From Surfboards to Seed Corn: How Society Creates Trends
W. David Marx On the Subtle Social Nuances of Technological Innovation
The journalist William Finnegan learned to surf as a teenager in the 1960s on nine-foot boards—the traditional tool of the sport, similar in form to what Polynesians used when they first dared to ride the waves centuries ago. Finnegan spent months mowing lawns and pulling weeds to buy more of these towering boards: a Harbor Cheater, a custom slate-blue Larry Felker with a white fin.
But everything changed one day in 1968 when Finnegan spotted an Australian professional surfer off the coast of Rincon Beach in Ventura County hitting heretofore impossible moves with unprecedented speed—all atop a short V-shaped board. The so-called shortboard revolution had begun, and within a year California’s legions of young surfers “eagerly converted en masse to the new faith.”
Overnight, Finnegan’s precious surfboards were derided as inferior “longboards.” And even though he considered them “beautiful” as objects, they were “embarrassing, no longer presentable at any self-respecting surf spot.” Finnegan threw his immaculate Harbor Cheater up into the garage rafters and never touched it again. A friend who had poured his savings into a Steve Bigler signature model hurled it off a cliff in an insurance fraud scheme to buy a shortboard—fighting back tears as his prized possession plunged to a bitter, rocky end.To understand cultural change, we must think of it as cultural change.
In theory the shortboard revolution was a pure technological shift. The invention of buoyant synthetic materials such as polyurethane foam enabled shapers to craft shorter and, thus, more maneuverable boards. Professional surfers could then use shortboards to more easily perform dramatic stunts like tube riding. But shortboards were never complete substitutes for longboards: they have a steeper learning curve and perform poorly on smaller waves.
This explains the longboard revival of the 1990s, and the acceptance of both sizes today. (The Steve Bigler that Finnegan’s friend trashed in 1968 would fetch high prices.) Compare surfboard sizes with the change in skateboard wheels from clay to urethane that occurred in the same era. No one would wish a return to the dreaded clay wheels, which flung skaters off the board upon contact with the tiniest pebble.
The shortboard revolution illustrates the great difficulty in identifying the exact causes of cultural change among economic, technological, and psychological factors. Do we switch to new behaviors in pursuit of improved efficiencies? Greater pleasures? Alternative ways of thinking? Curiosity for the new and boredom with the old? The idea of progress is always the most compelling: we replaced our impractical iceboxes with sensible electric refrigerators and primitive rotary landline phones with wireless mobile handsets. And we’re also familiar with the downstream effects of changes to material conditions.
Suburbs and supermarkets followed the rise of automobile ownership, and fifties youth culture arose when teens could listen to rock ’n’ roll in their rooms on cheap transistor radios. When we find no obvious links between culture and material conditions, we assume ideological and spiritual realignments. Hippie men grew out their hair, we believe, in the principled rejection of oppressive middle-class manners and morality
These arguments, however, are better for explaining slow-paced cultural change over decades and centuries than fast-paced cultural change exhibited in crazes for things like moptops, pop art, and shortboards. The famed linguist Edward Sapir spoke of “drift” in language to explain how words take on new meanings over decades, and eventually break off into dialects and other tongues. We can apply this concept to culture, as well. Learning Greek and Latin was once a core part of liberal arts education but faded out of the curriculum over time. But the most notable cultural changes of the modern era share little resemblance to organic drift. Cultural inventions arise and rapidly diffuse across society. Most surfers moved to shortboards within a year—despite many preferring not to make the switch.
Human behavior certainly adapts to shifts in the material environment, but to understand cultural change, we must think of it as cultural change. For the anthropologist Leslie White, “Culture determines and causes culture; culture is to be explained in terms of culture.” All cultural change ultimately describes groups of individuals abandoning one convention for another. Tiny radios didn’t directly create youth culture; teenagers with tiny radios did. To explain cultural change, we must look at why individuals make the switch. And as we already know, conventions have their own gravity: rewarding conformity with social approval and punishing dissent with social disapproval.
Like all human activities, surfing is based in conventions. The use of boards may not be arbitrary—standing up on waves requires them—but history reveals that the sport of surfing can exist and prosper with both longboards and shortboards. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but the ability to switch means surfboard size is ultimately an arbitrary choice. Pro surfers in the late 1960s chose shortboards believing they were superior tools. From Finnegan’s story, however, we know that practicality alone didn’t move the entire population of surfers to shortboards in such a short time.
As we’ve learned, we know that all public behaviors, including the use of technologies and products, become signals in status appraisals. A surfboard is never a mere tool but also a status symbol. Finnegan’s story reveals that surfers were highly sensitive to the judgment of their peers, and they considered the status value of their board size alongside any promises of increased efficiencies or greater pleasures. Pro surfers, who have the status to use any board they please (world champion Kelly Slater has surfed on a door and a table), pounced on shortboards for their specific practical advantages. But the shortboard revolution required the masses of amateur surfers like Finnegan to also switch, many of whom preferred longboards.
What best explains these swift changes—which can be broadly described as fashions—is status seeking. If we return to Finnegan’s story, he testifies that longboards remained functional and even “beautiful,” but they became worthless as their status value soured. In these conspicuous cases of fast cultural change, status best explains the rise and fall of a convention. This then brings us to solving the final part of the Grand Mystery of Culture: Why do we change behaviors over time, and why do some behaviors stick around? This chapter will lay out the specific mechanics of how status motivates individuals and groups to change their behavior. And as we’ll see, the modern status structure itself makes fashion an inevitable and perpetual process.
Fashion cycles are clearest in behaviors that offer no practical improvements and that arise within ornamental areas of life: slang, fonts, coffee preparation styles, landscaping, modes of painting, and particular citrus flavorings. For all its ubiquity and universality in human life, fashion has long raised the ire of serious thinkers. Fashion, writes the philosopher George Santayana, is the “barbarous” variety of cultural change that “produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit.” This becomes more pronounced when old-fashioned trends appear ludicrous in hindsight.
The philosopher Montesquieu observed in the eighteenth century, “Women’s hairstyles gradually go up and up, until a revolution brings them down again. There was a time when because of their enormous height a woman’s face was in the middle of her body. At another time her feet occupied the same position.” With no clear rationales to why hair goes up or down, we attribute these oscillations to “the madness of crowds”—collective delusions and temporary flights from rationality. This is especially true when trends push us toward inefficient, burdensome, or even harmful practices.
The nineteenth-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s extravagant coiffure gave her frequent headaches. Economist Thorstein Veblen believed these inherent malignancies explained the whole of fashion change: “The substantial futility” of a certain trend eventually becomes “unbearable,” at which point “we take refuge in a new style.” Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: Fashion is “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
These antifashion attitudes originate in the moral expectations that individuals should act rationally, choose for themselves, and be detached from status concerns. Again, this is why we use alibis to explain our personal behavior. Likewise society shies away from awkward discussions of status seeking’s role in cultural change. In early-twentieth-century France, the famed Parisian dancer Caryathis chopped her hair off in a fit, which then launched a fashion trend for short hair. When a reporter later asked the poet Jean Cocteau to explain Coco Chanel’s cropped locks, he invented an implausible story that the women were simply acting “for charitable purposes,” donating the cuttings to victims of World War I. Marketing campaigns help us in finding credible denials.
The tagline on a 1980s Nike ad for a gray tennis sneaker with a flash of bold red stated, “Irreverence. Justified. See that color? It’s not just there to make noise. It’s where we put Durathane, a revolutionary new material that doubles the toe piece life.” Why did the Durathane have to come in shocking scarlet? Unclear. But alibis work well because even we can’t understand the source of our own desires. Our hearts draw no clear lines between functionality, pleasure, and status seeking.
In our preference for rational decision making, fashion becomes, in the words of the anthropologist Michael Thompson, “frivolous, ephemeral, transient, and irrational,” and this has made it “not a fit subject for scholarly attention.” This is unfortunate: fashion, in its broadest sense, explains the most frequent forms of cultural change in the modern world. Not all human behavior changes for status reasons, and not every instance of cultural change begins as fashion, but most behaviors we perceive as “culture” arrive through a fashion cycle where individuals adopt new conventions in a pursuit of status value. Conventions form around all behaviors—even the use of practical technologies. The umbrella is an obvious convenience to deploy in times of inclement weather and yet, at a certain time in the United Kingdom, men who dared use umbrellas “were so ill thought of that they were persecuted in the streets.”Widespread change takes place only once conservative majorities feel secure that switching won’t damage their status.
The role of status seeking in cultural change is well attested in sociologist Everett Rogers’s authoritative theory on the diffusions of innovations. (“Invention” is a new idea; “innovation” describes the invention’s use and widespread adoption.) In principle, rational humans will embrace technologies with greater efficiencies as soon as they become aware of them and can afford them. But Rogers had firsthand experience of the contrary.
In 1936, a terrible drought decimated the family farm, and the Rogerses couldn’t afford Christmas presents. His neighbors, on the other hand, weathered the crisis just fine thanks to the newly developed farming technology hybrid seed corn. Rogers’s father knew the benefits of hybrid seed corn and could afford to use it, but he stuck to open-pollinated seed corn worried that the local old-timer farmers he most admired would look down on him for switching over to newfangled methods. Hoping to avoid another devastating crop failure, Rogers’s father finally made the switch to the hybrid seed corn—after eight years of holding out.
Rogers thus knew to examine the diffusion of innovations as a social process. Individuals make adoption decisions within the framework of human interaction. They consider how, when, and from whom they receive information, how they view uncertainties about switching, and how they’ll be judged in their community for making the switch. Rogers noticed that adoptions progressed in sequence through five distinct groups, which he called innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
Individuals fall into these groups based on a trait Rogers calls innovativeness, “the degree to which an individual… is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than other members of a social system.” The distribution of this innovativeness is uneven: there are very few innovators, a small cadre of early adopters, most people in the majority groups, and a small batch of laggards. Rogers’s research implies that most people aren’t particularly excited to take up innovations at the time of their introduction.
What slows down adoption by majorities? They often have unequal access to information and different levels of trust in technology. But status also plays a major role. By definition, innovations pose a challenge to established conventions—to use hybrid seed corn is a distinctive act when everyone uses open-pollinated seed corn. Thus individuals may worry that switching will lead to social disapproval, even when there are clear practical benefits to doing so. Change causes anxiety.
The philosopher Eric Hoffer notes, “Even in slight things the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding.” As seen in the American public’s response to the moptop, the common majority response to innovations isn’t quiet curiosity but “shock, astonishment, ridicule or disgust.” Widespread change takes place only once conservative majorities feel secure that switching won’t damage their status. And since status position impacts our quality of life as much as the benefits of practical technologies, we would be rational to consider the status implications of these adoption decisions.
It is also rational for us to consider status in explaining the common patterns of cultural change. Yet, a particular stream in social science has attempted to show that trends can also arise in what’s called the “neutral” model, where individuals glom onto the same practices through randomly copying one another with no regard for social position. Trends arise from unconscious imitation, they claim, not from emulation. But other researchers have shown that when status is added as a factor in these models—i.e., humans become more likely to imitate behaviors with cachet—the resulting adoption curves even better resemble the ups and downs we observe in real life.
Excerpted from Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change by W. David Marx. Copyright © 2022. Available from Viking, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.