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Digital anthropologists: ‘go get one!’

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John Mahoney, Vice President and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner’s CIO team last month identified anthropologists as the next important hire for digital organisations. ‘Go get one!’ he urged viewers of NZCIO. His recruitment strategy, go to a university and ask more or less any social science or humanities student to come and hang out at your firm for a few months, is delightfully quaint and music to the ears of all budding ethnographers.

But what do anthropologists actually do? According to Mahoney their role is to ask ‘why’ repeatedly, much like a toddler who has just discovered the power of speech. How do you measure whether this injection of social science is having an impact on your firm? Apparently, you can rely on a single, simple metric: if you have to give the anthropologist a security guard by the end of the second week you know things are going well. Why? Because, Mahoney says, ‘if they’re asking really good questions in a really irritating way, at the end of the second week, the joke is that unless you give them a security guard you will find them hanging from a tree.’ID-100194333

Is there more to anthropology than asking faux naïve questions? Can it be more than a disruptive technique? What exactly is digital anthropology and can it also be used to generate more positive insights?

Anthropologists have been gainfully employed in technology firms for many decades. Lucy Suchman was one of the first to be hired when she began work as part of a team of social scientists at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. She filmed people using photocopiers and used ethnomethodology and conversation analysis to show that the model of ‘plan’ and then ‘act’ being used by the designers responsible for creating copiers was not, in fact, how people actually behaved. Her work reopened questions about the kinds of intuitions that are often attributed to users by designers and suggested that responses to machines should always be based on observations in natural environments rather than on the instincts of engineers. More generally, she established the value of observation as a technique – by filming people and machines interacting she showed that good design should be based on what people do, rather than what they say they do. This insight can be traced back to Polish founding father Bronislaw Malinowski, who, in 1922, argued that the goal of anthropology was, ‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world’.

Companies like Intel, HP, Microsoft, Google, Kodak and Apple have also employed anthropologists. Intel’s People and Practices Research team, which focuses on health and technology, is the iconic high-tech industry example. Their modus operandi is human centred, ethnographic and design oriented. They’ve studied the meanings of ‘home’ in ‘home technology’ across seven Asian countries, for example, contributing to Intel’s first PC (a significant departure for a chip maker) designed for the Chinese market. Anthropologists do play a role in unsettling existing practices that have come to be taken for granted – ways of working and being in the world that might be described as ‘cultures’ in other contexts. To take one recent example, in Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber has excavated the profound confusion at the heart of contemporary ideas about debt. He asks whether it always makes sense for debts to be repaid, at all costs, or whether this is a moral reflex produced by the long periods during which debt and sin were conflated. However, sideways questions and provocations are not sufficient to warrant a role at the heart of the digital industries. Anthropologists do more than simply ask ‘why?’

The turn to design and technology is also partly due to changes in the orientation of anthropology as a discipline. Anthropologists once shared with missionaries and explorers the role of chronicling the rituals and lifeways of remote communities. As the world grew more connected this function became increasingly obsolete. Traditional fieldwork locations like Papua New Guinea, Central Africa and South America are now overrun with robust film makers and adventurous tourists. Anthropologists are increasingly working in sites that would once have been the preserve of sociologists: steel plants in Brazil, fertility clinics in Indonesia, nuclear facilities in Kazakhstan, mobile phone gambling companies in Gibraltar.

The role played by anthropologists in these environments exceeds that of the trickster simply asking why things are done in particular ways. It lies in the unlimited facility for comparison. How can knowledge about alternative ways of being in the world help us to unthink the assumptions that limit invention and creativity? What fundamental ideas about human identity, motivations and emotions are embedded in our existing products and services? What are the implications for technology if we think beyond these ideas and replace them with alternatives that have been recorded by anthropologists working in diverse settings? What are the technological implications of different ideas about who we are and what makes us human? What new ideas about wealth, well-being and value are currently being created by living together in diverse digital environments? Digital anthropology encompasses all of these questions. Asking ‘why?’ is merely the start.



Written by samkelly2014

March 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

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