Tag Archives: Commodity

Who Built the Internet? Studly Genius Individuals! (Part 4)

Thus far Crovitz’s and Manjoo’s positions are located within modernist historiographical and liberal conceptions over the battles of freedom, with network technology as a proxy battlefield, and the role of states and corporations as extenders or inhibitors of those freedoms. The third leg of this modernist battle has to be initiated by the sole genius and his impact on the development of the internet. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Snacks, Widgets, and Pills: What I Learned from Ethnographic Consumer Research

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s previous post here.]

Anthropology as a discipline and ethnography as a set of practices enjoyed a period of heightened popularity in the world of market research in the U.S. from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.  During that time, anthropology was seen as the “next big thing,” a new, improved way of understanding the behaviors and motivations of consumers.  Stories about the special insights that ethnography could bring offer abounded in the popular press, trade journals, and even on NPR’s Motley Fool radio show.  Advertising firms and makers of consumer goods touted ethnography’s ability to offer a more authentic and deeper view of consumer attitudes and practices.  These enhanced understandings, it was promised, would enable ad agencies and product manufacturers to target new markets, develop new products, transform their brand image, and, ultimately, sell more snacks and widgets.  My entry into this landscape was a function of chance; I earned my PhD in cultural anthropology in 2002, during anthropology’s hottest corporate moment. Newly credentialed, on the academic job market, and broke, I was more than a little interested when an anthropologist friend in similar (actually, identical) circumstances told me about a small consumer research firm that was hiring anthropologists to “do ethnographies” on consumer habits. For the next three years on and off,  I worked for this small outfit and, with teams of other anthropologists and videographers, helped produce ethnographic videos and reports on products ranging from snack and convenience foods to appliances to phamaceuticals.  This snapshot of that work is not meant as expose, but rather an account of what ethnography signified and looked like in that context.  It not an entirely negative story. To be sure, much substance can be lost when knowledge is produced under such instrumentalizing constraints and conditions.  But to my surprise, this interlude furnished gains beyond the adjunct-salary-shaming paycheck. I’m still not sure that what my colleagues and I produced were ethnographies per se, but the experience, as I’ll explain, has expanded how I imagine the possibilities of ethnographic research and intellectual collaboration. Continue reading

Cinco de Mayo is the new St. Patrick’s Day

And Mexicans are the new Irish.

Growing up in Texas I always had trouble keeping Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis straight. To my mind the former was in commemoration of a colonial event, the defeat of Spain maybe, and the latter marked the date of the Mexican Revolution. Or maybe I had it backwards? And while Diez y Seis might warrant a baile folklorico demonstration or a performance from the high school mariachi band in the state capital, Cinco de Mayo was marked by the ritual of going out to a Mexican restaurant for dinner.

In college in Florida the Caribbean immigrants and the children of immigrants I came to know were just learning about Mexican American culture, so the observation of Cinco de Mayo was novel to them. All we needed was an excuse to drink margaritas and we were on our way! By the time I got to North Carolina for grad school the holiday had gone mainstream. I couldn’t help but be a little bit proud, like when salsa surpassed ketchup as America’s number one condiment. Imagine my joy when I learned that the 2005 annual meeting of SANA and CASCA would be held at UADY in Merida over Cinco de Mayo. AMAZEBALLS!! Spend Cinco de Mayo in Mexico? Hells to the yeah!

It turns out Mexicans don’t really give a shit about Cinco de Mayo. Continue reading

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

Forget Steve Jobs

I can’t stand this tech bubble blowing hagiography that has gone down since Jobs’s retirement as Apple’s CEO. Tech rag Gigaom founder Om Malik found out and cried: “It is incredibly hard for me to write right now. To me, like many of you, it is an incredibly emotional moment. I cannot look at Twitter, and through the mist in my eyes, I am having a tough time focusing on the screen of this computer.” Wired just an hour ago posted an article consisting of fawning billionaires dreamily revisiting touching Him. Come on Om, just take my hand, you can look at Twitter! So much for the illusion of journalist impartiality. Malik’s sentiment is serious though. He is one of the many who’ve gotten rich on selling the illusion of Jobs as a visionary auteur. Silicon Valley, ever the retailers of vaporware–technology that facilitates experiences we neither need nor want nor, often, come to market–needs fantasy as much as Hollywood need the illusion of celebrity to prop ups its market domination in the selling of stardust.
Jobs is an excellent example of the way a social imaginaire comes into form through corporate performance. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls social imaginaires “the way people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often…carried in images, stories, and legends.” This notion goes back to Sahlins’s “charter myths,” B. Anderson’s “imagined communities,” and Ortner’s “serious games.” Social imaginaires are internalized and form a range of practical responses not unlike Bourdieu’s “habitus.” Anthropologists are good at recognizing the mental hardware that drive action. This may be a product of our emphasis on para-biological motivation (“culture”) as well as our methodologies. Look at the emphasis on narrative in the works of Richard Sennet and Paul Rabinow, both investigating the new economies of technology through subjective stories about work and its meaning.

Anthropologist Chris Kelty, influenced by Taylor, carried the imaginaire into the world of technology with his notion of the “moral-technical imaginaire” which is a cultural situated and persuasive moral philosophy attached to the use of both open and proprietary systems. Patrice Flichy in his book Internet Imaginaire uses the work of Paul Ricœur to show how utopian and ideological discourse are two poles of a technological imaginaire. The original euphoria of a technology is utopian, as that fades, the imaginaire is mobilized to hide or mask the ideological and dominating potential of the technological assemblage. More recently, sociologist Thomas Streeter, discusses how “romantic” imaginaires of ruggedly individual hackers, inventors, countercultural tramps, and psychedelic engineers helped to encourage the federal funding and venture capital that built the infrastructure of the internet. Finally, the most accessible of these accounts of internet imaginaires is the work of Vincent Mosco who simply refers to the myth of technological transcendence with the idea of the “digital sublime.” The transhumanist movement is ripe for such an analysis.
Continue reading

Eco-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference EcoChic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”

Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV? Continue reading

Can social networking sites make money?

Social networking sites like Youtube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (the Web 2.0 bunch) are not making money. Recently, The Economist wrote about their business model which is, well, not working much:

Web 2.0 still had only one business model, advertising, and the Valley was refusing to admit that only one company (Google) with only one of its products (search advertising) had proved that the model really worked. The older internet firms, Yahoo! and AOL, were doing their best to grab a piece of the action. But the “next big things” were selling negligible advertising, often on one another’s sites. Not one of them has become an advertising success in its own right.

A suggested alternative is for them to make money through the interactions of their users (I don’t know why, but I find it a bit unsettling):

While today, these may not look like great businesses (which hasn’t stopped investors’ willingness to fund them), I’m convinced that the daily interactions of their vast memberships–and their users’ willingness to share their interests, tastes, relationships and intentions, and the massive amounts of data around users’ behavior–will eventually lead to substantial revenues and profits.

These discussions have got me wondering whether we might not be wrong in thinking of the sites in terms of how much money might be made from them. Don’t get me wrong, I use some of them, and I find them very useful, but I think that we should not throw away the idea that they might in fact not lend themselves to being turned into money-making tools.

I did not mean to imply that social networking sites should not be making money, and I did not wish to imply any distaste for money-making. As a person who uses them, and who would like to continue doing so, I would like them to make money so that they can continue operating. This post was meant to suggest that they probably would not make money because their model for generating revenue is largely based on advertising, which, as I noted, is currently not working. Another option would be to charge users for using the sites. I personally do not think this would work because people still view them as a sort of commons, therefore paying for their use might not exactly sit well with the users.

Consuming Second-Hand Clothing

The recently demolished Tejuosho Market in Lagos, Nigeria, had a part that was devoted almost entirely to the trade in second-hand clothing. In the mid-nineties, I lived somewhere close to the market, and each time I left the house to take a bus at the Yaba central motor park I walked past stalls filled with second-hand clothes. Traders who hawked their wares on the road would usually call on passers-by to patronise them. The range of items in the market ranged from Armani suits to brassiere, from neck ties to blue jeans, from Hugo Boss long sleeve shirts to Gap T-shirts, from men’s underpants to ladies’ slips, and from jackboots to office shoes. There were even the odd winter jackets.

I was about 16 years old then, and it was about the first time that I really thought about second-hand clothing. I had been wearing second-hand clothes before then, but it was a particular episode that made me realise how much it was sewn into the imagination of many everyday Nigerians. A boy who was about eight years old walked into the living room of their house and said:

‘I can smell something new! Did mummy buy some new clothes?’

Everybody is probably familiar with the smell of new textile fabric; used-clothes too have their own peculiar odour. People said that it was the smell of the chemical that was used in washing them before they were packed up and shipped to Nigeria. That was the smell the boy perceived, and that was the smell he thought was the smell of new fabric. Of course, now, thinking about it, it was certainly new, only that it was a different type of new. For the boy, and for so many other people, it was simply new clothes; clothes that started a whole new life with them. One could of course start a whole discussion about values and commodities and what is new and what is not, but what my 16 year-old self found disturbing was that the boy was so used to new cloth smelling like second-hand cloths that it was what was new to him. I think I found it disturbing because most often, using second-hand clothes was linked to poverty. I learnt better some years later.

The general name for second-hand clothing in Nigeria is okrika. The name was derived from the name of a small port town close to the more famous Port-Harcourt, in the now infamous Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. According to old-time second-hand clothes traders, that was the port through which used clothing was first imported into Nigeria, and the people of Okrika were the first to start consuming second-hand clothing, largely because that was where it was first imported. So, the name okrika stuck, and it is still the general name used to refer to second-hand clothes in Nigeria.

But there are other names too. One of them – bo si corner – is a mixture of Yoruba and English, which means, ‘go to a corner’. Buying used clothing was supposed to be a shameful thing so one only bought it in a ‘corner’, where nobody could see one. Another popular Yoruba word is wo o wo, which means ‘try it on’. Normally, shops that sold new items of clothing are reluctant to permit potential buyers to try them on; second-hand clothes traders actually encouraged their customers to try them on, while they continued haggling on the price. Another term that is used in describing second-hand clothing is ‘bend-down boutique’. Many of the traders in the market had the pieces of clothing on a huge pile through which one could rummage, looking for a piece of clothing that might catch ones attention. Once an item is picked up the haggling process starts. (The Zambians call them Salaula, the Bemba term that means ‘to rummage through a pile’ – Karen Tranberg Hansen

In some cases, one does not need to bend down to check them out because some traders ‘add value’ to the items they sell by taking time to launder them, starch them, iron them and display them on hangers at their stalls. The prices of those are higher, but they are also easier to inspect so the potential buyer does not have to take the time to rummage through a pile on the ground.

Big boys
In university I realised that many of the campus ‘big boys’ got their Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace etc. attires from some students who would go to the used clothing market to make special selections. The student-traders would pay a certain amount of money for the privilege of being the ones who make the first pick from freshly opened bales. (The clothes are packed in bales of about 55kg for exportation in the source countries). They would then take the clothes home to wash in order to get rid of some of the distinctive second-hand clothing smell, before they are sold to the ‘big boys’. Most of those who consume the higher-end products know that the items are ‘okrika’, but a popular way they justified using them was by saying that most of the new brand-names that are available in the market are in fact fake. They would fall apart after just a few washes. But one could be sure that the okrika brand-names are in fact the real deal because one was sure that they were ‘imported’ from Europe. That is actually a reason many people give for buying second-hand clothing. They are the authentic ones, not the China-made that are of much lower quality, and that are sometimes even cheaper than the second-hand ones.

All this happen in a country that bans the importation of second-hand clothing. Most people have no idea that second-hand clothing is actually not allowed into Nigeria. One of the main things I am trying to do in my dissertation is to show how second-hand clothes get to Nigeria from the source countries in Europe and North America.

My Interest in Things

Thanks Kerim!

Like Kerim wrote in the post introducing me, my ongoing dissertation is on the trade in second-hand clothing. I am trying to tease out the relations that surround the trade as it moves from the United Kingdom to Nigeria through Benin, and I am trying to deal with the pieces of clothing as what they are wherever they are. This in effect means dealing with what are at some point described as gifts (at least that is how the ‘donors’ of second-hand clothes describe what they drop in clothes banks) at other points as commodities, fundraising tool, a source of livelihood etc. Of course, Appadurai’s Social Life of Things, and Kopytoff’s cultural Biography of Things lend themselves as a framework for approaching things of this nature. The Social Life of Things was a groundbreaking work. Read what James Ferguson wrote about it in a review article:

But following the last decade’s preoccupation in anthropology with production […] on the one hand, and consumption […] on the other, Appadurai’s approach to commodities as “objects in motion” has the feel of a new departure, even while appearing at the same time as a kind of homecoming.

In short, what it did was to put culture back in the analyses of things. Ferguson writes further:

The key claim here is not that things are “social” but that they have lives; the suggestion is that the social dimension of things can be narratively approached through the conventions not only of traditional historical exposition, but through that venerable anthropological device, “life history”.

That was really groundbreaking in so many ways, and thinking about it as I am writing this, I don’t see any reason why that should not be enough for studying the trade in second-hand clothing. Save for the fact that, as a friend noted, writing a doctoral dissertation is as if one were producing an affirmation of ones existence – an affirmation that needs to be underscored by the discovery of something original. In this case, I suppose that it is not as much a desire to discover something original as it is a desire to do as much theoretical exploration as possible (although I know that I would not live up to this expection). There, of course, have to be some more recent anthropological theorising on commodities in particular and things in general so why settle for a framework from 1986?

The product of that question is what I will be blogging about during my period as a Savage Minds guest blogger. I am currently digging into the literature on commodities and things, since I see commodities as a form of things (see Keith Hart’s explication of Marx’s conceptualisation of commodities as resulting from a historical dialectic). I will be sharing and discussing some of the stuffs I read. It is an ongoing process so I welcome suggestions on where to look and what to look at.