Columns

XIX.3 May + June 2012
Page: 86
Digital Citation

Click a bird on it


Authors:
Jonathan Bean

In a piece published in Fast Company last December, design thinker Bruce Nussbaum described a phenomenon he branded indie capitalism [1]. We’ve all seen its manifestations: that new yarn shop down the street, the craft brew suddenly in every hot restaurant, that guy at the farmer’s market with the killer tomatoes. According to Nussbaum, four characteristics distinguish this softer, gentler, and infinitely more hip version of capitalism. First is a focus on local rather than global processes; second is a belief in person-to-person connections, both face-to-face and technologically mediated; third is a relentless focus on innovation and making; fourth is the heightened importance of meaning. As Nussbaum explains, “authenticity is the ‘brand’ in many cases.”

Having spent considerable time in Portland, Oregon, and New York City—the two places Nussbaum identifies as hotbeds of indie capitalism—I consider myself something of an expert on the subject. A few months ago, I was at a bar with my partner and an old friend. We sipped craft brews out of mason jars under the warm glow of an antler chandelier. We contemplated ordering tater tots from our server, who had a punk-rock hairdo, a flannel shirt, and tattoos. And then an odd sense of placelessness set in: Where were we, anyway? Portland or New York?

We looked outside. It wasn’t raining. We decided we were in New York.

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A similar thing happened when another friend, a philosopher who lives across the park from me in Brooklyn, returned from a trip to Portland. While there she had found a few great things for her new apartment in some of Portland’s cool and “unique” shops. But did she spend money in these local shops, making face-to-face connections, supporting Portland’s artisan makers of pillows and tchotchkes, in turn loading her souvenirs-to-be with memories and meaning? No. Why, she reasoned, should she buy them in Portland and pay to check a bag when she could order essentially the same items online at Etsy, or shop at any number of “independent” stores in Brooklyn for any variety of craft—reclaimed, hand-stitched, or felted?

What, you might ask, does indie capitalism have to do with HCI?

For one thing, communication technology upends the notion of local knowledge. Design trends are information. Trends used to be very carefully managed and guarded information. If you wanted to get this information you had to go to school for design, hire a designer, or keep up with expensive periodicals—the influential ones that often were printed in languages other than English. Ideally you would grow up in a house where your parents had taken pains to translate this information into material form: having the right rug, the right colors on the wall, the right books on the shelf. If you grew up in this setting, you might understand just from visual experience, for example, how the grid and primary colors of a Mondrian painting influenced the high-tech aesthetic of the 1980s. But if you did not, recognizing the visual and material qualities of a design trend, much less decoding the meanings underneath, was a much more challenging endeavor.

Before the Internet (perhaps we should add B.I. to A.D. and C.E.), magazines were one way of understanding trends, and they remain so. But they came out, at best, once a month, and fell into two categories: ones that promoted impossibly perfect visions of what life could look like, such as Vogue and Architectural Digest, or ones that provided mundane and useful instructions, such as Better Homes and Gardens and Family Handyman. And then something odd happened: DIY magazines appeared, such as Readymade, which focused squarely on style, and style magazines, such as Domino (now defunct), Lucky, and Wallpaper, which focused on the highly honed skills of shopping and identity construction.


Not only can you use the Internet to help decide whether or not to buy an antler chandelier, but you can also read about what people with antler chandeliers have eaten, how they have set their table, and even how they washed their dishes.


The always-on pace of information technology amplified media’s ability to interpret and translate trends for the average person. Blogs were particularly suited to communicating information about the visual qualities of design trends and about the meanings that lay beneath. Want an antler chandelier for your own dining-room nook? Hop online and you’ll find hundreds of pictures of antler chandeliers in homes similar to yours—and, of course, links to buy them. A few more clicks and you’re engaged in a debate about whether antler chandeliers are “soooo over,” “classic,” or appropriate for the homes of vegans.

What fuels all of this content? It is obvious that online media does not have to be printed and mailed, and the dominant online advertising model, for reasons related to measurement, creates an incentive for a continued drastic increase in the amount of content that it is possible and economically desirable to produce. The result is that not only can you use the Internet to help decide whether or not to buy an antler chandelier, but you can also read about what people with antler chandeliers have eaten, how they have set their table, and even how they washed their dishes. Soon, depending on how the online identity debate is settled, you will probably even be able to tell if any of these people are friends, frenemies, or ex-girlfriends.

Online it seems no minutia of daily life is safe from meticulous investigation and debate. A few years ago, Zeynep Arsel, a marketing professor at Concordia University in Montreal, and I became interested in how blogs structure taste. We studied the popular home design blog Apartment Therapy, for which I wrote posts over the course of a year. In our research, we discovered a surprising number of seemingly mundane posts—most likely written to generate traffic in the interest of selling more advertising—that were generating earnest discussion. One dealt with how transferring your dish soap into a glass container gives it an “old-salt type of cool.” Another, a photo-illustrated post, debated if stick deodorant is properly applied with the stick held vertically or horizontally—this, on a blog ostensibly focused on home design.

These examples illustrate that taste is no longer about the display of status symbols, but rather about how the three elements of practice (image, skills, and stuff) are integrated into a larger system of practice [2]. This means, according to Apartment Therapy, that to show that I have good taste and care about the Earth (that is, to translate an abstract value system into practice), I have to buy an environmentally friendly dish soap, put it into the correct type of glass container, and wash my dishes with a rinse tub in a way that shows I am conscious of water use. I found the whole thing overwhelming, so instead of washing the dishes, I wrote a blog post discussing if it is more environmentally responsible to use a dishwasher than to wash dishes by hand. (It is. Usually.)

All of this must be done while wearing deodorant applied, if not in the “correct” way, then at least with the new and nagging knowledge that there is, indeed, a “correct way” to apply it.

We don’t usually think of HCI when it comes to washing dishes, and the only way I can imagine dishwasher use in the academic literature is as the subject of an efficiency project: grid-tied programming, perhaps—or, on the fantastical side, a holographic projection that scans each incoming utensil and illuminates an optimal and open place in the rack. But we would do well to consider the role that online media plays in restructuring the patterns of everyday life.

Boosters of technology have run with the idea that the Internet will transform daily life, reveling in the hazily celebratory reverie of innovation, novelty, and authenticity. They have posited that the explosion of communication online would create an infinite number of taste cultures, leading to a market characterized by a “long tail” with positive economic results. But the problem is that the evidence suggests otherwise. A preference for a particular kind of furniture—say, the midcentury stuff—now comes attached, as does the antler chandelier you might hang over it, to an ever-evolving set of defined practices. The vintage teak table you covet should not be refinished and under no circumstances be painted (the horror!). It should be placed in a spare room devoid of IKEA products with matching (or charmingly mismatched) vintage chairs. On it you should eat only produce from the farmer’s market and grass-fed meat and drink locally produced craft beer. And while you’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice to have a matching pair of glasses and a suitable hairstyle? This is not the explosion of a million micro-markets. It is the consolidation of granular preferences into larger and much more consistently organized lumps of practice.

Following the lead of other researchers, Arsel and I define these lumps as taste regimes. The purpose is twofold: first, to back off the tendency to see questions of taste or style as always and only about social differentiation; and second, to stress the force that these networks of practice impart to “mere” issues of style. In order to circumvent the near-automatic associations new visitors might make with my house, I’ve caught myself mentioning that my Danish modern furniture was inherited from my great uncle, who was an architect. Authentic, indeed, but no matter how I try to escape its pull, my house frames me as someone obsessed with Mad Men.

We need this new way of thinking about how our aesthetic preferences structure what we do because old theories no longer apply. Our new, hypernetworked world makes it clear that any trickle-down theory of design, such as the innovation diffusion model popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, is out the window. It’s not that the old system has been destroyed; it’s just been wildly supplemented. Plenty of people still make a living forecasting trends and color palettes. But go online and the difference, for example, between Gladwell’s “mavens” and “connectors” is not so clear-cut. Trends are now just as likely to germinate from a reader submission to a blog as they are to emanate from an art-school grad churning out crafts and color pronouncements for Martha Stewart’s media empire. Getting picked up by the right blog is enough to make a trend happen. Pam Kueber, who runs the go-to blog Retrorenovation.com, got her big break when a two-minute video she made chronicling her indecision over the dimensions of a new shower stall got reposted by an affiliate of the Huffington Post [3]. Readers kept coming back to contribute their own midcentury remodeling dilemmas to her site.

Indie capitalism is one manifestation of a multidirectional, network-oriented model of the circulation of meaning. Trends and taste preferences pop up in multiple places and move in multiple directions. But rather than assuming an explosion of local, face-to-face, maker-driven innovation grounded in one-off authenticity, we might consider the role of new media and technology in pushing us toward a world of meaning that is both uniform and authentic, both global and local. Take the Portlandia skit, “Put a Bird on It,” [4] in which characters played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein come into a gift store and hilariously transform ordinary objects into “art” by sticking silhouettes of birds on the merchandise. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, the video quickly turned into an Internet meme and then into a catchphrase of the ironically self-aware (just ask anyone from Portland). And while bird-themed products have long been available at mass-market retailers such as Target, this “diffusion”—in contrast to trickle-down theories—does not seem to have slowed the growth of Portland’s winged obsession. Just last year, sitting on a tooled leather bench underneath an impressive display of taxidermy, while drinking a coffee made by a world-champion tattooed barista, I looked outside and noticed a new restaurant called—what else?—Aviary. The logo: a branch with three birds on it.

References

1. Nussbaum, B. 4 reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Fast Company; http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665567/4-reasons-why-the-future-of-capitalism-is-homegrown-small-scale-and-independent

2. Shove, E. and Pantzar, M. Consumers, producers and practices. Journal of Consumer Culture 5, 1 (2005), 43–64.

3. Kurutz, S. Restoring the Retro House. The New York Times, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/18/garden/restoring-the-retro-house.html.

4. Put a Bird on It, Portlandia on IFC; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XM3vWjmpfo

Author

Bean is a postdoctoral fellow at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, where he is helping to start a new program in Design Studies. His work is interdisciplinary and deals with domesticity, technology, and consumer culture.

©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/0500  $10.00

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