A Retrospective of Talks Given by Ethnographers at Lift Conference since 2006

Pic by Ed Horsford

ImageOf all the conferences that are dedicated to discussions on technology and society, there’s one that has continued to consistently curate an amazing line of up speakers while maintaining an intimate environment for meaningful exchanges without any elitist barriers to participation –  Lift! Since 2006, I’ve been following Lift because they continually have featured speakers who focus on the social side of technology.

So when Nicolas invited me to speak at Lift ’12 in Geneva, I broke my promise to not leave my field site for a year. I took a break for a week and it was well worth it because I got to meet people whose work I’ve been following for a while. I was also forced to analyze my data, which wasn’t a bad thing. My talk, Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks, was about some of the ethnographic work I’ve been doing this past year in China.

After my talk, I had a chance to chat with one of the people I’ve been virtually brain-lusting for years,  Nicolas Nova, ethnographer, co-founder of Lift, and Lift program curator. Nicolas found time to sit down with me to give a retrospective of past ethnographers who have given talks at Lift.

Oh and one of the best parts about Lift is that there are videos for each speakers! Each of the talks are around 15 to 20 minutes and they are pretty dense, so read this when you have a chance to ponder about the wonders of life and ethnography!


Tricia: Nicolas, I’m so happy to finally meet you in person at Lift! I’ve been following Lift conference for so many years. When it comes to conferences that talk about the social impact of technology, Lift is my favorite. I love the diversity of backgrounds that Lift brings together. This year, I met people from the music to the finance and the fashion industry – all with similar interests in the social side of tech. For those who don’t know about Lift, can you tell our Ethnography Matters readers a bit about this annual gathering in Geneva?

Nicolas: Lift is a series of informal and interactive conferences on innovation that happens in different places (Geneva, Marseilles, Seoul). Each conference is aimed at enabling a diverse audience to anticipate the future and turn innovation into opportunities. The events basically gather technologists, designers, CEOs,  strategists, developers, policy-makers or artists.

Tricia: When was the first Lift gathering take place?

Nicolas: Since Lift Conference was created in 2006, it has drawn thousands of participants to Geneva and organized separate Lift conferences in South Korea and France, as well as smaller Lift@home events in Brussels, London, Moscow, San Francisco, Seoul, Toronto, Tokyo or Zürich.

Tricia: So as you know, here at Ethnography Matters, we love talking about…..ethnography! So let’s get to it – when did Lift start including ethnographers in its line up!?

Nicholas: We basically included anthropologists, sociologists with a qualitative spin and design researchers doing ethnographic research from day 1.

Tricia: Oh wow, so you guys really do mean it when you said you that at Lift we “explore the social impact of technology.” Why did the Lift team include ethnographers from the beginning?

Nicolas: There are several reasons for this. First, as one of the editorial manager with a background in this domain, that was a specific type of content that I wanted to bring to the table. At the time we started, I was into a PhD about the appropriation of location-based interfaces and I was accumulating references and meetings with researchers in this line of work. Therefore, it was kind of obvious for us to have this angle covered.

Tricia: Ok, that makes sense, any other reasons?

Nicolas: The second reason is because we thought this kind of expertise was missing in technological venues and we were convinced it could bring a lot of relevant insights to people involved in innnovation. By showing that technology is a cultural issue, we were interested in the way ethnographers can broaden the discussion… about how certain technologies are repurposed by people or how even super fancy projects are not adopted simply because humans were not taken into account.

Tricia: Ahh you are so right, the one thing that a good ethnographer always does is talk about people’s interactions and what ideas or beliefs underly their interactions. I think many technologists are often surprised by what ethnographers reveal because their data often show how people’s interactions don’t always follow the designers’s intentions. But that is exactly how innovation happens, it’s when people do the unexpected. I always like to say that objects are clean, people are messy. People bring the surprises to the technology, so the fun is in studying the complexity of the interaction between humans and objects.

Nicolas: That’s exactly what we wanted to show. Overall, our point was to have experts highlighting that the world is complex and full of singular kinds of behavior. After a few years, we also realized that the talks by ethnographers were very well-appreciated by the Lift audience. Especially because they enabled participants to discover things that could be seen as counterintuitive, deep and sometimes disrupting. In a way, we realized we were right trying to bring in this type of perspective.

Tricia: So what are some examples from past talks by ethnographers that made participants realize that discovery – that things can be counter-intuitive?

Nicolas: Two examples come to mind, they’re not necessarily counter-intuitive if you think about them but they lead to interesting debates and discussions back then. The first example was given by Stefana Broadbent (Information Complexity)  during the one of the first Lift editions. She basically described how sociality is mediated by cell phone usage. One of the results she highlighted was that the “contacts” we have on our phones are very different  than the ones you have on others types social network platforms. On the phone, people in general deal very often with maybe 4-5 main contacts on a regular basis. She described the implications this very simple result would have on the type of services that can be provided to users and the OS features.

Tricia: Yes, and you guys invited Stefana back to this year to give another talk. I really enjoyed her discussion about changing patterns of screen time inside homes, Destroying the bourgeois home: are digital devices challenging our victorian myths of domesticity? And what’s the second example?

Nicolas: Another example that caught my attention was the talk by Genevieve Bell (Secrets, lies & the possible perils of truthful technology) from Intel. The presentation was all about secrets, lies, their importance for sociality and the role digital technologies play into this. She described how people lie on their profiles in social networks, the was digital communication is employed to hide things from other people and the super intense creativity digital technologies are employed to create alibis (location-based services, fake receipts…).

Tricia: Can you think of a talk where an ethnographer that got the audience to think about the cultural side of something?

Nicolas: The best example was given by Basile Zimmermann (Technology and Cultural Difference in China), a researcher at the University of Geneva and director of the Confucius Institute in this very town. In the speech he gave in 2010, he uncovered the “cultural side” of keyboards. By showing how lower-level elements of culture (such as the roman alphabet) are embodied in mundane artifacts such as computer keyboards, he highlighted the implications of this situation for Chinese language users and how they dealt with it. The talk was fascinating, especially because, for once at Lift, the focus was not less on human users and more on artifacts designed by humans. Zimmermann exemplified what American sociologist Howard Becker meant with this insightful quote : “It makes more sense to see these artifacts as the frozen remains of collective action, brought to, life whenever someone uses them”.

Tricia: Oh yes! I totally remember watching that talk a few years ago! I had just started my PhD and I watched it in my office that I shared with two other graduate students. I remember saying to myself, “I hope to meet Basile one day because that talk was soooo cool.” I really love when ethnographers talk about things that really simple, and then when you’re done reading their paper or listening to their talk, you then realize that what you thought was super simple is actually incredibly complex. Has anyone given that kind of talk at Lift?

Nicolas: This is exactly what happened with Zimmermann’s talk about keyboards. What appears to be super simple at the surface of things (a keyboard is made of keys that correspond to letters, signs and numbers) was actually more complex than what it looked like! Simply because the alphabet commonly used on keyboards and the different kinds of coding used by computers for these are not so simple each time the user has to write with a different alphabet. Very quickly you then see that this very basic issue can lead to weird cultural problems… such as the difficulties that prevented Chinese parents from freely choosing their children’s names because they couldn’t be entered by the institution in charge of passports! Simply because, at the time, the common way of writing a character on a computer was to type in its pronunciation using Roman letters, and then choose from a list of possible options (most characters have many homonyms). And of course the problem was that a rare character might not show up on the list.

Tricia: Well I’m inspired to watch Basile’s talk again! So I’ve noticed a gradual shift over the last few years among tech groups. Before, at a tech conference, if I said, “I am a sociologist,” no one would know what to say – it was a total conversation killer. Then I tried saying, “I am an ethnographer.” And you know I would get the same reaction. But I do feel that more people are starting to know what ethnographers do. I think of the reasons is because individuals like Danah Boyd and Jan Chipchase, who are really public and engage with the media a lot, have educated so many people outside of academia on not only what ethnographers do, but the value they bring to the technology design process. So what have you noticed over the years in terms of how the Lift audience understand about ethnography? Like what do the business folks think? Techies? I would figure that since you are an ethnographer yourself, you would be keen to these shifts.

Nicolas: We saw this trend indeed and perhaps we contributed to that impression too given the energy we’ve put on having speakers coming from the social sciences. That being said, I don’t know if the insights, ideas, approaches and questions brought by ethnographers are easily grasped by techies and business folks.

Tricia: Well, you touch on an important point about how ethnography is used in commercial settings. You say that the techies don’t easily grasp the value that ethnographers bring, but I find that we also need more ethnographers to grasp the value they bring  and then explain the value of their work. It’s something that I am struggling to learn how to do better in my practice. I think it’s the ethnographer’s responsibility to make their work accessible and relevant. It’s why I like doing non-academic talks because I see it also as a form of public service and as a chance for me to learn how to communicate what I do with industry. A lot of people talk about what ethnographers sacrifice intellectually when they work in industry, but I always tell them that there is always some kind of “sacrifice” whether you are in academia or industry and a more productive way to approach it is to see it as opportunities. Each context brings a different set of opportunities to the ethnographic practice, it just depends on what kind of opportunities you want to engage in. And what’s important  to keep in mind is to bring academic rigour to the commercial work. Just because your client doesn’t want to hear about sociological theories or methodological debates doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be engaging with those theories or debates. But you’re right, I think there’s a lot of room to grow for more understanding about what ethnographers do.

Nicolas: At least, it creates debate and good discussions around various topics: How to apply this? How long can it take? What are the necessarily skills to do that? How to use the results from field studies, how can this help design… which is often what happens when you have ethnographers from blue chip R&D centers who focus more on describing the results and less on what it meant in terms of new products and services. Even though the audience know that these prototypes are still under NDA, they still wonder about how cultural insights can be turned into tangible products.

Tricia: It’s a challenge to figure out how to translate ethnographic insights into the product design process,  but a challenge that should be taken up if we want our products and services to be human-centered. I’m actually reminded of the talk, “The Recurring Failure of Holy Grails”,  that you gave at Lift a few years ago, where you discussed how looking at tech failures can be turned into successes. You took a historical approach to your discussion on how “successful” human interaction with tech are often based on timing, and these interactions resurface later. You show us how it’s important to take a human-centered approach to visit tech history because it offers tons of insights into the current design process.

Nicolas: This is a very interesting discussion that I also have in my workshop with engineering students and I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lack of discussion about how to translate field insights into something meaningful for design. BUT I’ve seen lots of people fooled by the idea that everything can be streamlined in a process and that there could be a sort of weird ISO norm that can guarantee the success of a product/service when ethnography is employed. Is that really ethnography? (with the underlying assumption that ethnography must remain “pure” and devoid of any commercial purposes).

Tricia: There’s a lot of misperceptions about what ethnography does and doesn’t do. One of the reasons why Heather, Rachelle, Jenna and I started Ethnography Matters was so that we could talk about the way ethnography can be used outside of traditional academia. So what are some other talks you recommend from ethnographers?

Nicolas: Well, the one by Paul Dourish (Getting from here to there: ethnography, design, privacy, and location) was certainly important too as it showed how ethnography is not limited to field studies and little insights about people that one can turn into “design implications”. After reading Dourish’s paper at CHI in 2006, I thought it would be great to have him at Lift showing how the contribution of ethnography is bigger than that.

Tricia: Ah yes, I love Paul’s work. Anyone else we should watch?

Nicolas: I would also recommend the talks by korean social researchers Ilpyo Hong (From Political Protest to Social Internvention) or Heewon Kim (How social networks changed everyday life).

Tricia: With Lift having such a diverse audience, which groups seem to really appreciate the methods that ethnographers bring?

Nicolas: Speaking with lots of people in the audience and looking at the result from the conference survey, I think there’s not a specific “target group” for ethnographers in terms of business domain or activity area. That said, it seems that the individuals who enjoy this kind of intervention are the ones who are curious about differences and diversity (and obviously that corresponds to the one working in foresight/futures research but not only).

Tricia: Nicolas, thanks so much for chatting with me! I’m excited to see the speaker line up for Lift 2013! We would love to profile future Lift talks that are human centered at Ethnography Matters. We didn’t get a chance to talk about your work today, so let’s schedule an interview with you for an upcoming post on Ethnography Matters so we can share with our readers a bit about your work. Thanks so much for your time!

Nicolas: You’re welcome. Thanks a lot for your interest in our work! It’s good to reflect upon the work we do at the conference and discuss their implications. It also helps me for my daily work… when in the field, analyzing data or communicating and teaching about ethnographical projects.

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