What anthropologists can teach journalists: Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things

I’ve just finished Daniel Miller‘s book The Comfort of Things. It’s a remarkable work of contemporary anthropology, in which Miller and an assistant spend 17 months interviewing and observing nearly all the inhabitants on an ordinary street in suburban London.

I think this book should be compulsory reading for journalists and especially students of journalism schools and courses. This is because the approach Miller takes to interviewing and engaging with his subjects is almost the polar opposite of the typical way in which journalists and reporters approach the task.

Rather than approach his task in the one-dimensional, goal-directed way so common of journalists – in which they relentless interrogate their subject until they get the answer they want – Miller gently befriends the inhabitants of this ordinary street, eventually obtaining access to their living rooms and discovering what their material possessions can tell us about their lives, their loves and the status of their lives. It’s the sort of “long-form narrative” that actually achieves the kind of engagement that most contemporary novelists seem to struggle with, let alone journalists. The best comparators I can think of are Iain Sinclair and Theodore Zeldin.

To top it all off, Miller’s writing is beautiful, easily superior to almost anything you’d read in the New Yorker, The Guardian or the London Review of Books.


A bunch of links: casualised higher education labour, Hollywood movie betting, collapsing business models in TV, whingeing arts administrators, Siva Vaidhyanathan lecture, and more

From around the blogosphere and the web – some links:

1. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn argues we need to acknowledge that “full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.” Heading the list is casualisation, followed by older faculty who refuse to retire, the rise of for-profit higher education and a university system that continues to pump out PhDs.

2. Clay Shirky calls on the guru of complex systems theory, Joseph Tainter, to explain the current predicament of television production as a business model. Bottom-line:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.

3. The high arts lobby starts to get shirty with the lack of hand-outs from Peter Garrett, as a number of arts administrators whinge to Michaela Boland in The Australian. Notice the parade of usual suspects, including a festival director, a couple of theatre company managers and the CEO of the Australian Council. Because that’s what “the arts” is for journalists like Michaela Boland.

4. Siva Vaidhyanathan is giving a lecture at Vanderbilt University, which be podcast on Thursday. I’ll post something about that this week.

5. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian profiles artist-led communities.

6. By way of Tyler Cowen, a New York Times article about Hollywood’s quest to prevent betting markets. Both the Cantor futures exchange and Veriana Networks would allow investors to buy or sell — or “short” — contracts based on a movie’s box-office receipts, in essence betting on how well a film will do when released in theaters.

Reading in the US has tripled since 1980: Roger Bohn

The evolution of US information consumption in recent decades. Contrary to common perceptions, reading has actually increased, owing to the growth of reading things on computers like blogs and websites. Source: Bohn and Short, 2009, "How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers"

The Universiy of California San Diego’s Roger Bohn has recently released a mammoth study on the information consumption of Americans. It’s a treasure-trove of interesting data that tracks, among other things, the media consumption habits of US consumers.

In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.

And, thanks to things like blogs and newspaper websites, reading has staged a comeback:

The traditional media of radio and TV still dominate our consumption per day, with a total of 60 percent of the hours. In total, more than three-quarters of U.S. households’ information time is spent with non-computer sources.
Despite this, computers have had major effects on some aspects of information consumption. In the past, information consumption was overwhelmingly passive, with telephone being the only interactive medium. Thanks to computers, a full third of words and more than half of bytes are now received interactively.Reading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, tripled from 1980 to 2008, because it is the overwhelmingly preferred way to receive words on the Internet.

Telecommunications: Australia’s unhappiest industry


Australian mobile phone complaints nearly doubled in the 2008-09 year

On Friday I attended the Communications Policy Research Forum at the University of Technology Sydney.

Speaking at the Forum, amongst many others, were  my old supervisor, Associate Professor Elaine Lally and my colleague at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Cultrual Research, Professor David  Rowe. Lally and Rowe were presenting the results of a research project about customer complaints for the Communications Alliance, the peak body for the telco industry in Australia.

The results were sobering. There were an astonishing 230,000 complaints to the national complaints body, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, in 2008-09, a rise of 54% over 2007-08 figures, according to TIO data. Horror stories like this one published by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan are common. So bad is the situation that a large proportion of complaints are actually about Telco complaints handling proceedures themselves. Complaints by mobile phone customers were up a staggering 78%.

Lally and Rowe’s talk detailed why. Training hours for call centre workers in the telecommunications industry are much l;ower than for industries like banking. In fact, an amazing 72% of telecommunications call centre workers leave the industry after less than a year. There’s also no prizes for guessing why there are so many complaints: maddeningly complex phone plans and byzantine corporate billing and service structures make it almost as hard for employees to understand customer issues as the customers themselves. The way phone and internet services are bundled and solved is structurally complex, to the point of being almost impenetrable.

More fundamentally, the practice of making customers wait in long phone queues for information about their service or to make a complaint is inherently frustrating. In many cases, customers are being asked to spend significant amounts of time and do significant amounts of unpaid “work” merely in order to resolve a complaint for a service they’ve already paid for. It’s not surprising customers and call centre workers often end up adversarial, angry – even traumatised.

The result is Australia’s unhappiest industry – as the TIO data shows. No wonder the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is threatening to step in and introduce greater regulations for the sector. Consumers will be wondering why anyone expected anything else.

Consumption through the looking glass: a post on consumer culture theory

A Buy Nothing Day poster from Adbusters. It's not a logo, per se, but it's certainly a symbol

“Consumer culture” – let’s loosely define it as the enjoyment of shopping and the positive identification with the acquisition of consumer goods –  has generally not got the greatest press in recent times amongst progressives, liberals and left-wingers. It’s fair to say there is an ambient suspicion, disdain and even fear of consumer culture amongst many cultural theorists, commentators and academics that dates at least as far back as Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and indeed clearly earlier. In more recent times, the likes of Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank, Kalle Lasn and Joel Bakan (writer of the documentary The Corporation) have waged full-frontal assaults on the consumer behaviours associated with market capitalism. The political slogans advanced with these agendas include attacking the brands of corporations, and their symbolic expression, logos, as well as the act of consumption itself (“Buy Nothing Day“).

The reason I mention all this is that it mystifies the academics who study consumer culture in business and marketing schools. In fact, many cultural theorists may be surprised to discover that there is a sophisticated literature exploring what Eric  Arnould and Craig Thompson, in a 2005 review article on the subject in the Journal of Consumer Research, describe as “a flurry of research addressing the sociocultural, experiential, symbolic, and ideological aspects of consumption.” Continue reading