September 2005


Rex at Savage Minds has badly misrepresented my recent criticism of his focus on the products of anthropology rather than the product (see his post group research + digital collaboration != FLOSS) – or he debates in an aggressive style that I'm just not used to, at least not in the blog format. But I feel the need to clarify and rebut, and I choose to do it here both because the direction of the discussion at Savage Minds has gone far from the original post and because I expect this post might be interesting to far fewer people.

In recent comments Judd Antin argued that the heart of what it means to 'open source' is to engage in a collaborative 'process' of scholarly research, and that simply releasing a finished 'product' such as an article that can be freely circulated is secondary this more central meaning of 'open source.'

I argued that anthropology and ethnography are both a product and process, and that if we get stuck on the product (publications), we could miss many opportunities for open source-style processes. I also argued that looking at the processes of both FOSS and anthropology was necessary for examining the analogy. The assertions that products are secondary and process is more central are purely Rex's additions. My own contribution was to say (trying to draw an analogy between FOSS and anthropology) that if process is where FOSS is truly new, different, and potentially successful, perhaps anthropology ought to look at it too.

Judd's idea, as I understand it, is to use digital technology such as blogs and wikis to facilitate group research. As someone who contributes to wikipedia and has my own (somewhat languishing) research blog I obviously agree with this. But I don't understand why he thinks what he is doing is 'open source'.

I would never claim that our work on the Digital Youth project is purely 'open source,' but I would absolutely argue that it is 'open source-like.' Importantly, I'm not restricting myself to thinking about ethnography as the act of collecting data, but rather the entire process of collection and analysis. I agree with Ozma's point that an individual going out into the field is often disruptive enough, and that sending a whole team out might be worse. But our 'source' is not only ethnographic data collected in the field but the collective efforts of the team of researchers and informants who, through analysis, help piece together a jumbled pile of narratives, interviews, fieldnotes, audio and video recordings, etc. Oneman comments:

But if we accept that large-scale group work is not easy to pull off in the field, what about the “second-order” work? Drawing on the FOSS analogy, the average programmer him- or herself is likely to be something of a loner him- or herself. Code isn't generally written as a team effort (with exceptions, as in fieldwork). FOSS development becomes collaborative a degree removed from coding itself—when a project coordinator of some kind (whatever his or her title may be) correlates and disseminates the software product, or correlates and distributes feedback (e.g. bug reports).

Here here. I just wouldn't call the process of analysis 'second-order.'

In sum, group research + digital collaboration != open source.

Agreed! Did I say that? I think I said 'we're committed to open sourcing our process as much as possible in order to develop a community of 'developers' and 'consumers' around our work.' For me a large part of making our work open source-like is opening our analysis process (and thereby the data) up to a larger community of people. We also hope to use digital media to gather together an even larger group of interested people with whom we can discuss and share the many elements of the analytic process that don't involve only the data, such as literature, news, and other resources.

In fact one could criticize Judd by arguing that if he was truly committed to having an 'open' development process for his research, he would release all of his data and writing into the public domain so that it could be built upon by others… I wonder, for instance, if the human subjects review board who ok'd this project would have done so if they knew Ito and Lyman (the PI's of Judd's project for whom, btw, I have enormous respect) planned to release onto the Internet the names and social security numbers of the children they studied?… The point is just that although Judd claims to be hewing more closely than I to the model of open source as practiced by programmers, in fact his use of the term to mean “group research + digital collaboration” is in fact quite removed from a strict reading of what it means to be 'open source.'

Ugh. I don't consider open source to be an all or nothing proposition. There doesn't seem to be much consensus on what exactly 'open' is within the FOSS community – take for evidence the huge number of licenses that exist under the umbrella of FOSS. So we might say it's a little premature to lay down the law for 'open' in anthropology. And (thankfully) I never questioned Rex's adherence to open source, nor compared it to my own. It's not a competition (again, thankfully). It's odd also that Rex would choose to make a point about releasing names and SSNs for so many reasons, including that it's kind of a low blow, that it capitalizes on recent hysteria about data privacy and security, and that I mentioned in my original comment that we shared his concerns about our material not being 'ready for primetime.' When I said that I didn't mean, of course, just that we were nervous because our work might not be properly cited (or some similar academic faux paz). As Rex himself notes, ethnographic data and code are not the same, and we owe a lot more care to people than we do to code.

This example—that human subjects have human rights which perl code does not—indicates one of the many ways in which the idea of “debugging culture” as if it were code rests on a raft of problematic assumptions about similarities coding and anthropology which I don't have time to get into here.

Getting back to my original point, I thought we started talking about the analogy between FOSS and anthropology. Whether it is apt (or could be) is at the heart of the question. I'd love to hear Rex's thoughts on why the analogy between debugging code and doing ethnographic analysis doesn't work for him. For me it works well. I've found that the experience of opening my data up to a larger community of people has helped me to gain insights I might not otherwise have. 'Debugging culture' is not for me about the relationship between people and code, its about the relationship between the process of finding and fixing bugs in software and the process of finding patterns and drawing them together during ethnographic analysis.

Anyway, I hope there can continue to be a targeted discussion about the potential for porting some lessons from FOSS into anthropology:

What is the 'source' in open source anthropology?
What is an 'open source' product in anthropology? What is an 'open source' process?
Is there something about anthropology that makes it a challenge to implementing an open source-like model?

Partly in response to my recent post on open source anthropology, Rex over at Savage Minds posted a nice summary of the problems with open publishing models in anthropology and the recent failure of Anthrosource. Getting beyond publishing, however, I was hoping we could address some bigger issues. Below is my comment to Rex's post:

Talking about open publishing models is important, but I don't think we should be stuck with the narrow view of anthropology or ethnography as simply a product rather than a process. The Halloween memo points out that process is the thing that open-source software does really differently than its proprietary competitors (e.g. Microsoft). And once we start talking about process there are many more opportunities for open source anthropology than open publication models and projects like AnthroSource provide.

I am working on a research team studying kids' informal learning with digital technology. Like Rex we're also worried about our work not being ready for primetime, but we're committed to open sourcing our process as much as possible in order to develop a community of 'developers' and 'consumers' around our work. So we're doing it in stages:

  • We use site-specific wikis to share fieldnotes and other research documents within the various working groups.
  • We use a private blog to share research memos and links, and to discuss relevant literature amongst the larger research team.
  • We're talking about sharing informal reports on our findings and developing themes on a weekly basis via our website (not yet up…).

Why shouldn't more anthropologists be opening up their process the way we're trying to – and the way the FOSS community has? In The Cathedral and the Bazaar Eric Raymond laid out many of the principles that make open source work – principles that could work for anthropology as well. Let's drawn an analogy, for example, between debugging code and analyzing ethnographic data ('debugging culture?'). Stallman says 'parallel debugging' (thousands of developers simultaneously working to identify and fix problems in the code) is essential to the open source process because, as Linus Torvalds said, every problem is bound to be transparent to somebody. I'd say the same for the task of analyzing ethnographic data. Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes we can't see the obvious because we're too entrenched in the data. Sometimes a colleague or an informant has just the right knowledge and context to provide that 'ah hah' moment.

I'm not saying it's the sort of thing that all anthropologists ought be doing, but rather that it's the type of thing that would truly constitute open source anthropology. In a nutshell it's this: adopting open access publishing models is about the product, but debugging culture is about the process, which is where the open source model really hits its stride. Could anthropology be open to this? Yes, I'd like to think so, but maybe not anytime soon. (See previous argument)

Update: Thanks to Joe for pointing out both that this post had no title and that I mixed up Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond. That'll teach me to post on the fly!

I hate to reblog items that have already been Slashdotted, but:

Blogging for One (via Slashdot):

A new study finds that blogs are more likely to deal with personal matters than politics or current events, and nearly 50% of bloggers see the activity as a form of therapy.

According to an AOL survey conducted by Digital Marketing Services Inc., many bloggers write about "anything and everything." But while blogs often include comments on news topics, they are more likely to be about friends, family and other personal interests.

(Via Jono Hey, via Lifehacker):

I've wanted this for ever – and many times said I should just do it – but now someone's done it and not only saved me the hassle, but done it a lot better than I would have.

foodieview solves that problem of, "I have some food and some recipes, but I don't know which recipes I can make with my food. What can I make with what I've got in my fridge?" It not only searches over thousands of recipes all over the web, but it allows you to search by what you have and gives you recipes you can make.

Now all I need is this integrated into my touchscreen fridge door suggesting recipes to me automatically – and emailing my friends to come round for me based on when I last saw them and how much food I have and what they have in their fridges – and I'll be set.

Good find, Jono! Next it needs a social networking element and XML encoding so you can stick it right into your local recipe database (or feed it directly to your FoodieBot, which will whip that bad boy right up for ya)!

Update: I went to subscribe to Lifehacker's RSS feed on Bloglines and noticed that Bloglines won't find the feed if you type in http://www.lifehacker.com and yet 219 people are subscribed to the broken link. To subscribe to Lifehacker's feed use http://www.lifehacker.com/index.xml .

Via a recent Boing Boing post I learned about the work of Enid Gabriella Coleman (a.k.a Biella Coleman). Biella got her PhD in anthropology at the University of Chicago and wrote her dissertation on beliefs about freedom and software in the Debian Community ('The Social Construction of Freedom in Free and Open Source Software: Hackers, Ethics, and the Liberal Tradition'). Biella's work brings an awesome sociocultural perspective to a whole bunch of issues around the free and open source software (FOSS) community. Check out her full list of publications (all freely available online), but here are a few highlights:

Also check out the syllabus for a course she taught last winter called 'Hacker Ethics and Politics.'

The results of the recent American Anthropological Association membership survey are in. (via antropologi.info) Here's the meat of it:

Although there is a wide recognition of the usefulness of posting conference papers and supplementary materials online, there is minimal willingness to post one's own work, and there is even less willingness to submit online comments on annual meeting papers. This is true regardless of age or employment status of the respondent.

(..)
There is marked interest in annual meeting papers and abstracts being electronically accessible indefinitely, coupled with little interest in the preservation of online bulletin boards and interactive discussion forums for more than four months.
(…)
In terms of who should be permitted access to material related to AAA annual meetings, most believe that session information and abstracts should be made available in searchable format online to the general public. Yet, papers, works-in-progress and comments should be limited to session participants, and perhaps AAA members.
(…)
Results suggest that respondents value the idea of Creative Commons and the Open Access model (such as AnthroCommons); yet, only a third of the respondents who completed this survey, or roughly the number who accessed AnthroCommons, completed this question.

(Read the whole Anthropology News article)

I don't know, is there something fundamental about anthropology that makes the discipline averse to an open model? Anthropology is, after all, based on fieldnotes which are deeply personal and often private. Maybe these values extend to other forms of writing as well, such as notes, conference papers, and even online discussions. Many anthropologists were (and in some cases still are) also indoctrinated with the idea that anthropology is about the lone ethnographer, trudging off into the jungle to find his or her 'people.' If anthropologists believe that doing anthropology is a lone enterprise, and further that the product of their work is too deeply personal and individual to share, does that erect an insurmountable barrier to Open Source Anthropology, at least for the foreseeable future?

Or is it just a generational thing – the old, 'traditional' anthropologists are as stuck in the mud as they've ever been? Maybe Open Source Anthropology strikes them too much as an applied anthropology, which is, of course, the bastard stepchild of traditional academic anthropology. Maybe our only choice is to sit back and wait for the paradigm shift when the current generation of thought leaders fades away.

This issue is particularly fascinating because I'm taking a course at SIMS taught by Mitch Kapor, Steve Weber(blog), and Pam Samuelson called 'Open Source Development and Distribution of Digital Information.' One of the primary goals of the course is understanding what (if anything) makes the open source model for software unique, and how we might translate the model to work in other domains. One of the points we touched on this week is that even 'free riders' – those who take from a community of sharers without sharing themselves – contribute in a way. They provide an audience, they provide attention and momentum for a project. Often times they provide complaints or other comments which constitute valuable feedback for developers. If even one in a thousand does this, free riding becomes profitable for the enterprise because there are almost no costs to sharing.

So maybe the obstinacy of many anthropologists isn't insurmountable. The challenge is to maintain a critical mass of anthropologists who continue to contribute and share freely. If the explosion of blogging anthropologists is any indication, it's a promising future. In particular I hope more anthropologists start to feel comfortable making informal contributions and beginning exploratory discussions about their ongoing work. Don't wait for the book or the journal publication! I have gained so much by talking with my colleagues about my ongoing work – why not bring the blogging community into that discussion?

Savage Minds points us to the Nature.com article about an Italian programmer who, while scooting around his home town on Google Earth and Google Maps, stumbled upon the remains of an ancient villa.

Using satellite images from Google Maps and Google Earth, an Italian computer programmer has stumbled upon the remains of an ancient villa. Luca Mori was studying maps of the region around his town of Sorbolo, near Parma, when he noticed a prominent, oval, shaded form more than 500 metres long. It was the meander of an ancient river, visible because former watercourses absorb different amounts of moisture from the air than their surroundings do.

His eye was caught by unusual 'rectangular shadows' nearby. Curious, he analysed the image further, and concluded that the lines must represent a buried structure of human origin. Eventually, he traced out what looked like the inner courtyards of a villa.

Mori, who describes the finding on his blog, Quellí Della Bassa, contacted archaeologists, including experts at the National Archaeological Museum of Parma. They confirmed the find. At first it was thought to be a Bronze Age village, but an inspection of the site turned up ceramic pieces that indicated it was a Roman villa.

These tools are so powerful because they open up whole new lines of knowledge and inquiry to everyone who has access to the internet, most importantly to the locals who have both the interest and the indigenous knowledge to make discoveries that scientists at far away Universities never could.

Thanks to Steve for pointing me towards this recent ZDNet article called 'Intel's Anthropological Army.' It bascially provides a summary of presentations from various social scientists at the autumn Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Lots of anthropologists, like some folks who work for Intel's fascinating People and Practices Group, and Genevieve Bell who's starting up a new group at Intel called 'Domestic Designs and Technology Research Digital Home,' but also more diverse folks like Eric Brewer, who identifies himself with the Intel Berkeley Research Lab, but I associate more with Berkeley's TIER group.

Since my current work withe the Digital Kids group at SIMS is about how kids percieve the relationships between virtual and physical spaces and places, this quote was particularly awesome:

Ken Anderson is an anthropologist in P&PR. "I've been looking at people who live and work outside their native country. By number, [international firms] would make up the fifth largest country in the world, but they're a group that are often overlooked. One study recently looked at Ghana in West Africa. A third of all Ghanaians live outside the country, and remittances back home account for 25 percent of the GDP of the country, which seems very high but isn't unusual for developing nations. Technology has a profound effect on people. We met Mahmoud, who puts his telephone number above the doorway of the house he shares with his eight brothers, because his mobile phone is where he lives.

Mattel releases Vidster camcorder for kids (via Engadget)

Mattel's Vidster

Mattel has released a truly 'dumbed down' camcorder for kids – 320 x 240 resolution and only 15fps – for $99. I assume they're banking on the low price-point to get kids (or more likely their parents) involved in media creation. But is it a good thing to give kids a device that basically sucks, and with which they can only approximate 'real' media? It seems to me that they're asking for it to be a novelty toy – kids & parents are interested in the idea, but then realize the video product is lousy and lose interest.

I spent an upsettingly long time looking at this graphic from the NY Times this morning. Check out the original article if you'd like. I can imagine that if I didn't know something about tennis it would have been even more incomprehensible:

NYTimes: Federer & Agassi
(Full Size)

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