Imagine the horror of entering a mall Halloween morning only to find...Christmas decorations.
One of the things I do in The Power of Glamour is distinguish between glamour and such related concepts as charisma, spectacle, and romance. Here's the discussion of romance (not in the boy-meets-girl sense):
In concealing effort, glamour differs from romance, which often portrays hardship. Think of the training sequences in martial-arts movies, the battles in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, the artist’s struggling years in the garret, the entrepreneur’s office cot and diet of ramen noodles. Behind- the-scenes reality shows like Project Runway or The Rachel Zoe Project are essentially romances about the creation of glamorous moments, dramatizing the effort behind the effortless appearance of a runway show or red-carpet look. Romance does idealize reality—it omits the tedious, meaningless, and boring—but it heightens the glory of success by showing the struggle that produces it. Glamour is less narrative. It captures not a story but a scene: the dance, not the rehearsals; the still photo, not the film. Glamour and romance are closely related, but glamour is about being, not becoming. We experience the result, not the process.
The relationship between subject and audience is also different. In a romance, the audience feels a range of emotions along with the characters: excitement, fear, anger, love, grief, joy. Glamour, by contrast, remains an outside view, requiring mystery and distance. In the classic versions of the character, we don’t inhabit James Bond’s mental universe. We project ourselves into his setting and talents. He is “all façade.”We do not feel what he feels but, rather, what the idea of him makes us feel. This distanced identification is why anonymous models or even inanimate objects can be glamorous. We do not need to know them from the inside; we fill their images with our own emotions and desires.
John F. Kennedy's moon speech is a good example of the use of romance for persuasive purposes.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
The glamour-romance distinction is relevant to way the current administration sold Obamacare—to itself and to the public. Instead of portraying the program as worth the sacrifices and transition costs, its supporters largely concealed those to anyone outside what Megan McArdle calls Expertopia. Instead of hardships in a glorious and worthwhile cause, their rhetoric encouraged people to imagine a glamorous version of their ideal health care plan, achieved effortlessly and without cost.
In my most recent Bloomberg View column, I argue that a big reason for the disastrous startup problems experienced by HealthCare.gov was that even smart people who aren't I.T. pros tend fall prey to what TV Tropes calls the "magical database." It seems that the president of the United States and many around him simply have no idea how complicated the systems they were demanding would be to design. Here's an excerpt:
Looking back, it seems crazy that neither the Barack Obama administration nor the public was prepared for the startup difficulties. There’s no shortage of database experts willing to opine on the complexities of the problem. Plenty of companies have nightmarish stories to tell about much simpler software projects. And reporting by the New York Times finds that the people involved with the system knew months ago that it was in serious trouble. “We foresee a train wreck,” one said back in February.
So why didn’t the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn’t work like it might in the movies?
We have become seduced by computer glamour.
In response, I received a number of emails from I.T. pros, adding their perspective to the argument. One of the best came from Jack Simmons of Denver (emphasis added):
Whatever the merits or demerits of the ACA, your description of the grasp of the common person regarding computer systems is spot on.
People really do think of computer systems as some sort of magic easily configured and implemented.
I think back on some of the experiences I've had trying to diagnose and correct relatively simple computer failures. In one case, it took over forty hours of effort on my part to discover a 4 had been entered in a key index definition instead of a 6. The result was a complete systems shutdown for fours days on the accounting system of a major phone company. That was a long weekend.
The Jean Luc Picard analogy was very funny because of its accuracy. I love to tease people with the phrase "make it so" whenever we're discussing the potential solution to a problem.
I really believe Obama thinks all he has to do to solve a problem is do the same thing. He has obviously never worked on a system. If he had done so, he would realize it's going to take more than a campaign speech to get these systems up and running.
To be fair, there are many managers I have met who had no grasp of what was being asked of their systems folks. It was only when their jobs were on the line they took the time to actually sit down to understand the intricacies of even a simple computer system. Some of them didn't make it.
Computers force one to really define what is to be accomplished before beginning. Most times it is not until the system is up and running that the systems analyst really understands the requirements. This is followed by the realization of how many mistakes were made in building the system and how many mistakes still reside within the system.
Anyway, excellent article.
Life is messy and so are our computer systems.
I don't think we're going to get the health care systems up and running in any sort of reasonable time frame.
I would love to work on the systems, but that is not going to happen.
Don Smallidge wrote:
As a software developer who has written similar kinds of software (knitting data from different sources to service a web application) I am well aware of the challenges the administration faced in creating this web site. Certainly I have never been involved with any project on this scale, but I think the issues and decisions required to bring such projects forth as live interactive tools is something many web developers can relate to.
I think your article caught the essence of the problem very well. The comments on the Bloomberg site were more about Obamacare and people's political opinions, not on why the website is having so much trouble (this solution to our healthcare needs has people so polarized they are generally unable to just focus on the specific technical issues at hand). Thanks for bringing this aspect of the program to light.
You can support Obamacare, in other words, and still acknowledge the problems created by the magical database fantasy—as well as the administration's downplaying of the transition costs and tradeoffs.
I believe this is her best and most compelling book. It is wonderfully researched, very well written, the topic is understudied yet of universal import, and the accompanying visuals are striking.
I'll be speaking about "The Power of Glamour" (and signing The Power of Glamour) at the Phoenix Art Museum at a luncheon on November 13, details here, and at the Getty Center in L.A. on the evening of November 20, sponsored by Zócalo, details here. Both events require reservations, so don't delay.
Check out the Calendar for other upcoming events.
Check out this brief, image-laden interview with me talking about my new book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, which will be out November 5.