IASC Update, June 2001

Success In Numbers?

Skateboarding used to be fairly simple. At a certain point there was one skateboard, and then a few nanoseconds later there was one skateboarder. In the entire world. That was it.

There’s a whole school of thought here, of course. It’s the “F” school of thought,Function Follows Form. It used to be that it was difficult, in fact, impossible, to skateboard without a skateboard, but we’ve taken care of that.

If you know about number series, and specifically about Fibonacci numbers, then you know how skateboarding has grown. There was one skateboard made by someone (1), and then one skateboarder who actually rode the thing (1:1). That skater’s friend, or whomever, wanted to do it, too, so they made another board and there were two skateboards (1:1:2). That new board meant there were two skateboards and one skateboarder and a friend (1:1:2:3), which means that while that second skateboarder was beginning to ride, someone else was already making the next board (1:1:2:3:5).

So the world of skateboarding was just a few minutes old, and there were already five skaters and three boards (1:1:3:5:8 … ). And we’ve never looked back. Things just started to spiral,our own galaxy clearly demonstrates just how big skateboarding can become.

Why, it reminds you of that story coming out of Baghdad a thousand years ago (back when Baghdad was known as the House Of Wisdom), and where the royal family’s purser was seeking to pay a tradesman. The tradesman took out his chess board, saying all he wanted for his first day of work was to have one cent placed upon the first square. His second day’s payment would be double that and placed upon the second square, and the third day’s payment would be double that payment and placed on the third square.

We’ve all done that one, right? It’s hard to believe that a board used for checkers can bring down an empire, but we don’t have to worry about that, do we? We’re not even close to spiraling out of control (it’s growing and growing and … ). Or are we?

Sales are up. Sales are greater. Retail sales are greater. Domestic sales are greater. All the numbers are greater than ever. Ever. There are more skateparks than ever. Ever. Production is up. More skateboard products are being manufactured than ever before. Ever. More skaters than ever. More contests than ever. More video games sold, more girl skaters, more young skaters, more older skaters, more fingerboards, more socks … than ever before.

Ever is a long time. Ever is a lot. Whatever. Whatever does it mean, however, is the question asked by whomever (there’re many of those) it concerns. When this publication estimates that the number of skateboarders has reached or surpassed 10,000,000, or that annual retail sales of skateboard-related product are in excess of one-billion dollars annually, are there those who are skeptical?

Consider this: In the United States, families will spend more than one-billion dollars this year to help their dyslexic children learn to read. Phonograms and phonetics are still bigger than skateboarding.

Or this: Stanford School Of Medicine’s Dr. Philip Harter created a model of the world’s population in order to help people make sense of what’s going on. To achieve this, he decided to shrink the world’s population to a village of 100 people.

Here’s what he came up with: 57 would be Asian, 21 would be European, 14 would be from the Western Hemisphere, eight would be from Africa, 52 would be female, 70 would be non-white, 70 would be non-Christian, 89 would be heterosexual, six would possess 59 percent of the entire village’s wealth, and all six of those would be from the United States.

Harter’s statistics continue: 80 would live in substandard housing, 70 wouldn’t be able to read (there’re those phonetics again!), 50 would suffer from malnutrition, one would be near death while one would be pregnant, one would have a college education, and one would have a computer.

There wouldn’t be any skateboarders in the village, and there wouldn’t be any skateboards. Not that there shouldn’t be, but there just aren’t enough skateboarders in today’s world, yet, to show up in the mathematical model of reducing billions of folks to a village of 100.

In a related discovery, the World Health Organization estimates that each day 100-million people engage in sexual intercourse, resulting in nearly one-million pregnancies. Which, I think, means that each day in Dr. Harter’s village of 100 there are nine people getting busy. Nine, of course, is not part of the Fibonacci series, and it’s an odd number, which might help explain why only one person in the village is pregnant.

The importance of the village is that there are no skateparks, nor are there any golf courses. No recreational facilities whatsoever. In fact, the village’s environment is all about survival. Well, except for those six dudes from the U.S. who have all the money. Whose village is it, anyway?

Dr. Harter’s model is designed just to demonstrate the numbers of people,he doesn’t begin to attempt to illustrate what’s happening in the village, what’s going on, or what the village looks like. Most of it would be dusty, I think. Except for one part.

In fact, see that wall at the end of the village? People are building a wall. But the people building the wall don’t live within the wall, they live on the “other” side of the wall. Outside the wall.

By the way, what is that smell coming from the other side of the wall? Is something cooking? Who lives over there? What’s that noise? What are they doing in there? Wait, look, there’s an opening in the wall … are they selling something?

Indeed, maybe once inside the village the path becomes its Wall Street? In the book Media Monopoly (Beacon Press), author Ben Bagdikian explains that the Disney Corporation, with its 22 major subsidiaries,including magazines, daily newspapers, books, radio, television, video companies, movie studios, cable companies, record labels, cruises, clothing companies, theme parks, and comics,will create revenues of 23-billion dollars this year, which isn’t necessarily bad. The point that Bagdikian makes in his book is that the power of Disney’s monopoly over young children is so ubiquitous that it goes beyond the money,it’s pervasive and long lasting. In fact, he suggests, there is no way to gauge the power of Disney’s influence.

Less than twenty years ago there were 50 companies dominating the world of mass media. Fifty. Today there are six, and those six have more communications power than all of those original 50 companies combined (Hey, maybe that explains who those six people are living inside the wall?). In fact, according to Bagdikian, the six firms are so large and control so many enterprises that their prosperity is seen as necessary to prevent a slide into a Wall Street disaster.

How is that? The media conglomerates are competing for 80-billion dollars a year in advertising revenue generated by a marketplace where total sales,consumption by the United States populace,exceeds six-trillion dollars. That’s $6,000,000,000,000. That means, in our world, if skateboarding’s annual sales reach one billion, our sales,as staggering as they may be to us,still would represent less than one percent of the country’s total purchases. This explains why there are no skateboards in the village of 100.

However, those sales of six-trillion dollars reflect actual products and goods and services that are available to everyone in the village. Something is being sold and consumed. That’s where the advertising and media power comes in. That’s what they’re after. In referring to the media marketplace of today, “Everything is dedicated to the idea of selling something,” claims Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics In Dubious Times. McChesney suggests that today’s youth culture has been radically affected in the past ten years because the barrier between information and infomercials has become so clouded,
so suspect, that today’syouth cannot determine one from the other.

“On MTV it’s all a commercial,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s an advertisement paid for by a company to sell its product, sometimes a video for a music company to sell music, and sometimes it’s a set filled with trendy clothes to sell a look that includes products on that set.”

Commercialism permeates all the choices. McChesney is suggesting that today’s youth culture can be compared to the continent of Africa in the nineteenth century, and that the media giants are the French and British colonialists with the newfound weaponry of films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, and sports teams that will allow them to conquer the new world.

Who in the village is telling today’s youth, and their ever-increasing numbers, what is good? What they should think? What they should wear? What they should read, listen to, and eat? What should make them happy? Today’s young consumer is a profile of confused messages.

What I’m hearing and seeing is that I’ll be happy and satisfied if I wear this pair of pants, and these shoes, and listen to this CD, and use this Internet site … if I smoke this, if I take this, and if I can just get that … then … I’ll be happy.

I’ve done all that, I have all this. So why am I unhappy? Why am I so frustrated?

In my own little village here, we had a frustrated teenager drive his car down a narrow street at 80 mph. With cars parked on both sides and students casually walking into a weekend’s evening, he drove his car through the village until he rendered the car un-driveable. Nothing seemed to matter to him, not even killing five and seriously injuring another. I’ve skated on that street, shot video there with Frankie Hill. I know people who live on that street. Know people who were there. Why? Santee? I know that skatepark. Can take some pride in being involved in its construction.

These are unhappy events. Unhappy numbers. Frustrated. People wondering, “How can this happen?” Is it possible our culture is actually steeped in the creation of unhappy kids? In the village of 100, where would that Isla Vista street be, the one on which the teenager took out his frustrations with a car? Where would those frustrated, unhappy, unfulfilled young people be? Outside the wall? Not according to the numbers. According to the numbers, those unhappy sounds, that particular smell, is blended in with all the others wafting across the top of that wall.

We have to be careful. We have to be responsible. We have to help. We have to understand what a dramatic and significant time this is,who we are, what we do, the choices we make. As our numbers grow, as we create and participate in today’s culture, if we’re not responsible, if “commercialism permeates all of our choices,” then we’re just part of the stench.