Prior Configurations
And Tipping Points
Previously established products and physical infrastructure thwart innovation and hold type form. To put a train on U.S. tracks, its wheels need to span the standard 56 and a half inches, a convention that Americans adopted from the British rail system. That standard derived, in turn, from the road ruts inscribed by the Romans two millennia before. The Roman road measurements stemmed from the rear-end widths of the two horses pulling war chariots. Now it turns out the same dimension carries into the solid rocket boosters used to launch the U.S. space shuttle. The boosters had to be shipped from the Thiokol Corporation's Utah factory by rail --- which required that they be sized to fit through rail tunnels configured for the standard gauge. There could have been a better railroad --- maybe even a better booster rocket.

An 84-and-one-quarter-inch-gauge system did come into being at one time in England. It allowed train wheels to be larger, permitting an increase in train speed of about 40 per cent (although it did require a wider swath of land). It was abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century because too many miles of the narrow-gauge track had already been installed in the United Kingdom (274 miles of broad gauge compared with 1,901 of the narrow).

This is a classic case of "tipping point," the moment at which it becomes too hard to switch or go back. Another is the demise of Sony's Betamax in the United States, generally considered the technically superior option to VHS. It lost because too many consumers came to have VHS machines; at a certain point, Sony was locked out. Today, a bathtub with even slightly different dimensions will not fit the place where tubs go in people's houses. Fixture elements would misalign with pipe locations in the wall --- or with the skills and habits of plumbers. In a case of very low-cost infrastructure still mattering a lot, a smaller version of paper towel, ScotTowels Junior, failed in the U.S. marketplace because it did not fit on conventional paper-towel holders. A new-model car radio has to contend with how car dashboards (and electrical systems) are configured. In contrast, if the core product itself has an especially fast-turn potential, there is less need to conform to prior types. To market a new razor blade, the company can just tie it in with a new razor.

Taxicabs show still another way --- access to spare parts --- that prevalence of an existing product can in itself maintain sales momentum. In New York, the Ford Crown Victoria, a fairly old and uncomfortable vehicle, had about 90 percent of the market in the late '90s. The prevalence of Crown Vics banging into each other on the city's streets provides a valuable spare parts supply for fleet owners; this encourages continued use of the model. The British company making the London cab remains in a strong position perhaps for the same reason, but also because it is not worth the while of a new investor to share so small a vehicle market.

Factory tooling, evolving from prior manufacturing activities, massively influences prospective stuff, but it limits some kinds of products more than others. The making of goods like toys, software, clothing, and, to some degree, houses all allow easy entry and agile experimentation because they rely on equipment and skills that small producers can attain for themselves. But to make even a simple can opener, you need a factory with the right equipment.

Although furniture and appliances may seem to be similar products, the former permits innovation in ways the latter does not. Hence washing machines stay more nearly the same (and are more uniform) than chairs. In media products, the drop in video equipment costs allowed small operators to create without access to legitimate studio resources; this encouraged pornography --- with its own distribution apparatus --- to increase its markets and evolve as a genre...

Nostalgia goods typically incorporate contemporary technologies and mechanisms of manufacture as well as new uses. "Gas lamps" flicker with electric currents; the tubs on claw feet have mixer taps, maybe even Jacuzzi jets discreetly mounted in the sides. Colossal "Roman" buildings like New York's once proud Penn Station (built to "reproduce" the baths at Caracalla) consist of steel ribbing holding up vast glass domes.

Old car models are brought back, sort of. Working to simulate the 1930s Volkswagen Beetle, the 1998 reissue successfully incorporated modern advances in exhaust pollution, engine efficiency, and crash-test durability, reaching still higher levels in some of these regards than any prior VW models. After the Beetle's success, Chrysler brought out the PT Cruiser, combining the look of a gangster car (actually the 1937 Ford) with the utility of a modern minivan. Its box- like shape permits more headroom than other contemporary sedans and also allows for more comfortable back seating because there is so much space for springs and cushioning. The back seats are raised above front seats providing a "stadium" configuration --- a newly popular feature in car design. The big spaces and big doors also allow easy changes in seat configurations --- from one to five passengers. The retro design and trim makes the product aesthetically acceptable --- individual fender forms "add voluptuousness," in the words of the car's designer, Jeff Godshall, to what is a simple rectangle.

Even as form reaches backward, the mechanical advances are retained --- or even furthered --- "underneath." Nostalgia transforms the past in the act of recalling it.

§     §     §

The incarceration of so vast a proportion of young African-American males in the late '80s and throughout the '90s yielded the oversized pants of hip-hop, as youths imitated the ill-fitting trousers worn by prison inmates. The style then moved from ghetto to suburbs and across the globe with effects on couture and then adaptations for the likes of The Gap, Banana Republic, and every other major outlet. Beyond clothing, hip-hop influenced sports equipment, electronic goods, and even car models, at least in terms of surface motifs.

In a more politically explicit fashion trend begun in the African-American community, ethnic leaders of the '60s wore the dashiki as a statement of political and cultural identity, engaging in deliberate "messaging" with their goods. But in doing so they also prepared the marketplace for images that otherwise would have faced greater consumer resistance --- they play the conventional role of the avant-garde. Dashiki prints spread across larger segments of the African-American community, then to other people's clothing. The adapted dashiki look moved to luggage, rugs, picture frames, furniture, and pillows, "putting the Dark Continent [sic] in the spotlight these days as African-inspired products start to enter the mainstream of the marketplace," as the trade publication Home Furnishings News offensively announced the trend in the year 2000.

Such meldings take place under all sorts of conditions, benign, authoritarian, and in between. Stuff that today seems intrinsic to ethnic and national movements often can be traced, quite ironically, to contact with alien worlds. Scots' national dress, the kilt, was imposed on them by the hated English industrialists as substitutes for the traditional long dress coats that could catch in machinery. The now classic dress of Hawaiian women, the muumuu, arose from a heavy dose of coercion.

Before contact with Europeans and North Americans, Hawaiian women wore little; subtly hued tapa bark cloth covered some of their lower bodies but left most of their breasts exposed, including the nipples. Nineteenth-century missionaries from the American East forced Hawaiian women to cover up, and because they lacked the fanciful tailoring and trims of the day, they created the simple muumuu. Eventually, the missionaries' prim prints (often little flowers) gave way to bright island designs of Hawaiian flora and the motifs of the pre-contact tapa bark. Now something of an "indigenous" tradition, the garment connotes tropical pleasure, worn commonly by Hawaiian women but also as summer clothing across the United States. Popular with locals as well as tourists, the Aloha shirt is similarly an amalgam. The basic tailoring --- simple square shape, no taper, no pleats, and worn over the pants --- comes from the shirts worn by Japanese laborers working the plantation economy. Japanese women made children's shirts from leftover kimono fabric, which is the source of the bright colors and silky texture. Application of the Hawaiian word "aloha" came from a Chinese clothing merchant in Honolulu who undertook the early commercial runs. Florals and fruit motifs, otherwise appropriate to women's (and children's) clothing, thus invaded menswear.

Some criticize the hybrid process as "simplification" because it abstracts from something otherwise complexly authentic (a dashiki print from the pan-Africanism it represents) into a different style system that lacks those other particulars. The sin compounds when high people are selecting and appropriating for their own purposes, often for entertainment or amusement. But these borrowings go in all directions and under all sorts of auspices, with unpredictably rich results. Just as African music earlier influenced people, white and black, in North America and Europe to create jazz, music flows "back" to Africa in a "hypercreativity," yielding highlife music in Ghana, the new Afro-Arab music in Kenya, Caribbean reggae in the 1950s and ska more recently.

Such changes and others of more limited scope do not replace a complex context with a simpler one but substitute one complexity for another. It may personally offend to see a peasant's cultural artifact converted into costume jewelry, a McDonald's arch worked into a Balinese temple motif, or a boy wearing a nose ring at his Bar Mitzvah. But in each case, there is no shortage of meaning or the actor's personal experience of it. To try and enforce separateness would be artificial and authoritarian. It simulates the sumptuary laws of prior epochs. Edward Said commented that the "worst and most paradoxical gift of imperialism" was "to allow people to believe they were only, mainly exclusively, White or black or Western or Oriental" even as it so mixed cultures and identities on a global scale. Combining diverse stuff does not negate authenticity, but is its condition.

--- From Where Stuff Comes From
Harvey Molotch
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