Category Archives: Anthropology meets Economics

How to fix the Conde Nast business model

Screen-Shot-2019-04-10-at-9.24.46-236AM.pngPeter Kafka has a great piece on Conde Nast, specifically how this once dominant publishing enterprise now struggles and what this means for incoming editor Roger Lynch.

“The magazine industry is in decline because the magazine industry’s core product — packaging stories and ads and presenting them together in a discrete bundle — is in decline, for an obvious reason: Readers and advertisers are more interested in spending their time and money in other ways.”

This post is an anthropological addendum to Kafka’s original. It attempts to answer why readers and advertisers are spending their time and money elsewhere.

Conde Nast and American culture come unstuck

In the post war period, America howled with change. The New Yorker and Vogue were excellent guides, a way to keep a fix on how culture was changing. These publications were working out of New York City, with a select set of gifted journalists, each of them plugged into a series of exquisite networks that ran from the Manhattan delta back into the worlds of innovation. The New Yorker and Vogue made themselves the bearers of essential intelligence. Readers were periodically “read in” to the state of contemporary culture, briefed like so many diplomats, politicians or spies, their cultural capital perpetually topping up.

But American culture changed. So much innovation, from too many parties, with so many effects. Pyromaniacs are now running the fire works factory. (And I don’t just mean Trump. There’s now a Trump on every street corner.) Unsurprisingly, the beautiful intelligence systems called The New Yorker and Vogue have been overwhelmed.

Readers no longer use these publications as they once did. They extract knowledge that is interesting but, for “read in” purposes, this knowledge is now less essential.

in sum 1: the value proposition is broken.

2) In the post war period, people were eager to hear from The New Yorker and Vogue. Eager, indeed, to defer and imitate. The value proposition was bigger than mere intelligence. It was also a matter of sensibility. What was the right style of life and view of world? Vogue and The New Yorker could supply these too. There was a hierarchy in place. Readers knew their place and accepted it. Publications were nice about it. They didn’t actively scorn the reader. (Well, sometimes they did. Paul Fussell made a career revealing status secrets to provincial readers and then scorning them for their interest.)

This is over, mostly. Hierarchy is dying. Deference is tired and tiresome. Provincial readers are no longer provincial. The level of education has risen. Data are distributed. The cultural advantage that comes from living in New York City is radically diminished. Anyone who works as a creative or a strategist routinely looks behind the curtain of American culture. There are few secrets and fewer elites. High culture knowledge is no longer “must know” capital. Neither, interestingly, is avant-garde knowledge. In sum, the New Yorker (both the person and the publication) knows less, and when he/she/it does know more, this matters less.

The reader is no longer a supplicant. The New Yorker and Vogue no longer have quite the same authority. The relationship is no longer quite so asymmetrical.

in sum 2: the value relationship is broken, too.

3) But the problem goes deeper still.

Conde Nast sits in an imperiled middle. This is where “stories” live, to be sure, but, as little bundles of proper nouns, events, causes and consequences, these stories do not take us deeply enough into details or high enough to see the big picture. “Stories” feel like a Victorian machine. Charming and noisy in a Steampunk kind of way. Dear but not useful. The scale and mechanics are just wrong. Any and all claims to utility now dubious.

Conde Nast sits in a certain middle because it is hoping to speak to as many readers (of a kind) as possible. The notion is that the article that really impresses a Methodist minister from the rough and tumble part of Cleveland, Ohio will mystify, perhaps even antagonize just about everyone else.

But, miraculously, the first principle of mass marketing and mass media has been repudiated. The status system of the post war period is suddenly ineffective and people are beginning to think of privilege as a trap. (There are several architects of the mighty ideological change, but one chief hell-raiser was Alice Waters.) Once a reward, an indulgence, an entitlement, privilege now feels “gated” or better “gating.” I have collected the ethnographic data and these data say that privilege is beginning to make people feel limited and unsophisticated. It makes them wondered if they run the risk of having the world steal a march on them. If that Methodist minister has her wits about her, her story may very well prove keenly interesting and useful…even for people who happen to occupy, through no fault of their own, quite different genders, classes, cities, and occupations. The devil is in these details, not the generalities. We are mobile and we are curious. We are (all) anthropologists. This makes the old publishing trade offs and compromises misleading.

This brings us to the big picture. Because, yes, generalities, properly constructed, do sometimes still matter. Without them we cannot see the future coming. And it is now ferociously and perpetually on approach. Sometime after World War II, “trends” died. They ran like large, handsome breakers through American culture, bringing consensus as they went. Now (cliche alert) it’s a perfect storm out there, with lots of trends moving in all directions, colliding in ways that make them impossible to track in conventional ways. And this puts paid to the diffusion models of the post war period, the ones that said if we wanted to know the future of the middle class we only needed to consult their early adopting betters (New York writers, say). The new journalism will have to look more like O’Hare on those windy summer days when the flight schedule takes on a wistful, poetic quality. (Your flight from LA? We have no idea.) This journalism will need a new kind of pattern recognition. Conde Nast may or may not be equal to the task. And this threatens the enterprise with what Taleb would call a “black swan” (i.e., an unanticipated disruption) because someone out there surely is.

Conde Nast uses conventional categories of understanding…at the very moment when these are being deformed and reformed. It uses language like “story,” “politics,” “artist,” “family,” “corporation,” “community,” “self,” “democracy,” as if these terms had not been blown to bits. This makes Conde Nast journalism a shell game. We can’t know what it’s saying. That is unless the story is formed by genre, in which cases it’s not clear why we’re bothering with it in the first place.

The loyalty to the “story” model of journalism is understandable. Simplicity, clarity, everyday language, these represent the deepest contracts between journalist and reader. But the underlying assumptions are now up for grabs. To presume them blithely on the page, it’s like taking Bolivian currency from the 19th century to our local Bank of America and hoping for a kind reception. The old exchange models are broken. We can’t use them to talk about the world in a way that matters.

Glassy and calm. That’s the quality of much American journalism. Beneath the text murmurs a lovely conviction: “this is obvious, you are smart, hey, you get it, let’s move on.” This has always been a little disingenuous. Now it’s flat out dissembling. (Well, unless of course it’s delusional. I mean, if the journalist does not recognize the sleight of hand he/she performs.) We have scant grounds for confidence. The only thing we know for certain is that the world streams with change, that most propositional bets are iffy, that most rhetorical devices are unreliable. The biggest shared assumption of all, of course, is that we share assumptions. This is really unreliable. And if this is now in question, it’s time to stop making glib assumptions about our ability to create the effortless, efficient or reliable acts of communication. (I make this argument only to contradict my argument. Sorry. Not sorry.)

Long form work has a problem of its own. The author, present but unassuming, starts us off with a very particular story, and mines the details every so patiently until the transmission of the idea is accomplished as if by magic. One of the masters of this form is John McPhee, a writer who was so good at making the details speak that The New Yorker is now addicted to his voice. It’s as if the journalist is frightened of frightening the horses. She must now eschew abstractions, metaphors, reckless claims (as above). It’s all so very patronizing. And laborious. And finally, if we are going to be honest about it, ever so slightly anti-intellectual. (Gasp.)

And then there is the herd mentality as people cluster around the intellectual trend of the moment. Someone has an idea (say, “digital engagement is bad for you!”) and then for several months everyone gives voice to exactly the same revelation as if it were new, fresh and totally original. It becomes the worldly, the tough minded, the “I really care about the world,” thing to say on line and especially over drinks. As if, God forgive us, there could be something entirely, unreservedly wrong about a technology that gives us instant access to knowledge and social connection whenever, wherever we want. The New Yorker should be working harder to murder nonsense in its crib.

I am not calling for philosophical discourse, pontificating experts or academics going all papal on us. The post modernists broke the Liberal Arts and they just don’t care. They have committed a crime against the species, and they just don’t care. The last thing we want them to do is have a go at public discourse.

In a sense, this is simple Marc Andreessenian wisdom. Publishing has suffered a disintermediation. Software is eating the world. Magazines were a nice light snack. Put it this way, and the future is clear. We have to find a way to change how a magazine mediates between the reader and the world. The solutions will not be merely digital. There is no simple UX solution, no algorithmic fix. We have to rethink categories and conventions, all that cultural stuff. All that cultural stuff the digital world likes to think is residual and likely to work out on its own. But it won’t. So the problem may be Andreessenian, but the solution probably won’t be.

Thoughts on how to create value

1) The real insight comes not from “story” but from the deeper dive and the bigger picture. The middle matters less and less. Go high. Dig deep.

2) The language of the story is itself a story. We can’t assume that even the simplest terms are reliable. Examine assumptions. Entertain alternatives. Show what differences follow from one choice over another. Most of all, we want to use language not as something transparent to reality, but as something that needs reformation.

3) There is no privileged point of view. Tell the story from several points of view, class, race, gender. Identities flourish. We are multi-perspectival. (Without being in the least Baudrillardian about it. Meaning matters. Culture continues.) This should look great on the page. And it is the world according to John Stewart Mill. So.

4) Let’s stop acting as if the story, once told, is over. What the reader needs is an arc. What came before. Where things stand now. Where things might go from here. Show things in process. This change is just now taking place in the strategic world. Until very recently, strategy firms would sell the client on a new idea with the implicit notion that “change this and you are done!” We are beginning to see that good strategies have a “best by” date. Let’s advise readers as we do clients: “this too shall pass. We want you to get into this strategy/stock/market/innovation in 12 months and out of it in 24 months.” The story is a window. Everything rushes through it.

5) Even the most sinuous prose style will not be sufficient. We need statistical data. Nothing effortful. Let’s be honest. No one wants to “do the math.” But data visualizations, these are essential. Again, it’s a world in motion and a story that only quantitative data can tell.

6) And speaking of Peter Kafka (and Kara Swisher), we must ask why pod casts are flourishing. Some insights come most surely when crackling up out of all the “noise on the line” of a real conversation. It turns out that some of the stuff the writer was supposed to eliminate, we want back in. Why? That’s a story too.

What publication will step up and reinvent reporting? The world set sail. Journalism stands on a wharf in 19th century Manhattan, smiling bravely. Who will rescue it?

in sum 3: parts of journalism are broken

It’s a lot to fix. The value proposition, the relationship and the model. Until we fix these problems, we can’t hope to fix the business model. We won’t get people to pay for content. But once we do, they will. The new journalism will be worth a fortune.

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently CulturematicFlock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is a cofounder of the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He advises widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Boston Book Festival, Nike, and the White House (no, the other one).

The Gift Economy: A reply to Clay Shirky

PhotosI came across a post today by Gaby Dunn called “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame.” Dunn gives us YouTube and Instagram celebrities forced to live hand to mouth. It reminded me of an essay I wrote months ago, shelved and then forgot. Here’s a piece of the larger whole.

Consider this crude calculation. Let’s posit 100 people each of whom is producing 10 artifacts a year for the digital domain. (Artifacts include blog posts, fan fiction, web sites, remixes, podcasts, fan art, Pinterest pages, and so on.) We are going to assume that these creative efforts are funded by day jobs, scholarships, and parental support. With this subvention, this “gift economy” produces 1000 artifacts a year. Some of this work is rich and interesting.

The creators are rewarded for their work with acknowledgment and gratitude. The exchange is ruled by what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would call “generalized reciprocity.” (See his Stone Age Economics.) Gifts are given without expectation of immediate or exact return. There is lots of cultural meaning here but no real economic value.

Let’s release economic value into the system. Now, the best work costs. We pay for ownership or for access. We could even use a “tipping” system. When we admire a piece of fan art, we tip the creator. This tip could come out of the $5 our ISP returns to us from our subscription fee. Or it could be supplied to us by Google which has been the overwhelming beneficiary of the content we have put online. A postmodern PayPal springs up to make this distribution system easy.

Thirty of our 100 kids are now accumulating value. The best of them are accumulating quite a lot of value. Let’s suppose that a piece of fan art, drafting on the success of a hit TV show, goes viral. Let’s say it’s viewed by an audience of 100,000 people, twenty percent of whom tip 40 cents on average. The result, eight thousand dollars, is not a prince’s ransom. (I would check these numbers. An anthropologist with a calculator is a dangerous thing.) And if it is used to allow someone to move out of their parent’s basement, it has no obvious cultural effect.

But if our winner uses the money to take the summer off from her job at McDonald’s, this is a difference from which real differences can spring. Now a good artist can become a more productive artist and eventually a better artist. And a virtuous cycle is set in train. More and better work brings in more income, more income becomes more time free for work, and this leads to more improvements in art and income. Eventually, the McDonald’s job can be given up altogether.

In this scenario, the gift economy loses…but culture wins. The supply of good work increases. Standards rise. Good artists get better.

I expect this vista will make Clay Shirky’s eyes water and possibly tear. (My text is Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.) He might well feel this is a brutal intrusion of capital into a magical world of generosity.

Not so fast. In point of fact, the internet as a gift economy is an illusion. This domain is not funding itself. It is smuggling in the resources that sustain it, and to the extent that Shirky’s account helps conceal this market economy, he’s a smuggler too. This world cannot sustain itself without subventions. And to this extent it’s a lie.

Shirky insists that generalized reciprocity is the preferred modality. But is it?

[In the world of fan fic, there] is a “two worlds” view of creative acts. The world of money, where [established author, J.K.] Rowling lives, is the one where creators are paid for their work. Fan fiction authors by definition do not inhabit this world, and more important, they rarely aspire to inhabit it. Instead, they often choose to work in the world of affection, where the goal is to be recognized by others for doing something creative within a particular fictional universe. (p. 92)

Good and all, but, again, not quite of this world. A very bad situation, one that punishes creators and our culture, is held up as somehow exemplary. But of course reputation economies spring up, but we don’t have to choose. We can have both market and reputation economies. But it’s wrong surely, to make the latter a substitute for the former.

Shirky appears to be persuaded that it’s “ok” for creators to create without material reward. But I think it’s probably true that they are making the best of a bad situation. Recently, I was doing an interview with a young respondent. We were talking about her blog, a wonderful combination of imagination and mischief. I asked her if she was paid for this work and she said she was not. “Do you think you should be paid?” I asked.

She looked at me for a second to make sure I was serious about the question, thought for a moment and then, in a low voice and in a measured somewhat insistent way, said, “Yes, I think I should be paid.” There was something about her tone of voice that said, “Payment is what is supposed to happen when you do work as good as mine.”

One data point hardly represents proof of my position. But it does suggest what might happen when the possibility of payment enters the world. A light goes on. The present internet is so much a gift economy and so little a market one, that it is hard for its occupants to imagine alternatives.

I am not going to take up the intrinsic — extensive distinction that matters here. Clearly, people are now being “paid” in intrinsic satisfactions. They are making great work online for the sake of doing so. But I believe it’s true that here too the intrinsic was never meant to be a substitute for the extrinsic. The luckiest people in the world get paid twice, with intrinsic satisfaction and extrinsic value. That’s actually what we’re hoping for. This is, mark you, the way the academic world mostly works. Surely, it’s wrong and a little odd to celebrate the intrinsic as an alternative to the extrinsic.

But let’s get to the very large elephant in the room. It is the career satisfactions of the so-called Millennial generation. This group has suffered diminished career options. They have been obliged to work as interns, always with the promise that this would prepare them the “real job” to come. But of course the “real job” often never comes. The obligation to work for free online reproduces the obligation of working for free in the world, as if life were one long internship, unbroken and unpaid. After a while it begins to look like one’s lot in life. My research reveals a culture of compliance in which members of this generation agree to agree that their present circumstances are not outrageous. Millennial optimism and good humor endures. (Let’s imagine if someone had tried to pull this on Gen X. Oh, wait, someone did. The reaction was an “alternative” culture and a ferocious repudiation of the status quo.)

But back to our academic contemplation of the gift economy. When Shirky says that work given “freely” on line is a great act of generosity, I think we’re entitled to say that generosity is only properly so-called when there are alternatives. And there aren’t. Forced generosity isn’t generosity.

Still more troubling, the gift economy has a second guilty secret. People can only participate if they have access to resources from outside the digital world. In fact, the moral economy excludes people who do not have wealthy parents, generous scholarships, or rewarding day jobs. If someone is poor, uneducated, and or underemployed, it is hard to participate. So much for generosity and connectivity.

Because the “generosity” view is an idealistic view, it feels somehow above reproach. Clearly for Shirky it is manifestly good. But when people are driven by generosity and rewarded with community, something goes missing. Good artists are denied the resources that would make them better. A generation continues to go underemployed. The next evolutionary moment is lost. A series of social and cultural innovations are not forthcoming. The real generative engine of our culture falls silent.

Some will object that there is an economy online even if financial capital does not circulate. They will say that people are paid in reputation, acknowledgement and thanks. Well, yes. But mostly no. The trouble with “acknowledgement” and “thanks” is that they are both mushy and illiquid. They are impossible to calculate. They cannot be exchanged for anything outside the moral economy. Acknowledgment and thanks are not worth nothing. But they verge on the gratuitous. We can “like” something with nothing more than the energy it takes to move the cursor and click the mouse. This is not quite the same as surrendering a scarce value for which sacrifices have been made. Choice, made carefully, at cost, in hope of gain and at peril of loss, this is the fundamental act of economics. Without it, all we have are bubbles of approbation. Our moral economy isn’t an economy, except in a disappointingly slack metaphorical sense.

Finally, I do not mean to be unpleasant or to indulge ad hominem attack, but I think there is something troubling about a man supported by academic salary, book sales, and speaking engagements telling Millennials how very fine it is that they occupy a gift economy which pays them, usually, nothing at all. I don’t say that Shirky has championed this inequity. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask him to acknowledge it and to grapple with its implications.

The gift economy of the digital world is a mirage. It looks like a world of plenty. It is said to be a world of generosity. But on finer examination we discover results that are uneven and stunted. Worse, we discover a world where the good work goes without reward. The more gifted producers are denied the resources that would make them still better producers and our culture richer still.

What would people, mostly Millennials, do with small amounts of capital? What enterprises, what innovations would arise? How much culture would be created? I leave for another post the question of how we could install a market economy (or a tipping system) online. And I have to say I find it a little strange we don’t have one already. Surely the next (or the present) Jack Dorsey could invent this system. Surely some brands could treat this as a chance to endear themselves to content creators. Surely, there is an opportunity for Google. If it wants to save itself from the “big business” status now approaching like a freight train, the choice is clear. Create a system that allows us to reward the extraordinary efforts of people now producing some of the best artifacts in contemporary culture.

Understanding the whole consumer

Life Photo Mark Kauffman Photographer 1955 Seattle Here are words to warm the hearts of the anthropologically minded.  

The're from The Game-Changer: how you can drive revenue and profit growth with innovation, by Lafley and Charan.  

P&G needed to look at consumer more broadly.  It tended to narrow in on only one aspect of the consumer–for example, their mouth for oral-care products, their hair for shampoo, their loads of dirty clothes and their washing machines for laundry detergents.  

P&G had essentially extracted the consumer out of her own life (and, at times, a particular body part as well!) and myopically focused on what was most important to the company–the product or the technology.  P&G has since learned to understand and appreciate her and her life–how busy she is; her job responsibilities; the role she plays for her children, husband, and other family members; and her personal and family aspirations and dreams.  

This broader view promises an advantage.

[It} has enabled the identifications of innovation opportunity that truly provide meaningful solutions to her household and personal-care needs and wants that otherwise wouldn't have been discovered through more-traditional, more-narrow, and often more-superficial methods.  (p. 36)

I think some people in marketing continue to work with a narrow view.  And I am sure it feels to them like an act of discipline.  "Look how closely we scrutinize the consumer.  Look how microscopic is our view!"  But of course, as Lafley and Charan point out, this eliminates from view the very things that make the life make sense and opportunities come to view. 

A complementary view can be found in Blue Ocean Strategy by Chan and Mauborgne.  The argument here is not that we dolly back for the bigger picture, but that we scrutinze the assumptions that shape how we see the consumer and the marketplace.  (And there is a real resonance here with Theodore Levitt's famous question, "what business are you in."  Levitt liked to point out that Detroit researcher were a little like lawyers.  They never asked a question to which they did not know the answer.)

Both the game-changer argument and the blue-oceans one represent what I think of, too parochially, I know, as anthropological reflexes.  The first, from Lafley and Charan, says, "put this consumer and this problem in its broader context," and for an anthropologist, of course, this means the cultural context.  The second, from Chan and Mauborgne, says, pay attention to the assumptions, the cultural logic, the shapes your understanding of the problem. Escape these and "blue oceans" (aka uncontested markets) open up to you.  

But this is parochial of me.  Here I am stuffing marketing models into anthropological ones, the very thing Lafley, Charan, Chan and Mauborgne criticize.  What business am I in?  


Kim, W. Chan and Renee Mauborgne.  2005.  Blue Oceans Strategy.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.  

Lafley, A.G. and Ram Charan. 2008.  The Game-changer.  New York: Crown.

Levitt, Theodore.  1986.  The Marketing Imagination.  In The Marketing Imagination.  New York: The Free Press.  


Thanks to Life and Google for access to this photo.  It's by Mark Kauffman.  It was taken in Seattle in 1955.  It's called "Young houswife taking time for a cup of coffee while her sons play around her."  here

Story time: aka commerce gets more cultural

Shipwreck_by_turner I had the honor of doing a call with Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn on Monday.  Jerry and Pip focus on "interactions between technology, business and society" and their Monday telephone "broadcast" looks at this topic from many points of view.   

To prepare myself, I scratched out these notes to clarify what an anthropologist (or at least this anthropologist) has  offer to a group like theirs.

1.  I am interested in culture and commerce, especially as they intersect.

2.  One of the things you see from this "picture window" is the arrival of new kinds of capital (cultural, social, intellectual, moral) and new kinds of exchange.  This may or may not herald the arrival of a "gift economy."

Or to put this another way: Since the 17th century we have seen culture get more commercial.  Now we are seeing commerce get more cultural.

3. Here’s a story that means to illustrate what I mean by cultural and social capitals.

In 2000, a client asked me to study rum in the Maritime provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland). 

I did my ethnographic research.  I conducted a couple of focus groups and many one-to-one interviews.  I asked men in middle age what they thought about alcohol, drinking alcohol, brands of alcohol, pubs, bars, parties, the whole "rum" package. 

The first finding, the one just sitting there are the surface of everything else I learned, was that Maritimers are great talkers, that they have a fantastic collection of stories to tell, and that Martimers are especially active as talkers when active as drinkers.  (Duh.)

Well, so, was this first finding something I could use, or was it merely an interesting observation, fun to know but not so very useful?  I decided finally this finding ought to be the point of strategic and tactical departure.  We needed to find some way of getting the brand involved in all these talkers talking.

My recommendation was that the brand ought to hire a handful of out-of-work actors, train them in the art of story telling, and set them into bars and pubs to tell a spell binding story.  It was important that this was a bar that the story teller had never been to before, and that he never went to again.  I wanted to make the story the original "mysterious stranger," a man for whom no information was forthcoming.  I wanted maximize the oddity of the event.  (I once had a brother-in-law who was such a good story teller he routinely make  the bars of St. Andrews fall completely silent and abjectly worshipful.  This guy, David Joy, was my model, I think.)   

I wasn’t entirely clear how to feature the brand.   Making it part of the story would be too obvious.  It would diminish the magic of the story telling at a stroke.  Standing everyone a round of the brand was possible but still trying to hard.  The art of this deal was to evoke the brand without damaging the story telling.  I decided finally that it would be just about right if the story teller merely ordered the brand for himself. 

The idea was to create a cultural capital.  That’s what a story is.  Naturally it had to be a good story, something with stormy seas,  calamity, heroism, inexplicable outcomes, ghost ships, nature on the rampage, phantoms, pirates, princesses, Leviathans of the deep, etc.  Just a telling of Turner’s Shipwreck of the Minotaur (pictured above) would do.  The idea, or one idea, is to tell a story that resonated with the best stories of this maritime culture.   

But it wasn’t just the story told that was key, it was the story telling.  We wanted the actor to be tall, dark and handsome.  We wanted the event to be rich in story but otherwise poor in detail.  By withholding the identity, the motive, the mission of our story teller, we were inviting other story tellers to leap into action.  In an oral culture this rich, staffed by story tellers this good, I felt certain the the bar would soon teem with many, conflicting ideas about who "this guy" was and why he had come to tell his single, perfect story.  Nature abhors a vacuum. So do talkers.

So, the idea was to have the brand gift the community with a story told and the provocation of the story telling. The oral tradition on the Maritimes was now richer by one story and provoked to make up still more stories.  And with every story told, the social capital, the connections between story tellers, will be augmented.  (We can posit a crude metric here: the more talk that flows between talkers the richer the connections between them.  The higher the quality of the talk and the more vivid the telling, the richer the connection.  The more and the more richly we interact, the deeper our social capital.  This social capital is fungible it can be spent in times of crisis and in aid of those in need.  As you can see, I am sketching as I go.  This is what precisely what needs working on and I suggested to Pip and Jerry that we find someone to sit out out to the desert in a benign version of the Manhattan project.)  Thus does cultural capital begets social capital in moments of exchange. 

I am obliged to tell you that the client absolutely hated this idea.  He actually looked at me and scowled.  (In the corporate world, in my experience, this very rarely happens.  In the interests of good relations, everyone’s a cipher.)  Part of the problem is that in those days we didn’t have the concepts we do today.  The other problem is that marketing for spirits has a long traditional of deep stupidity.  A favorite tactic is to paint an RV with the colors on the brand, put a really big image of the logo on the side, and fill it with cheerful, buxom women.  By this standard, sending in poetic story tellers may have looked like a college prank, or perhaps an anthropological self indulgence. 

But here’s the pitch I would make now, and it is a pitch in the changed world of marketing that might now actually work.  In our story teller scenario, the brand is creating a cultural meaning in the form of a story.  It sends this story out into its brand community, where the local story tellers will convert it into social capital.  These cultural and social capitals return to the brand and augment it as a kind of brand capital.  If we have augmented the cultural and social world of the drinker successfully, we will move drinkers to switch to our brand and to purchase same.  Now cultural and social capital have become a more fungible kind of capital.  Now they convert into financial capital. 

This is a value flight.  The brand releases value into the world by contributing something not for itself but for the community of consumers.  If the brand creates the right capitals, and the conversion chains work successfully, eventually value returns to them.  But this is risky.  There is no easy Smithian calculation here.  It is not possible for the brand manager to judge tit for tat. It’s hard to say how a story will create value for the corporation.  It’s harder to know how much should be invested in the story’s creation. 

4.  It looks as if the old dog of marketing is having to learn a new trick. If we want to create financial capital, we may now have to help create social and cultural capital.  This takes us a way from the old calculations of the marketplace.  We are no longer creating "utility" (or not only creating utility).  We are not making functional goods and services.  We are creating culture and society.  These have always been the off shoots of capitalism.  Here they are the very objectives of the undertaking. 

This is not a comfortable notion for many people in marketing.  We are asking the brand manager to release value into the world without any reassurance it will return.  We are saying that financial value now must sometimes come from complicated conversion chains that include cultural and social capital over which the marketer has no strict control.  But this much is clear.  The days of firing very simple messages repeatedly at monolithic groups of deeply passive consumer with the big cannons of TV, radio and print are over.  If we want the brand to resonate for the consumer, we must make it participate in culture.  We must bring the consumer in.   We must bid them to help us build the brand.  We must make ourselves companionable.  And maybe it comes to that.  Maybe its time to stop being that bore at the party, the blabbermouth in the corner, and step into the role of the story teller. 

This isn’t, in the clue train tradition of Doc Searls and David Weinberger, a matter of conversation.  We have much more to do than merely hold up our side of the conversation.  We are, whether we like it or not, the more active meaning maker in this conversation.  We have to get things started.  And we have to supply the conversations with semantic cues and interpretive riches.  But after that, then, yes, it’s very like a conversation. 

5.  The big questions, the take-aways, for anthropology:

5.1  what are the capitals, cultural and social?

5.2 how do they create one another?

5.3 how do they convert into one another?

5.4 what are the models and metrics with which we can clarify this issue?

I am hoping someone will send us to the desert to think about these issues. 

6. If I’m not crazy about the "conversation" metaphor, I’m also not sure I’m crazy about the "gift economy."  Which this space for more detailed criticism.   

Post script:

During the course of the call, I was complaining as I always do about the embargo imposed intellectuals on the serious study of culture and commerce.  (I have documented this charge in Culture and Consumption II if anyone wants the details.) I believe we are slow now to think about capital and capital conversion because of this embargo.  And this raises the question: what changed?  Why is it ok now to talk about the intersection of culture and commerce?

I caught a glimpse of one of these questions this morning when I stumbled upon this comment from Kevin Kelly on the Whole Earth Catalog. 

Kevin Kelly: The WEC helped rid us of our allergy to commerce. [Stewart] Brand believed in capitalism, just not by traditional methods. He was the first person to embrace true financial transparency. His decision to disclose WEC’s finances in the pages of the catalog had a profound ripple effect. A lot of those hippies who dropped out and tried to live off the land decided to come back and start small companies because of it. And out of that came the Googles of the world.


Kotler, Steven.  n.d.  The Whole Earth Effect.  Plenty Magazine.  Issue 24.  here


Janus The corporation contains two different creatures.  It is two different creatures.  I got to meet both of them this week.

I was talking to a guy who does marketing research for a big brand.  He said, dismissively, "

"We no longer collect any numbers.  Things change too fast.  We don’t know what to measure.  We do ethnographies and stuff…to find out what’s going on out there."

Last night I was talking to a graduate of the Sloan business school at MIT.  He doesn’t think about something unless he’s got the numbers. 

It’s weird.  It’s seems to me that the corporation is becoming more quantitative and more qualitative. Senior managers are getting more and better training in metrics.  And they are (for some purposes) now in possession of more and better data suitable for "crunching."  On the other hand, the role of concept people, the quantitative creatures, grows ever more important. Corporate wayfinding and innovation are otherwise unthinkable.

The continental drift continues.  The qualitative and the quantitative are two solitudes, they are Snow’s two cultures.  And it remains fashionable to take sides.  The numbers people sneer at the hopeless imprecision of a world without numbers.  The concept people believe that anyone who waits for the world to manifest its intentions in numbers will have waited too late. 

The world loves to organize itself on this distinction.  The bschools are sold on numbers.  I watched management at the Harvard Business School vote for still more math.  You could almost hear the collected faculty exulting.  "That’ll show em!"  And I thought to myself: "you have just made this place even more monolithic.  And HBS is supposed to be the manager’s school!" 

And of course on the concept side, there are people who are hostile to numbers and to the deeply grounded thinking that numbers make possible.  This group likes to flit from "creativity" to "innovation" to "getting in touch with their feelings."  Can it be surprising that managers think, "Good lord, you want me to trust the fate of the corporation to Peter Pan, to a person who thinks it’s attractive to be all creative and crazy and out of touch with the world." 

Finally, of course, this is an empty tribalism.  Really, in their heart’s of hearts, everyone knows you use numbers when you can, and concepts when you must. Numbers when possible, concepts when necessary.  Which is another way of saying, more qualitative, more quantitative, all the time. 

Concept to the rescue.  Is there a way to think about the qualitative and the quantitative so that they are not mutually exclusive categories? 

Is this a center-periphery relationship?  Deep inside the corporation and high up in senior management, the corporation thinks in numbers. On the edges, out "there" where it makes contact with dynamic taste and preference, it thinks in words, imagines, metaphors.  We could evoke a Medieval concept of physiology and say that the corporation (the body) is qualitative in its the organs of apprehension, and quantitative at the seat of comprehension. 

Oh, but I’m quite sure someone can do better than this.  And someone’s going to have to.  As the corporation is obliged to become more qualitative and more quantiative, we need to come to our senses.  I mean, comes to our wits.  No, our senses.  Yes, our…

Why there will always be an anthropology

Ae_logo In the Wall Street Journal today, the book review opens this way.

Consider Linda, a 31-year-old woman, single and bright.  As a student, she was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear protests.  Which is more probable?  (a) Linda is today a bank teller; (b) Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

[Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky determined] that most respondents picked "b," even though this was the narrower choice and hence the less likely one. 

Shaywitz, the reviewer, says that Kahneman and colleagues have

reshap[ed] the study of economics by challenging the assumption that a person, when faced with a choice, can be counted on to make a rational decision.

I would argue that "b" is the rational decision.  It shows us the respondent working with what he knows.  We have given him a little information and he is working this information into an intelligent choice. 

Except of course the economist will not accept a choice as intelligent unless it meets his narrow definition of the rational.  For the economist, the rational choice is the broader choice. "A" is more likely because less constrained.  From a better’s point of view, this is the right choice.  But it is not, I submit, the more rational one.  Because it forces the respondent to forget what he knows, to forgo the opportunity we have given him to make an "informed" choice.

We could do the ethnography here.  If we asked the the respondent how he thought this problem through, he would give us an account of his "rationality."  He would demonstrate that he satisfies the definition of the term according to Princeton Wordnet.  It would be easy enough to show that he occupied "the state of having good sense and sound judgment." 

Economics continues to insist on its notion of rationality when we know that this rationality is always embedded in a social context and a cultural one.  Rationality is only sometimes about calculating odds.  It’s also about working with a set of parameters and bodies of knowledge.  Rationality is almost always profoundly social and culture event. 

In the experiment reported in the WSJ, Kahneman was effectively asking the respondent to "forget what he knew" to make the rational choice.  Funny how often economics seems to ask us to do the same. 


Shaywitz, David A.  2008.  Free to choose but often wrong.  Wall Street Journal.  June 24, 2008.

Great rooms all over the place

Open_kitchen There was report yesterday in The Telegraph reporting the "death of the dining room."

More than a half million dining rooms will be demolished in Britain next year, and Halifax Home Insurance believes the dining room may have disappeared completely by 2020. 

In North America, we think of this as the rise of the" great room,"a topic we have treated in this blog a couple of times.  A vast transformation took place in our domestic world, and it reflects I think changes in how people work, how they eat, and how they interact as families.   

In particular, open kitchen is the material manifestation of feminism.  Women complained that the dining room made them servants in their own home, obliged to leave their guests and ferry things to and from the kitchen, charging through heavy doors, turning their backs on the festivities and otherwise obliged to absent themselves from the occasion. 

The open kitchen also suits new models of parenting.  Americans are inclined to raise their kids in a way that privileges emotional and physical freedom over ceremonial perfection.  From this point of view, the dining room was always a problem.  It insisted that kids be formal, still, observant, when their natural condition, especially in an over stimulating America, was more active and spontaneous.  The great invention of the new kitchen is the island at its center.  Kids treat this as a planet around which they orbit during meal time.  Less confined, they are more agreeable.  More agreeable kids make for more agreeable parents.

For both these public and private purposes, the open kitchen was an important step for the North American home.  I have once or twice looked for the figures and couldn’t ever find them.  But they must be astronomical.  The money that North Americans spent and will spend to open their homes must many hundreds of millions. 

But to see this development at work in the UK is much more remarkable, I think.  After all, the hold of Victorian propriety, the notion of the dining room as an important ritual location of family life, the belief in formality as a necessary coin in the social economy, one would guess that these are still more active in the UK…or at least not so steeply in decline as they are in the US. 

Research I did last spring suggested that the open kitchen is not just an enthusiasm of the British, but may now be seen in Germany, Belgium, France (a little less), and Poland.  This suggests either that there are non cultural forces at work here, or that there is a pan-Western cultural trend under way. Certainly, this would be consistent with the shift we see in the world of photograph where the portrait has given way to the more spontaneous action shot. 

The new orthodoxy discourages us from making even very tiny generalizations.  This means that observations about pan-Western culture should be laughably out of bounds.  But I am always surprised how little interest my respondents have in the new strictures of academic discourse.  It doesn’t matter how much I scold them, how often I give them the gospel according to Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard, they just go right ahead and remodel their kitchens.


Borland, Sophie.  2008.  Open-plan living leads to death of dining room.  The Telegraph.  January 29, 2008.  here.

Kron, Joan. 1983. Home-Psych: The social psychology of home and decoration. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.

Further reading:

Ames, Kenneth L. 1985. Why Things Matter. The Material Culture of American Homes. Unit 1 ed. Philadelphia: produced for The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.

Ames, Kenneth. 1992.  Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Carlisle, Susan G. 1982. French Homes and French Character. Landscape 26, no. 3: 13-23.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. 1992. Coal stoves and clean sinks: Housework between 1890 and 1930.  American home life, 1880-1930: A social history of spaces and services. editors Jessica H. Foy, and Thomas J. Schlereth, 211-24. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Denby, David. 1996. Buried Alive: Our children and the avalanche of crud. The New Yorker LXXII, no. 19: 48-58.

Doucet, Michael J., and John C. Weaver. 1985. Material Culture and the North American House: The Era of the Common Man, 1870-1920. The Journal of American History 72: 580-587.

Dugan, I. Jeanne. 1997. Someone’s in the kitchen with Martha. Business Week July 28, 1997: 58-59.

Foy, Jessica H., and Thomas J. Schlereth, editors. 1992. American home life, 1880-1930: A social history of spaces and services. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Gowans, Alan. 1986. The comfortable house: North American suburban architecture, 1890-1930. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Laumann, Edward. O., and James. S. House. 1970. Living Room Styles and Social Attributes: The Patterning of Material Artifacts in a Modern Urban Community. Sociology and Social Research 54, no. 3: 321-42.

Monkhouse, Christopher. 1982. The Spinning Wheel as Artifact, Symbol, and Source of Design.  Victorian Furniture: Essays from a Victorian Society Symposium. editor Kenneth L. Ames, 155-72. Nineteenth

Plante, Ellen M. 1995. The American kitchen, 1700 to the present : from hearth to highrise. New York, NY: Facts on File.

Pratt, Gerry. 1981. The House as an Expression of Social Worlds.  Housing and Identity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. editor James S. Duncan, 135-80. London: Croom Helm.

Rapoport, A. 1969. House Form and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Thompson, Eleanor McD., editor. 1998. The American home: material culture, domestic space, and family life. Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.

Vickery, Amanda. 1993. Women and the World of Goods: A Lancashire Consumer and Her Possessions, 1751-81.  Consumption and The World of Goods. editors John Brewer, and Roy Porter, 274-301. London: Routledge.

The Huffington problem: saving innovations from their early adopters

Iphone_2 Saturday, I bought an iPhone. What does that make me?  A really late adopter.  The last to know.  Very late to the party.  Malcolm Gladwell has a term for people like me but he’s too polite to use it. 

I am stunned at how intelligent the iPhone is, and I retired my Sony Ericcson W810 with no regrets.  In fact, the SE was so bad at the things the iPhone does well, I am thinking of giving it a ritual burial in the back yard, a technological exorcism, as it were.  I want to make absolutely sure it has no residual hold on me.  (Digital residue being the worst possible thing.)

The SE did one thing well.  It took miraculously good photos.  There were times when I wanted to crawl into the world so pictured and just stay there.  Apparently, this isn’t possible.  (Product feature idea?)  But the SE was bad at capturing numbers, delivering email, managing calendars, delivering music, and otherwise making itself useful. 

The SE was an exercise in claustrophobia and bean counting.  The iPhone makes it really easy to capture data. Now I get the point of a touch screen alphabet.  It allows for a bigger screen, a better speaker and an astoundingly better interface.  There is something visible, accessible, conceptual about this phone that 10 years of cell phone use had not prepared me for. It’s miraculously good.   

The question is "what took me so long?"  My wife has owned an iPhone for months and she loves it. Friends rave about it.  But I would not budge.  The problem, I think, is that for me Apple products have an air of specialness about them.  I don’t resent this air.  I just feel that it doesn’t belong to me.  I prefer to think of myself as a "plain style" kind of guy. (This may be a way of saying "I’m special" because, "behold, I am not special."  It wouldn’t be the first time a social vocabulary has coded "x" as "not x."  Protestants, they’re just plain sneaky.)

This suggests a massive marketing problem for Apple.  What makes the iPhone thrilling for its present constituency proves off putting for the rest of a muchlarger market.  This is not a technological chasm, to use Moore’s language.  It is a cultural chasm. 

So Apple is working on repositioning itself, right?  No.  The present campaign, the one that shows Microsoft and Apple as two men on a sound stage, this actually exacerbates the problem.  The execution is fine.  The ads plays perfectly.  The Apple guy is unassuming, unprovocative, likeable, more or less Canadian,in point of fact.  His opposite, the Microsoft guy, is an obnoxious, self centered blowhard.  And a lot like me.  Well, no, it’s not that I identify with the Microsoft guy.  It’s that I can’t imagine being mistaken for the Apple guy.  That’s just not me. 

I had a go at this issue some time ago, while contemplating the problem that Prius has in this regard.  There is a slightly holier than thou quality to the Huffington crowd and this has the effect of discouraging the very adoption they wish to inspire.  So we might argue here, as I did there, that Apple has been taken hostage by its adopters.  We are, in other words, wrong to think that there is a natural momentum to adoption as things pass down the diffusion stream.  In point of face, there is a chasm here that must be finessed. 

The question is whether there might be a Diderot effect to this purchase.  Will the symbolic meanings of the iPhone creep into my sense of self, and gradually set in train a sense of transformation.  Watch this space.


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  The Prius Problem.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.   here 

anthropology and the new branding: Kleenex for good and bad

Kleenex This is a small note of appreciation for the Kleenex "let it out" ad now running on television.  You may have seen it.  It features people weeping copiously in public. 

Now, this is the last place you would expect a brand to play.  Big emotions?  In public?  People losing control of the feelings?  In public?

Something in the culture of marketing balks at this.  Emotions in advertising were supposed to be upbeat, cheery, and peppy.  That’s why we have been forced suffer all that "fun in the sun" advertising. Addled icons like The Doublemint Twins, the forced good humor of a family drive to Knott’s Landing, the spectacular gratitude that came from discovering just how much fun to operate a George Foreman grill, these were the emotional orthodoxies of the advertising world.  Negative emotions were forbidden.  The culture created by capitalism was thin and risible. 

Plus, something in the culture of marketing balked at associating the brand with something it couldn’t "own."  What marketers really wanted was the Unique Selling Proposition, the one functional utility the brand possessed over all others.  People crying in public?  Who could own this? 

We can imagine the contest that took place within the agency (JWT, New York) and the brand (Kimberly-Clark).  In the old days, "let it out" was an impossible marketing proposition and even today it remains a struggle.  So hat’s off to the agency team and the marketing group.  Hat’s off, specifically, to Walt Connelly, Toby Barlow as executive creative directors, Jim Carroll as art director; Richie Glickman as creative director/copywriter, all of JWT New York.

The fact that "let it out" appears in this campaign tells us that marketing is becoming a little more anthropological.  Brands are listening to their publics more closely. They are taking in aspects of the human experience more broadly.  They are playing back things that have a little more narrative or at least dramatic oomph.  They are now prepared to send their brands up the value hierarchy.  They are making themselves partners to larger, worthier undertakings than fun in the sun.  (See for instance the work done by Done on the ideas we have about beauty and bodies.) 

Here’s text I found on the website.

Why do people keep things bottled up inside?
It makes no sense. Nothing good comes from that.
With that in mind, we invite and encourage you to let it out.
Let out your tears, your joy, your anger, your frustration, your laughter and even your snot.
Because you’ll feel better.
How do we know?
Because we recently went across America and watched all kinds of people let out all kinds of stuff.
Some of those moments ended up on tv.
Others are right here for your viewing pleasure.
So go ahead, check them out — then let it out™.

Ok, let’s stop right there.  Apparently, KC has trademarked "let it out."  And this is proof that the corporation and marketing still has a lot to learn.  When you seek to make cultural meanings part of the brand proposition, you are a guest in someone’s house.  The moment you start stuffing the silver into your pockets, that’s when we’re going to ask you to leave.

You can find the Let It Out website here.   

More reading for the holidays

The_bourgeois_virtues Now that you’ve finished Martin Cruz Smith’s Stalin’s Ghost, may I suggest something in a non-fiction, grand-theme, deeply thoughtful, wonderfully written treatise.  Something that takes on the big question, specially, how market societies manage to work as societies. 

May I recommend The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey. 

My favorite quote so far:

But the assault on the alleged vices of the bourgeoisie and capitalism after 1848 made an impossible Best into the enemy of an actual Good. (2)


McCloskey, Deirdre.  2006.  The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an age of commerce.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  Order it here.   

Orphan objects: new markets, new cultures

Prescription_bottle Here’s what I got from my sister for Christmas.  It’s her best gift ever.  (Click on the object to make it larger.)

I know it looks like an 25 year old prescription bottle.  That’s because it is.  It was issued on December 20, 1979 by Dr. Allman through Folkestad’s Pharmacy in Lincoln City, Oregon.  It contained Tranxene, an anxiety medicine. 

The gift is a puzzle.  My sister is saying, "What happened here?  Who was this guy?"  And it’s a good challenge because there are lots of particulars.  The patient, the doctor, the pharmacy, the place and the time are all specified.  My sister found something tagged with enough information to make historical detective work possible…but not easy. My sister sent me a message in a bottle, someone else’s message…in a prescription bottle. 

She is responding to my new hobby.  A couple of summers ago, I had found a passport for a German beautician called Erna Schonwald.  Using the internet as my new historical decoder ring I was able to access the Ellis Island website, a publication of the East Point Oysters Company in Washington, the Seattle phone book for 1923, historical details on the Cobb Medical Building built in Seattle in 1910, and the 1930 census. 

As a result, I was able to determine that Erma arrived in the US in 1923, sponsored by her brother Phillippe, a physician, who had arrived the year before with wife, children and servant in tow.  Erna went to live in Seattle where she worked for her brother as a book keeper, and lived with a woman called Ariston Schwertner.  I posted these results and actually made contact with one of Erna’s descendants.  (I am still waiting for her to take receipt of Erna’s passport.)

I think I know what happened.  My sister was at a garage sale or a yard sale. She found the prescription bottle in a pile of junk, and thought, "this will drive him crazy."  So far so good. 

What’s changed?  The internet makes each of us an amateur sleuth. There are lots of resources out there. The fact that I could find a Seattle phone book from the 1920s on line struck me as absolutely miraculous.  But there is no reason why every phone book for every year for every city shouldn’t be available eventually.  The resources are going to get steadily better.  And this means small efforts at sleuthing will bring ever greater results.  And that means that the internet will begin to satisfy the satisfaction threshhold of more and more people.  And that means that many more people will participate. And that will incent even more people to digitize phone books, and perhaps even create a sleuthing market of the kind that has sprung up around genealogy. 

That change makes for another change.  A whole set of objects should suddenly return to scrutability, as it were.  Erna’s passport that is something any good historian should have been able to make speak.   But with internet research instruments at our disposal, a vast set of objects will be capable of speech.   Passports, prescription bottles, books with plates in them, school scribblers, wallets, purses (assuming some identifiers), cell phones with data still inside, computers (assuming the same), clothing with names sewn in, automobiles, houses.  There’s a lot out there. 

And what happens then?  People would begin to restore historical details to objects, and in some cases restore the objects to owners or the ancestors of owners.  They could give them to museums.   Or they could build magnificent personal collections that attract interest from other collectors,  the historical community, and the museum world. 

Or, we can imagine a "catch and release" program, that encourages me to document my prescription bottle, tag it with the information I discover about it, and then return it to the year sale circuit.  There is something like this already in the form of Geocaching, where objects are being tagged with GPS coordinates.  I like the idea of a garage sale in which some of the objects come with data attached. 

A market will surely form, both a market for information that makes tagging orphan easier and a market for objects themselves.  Surely the better tagged an object is, the more valuable it becomes.  We can imagine a big piece of the eBay market raising on this tide.  And a culture, too.  We are on the verge of many more objects and many more people entering the curatorial world.  (Or perhaps I have that the wrong way round.)

Naturally, this raises questions of privacy.  The prescription bottle I got from my sister was once filled with an anxiety medication.  Which tells us volumes about the person to whom it was prescribed.  I have blocked out his name, because, well, maybe he doesn’t want all the world to know he was suffering anxiety in the late 1970s.  (Though, I think it’s fair to say we all were.  I carried a brown paper bag with me everywhere I went.)  Are we entitled to retrospective privacy?  Tough one. 


McCracken, Grant.  2006.  What I did on my summer vacation (or, "May I have your passport, please?")  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 22, 2006.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2003.  Tag, We’re it.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  January 05, 2003.  here.   

Nicolas Negroponte’s difference engine

One_laptop_per_child_olpc Now that I have placed my order, I learn that the OLPC is in trouble, big trouble.  Nicholas Negroponte’s 3rd world computer is under attack.

OLPC was purported to have commitments from Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, and Thailand to buy 1 million computers each.  A published report says Libya was going to buy 1.2 million computers.  The Taiwanese manufacturer was told to expect orders of 5 to 8 million. That’s all over now.

Now, there is competition in the marketplace.  Now, Nigeria is in line to buy  "Classmate" computers from Intel. 

Now, there’s bad-mouthing from rival C-Suites.  The Intel Chairman called the OLPC computer a "gadget."  And Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, let fly with this:

Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you are not sitting there cranking the thing while you’re trying to type.

This is brave talk for a guy who hasn’t had an idea since the 20th century.  Microsoft is Japan circa 1950, an imitator incapable of innovation that matters.  (And if you don’t believe me, I have a Zune I’d like to sell you.) 

Here’s the thing in a nut shell: Negroponte’s One Computer Per Child project looked like a brilliant, necessary idea in 2005.  Now it’s a project in shambles.

Right?  Wrong.  We could argue that Intel and Microsoft are rushing this market precisely because they were terrified that the first one in could own it.  And this is a way of saying that Negroponte almost certainly moved up the Intel and Microsoft participation by, what?, a couple of years.  Now we have a robust market, with real choices, competitors with deep pockets, momentum, urgency; not philanthropy, but that beast called capitalism.

And what’s that worth?  To move everything up by a couple of years? Naturally, this is one of those calculations that don’t calculate very well.  But at a minimum we would want to factor in 

Kids who:

get on line
get knowledge
make knowledge
distribute knowledge
make friends
join networks
build networks
teach themselves to read
master math
become more cosmopolitan
learn to think clearly
learn to solve problems
learn to teach
learn to lead
learn to enterprise
learn to spot zealotry and jingoism
learn to refuse prejudice and violence
create value for their families, communities, country, the human community

x some millions

x ~2 years

Damn.  Who called the computer a difference engine?  Negroponte has created a lot of difference. 

Does he get thanked?  No, he gets dissed and displaced.  He pays yet another penalty of taking the lead.  He is paying for making a market where once there was none.  Someday we’ll come to our senses.  Negroponte will get his Nobel Peace Prize.  In the meantime, this must really suck. 


Markoff, John.  2004.  Silicon Valley Seeks Peace in War With Microsoft.  New York Times.  April 4, 2004.  here

Stecklow, Steve and James Bandler.  2007.  A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions: How a Computer for the Poor Got Stomped by Tech Giants. Wall Street Journal.  November 24-25, 2007.  here.


For more details on the One Laptop Per Child "Give One, Get One" program, go here

PSA (Plain Style Anthropology)

Picassodon_quixote_2 Last week, I had the honor of speaking to a distinguished senior anthropologist.  (I will name him, if he’ll let me.)  We talked about a lot of things, but we stopped a moment to mourn the rise of a post modern anthropology. 

Today, I came across these well chosen words in the Times Literary Supplement. 
Traditionalists who lament the decline of old crafts and media in Western art are mourning a loss not so much of sophistication as of innocence.  It is not nowadays enough just to depict things because you think they’re interesting to think about, or, God forbid, pleasing to look at.  The almost Maoist culture of self-examination, and critical engagement with this or that artistic tradition, which modern Western art schools enforce, give much contemporary art its force, but also contribute to one big weakness.  Much contemporary art is what an old-school aesthete would call mannerist – it’s art about art, not art about life.

Different field, same problem, apparently.  For many of my disciplinary brothers and sisters, anthropology is about anthropology, not about life.  It’s mannerist.

Now I would like to say that I refused mannerist anthropology, rising up to slay the postmodern dragon with the bright sword of my Chicago training.  But the fact of the matter is simpler and less noble.  I make my living as a practicing anthropologist and post modernist verities don’t serve me very well. 

This October I will have done projects for a new media firm, a Canadian telecom, a sporting equipment company, and a research firm, and I will have given presentations to designers, financial marketers, and people interested in trends.  Every report and presentation was designed to fit what I believed would serve my client, and never once did it seem to me they needed to hear choice words from Derrida or Lacan.   I need ideas I can use, because I make my living selling ideas that clients can use. 

But no, it’s probably not just pragmatism.  It’s not just the market imposing an intellectual discipline.  I am Scottish Canadian Presbyterian of middle age for whom the "plain style" is more or less built in.  (I had to get over the pretensions of my youth for these to become clear.)  Postmodernism is too slushy for me.  (It may herald an epistemological springtime, but this Canadian wants the bracing clarities of a winter’s day.)  I think best when using simple propositions, put as plainly as possible, with evidence and argument summoned as necessary (and no more), with a "garnish" of metaphor to make comprehension faster and more fun. 

Plain style anthropology comes with engineering specs on the outside.  You can see what the pieces (propositions) are and how the relationships (the argument) work.  You can see what the fault lies, and what needs fixing…when something needs fixing.  And yes I understand that I making old fashioned demands, and that these badly misunderstand the intellectual, political and epistemological challenges before us.  But hey, I have a problem to solve, a client to satisfy, a post to right, and I have, usually, 40 minutes to wrap things up.  You’ve noticed I expect that postmodernists have a way of making the same argument over and over again.  They are, after all, mannerists.  Anthropology is about anthropology and always, come to that, the same anthropology. 


Miller, Keith.  2007.  More whaling and shouting.  Times Literary Supplement.  October 19, 2007, p. 17. 

Gratuitous remarks

I have just started up reading TLS after years away from it, and I have to say what a pleasure it is.  It’s never very expensive and it would be good value at 4 times the cost. 


Sorry not to have been posting.  I am at a kind of brainstorming thing in Mexico and time and internet access are in short supply.

Nike + and the creation of private and public consumer value

Nike_plus_for_grant_oct_23 When BusinessWeek gets around to choosing the best innovation of 2007, Nike + will win going away.  It’s an astonishing development.

Here’s how it works: I put a chip in my (Nike) running shoe.  This broadcasts information to the iPod nano I carry with me on the run.  I come home from a run (more usually, a walk) and my iPod uploads my running information to the Nike website where it is aggregated with all the other running/walking data uploaded by all the other runners and walkers in America.

I know.  I know.  This is one of those classic innovation moments that makes you go, "Wait.  What?"  Actually, this is actually what I got engraved on my Nano.  There’s a good chance you will have to try this technology before it makes perfect sense.

See the image insert.  (Clicking on it will make it easier to read.)  This describes my walk for yesterday.  The line represents the moments I sped up and slowed down.  It appears that I came to a dead stop at one point.  I have no idea what happened there. Mooning over flowers, possibly?  You can see the overall distance. Along the top are my accumulated stats.  As I say, I am walking on most trips, so that’s why the mile per hour figure is so large. 

One way to understand this innovation is to look at the private and public value it creates.

Exercise is lonely, painful, and boring.  And this is enough to discourage most people from doing it faithfully (or at all).  Nike + can’t actually do anything about the painful part, but it gets at lonely and boring very effectively.  It allows everyone to devote their miles to challenges. 

This means, for instance, that everyone on the South side of Chicago can now use their miles to compete against everyone on the North side of Chicago.  The Nike + works as a vast spread sheet.  It sums all the runs.  At the end of every day, you can watch your run uploaded and you can see who’s winning the challenges you belong to. 

That’s an incentive that may launch a couch potato out of the house. If our runner is just running for himself, well, the temptation to remain housebound is strong.  But if he is now running for everyone on the South side of Chicago, and his team now happens to be just a few hundred miles from acing those North side numskulls, it’s a different proposition altogether.

The private value is that I exercise more.  The public value is that I now "belong" to and participate with collectivities that would otherwise not much interest me.  This is a kind of mechanized networking of the kind we see more and more of. 

Of course, these are early days.  I am using my accumulated miles to compete in a competition between my little town in Connecticut and Steam Boat Springs, Colorado.  It’s not going very well.  No one in Steam Boat Springs has picked up the challenge.  Or maybe that’s not so bad.  (We could take this one.)   My little town in Connecticut is not always the friendliest place in the world.  (That New England frostiness, you know.)  But I can see our competition with Steam Boat Sprngs changing changing that a little.   (I also issued an open challenge to all the towns smaller than 5 k in Connecticut, proving that I didn’t really get how challenges work.)  As I say, it’s early days.  This is one of those technologies that is going to find its own applications, and amaze us as it does.

I wonder if we are going to see that Nike miles "on the ground" will become anything like frequent-flyer miles "in the air."  We were all surprised to see the air miles became a measure for things other than travel and a currency in markets beyond the frequent-flyer one.  It’s not hard to imagine runners becoming "mile philanthropists," donating their miles to worthing causes, with brands other than Nike matching them mile for mile. 

But these are down stream effects.  In the meantime, the question is simply: did Nike accomplish something that is good for the brand.  Well, in my own experience, it just went from being another sports supplier to an enabler that has changed the way I think about exercise and the way I participate in it. More than that, Nike has found a way to amplify my accomplishments…and then broadcast them. 

Talk about engagement.  Talk about partnering with the consumer! Talk about brand and consumer cocreating.  Geez, Louise, this is good marketing.

post script

I am traveling most of tomorrow.  I will blog if I can but I will be most of the day in the plane.

post script 2

The partnership with iPod uses music in some interesting and useful ways.  I left out this part of the story to simplify the exposition.


The website for Nike + is here as a Harvard Business School case study

Gawker One of the joys of teaching at the Harvard Business School was watching 80 students take on a problem, chew through the data, and work their way to clarity.

What would they do with "Everybody Sucks"?  This is an exquisitely interesting article in the current issue of New York Magazine.  It treats Gawker, the gossip column that has attracted so much attention recently on the web. 

I propose to treat "Everybody Sucks" as if it were a case study tossed into the Piranha-filled waters of HBS classroom.  I don’t say that I will do as good a job as 80 HBS students.  But I’m going to try. 

Extracting the issues

1. the tone of the article is agonized, and it doesn’t take long to see why.  The author, Vanessa Grigoriadis, is caught in a contradiction. She is a member of a journalist class that has long enjoyed the pleasure of playing the outsider, telling truth to power.  For someone who belongs to this class, Gawker comes as a nasty surprise.  It is a website that treats journalists as they treat the rest of New York. Gawker has scorned Grigoriadis herself, "dragging my family," she says, "into [a] foul, bloggy sewer…"

2. Grigoriadis’ discomfort is something more than a personal problem.  It is something more than a sociological switcheroo.  It is an technological and economic issue in so far as it represents the disintermediation of a marketplace.  The internet makes possible another lawyer of journalism, a new medium for public discourse, and the participation of a new generation of individuals, as a result of which journalists matter less than they used to.  They do not control our access to the news, as once they did.  They do not shape our understanding of the world, as once they did.  They do not play gatekeeper, as once they did.  This elite has lost power. (And this is a special injury for journalists.  Badly paid, and shabbily treated, power was the best of their compensations.)

3. How old is Gawker?  Not very.  (I can get away with this sort of thing on a blog.  In the HBS classroom, everyone would have extracted this from the article.  Ok, it was 2002.  I looked.)  In this brief history, Gawker has undergone a disintermediation of its own.  In the early days, comments on site were an "embarrassment," to use the language of Gawker owner Nick Denton.  But they are now, he says, a strength.  Post comments introduce what Denton calls an element of "anarchy" Gawker was beginning to lose.

4.  Here we could depend upon a student to observe the rise of "commenter value" and to say that even the disintermediators are now at risk of being disintermediated.  The Gawker bloggers who challenged New York journalists are now being challenged in their turn by Gawker commenters. 

5.  And this latter-day change suggests the possibility of another business model, which Grigoriadis sketches in the following way:

Gawker as an automated message board, with commenters generating exponentially greater numbers of page views as they click all over the site to see reactions to their comments, could be the dream.  There would then be no editors to pay…  (135)

This is extraordinary.  I am not sure we would want to call it an exercise in the wisdom of crowds.  It’s spleen soaked discourse, as if the body politic has lost all bladder control.  But the idea of journalist-free journalism, this is interesting.

6. Some debate would surely turn on how how very disagreeable Gawker is.  It is a "foul, bloggy sewer."  It specializes in the ad hominem attack. Indeed, it has turned this into the exclusive stuff of its "journalism."  We might argue, in its defense, that this is what we ask of journalism.  Doubting people’s motives, puncturing their pretensions, seeing past their self serving accounts of what they do, this is what the press is for.  But Gawker takes this to an extreme so loathsome, it diminishes the reader as much as the victim. 

Not a week goes by when I don’t want to quit this job, because staring at New York in this way makes me sick.  (Choire Sicha, Gawker managing editor, p. 42)

It is finally, I would guess, the person who works at Gawker who pays the highest price.  If you doubted and diminished motives 12 posts a day, surely an accumulated cynicism must eventually render you incapable of participating in contemporary culture in any other way

7. There is a larger way to make this argument and surely someone in the classroom can be relied upon to chime out this: Gawker is merely the latest symptom of a cultural decline, further proof that Western Civilization is going to hell in a handbasket, incontrovertible evidence that politesse is dying and civility is dead.

8. Another student else could be relied upon to respond that this is perhaps the essential truth of capitalism, that we live in a culture shaped by what people want, not what we think they should want.  The success of Gawker tells us that people want to read this stuff.  This doesn’t make Gawker right, or true, or just.  But it does mean that it has a constituency, that it represents a market. Finally, it’s not about us.  It’s about the reader.  And this, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely what makes markets responsive, and, yes, unseemly.  But if you have to choose…and we do.

9.  There is an anthropological observation to make here, and this kind of thing is notoriously difficult to get into the HBS classroom and culture.  And that is that people have been declaring the decline of Western civilization for some hundreds of years.  And I think it’s fair to say that even by the most typical Victorian standard, even the most conservative among us looks slovenly and vulgar, a lawless wretch incapable of probity or finer feeling.  We are horrified by what we see there, but our children and our children’s children may will wonder what the issue was. 

10. We are reacting to the reformation of our culture and the not very dangerous decline of old sensitivities.  Most everything that has happened in the last 100 years tells us that these sensitivities may be "reset" without actually damaging the moral core on which restraint and civilization depend.  Western civ will survive even this.   (Why do we think it’s so delicate?) 

11. What we are hoping for is that someone has picked up a stray sentence buried in the middle of the article, dropped into the article by Grigoriadis without further comment. 

Denton…gives free reign to editors to attack anyone they’d like (only ex-employees get a free pass).  (43)

Case studies are sly creatures.  They hide the best things, the better to give the clever students a chance to identify themselves. 

12. Let’s begin with the disagreeable contradiction.  This "fearless journalism," "anti-media," "friend of the people" stuff only works when no one is protected.  The moment you exempt your own is the moment you become yet another special pleader, a vested interest, and a perfect scoundrel. 

13. But, hey, this is a case study…in a business school…searching out opportunity, and as opportunities go, this is an absolute beauty.  In my classroom, it would have been someone like Charles Hale, Yen Liow, Neil Houghton, students who would have surveyed the problem, spotted the opportunity, and schooled us with 40 well filled seconds of observation and a new map of the problem.

The moment Denton exempts his staff, he opens a competitive opportunity.  Why not a Gawker watcher website that catalogs the real and imagined life failings of people who once worked for Gawker? 

Let’s calculate the number of people Gawker has offended, the depth of the offense, and their wish for revenge.   Small number, big offense.  (What would these numbers look like?)

We want three things for this group:

1. we want them to come to our "Gawker watcher" website
2. we want them to supply content for the website by remarking on the lives of ex-Gawker employees
3. we want them to act as early adopters who spread the word of our website

Gawker victims have been deeply, publicly wounded.  The need for revenge must run deep.  And it is not as if they do not control the means of production.  They are talented writers equipped with research skills, and they occupy a proximate professional and social world. They know who the ex-Gawker writers are.  They know where they live.  Failing that, they know how to find them.  Failing that, they will feel themselves to have a license to just make stuff up, the more damaging the better.  We can rely on Gawker watcher to make up in creative writing anything it happens to lack in investigative reporting.

14. Classroom debate will  center on whether a little website like "Gawker watcher" could ever scale up.  If it remains a local New York enthusiasm written about a tiny world by a world that isn’t much bigger, I mean, really, who cares?  But that’s the point about small enterprise and the classic start up.  All you really need is the beachhead, the place from which to start.  Once that’s in place, we can add on additional content, new targets, bigger audiences.  We can bootstrap it upwards.  The question is this: is there enough here in the first instance to give us purchase in the marketplace, to carve out a little niche in a world where, frankly, Denton now controls the waterfront with the powers of a mob boss or a union head.

15. The business opportunity aside, I wonder if the presence of a Gawker watcher website would have a salutary effect on Gawker itself.  If I were a present Gawker writer, such a thing would give me pause.  The knowledge that my victim is now supplied with the opportunity to defame me, this might change what I say.  The Gawker proposition depends on the fact that it is the only credible player in the ad hominem game.  Surely, it is only a matter of time before the marketplace responds to evident demand with interesting supply, and it will be interesting to see what difference that difference makes.   

In any case, our case study turns on someone spotting the fact that Gawker has made a mistake.  Nick Denton has given someone an opening, a way to steal a march.  See the opportunity, take the opportunity, scale up the operation, make a name for yourself in the process, sell early, buy a house in the south of France.  It’s what an MBA is for.


Grigoriadis, Vanessa.  2007.  Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the rage of the creative underclass.  New York Magazine.  October 22, 2007.