Archive | March, 2014

Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work


Katie Pine

Katie Pine

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron

Editor’s Note: and 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.

(@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.

(@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.

binarycounting01

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.”

Read More… Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work

Falling in: how ethnography happened to me and what I’ve learned from it


guest author Austin Toombs

Austin Toombs

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!

hackerspaces

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?

Read More… Falling in: how ethnography happened to me and what I’ve learned from it

Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists


Nick Seaver

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.”

Engineers in context. cc by-nc-nd 2.0 | http://www.flickr.com/somewhatfrank

My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like PandoraSpotifySongza, 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:

Read More… Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists

March-April 2014: Studying Hackers, Makers, and Engineers


Editor Morgan G. Ames

This month’s theme – ethnographies of hackers, makers, and engineers – is edited by Morgan G. Ames, who made the transition from being a hacker to studying them herself.

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.

Caution: Hackers Thinking!

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.

Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) and  (@femhacktweets) round out the theme with a post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space.