The latent cultural function of technologies
Cultural forces create market demand even if supply is available more efficiently elsewhere. New technologies or methods only completely replace old when such forces dissipate.
There’s an interesting article over at The Liberal discussing the future of economic models involving free. It’s a good read, and presents some viewpoints which run counter to what Chris Anderson and other open culture web proponents have proposed on the benefits of free. Despite the fact that I’m inclined to have common ground with Chris, (esp as an artist who embraces the concept of free, all my work is openly accessible for remixing, listening, etc under creative commons) I enjoy reading and considering all viewpoints.
There’s one graph in the article that struck me, and it’s actually a part which had nothing to do with free economic models, rather, it’s on the cultural implications of technology and how/why certain things remain surprisingly functional:
It is an enigma of all technologies that we only come to understand their latent cultural function once they are no longer necessary. With the dawn of television, we came to recognize that cinema was not just about moving pictures, but an opportunity to have a night out in public. With the dawn of email, we now see that letter-writing is not just about conveying information, but a way of demonstrating greater affection or respect for the recipient.
As cinema became more associated with a night in public and less about the moving pictures themselves, over time it became tagged to social situations. It’s typical to take a first date to a movie, or decide that’s a good place to spend an afternoon with a friend. The novelty factor of moving pictures on a screen was gone the second it was in every home. Now it’s about that second, and about the time we spend with others having a shared experience first. It’s ingrained in our cultural DNA (pandemic aside) to seek cinema in public as a gathering point.
You don’t need to send letters or faxes anymore, you can just send an email. But something has happened here as well – email has made the simple idea of a handwritten letter special. How funny a notion, when not long ago this wasn’t special at all, but standard. Now the real function of letters is a way to convey messages with personality, something lacking from text. Mass messages don’t need to be sent this way anymore but a written letter sent to you, although quaint and unnecessary remains undeniably much more special and timeless. There are even startups (which do great business) that will handle creating and shipping a note that looks hand-written to recipient(s) on your behalf, a small stroke of brilliance.
The most interesting part? Even though physical movies in theater and handwritten letters no longer are necessary they continue to exist, paradoxically now with higher perceived value to certain segments of the population. In other words: cultural forces create market demand even if supply is available more efficiently (even infinitely) elsewhere. New technologies or methods only replace old when said cultural forces dissipate. And how this plays out in the wild is complex (is not purely about the obvious dimension of age).
Becoming tagged to a shared human experience is the life support of what I like to call “living artifacts,” additional examples in my mind include terrestrial radio, cable TV (if you don’t watch sports), audio CDs, home phone landlines and the printed newspaper. But there are so many more and it varies greatly how we view them at individual and demographic level. To some of us these objects, tools and methods are already relics of the past. To others, they’re still alive, ingrained habits paired with cultural function. Many will of course continue declines, but it’s always possible for resurgences (see: vinyl sales) or a newfound meaning of something we needed time to miss, and once again appreciate as special, such as the handwritten note.
The shared experience of enjoying a paper at the morning breakfast table or in a coffee shop is the latent cultural function of newspapers, to give another example. It isn’t about the message anymore, you can get that more efficiently elsewhere. It’s the experience of holding the paper in your hands, the smell of the ink, and the calm, relaxed pace of reading. Many of the other living artifacts don’t have as deep roots, and so are more easily replaced without people noticing they are gone (unless you’re a pro photographer, your smartphone camera replaced your digital camera long ago, and you probably never even missed it). So, while I’m not saying newspapers in print form have an infinite future it is clear the habits and ingrained culture of reading them are what’s keeping them here today. I postulate newspapers and likely also print magazines will be phased out slowly as their roots in society dry up. Perhaps given final life in MD waiting rooms with a nostalgic staff.
As more of today’s standard/analog, and even legacy digital technologies become obsolete, we will continue to see their latent cultural functions emerge, at which point it is far more knowable what new life they have been given and/or potential tipping point for it to meet demise. This is what creates the mixed-use culture of technology – people don’t necessarily switch to the most efficient, because the older technology is tagged to a conditioning they are unwilling to let go of. Efficiency above all else is for robots anyway, us humans are more complex, idiosyncratic creatures. I do not believe this is a weakness. The entirety of the human species does not need to standardized on reading books on a Kindle.
I predict our future will not create as many opportunities for latent cultural tech functions to persist very long, as new digital technologies will replace each other too fast for proper roots to develop (something arguably already happening today). This is because churn will occur too quickly – there must be time between technologies to imprint on culture and our lives in a durable way. A future may occur where technologies fade without fanfare into the night, becoming footnotes, if mentioned much at all, as newer technologies replace them with increasing speed. In this scenario I believe people will become even more conditioned to chase what’s new, now simply because it’s novel, without much thought beyond an ever-increasing appetite for the latest thing. Of course, for entrepreneurs this spells opportunity at the front and back of the innovation curves. Nostalgia for the old ways will always sell too, if you can productize it in a way that feels genuine, and desire for such emotional states remains something future humans enjoy as much as we do currently.
Reversal: we have seen a resurgence recently in normal yellow cabs (I personally find them more efficient/easier to get at the airport lately than Uber, and they’re now frequently cheaper and a better experience). So it is not always the case a new technology applied to specific industry with haste will completely kill an existing business or way of doing things. Legacy operators appear to be growing accustomed to ever-faster cycles of disruption, and taking adaptation to changing environments more serious (or are patient enough to wait for ideas with poor models to die). In this case, consumers win: more competition/options is a good thing for users.