How Cultural Pioneers Drive Progress

Casey Niestat is a 35-year old vlogger you have a good chance of knowing if you’re under 25. He skateboards around New York, talks about his favourite cameras and snoozes in airport lobbies. He also lets you into his personal life: dates with his girlfriend, the scrapbook he made for her parents, reunions with his daughter.

But it’s not just a mix of routine cool and the mundane that’s so fascinating. There’s also the weird, gutsy, interesting stuff that’s subtly artistic.

Casey Niestat cracks the YouTube Code. Illustration: Gauri Kumar

Casey Niestat cracks the YouTube Code. Illustration: Gauri Kumar

In one aerial shot, he skateboards to an orange helicopter and smoothly leaps in. In another episode, he documents the making of a how-to video for Gear 360 with model Karlie Kloss. In another, he breaks down the dark side of YouTube’s new monetization model from his studio in Broadway. And then there’s the one where he wakeboards in a tux in Amsterdam.

The YouTuber called Nerdwriter calls it a mix of Gonzo journalism, guerilla film making and cinema verite. As I write this, he is on episode one hundred and seventy three, and his videos routinely get more than a million views apiece. He’s collaborated with Nike to create a brand video — ‘Make It Count’, for the Nike FuelBand. He gets featured in magazines like InStyle, and recently won the GQ Man of the Year award.

Casey Niestat is the quintessential example of someone who’s cracked the YouTube code. He treats technology as a cultural object by integrating the devices and gear that he works with, whether that’s a skateboard or a camera, into the narrative. But he’s also created a completely new style which can be monetized by balancing the raw, real feel of amateur YouTube videos with professional production and visual storytelling skills.

And to do it, he took apart the YouTube subculture and put it back together to bridge the gap between channels, technologies and businesses.

The Harbingers of Mainstream

Every time a new technology or communication medium crops up, the group who first adopts it, uses it to express a very particular kind of Weltanschauung.

The Japanese call mobile phones as keitai denwa, which literally means ‘portable telephones’. But keitai took on another meaning too. It came to represent a subculture of early mobile users, most of them school and college-goers.

Howard Rheingold, who wrote the book Smart Mobs in 2002, recalls an interview with a member of what he described as the ‘techno-adept, fashion-saturated, identity-constructing, mobile texting’ keitai culture. She wore a bow tie and her hair was kawaii punk — pointing in different directions and pinned down with fluorescent baby clips.

She texted about 80 times a day with her girlfriends and sometimes with boys, and could do it with her thumbs without looking at the screen. This teenager, by virtue of her belonging to the keitai culture, was one of the arbiters of cool in Tokyo at the time — a precursor to Apple’s cult following today.

Or take the more contemporary maker culture which takes a hybrid approach to DIY by merging the physical and digital worlds. It simultaneously embraces both low-tech and high-tech means of invention and taps into niche networks to learn. If you move into the social space, fitspo — the Tumblr and Instagram subculture for fitness inspiration — has turned into a monetisation model for bloggers and celebrities, and the athleisure industry’s golden child.

As Rheingold rightly observes,

As with the personal computer and the Internet, key breakthroughs won’t come from established industry leaders but from the fringes, from skunkworks and startups and even associations of amateurs. Especially associations of amateurs.

Businesses often make the mistake of treating tech as the missing link in their strategy. They need to go omnichannel because other brands are rushing to do it. Personalization is the next big thing because industry reports paint a convincing picture with survey results and studies. The media is unanimous in crowning AI as the tech of the future, for better or worse. But what we fail to understand is that technology isn’t the missing piece.

Texting first became popular because of a generation of young people who craved independence and privacy from their parents. Maker culture evolved from hacker culture because people who tinker with physical things now have new tools and resources online. Very few ‘weirdos’ ran for exercise in the 1960s until a running coach called Bill Bowerman started popularizing it. He would go on to co-found Nike.

The Focal Point of Progress

Until the Internet came along, humanity could leapfrog into the future with an invention, but people rarely altered their behaviour. New ideas were slow to catch on.

But that changed when the world became socially connected. With the hyper visibility it now affords, emerging ideas, concepts and philosophies travel at the speed of bits and bytes. The pace of culture change on a human level has sped up phenomenally, which opens us up to new experiences and interfaces like never before.

We now control, in some part, the direction of technological progress. We talked to Pia Stanchina, who’s worked with Google as an Industry Manager, on accelerating the adoption of digital tech and on digital innovation in the luxury fashion space, and she says that businesses, technology and creativity must function in harmony to succeed.

“ A brand is only valuable as long as it is relevant.”

That’s why SnapChat rebranded themselves as Snap Inc. and positioned their camera spectacles as something that can help you ‘experience an experience’ again. The focus on selling the dream, not the tech is intentional. The Google Glass was a similar concept which never took off because it was all tech and not human enough. Snapchat took the crucial step of sandwiching the tech between socio-cultural layers linked to existing human behaviour.

Or take the case of Honeywell’s kitchen computer which was listed in a 1969 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. It was supposed to usher in the age of kitchen computing. The 150-pound machine came with a teletype and a paper tape reader, a $10,600 price tag and a two-week programming course for the cook (the lady of the house, of course) who used it. Naturally, no one could really use the thing.

Intel Senior Fellow and anthropologist Genevieve Bell, in an interview with The Atlantic, talks about what’s changed since:

“…We were looking at really early adopters of the iPad, and we found a woman in her house, and what had she done? She had stuck the iPad in a ziplock bag and stuck it on the kitchen counter and was using it to cook. And I remember thinking, Ah, it wasn’t about “kitchen computing,” it was about computing you could make come to the kitchen. It was about finding an object that fitted into all the things that a kitchen already is, rather than trying to re-configure the kitchen around the Honeywell Kitchen Computer.”

That woman is all of us. Find the human context, and you find a need. Find the need and you find the technology to satisfy it. The tech-culture cycle begins with human incentive.

It’s no secret that customers a.k.a humans — we tend to forget that’s the same thing — have been adopting tech and trends much quicker than businesses. And people like Casey Niestat, the keitai and the makers will always be pushing the boundaries of self-exploration and commerce, and juxtaposing technology with traits that are hard coded into our DNA. For fashion businesses, they present a trove of insights and use cases that may be impossible to come by anywhere else.

If you want to spin culture and stories into the fabric of your business and adopt the right technology at the right time, find the fire starters.

Disclaimer: Mind Over Matter is an editorial series. The featured opinions in this article are not an endorsement of or Mad Street Den.

Christina Preetha enjoys road trips, classics and has recently discovered a love for film photography.