Cyber-Anthropology and Human-Computer Interaction: The Reshaping of Nature and Culture in a Technology-Mediated World

Pietro Romeo

The link between technology, society and culture has been for years one of the focal topics of research across several fields in social sciences and information studies. With the rise of techno-scientific development, a new interdisciplinary research area was recently established, that of “cyber-anthropology” or “digital anthropology”, aimed at exploring technology as one of society’s main transforming driving forces. The spread of social media and new trends in technology suggests an increasingly close relationship between ethnographic studies and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

The scope of this literary review is to identify the current state of the art and the main concepts and ideologies in the anthropology of cyber-culture and the shifts caused by technology, with a particular focus on society and nature, and assess the extent to which research on these topics is carried out in computing science and HCI.

Technology in Social Studies

Recognition of cyber-anthropology as an autonomous research area is usually attributed to Arturo Escobar’s “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture” from 1994. Despite the fact that the discipline has only recently been established officially, research dated at earlier years is also worth mentioning. Pfaffenberger, in particular, was one of the first to consider the meaning of technology in social life and criticise the approach that the anthropologists of his time had taken towards the subject. According to western ideology, he said, the notion of technology carried two implicit — and questionable — meanings: that of “technological somnambulism”, a view of technology as a mere engineering tool, which is used by humans to build and reshape human life but is itself essentially extraneous to the process; a notion juxtaposed to that of “technological determinism” which sees technology as the primarily autonomous force responsible for change in society, with humans downsized to the role of spectators. Both views are ultimately inaccurate according to Pfaffenberger who understands technology as an essentially social phenomenon, described as “humanised nature”, suggesting a bidirectional, intercausal relationship between humans and technology.

The concept of humanised nature is particularly relevant to Escobar’s anthropology of cyberculture. He understands “cyberculture” as the set of modern social constructions of reality — technoscapes — that new technologies have brought; specifically, sociocultural constructs are largely influenced by computer and information technologies (“technosociality”), whereas biotechnology are bringing new constructs to life and nature (“biosociality”). The anthropology of cyberculture is then not an inherently new discipline, but rather, the necessary application of traditional ethnographic research to a modern society that is becoming “post-organic”, with complex and drastic changes in the ways life, labour and language are producted.

Anthropology in Information Technology

Whilst the view of technology in social sciences has seen a gradual shift from a non-deterministic working tool to that of a total social phenomenon, the role of anthropology within IT has always been essentially confined to ethnographic studies in human-computer interaction.

The most common approach in HCI is to treat ethnography “instrumentally” during the requirements gathering stage of development of a computer system, collecting data purposely to identify potential design issues and improve the user experience. Anderson criticised this practice, highlighting how user research in HCI shares more similarities with ethnomethodology — which aims at analysing social structures from everyday methods and practices — rather than with that kind of analytic ethnography found in social sciences, which is always interpretative other than observational. What many anthropologists consider problematic in HCI research is, then, the common tendency of confining social analysis to a form of data gathering that would aid in the decision between two or more pre-defined design options, with the scope of the investigation defined and limited by this set of possible decisions.

What anthropology can contribute to information technology is then a less misinterpreted notion of “context” in ethnographic research, which is often limited to an analysis of actions and interactions constrained by instances of individuals, situations and workplaces in the study; while lacking an understanding of the socio-cultural, historical and environmental factors that may affect the interaction. According to Pfaffenberger, the distinctive combination of small-scale, local-level observational studies with holism — the study of interrelated components of a system or society — is uniquely suited to exploring the complex relationships between technology and culture. What cyber-anthropology can specifically provide then, is, the set of contextual socio-cultural, historical and environmental factors in relation to modern age, with recently established social communities and new forms of human interaction bought by the Internet and new technologies.

Time, Space and the new order of Nature

With modern technologies and the Internet, lifeworldly experiences are subject to an entirely new order of production of reality which calls for the re-theorisation of concepts like time, space and complexity.

Charles Martell effectively addresses these topic in his ‘The Disembodied Librarian in the Digital Age’, by critically comparing the most common views of different social and cultural theorists at the end of the 20th century: a commonly shared opinion was that the advance of cyber-technology is progressively distancing humans from “natural” perceptions of time and space, that is, those perceptions that derive from biological and physical aspects of our lives and the world. For instance, some believed that the cyberworld is leading humans to a “transcendent world registering fantastic timelessness, alogic, and possibility”, with humans struggling to adapt to a new perception of time that is dictated by nanoseconds rather than seconds. According to Escobar, changes in the perception of time have anthropological implications on modern society due to electronic communication and to an acceleration of the spreading of information, which causes time to be “punctual” and knowledge to be in a state of constant evolution. These claims are supported by recent studies on the usage of mobile devices in modern age that have shown how emerging trends in technology have affected rhythms of everyday life in western societies: the narrowing of spatiotemporal boundaries in information and communication technologies brought by ubiquitous computing — that is, being able to access information from anywhere at any time — has affected the cycles of work, family life and leisure for individuals as well as for industries and institutions. The post-organic society has reconceptualised time from “referential” to “resource”, in which time is not determined in terms of biological and physical points of reference but rather as a valuable commodity.

Urban spaces of social life are being reconfigured by mobile technologies, with “private” social interactions and activities happening in “public” places like trains and malls, and communication supported at a distance with almost no boundaries. And on top of these transformation entirely new forms of transcendental, non-geographic space have been established: cyber spaces, virtual realities and internetworked communities.

Man, machines and disembodiment of the self

The revolution of spatial-temporal phenomena in the cyber culture has a number psychological implications on individuals that are of potential interest for anthropological research. Martell wrote, “the psychological consequences of being disembodied are likely to become more severe as technological innovations cause increased cultural and societal fragmentation”. With the reconstruction of the “real” world in the virtual space comes the reconstruction of the human identity, which has an impact on the notions of mind, body and the self. The cyber world juxtaposes complexity, chaos and computational speeds to the physical orders of organic nature, making it difficult for the individual to clearly localise the self in space and time and thus becoming “physically disembodied”. Cyberspace designers raise and support the idea of a “mind” that is independent from the biological, mortal body that new technologies are going to make obsolete.

According to Escobar the relationship between the human and the machine, and hence the reconceptualisation of humanity itself, has been addressed in different ways in various fields of anthropology. David Thomas focused on the transition to a new transcendent, postcorporeal society lead by virtual technologies and digitised information. In computing science research, the absence of physical bodies in online communities has been shown to affect social interactions with effects on trust, authenticity and expression capability, visual representation of the body (i.e. through emoticons) is generally adopted in text-based virtual chatrooms to aid communication. In the virtual reality, communication is not only at the basis of interaction with others, but also the only way of self-expression and identity-making — individuals establish a “narrative self” in the forms of a “user” which escapes the body and the physical implications it would have in face-to-face communication in the physical world, i.e. gender, age, race and social background.

According to Escobar the relationship between the human and the machine, and hence the reconceptualisation of humanity itself, has been addressed in different ways in various fields of anthropology. David Thomas (1991) focused on the transition to a new transcendent, postcorporeal society lead by virtual technologies and digitised information (Escobar 1994). In computing science research, the absence of physical bodies in online communities has been shown to affect social interactions with effects on trust, authenticity and expression capability, visual representation of the body (i.e. through emoticons) is generally adopted in text-based virtual chat rooms to aid communication. In the virtual reality, communication is not only at the basis of interaction with others, but also the only way of self-expression and identity-making — individuals establish a “narrative self” in the forms of a “user” which escapes the physical body and the social implications it holds compared to face-to-face communication, i.e. gender, age, race and social background.

Another domain of anthropology focuses on the boundaries between humans and machines and relates directly to concept of “cyborg”, the union of the human and the cyber organism, and humanism, the reconfiguration of the body in relation to the machine. For cyborg anthropologists, technology serves as an agent of social and cultural production in a way not dissimilar from humans, which builds up on the aforementioned ideology of “humanised nature” introduced by Pfaffenberger. With biotechnologies and artificial intelligences, the human body and mind can themselves be reconfigured and recreated, with all the potential ethical and ontological implications deriving from the discontinuity between nature and technology.

Conclusions
Cyber-anthropology is a relatively new discipline that stretches across different interdisciplinary fields of studies. This literary review focuses on basic concepts and ideologies that are of potential interest for ethnographic studies in human-computer interaction, while a more exhaustive work would cover a wider range of topics including biotechnology, artificial intelligence and ethics.
At present, within HCI there appears to be an increasing interest in the study of new forms of perception of time, space and reality in relation to communication and information technology, particularly mobile devices. Anthropological research for user design and interface development is still somewhat limited for, as Escobar has pointed, it “has been treated narrowly as a problem of engineering design” with a main focus on utility and task performance rather than on a contextual analysis of the human-computer interaction. For Anderson, a shift from merely descriptive ethnomethodologic techniques to more insightful analysis could “cause designers to question the pre-suppositions of their conventional outlooks”.


REFERENCES

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Pietro Romeo

Written by

UX Researcher @ FlixBus. Pan-European, uprooted globetrotter. Idiosyncratic. Passionate about UX, Human-Computer Interaction, and Digital Anthropology.

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