Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Does radically simple design always win?


Ajaz Ahmed’s premise is overly simple in his Guardian piece, where he argues that radically simple design always wins. Here are five simple reasons why his argument is suspect:

1. Counter examples show a cluttered aesthetic can prove popular when you make the lens ‘local’ enough (see anthropologist Daniel Miller’s meditations on Trinidadian preferences in ‘The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach’)

2. Other factors contribute to market-leading uptake, perhaps decisively so. Take Google, one of Ajaz’s own examples. To suggest that its uncluttered visual design was the main factor downplays its investment in technology and engineering talent to generate the most relevant search results, along with a few early deals that increased traffic massively e.g. with AOL. Further, was Myspace really decisively undone by Facebook's simpler design as he argues? Or was it a heap of contingencies including network effects?

3. Are some of his paragons of simple design that really simple? Facebook for example has inflicted poorly thought-through privacy-impinging design decisions on its user (see anthropologist danah boyd’s piece ‘Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck’).

4. Simplicity isn’t always a virtue. Many people believe that TED’s simplicity/accessibility is actually problematic, from its soundbite format which doesn't really enlighten to its guiding belief that technology is an uncomplicated magic wand that will solve humanity's problems (i.e. let's forget the messy business of really understanding a problem and just parachute in more laptops per child). For more on such issues check out this brutal TED takedown from a former speaker.

5. Some of his paragons of simple design might create losers of users. As an open project Wikipedia might be accessible to many people (with an internet connection) and in theory any of these people can get involved as an editor but it presents a skewed view of the world, meaning there is room for improvement. Some facts: 1% of its editors contribute half of all Wikipedia edits. Only 13% of editors are women. Most editors are from the developed world. PR agency Bell Pottinger policed and amend entries on behalf of rich and powerful clients (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16084861). Here are more reasons why the reflection of traditional structures in open projects might cause issues - see the first video.

Arguably, Ajaz is absolved from the responsibility of making society a better place because his goal is to foster the effective design and navigation of commercially winning websites. But attending to the broader societal context and what 'winning' might also entail, we see that there is more to design than appealing visuals and functionality and that the issue of simplicity becomes, well, complex.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The "boomlet" in anthropology-inspired business consultancy...and a useful byproduct

I found myself promoting consultancies run by or employing PhD anthropologists in the early noughties boomlet for such companies described by a new post by Laurel George here: http://savageminds.org/2012/07/11/anthropology-of-snacks-widgets-and-pills/. They wanted to cultivate a mystique around anthropology/ethnography and position bone fide academically trained practitioners and their approaches to research as essential to solving certain business problems relating to marketing and R&D.

This goal was somewhat undermined by a legion of rivals newly describing their own qualitative approaches as ethnography, making it hard to bring attention to the particular skills possessed by anthropologists and further removing the process from anything the academy would recognise (Simon Roberts lists many of the approaches lumped under the umbrella of ‘ethnography’ in the book edited by Sarah Pink ‘Applications of Anthropology’, pg.86). That's not to ignore the prior adoption and adaptation of ethnography in the hands of other academic disciplines.

Arguments about what is or isn’t ethnography aside, the boomlet did help to spread the word about anthropology. On a personal level, without it my interest in anthropology may have never been piqued to the extent of pursuing a Masters in digital anthropology at UCL.

At a time when some in anthropology are asking "why the discipline has not gained the popularity and respect it deserves" (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RZTbpm-7p7EC&dq=eriksen%20anthropology&source=gbs_similarbooks), those in Laurel's past position and the third of anthropology PhDs for whom there are no academic positions at all (Spencer et al., 2005 – http://www.theasa.org/news/careers_research.doc) have surely contributed to getting the word out. Beyond inadvertently turning people like me on to the subject, whatever their doubts about participating in commercial activity they, along with other applied anthropologists, are arguably also helping advance the grander goal of “making [culture] available as a scrutinizing lens for our society at large,” a useful byproduct (http://www.practicagroup.com/pdfs/Sunderland_and_Denny_Psychology_vs_Anthropology.pdf).

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mining Codes

Interesting talk by UCL Material Culture masters grad Sam Barton who is works at commercial semiotics company Added Value yesterday at the UCL #anthropology department. He ran through the conventional company credentials and then explained the origins of commercial semiotics in literary criticism and cultural studies before engaging in a bit of deconstruction.



In short, brands are cultural entities and if culture informs communications then you need something like semiotics, which draws on a plethora of theories, to see the patterns. Brands need to understand dominant culture to continue to be relevant to it. This inverts Williams' whole dominant/emergent/residual theory of culture whose purpose was to liberate through a revelation of culture's workings. Basically what he was saying was that on a pessimistic view, the very entities which certain theorists of a Marxist persuasion viewed as the enemy are benefiting from these theorists' insights. In a final insult, an academic mystique (I thought much like the scientific mystique around neuromarketing: http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/newsandevents/releases/Pages/neuromarketing.aspx) has been cultivated around semiotics which obscures its nature as a pragmatic technical process (Latour). This is a form of enchantment (Gell).

Semiotics is by no means the only domain in business with roots in academia to cultivate a mystique by association. Anthropologists also 'black box' their work in the corporate space although reservations hinted at in this talk remind me of an interesting paper by Lucy Suchman which examines anthropology's role in the 'cultural turn' and the battle faced by many social scientists with their conscience when: "incorporated economically into an organisation committed to operating in the Market." But with a limited number of academic jobs on offer, you gotta earn a crust and code mining sounds more appealing than coal mining...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Oxford Internet Institute presentation

Just created a blog page with the transcript of my recent OII presentation on urban food futures and ICTs: http://digitalanthropologist.blogspot.co.uk/p/my-research-talks.html

I discuss what has been going on at MyFarm, billed as an experiment in the collective management of a real farm over the internet by the public (www.my-farm.org.uk). I recently completed ethnographic fieldwork there and at the National Trust owned farm in Cambridgeshire (Home Farm) which the MyFarm participants follow the progress of and have a say in running through a monthly vote on an issue.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Subsidies for journalism and the public sphere

Sir Martin Sorrell called for subsidies for quality journalism recently: see http://tgr.ph/oykvAF & http://on.ft.com/oNaTus. Immersed in public sphere scholarship this summer I noticed that this viewpoint makes him an unlikely if uneasy bedfellow with sociologist Rodney Benson (http://bit.ly/mXyESS).

The former, who runs global advertising agency behemoth WPP, is presumably interested in the potential for aggregating such journalism and generating advertising revenue around it. I imagine he is thinking of the Channel 4 rather than the BBC model in the UK.

The latter is more concerned with the conditions under which an independent public sphere may flourish, with a focus on the US and a conviction, more a legacy of Bourdieu/Durkheim than Habermas/Weber, that the state is the most appropriate guarantor of this independence. Accordingly Benson attaches diversity to his call for quality and asks: “What are the laws and regulations and tax breaks and subsidies – in short the rules of the game guaranteed by the state through democratic political processes – that nudge and prod and encourage journalism to more closely meet ideals of deliberative democracy?”

Despite the different agendas and leaving aside the tricky issue of what exactly constitutes quality and diversity, as an occasional (and I would like to think quality) journalist who doesn’t object to (quality – do your bit too Sir Martin) advertising, I look forward to the time when they find eachother and harness Benson’s ideas to Sorrell’s talent for promotion.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Fieldwork. In a field.

I won't inflict a picture of a horse in a field on you, dear reader, but I will inflict my picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture of a horse. Which is slightly more interesting because it means I can cite it as an example Bolter and Grusin's notion of remediation in practice (in 'Remediation: Understanding New Media').

What seems to be going on here, kind of, is the logic of immediacy and the logic of hypermediacy, all at once. The former uses digital applications to remove the sense of the media and reach ‘an immediate (and
hence authentic) emotional response’ (p53), while the latter’s use of digital hypermedia ‘seek the real by multiplying mediation’ (p53).

Those other pictures/films have already made it into the ether. The first aims to give the viewer a first hand encounter with the subject: http://bit.ly/jERHNw whilst the rest are more 'knowing' in showing how the first was produced: http://bit.ly/j3Xz5C (although the second could have made it more straightfoward for me to squeeze a theoretical point out of this experience by displaying the first video as it appeared on the MyFarm website).

Lecture over. Enjoy the horsie...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Friending our four legged friends

What does a pregnant shire horse called Queenie have in common with a German hamster called Hans? Both are Internet webcam stars, in Hans' case for 10 years although the excuse to explain his different appearance roughly every two years (that he "changed his coat overnight") doesn't wash with me any more. Queenie is a main draw over at MyFarm, an experiment in open source farming run by the National Trust. As I write she is expected to give birth and has a live webcam in her stable to catch the moment.


As Hans' case shows, webcams trained on everyday scenes aren't new: the first was set up in the early nineties to monitor the goings on around a kettle in a Cambridge lab. Our motivations to tune in probably haven't changed much either, judging from the analysis in this New York Times article from 2000.

In a 2003 paper  anthropologist Daniel Miller observed how the web can harness the power of narrative much like soap opera. However, it can also make this narrative about 'real' people living simultaneous lives and thereby more compelling, much like reality TV. In a final development he saw the Internet's potential for interactive involvement by the user, elaborated in in his 2011 book 'Tales from Facebook' (p 73). He stressed how co-presence is established, reciprocity is possible and thereby relationships are formed, superseding the capacities of earlier media.

I am not sure he had inanimate objects and animals in mind as subjects but if reality TV could encompass the natural world with shows like 'Big Cat Diary', then why not take it to the next level online and start friending our four legged friends?

I'm off to check in on Queenie...