The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Computers, Encyclopedias, and Status

As a graduate student, I read an article about a small, isolated fishing village in southeast Asia, where changes to the world's economy brought a relative increase in local wealth.  What did many of the fishermen in this village do with their new-found money?  they bought televisions.  This seems straightforward enough to most of us - the village was isolated, and the purchase of a television would allow the villagers to hear about life in the outside world, to become more connected to events outside of their small town. 

Unfortunately, there was no electricity to power the televisions.  Now, the reaction to most people who hear of this is something along the lines of "wow, those foolish third-world fishermen!  Buying televisions that they can't use!  What rubes!"  In fact, I had a similar reaction when I had read that part of the article.  The reason for this reaction, though, is that those of us who live in a wired world where television, radio, and the internet are ubiqituos fail to grasp and aspect of life in this village that I suspect many of our grandparents and great-grandparents might have been in a better position to understand.  That the television wouldn't work without electricity was beside the point.  The televisions were status objects - ownership of them signaled to other villagers that the person with the television had both sufficient funds to purchase a television and that they were, in this way, more like the higher-status people in the more affluent parts of the world.  The purchase of the television wasn't about being able to watch it, it was about being perceived as the sort of person who owns such a thing.  The point wasn't to watch television programs, but rather to gain the status inherent in the ownership of the television.

Viewed in this way, the behavior of the villagers ceases to be a story of naive hicks who don't know nuthin' 'bout this here 'lectricity, and becomes the more accurate story of people living in a community where social status is vitally important and maintained in part through the ownership of goods that signal status.

And lest you think that this is a tendency relegated to villages in southeast Asia, consider the mania that we as a culture have over useless crap and sub-optimal materials that have a particular designer label, political affiliation or meaning, or are associated with a high-status individual or lifestyle (status here not necessarily meaning wealth or socio-economic standing, but rather a lifestyle to which members of a group or sub-culture aspire).  We may not buy televisions for places that are off-the-grid, but we engage in the same sorts of materials.  Even groups that pride themselves on throwing off the shackles of consumer culture engage in it.  Labels such as "organic", "free range", "natural", "spiritual", and "holistic" have often dubious meanings, but are applied to products and services in order to appeal to the desire for in-group status of people of a progressive political bent just as brand names such as "BMW" and "Versace" appeal to the more traditionally status conscious.  At times it's not even a label, as such, but rather an association: hemp as opposed to cotton because of the political associations of a hemp purchase, for example*. And of course the Right-wing crowd, traditionally religious people, the Skeptic movement, etc. all have their own version.  The motivation to purchase many items or services is motivated less than a need for that item or service or even the perceived good of doing so (in many cases, the purchase may even be counter-productive if actually analyzed) than we are by the desire to be seen by others (and even see ourselves) as the "type of person who buys/uses/likes" the thing in question.  As such, we are not so different from the villagers purchasing unusable televisions.

I thought about this today as I read this article on the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica's print edition.  While many people are either praising or demonizing this as a triumph of Wikipedia's "open source" model vs. Britannica's so-called "closed source" approach, the article makes a pretty compelling case that this has far more to do with the use of material goods to build and maintain status (my words, not the authors) than it does with any sort of technical or social aspect of Wikipedia. 

When I was a kid, by which I mean from the time I was born until I graduated from high school, computers were not ubiquitous.  Most people that I knew did not own a computer, as they were seen as being of little practical use for most people up until I was a teenager, and even then the internet didn't become a tool of widespread common use until I was in my twenties.  Thinking back, when I was in high school, those of us with computers in our home were small in number, and our parents usually viewed the computer as an educational investment - though they were often unclear as to how exactly it was supposed to aid in our educations.  However, they wished to be seen as the sorts of people who would invest in their children's education, and as such would buy the trappings of such a thing even if they didn't understand precisely how it was supposed to help us.  By contrast, the encyclopedia had long been seen as an investment in education (though there is research from the publishers themselves that indicates that the books were rarely opened and my own experience is that many people weren't quite clear how, precisely, to use them as reference tools) and as such were common in households without computers, and even most of those with them, provided that the adults of the household wanted to see themselves and be seen by others as the sort of people who invested in the children's education..

In the time since then, computers have become more widespread, and better understood.  Nowadays, it's a rare parent who doesn't have some understanding of how a computer can contribute to their child's education, making the purchase of a computer a widely agreed upon educational investment, meaning that someone wanting to be seen as the sort of person who makes such an investment can buy the tools that actually and clearly achieve this end. 

In the end, the computer may have won because it conveys the status that a set of encyclopedias once did, but simultaneously also is an tool that people know how to use and, importantly, want to use in a way that perhaps they did not want to use an encyclopedia..

*Yes, I know, there are applications for which hemp is ideally suited.  However, it is abundantly clear that many, perhaps the majority of, hemp purchasers buy the products because they are "making a statement", and gaining status within their peer group, rather than for practical reasons.

1 comment:

Evan Davis said...

Well, I think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.