January 2005

Interesting tidbit:

According to blogCensus, there are more blogs written in Esperanto than there are in Danish, Thai, Czech, Swedish, or Finnish. Yes, I said Esperanto. (link)

As reported on BoingBoing and elsewhere, the Pew Internet and American Life Project has released some new survey results about the ways Americans use search engines.

Among the list of unsurprising findings:

  • The daily use of search engines is second only to e-mail as the most popular online activity.
  • 68% of users think search engines are unbiased, a finding which correlates well with another finding that 62% of users are unaware that search engine content is influenced by the distinction between sponsored and un sponsored results.
  • Men and the young are slightly more search savvy than women and adults.

Among the list of annoying methodological problems:

  • Pew regularly releases long reports based on telephone interview surveys without releasing the survey questions. Maybe I'm the only one who cares about that.
  • These reports make headlines that the media can latch on to with findings like "55% of searchers say about half the information they search for is important to them and half is trivial." Of course, in the context of a telephone survey the distinction between 'important' and 'trivial' is practically meaningless.

Skeptical comments:

  • I wonder how much these kinds of surveys are influenced by the difference between what they say they do and what they actually do. One thing I haven't seen much research on (perhaps because I just haven't found it) is the cultural stereotypes and prevailing beliefs about using the internet. Last year I asked a class full of undergraduates what using the internet means to them, and they said something like this:
    It used to be that the people who were tech. savvy and used the internet a lot were 'un-cool,' but as of about 2001 is has become 'un-cool' not to be involved with the internet.
  • I question the finding that 2/3 of people could walk away from search engines with no problem for two reasons:
    1. 1. I wonder if there is a desire to be (or appear to be) unreliant on technology. Here in particular I wonder how they phrased the question.
    2. 2. I'm not sure how well a finding like this reflects people's actual experiences. Example: My parents and grandparents are all internet enthusiasts, but despite my patiently explaining the workings of a web browser to them many times, they don't seem to get it. When they want CNN, Yahoo, Amazon, or the NY Times, they open up Internet Explorer and type that in the address bar, invoking IE's auto-search feature. If you asked my parents if they could live without Google or Yahoo, I bet they'd say yes, not understanding their real reliance. This is just one example, of course, but it makes me wonder if it's just that simple.

This is another article from BBC News that I've been meaning to share. Might be old news by now:

Britons growing 'digitally obese'

According to calculations based on the work of Roy Williams at Cal Tech, each gigabyte we store on a device is equal to a truckload of paper. Digital hoarding seems to be a hot topic, and many (at least in the media) seem content to explain it away as a consequence of greater availability of information and cheaper storage mediums. I'm not sure it's that simple…

This post from over at Eyebeam reports on some survey results regarding how women use and percieve technology. According to Intel, the survey shows that the gender gap regarding how men and women use and view technology is closing. (The raw results of the survey, as usual, aren't available. Check out the Intel press release.)

I find ReBlogger Mike Frumin's comments to be right on target:

All good news, but I'm still troubled by how often a woman's version of a product is merely the same design in pink, or with a mirror glued on for lipstick touch-ups. I think it's not so much that women need their own separate products, but that companies (from the conceptualizers all the way to the retail end) need to recognize that their products are for everybody, not just men.

While it's valuable to learn that women are largely integrating new technologies into their lives, I see findings like this as only marginally useful for a couple of reasons. First, as an article by Leo Marx recently reminded me ('Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept' Social Research Vol 64, No.3 (1997)), technology is an indeterminate and dangerous idea. I think it's more useful to talk about involvement with discrete technologies – technologies that mean something in the world.

Secondly, saying that women are becoming more involved with technology is no surprise – the world is turning into a place where in many areas (at least in the developed world) it is increasingly difficult to get along without interacting with new technologies, not necessarily as much out of necessity as out of sociocultural pressure.

Finally, this kind of information tells us very little about exactly how women use and value technology in their daily lives, and whether those uses and values are any different from those of men. While it makes a good headline to say, for instance, that 'women (58 percent) feel as lost as their male counterparts (56 percent) if they don't check email at least once per day,' this tells us nothing about why that is. I care about the why because the why is the thing that will make a difference in how technologies are designed, marketed, and percieved.

Others have posted on the release this week of Picasa 2, the free image-management software from Google. (See Ryan's comments, a recent post on Slashdot, and PC Magazine's review ).

This is a fantastic piece of software. It makes importing, viewing, doing basic edits, e-mailing, and uploading a piece of cake. It's also fully integrated with Blogger and GMail, and interfaces with any of a number of services for getting prints of your digital photos. I have also appreciated the media detector that comes with it. You tell the program which directories to watch, and it automatically adds new images to your gallery when you drop them there. Also, the program is very, very pretty.

I can't say enough about Picasa. Get it.

In the sciences, certainty is a relative measure based on what we know now, and how well we can test it. The rank of theory is the highest honor that knowledge can achieve. There is also a long tradition of building on what we think we know, using it to evolve greater and greater ideas – using it as a heuristic.

I've been thinking we should view culture this way as well. Culture is too mutable, abstract, and diffuse to be concrete, but perfectly applied as a learning tool. The reason that anthropological knowledge (knowledge about culture) applies so well to so many other fields is not because it provides any degree of certainty, but because it provides a frame of reference – a window for gleaning other pieces of information. The sum of culture is far too much to codify in a useful or meaningful way. We can begin to codify the artifacts of culture – I don't just mean physical artifacts, but social, psychological, and emotional as well. But I think the artifacts of culture should exist not as things we say definitely about a group, but as heuristic tools for greater understanding, to whatever specific or general degree.

I realize this is an abstract statement. But I'm having these rough thoughts after a few weeks of being tweaked by social scientists' predilection to talking about 'the culture of X' or 'the anthropology of Y.' They sound so authoritative, when in actually they speak for a niche group or a narrow (but often valuable) aspect of culture. I don't mean to say that we can't make any definitive statements about culture or that we need to qualify statements with those horrible academic cop-outs like 'seems to,' 'appears to,' or 'may.' I think I simply take issue with the idea that any one person can 'speak' about or on behalf of a culture as a whole. I take a strict constructionist approach – a social scientist who works with a culture and then becomes a commentator on it also becomes a part of that culture. Because of his or her unique position, the best we can say is that the social scientist is well situated to balance emic and etic in a way that leads to valuable perspectives.

So having gone on about what anthropologists should not do, I suppose I should say something about what I think they should do.

First, it's not just the responsibility of anthropologists to position themselves as heuristic gateways, but the responsibility of people who use and apply anthropological knowledge to take it in its proper course. To take it with a grain of salt. As the tools and theories of anthropology have diffused out into the world, I think there's a tendency to reify culture. This is not good. Anthropologists have a unique and valuable perspective, yes, but it deserves the same critical eye as decision makers and planner would give to any other kind of knowledge.

Second, anthropologists have a responsibility to be absolutely diligent about acknowledging their own perspectives. One who speaks for only a small niche of a larger group without being diligent about explaining that perspective is creating fiction as much as reporting on 'fact.' (Let's not talk about the problems of 'facts' and 'fictions'…)

End Note: I babble on about culture this way because writing it down helps me think. I post them to the blog because I like to read and re-read what I've written, and on the (perhaps wrong) assumption that there might be someone else out there who likes to read this junk too. I'm not really so pretentious. :)

The preliminary program for this year's annual meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Santa Fe has just been released. Although the theme of this year's meetings is Heritage, Environment, and Tourism there are, as usual, a variety of interesting sessions for people interested in things like methods, CMC, ICTs, and intervention programs and planning. Especially because of the fiasco regarding last month's AAA meetings, these SfAA meetings are chock full and should be well attended.

I am a huge advocate of the SfAA, and I encourage everyone to check it out. Applied anthropology is one of those fields that is still relatively unknown, but there's something in it for everyone. Anywhere that anthropological methods or theories are applied outside the discipline of academic anthropology – that's applied anthropology.

I am also continuously baffled that anthropological inquiries into ICTs, CMC and the like are not more common at anthropology meetings like the AAAs and SfAAs. Anthropologists, in my experience, can be a technologically ignorant group of people. Those of us who bridge the gap between anthropology and information should participant as much as possible.

Joe Hall and I are giving a paper on photo-journaling and photo-elicitation in the study of information behavior during a two part session called “Innovations in Applied Research Methods” which I have also (somehow) been slated to chair.

Our session:

  • ANTIN, Judd and HALL, Joseph Lorenzo (U of California-Berkeley) Capturing Everyday Life:
    Using Digital Photo-journaling and Elicitation in the Study of Everyday Life Information Behavior

And a few more highlights:

  • LEE, Juliet P., KIRKPATRICK, Sean and JOHNSON, Tamar (Prevention Rsrch Ctr/PIRE)
    Higher Office: The Cohesive Effect of Local Officialdom in an Immigrant Community Coalition
  • JACOB, Beth, OLIN, Kyle and WILLIAMS, Amy (U of Memphis) Bridging Service Gaps with Digital Technology: Steps toward Interconnected Community Information Portals (Poster)
  • PERIN, Jodi and PAVRI, Eric (U of Arizona) Incorporating GIS into Qualitative Research:
    Mapping Perceptions of Climate and Livelihood Vulnerability in the Southwest U.S.
  • ILAHIANE, Hsain (Iowa State U) and SHERRY, John (Intel Corp) Mobile Phones, Globalization and Economic Productivity in Urban Morocco
  • SHERRY, John W. (Intel Corp) MNCs, NGOs, ICTs and People Without Alphabets: Village Computing in India CARRASCO, Anita
  • STURGES, Keith (U of Texas-Austin) Subjects, Objects, and What Happens in Between: “Scientific” Evaluation of a Middle School Computer Immersion Program

And a whole slate of posters and papers from my fantastic former colleagues and professors at the University of Maryland College Park.:

  • PAOLISSO, Michael (U of Maryland) The Right to Work the Water
  • PAOLISSO, Michael (U of Maryland) It's Not About the Boat: Skipjacks, Heritage and Tourism on the Chesapeake Bay
  • CHAMBERS, Erve (U of Maryland) Ecologies of Descent: Some Thoughts about Treating Nature as Heritage
  • WHITEHEAD, T.L. (U of Maryland) From African to African American Family and Kinship Systems
  • WHITEHEAD, T.L. (U of Maryland) Panelist: Understanding Race and Human Variation: the Role of Anthropology and Anthropologists as Culture Brokers
  • ARONSON, Robert E. (U of N Carolina-Greensboro) The Black Church as an Extension of the Black Family
  • WARING, Sarah (U of Maryland) How Do Consumers Value the Environment? (Poster)
    HORA, Matthew Tadashi (LTG Associates) and JOHNSON, Tamar Marie (Prevention Rsrch Ctr) Methodological Practices in the Investigation of Food Store Accessibility In Baltimore, Maryland
  • GADSBY, David and CHIDESTER, Robert (Ctr for Heritage Resource Stud) Heritage in Hampden: Participatory Research Design for Public Archaeology in a Working-Class Neighborhood, Baltimore, MD