Invention of Culture & the Invention of Stuff

Amy Hoy raises an interesting point about “innovation.” A lot of innovation is to do with not just what is new, but what it is we recognize. What the iPad is doing is not just impeccable user experience, or clever hype and branding, but creating a home of sorts—a place and a context in which we might place the latest gadget. As Amy Hoy puts it, “There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely…“Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

This got me thinking about the idea that it is not the case that products get adopted when their “time has come.” Or rather, making a product’s time come isn’t just a matter of timing or clever marketing but a longer term matter of shaping culture: creating a structure of feeling that endures over time rather than a structure of features that culminates in a one-off experience.

In this way, Jobs exposes the way in which the tech industry misrecognizes what innovation is. It always thinks it’s the gadget, the feature, or( increasingly)the overall user experience. For a tech person to call the iPad a big IPhone is supposed to be a scathing critique: it’s a way of saying, that’s not new, Steve, you’re just tricking us. It’s a critique that misses the point.

The tech industry might be having a different kind of conversation if it took Roy Wagner as its innovation guru rather than Clayton Christensen. Roy Wagner is a turgidly rigorous anthropologist who reads like a philosopher. He’s what you read when you were in college but you could only really get through it if you were high enough. He’s also brilliant. And he can help us understand why the tech industry will always be stumped by things that seem to be new but aren’t.

In Invention of Culture, Wagner argues that all social acts are both an invention and a convention. There is always something new in traditional acts, and something old and conventional in seemingly inventive activities. What matters is where people attribute creativity, and how they value creativity. To innovate too much in the wrong areas can be a problem. We call holidays that we are not really convinced about “invented holidays” as if the ones we do like weren’t invented, and instead divined by supernatural powers or biology and fixed forever throughout time. This has to do with our cultural values, not any inevitability about what is and isn’t innovation. Same goes for technology: there is always something old in technology. This is necessarily so: we humans have the capacity to remember and we always build on the past. But in the tech industry we have beliefs that worthy technology is always disruptive to tradition—this is how we come to recognize it as “innovation” (and why we think we want more innovation, less tradition.)

The tablet computer was decades in the making. It was the groundhog day technology that surfaced over and over, was always ‘next’ on the horizon, but never quite arrived.

Until it did.

What Wagner tells us is that innovation is not about doing something new out of thin air. It is about forgetting that what you are doing is old. In this sense innovation is not about the heroism of this or that innovator, Jobs or otherwise. To call something an innovation is a social agreement amongst all the interested parties to forget the histories that made the gadget come into being in the first place. In this instance, its not just about forgetting that it’s “ just a big iPhone” after all, but that the tablet is a longstanding form of computing that many people have been excited about for many years. This forgetting is not a Jedi mind trick singlehandedly performed by a charismatic industry leader. It’s a social process we all participate in. It’s also a process that Jobs uses great effect.

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~ by dnafus on April 28, 2010.

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