Anthropologists inspire tech companies
December 19th, 2004

Every year, the people of the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea exchange ornamental seashell armbands and necklaces to bind their circle of fishing communities to each other, explains New Scientist (via plsj).

One of the “kula” exchange key features is an apparent element of altruism. Because the chain of gift-giving passes from island to island in a circle, no community receives a present from the one it gives to.

The kula exchange could inspire new ways to make technology useful. That is why antropologists are increasingly being employed by high-tech firms to apply lessons learned from traditional customs to tomorrow’s high-tech products and services.

Anthropologist Richard Harper has adapted for Vodafone UK the kula-style gift-giving rules to encourage social bonding. Under his guidance, the operator has launched its Postcard service. You send an MMS to Vodafone, who will print it as a postcard and mail it to whomever you want. Like the islanders’ gifts, Vodafone’s postcards are permanent – unlike text messages.

The idea is that the recipient will then want to send a postcard of their own, perhaps to a third party, and so draw more subscribers into the network. Exchanging more valuable artefacts, such as music or video files, may be next.

Anthropologist and computer scientist Travis Breaux expects this kind of input to become more common. “Ethnographic methods are being applied to friend-finding networks such as Friendster, multi-player online role-playing games such as Everquest and online dating systems,” he explains. And these networks and games are proving useful to social scientists in their academic research. “Future technologies will in turn be affected by our studies of the way people behave on these networks.”

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