The day before I went to Detroit, the city imposed a curfew due to fears of violence. The city was also in the process of shutting off water to thousands of its residents. It sounds bad. But as long as you stay inside a sealed corporate bubble the whole time, you'll never even know these problems exist.
Being in a tightly sealed corporate bubble comes with its own problems, of course. The fact that you're in a corporate bubble, first of all. I had, on a whim, been invited to attend the 2014 "Ford Trend Conference," an annual event in which Ford Motor Company imports hundreds of journalists and forcibly informs them of what the most important trends in the world are going to be. Design trends! Environmental trends! Tech trends! And any other trends that the Ford Motor Company deems mandatory for media consumption! This would be a chance to catch reporters suckling at the company teat, I thought. A chance to see what Detroit is all about, I imagined. A chance to drill down into the latest and most insightful corporate intelligence that would be guiding our lives in the coming year, I mused.
I was wrong as hell.
What I found, instead, was a sort of posh private prison—a floating and impenetrable bubble completely controlled by Ford Motor Company, your gracious warden. Line up. Have a seat. No, there will be no escape. Dinner will be served at 6:30 sharp.
Outside of a small group of auto industry journalists who might actually unearth some news in an event like this, most of the reporters and bloggers who were there (a bizarre mix of correspondents from an entire spectrum of publications that Ford reckoned would be small-time enough to be impressed with this rather low level of junketeering) had unwittingly traded two days of our freedom for a flight to the Detroit airport. It would be inaccurate to say that this was really "a trip to Detroit"—Ford had put us all up at the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport Hotel, which is connected via a short walkway to the Delta departures area. We were not required to set a single foot on the polluted Detroit earth. Get off the plane, take an elevator up two floors, and there you are, in the Westin's soaring courtyard lobby, a veritable oasis of calm from the gritty urban environment of (the) Detroit (airport).
This atmosphere produced, in the attendees, a distinct sort of prison mentality. "A guy I know is bringing me $100 of bubble kush," said a culture journalist. "I would give anything for some 'ludes," said an arts journalist. "I wonder if Detroit has good coke?" said a lifestyle journalist. "I have some Adderrall in my room," said another. Even the middle-aged car writers without drug dealer connections were busily quaffing free booze. They would have no doubt resorted to downing the little bottles of in-room mouthwash, if it came to that.
We were herded onto buses (not manufactured by Ford) and driven to a local event space for the opening night ceremony. The room had the size and appearance of a bad Miami nightclub: misty air cut by blue and pink lights and tables haphazardly arranged around a central circular bar, in the middle of which was a huge circular digital screen playing Ford propaganda. Mark Fields, Ford's CEO-to-be, took the stage. Though he is 53 years old, his face is almost disturbingly unlined. If Ford does end up collapsing in the next crisis, he can always find a new career playing one of those young-looking old people who star in pharmaceutical advertisements.
"At Ford, our quest is to make the world a better place," he lied. On a screen behind him, slide after slide popped up with inscrutable phrases: "Culture of Innovation." "Data analytics." "Connectivity hub." One slide, symbolizing I know not what, showed a single working lightbulb in a field of other, broken lightbulbs. "Do we make a car?" Fields asked. "Or do we serve our customers' mobility needs?" He was joined on stage by Clayton Christensen, a towering Harvard business guru who spoke of "hyper accelerated treadmills" and told an astoundingly long story about selling milkshakes, and Kenneth Cole, who spoke of how clever and successful Kenneth Cole was, is, and how Kenneth Cole will, in all likelihood, continue to be clever and successful in years to come. The good news was that Cole was not spouting meaningless marketing jargon; the bad news is he was instead spouting Kenneth Cole Advertising Slogans, one of the only things in this world more grating than meaningless marketing jargon.
When the speeches concluded, we were treated to the world—world, I say—debut of The New Ford Edge. I am no automotive expert, but I would describe the new Ford Edge as "one of those weird quasi-SUVs that look like a Volkswagen Rabbit suffering from gigantism." It was colored an attractive puke yellow. The bloggers and journalists in attendance broke out in applause, then swarmed around the car, taking photos.
The new Ford Edge is available at your local Ford retailer.
The next morning, buses for the conference left the hotel at 7:30 a.m. Seven fucking thirty a.m. This, after a night that most of the attendees had spent drinking free booze. This, at an event that was supposed to be a chance for all of us to escape our jobs, maintaining only the illusion of actual work. This was the point at which the Ford Trend Conference atmosphere turned sour. The mood in the morning was decidedly more subdued, by which I mean catatonic, with the odd note of poisonous resentment. We could not even take breakfast in peace—we were forced to endure a presentation about a child-sized Ford F150 truck that a toy company had made for the young Ford brand ambassadors out there. It has real working L.E.D. lights, you see. From the hotel bubble, to the bus bubble, and then to the new bubble of the Ford World Headquarters building, a giant, featureless rectangular cube set in a stark green field on the side of Dearborn, Michigan highway. Overhead fluorescent lights shined perceptibly through the translucent windows. The sky was, of course, grey. At a company as old as Ford, even the nicest buildings still have a preserved and outdated feel, brightly polished relics of past generations. One can imagine Pete Campbell staggering drunkenly through the doors of Ford's headquarters, suicidally contemplating the grim, soul-crushing nature of a life spent in corporate middle management. On the way there, our bus passed a large nondescript warehouse with a sign that read "Precision Slitting Service."
Wrists, I presume.
We were herded into an auditorium for the kickoff of the Trend Conference proper. "We're in an auditorium in a place that looks like a school," a fellow blogger whispered to me. Indeed, everything about it—the early hour, the peppy speakers, the fact that this was all mandatory—resembled one of those bad dreams where you're reliving your middle school years.
The first Mandatory Trend Session, on the topic of Big Data, was led by Dan Wagner, a man who served as the Chief Analytics Officer for the 2012 Obama campaign. "Authenticity and validation," he told us, citing reams of data, "are the best, most effective communication messages in politics." Authenticity, you see, is present in political (and corporate) communication only because it is effective. Its presence is entirely contingent on its effectiveness. If "lying" or "appealing to humanity's innate sense of xenophobia" or "tricking people" are deemed to be effective types of messaging, they could just as well take the place of authenticity, by this rationale. There is no such thing as authenticity for its own sake.
Truth will be used only so long as it is the most effective way to manipulate you.
The "Big Data" speakers continued in this vein. As one woman from a hotel company droned on about "creating an interpersonal experience as they move through the guest life cycle," the photographer sitting next to me leaned over and said, "Her last name is Arabic for 'garbage.'" Then he put his head on his hand and went back to sleep.
The next Mandatory Trend Session was about the global water crisis. I would like to extend a warm "fuck you" to the Ford Motor Company for forcing me to listen to a presentation on this very worthwhile and meaningful topic in the context of the Ford Trend Conference. The global water crisis is a very real issue that we should all be concerned about—all of us except Ford Motor Company, which will be pretty fine either way. The speakers discussed the 800 million impoverished people around the world without access to clean water, but none mentioned the fact that the water is being shut off to thousands of residents of Detroit, a few miles down the road. Nevertheless, I cannot hate on Ford for taking the time to draw attention to poor people who lack clean water. I suggest that anyone considering purchasing a new Ford Edge instead donate that $37,600 to Charity Water, where it will do much more good.
To the bus, again! To the next Ford venue! To lunch! To more interminable discussion of trends! Around the lunchroom, eyes were drooping and conversation was lapsing. Even the most diligent journalists, having been bestirred at 6:30 a.m., were beginning to flag. And I am not the most diligent journalist. The two guys who I'd been sitting with snuck out to go buy weed. I was, at last, all alone. Just me and the trends. It was, truly, a dark afternoon of the soul. After a panel discussion about Design Trends (did you know that the really important medium of the designer is behavior?) I had reached my limit. I quietly hopped on an early bus back to the hotel. At that point, I would have done whatever it took to get me away from Ford headquarters. I even would have bought a Ford.
So I guess these conferences really work.
[Image by Jim Cooke]