Friday, September 30, 2011

Anthropology in High Tech

Since about 1995 I have been lucky enough to conduct anthropological research in an industrial setting, specifically among firms in the computing industry. First at Microsoft, but through most of my career at Intel Corporation, I have led or been part of teams charged with understanding people in their natural environments of daily life, particularly in terms of the role and potential of new technologies in such environments. I consider myself fortunate not just because I am aware how competitive and challenging it is for anthropologists to find gainful employment at a sustainable wage, but also because it is very rewarding to do anthropology through the lens of technology. 

New computing and communications technologies have proliferated on a scale and at a pace that many of us would never have guessed even a decade ago. There are over four billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. Radically new types of services – from e-government India to M-Pesa mobile financial services in Africa – have become part of the lived experiences of people from what were once considered some of the most remote and underdeveloped communities. New computing and communications technologies have been implicated in the Arab Spring, the rapidly expanding middle class in India and China, the rise of Global Cities, and the 2008 collapse of the U.S. Economy and its aftermath of discontent. Given the centrality that both communication and ways of representing knowledge play in the creation and propagation of culture, and the role of technology in these endeavors, I am always mildly astonished that more of my academic colleagues do not take more of an interest in such a resource. 

For those of us doing this kind of work in the tech industry, I would say our understanding of our work, and our purpose, has evolved over the past decade and a half. Ethnographic research was taken up by technology firms in the 1990s at a sort of junction among human-factors engineering, design, research in computer-based collaboration, and the rise of a few high-profile consultancies that explored the relationship between culture and branding.  Corporations, especially those in the fast-moving world of high-tech, are obsessed with “innovation.” There are thousands of books in print on the topic (evidence that nobody has figured it out yet). Ethnographic methods gained cachet in the industry as a tool for driving innovation on the basis of genuine human needs and desires, as observed and documented in the midst of fieldwork. “Ethnography” was thus quickly appropriated even by non-anthropologists as the task of doing “user research”, a sort of in situ market research that emphasizes an ethos of consumerism. 

This is not meant to denigrate such work. There is without a doubt real value to be had from better understanding “the end user.” A number of product development organizations have benefited from more thoroughly understanding how their products might fit into the lives of people, how they might actually be used, what the impediments may be, etc. But over the past decade some of us have recognized that there is a much deeper level at which anthropology can contribute to industry, beginning with a problematizing of the concept of the consumer. Anthropology, which stipulates a genuinely systemic perspective, can provide to our industry the opportunity to see the world in terms of organized complexity. People are far more than consumers, they are participants in extended systems wherein value is created, challenged, taken up, exchanged and otherwise bandied about. More than ever, our tools are implicated in these networks of participation. We can help our colleagues to understand how such systems form, and how they arise from – but also constrain – the actions of their participants. The better we understand such systems, the wiser our response might be when it comes to innovation – at least that is our hope.

 One of the primary challenges is doing this translation. That is, helping our colleagues not only understand such concepts, see them at play in the world, but to collaboratively interpret what they mean for the business. In that regard, our job is perhaps not so different than what anthropologists have been doing in a number of settings for many years: taking on the role of advocate, interpreter and facilitator of more careful consideration.

John Sherry
Interaction and Experience Research Lab
Intel Corporation

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