In his latest work, best-selling author, journalist, and all-around interesting guy Chuck Klosterman asks a compelling question: “But What if We’re Wrong.” If we fast-forward 100 years or 500 years and look back at our present from the perspective of the future—what will still be important? What cultural figures will have stood the test of time. Who will be Rock and Roll’s Shakespeare? What medical treatments will seem as barbaric as “leaching” does now?
It’s a great question and made us think about the implications for consumer research. Can we challenge our assumptions as marketers and as researchers? Can we look just a little further ahead – maybe 5 years, not 100 – and think about what will matter then and reverse engineer products and services for that?
GenPop: Why is it important to question what we believe?
Klosterman: Many things that we don’t even question now – that aren’t even on the table for debate – will retroactively seem absurd. [When the book came out] I would talk to a rock critic who would say, ‘the science stuff, I never even knew that, but I have some issues about you talking about Chuck Berry.’ It seems as though if a person has a problem with this book, it comes from whatever area they feel they are closest to being an expert in. In many ways that’s the problem. The more you understand something the more it becomes part of your identity and the less willing you are to see a less obvious reality. It’s kind of a paradox. The more you know about something the less willing you are to learn about it.
GenPop: A lot of the book essentially looks at issues of taste – and taste today versus guesses at future taste. Why is taste so malleable?
Klosterman: In a lot of ways taste is a reflection of values. What we think is important or beautiful or problematic – those values get injected into art and we make merit-based decisions on that. Those are the things that change. In the moment, people try to project this idea that taste is a timeless universal thing – that the way we react to a Beatles song or the way we react to “Catcher in the Rye” are based solely on their inherent quality and inherent goodness.
As part of the GenPop Q&A with give the subject the chance to ask a question of you, which we field on the Ipsos Omnibus. Klosterman wanted to know how Americans view the past and the future. Read our discussion of the results.
GenPop: In today’s fragmented media world, is it easier or harder to be a critic?
Klosterman: If you’re a media critic today it’s much, much easier to get a job but considerably more difficult to earn a living. If you were a media critic in 1976, it meant that you were in a rarefied field. Now there are thousands of people serving as media critics for free and because there are so many of them they’re driving the conversation.
There’s the assumption that if a show like “Westworld” comes on that you can start pulling it apart and forwarding your own ideas and agenda in that story the day after the first episode. That would never have happened in the past. You would never have started talking about a show until it had been on for a while.
The ultimate failure of the U.S. will probably derive from… our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful. – Chuck Klosterman in “But What if We’re Wrong?”
GenPop: One of the topics the book focuses on is the constitution and essentially the question of “what if the U.S. isn’t the same some day?” If you had a doomsday clock, what would it be set to?
Klosterman: The inexplicable success of Donald Trump has had made a lot of people fear for democracy and yet democracy has made that happen. The constitution has existed for 235 years. Are we halfway to the end, or more than half way? I think the expectation of the average American is that the United States will exist in perpetuity. It doesn’t seem as though America could ever not exist and yet it has to be inevitable. If democracy falls in the U.S., that really is the end of something. Maybe this is part two in something that has 15 parts. China has existed as a society almost since the dawn of man. They’ve had different forms of government and many different forms of society but they are all ultimately connected. Really, the society is the genetic material of the people. The people who compose it are what a society is. The structure is just this construction we use for any given period.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.