I had the good fortune to participate in a call organized yesterday by Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn. This is an open discussion, the Yi-Tan, they hold by phone, addressing the big issues, intellectual and otherwise, that vex and test the tech community.
These are two sublimely smart guys, but it was clear they weren’t sure exactly what to ask me. Join the club. I mean, what, finally, does an anthropologist bring to the party? No one is exactly sure, not even the anthropologist.
Ethnography, that’s the easy answer. This is the method of anthropology, so, hey, if you need an ethnographer, you probably need an anthropologist, and now that A.G. Lafley, M.S.I. Kodak, IBM, and Campbell Soup use ethnography, anthropology has a place in the world.
But what else? Is there something to anthropology beyond ethnography?
Anthropologists are good at recognizing patterns in social and cultural data. My clients get this about me. They used to ask me to find the solution. More and more, they ask me to find the problem. How, they ask, should we be thinking about this? Anthropologists are good pattern seekers, good assumption hunters.
Jerry and Pip were kind enough to ask if I would join in the call. Please them for this confidence. And here are the notes I scratched out for myself. You may determine for yourself whether they identify a problem worth thinking about.
If we look at culture and commerce from a pattern-seeking, assumption-hunting point of view, we see two things:
First, a clarity is giving way to a fluidity. I grew up in a world that for all of its modernist momentum had a certain order. It was like something defined by a mechanical engineer: parts and wholes, relationships and processes, outcomes and feedbacks, all of these were relatively clear.
This clarity is now at issue. What are the parts? What is the whole? What are the relationships and processes? Can we predict outcomes? Are there feedbacks?
What, for instance, is a corporation, now that it contains so many different moving parts, now that it changes so much and so often, now that it has, often, many objectives instead of one. Does it have a boundary? Or is just more porous? And if it is porous, has it found a way to manage its new fluidity.
A friend and I were talking yesterday how much the corporation has changed inside, swapping personnel in and out, refashioning the employment contract now that "one size" no longer fits all.
What is a "brand" now that consumer are let into the moment of creation, now that the corporation spends so much more time out and about, sensing and responding to the world "out there?"
What is a "self," now that each of us is so crowded with diverse interests and the ability to negotiate the complexities of a dynamic world?
Each of these things has in a sense "gone global," embracing more heterogeneity in a more dynamic mix, trading clarity for fluidity.
Fifty years ago, the specs for each was pretty clear. Intellectuals were unhappy with some of the design particulars but the rest of the world just got down to business and got on with life. Now, it looks as if someone had a Starbucks accident. Blueprints drip with coffee from Sumatra, not to mention that latte and cinnamon. Boxes and arrows run and blur. Fluidity, to be sure.
Second, it’s not clear that we have come up with a better way of thinking about a world like this, despite the fact that we have been on notice since the work of the Tofflers in the 1960s. There are small inklings here and there, the Long Now Project, the complex adaptive theory that comes from the Santa Fe institute, the call for dynamism that comes from gurus like Tom Peters. A big tech company recently asked me to rethink the B to B relationship. But these are all mere inklings, and nothing like a formal shift.
As I say, not everyone sees this as the anthropological "value add." And that’s a shame. Because the world is getting complicated in ways that anthropologists know how to reckon with. As people survey the fizzing, teeming confusion of the contemporary world, they ought to be saying, "where can I find an anthropologist to help me think about this. "