Tennis and the Right-Left Deadlock, Part 3

A new axis: Culture vs Technique.

Is there a conflict between culture and technique?

Our stifled American political discourse is based on a one-dimensional ideological axis with "regulation" at one end and "free market" at the other.  The arguments, tantrums and general dysfunctionality of our political conversations and strategies today are due in part to the exclusion of another equally important political axis of "culture" and "technique."  To break the linguistic deadlock, Americans must understand this additional axis and include it in our political vocabulary and problem-solving.

This is not just political theory.  With tennis as an example we can see that it is very practical.  As I write, the great and gorgeous Roger Federer has just been narrowly bested by Novak Djokovic in the semi final and a fired-up Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, is playing the third set against Andy Murray, a self-critical Scotsman on the upswing who has just double faulted due, it seems, to “wristband failure.”

Millions around the world are watching, not simply to "see who wins" but to take part in the drama constituted by the interaction of all four of these systems: Free Market (Competition), Regulation, Culture, and Technique.  Take any one of these systems out of the game and many would not be watching.

The perpetual interaction and balance between these systems keeps the drama productive and alive, especially for the American audience.  In the game of tennis we see this axis fully operating in addition to the axis of competition and regulation.  New technologies are constantly being developed, in many cases challenging the traditions and norms of the game.  Is it unsportsmanlike to use "the Pod?"

Meanwhile, our nation stands at the brink of decisions that will impact hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of lives.  We are about to elect new leaders, transform our economy and our education system, reconcile how we deliver health care, energy, national defense and protect our natural environment.

Like tennis, each of these challenges must draw on solutions that combine regulation, free market, culture, and technique.  Some of these challenges may demand a balance of each; some problems may require a much larger dose of one than another.  This ought to be the basis of our public discourse and debate.

Instead we are stuck in a single conversational rut: Free Market (let the buyers and sellers of the world decide!) and Regulation (deliver us from evil with greater governmental control!).  Culture and Technique as systems - intersections, choices, compromises or ‘forks in the road’ - are mostly absent from our discourse.

Deep down, we know that our current one-dimensional focus cannot be right.  We hear our ancestors whispering "common wisdom" developed over hundreds of generations.  We see the innovators and technicians offering new devices daily with greater efficiency, power and disruptive consequences, only a few of which can be anticipated.  We cannot help but feel that there are deep conflicts between these systems - but even as we elect our leaders and reshape our government, we're not empowered to talk about them.

Culture and Technique define the missing axis in American political discourse; an additional set of concepts creating a "perpendicular" axis to that of regulation and free market.

Where culture advocates subjective but shared “values” and tacit assumptions, technique is "value-less", relying on calculation, scientific analysis, explicit measurement and scientific method.

Where culture is about "belonging" and membership in complex histories based on a mostly-unspoken consensus of meaning and values, technique is about the greatest efficiency directed towards a single problem at hand. It offers a formulaic "best way” of doing something.  In tennis, technique gives us carbon fiber, video swing analysis, and slow-mo replays; culture gives us athleticism, character, creativity, discipline and beauty - the reasons we find sports exhilarating.  Where technique implies that life problems can be measured and solved if only we can invent the appropriate device, culture provides context and meaning through the human relationships it both demands and fosters.  Without culture to provide context, most problems simply aren't worth solving.

An additional political axis as powerful as market and regulation but often ignored

Culture Technique
(Shared values, knowledge and meaning)


(Measurement, analysis, efficiency, objectivity)
Manners, aesthetics, great games and rivalries, tradition, personal coaching, mentors, meaning, national pride Tennis Graphite racquet, "Cyclops" and "Hawk-eye," The Pod, digital video analysis, stats, performance enhancing drugs, latest shoe technology
Family influence, character building, peer pressure, desire to learn, homework Education Technology in schools, data tracking and analysis, "One Laptop per Child"
Traditional knowledge/skill, community seed stock, family advice, Farmer’s Almanac, traditional foods, free-range livestock, crop rotation Agriculture Chemical fertilizers, genetic engineering, "Monsanto," pesticides, automated machinery, processed foods, High Fructose Corn Syrup, chicken "factories"
Personal relationships, know your investments, personal risk, thrift, teach children saving
Banking and Finance VAR modeling, quants, derivatives, robot trading, analytics, online access to credit, trading and consumer banking
Organizational culture, craftsmanship, pride in local products, employee-employer trust, self improvement/skills, social networks, concern for wellbeing of neighbors and community Employment Automation, digitization, outsourcing, efficiency as ‘solution’, technical retraining, growth connected to technology, "Knowledge Economy”
Personal fitness, walking rather than driving, traditional foods, family meals, traditional medicine, home cooking, ask your mother, teach your children, grow a garden Health Pharmaceuticals, robotic surgery, digital medical records, data analysis, full-body MRI scans, nutritional supplements, Omega-3 eggs
Pacifism, patriotism, militias, volunteer army, heroes and villains, valor, sacrifice, war stories, traditional martial arts, teach gun safety and self sufficiency Defense and Security Weapons and surveillance technology, "Star Wars" (Strat. Defense Initiative), remote controlled “drones,” autonomous military robots, ubiquitous security cameras, Kevlar
Italians, neighborhood baristas, great cafes, Colombian farmer co-ops, Local roasters Good Coffee On-demand automatic espresso machines, espresso “pods”, vacuum-packed coffee
Promote family cohesion (Bill Cosby), revive traditional cultures (African dance), cultural revolutions (Malcolm X), N-word reclamation, “post blackness” Race relations and equality Urban planning, technology in schools/colleges, genetic assessment technologies, eugenics, Internet (anonymity and 'democracy')
Community ownership, nature as "common good", teach children respect for nature, summer camp,  "Mottainai" (Japanese for "what a waste!")  skills and knowledge for conservation Environment Energy efficient technologies, micro-antennae for bird-tracking,  Prius, pollution scrubbers, GPS, satellite photography, salmon “stairs” around hydro dams

An embrace of the culture-technique axis is more easily seen in countries like Japan, Germany or Korea, where market and regulation often take a back seat to culture and technique.

Germany’s famous Autobahn is one of many examples, where the local culture of serious motoring (only use the left lane for passing, never eat while driving) paired with an unsurpassed level of car and road technology is so effective that explicit speed limits are unnecessary.  The results are safer roads and much faster and more efficient road travel, with traffic deaths per mile less than half of those on similar US highways.

Japan presents thousands of examples where either cultural behavior or technical obsession trump the function of law or market.  A recent example was the public reaction to the devastation of the Tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown.  Rather than the chaos, crime, looting, and violent law-enforcement engendered by America's Katrina, the Japanese reacted (irrespective of regulation) by helping each other, participating in common grieving, cooperative rebuilding, voluntary cleanup, volunteer dentistry and haircuts, peaceful government protests, open and serious reflection on technical failures, and new directions set.

The Japanese word "mottainai" connotes a sense of regret concerning any waste of resources.  One manifestation of this is the Japanese shopping habit of checking expiry dates and then choosing the oldest products on the supermarket shelf.  The the cultural value of "mottainai" presides over any self-serving goal of selecting the newest product which is probably going to be eaten right away anyway.

As it turns out, this saves a massive amount of food waste because products don't expire on the shelves; they're taken home and eaten.  These savings are transferred to the store owner, lower prices for the consumer, and society as a whole benefits. It is an interesting confluence of both technique (product date-stamping) and culture!

The American reaction to the identical technique (date-stamping) produces the opposite outcome.  American consumers search date stamps for the youngest product with the longest remaining shelf life.  This requires store owners to "game the system" as they are constantly left with increasingly difficult-to-sell products.  Tremendous amounts of food end up in the trash and our society pays the cost.

An interesting reverse of these cultural tendencies can be found in the Japanese distaste for second-hand automobiles, in contrast to the American love of them.  The fact that the Japanese are loath to purchase a car that once belonged to someone else in addition to strict emissions regulations, leads to hundreds of thousands of "mint-condition" cars ending up in the recycling yard or shipped overseas.

A typical American would love to get their hands on these cars.  Up until a few years ago young American men embraced salvaging and reconstructing used cars as a rite of passage - reinforcing a culture of self-reliance, shop skills, cool-factor, and individual triumph over challenges.  Though these skills are declining in mainstream American culture, vestiges can be seen in "reality television" programs where 40-somethings rip-apart and recreate all manor of machines - motorcycles on Orange County Chopper; cars and trucks on Pimp My Ride;  and every other type of machine, vehicle, weapon and gadget on shows like Myth Busters and Junk Yard Wars.  These are recent additions to the classic "tractor pull" and "monster-truck" shows.

As the use of "technique" has increased in our machines and our media, however, the kind of hands-on interaction these shows exault has become all but impossible for most Americans.  The hyper-complexity and black-box efficiency of technique have in most cases displaced the cultural skills that rely on transparency of parts and systems whether in automobiles, agriculture or organizations:

Ask your dad to help you "tune-up your Prius" and see how far you get.  Growing Monsanto GMO corn?  No point asking your grandmother when to plant or harvest, generations of farming knowledge will be of no use.  Want to open up and 'fix' your iPad?  Sorry folks, tinkering is not allowed.  You must return it to the manufacturer, who will trash it and issue a new one.  Do you have a creative idea for your organization?  The CFO will want to see the metrics modeled out for five years: better talk to the "quants" first. 

These are structural changes caused by a blind emphasis on technical solutions that transform the design of our systems, systems that until recently cultivated a value-centric relationship between people and their built environment.  Culture is being displaced by technique but neither is being talked about as a political issue.

The technique/culture axis highlights the tension between these two approaches to life challenges. Perhaps culture can be lost after all.  What will be left of the game of Tennis when every stroke is digitally recorded, measured, analyzed in real-time, with feedback sent to the player via wireless muscle-activation implants?

If this seems far-fetched we need only read the news: It is already here in many areas of our lives.  Technique has deeply infiltrated Wall Street, agriculture and the military; why not tennis?

Like Regulation and Free Market, Culture and Technique can work in synergy with each other but often work in opposition.  Our voters must evaluate the potential interactions and reactions, interdependencies, trade-offs and risks in each of these systems, at the same time as we look for their specific benefits.

In America today we see technique everywhere we look even though they're hidden by the so-called "culture wars" that tend to mirror the one-dimensional push pull of the regulation free market axis.  Meanwhile we have a deficit of leadership on culture or technique as proactive strategies in our national vocabulary and problem-solving.  To revitalize our political discourse, and our society, Americans need to recognize and rebalance the culture/technique axis.  Once we are familiar with this new perpendicular axis we can see how the interaction of all four systems: regulation, market, culture and technique create a much more interesting and powerful framework for talking about and leading social change.

In the next article in this series we'll look at the new multidimensional framework created by two perpendicular axes and see how this can restructure the American political conversation into something that works for today's issues and our visions for the future.

Scott Francisco is a designer, strategic consultant and cultural theorist in New York City. He is the Founder of Pilot Projects and teaches at Parsons the New School for Design.  Read other articles by Scott Francisco or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

Wouldn't homework really be a technique of education? I guess it could be seen as both since it's a tradition as well.

October 11, 2011 10:37 AM

Good point. I struggled with this one, but I felt in the end that homework is often a function of the home environment and actually doing homework is more cultural than technical. This certainly cuts both ways, though, depending on the context.

October 11, 2011 5:41 PM

What would you think about the huge debate about our trade agreements with S Korea etc. Those were signed long long ago and Obama held them up until the senate and house would agree to give retraining funds.

Historically, those retraining funds don't result in anyone getting a new job. That's partly because most of the money is administered by labor unions whose management is more interested in finding no show jobs for relatives than in retraining.

Suppose someone's a pipefitter. If they retrain him in computers, he won't be in the union any more. No more dues. No way they will do that.

That brings up an axis some Brit thought of - knights or knaves. Do we think government employees are knights who seek to serve the people or are they knaves who serve themselves? The unions and their allies would seem to be knaves, holding up export-job-creating measures until they got their billion-dollar slush fund with which not to retrain workers.

Is this a real axis?

October 11, 2011 7:02 PM

My first thought is that we find "knights" and "knaves" in any one of our four systems - so in this sense I wouldn't see it as an axis.

Having said this, if any of these systems are coruptable by said knaves, how can the other systems 'balance out' that potential for coruption - i.e. make the whole more resillient or robust.

So we have unions holding up the works out of pure self-interest (empowered by bad regulations). The market alone may not be able to break loose the log-jam because it is pulling to directly along the same axis. But add culture in the mix (not easy, but powerful) and you have a 'lateral' pressure that can break open the deadlock. (Technique would present an even easier opportunity: "sorry, your jobs are obsolete", but this has also been part of the original problem.)

With culture we have the motivation and meaning that says: I want to work, and I want to be proud of what I have made, (see "Grand Tourismo" for a great example of this argument.) When the culture is strong enough the union losses power to control the individual. Culture provides an alternate system of meaning and behavior. The problem is, we have neglected to protect or build such a culture. The context for Clint Eastwood's character shows us a vestige of it.

How can we act now to make sure we have a robust discourse so we avoid trying to solve all of our problems by 'regulating' or 'de-regulating' them? We need better answers or we will be back into the win/lose tug of war. 'What would my grandfather have done?' is not a bad place to start.

October 11, 2011 11:50 PM

It is an interesting article with a lot of thought. There are pulls and pushes, yin and yang. That being said, I, a simple type person with simple answers would suggest that freedom is the answer to everything. A small government to insure that if someone hurts another they are held accountable and that is it. Freedom. Period.

October 12, 2011 12:35 AM

For freedom to work, everyone has to be taught responsibility. Our welfare system gives freedom from having to work without any sense of responsibility to provide whatever you can for yourself. Leads to generations of moochers. A culture of moochers probably can't be salvaged.

What's worse, many of them are ignorant moochers, never having been taught useful skills. How can culture survive our disfunctional education system? We spend much money and end up with less well educated kids than lots of other countries. Isn't the purpose of education to pass on culture along with technique?

Doesn't "culture wars" imply that some people know very well that culture is important and they're trying to control it for their own advantage? We don't hear "technique wars," but I think that parts of our political screaming match spins around culture.

October 12, 2011 7:10 AM


I think that you and I are of the same opinion about the moocher class. First thing to do is shut down the department of education followed closely by the NLRB, the department of energy and the EPA. Then welfare as we know it will be phased out along with food stamps.

October 12, 2011 10:36 AM

@sf - you are probably right about the knight knave axis being everywhere. I think you might be able to map this axis onto the freedom <--> government axis. Pro market guys believe all government employees are knaves and that even though some businessmen are knaves, too, the customers will leave them and they'll go broke of they're too knavish.

Pro regulation guys believe all businessmen are so knavish that the only force that can save the citizens is knightly regulators who will keep the knavish businessmen in line.

Us taxpayers are appalled that when a government agency messes up, whether through knavishness or incompetence, it's punished by having to take a bigger budget. The SEC didn't catch Madoff; he skimmed through a number of investigations and they never laid a glove on him. They were punished for this stunning example of utter incompetence, or taking bribes, or watching pron instead of doing the work and were forced to write all kinds of new regulations under Dodd Frank and take on all kinds of new guys to enforce them. That'll learn 'em!

I believe in free market, cateat emptor, and minimal regulation with court systems to stop egregious fraud. Knaves or stupid doesn't matter. Government simply doesn't work.

October 13, 2011 8:16 PM
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