Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wha'sup? The Next BIG Thing by Richard Faulk

The next big THING. It's a marketing cliche' as old as advertising itself. But in the digital age, the concept has gone viral.

Humankind's sense of time has not always been so manically compressed or our craving of novelty so insatiable. But even in history's most static and tradition-bound moments, there have still been disruptive innovations that change the way we think and live.

More and more, homo sapiens stands out as the species most driven to explore--i.e, to discover the next big thing. Fads, foibles, fights, trends, and also paradigm-shattering discoveries make up the stuff of our history. Some BIG things--monotheistic faith, alcohol, the movable type printing press, the Newtonian universe--(and the internet) have made a major shift in world history. Some once touted BIG things now litter the historical landscape--the chariot and the Segway (See! Some of you don't even know what that was!), the food pill, the midlife crisis--all came and went like tulipomania, leaving people wondering what the fuss was all about.

Some one-time BIG deals left a lasting imprint. Take the case of Mr. Thomas, the traveling turkeys, and the TV Dinner. As the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes, the Thanksgiving of 1952 was a bust for turkey sales for Swanson and Sons. Loath to waste all that white meat, Swanson froze the unsold turkeys, but short on freezer space, they loaded them on ten refrigerated railroad cars and kept them traveling the midwest to keep them frozen. Enter an enterprising salesman named Gerry Thomas, who had a brainstorm aboard a Pan Am flight and fashioned his in-flight aluminum meal tray into three sections and persuaded Swanson to transform the traveling turkeys into turkey, stuffing, and green pea frozen dinners. Concurrent with the mania for the "I Love Lucy" show scheduled around the dinner hour, millions of Americans welcomed the Swanson TV Dinner onto the latest thing in home decor, their brand-new TV trays, and voila! instant dinner and a movie, with no dishes to wash after the Desilu credits rolled! Although the iconic packaging and title are no more, replaced by Lean Cuisine, Budget Gourmet, and dozens of others, sixty-two per cent of Americans still eat dinner in front of television sets, usually consuming some sort of frozen-microwaveable descendant of the traveling turkey.

Other crazes that came and went, leaving some lasting impressions on the world, were the Kodak craze (the granny of the selfie), "scientific racism," the concept of the teenager, the "boom box," the "masculine renunciation," (the shift from fur, fancy breeches, and fripperies to conservative suits for men), plastic everything, and the dance craze of the 20s and 30s. (Swing dancing, tango, anyone?)

The lasting impact of current BIG things--tranquilizers like Prozac, personal music beginning with the Walkman and on through the iPod, smart phones and the game console, the microbiome, and, of course, the Pill--seem assured, but others--molecular gastronomy, "the end of history," and world metrification--are still in iconic limbo.

Richard Faulk's The Next Big Thing: A History of the Boom-or-Bust Moments That Shaped the Modern World (Zest Books, 2015), is a feisty, funny, and insightful look at the movements, manias, temporary insanities, and great advances in human society. Faulk does a masterful job of keeping his style light and lively, while setting each BIGGIE in its time and place context and evaluating its effects for hype factor and impact factor, sometimes with wisdom, sometimes with tongue in cheek, and sometimes with a bit of well-placed snark. With a short chapter for each phenom and clever illustrations by Ramsey Beyer, this book has a lot of appeal for teenagers (always up for wha's happenin')--and for adults (with perhaps a dusty boombox and a few tangled cassettes in the closet) who can relish recalling their own youthful BIG things as well.

For those homo sapiens with truly exploratory minds, pair this one with the brief but historical 30-Second Twentieth Century: The 50 Most Significant Ideas and Events, Each Explained in Half a Minute (Ivy Press, 2015), edited by Jonathan T. Reynolds.

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