Saturday, December 18, 2004

Kula mail

Anthropology is figuring in tech news more and more often, but this New Scientist story really impressed me.

"The 'kula' exchange of the Trobriand Islands was first documented in 1922 by Bronislaw Malinowski, a pioneer of social anthropology. One of kula's key features is an apparent element of altruism that is missing from a simple, two-way exchange of gifts. 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.

Malinowski found that kula cements social bonds between island groups, and according to anthropologist Richard Harper this makes it an ideal basis for new ways to make technology useful. That is why Harper, along with many others of his profession, is increasingly being employed by the Research and Development departments of high-tech firms to apply lessons learned from traditional customs to tomorrow's high-tech products and services.

Harper has been working for Vodafone in the UK since 2003, where he has adapted kula-style gift-giving rules to encourage social bonding among groups of people in phone-texting networks. Under his guidance, Vodafone has launched its Postcard service. You send an MMS picture-and-text message 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."

I have to admit that this kind of cultural (re)appropriation and commodification weirds me out a bit, but I'm thrilled that electronic communication is being used to produce material artefacts. When I think of all the digital photos and email messages that we won't ever be able to (re)discover in someone's attic or yard sale, it's small efforts like this that give me hope.

(via)

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