Home > Friday Fare > A Moron in Utrecht

A Moron in Utrecht

So, I’m catching up on my Chronicle of Higher Education reading, and I come across this article (you need a subscription):

A Finger on the Pulse of Cool

Finding out what young adults consider cool is the key to success for advertisers and marketers. College students alone spend billions each year on electronics, entertainment, fashion, and food. So when companies like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft want to figure out how best to appeal to young consumers, they track down Carl Rohde.

Mr. Rohde, who teaches cultural sociology at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, insists he is “not cool at all.” But thanks to his work at the research institute Signs of the Time, which he started at the university in 1991, he is now a veritable guru of hip.

At Signs of the Time, Mr. Rohde focuses on trend interpretation, based on data collected by a worldwide network of more than 300 “cool hunters,” many of whom are students typically enrolled in sociology, psychology, fashion design, or marketing programs. They first work as volunteers but can earn pay on subsequent hunts if they are adept. Roaming the streets of major cities, they document anything they think is cool — people, places, brands, whatever — and Mr. Rohde works to make sense of it all.

Apparently businesses like Microsoft will pay Mr. Rohde as much as $250,000 to tell them what is cool. The Chronicle asked Mr. Rohde to give them “a few examples of cool and uncool people, places, and things.” Nelson Mandela is cool; Bono is not. Why? Mandela is “conscious of the world” but Bono is “too much in the media”. The iPod is cool (wow, that one was tough) “because of its ’empowering’ design” but the Walkman, alas, is not, “unless it’s a retro design”.

And now, dear readers, we turn to the question of academic fields. I will give you 5 seconds and one chance to predict what fields are cool and why.

Cultural studies and marketing, because they focus on ‘knowing trends in this world, and how they get communicated, and how they get visualized’.

Is that not beautiful? I am sure that it is not at all self-serving.

If you guessed correctly on that one, here is the bonus question: what academic fields are uncool, and why?

Engineering and technical studies, because they are less about “connecting people”.

As soon as I read that cultural studies and marketing were cool, I knew that engineering was going to come up uncool, and I knew more or less why it would be labeled that way. And I knew that I was going to have to barf on Mr. Rohde’s shoes if ever I am so unfortunate as to run into him.

Is this man a total fucking moron or what? Does he have no fucking clue where his precious little cool iPod comes from? Perhaps he thinks the cool fairies dropped it, intact and intelligently designed, into the hands of those cool-making ” ‘totally hip people’ ages 17 to 35″ who know that “cool is anything that is ‘attractive and inspiring’.” Well, you flipping moron, the totally hip people are ENGINEERS. They are the ones who CREATE and DESIGN and MAKE and DISTRIBUTE and MARKET all the stuff that “connects people”. That saves lives. That enables society to function more smoothly. That lets your target audience be cool.

Mr. Rohde says ” ‘Not cool is not doing your own thing, not having your own sense of importance in your life.’ ” Then he goes on to explain how camera phones, which every fucking person on the planet owns, are cool.

Mr. Rohde may be adept at efficient marketing techniques, helping the companies who consult with him package their products in ways that make the product appear to be the coolest thing ever. But that is a very different thing than actually knowing what cool is. Or actually doing something cool. Like, say, working with Engineering World Health.

Imagine living in a place where newborns have one of the highest mortality rates in the world, where poverty is rampant, and where per capita income barely covers the necessities of life. A place where power supplies may be unreliable and a simple blown fuse can affect life-saving surgical procedures. Sadly, there are many places such as this worldwide. Engineering World Health (EWH) has been created to answer the needs of disadvantaged areas through providing and maintaining appropriate medical technology. If you are an engineer, scientist, physician, student or simply someone who wants to improve the healthcare status of people in underserved areas, you can join the EWH team.

But what would that have to do with connecting people. Or with cool. iPods it is. Bono is over marketed. Let marketing rule the cool roster of academic fields.

Outraged individuals in engineering and other technical fields may email Mr. Rohde at: c DOT rohde AT signsofthetime DOT nl . Tell him just what you think of his cool-making abilities. Feel free to include the link for this blog post.

Categories: Friday Fare
  1. October 20, 2006 at 11:54 am

    Here’s my own email to Professor Rohde:
    Dear Professor Rohde,
    This morning I read the October 13, 2006 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education
    entitled “A Finger on the Pulse of Cool” featuring you and your “Signs of the Time”
    research institute. Your work sounds quite interesting.
    However, I can’t imagine that your clients such as Microsoft would be very happy to
    learn that you believe engineering is a “not cool” profession because it is less about
    “connecting people”. You listed the iPod as cool because of its “empowering” design.
    Where do you think that design came from? It didn’t drop from a tree and hit someone
    on their head like Newton’s apple. No, Apple engineers worked on and perfected that
    design. And where did they come from? Colleges of engineering.
    I suppose the Chronicle may have urged you to pick a cool and uncool academic major
    because it made nice copy but you should have resisted that pressure. If you really do
    believe what you said about engineering that is even more to your shame. It shows a
    lack of insight about your academic colleagues and a lack of knowledge about your
    own clients that is really surprising in someone whose career hinges on knowing the customer.
    I’ve written a blog post about your remarks. If you want, you can see what I wrote here.
    http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2006/10/a_moron_in_utrecht.php
    As a warning, it isn’t very kind.
    Sincerly,
    Dr. Suzanne E. Franks

  2. Anonymous
    October 20, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    I don’t think you are being fair to Rohde. Engineers had little or nothing to do with making the iPod cool – people like it because of its slick and appealing design and interface, because of clever advertising, and (in a self-reinforcing feedback loop) because of its cachet, not because it’s better engineered than competing products. If anything, the opposite is true. What self-respecting engineer would design a portable device in which the battery cannot be replaced when it finally stops holding a charge? (The iPod’s cool, seamless case would be marred by a visible battery compartment.)
    The only cool thing about the iPod that could count as engineering is the user interface design, and even that’s way out on the margins of engineering. You can find HCI people in engineering schools, but it’s just not what typical people imagine when you say “engineer”, and for good reason.
    I agree with you that the world would be a better place if society’s notion of what’s cool changed to include engineering. However, the companies are paying Rohde to try to figure out what people actually consider cool and why, not to decide what they should. I doubt he’s as good at it as he claims he is, but that’s another story.
    Overall, your complaint amounts to a charge that Rohde specializes in marketing, which is shallow and frivolous compared with engineering. My gut reaction is the same, but then again brilliant engineering won’t change the world if you screw up the marketing.

  3. Shay
    October 20, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    I think you’re misinterpreting his analysis for his opinion. When he says engineering is not cool, he’s talking about the perception of it. iPods are percieved as cool. Engineers are not percieved as cool, they’re percieved as squares. He gets paid to tell corporations what is currently being percieved as cool.

  4. Greg
    October 20, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    Perhaps, Zuska was too subtle :

    Mr. Rohde says ” ‘Not cool is not doing your own thing, not having your own sense of importance in your life.’ ” Then he goes on to explain how camera phones, which every fucking person on the planet owns, are cool.

  5. Same Anonymous as Above
    October 23, 2006 at 5:39 am

    For heaven’s sake, of course the iPod is built by engineers, but no more so than any other portable music device on the market, most of which are anything but cool. The only difference seems to be that at most companies, ordinary engineers are in charge of aesthetic design (if anyone is!) as well as making the device functional, while Apple puts more effort into making their devices cool. (Plus they got lucky: most of their products are equally cool but less successful.)
    Almost all engineers have no training whatsoever in this area. Very few CS students (at any level) take even a single class in user interface design or HCI, but they may well end up designing a program’s interface, at least if they work at a smaller company that doesn’t have specialists or a clueless company that thinks it doesn’t need them.
    A substantial part of making your product cool falls more under art or graphic design than engineering. Sure, engineers with special talent or background can do this, but so can non-engineers.
    Making your product cool is only a tiny part of the design process, but it can sometimes be what distinguishes a massive hit from just another music player. When people talk about how cool their iPods are, only part of their admiration is for the engineering.
    In any case, you seem to have no clue what “cool” means to most people. There are a lot of terribly important things in the world that aren’t generally considered cool. Many of them should be, but it’s silly to throw a fit because the rest of the world doesn’t use the word “cool” the way you think they should. That’s not going to lead to any progress.

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