Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices. In this contribution to the series ...
Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.
In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.
Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social.
Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”
Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.
These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,
You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.
Legacies of a 90s space robot
These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?
Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.
Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.
In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.
These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.
Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.
I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.
These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.
Editor’s Note: Katie Pine and Max Liboiron continue this week’s theme of makers, hackers, and engineers with a post about the politics and performativity of measurements, central to the practice of many engineers and scientists.
Katie Pine (@khpine) is a postdoc in Intel Labs Cultural Transformation Lab, and is currently in residence at UC Irvine. Katie’s work bridges Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Organization Studies, and Science & Technology Studies. At present her NSF-funded research examines micro-foundations of IT-enabled accountability policy and practice in the healthcare domain.
Max Liboiron (@maxliboiron) is a postdoc at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of environmental harm manifest.
From common core to quantified self, measurement is increasingly part and parcel of our daily lives. We use number-driven measurements to make visible, manage, and regulate increasingly nuanced aspects of daily life, work, public institutions, and our environment.
However, measurements are never mere faithful representations of nature, but have social and political origins and ramifications. We are exploring two aspects of measurement that often go unnoticed: first, the situated, complex work that goes into making measurements work in the first place (and the fact that this work is inherently social, cultural, and political), and second, the idea that measurements themselves can be seen as performative, creating and re-creating the very things they are intended to make visible.
Representational theory defines measurement as “the correlation of numbers with entities that are not numbers,” a process of transformation, translation, and even interpretation at the level of sampling and gathering data. What is selected for measurement and what is not, how measurements are standardized, what counts as an important unit of measure, and how measurements are used all have stakes for the systems of which they are part.
Moser & Law (2006) argue that current metaphors for information as “flow” are inaccurate, as these metaphors presume that information is immutable, something that is created and exists in the world and thus can be taken up, passed around, and used for calculation. Moser and Law instead argue that we can see information as something that is inherently mutable and relational, that changes its shape as it is circulated and used. To put it more simply, information never fully has meaning on its own – it becomes meaningful and usable when a particular person or group make decisions about what the information is and how they can use it.
A good example comes from a recent study on counting rates of infection in hospitals (Dixon Woods et Al., 2012). The authors found that an act as seemingly simple as counting infections was actually highly social and cultural – the answer to the question “what counts?” varied widely from one hospital to another, calling into question the current focus in healthcare (and investment of healthcare dollars) on quality measures as a tool for achieving reforms such as infection reduction in practice. Making meaning of numbers requires acts of both calculation and judgment, what Moser & Law call “qualculation.”
Editor’s Note: Austin Toombs (@altoombs) brings a background in computer science and a critical sensibility to his ethnographic research on maker cultures. He explores the formation of maker identities in his research, focusing on how specific sites such as hackerspaces, makerspaces, Fab Labs, and other co-working spaces intersect with the politics of making, gendered practices, urban vs. rural geographies, and creative hardware and software developments. Austin is a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. He is a member of the Cultural Research In Technology (CRIT) Group, and is advised by Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell. He is also a member of ISTC-Social.
My research as a PhD student began by looking at cultures of participation surrounding hobbyist programming. I was—and still am—interested in the fuzzy-gray area between work and play, and as someone who misses the puzzle, thrill, and flow of programming, these communities were great starting points for me. Working on this research led me, almost inevitably, toward my ethnographic work with my local hackerspace and the broader maker community. In this context, I have seen how this local community embraces the work/play ambiguity, how it can function primarily as a social environment, and how it works to actively cultivate an attitude of lifelong, playful, and ad hoc learning. In this post I explore the role ethnography played in my work and how the ethnographic approach helped me get to these insights. I also discuss some of the complications and issues I have run into because of this approach, and how I am working toward solving them. For more information, feel free to contact me!
the role of ethnography in my work
My first encounter with the concept of a hackerspace came from my initial research on hobbyist programmers. I remember nearly dancing with excitement when I realized that the city I lived in happened to have a hackerspace, because I knew immediately that I would be joining them in some capacity, if not for research, then for my own personal enjoyment. The first few visits to the space were exploratory; I wanted to see what was going on, how the members and regular attendees interacted with each other, and whether or not this seemed like a good fit for my research.
My initial goal was to use the site as a potentially endless supply of case studies to explore my questions about work and play. Thankfully, I realized fairly early on that this case-study-first approach would not work for me. Instead, I found myself drawn to the overall narrative of the hackerspace and its members. How did this particular maker community form? What did the members do for their day jobs? How did they become ‘makers’? What do they think about themselves, and how has becoming a member of this community influenced that?
Editor’s Note: Nick Seaver (@npseaver) kicks off the March-April special edition of Ethnography Matters, which will feature a number of researchers at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing on the forefront of exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers.
Nick’s post makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, perhaps even more than the ethnographers themselves.
Nick’s own research explores how people imagine and negotiate the relationship between cultural and technical domains, particularly in the organization, reproduction, and dissemination of sonic materials. His current project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems. Nick is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. Before coming to UCI, Nick researched the history of the player piano at MIT.
When people in the tech industry hear “ethnography,” they tend to think “user research.” Whether we’re talking about broad, multinational explorations or narrowly targeted interviews, ethnography has proven to be a fantastic way to bring outside voices in to the making of technology. As a growing collection of writing on Ethnography Matters attests, ethnography can help us better understand how technology fits into people’s everyday lives, how “users” turn technologies to unexpected ends, and how across the world, technologies get taken up or rejected in a diverse range of cultural contexts. Ethnography takes “users” and shows how they are people — creative, cultural, and contextual, rarely fitting into the small boxes that the term “user” provides for them.
But ethnography doesn’t have to be limited to “users.”
My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like Pandora, Spotify, Songza, or Beats Music, suggest listening material to users, drawing on a mix of data sources, algorithms, and human curation. The people who build them are the typical audience for ethnographic user studies: they’re producing technology that works in an explicitly cultural domain, trying to model and profile a diverse range of users. But for the engineers, product managers, and researchers I work with, ethnography takes a backseat to other ways of knowing people: data mining, machine learning, and personal experience as a music listener are far more common sources of information.
Ethnographers with an interest in big data have worked hard to define what they do in relation to these other methods. Ethnography, they argue, provides thick, specific, contextualized understanding, which can complement and sometimes correct the findings of the more quantitative, formalized methods that dominate in tech companies. However, our understandings of what big data researchers actually do tend to lack the specificity and thickness we bring to our descriptions of users.
Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.
Starbucks Listeners and Savants
Among music tech companies, it is very common to think about users in terms of how avidly they consume music. Here is one popular typology, as printed in David Jennings’ book Net, Blogs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll:
Stories abound of the translation work that ethnographers in industry do to make the experiences of those they observe – the ‘users’ – legible to engineers, designers, marketers, and others in the businesses that employ them. Lucy Suchman, one of the first and most inspiring critical ethnographers in industry, referred to the expectations she encountered for this translation-work in her own job at Xerox PARC as ‘throwing results over the wall.’ These results may take the form of the dreaded ‘implications for design’ that ethnographers are sometimes asked to generate, whether for employers or ACM conferences.
What happens, though, when the ethnographic gaze is turned back on those who are usually the beneficiaries of this translation-work? Lucy Suchman explored this in her groundbreaking book, Plans and Situated Actions, drawing on her experiences at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. Alongside Lucy, a growing number of ethnographers from both academia and industry have been exploring the cultures of scientists, analysts, and others like them in a bid to help the outside world better understand them – and for them to better understand themselves.
The March-April edition of Ethnography Matters will continue this ethnographic inversion by featuring guest authors who are exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers. The authors hail from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, a five-university alliance advised by Intel’s Genevieve Bell (another inspiring industry ethnographer). This group is working on new ways of bridging the academy-industry divide, and many of its members are exploring various aspects of hacker, maker, and engineer cultures.
- The first post, by Nick Seaver (@npseaver), makes the case for studying technologists as a form of ‘studying up’ – of putting those who wield power under the ethnographic lens. He relates this to his own research on music recommendation systems like Pandora and Spotify.
- Second, Austin Toombs (@altoombs) tells us how he “fell in” to doing ethnographic research on a local hackerspace, how he has navigated the line between ethnography, participation, and activism, and what ethnography has taught him about hackers and himself.
- Katie Pine (@khpine) and Max Liboiron (@maxliboiron) then discuss their work in health informatics and civil engineering cultures to show how measurement itself is performative, and how ethnography is particularly well-suited to accounting for this performativity.
- Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her.
- Marisa Leavitt Cohn then considers how NASA engineers approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.
Stay tuned for more great posts!
Rounding out the special edition will be a discussion of a special event on Women in Maker/Hacker Culture, co-hosted by FemTechNet and ISTC-Social and taking place April 22, 2014 at the New School in New York City.
Tell Me More danah boyd: an interview with the author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”
There’s this idea that hard-core techies are code geeks. But hard-core techies also look like ethnographers. A tech ethnographer not only has to understand cultural code, but the mechanisms for how software design links back up to tech practices. I sat down with one of the most well known tech ethnographers of our time, danah boyd (@zephoria).
Over breakfast at The Ace Hotel’s Breslin, danah and I talked about her career. This fascinating and personal interview reveals danah’s journey through industry and academia.
We’re also excited to have danah’s interview launch Ethnography Matter’s second column, Tell Me More, featuring interviews with people who are pushing the boundaries of ethnography in unconventional and exciting ways. We conduct the first interview and then post a follow up interview with crowd-sourced questions from the audience.
Post your follow-up question for danah in the comments or tweet it with the hashtag #askdanah by March 10. danah will select her favorite questions to answer in her second interview!
Tricia: danah, I’m super excited that we get to talk ethnography over some yummy breakfast food! Earlier last year, you were inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame. An ethnographer being validated by geeks! I was beyond excited when I heard this news. How did you feel when you found out?
danah: SXSW has been a very important event to me for a long time. I learned so much about the tech industry through that conference by spending late nights drinking with entrepreneurs and makers. I actually got many a job that way too. It was at SXSW where Ev Williams and I started debating blogging practices. He hired me to work for him that summer. Oh, and SXSW was where I met my partner.
Tricia: What? Are you serious?
danah: ::laugh:: Ayup! And now we have a baby who we’re taking back to SXSW this year.
Tricia: Shut up. That is so sweet. Where did you guys meet at SXSW?
danah. At a Sleater-Kinney show.
Tricia: That’s awesome.
danah: It’s just funny to be honored there because I’ve selfishly gotten so much out of the conference.
Tricia: Well I remember very clearly when I read the transcript of the keynote you delivered at SXSW in 2010. It was about Facebook’s issues with privacy. Your talk generated so much discussion. How did you settle on this topic?
danah: I thought, what could I do that would provoke this audience to think? I saw it as a political platform; not big P but small p. I wanted to use this opportunity to challenge norms inside tech industry. I decided to take on the underlying values and beliefs in tech industry regarding privacy because my research was showing that the rhetoric being espoused was naïve. My topic was not surprising for academics, but it was for practitioners. Read More…
Editor’s note: My colleague Phoenix Jackson wrote these poignant field notes after we went out to recruit focus group participants for a study on health inequities among African American youth.
While following the #dangerousblackkids tag (started by @thewayoftheid and Mikki Kendall @karnythia) over the past few days, we were struck by parallels between Twitter users’ pushback against perceptions of Black youth as “dangerous” and the lived experiences of study participants evoked in these notes.
Like #dangerousblackkids, this post highlights what’s omitted from dominant narratives about who is afraid and who is dangerous. Perhaps Michael Dunn was afraid of a group of teenagers in a car playing loud music. So afraid, in fact, that he took the life of a 17 year old child.
Who’s dangerous again?
[Slider image via @taciturnitis]
Street-level recruiting, downtown Oakland, Broadway 13th to 16th, Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly but officially known as Frank Ogawa Plaza). We’ve been talking to all kinds of people – students, workers, merchants, customers, pimps, players, hustlers, dealers, addicts, sex workers and eyeballing the BART police roust a youth for nothing that I saw. I’m standing in clouds of cannabis smoke exhaled from the people we’re talking to, and no longer feel how cold my head is. We’ve finally got our posse of people walking back to the office, and I’m struck by how secure one feels in a mass of people traditionally feared. People walking in the opposite direction make wide berth around us, and some look at me disapprovingly, and I wonder about what microaggressions these young men deal with as they move through their lives. And then the hardest and loudest of the bunch paces Rachelle and I talking strategy.
“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”
There’s a smile, but it’s pointed, and I know they are checking my reaction. I smile at him as if to say, “I hear you,” but then gesture to my colleague known for being even more quiet than I am, saying with a chuckle, “You know, I’m not sure she and I can take all six of you in a head to head.”
Brother with the neck tattoo has been inside before. Jail. I know it without knowing it. We’re on the tail end of the three quarter mile walk back from street-level recruiting. One of the little hoppers (young hustlers) has already very pointedly asked if we’re FBI or with any kind of police. “Where? That building that got FBI in it?” He might as well not ask – my reassurances that they will leave our company unmolested are met with a tough-generous smirk and posture that lets me know he thinks the whole thing smells no matter what I say, but the steady footfalls and banter of the bigger, older muscle along with the joint being passed back and forth between them placates them enough for me to drawl, “They gone. They moved out of the building.”
“Dunno, and don’t want to. Ugh. We don’t get off into all that. Don’t nobody want to talk to the police more than they have to.”
Their thoughtful silent assent keeps us walking. Read More…
Editor’s note: In the last post in the EPIC edition, Ken Anderson (@kxande2) from Intel shares his thoughts on the latest shift in ethnography in the business environment. He argues that there is a new market for ethnography, and it’s one that we can’t ignore.
Ken believes that we are now in a complex market environment. In this new context, he says that ethnographers should be answering new questions for businesses: instead of asking how research can reduce uncertainty, we should be asking how research can introduce temporary order. He provides an example of how businesses like Claro Partners and a few others have adapted to this new market. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Ken? Tell us in the comments!
A great follow up piece to read is Ken’s essay on ethnography in the Harvard Business Review.
Ken also talks about how his early research with the Inuits’ where he observed ice building techniques links up to his current work at Intel. Yeah. We think that’s awesome.
It isn’t complicated; it’s complex
As is evident by columns in Ethnography Matters ethnographers have concerns about other methods, whether those be “big data” or attaching electrodes to people’s brains to get “real” data. I’m not too concerned about these, for me, they are merely tools for use in ethnographic studies. What does concern me is a shift that has been occurring in the business environment over a number of years, and how that might affect us.
When I was in graduate school I wanted to study the Inuit. I was an archeologist at the time and was amazed at how the Inuit adapted material culture to an environment of relatively (to me) scarce resources. For example, I never would have considered ice as a building resource for home building; peoples optimize resources for environmental circumstances.
Looking through some recent books on ethnographic praxis (e.g,, Gitta Jordan’s Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Andy Crabtree’s Doing Design Ethnography, Danny Miller and Heather Horst’s Digital Anthropology, Melissa Cefkin’s Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations), ethnographic practitioners find ourselves in about in the same position as the Inuit; we’ve done a great job of optimizing our practice for the environments we work in.
Unfortunately, when environments shift, then the tools and technics created may not fit in as well. In our case, the market environment has shifted upon us. Things that were once common practice to optimize our resources, like 3 week field studies of entertainment in homes in Shanghai, LA and London, followed up a month later with a 2 day work session with clients and a life of sticky notes may no longer be the optimal paths for ethnography to retain value. Let me explain what is happening.
Editor’s note: This month, Jake Garber‘s account delves into his ethnographic research into the challenges of designing services for families facing difficulties such as suicide, incest, and long-term unemployment. Beyond the challenges inherent in working with such vulnerable populations, the service for which they conducted design research ultimately needed to coordinate the activity of over 20 different government agencies – each with their own priorities, budget conflicts, and factional interests.
This case study used ethnographic research and service design to put vulnerable families at the heart of a new system of support. In this post he outlines one family’s turbulent pursuit of stability, while reminding us of the critical importance of two valuable commodities: time and empathy.
The Trouble Families research is a project of Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses the power of innovation to solve social challenges. Jake spoke about this research at the most recent EPIC 2013 Pecha Kucha in London.
Let’s imagine we’re designing a new service for families. To be confident our service is going to work for these families, it’s going to be pretty important to understand what they value, what their priorities are, how they see the world and how they respond to it. Ethnographic research can make important and decisive contributions to this task.
Now imagine we’re designing a new service for very vulnerable, complicated and often misunderstood families. Not only that, but we want to deliver our service through a complex and overlapping system of more than 20 separate agencies. This time ethnographic research is not only vital for understanding what can make a difference; it is also indispensible if we’re going to maintain focus on families and avoid getting completely lost in organisational bureaucracy.
In my work at Innovation Unit we support public services to radically improve what they do. In the service design team here, we rely heavily on an ethnographic style of research to ground and inspire the work we do. I want to share a story of one of our recent projects to illustrate how we use ethnographic style work to create human centered system transformation. Read More…
Unless otherwise specified, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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