Remember gift economies?

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

They’re back.

I’ve been preoccupied lately with the idea of drawing on anthropology classics to explain what’s happening in technology. It’s a starting point for a new research and teaching program I am helping to launch at University of Aberdeen. The bet is that it works like the cheese and jam sandwich principle: you can take any cheese, any jam, and provided the two individual ingredients are of high quality, you will always end up with a delicious sandwich (Seriously, it works…).

At Aberdeen we had students create technology use scenarios for 5 years in the future, based on a combination of what will become technologically feasible (the cheese), and a more or less arbitrarily selected anthropology classic – Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa (aka, the jam). Fame of Gawa looks inside an intricate system of exchange amongst Pacific islanders known as ‘kula.’ Kula trading is the canonical gift economy–a staple case study of all anthropology 101 courses. You show up to a neighboring island on a canoe, loaded with shells to trade, they feed you elaborately in an attempt to create the obligation for you to give away your best shells. In turn, if you are a good shell trader, and have a canoe nice enough to dazzle them into giving away their best shells, your name and the name of your island get known far and wide throughout the shell-trading system: hence the ‘fame’ in Fame of Gawa.

As the students were designing their future technologies, it occurred to me that there were some underlying commonalties between kula trading and new media. New media, particularly of the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube variety, doesn’t work like your average commodity exchange, where one person produces, the other consumes, and at the moment of transaction you are both quits. But the easy ways that we now use ‘gifting’ as a term to describe it carries connotations that really shouldn’t be there. We talk about gift economies like they are nice, feelgood things, where we express our individuality, and celebrate our individual brands. That couldn’t be farther from the ethnographic record. There are four principles of I think underlie kula trading that help us understand how Web 2.0 really works:

a) Giving is about creating obligations: There is no such thing as a freely given gift. It’s not altruistic. We know this already yet somehow the tech industry still talks about content as something that’s “shared.” “Sharing” hardly gets to the fact that if my friend puts lots of things up on Facebook, it can be just be to con me into doing the same. That’s not what my momma taught me about sharing.

b) You need to have something different in order to trade: Most of the trading in kula is not about the one famed shell that everyone wants, its about smaller points of difference. So too Web 2.0: most people are not seeking to be the next David after Dentist. Even though the millions of cute cat videos seem to be nothing but noise, who shot those videos and the context in which they are shot creates these microdifferences that are in fact worthy of exchange.

c) Fame is a function of the ability to control the flow of things: Fame of Gawa is really a study of circulation—how far and wide things travel. It turns out that the only way things can travel far and wide is through the very things that don’t: things that are heavy, things that are connected to the ground rather than the sea and air. The heavy yams that come from the ground and don’t move very far, and given at shell trading meetups, are really what keeps the circulation going, and determine how far the shells go and through what time period. You need both to make the system come alive, and to exert your own power within the system. Through metaphors of lightness and heaviness, Gawans have a wonderful ways of imagining how things flow through systems—something we lack. We talk about circulation of content as a flat ‘network’, with hubs and spokes, links and feeds. It’s a flat description with a thin qualitative imagination. But if we were to use the Gawan point of view, which revolves around exchanging lightness for heaviness and vice versa, we could see that the a world of constant retweets, trackbacks, rss and data aggregations only gets us so far. There needs to be some grounding in order to have something to exchange: someone needs to have done something in the actual non-retweeted, re-aggregated world. If you are nowhere but a sea of retweets and feeds, you have nothing to trade. If you have an idea of where you are in relation to the content you are circulating, the circulations become meaningful. Web 2.0 requires us to be both light and heavy at the same time, both recirculating and producing your own.

d) People are made, they are not born: a Gawan person is literally made through feeding that person yams, and in turn that person has to pay back their own creation through other gifts. People are distinguishable from one another not through some inherent individuality but through the particular set of obligations and relationships they have. If they were tech people they would say I am my network, and my network is not your network. You only get to do anything in Gawa through other people: you can’t just get up and make yourself a sandwich. Similarly, we often think of personal brands and personal identity as something we individually construct: that we lovingly curate our online presence, that we have the ability to project our own coolness, and that the whole sea of blogs, Facebook postings and tweets is a giant exercise in individuation. Maybe it is. But what the Gawans understand better than most is that what we think is individual comes from somewhere outside ourselves. A brand is only meaningful if it speaks to other people. Your brand can’t really be that personal if its going to circulate as a brand. We Westerners can admit we have influences, but on the whole we prefer to think that we do things ourselves. But if we were all as independent as we like to think nobody would be able to have a conversation with anybody. We’d all be mutually unintelligible. Who, then, really makes a personal brand, is up for debate.

So if you fed me some yams recently…. Drop me a line 

Invention of Culture & the Invention of Stuff

•April 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

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.

first post

•September 13, 2008 • 1 Comment

This blog is meant to be a repository of various publications and public speaking gigs, though occasionally I may just be inspired to record passing thoughts that smell a little too good to let go.