity-worship gets out of hand sometimes, it's a good thing that we spend more time celebrating our commerical celebrities -- people who at least had to have won over popular opinion through their work -- than building up cults of personality around our political leaders, as totalitarian systems have done around people like Mao, Stalin, Castro, and Kim.
Keywords in this show: archives • automobiles • automotive safety • baseball • branding • cars • celebrities • censorship • change • China • collision-avoidance systems • commerce • contrarians • DVDs • economics • General Motors • GPS • Great Firewall • Harley-Davidson • Hummer • institutional memory • Internet • Jackson, Michael • Jeep • legends • marketing • movies • myths • rebellion • stories • totalitarianism • Transformers • videotapes