Watching the series finale of "Star Trek: Picard" was a lonely exercise because most of the value of experiences comes from sharing them.
Overture: Since I've been blessed with a lot of new subscribers lately—thank you!—I wanted to let folks know that I've organized cheat sheets for my recurring threads, like Experience Stacks, what Elon Musk thinks he's doing with Twitter, and more. You can find those cheat sheets here. However, each of my pieces is independent: I'll never give you a "first you have to read X" homework assignment so that whatever a given week's topic will make sense.
This week, I'm kicking off a new thread: keywords. These are the ideas that I've organized my thinking around for most of my adult life. I recently noticed that these keywords pop up in my columns, but not in a way that's handy for the curious reader. For example, most of what I think about the art of persuasion, including my Persuasion Quadrant, can be found in this column from 2022, but the words "Persuasion Quadrant" aren't in the title or subtitle. Before you roll your eyes and click away, I'll ground these keyword explorations in specific and (if I've had enough coffee) amusing particulars.
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I've borrowed the idea of keywords from Raymond Williams' marvelous book (1976 and 1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, where he explored ideas that were hotly contested like "art," "modern," and "revolution."
Before I dive in, a few things worth mentioning from last week:
Anybody interested in marketing should read this HBR piece about combining brand and performance metrics by Jim Stengel, Cait Lamberton, and Ken Favaro.
This WSJ piece about the theme song to Super Mario Bros. is fascinating.
It pains me to agree with George F. Will about much of anything, but his take on the Fox/Dominion settlement is sensible. I do sympathize with Stephen Colbert, though: "Damn it, I want my trial!... I wanted to see Rupert Murdoch put his hand on The Bible and burst into flames!"
R.I.P. Nick Johnson, mentor to many, friend to all, a man who understood that the Beatles were right when they sang, "and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make."
On to our top story...
Regret seldom punctuates my day-to-day life, but if I had Prof. Peabody's Wayback Machine handy I would jump back a few days and then schlep up to Seattle or down to L.A. for the IMAX Live Experience of the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard.
Picard's third season and particularly Thursday's finale were an exciting and nostalgia-filled bye bye to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). I'm not writing a review of the good and bad bits because plenty of other folks have done so. Instead, I'm digging into my regret.
I didn't go to the IMAX thing because I'm busy and because the Q&A with the cast was prerecorded, so I didn't feel I could justify the time. That was a mistake because I wound up watching the finale solo, very late on Thursday night after La Profesora and our son had gone to bed.
It was lonely, lacking eventness—that special quality that comes from sharing experiences with other people in real time. On the other hand, I knew that if I waited until the next day much of what was unquantifiable about that night, when the finale was new, would drain away and turn something special into an obligation.
My treks with Star Trek, both solo and with eventness
Star Trek has been a big part of my life since before my age was in double digits. I've always loved the optimism: unlike a lot of other science fiction, Trek starts with the idea that in the future humanity will have gotten a lot of things right. We'll have eliminated poverty and most disease, embraced diversity because we know that we're more likely to succeed if we celebrate IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. We'll decide that exploring the universe (but not interfering with other cultures that aren't ready to join the journey) is the best thing we can do with our time. Today, we're so polarized that I take more solace in the philosophy of Star Trek than ever.
Much of my experience with Trek has been solitary: watching reruns of the original series (TOS) after school, reading the James Blish novelizations and numberless other books.
There wasn't a lot of Trek merch back then, so I went to Chickenshirt and designed my own t-shirt with "Trekkie" emblazoned on the back. To my surprise, this did not do much to endear me to the opposite sex. (I still miss Chickenshirt; today we'd call it a maker lab.) I made my shirt to connect my interior Trek experience with the rest of my life because at that point Trek lacked eventness. (I did not yet know about the conventions.)
Later Trek experiences did have eventness.
My first live-with-other-people Trek experience was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. It wasn't great (the director, Robert Wise, lost final cut and disavowed it) so I don't remember much.
Later, I knew Bob Wise, so in 2001 when Paramount let him release a director's cut DVD, he kindly invited me to see the premiere at the studio. That one I remember!
Other memorable live-with-other-people experiences followed, including:
1982: Taking my grandfather to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in Westwood, California (near UCLA) because Papa and I had discovered that we were both Trek fans. He was taken aback when I paid for the tickets and insisted on buying lunch at Fatburger. The burgers were inedibly over-peppered, but the movie and subsequent conversation were a cross-generational meeting of the minds.
1987: There were nerds aplenty at my college, so the film club opened an auditorium for hundreds of us to watch "Encounter at Farpoint," the series premiere of TNG. I thought the premiere had promise but wasn't terrific; I was in the minority. I can still see the glee on a Harry Knowles-looking guy's face when I asked him what he thought: "I thought it was great!!"
1989: My roomie Peter was the only person in our fraternity* with a television. Every week, 40+ people would sardine into our room to watch TNG and review in real time, MST3K-style. When an ex-girlfriend visited, and I offered to skip the weekly viewing to take her to dinner, she said, "No way. I must witness this as an anthropological exercise."
1993: Watching the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9) with La Profesora as appointment viewing. This was around the time that we got engaged and started living together.
1999: Galaxy Quest. Sure, this is a parody rather than Trek itself, but La Profesora and I were visiting family in Portland and had an evening to ourselves. We missed the first 10 minutes of the movie, but loved what we saw, so we stayed in the theater for the next showing to catch what we'd missed... and wound up watching the whole movie a second time because it's just that good.
2009: Going to see Star Trek, the reboot movie (with Chris Pine as Kirk), opening weekend in Los Angeles with my friends Lori, Scott, and George. After, we ate our way through a mountain of sushi while tearing apart every moment in the movie, grinning the whole time.
2018: As I was coming back from giving a keynote at ad:tech Sydney, I discovered that Australian Netflix had the first few episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, a new series on what was then CBS All Access (now Paramount+). I downloaded four episodes to my iPad for the marathon trek (get it?) home. But that wasn't the memorable part: when I told La Profesora how awesome the show was, she agreed to try it, whereupon I signed up and re-watched those four episodes with her. We then made the rest of Season 1 and Season 2 our appointment television.
In contrast, for me the lonely finale of Star Trek: Picard lacked eventness. I wished I were back in my college dorm watching on a tiny TV but surrounded by other fans.
What is Eventness?
I've taken the term eventness from the work of the great Twentieth Century Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin. In Russian, eventness is sobytiinost'. When something has eventness, you can't describe all of it in terms of rules. The rules leave out important bits. Bakhtin used words like "unfinalizable" and "unrepeatable" to try to capture the essence of eventness.**
In plainer English, an experience has eventness when it has momentum, when there is no pause button, when an interruption will pop a fragile bubble of attention that stretches from the thing you're watching to the context within which you're watching it.
Eventness has a spectrum.
At one end, we might define Minimum Viable Eventness as two people watching something together in real time and interacting, most often side by side but there are also virtual watch parties. Watching an episode of Shrinking with La Profesora or The Witcher with my son has immeasurably more eventness than watching even an exciting episode of Star Trek solo.
At the other end of the spectrum, Maximum Eventness happens when both the performers and the audience are live and in person at a play, a lecture, a concert, or a sporting event.
Between those two poles lies a lot of hard-to-navigate territory. Going to a movie theater with friends to see a show surrounded by strangers has more eventness than watching something on demand at home with another person. Even though the movie is the same every time, the context is different, unrepeatable: it's unlikely that precise combination of people will ever reassemble, and even if they did the mood would not be the same.
Watching the Super Bowl live when I'm the only one in the house has more eventness than watching the Picard finale by myself late at night because with the big game I know hundreds of millions of other people are doing the same thing, and we're all posting on social media and texting (with my crowd its mostly about the ads). But that eventness is a pale ghost compared to watching the same game with a few other people on the couch next to me with pizza and beer an arm's length away.
Eventness combines planning and unpredictability, a hamburger patty of the expected enclosed by a bun and condiments of randomness. You go for the football game, but you smile when suddenly you find yourself doing "the wave" with all the other people in the stadium. You go to a concert to hear an artist's original music, but then you delight when that artist does a cover of somebody else's famous song.
Live, face-to-face industry events have staged a big, post-COVID comeback in recent months because events have inherent eventness—it's right there in the name. You go for the program and to network, but there's a cauldron of potential interactions that no Zoom can match. Most of my memorable event conversations have been quiet, personal moments—like a late, tipsy night when Dave and Craig and I shared our feelings about when we all first became dads.
Eventness is past the outer frontier of what we can calculate with numbers, but it's still describable with words. That's important because these days we hear more and more about data, algorithms, rules, and predictability, but the value, the magic, the memorable parts of our experiences are what lie beyond the numbers.
In Star Trek, space is the final frontier, but in our world another frontier lies in eventness.
Thanks for reading. See you next Sunday.
* For those of you surprised to learn that I belonged to a frat, I suspect your surprise will decrease when you learn that it was a co-ed literary fraternity that has since abandoned its Greek letters.
** Here's a high academic passage from Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges that is rough going but worth the effort:
Most of "The Philosophy of the Act" consists of a long attack on a style of thought Bakhtin calls "theoretism." Theoretism is described as a way of thinking that abstracts from concrete human actions all that is generalizable, takes that abstraction as a whole, transforms the abstraction into a set of rules, and then derives norms from those rules. But this process loses the most essential thing about human activity, the very thing in which the soul of morality is to be found: the "eventness" (sobytiinost') of the event. "Eventness" is always particular, and never exhaustively describable in terms of rules." (7)
For the curious, the best introduction to Bakhtin's thinking is the intellectual biography Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson.
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