Category Archives: Anthropology meets Economics

Screw 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.

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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