April 2006


…providing access to deep, ridiculously practical information resources that you'd otherwise never be able to get your hands on.

Case in point: thousands and thousands of user manuals for consumer products ranging from calculators, to blenders, to air conditioners. Mobile phones, computers, TVs, and refrigerators. You name it. Wow.

(via Gizmodo)

Yochai Benkler gave a talk related to his new book 'The Wealth of Networks' at Boalt Law School at Berkeley today. (See my previous post on this book.) I didn't get a chance to go, sadly, but Joe recorded it. And Joe also says that it was the second greatest talk he's ever heard. Now that's an advertisement if I've heard one!

There has been a lot of well-deserved discussion and praise around Paul Dourish's Implications for Design paper at this year's Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference. (Or so I've read, since I'm not actually there.) For the unfamiliar, CHI is a multi-disciplinary but computer science and design dominated conference. Many of the practitioners and researchers in that community have adopted various versions of ethnography in recent years, mostly bastardized, and almost always subsumed by a technology and design-centered focused.

Much of what Paul has to say mirrors debates that have been going on inside of anthropology over the last 25 years or so. (Writing Culture and after. For a nice, succinct synopsis of the last 75 or so years of anthropology see this.) More recently some of them have spilled out into the applied anthropology community, primarily I think because it is multi-disciplinary and hierarchically aligned much the way CHI is. I mention this not to degrade what Paul says – actually the opposite. One of the greatest challenges of applied anthropology is what we might call cultural brokerage – a translation between stakeholders inside of diverse groups. (Disclaimer: Wikipedia's discussion of applied anthropology is pretty good IMHO, up until it gives a set of 4 example problems that do a remarkably terrible job of capturing what applied anthro. is about today.)

Paul clearly believes in the potential of ethnography but is keenly aware of the prevalence of misuse and misunderstanding. Case in point – and my own personal pet peeve – the widespread misconception that ethnography is a qualitative method. (In fact, ethnography is a mixed-methods approach that entails a specific perspective and analytical frame.) The paper is well organized and written, and does a clear job of illustrating his main points: that ethnography is too often poorly or incorrectly applied in the CHI community in a way that both misrepresents what ethnography is about (e.g. theory AND practice) and drains it of much of its potential for informing ongoing understanding about the design and use of technology in everyday life.

I tried to make many of these same points in my paper Cultural Assessment for Sustainable Kiosks which I'm presenting at next month's International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, but I haven't been nearly as eloquent about it as Paul has. Still, I hear a lot of people asking healthy questions like "What's *is* ethnography really?" and thinking about how to apply it in the most meaningful way. I hope that signals a shift out of this transitional period where folks seem to know that ethnography is a powerful tool but have very little concept of how or when to use it, what to do with data once they've got it, or how to ground ethnography in theory.

I really appreciate what Paul is trying to do, and I think he's uniquely positioned to do it. He's someone who is extremely accomplished and respected as a member of the CHI and CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) communities, but clearly has a command of the disciplinary history of anthropology and the theoretical and analytical foundations of ethnography. That his paper has sparked so much interest and debate at CHI (including a nomination for the best paper award) is a testament to his quality as a thinker and writer.

This recent article from The Hindu titled 'The makings of a debt trap in Andhra PradeshThe makings of a debt trap in Andhra Pradesh" describes the debt collection practices of micro-finance institutions (MFIs) as 'barbaric' and suggests that something like 60 people have committed suicide because of inability to repay MFI debt.

Whether or not the claims in the article are true, I think it illustrates a fantastic point: the perception of a thing is at least as important as the thing itself. We could make arguments all day about whether micro-finance is a good model, but whether it's 'good' or not will be irrelevent in situations where people reject it because of the perception that it's 'barbaric' and in general no better than traditional lending.

Managing this kind of perception is a tricky business, but as Jean Lave pointed out so wisely in her seminar yesterday, our duty as anthropologists should be to understand a thing first before we try to change it. We shouldn't be in a hurry to skip to the change part. I'd say that lesson holds true for other disciplines as well, particularly development.

Yochai Benkler, author of the seminal paper 'Coase's Pengiun' (pdf) which lays out the merits of commons-based production and open source, has released a new book called 'The Wealth of Networks' under a CC license. Find the downloadable PDFs of the book here, or order it from Amazon. See also an audio file in which Benkler discusses the idea here. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Coase's Pengiun is the theoretical foundation, really, of Mycroft, which is all about massively distributed peer production. (See other posts on my blog here and here, as well as coverage from the Institute for the Future) We, like, Benkler, see the potential lying dormant in the minds and hearts of millions of people, especially in the long tail, who only need a means to communicate and collaborate. Hopefully Mycroft will be that way.

Jono's comments on getting a PhD combined with Morgan's (sad for me) news that she'll be going to Stanford instead of staying at the iSchool next year have pushed me to make some comments of my own.

After several years of uncertainty, frustration, and unforeseen barriers, I've finally decided to stay at the iSchool at Berkeley and get a PhD. I couldn't be happier about it. Fair warning: I am a graduate student with a positive attitude. I do not buy into the graduate student habit of criticizing and bitching about anything and everything under the sun. I do not consider that 'critical' means 'disparaging' and 'superior.' So I feel very good about saying, with a full recognition of the challenges of the department, that the iSchool is a fantastic and exciting place to be. Here's why.

  1. The iSchool is a truly grassroots interdisciplinary community. You can see it from the fact that there is a sometimes serious tension between the technologists, the social scientists, the business-minded, and the legal scholars. I think it's that tension that makes it exciting – we're not all going to pat each other on the back and say how wonderful our synthetic multi-disciplinary perspective is. We're going to challenge each other, with respect, and force people to justify what they say. And justify it in a way that speaks across disciplines, not within the jargon of a single one. I have a feeling this environment is rare, and it's iSchool up-and-down, which I love.
  2. The community of teachers, students, and staff is truly wonderful. But the network of involvement goes so much further. Our faculty are generous about both giving of themselves, and bringing the best and the brightest to the iSchool to talk and share. We have relationships all over in industry and academia. We can get John Perry Barlow (almost) Sergey Brin, Vint Cerf, Genevieve Bell, etc. to come give talks. Hell, we can get folks like Mitch Kapor, Paul DuGuid, Geoff Nunberg, and Quentin Hardy to teach classes. Whatever we lack in physical resources – let's fact it, the building isn't great, and we lack some classroom and technical spaces it'd be nice if we had – we make up with people resources.
  3. iSchool is first and foremost a professional school. There are nearly 4 times as many students in the masters programs as in the doctoral program. Again, some would harp on the tension this creates. But there is always a tension between masters and PhD, especially when it's a professional masters degree. At the iSchool, though, the masters students are like a bottomless well of knowledge and experience. They come from all over. If I need to know about something, I can feel confident that someone knows about it and will be happy to sit down with a beer and tell me about it. Masters students are always working on exciting, cutting edge projects. I will never be a doctoral student who retreats into the back corner of the locked room, never coming out to find out what's going on. I will take advantage of the wonderful community of students who have.

Look, like I said, it's not that there aren't some frustrating things about the iSchool. But it is what you make of it. All the ingredients are there, and for better or worse, if you've got the self-motivation you can kick some ass. If you don't, well, then maybe this isn't the place for you.

Today I found out that the City of Berkeley does not change the timing of traffic lights with daylight savings time. How? Well, I'll tell ya:

When I moved to a new house last June, I started taking a new bike route to campus (of course), straight down Telegraph Ave. Stopped at one light at a major intersection, I began to challenge myself to get to the light at the next block before the little 'walk' signal started counting down to 0 for a yellow light. I almost always got there.

But then, sometime last Fall, I began to notice that it was much, much harder for me to do. In fact, I was barely getting to that next light before it changed. From a dead stop at the previous light, I'd have to really push it, just so I wouldn't have to stop at the next light too. (Unlike most cyclists in Berkeley, I follow the traffic laws.) Then today, I happened to be riding and noticed that I had no trouble beating the light – in fact it was still on the 'walk' sign as I passed through.

And all of a sudden it dawned on me – daylight savings time. Last week it switched, and today was the first time that I noticed the difference. Apparently Berkeley doesn't change the timing of their lights to accommodate the 1 hour shift. That seems awfully silly and unsophisticated to me. Not to mention probably detrimental for rush-hour traffic. But it made for an interesting bike ride today…

Today's NYTimes is carrying an interesting article about the ways that newspapers have had to alter the way they write headlines and articles to try and increase traffic from search engines. Because web crawlers can't recognize a witty headline – or more specifically because they don't assign a higher pagerank for a witty headline – online media sites are dumbing them down to 'just the facts.'

The article is both a description of why this phenomenon exists and a discussion of whether it's a good thing that online media outlets are doing this. But I think it misses at least one important point: people who search for media online often want something different from their experience than those who pick up a printed newspaper. After all, how do people usually end up at the NYTimes, for example, through a search engine (as opposed to through a feed or some other aggregation mechanism)? By starting with a goal for search, even if it's a loose and abstract one. The technology allows us to generalize a wide variety of contexts because if you want to search, there's no way of getting around it, you have to type in some search terms, a phrase, a topic. When the results come up, I'm not searching for the wittiest headline. Maybe I pick the one at the top of the list, or I'm searching for a page title that matches my keywords. It's all about knowing a valuable link when I see it.

Contrast that to the experience of a newspaper reader. When I pick up the paper, I am bombarded with articles that I didn't choose. I chose to buy the paper, yes, but the process of searching is about finding things that interest me in the mire. When headlines catch my eye, that's absolutely how I choose to start reading that article.

So, what I'm saying is, media outlets would do well to provide a solution that caters to both types of reader. It's not an argument about 'good' journalism, as this quote from the article suggests:

Such suggestions stir mixed sentiments. "My first thought is that reporters and editors have a job to do and they shouldn't worry about what Google's or Yahoo's software thinks of their work," said Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is a visiting faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It's about understanding what readers want in different contexts.

Belatedly catching up on more of the SfAA meetings:

Wednesday afternoon I gave my talk about holistic cultural assessment in ICT for Development projects in an evaluation-focused session that my former advisor, Tony Whitehead, put together.

Aside from the fact that I thought my talk went pretty well, and Tamar was brilliant, there were a couple of other highlights of the session. First, Charity Goodman from the USGAO had some interesting things to say about 'anticipatory anthropology' and 'foresight work'. Now, these were new concepts to me, and it seems like a formalization of something that most good researchers do anyway, but I like the idea of applying a systematic, culture-centered approach to thinking ahead.

I couldn't find an easy definition of any of those terms. Anticipatory anthropology seems to be something that many folks put in their lists of interests, but skip out on defining. But I did find an interesting site on 'Ethnographic Futures Research' that probably overlaps quite a bit. This Wikipedia article on futures research is also an interesting (and slightly comical) read.

The second thing I wanted to mention about the session was the comments of Mary Odell Butler, who works at Battelle. Mary has had a long career in evaluation, and is one of those rare people who can speak broadly and concisely in a way that is easy to understand. I found her comments on all the papers to be wonderful and insightful. In particular I remember the wisdom of her suggestion that anthropologists ought to quit using the word 'culture' wherever possible, especially when working in multi-disciplinary and non-academic environments. It's not that it isn't a valuable concept, it's just that it creates a discussion that can be as much an argument about what culture means as an exploration of the particular phenomenon under discussion. And really, she said, there's no point in arguing about what culture means.

The larger and more interesting point she made is that talking about culture instead of more specific perceptions or processes, is a scapegoat. It relieves us of the burden of explaining specific ideas, habits, and histories. She gave an example that I remember well. Contrast these two statements:

Many African-American women have developed a culturally-based perception that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.

vs.

Many African-American women have learned through their experience and that of their friends and family that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.

Culture, in other words, is too often a gloss for actual perception and practice. Why not call a rose a rose? (I hope I've been fair to her intent with these remarks – and I hope I'll hear about it if I haven't!)

Today's Distinguished Lecture at Berkeley iSchool was cancelled because the speaker, John Perry Barlow, got stuck in LA. Big bummer. The title of his talk was to be 'Is Cyberspace still anti-sovereign?' and I have to admit that I was going to go mostly for a view of the personality. So I was sad the lecture didn't happen.

But people still came, since they didn't cancel until the last minute. And it was an interesting group. I think Barlow brings the 'anarchists' and the 'hackers' out of the woodword – they glomb on to his rhetoric about freedom and regulation on the Internet. As we were standing around in the hallway, eating on the food that was supposed to be for the lecture reception, a guy walked up to me, dressed in a certain stereotypical way with torn clothes, patches and symbols, safety pins, jeans, a hoodie, etc… He had been sitting on the floor to the side with a friend. He raised his arms in the air and said 'Who's a programmer here?' Surprised, and not ready for my ethnographic encounter, I said something non-comittal like 'Well, I guess we all are sort of.' I was standing with some folks much more saavy in that department than I. The guy paused for a minute and said in the same sort of way 'Who's a hacker?' We looked at each other – probably because no one had ever asked us that before. I think a few thoughts went through my mind right then:

  1. What's a hacker?
  2. I suppose I'm a hacker – I try in my own little way to 'break' technology to do what I need it to do. But that's getting less and less unusual.
  3. If I were really a hacker, would I admit it? Would I want to talk about it?

So I made some comment similar to the last. Not engaging, more surprised and confused than anything. He mentioned he runs a major 'Whacker' site – again, what's that? And that he thought he'd meet a lot of like-minded folks at the lecture. He was dissapointed it wasn't going on. Here's a definition of 'Whacker' I found on answers.com:

1. A person, similar to a hacker, who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities. Whereas a hacker tends to produce great hacks, a whacker only ends up whacking the system or program in question. Whackers are often quite egotistical and eager to claim wizard status, regardless of the views of their peers.

Then he started to rail on ICANN. He actually said 'Down with ICANN!' And I was surprised and unready again. Of all the evil tech. institutions in the world, I have found relatively little attention to ICANN. He also mentioned that he loves Tor.

So then we left. And he left. And as I walked away, I thought, 'Judd! You dumbass! You just missed a perfect opportunity to find out about another person's life, another POV!' I should have asked about 'Whacking,' and what he hates about ICANN, and why he likes TOR. I was curious what he does during the day, how he got into running a website, and why he likes John Perry Barlow. But I missed my chance. I hope, next time, I won't be so dumb. I'll be more prepared.

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