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Tattoos and T-shirts

a study in how High Tech replaces Low Tech,

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2002


It was a lazy Saturday afternoon; I was slumped in my easy chair; my mind was idling after some hard writing. I was watching a PBS documentary on aboriginal peoples. In my relaxed haze I heard the interviewer ask the explorer, “Of all the treasures of modern technology, which do these Stone Age tribes want first?"

It felt like Jeopardy, so I jammed my imaginary button and yelled, “Guns or firewater!"

"They want T-shirts," The explorer answered, “T-shirts with gaudy designs on them. They have no idea what the designs mean, but they want them anyway."

"What!" I sat up. “What sort of crazy answer is that?"

Sigh … It's the kind of crazy answer that gets me to thinking.

And out of that thinking came an inspiration about how an older technology is displaced by a newer better technology.

A new high technology solution

In the story above the aborigines’ attraction to T-shirts could be that T-shirts are a high-tech substitute for tattoos. Tattoos seem to be as old as mankind. The oldest recorded tattoo is that on Oetzi the iceman, a Stone Age hunter from 5,300 years ago who was uncovered in the Alps in the 1980's.

A tattoo decorates a person, and so does a T-shirt, but a T-shirt decoration is brighter, more elaborate, easier to change and less painful to acquire. And, for the aboriginal people living in central Borneo, that's quite an improvement in something that's an important part of life. T-shirts with designs are a high-tech substitute for tattoos and other skin decorating.

The relation between tattoos and T-shirts is one example of a general phenomenon: the replacement of one technology with another. From this example, we can look for general trends in how one technology will replace another.

The substitution cycle

T-shirts are the high-tech substitute product for tattoos. As T-shirts replace tattoos, two attendant trends show up: first, the use of tattoos declines as the T-shirts become prevalent; second, T-shirts command a larger segment of the market than tattoos ever did. For instance, they appeal to women and children, where tattooing appealed only to men.

There's another less easily explained trend, too: The tattoos don't disappear completely. We can use our American culture for an example of this. We still have tattoo parlors. In spite of the T-shirt's technological superiority as a skin decorator, the substitution for tattoos isn't total.

The surprise trend: The old improves!

Further, if we look at Western-culture tattoo parlors, we find that the art of tattooing not only hasn't gone away, it's improved! The designs of tattooers today are more innovative that those of yesteryear. The processes for applying tattoos have improved, and they are much safer and less painful than ever before.

This is an example of an incomplete displacement of one technology by another: T-shirt technology is vastly superior to tattoo technology as a body decorator. According to simple economic theory, T-shirts should displace tattoos entirely. In practice, high-tech substitutes will displace a lot, but not all, of the uses of the low-tech alternative, and the remaining devotees to the low-tech alternative become more skilled, on the average, than when the old technology was the only choice.

Here are some other examples of low tech surviving a high-tech replacement:

When does low-tech survive?

Roger's Rule of the Artistic Residual:

When a high-tech alternative becomes available to displace an existing low-tech process, the high-tech process will displace the low-tech in commodity uses and will widen the marketplace for such products and services. But the highest quality versions of the low-tech process will survive if the low-tech process becomes a tool for artistic expression or a symbol of distinctive consumption.

If you just want a design on your chest, a T-shirt will do. If you want to get from point A to point B, a car will do. If you want to do these things in an extravagant or exotic way, then the highest quality of the low-tech alternative looks attractive: tattoos and horses.

Musical instruments are going through this evolution. The piano replaced the harpsichord, almost displaced it entirely, but now there are harpsichords again. My guess is that the new harpsichords, and the new harpsichordists, play far better than the average harpsichordist of old did. Today those who would have been mediocre harpsichordists now play the piano instead ... or an electronic keyboard. We are now going through the stage where piano and other acoustic instruments are loosing another segment of their commodity market to the electronic organs, keyboards, and, newest of all, video games with a music playing theme. (They lost a big segment years ago to radios, juke boxes and Muzak.) Meanwhile, the high-end of the low-tech market retains its appeal to accomplished old players, and intensely dedicated new players.

Forecasts for the future

Where will we see this "high-tech substitution with high quality low-tech survival" phenomenon in the future?

First, some places we won't. Slide rules have been displaced pretty completely by electronic calculators. Bessemer-process steel is hard to find these days. In both cases there is little artistic component in the product's use, so the displacement is complete, or nearly complete. On the other hand, there is still some hand-processed paper available these days.

Musical instruments will always have enduring low-tech survivors because of the high artistic content in their use.

Photography has a lot of art in it. Don't expect film-based cameras to disappear completely in the face of camcorder and digital camera competition. Film-based photography won't be used to take assessment pictures of real-estate or passport photos, but it will be used for a long time for formal portraiture and its distinctive special effects such as long exposure pictures. Painting lost most of its commodity value when photography and TV appeared. It's almost pure art these days, so what is left won't be affected by digital cameras.

Sports equipment has a lot of personal expression, but very little artistic component. In some areas old designs will survive, but the competitive nature of sports keeps that sort of low-tech survival to a minimum.

Cars, surprisingly, have a lot of art. Evidence: the number of classic car shows. Art-oriented shows are a good indicator of strong artistic component in any technology.

Writing is a well-recognized art. But it has a commodity part, too. That part has been replaced by the telephone, movies, and television. More will be replaced by mobile communications technologies as those come online.

Typing, on the other hand, has no art. It will be dropped like a hot potato as soon as voice recognition- and mouse-using programs can type, edit and format. (2013 update: to my surprise, typing/texting has proved much more durable than I expected. I'm guessing it s because it offers some privacy that voice doesn't.)

Information storage techniques vanish as quickly as their replacements become standards -- think of eight-tracks and floppy disks. Zero personal expression here.

Likewise, there is little art in forms (the paperwork kind). As electronic transfers are able to handle more of the information-moving now done with forms, they will wither to a small vestige.

The evolution of memory aids into art

Since prehistory, mankind has found a strong memory valuable. But the brain's evolution hasn't kept pace, so mankind has constantly been searching for memory aids. Poetry was originally developed as a memory enhancer. For example, if you want to cross-index weight and volume, “A pint is a pound the world around" gets you started. This is a fine example of using poetry for commodity memorizing. Rhyme and meter, chapter and verse, parallel and chiasmic structures, are all ways of error checking what is memorized.

Roses are red, violets are blue

Sugar is sweet and so is Uncle Ozmo [???]

There is clearly something wrong in how this verse came out because it fails rhyme and meter error checking.

Aboriginal "songlines" are another example of a memory enhancing tool. The preliterate aborigines of Australia saved much of their cultural memory in songs. The songs were keyed to local geography. Periodically, an aborigine would walk a songline to check if he or she had remembered the song correctly, and to make changes to the song to update it as necessary. Since many of these songs were top-secret, these "walkabouts" looked rather aimless to the early European settlers who first witnessed them.

Both poetry and songlines are inefficient and hard to use as information storage devices when compared to writing. (That is, once writing's infrastructure has developed: Inexpensive writing supplies, and a written language.) As writing becomes available to a preliterate people, it displaces poetry, songlines, and such for commodity activities such as remembering names, dates, and taxes paid.

Poetry survives today not as a memory enhancer, but as artistic expression. Its divorce from commodity memorizing is what has allowed it to evolve into so many different forms over the centuries.

Who will be the best practitioner?

The culture of the samurai developed in Japan during the 150-year period of unrest before Japan was unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During this time, samurai had a demanding, commodity-level job to perform: protecting their master from the unrest of the period. But some of the people most famous for being samurai come from the period immediately following the unification. With unification, the commodity use for samurais declined, and they had a chance to "perfect their art", unfettered by the day-to-day demands of actually doing commodity samurai work.

Likewise, horse people and horses of today perform at much higher standards than did those of the pre-automobile era.

The "Golden Age" craftspeople and practitioners of a technology will be those who flourish as the commodity aspect of using the technology is displaced.

Commodity will wither; art will survive, quality will improve dramatically

As one technology replaces another, the commodity uses of the older technology will be those that disappear first. If the technology survives replacement, it will be because there is an element of personal or artistic expression involved in using the old technology that isn't involved in using the new technology.

That part of the old technology that survives will be the highest quality part, and the practice and practitioners will be of higher quality than the average practice and practitioners were during the old technology's heyday, when it had to service a commodity as well as quality market.

T-shirts will replace tattoos as standard body decoration because they are the high technology substitute, but tattoos will survive as an art form. This is the “tattoos and T-shirts” phenomenon.

Update: This 26 Jan 13 Economist article, Only the digital dies, is about technology extinction. What it doesn't bring up is the importance of personal expression to an obsolete technology's survival.

Update: This 14 Jun 14 Economist article, Second wind Some traditional businesses are thriving in an age of disruptive innovation, talks about companies and industries which are surviving on what I call personal expression. One of the more striking in its size and profitability is mechanical wristwatches.

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