On Mad Men

Fellow resident of my adopted hometown of Montclair, NJ and New York Times journalist David Carr has a new piece out yesterday entitled “The Fall and Rise of Media” in which he explores the rapid decline of the (traditional) media industry and makes a case for optimism about new media. It’s a good read, take a look.

Carr puts on a brave face as he remind us that all reigns are temporary. The media jobs being swept away are positions that were obsolete years ago, he suggests, all but invoking Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” as an up side to the devastation that media outlets face today. As historian Jackson Lears reminds us in his latest book, Rebirth of a Nation, Americans have a longstanding fascination with the idea of rebirth and our own era is hardly immune to.

This struck a chord for me this morning as I had just finished watching the third season of Mad Men last night* and wondered about the show’s future. (spoiler alert!) With the end of the old firm that the Mad Men worked for, would the new firm they would build be nimble and intelligent, able to embrace the changing terrain of the 1960s, a diabolical player in an alternate universe version of Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool? Or is it destined to be wiped out by the juggernaut of sociocultural change that comprises the mid and late 1960s the way Philip Johnson was, at least for a decade? In the atemporal world of network culture, we often forget how commonly we still look backward to find reference points for transformations in the contemporary world. Here I’d identify the popularity of Mad Men today. It offers us a glimpse at a moment of massive, societal transformation, as a relatively comfortable came unglued. Perhaps four decades from now we’ll see a remake of Mad Men set at the New York Times, or at a dot.com corporation. Certainly, it would lack well-designed furniture and well-cut suits, but so it goes.

In his article, Carr points to a new generation of under-30 journalists armed with netbooks, wireless connections, and visions of reshaping their world. Let’s hope so. The dinosaurs were dinosaurs not only because of their attitude and their budgets, but also because of the poverty, our worse yet, the outright fiction, of their reportage (no disrespect to David, but the Times itself often led the way with this: Judith Miller anyone?). No question, it’s high time to renew media. Already the architectural blogosphere is smarter, sharper, and more critical than newspaper critics have been in decades.

But there’s also much to dread and not just for the dinosaurs. Rarely do things go back to normal after a serious downturn. Economic regimes undergo radical changes during recessions, often even more dramatic than during boom times when excess liquidity keeps the status quo well lubricated.

What we’re seeing now, then, isn’t just the disappearance of some crufty old salts from journalism, but rather the restructuring of the creative class. Media is very much at the forefront of this. Faced by the perfect storm of a collapsing subscription base and the decline of the advertising dollar, media corporations have figured out that the losses of income are permanent and made cuts accordingly.

In contrast, architects are flailing about. This doesn’t mean that job losses in the profession haven’t been massive, but the profession has done little to rethink how it operates. There’s little question that we won’t see another building boom the size of the one we just witnessed again in our lifetime (nor do I wish it: there’s only so much economic destabilization we can take!). The downsizing is going to be permanent. The result will be heady competition between young unemployed veterans with serious job experience after a few years in the job force and a corps of new graduates trained in new skills that even those who graduated five years ago don’t have. If my readers want to see me as a pessimist, that’s fine, chalk up my position to a refusal to buy Prozac, but I’ve lived through enough recessions to know that the last few years were a huge anomaly and there’s a price to be paid for the excesses.

Beyond the collapse of the media sector, the very core of the contemporary upper middle class—jobs in media, advertising, real estate, finance, law and other services—faces evisceration, and may well follow the lower middle class into extinction over the course of the next decade. Those jobs are gone now and with them a host of possible commissions for architects. More than that, since the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishment seems to be to have unloaded the word “hope” of any meaning, at this point it seems likely that the shift rightward during the next elections will ensure that cities are deprived of the funding necessary to keep them afloat. Fade back to Mad Men and the early 1960s. It’s at this moment that New York takes a turning point and Mayor Robert F. Wagner sees his city entering into a multi-decade fiscal crisis from which it barely recovered.

Decades from now, will the monuments of the last decade—sadly much inferior to the monuments of the 1950s (where, after all, is our Seagram or Lever? The Standard? Magnolia Bakery maybe?)—remind us of the last days of the Creative Class and the hipster city? In 2029 will Sex in the City be as anachronistic in its depiction of the city as a thriving place for young people, just as Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in 1979?

Or is it possible that somehow the Obama administration will wise up? That he’ll take a cue from Harvard and fire Larry Summers together with the investment bankers that have infected the Cabinet, and insist that America not only has a public option for health insurance but that we’re going to rebuild manufacturing, in some smart, as yet unforeseen way? Heck, maybe the multitude will throw off its shackles and we’ll all live in a Shangri-La of post-Marxist immaterial culture.

One thing’s for sure, though. We’re not going back to 2002. Time will tell who succeeds in navigating through it as individuals, nations, and worlds.

*In general, I don’t have the time to ever watch shows when they first come out so I watch them time-shifted, either on my pitifully small Verizon DVR or on my AppleTV,  Roku box, or sometimes even via Blu-Ray disc from Netflix. I point this out since I want to hammer home how media consumption habits are changing. It’s particularly interesting watching my children, who have never known a world without on-demand or, for that matter, full-time PBS Kids Sprout.

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