How to Spot the Next Big Thing

By Mark Kingwell

1. Know your terrain.

All markets are futures markets.

Spotting the Next Big Thing (NBT) is the basis of every human economy, from swapping marbles to John Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market, offering odds on the overthrow of Jordanian monarchy, Yasser Arafat’s assassination, and a North Korean nuke attack. “The idea of a federal betting parlour on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it’s grotesque,” said Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, just before Poindexter was made to resign.

Nonsense. Just an NBT market like any other.

2. Think about death.

We live in time, which is unidimensional, which means nobody knows what’s going to happen next. And we’re mortal, which means we all die sometime but don’t know when or how. Hence our indefatigable interest is what’s next. NBT is really about death, because what isn’t?

Thus NBT dominates everything from the fashion world to the art world, the stock market to the marketplace of ideas, and only a damn fool would ignore NBT out of some misguided sense of intellectual purity or cultural resistance. There is no resistance.

3. There is no resistance.

Philosophy, for example, likes to think it is bigger than NBT, but in fact is just a longer-term and higher-stakes version. Dialectical materialism or logical positivism? Nietzsche or Wittgenstein? Substance dualism or eliminative monism? Smart guy or damn fool?

4. Do the theory (I): “same” and “different.”

NBT is always, by definition, something we have both heard of and never imagined. It is the cultural equivalent of the bread at a suburban mall, at once predigested and stale. Or of a middle-aged man living on this bread, at once scrawny and pot-bellied. Pre-worn but sold new. Obvious but novel. Familiar yet breathless. Same and different.

The key to NBT is that it should, while loudly proclaiming its revolutionary nextness and bigness — its overwhelming and irresistible newness and freshness and nowness — fall into the existing systems of cultural exchange with absolute smoothness. Genuinely new things, like language-breaking poetry, are baffling. They change everything, and so sail past the bounds of understanding. Good luck to them! The essence of NBT, by contrast, is to be understood, to keep everything exactly the same, only more so, even while, at the very moment that, it proclaims how different everything now is.

5. Do the theory (II): “old” and “new.”

The most crucial part of NBT is not the “new” but the “old” against which it is “measured.” Fictional categories, delusional constructions, yet necessary to the power of NBT, and so of culture more generally. The taken-for-granted (Barthes), the already-thought (Bourdieu), ideology (Marx). The stuff nobody questions.

“News” is just the plural of “new.” And everything old is new again. Sure, but don’t be fooled. Everything old is new again is old news.

6. Ways and means (I): “This is the new that.”

Brown is the new black. Green is the new brown. Grey is the new green. Black is the new grey.

Resistance is the new conformity. Irony is the new sincerity. Baghdad is the new Hanoi.

And so on.

7. Ways and means (II): “now” and “today.”

Children are have worse manners now. There’s more divorce now. Nowadays we spend less time reading. We’re moving faster now. Today things are more complicated.

And so on.

8. Ways and means (III): Faster.

Faster is the new deeper.

9. Ways and means (IV): Labels.

Interest in NBT is self-generating, it needs no outside justification. That is, the value of NBT lies entirely within the system in which it appears. There is no need for, no possibility of, intrinsic value — whatever that might mean.

Proclaiming NBT is sufficient, in itself, to establish NBT. Thus the rhetorical pace of fashion columns, style advice, technology reports, demographic research, and the like: authoritative non-answers to non-questions raised in a non-context of non-issues.

Labels confer legitimacy at the same time they obscure the only reality of NBT, namely the label itself, often simply a tautological statement of its own newness and nextness. Spring fling! Fresh express! Mission Accomplished!

10. But don’t be cynical.

There is no resistance but there is an answer — though, as so often, not to the question you thought you were asking. Ha!

The only way really to spot NBT is to get beyond the self-perpetuating cycles of wanting to spot NBT. See the logic, be the logic. All talk of NBT holds at bay a larger, more unsettling truth: there is no NBT coming. The Big Thing is already here, and its message is: Big Things are over.

Always already here. Always already over.

That’s the news. Get used to it.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of seven books, most recently Catch & Release (Penguin 2003), a book that looks like it’s about trout fishing but isn’t.

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