In Weak Economies, Old Ideas Die Faster

Fortune magazine today reminds us of the importance of social science to the new global economy. "These days the tech landscape is an unpredictable jumble," writes Fortune's Jon Fortt.

"Consumers (particularly in Europe) are clamoring for shrunken, underpowered PCs called netbooks, much to the surprise of the major PC makers. Amazon's Kindle 2 wireless e-book reader is in high enough demand to claim the No. 1 spot in its electronics store—beating out the iPod Touch. Foreclosures are reaching historic highs—yet in the depths of the worst recession in recent memory, consumers are still ordering movies from Netflix, buying downloaded software for the iPhone, and shelling out for wireless data plans." The solution: Social anthropologists.

Within tech companies, the practice dates back at least 30 years to 1979, explains Fortt, to when the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center hired an anthropology grad student to help engineers build copiers that human beings could actually figure out how to use. And tech industry anthropologists aren't just studying consumers. IBM, for example, has an army of social scientists studying the workplace as well.

But lately, Fortune notes, the global economic crisis has reenergized the importance of social science to profit and loss. Corporate anthropologists at Intel, for example, have been "scouring the historical record, looking for clues about how tough times might change consumer technology tastes and behaviors. The downside is obvious—orders for Intel chips tanked along with global PC sales at the end of 2008—but there are glimmers of opportunity.

"It turns out that in a bad economy old ideas die faster, while socially driven technologies actually catch on more quickly. Movie theaters experienced a boom around the time of the Great Depression...Radios went from a hobby for geeky boys to mainstream acceptance, as families gathered in living rooms to hear the latest escapist programming."

Fortt's conclusion: "That's got to be encouraging news for companies that are trying to sell new ideas, no matter where in the world they're doing business."

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