April 2005

This is an interesting graphic which represents the results of a Gallup poll on teenagers' views about evolution, intelligent design, creationism, etc. It was reported in the context of a Nature article about intelligent design.

I'm not sure the results themselves are so meaningful. Kids aren't stupid. They know there is controversy over this issue, and I imagine lots of them are stuck between what they hear at school, what they hear at home, what they hear at church, and what the popular media tells them. I think we should give kids credit for being genuinely confused. This country has a genuine hang-up about creationism v. evolution because of the unique place of Christianity in our culture. It's not so simple as 'here's one view that's supported by scientific fact, and here's one that isn't.' I think that's why intelligent design is gaining traction – in a way it solves the cultural dilemma. We CAN believe in evolution without giving up our spirituality in the name of science.

I think it's also important to look what the poll asked these kids. For instance, the second question asks kids to choose between, basically, all God, some God, or no God. That's a lousy choice. If I read that question, I might think, well, I don't want to say no God, because I don't really know what God is, and I don't want to say all God, because I know there are a lot of people going around saying that view is stupid. In the last question too – it's all good and well to show that there is a correlation between education and belief in Darwin's theories, but who says it's causal? What are the other characteristics of people who happen to have higher levels of education that might influence the question? For instance, people who live on the coasts tend to be better educated – maybe the divide is a geographic one not an education-related one.

I just take these studies with such a grain of salt. I also think this one is a fascinating insight into one of the hardest issues in our culture.

Survey Results

I found this fantastic article (via anthropologi.info) on what motivates people to participate in the open source movement. Whenever we start to talk about gift economies and get into the social psychological space, I start to get a little leary. And, as usual, anthropologists feel the need to stroke their intellects by using phrases like 'axiom of kinship amity' and invoking Bourdieu. But nonetheless this is a thought-provoking article.

David Zeitlyn – Gift economies in the development of open source software: Anthropological reflections

Via the Community Informatics Researchers (ciresearchers) list I got a call for papers for what sounds like an interesting conference, although the theme is really terrible:

International Conference on

28 June – 1 July 2006
University of Tartu, Estonia

Conference theme:
Neither Global Village nor Homogenizing Commodification:
Diverse Cultural, Ethnic, Gender and Economic Environments

The biennial CATaC conference series continues to provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of current research on how diverse cultural attitudes shape the implementation and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The conference series brings together scholars from around the globe who provide diverse perspectives, both in terms of the specific culture(s) they highlight in their presentations and discussions, and in terms of the discipline(s) through which they approach the conference theme.

The 1990s' hopes for an "electronic global village" have largely been shunted aside by the Internet's explosive diffusion. This diffusion was well described by Marx – all that is solid melts into air – and was predicted by postmodernists. The diffusion of CMC technologies quickly led to many and diverse internets. A single "Internet", whose identity and characteristics might be examined as a single unity, has not materialised. An initially culturally and gender homogenous Internet came more and more to resemble an urban metropolis. Along the way, in the commercialization of the Internet and the Web, "cultural diversity" gets watered down and exchanges strong diversity for a homogenous interchangeability. Such diversity thereby becomes commodified and serves a global capitalism that tends to foster cultural homogenization.

CATaC'06 continues our focus on the intersections of culture, technology, and communication, beginning with an emphasis on continued critique of the assumptions, categories, methodologies, and theories frequently used to analyse these. At the same time, CATaC'06 takes up our characteristic focus on ethics and justice in the design and deployment of CMC technologies. We particularly focus on developing countries facilitated by "on the ground" approaches in the work of NGOs, governmental agencies, etc., in ways that preserve and foster cultural identity and diversity. By simultaneously critiquing and perhaps complexifying our theories and assumptions, on the one hand, and featuring "best practices" approaches to CMC in development work, on the other hand, CATaC'06 aims towards a middle ground between a putative "global village" and homogenizing commodification. Such middle ground fosters cultural diversity, economic and social development, and more successful cross-cultural communication online.

I had the most interesting ethnographic moment at Crate & Barrel of all places the other night. My wife and I had gone in to exchange a few gifts from our wedding, which is apparently a complicated process. There is quite a bit of paperwork to handle. But the interesting part is how the Crate & Barrel environment unfolded in front of us.

For those of you who haven't been lately, many Crate & Barrel stores are actually two stores in one: a housewares store and a furniture store. Apparently there is quite a bit of tension between the two. Despite the fact that the two are often mixed into the same physical space, they have separate employees. The perception of the housewares employees seems to be that the furniture employees think they're better somehow. They don't like housewares employees helping folks with furniture purchases, and they're very protective of the ways they do things. They have also apparently developed an extremely complicated way of pricing certain items (pillows, for instance) which requires a good deal of prior knowledge. It's not intuitive at all how they do it, something that makes me wonder if it wasn't deliberate in a way in order to give the furniture employees a monopoly over that knowledge.

Anyway, when my wife and I were there the other night, we were buying thing almost entirely in the housewares store, but we also bought two pillows. Enter the elephant in the room. We had to go upstairs (to the furniture store) to pick out pillows, and asked if we could bring them back downstairs to ring them up with everything else. 'Sure' the employee said. But when we checked out, four housewares employees together couldn't figure out how to ring up the pillows. My wife offered to go upstairs and ask. Apparently, that was a bad idea. The upstairs manager promptly berated the housewares employee for sending a customer up and then followed us downstairs to oversee the transaction (read: pick a fight).

To make a long story short, we witnessed quite an argument. It was late and we were probably the only two customers left in the store, but still arguing in front of customers? Poor form. This is probably boring to all of you, but I thought it was a fascinating ethnographic moment. These places develop their own cultures that represent so many of the traditional subjects of anthropological inquiry: power dynamics, hierarchy, difference and prejudice. All these elements show up in the same ways at Crate & Barrel as they do with the Yanomami.

If you're interested in the real focus of our research (not the bastardized version that was propagated through Slashdot), check out our new site at:


This site will be redesigned and become much more extensive come summer, but for now at least we've got a web presence!

Thanks to Yuri for pointing out Slashdot's coverage of the announcement of our big Macarthur grant.

Of course, the Slashdotters by and large got it very, very wrong. Slashdot is full of people saying things like 'we need more teachers over more computers' and 'technology in the classroom is a waste of time.' But this is not a study about adding high technology to the classroom. Not at all.

Let me sum it up in two points, the first research-related and the second applied:

1. There is practically no research on how youth in the United States use, perceive, and value ICTs. It's a gigantic gap. We aim to fill it. How can we design learning technologies that work unless we understand the real relationships between youth, formal and informal learning, social networks, games & play, etc.?
2. Educational technology has been stagnant since about 1990. There have been practically no new developments in teaching software. Through our study we hope to provide the ammunition to develop educational software that works, and which capitalizes on the new, digital, networked environment in which many kids are growing up.

We do not advocate high-tech when low-tech is what we need. We do not advocate replacing teachers with computers. What we aim to do, in fact, is to address many of the concerns that the Slashdotters wrote about. Much of ICT in education today is useless or perceived as useless because it is not informed by the ways that kids actually use and view technology, and it does not recognize the ways that kids learning happens outside of the classroom through informal learning and social networks.

At our kickoff meeting the other day, Mimi Ito, one of the project PIs, put it this way (I paraphrase): a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that the schools are no longer the gatekeepers of growing up. (end paraphrase) But kids are doing it themselves. The solution isn't to reinvent schools or kids lives, but rather to learn to integrate the two.

Here is an interesting NSF reference project I found:

Social and Economic Implications of Information Technologies: A Bibliographic Database Pilot Project

The project has a huge database of projects, papers, and datasets which are organized into 'roadmaps' by theme. Unfortunately the roadmaps aren't exactly thrilling for an anthropologist, but there is a ton of publicly available research and data available.

I just noticed that Google has quietly boosted my storage quota on GMail to 2GB.

According to their News Page:

G is for growth
Storage is an important part of email, but that doesn't mean you should have to worry about it. To celebrate our one-year birthday, we're giving everyone one more gigabyte. But why stop the party there? Our plan is to continue growing your storage beyond 2GBs by giving you more space as we are able. We know that email will only become more important in people's lives, and we want Gmail to keep up with our users and their needs. From Gmail, you can expect more.

eWeek, among many others, has covered this predictable development.

Despite the appalling web design, this page on computer-mediated anthropology seems to have a lot of good info. and links.

Here is a blurb that described it:

Literature on computing and anthropology has often separated computers as a research tool and computers as an area of study (most notably in the case of virtual communities). Yet when we look at anthropology's relationship with computing without making this distinction, certain patterns emerge. I designed the Computer-Mediated Anthropology (CMA) website to help anthropologists examine and redefine anthropology's relationship to computing. I welcome all to visit the site at http://www.cas.usf.edu/anthropology/cma, and also welcome comments to me at ncporter@mail.usf.edu.