Rob Walker | Essays

Dumb and Dumber 2.0

In his recent book, “The Venturesome Economy,” the Columbia University business professor Amar Bhidé offers a perspective on American innovation and prosperity that is remarkably optimistic, given the temper of the times. Among his data-driven findings: American consumers have long shown an “exceptional willingness” to buy, for instance, technology products before their utility is clear. Such “venturesome consumers” help spur companies and entrepreneurs to take the risks that lead to innovation because they know there is a market willing to take a roughly analogous risk that the next new thing will turn out to have been worth buying. “It isn’t even just a few leading-edge users,” Bhidé told me. “The venturesomeness is much more broad-based.”

Consumers seem risk-averse and hunkered down at the moment, and spending on the nonutilitarian is getting a bad reputation. But before you consign the venturesome consumer to the remainder bin of history, consider the surprisingly vibrant market for iPhone applications — the downloadable mini-programs that can be added to Apple’s famous mobile device. Many are free, but plenty are not, costing a dollar or two. (Apple takes a 30 percent cut of paid-application sales.) Functionality varies greatly as well, and it’s curious to note that one of the breakout hits has been a 99-cent item called iFart Mobile, from InfoMedia Inc. As you can pretty much deduce from the name, it enables your $200 to $300 mobile device to emit a variety of noises simulating flatulence. This 21st-century whoopee cushion hit No. 1 on the paid-application chart shortly before Christmas, stayed there for three weeks and remained in the Top 10 until mid-January. It has been purchased more than 350,000 times.

The obvious question, which could forgivably take the form of a plaintive howl, is why? Joel Comm, InfoMedia’s founder and a self-styled social-media guru with a book called “Twitter Power,” due out this month, gives some credit to what he calls his “direct publicity” to blogs, particularly TechCrunch. “That set it off,” he deadpanned. But he also says that the application’s success wasn’t just about marketing. “I would beg to differ on it being useless,” he replied to a perhaps-dismissive question. After suggesting that iFart might be used to prevent someone from stealing your phone or even to thwart a terrorist, he conceded that it’s simply a novelty — and noted that flatulence humor has many precedents. (“A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.” William Shakespeare, “The Comedy of Errors.”) And for a mere 99 cents, he argued, what venturesome consumer wouldn’t give it a try? Especially an American one. While the application has been sold in 60 countries, Americans have been the main customers.

This brings us back to Bhidé — whom I probably owe a public apology for dragging his serious research into this particular context. But Apple’s application story is on some level an extraordinary illustration of the willingness of consumers to give new things a whirl. The iPhone itself made its debut in the United States, where people stood in line to buy a product purely on faith that it would prove to be cool, useful or both. The application store didn’t exist back then, but it has since become one of the iPhone’s great attractions: Apple recently announced that there have been more than 500 million downloads of the more than 15,000 applications that have been made available since last summer. Some ­— like applications that turn the phone into a voice recorder — clearly add functionality. Many are games. But more than a few seem utterly utility-free: Another big seller, Koi Pond, simply makes your screen look like a watery, fish-filled environment.

Of course, utility is ultimately determined by consumers. Bhidé says Americans have always displayed venturesomeness and, even in grim economic stretches — like the early 1980s, when personal computers took off — have been motivated both by potential productivity enhancers and by entertainment. Clearly applications offer both rationales. And the combination of low prices and easy accessibility makes them a logical outlet in a fearful economy. “Even in bad times, people are looking for something to improve their lives,” Bhidé said. “If it isn’t the $400,000 house, it’s going to be something else.” And if that something happens to seem pretty dubious, or even flat-out dumb — well, perhaps that’s venturesomeness for you. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2009.  

Posted in: Technology

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