Friday, 11 December 2009

danah boyd interview

Interesting interview with digital anthropologist and social media expert danah boyd here today. I like the insight that kids are just as concerned with privacy as before (and as concerned as adults are). Privacy is linked to control and kids are only able to control spaces such as those online whilst adults have control over homes, which they see as the locus of privacy. Cue much confusion about whether kids actually value privacy any more.

danah boyd also deconstructs the uncritically accepted notion of 'digital native'. Children are no more natives than adults, it's just that the imperative to learn to use technology may be so much stronger when it has become an essential way to negotiate the conventional processes of growing up.

In short, plus ca change.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Utah Teapot

Only time for a quick entry today by virtue of needing to deliver three essays next week...

One of the essays is actually a project to explore issues in digital anthropology. I'm looking at an iconic object in the world of 3D graphics - the Utah Teapot - to help me explore various issues such as open source sharing, the preservation of digital heritage, the validity of virtual anthropology and remediation. More anon...

Part of my presentation

Friday, 13 November 2009

Social media gurus get a kicking

Spotted this on Gabriella Coleman's blog Interprete today (see blog list). Very, very, (very) funny for anyone who has experienced the patter of a certain kind of social media guru.

There I was a few posts ago almost cutting such people some slack ('Not all sell, sell, sell') but I think it was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The BBC stripped bare (and paying for strippers)

Went to an interesting talk today by anthropologist Professor Georgina Born who wrote 'Uncertain Vision', based on ethnographic research at the BBC. She said that the BBC was an excellent place to witness the impact of neoliberal marketing thinking applied to the public sector in the 1990's (bringing in terms like accountability and a whole set of practices which are now accepted as part of the landscape).

She was critical about this impact, which for example saw the introduction of short term contracts which in her opinion squeezed the space available autonomous creative thinking, betraying the democratic Reithian vision.

There are pockets of hope and creativity for her, one being the BBC's determination to keep its finger on the pulse by exploring the possibilities of digital technology, leading to excellent services such as the BBC Asian Network which manages to be universalist and cater for a 'minority' (though this didn't square with her criticism of investment by public sector broadcasters in consultancies to project which platforms were going to be key in the future - how else are they supposed to know...?)

The answer came soon enough. Unsurprisingly perhaps for an anthropologist she also saw hope in the BBC's concerted efforts to carry out its own market research to ostensibly find out how to reach its audiences (I thought much like a PR professional might applaud an organisation which decides to do PR ect., but that's me being cynical). In the last decade this research has also included ethnography and she relished in the irony of the BBC employing commercial ethnography practices to "slap them in the face" when she had to tread so warily in her dealings with the upper echelons.

Anyway - two things to add. Firstly, the BBC isn't keen to shout about all the research it does. I am aware of its employment of a consultancy which conducted ethnographic research into nudist camps on its behalf (imagine the headlines...!). Secondly, for all her travails trying to get access to various departments such as news at the BBC, I spent a lot of time on the other side of the equation, trying to get journalists access to anthropologists going about their daily work. It wasn't easy and I think points to the difficulties outsiders have in gaining access to the internal processes of any institution as well as the similar incomprehension felt when facing rejection: "but why wouldn't they want to speak to me, my motives are pure..."

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Digital anthropology vs digital ethnography

I was speaking to a commercial market researcher today and mentioned that I was studying digital anthropology. He understood this to mean the deployment of digital tools in conducting qualitative research such as ethnography. 

I outlined the difference between digital anthropology and ethnography, which I'm repeating here, to clarify that the focus of the MA (soon to be MSc) is the former.

There are two ways of interpreting digital ethnography. The first is that it is ethnography on digital subject matter (a la Mike Wesch at Kansas University) and the second is that it's using digital tools to conduct ethnography (a la Cardiff University's Hypermedia and Ethnography Group). They aren't exclusive: In the latter sense digital ethnography involves traditional ethnographic practices transposed into a digital medium, such as in-depth online interviewing and (participant) observation in virtual communities. It also covers the (immediate, remote and scalable) gathering of content-rich digital output from research samples to gain insights into behaviours (extending to digital audio/film diaries or field recordings by researchers). Finally, it presents new possibilities for the presentation and analysis of data (e.g. the potential of hypertext). The subject matter of this research may be digital (e.g. the study of the culture of YouTube) or not, which is why I prefer the second more inclusive interpretation.

Conversely, digital anthropology is about digital technology and the remarkable effect that it is having on social organisation and cultural practices in the same way that medical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology which examines how society is impacted by health issues. In connecting the theoretical with the empirical, anthropology is one of the best ways to understand the effect. 

So there you have it: Digital anthropology isn't digital ethnography but the latter may be particularly useful in helping us research and present issues arising in the areas covered by the former, considering that (some, not all) people are spending an increasing amount of time with digital devices and online and that it is in the empirical encounter with these people that gives grounding to our conclusions.

PS Here are some nice reflections on writing an ethnography on digital subject matter 
PPS I reserve the right to revisit the subject of definitions in the future...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Shape of news to come

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt recently looked into his crystal ball to anticipate the future shape of news gathering and dissemination. He admitted that predictions are difficult but here’s one version of the future (a project by a UCL coursemate’s former journalism intern) that could become standard. All he has to do is monetise it and bingo!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The democratisation of intimacy

Here's an interesting video that's just been put up of ethnographer Stefana Broadbent talking about the intersection of the personal and work spheres at TED.

We just had a small session with Stefana at UCL, who took us through her ideas in more detail. In a nutshell, she started out by saying that communication by adults with their nearest and dearest fits with the attachment theory of clinical psychology, given the typical content of messages that pass between them. Thanks to new media, the reaffirmation of close personal bonds is now possible at work but that this causes a conflict (especially for categories of worker being paid for their time rather than knowledge). This conflict is not just being addressed at the local level by organisations but states are legislating against the use of such devices and platforms, using safety as  the excuse. This excuse just doesn't hold water (her extensive ethnographies within organisations bear this out) and is the pretext for a large incursion by all sorts of authorities into our personal lives.

It's all a bit controversial (controversy is something anthropologists do best) but observations repeatedly show that once workers finish assignments, they disengage and perform distracting activity whether smoking or stretching. Why not extend this to personal communications, especially bearing in mind that the average phonecall comes in at less than 2 minutes and that an average of three are made per day. Add to that the mental wellbeing benefits of allowing people to cultivate personal emotional links and bans on comms devices/platforms seem less sensible.

As an aside, such bans throw the hypocrisy of offices with beanbags and Friday massages into stark relief. They try to make the office environment more 'personal' but on their own terms...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Q: What is digital anthropology? A: Hype?

Odd that four weeks in we should still be asking this question, but as “pioneering guinea pigs” (the department’s words not mine) it stands to reason that we should be helping to define the field. If it is indeed an emergent field. Either way we have to decide about the area we plan to research soon so it’s important to work out the scope of legitimate enquiry...

This much we have decided. For ‘the digital’ to be a suitable subject for anthropological enquiry it must be amenable to ethnographic fieldwork and theorising (a continuity with anthropology’s past). Digital anthropology can’t privilege any people because all users constitute what e.g. the internet is and means by virtue of involvement with it everywhere (to an extent a break with much of anthropology’s past, where examinations of groups in fixed locations were common). Finally its output must be insights about what it is to be human, another continuity. 

Whilst I have some ideas already about research I’d like to do, it’s clear that its subject must be culturally significant. What makes ICT's (Information and Communication Technologies) anthropologically interesting according to Tenhunen in a 2008 edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is: "their ability to influence sociality’s place based conditions of existence and forms." To that end he examines "how the appropriation of phones draws from culture and, conversely, contributes to changes in culture and society."

A tool I've enlisted to help fix an appropriate subject, (in other words mapping what's scheduled for mainstream adoption and when), is Gartner's 'Hype Cycle' graph (below), which has been tracking new technology on its trajectory of unrealistic expectations to mass adoption. That's not to say adoption by mainstream 'Western' culture is the key criterion - after all Tenhunen was looking at mobile phones in Indian villages where even a limited penetration was having a large effect. It's also not to say that peripheral phenomena aren't worth studying - for example there's been a lot of research into the practice of goldfarming which has generated an interesting real-world culture of its own, study of which throws light onto other human practices, even though goldfarming is ostensibly about virtual environments.

Ideas on a postcard! Or blog comment of course.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Access to broadband & Finland

The digital divide is on our agenda soon, so discussion in our group today about the Finnish government which has just introduced laws guaranteeing broadband access to every person living in Finland (5.5 million people, give or take).

Well, it's only an aspiration but the UK's Digital Inclusion Champion, Martha Lane Fox spoke about “a race online for 2012” at the Digital Engagement conference on Monday (she aims to halve the number of people who don’t have online access by 2012). See

But what's the point in everyone having the right or encouragement to have broadband if UK provision is as bad as Cisco said it is earlier in the month... "UK broadband networks have been ranked 31st out of 66 countries in terms of quality, according to a new survey by networking equipment firm Cisco. Nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia are ranked higher than Britain, while Japan and South Korea lead the way with regard to overall service."

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Social media: not all sell, sell sell

Intrigued to read a contribution to New Media Age magazine by Mark Cridge (a digital marketing industry figure) which challenged the conventional preoccupation of his industry (namely coaxing people to consume more), by focusing on one of the impacts of a broader adoption of social technologies, i.e. that "it makes the entire process of production and consumption much more transparent." See

This implication, he argues, will make it more straightforward for us to introduce more sustainable practices. If we can indulge in sustainable ways of living then much of what gets forecast about our increasingly technology-enabled interconnected and interactive world might come to pass (as opposed to our current trajectory, where we may consume our way into oblivion).

UCL's very own Professor Danny Miller has been leading a project which harnesses social media amongst other things to try and create this sense of transparency where and when it matters most, namely in education. He designed an interactive project which helps schoolchildren understand the origins of the goods they consume. They will be tracking how the component parts of ginger beer come together into the finished product, speaking to farmers on webcams, visiting facilities and crucially taking delivery of a personalised bottle of the finished product. The last point is crucial because children appear to learn best when they have a stake in the subject matter.

Social media, with which most of them are familiar, can play a role in helping the next generation become the responsible consumers we're going to need if sustainable visions of our future are to be realised.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

In the digital lab today, bouncing ideas around about the differences and similarities in the approach taken by journalists and ethnographers to their subject matter.

Found this quote from Reuters blogger Felix Salmon:

"the biggest gap between professional journalists and bloggers hasn't even begun to start narrowing. It's this: professional journalists tend to think of their article as the end of a process of reporting, while bloggers tend to think of their entries as the beginning of a process of commenting."

It doesn't shed much light on anthropology per se but points to behaviours an anthropologist investigating digital culture needs to keep abreast of (if only to appreciate the nature of different data sources).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Getting under the skin of cultures

Week 1

Wow, I'll be lucky if I can manage a post a week, let alone turn this into a living an breathing blog given the quantity of commitments I and others are making on the course.

There are three 'core' elements every week. The first is a 3hr session on key topics/theory, the second a 2hr Lab session for hands on experience of certain digital technologies and the third a seminar given on the parent theme of material and visual culture, to which digital anthropology is positioned as belonging.

Those in the department doing PhD research which falls into the category of 'digital' are first and foremost social anthropologists so many of us are also keen to build a solid foundation in this, one of the disciplines which gave rise to material (and visual) culture itself. To that end we're going to all sorts of additional lectures, including those for anthropologists training in the hitherto real (commonly opposed to virtual, but I'll get to whether this is a meaningful distinction in a subsequent post) world anthropological research method of ethnography.

Today we did an interesting practical exercise which divided the group into two cultures, gave them each a routine to perform and then had the other half of the group try to observe and participate in order to understand what was going on (relayed as a one page 'ethnography'). Lots of valid points emerged about interpreting the (often initially incomprehensible) behaviours of others. The main lesson was that in depth ethnography allows you to already know the answers to the questions you end up posing because of your exposure to and engagement with the culture under study. Next session, ethics...

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Week minus 1

In her introduction the head of Department insists we can refer to ourselves as anthropologists. I’m not so sure because there’s a mountain of knowledge for those without a background in anthropology (the majority on this course) to absorb.
The key challenge is learning how to frame our investigations into areas such as human behaviour around new technologies with reference to over 100 years of thought in anthropology, at the same time drawing on even longer standing intellectual fields to provide context.
On the other hand I think the head of Department was right in stating that the diverse group of students on this course will each have something unique to contribute. They range in background from journalists to advertising and design professionals who recognise that digital technology has profoundly changed both the way these fields operate and how the public consumes their output.
These are just two of many implications of digital technology addressed by this course, which is designed to help us understand and explain them from a point of view that places (observed) human experience at its heart.