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."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Believe in soulmates? You're more likely to 'ghost' romantic partners.

Does believing in true love make people act like jerks?

Thought Catalog via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • Ghosting, or cutting off all contact suddenly with a romantic partner, is not nice.
  • Growth-oriented people (who think relationships are made, not born) do not appreciate it.
  • Destiny-oriented people (who believe in soulmates) are more likely to be okay with ghosting.
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less