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Performing Success: When mythologies about a technology dominate first impressions

Morgan Ames

 Editor’s Note: We are lucky to have Morgan G. Ames @morgangames back from her fieldwork in South America to contribute a post to March edition of Stories to Action. Morgan gives us an insider’s view of a One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) project in Paraguay. Her insights reveal how ethnographic work creates a critical eye to reveal the truth behind what she calls “performing success.”  Her story helps us see how the real benefits that users experience with a technology are often covered up with mythologies that we tell about the device. The result of her work provides invaluable insights for OLPC.

Morgan shared this story below at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk. After her presentation, Morgan also hosted the geek version of My Little Pony or Porn Star (take the test if you haven’t yet!)  in having us guess the technology referred to in overly optimistic quotes about new technologies. You can play along by watching the video of Morgan hosting the game with the conference attendees. Morgan created a tumblr, Techutopianism, dedicated to tracking technology utopian quotes!

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This vignette problematizes the value of first impressions by illustrating an example of participants’ desire to perform success to visitors, especially high-profile ones. In the process, it shows the value of ethnographies, as more sustained research initiatives which ideally last long after the novelty effect of the visitor and of the (techno-)social interactions they are studying have worn off.

The day started like many schooldays in Paraguay. It was a Tuesday in late October, 2010, well into spring, and several months into my fieldwork studying the medium-size One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project there. The sun was beating down and temperatures had already climbed into the high 20s C when we rolled up to the school at 8am with our visitor in tow, just in time for the start of classes.

The visitor, one of OLPC’s founding members and chief software architects, was in the country for a whirlwind five-day visit. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, Paraguay Educa, had carefully filled his itinerary with meetings with high-ranking officials they hoped to convince to support the project as well a visit to Itaipu Dam, one of its most high-profile donors – and this school visit.

I was excited and intrigued that this visitor was going to actually visit a school and spend time in a classroom. After several months of fieldwork, I had noted a number of positive aspects about the project, especially due to the sustained efforts the NGO had been putting into teacher training, community outreach, and laptop maintenance, but I had also noted a number of troubling issues, some of them caused by OLPC’s design or support choices. Would he see these issues, and if so, would he act on making them better?

Ames-Paraguay

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Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.

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A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

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In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations. Read More…

Reaching Those Beyond Big Data

Editor’s Note: Opening up the Stories to Action edition is Panthea Lee’s @panthealee moving story about a human trafficking outreach campaign that her company, Reboot, designed for Safe Horizon.  In David Brook’s recent NYT column, What Data Can’t Do, he lists several things that big data is unable to accomplish. After reading the notes to Panthea’s talk below, we’d all agree that big data also leaves out people who live”off the grid.”

As Panthea tells her story about Fatou (pseudonym), a person who has been trafficked, we learn that many of the services we use to make our lives easier, like Google Maps or Hop Stop, are also used by human traffickers to maintain dominance and power over people they are controlling. Panthea shares the early prototypes in Reboot’s design and how they decided to create a campaign that would take place at cash checking shops. 

Below, Panthea shares her notes to the talk that she gave at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. You can also view the video version of her talk

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We’ve made great strides in data-driven policymaking, open government, and civic technology –– many of the folks in this room have made significant contributions in these domains. But, as we know, many people, even here in New York City, still live “off the grid”––and the issues of access go beyond “digital divide”.

As a designer working on governance and development issues––fields where economists regularly eat anthropologists for lunch––this is something I think a lot about.

In the era of Big Data, as we become increasingly reliant on capital-d Data, I wonder what might exist in the negative space? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?

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A few months ago, I met a young woman from Benin who I will call Fatou (not her real name). Fatou had been adopted by an American preacher on mission in Benin, and brought to the United States. She and her family were overjoyed at her good fortune.

Fatou was pleased, she felt taken care of with her new “mother” and “father” in Queens. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to the US and to allow her to enroll in school, a longtime dream.

But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her.

Whenever they left the house, “to keep her safe”, her mother always held her by the wrist, keeping a firm grip. She wasn’t allowed any possessions beyond clothing. Her belongings were regularly searched for any material she kept, particularly information (pamphlets, papers). If found, they were confiscated. She worked long hours at a school the family owned. She was never herself enrolled in school, as promised, and when she inquired about her education, she was told to stop being ungrateful.

At first, Fatou thought these were just US customs. But then things got worse. Read More…

User experiences: fear, delight, and drug use research

"User" definition from dictionary.com

Screen capture from dictionary.com

I work at a research center that studies the use of various legal and illegal drugs, generally with a focus on preventing “misuse.” It can be an awkward topic of conversation socially. The whole notion conjures up images of Mr. Mackey from South Park and terrible anti-drug propaganda.

And honestly, not without reason. Research funders have agendas, and a funder’s concept of misuse is not always the same as what a community sees as misuse — which can make ethnographic research complicated.

So many messages about alcohol and drugs seem fueled by moral panic,  but I don’t think it’s an ethnographer’s business to judge people’s consumption. Panics over drugs remind me of panics over technology and the things it “makes” us do.  This trailer for the 1936 anti-drug movie Reefer Madness reads like technological determinism (material determinism?). People don’t just use marijuana in Reefer Madness, but they are used by it:

What can make sex crazed zombies of us all?
What can force us to kill?
What is the most despicable danger facing our children today?
The reefer! The reefer! The reefer!

Also, Google is making us stupid, and Facebook is making us lonely. Read More…

Beyond reliability: An ethnographic study of Wikipedia sources

Almost a year ago, I was hired by Ushahidi to work as an ethnographic researcher on a project to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during breaking news events. Ushahidi cares a great deal about this kind of work because of a new project called SwiftRiver that seeks to collect and enable the collaborative curation of streams of data from the real time web about a particular issue or event. If another Haiti earthquake happened, for example, would there be a way for us to filter out the irrelevant, the misinformation and build a stream of relevant, meaningful and accurate content about what was happening for those who needed it? And on Wikipedia’s side, could the same tools be used to help editors curate a stream of relevant sources as a team rather than individuals?

Original designs for voting a source up or down in order to determine “veracity”

When we first started thinking about the problem of filtering the web, we naturally thought of a ranking system which would rank sources according to their reliability or veracity. The algorithm would consider a variety of variables involved in determining accuracy as well as whether sources have been chosen, voted up or down by users in the past, and eventually be able to suggest sources according to the subject at hand. My job would be to determine what those variables are i.e. what were editors looking at when deciding whether to use a source or not?

I started the research by talking to as many people as possible. Originally I was expecting that I would be able to conduct 10-20 interviews as the focus of the research, finding out how those editors went about managing sources individually and collaboratively. The initial interviews enabled me to hone my interview guide. One of my key informants urged me to ask questions about sources not cited as well as those cited, leading me to one of the key findings of the report (that the citation is often not the actual source of information and is often provided in order to appease editors who may complain about sources located outside the accepted Western media sphere). But I soon realized that the editors with whom I spoke came from such a wide variety of experience, work areas and subjects that I needed to restrict my focus to a particular article in order to get a comprehensive picture of how editors were working. I chose the 2011 Egyptian revolution article because I wanted a globally relevant breaking news event that would have editors from different parts of the world working together on an issue with local expertise located in a language other than English.

Read More…

The Demise of the Ethnographic Monograph?

As ethnographic practice has spilled out into the broader world of design and policy-making, business strategy and marketing, the monograph has not remained the singular format for presenting ethnographic work. In the spaces I’m most familiar with, the design community and high-tech industry, it is the conference paper (see EPIC, DIS, CSCW, and CHI, etc), the technology demo, and within corporate walls, the PowerPoint slideset or edited video that have become established formats for delivering ethnographic outputs. There is great pressure in some subfields to offer clearly outlined implications and propose practices alongside (or instead of) the theory and holistic description of the more conventional format.

In light of the publication this week of my own ethnographic monograph titled Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, I thought it worth considering the question: why should someone outside of the Academy read my book or any other of this genre?
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On Opting-Out at the Airport

airport security playmobile set

pic by ShoZu CC BY-SA 2.0

When I teach qualitative research methods the first assignment involves a participant-observation exercise in public spaces and I encourage students to disrupt those settings, at the very least by asking questions, but even better by participating in ways that provoke a response in others. For the very brave these may become what Garfinkel calls “breaching experiments” where behavior is strategically designed to go beyond the realm of acceptable or predictable. The idea is that one can reveal some of the inner-workings of social interaction in the way those subject to such behavior try to resolve and make sense of what is, essentially, senseless. I like to show this flash mob – Frozen in Grand Central – in my class to illustrate the point.

For a couple of years students chose to do participant-observation in a local DMV office (Department of Motor Vehicles) and we started to talk about what sort of site this was and how it differed from the bus stops, farmer’s markets, and public parks other students had selected. The DMV offered a space where citizens encounter their government, its rules and regulations, its efficiency (or lack thereof) and from their field notes this seemed to often generate a lot of talk between strangers about government.

I recently became intrigued by the idea of pursuing this thinking on my own, looking at where we as citizens encounter government most directly and apparently, but at the federal level. One way to do this was to reflect on experiences of airport security. I offer this here in this blog (with our particular thematic focus) as a way of thinking about how a research mindset might inform and enrich our own personal experiences and our conversations with one another. This is method meant not simply for scholarly write ups, or for applied spaces of design, policy, etc. but to sharpen our awareness in the way we go about daily life and reflect upon our own experiences. In this case it offered an opportunity to think about certain government regulations (relating to security and the war on terror) and our position as citizens pulled into this security apparatus. Read More…

The ethnography of robots

Heather Ford spoke with Stuart Geiger, PhD student at the UC Berkeley School of Information, about his emerging ideas about the ethnography of robots. “Not the ethnography of robotics (e.g. examining the humans who design, build, program, and otherwise interact with robots, which I and others have been doing),” wrote Geiger, “but the ways in which bots themselves relate to the world”. Geiger believes that constructing and relating an emic account of the non-human should be the ultimate challenge for ethnography but that he’s getting an absurd amount of pushback from it.” He explains why in this fascinating account of what it means to study the culture of robots.

Stuart Geiger speaking about bots on Wikipedia at the CPoV conference by Institute of Network Cultures on Flickr

HF: So, what’s new, almost-Professor Geiger?

SG: I just got back from the 4S conference — the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Study of Science — which is pretty much the longstanding home for not just science studies but also Science and
Technology Studies. I was in this really interesting session featuring some really cool qualitative studies of robots, including two ethnographies of robotics. One of the presenters, Zara Mirmalek, was looking at the interactions between humans and robots within a modified framework from intercultural communication and workplace studies.

I really enjoyed how she was examining robots as co-workers from different cultures, but it seems like most people in the room didn’t fully get it, thinking it was some kind of stretched metaphor. People kept giving her the same feedback that I’ve been given — isn’t there an easier way you can study the phenomena that interest you without attributing culture to robots themselves? But I saw where she was going and asked her about doing ethnographic studies of robot culture itself, instead of the culture of people who interact with robots — and it seemed like half the room gave a polite chuckle. Zara, however, told me that she loved the idea and we had a great chat afterwards about this. Read More…

Technology Unfolds Over Time

Ghana Internet Cafe pic by Rachel Strohm CC BY ND 2.0

Many ethnographers stick to one place or region throughout their careers. Perhaps the memory of the trials and travails of entering the field in the first place, of early incomprehension and discomforts, the exhaustion of language learning, makes them shudder to imagine starting that all over again. Social ties to the field can be maintained in new ways (such as through Facebook). For example. Over time these relationships become deeper, richer. It becomes easier to ask more sensitive and private questions. One develops a growing capacity for insight into a culture, for the non-public side of society, for a better understanding of social performances vs. personal idiosyncrasies, the cleavage points beyond a society’s well-ordered face.

After 7 years of traveling to Ghana, I’ve started to see this sense of time and of change emerge in my own work as well. In part experiencing this more private side of life, but also observing firsthand the changes made sharper and more apparent by my absences. The Internet café scene in Ghana is not what it was when I started fieldwork in 2004. It was around 2008 that I started to see reports from the news media and people in Ghana about ‘sakawa’ a vernacular term that referred to Internet fraud. This was a term only whispered about during my fieldwork but had emerged around 2008 as part of a very public moral debate and was incorporated into the narratives of Ghana’s popular culture – in music and local video-films.

To formalize this sense of passing time I re-interviewed 12 individuals from my 2004 fieldwork. I believe this makes my study the very first longitudinal examination of the Internet in Africa. I was especially interested in whether, with time, the Internet yielded benefits to this group, delivered on their initial enthusiasm and conviction in the way the Internet worked (which in 2004 was bolstered by astonishing second-hand stories/rumors of big gains but very little successful direct experience among users). Read More…

The Invisibility of Ethnography

What are ethnography’s doings? I mean, really, how do you describe what exactly an ethnographer does? S/he watches people? Explains people’s feelings? Translates cultural ideas into concrete stuff? I’ve come up with some interesting ways that work for me to describe my work, but it still requires context and to a person who has never worked with an ethnographer before, it’s not always clear.

Heller Communication writes about the invisibility of socially innovative design.

Design for social innovation begins with the design of conversations themselves – it requires treating a conversation with the same care, and the same planning, that would be appropriate for the design of a product. Conversation starts everything – and yet we rarely think of them as an opportunity for design. This is not only the most important, upstream part of the systems that we need to change, it’s the fastest way for a designer to become a vital part of a strategic initiative. It’s where things begin, and where the most important things are decided.

On the hard side, it doesn’t provide much of a portfolio. Nothing to enter into design competitions, few samples to put on your website, harder to explain at a cocktail party just what it is that you do. In fact, most of the invisible things you’ll be designing are private and sensitive to CEOs and leaders of all types of organizations. You can’t even talk about them. This can be a tough shift for designers who are loathe to give up the artifacts of their work. Of course it doesn’t mean that you won’t design any artifacts, it only means that they will be the last thing you design, not the first. Read More…

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