Showing posts with label anthropology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anthropology. Show all posts

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Does radically simple design always win?

Ajaz Ahmed’s premise is overly simple in his Guardian piece, where he argues that radically simple design always wins. Here are five simple reasons why his argument is suspect:

1. Counter examples show a cluttered aesthetic can prove popular when you make the lens ‘local’ enough (see anthropologist Daniel Miller’s meditations on Trinidadian preferences in ‘The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach’)

2. Other factors contribute to market-leading uptake, perhaps decisively so. Take Google, one of Ajaz’s own examples. To suggest that its uncluttered visual design was the main factor downplays its investment in technology and engineering talent to generate the most relevant search results, along with a few early deals that increased traffic massively e.g. with AOL. Further, was Myspace really decisively undone by Facebook's simpler design as he argues? Or was it a heap of contingencies including network effects?

3. Are some of his paragons of simple design that really simple? Facebook for example has inflicted poorly thought-through privacy-impinging design decisions on its user (see anthropologist danah boyd’s piece ‘Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck’).

4. Simplicity isn’t always a virtue. Many people believe that TED’s simplicity/accessibility is actually problematic, from its soundbite format which doesn't really enlighten to its guiding belief that technology is an uncomplicated magic wand that will solve humanity's problems (i.e. let's forget the messy business of really understanding a problem and just parachute in more laptops per child). For more on such issues check out this brutal TED takedown from a former speaker.

5. Some of his paragons of simple design might create losers of users. As an open project Wikipedia might be accessible to many people (with an internet connection) and in theory any of these people can get involved as an editor but it presents a skewed view of the world, meaning there is room for improvement. Some facts: 1% of its editors contribute half of all Wikipedia edits. Only 13% of editors are women. Most editors are from the developed world. PR agency Bell Pottinger policed and amend entries on behalf of rich and powerful clients ( Here are more reasons why the reflection of traditional structures in open projects might cause issues - see the first video.

Arguably, Ajaz is absolved from the responsibility of making society a better place because his goal is to foster the effective design and navigation of commercially winning websites. But attending to the broader societal context and what 'winning' might also entail, we see that there is more to design than appealing visuals and functionality and that the issue of simplicity becomes, well, complex.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Friending our four legged friends

What does a pregnant shire horse called Queenie have in common with a German hamster called Hans? Both are Internet webcam stars, in Hans' case for 10 years although the excuse to explain his different appearance roughly every two years (that he "changed his coat overnight") doesn't wash with me any more. Queenie is a main draw over at MyFarm, an experiment in open source farming run by the National Trust. As I write she is expected to give birth and has a live webcam in her stable to catch the moment.

As Hans' case shows, webcams trained on everyday scenes aren't new: the first was set up in the early nineties to monitor the goings on around a kettle in a Cambridge lab. Our motivations to tune in probably haven't changed much either, judging from the analysis in this New York Times article from 2000.

In a 2003 paper  anthropologist Daniel Miller observed how the web can harness the power of narrative much like soap opera. However, it can also make this narrative about 'real' people living simultaneous lives and thereby more compelling, much like reality TV. In a final development he saw the Internet's potential for interactive involvement by the user, elaborated in in his 2011 book 'Tales from Facebook' (p 73). He stressed how co-presence is established, reciprocity is possible and thereby relationships are formed, superseding the capacities of earlier media.

I am not sure he had inanimate objects and animals in mind as subjects but if reality TV could encompass the natural world with shows like 'Big Cat Diary', then why not take it to the next level online and start friending our four legged friends?

I'm off to check in on Queenie...

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The opinions of Professor Field are not the same as evidence from the field

Healthy living is commonly seen as a rational choice on the part of individuals. Indeed, Prof Fields' outlook (click his name for a summary from the Herd blog) seems to be grounded in theories about the rational actor/self regarding individual.

Durkheim initiated a long tradition of sociological and anthropological opposition to the kind of assumptions underpinning Prof Fields’ views, with his examination of the social origins of individual thought.

We need to think about the influence of socio-cultural factors on perceptions, i.e. the norms and values associated with culture and reference groups. We also need to think about the organisation of social relationships, using social network analysis for example, to determine the effect that family and friends can have on decisionmaking.

If we do so, and as any parent can tell you, we will realise that behaviour is infrequently changed by more information or persuasive arguments in isolation (e.g. see Lewis way back in 1945: ‘Conduct, knowledge and acceptance of new values,’ in Journal of Social Issues).

Finally, here's the video referred to in the Herd blog for a great counter to Professor Field's outlook, focusing on social processes:

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The democratisation of intimacy

Here's an interesting video that's just been put up of ethnographer Stefana Broadbent talking about the intersection of the personal and work spheres at TED.

We just had a small session with Stefana at UCL, who took us through her ideas in more detail. In a nutshell, she started out by saying that communication by adults with their nearest and dearest fits with the attachment theory of clinical psychology, given the typical content of messages that pass between them. Thanks to new media, the reaffirmation of close personal bonds is now possible at work but that this causes a conflict (especially for categories of worker being paid for their time rather than knowledge). This conflict is not just being addressed at the local level by organisations but states are legislating against the use of such devices and platforms, using safety as  the excuse. This excuse just doesn't hold water (her extensive ethnographies within organisations bear this out) and is the pretext for a large incursion by all sorts of authorities into our personal lives.

It's all a bit controversial (controversy is something anthropologists do best) but observations repeatedly show that once workers finish assignments, they disengage and perform distracting activity whether smoking or stretching. Why not extend this to personal communications, especially bearing in mind that the average phonecall comes in at less than 2 minutes and that an average of three are made per day. Add to that the mental wellbeing benefits of allowing people to cultivate personal emotional links and bans on comms devices/platforms seem less sensible.

As an aside, such bans throw the hypocrisy of offices with beanbags and Friday massages into stark relief. They try to make the office environment more 'personal' but on their own terms...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Q: What is digital anthropology? A: Hype?

Odd that four weeks in we should still be asking this question, but as “pioneering guinea pigs” (the department’s words not mine) it stands to reason that we should be helping to define the field. If it is indeed an emergent field. Either way we have to decide about the area we plan to research soon so it’s important to work out the scope of legitimate enquiry...

This much we have decided. For ‘the digital’ to be a suitable subject for anthropological enquiry it must be amenable to ethnographic fieldwork and theorising (a continuity with anthropology’s past). Digital anthropology can’t privilege any people because all users constitute what e.g. the internet is and means by virtue of involvement with it everywhere (to an extent a break with much of anthropology’s past, where examinations of groups in fixed locations were common). Finally its output must be insights about what it is to be human, another continuity. 

Whilst I have some ideas already about research I’d like to do, it’s clear that its subject must be culturally significant. What makes ICT's (Information and Communication Technologies) anthropologically interesting according to Tenhunen in a 2008 edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is: "their ability to influence sociality’s place based conditions of existence and forms." To that end he examines "how the appropriation of phones draws from culture and, conversely, contributes to changes in culture and society."

A tool I've enlisted to help fix an appropriate subject, (in other words mapping what's scheduled for mainstream adoption and when), is Gartner's 'Hype Cycle' graph (below), which has been tracking new technology on its trajectory of unrealistic expectations to mass adoption. That's not to say adoption by mainstream 'Western' culture is the key criterion - after all Tenhunen was looking at mobile phones in Indian villages where even a limited penetration was having a large effect. It's also not to say that peripheral phenomena aren't worth studying - for example there's been a lot of research into the practice of goldfarming which has generated an interesting real-world culture of its own, study of which throws light onto other human practices, even though goldfarming is ostensibly about virtual environments.

Ideas on a postcard! Or blog comment of course.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

In the digital lab today, bouncing ideas around about the differences and similarities in the approach taken by journalists and ethnographers to their subject matter.

Found this quote from Reuters blogger Felix Salmon:

"the biggest gap between professional journalists and bloggers hasn't even begun to start narrowing. It's this: professional journalists tend to think of their article as the end of a process of reporting, while bloggers tend to think of their entries as the beginning of a process of commenting."

It doesn't shed much light on anthropology per se but points to behaviours an anthropologist investigating digital culture needs to keep abreast of (if only to appreciate the nature of different data sources).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Getting under the skin of cultures

Week 1

Wow, I'll be lucky if I can manage a post a week, let alone turn this into a living an breathing blog given the quantity of commitments I and others are making on the course.

There are three 'core' elements every week. The first is a 3hr session on key topics/theory, the second a 2hr Lab session for hands on experience of certain digital technologies and the third a seminar given on the parent theme of material and visual culture, to which digital anthropology is positioned as belonging.

Those in the department doing PhD research which falls into the category of 'digital' are first and foremost social anthropologists so many of us are also keen to build a solid foundation in this, one of the disciplines which gave rise to material (and visual) culture itself. To that end we're going to all sorts of additional lectures, including those for anthropologists training in the hitherto real (commonly opposed to virtual, but I'll get to whether this is a meaningful distinction in a subsequent post) world anthropological research method of ethnography.

Today we did an interesting practical exercise which divided the group into two cultures, gave them each a routine to perform and then had the other half of the group try to observe and participate in order to understand what was going on (relayed as a one page 'ethnography'). Lots of valid points emerged about interpreting the (often initially incomprehensible) behaviours of others. The main lesson was that in depth ethnography allows you to already know the answers to the questions you end up posing because of your exposure to and engagement with the culture under study. Next session, ethics...

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Week minus 1

In her introduction the head of Department insists we can refer to ourselves as anthropologists. I’m not so sure because there’s a mountain of knowledge for those without a background in anthropology (the majority on this course) to absorb.
The key challenge is learning how to frame our investigations into areas such as human behaviour around new technologies with reference to over 100 years of thought in anthropology, at the same time drawing on even longer standing intellectual fields to provide context.
On the other hand I think the head of Department was right in stating that the diverse group of students on this course will each have something unique to contribute. They range in background from journalists to advertising and design professionals who recognise that digital technology has profoundly changed both the way these fields operate and how the public consumes their output.
These are just two of many implications of digital technology addressed by this course, which is designed to help us understand and explain them from a point of view that places (observed) human experience at its heart.