Research Note 3: anthropology and technologists, a clumsy dance.
In a dance as old as time
Anthropology is a project that is almost impossible to disentangle from empire. Plenty of UK anthropology came out of grants from the Foreign Office/Colonial Office and the Talal Asad critique that it was “the handmaid of colonialism” is rightly at the forefront of undergraduate teaching, and serves as a reminder of the political uses of knowledge for control.
So, it’s been interesting this week reading technological ethnographies. It turns out that anthropologists have been there the whole time. Lots of different hats: user researchers, design ethnographers, HR, embedded anthropologists etc. etc.
But in all of it there seems to be a lack of linking. All of these strands of anthropology are placed in different boxes: studying technologists, scientists, HR culture rather than participation in building and refining systems.
There is also the constant novelty factor. WOW, IT’S THE INTERNET, THAT’S NEW?!?!11. My supervisor has been helpfully pointing out that he’s been doing internet stuff since GOPHER. The words are excruciatingly dated each time. Things like i and e prefixes, cyber- fetishism and other words which I hope prefigure the future death of blockchain and AI in today’s literature.
I’m just starting to get my head around the shape of the literature on internet anthropology, and there seems to be a big, embarrassing lacuna on the world they (and I suppose “I”) have helped to build.
I’ve never been a personal fan of the type of anthropology where you need to know a lot about the cultivation of yams. I remember, my introduction to social anthropology courses in the mid-aughts, doodling in the margins of notebooks while concepts around the symbolic linking of yam garden cultivation and kinship flew past me. Get to the interesting bit. States. Politics. Insurgencies. Foucault.
Here I am now, really wishing I’d put in the effort as I am gradually realising that they will say it only once. It turns out the knack is to read the things you have no interest in. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to draw a genealogy and kinship graph of the civic tech sector, or look too deeply at the allotment habits of some of its big players, but nevertheless I feel like I’m missing an analytic layer that I’d like to discount on merit rather than lack.
This week was interesting, I went to the anthropology society coffee morning, accidentally missed the Researchers Cafe, but had a nice drink and discussion about Canadian “outdoor schools” with some OII folks. The Monday night to Wednesday evening run is looking ok. I’m trying to make sure that pub happens while I’m in town. Part time is going to be hard, especially seeing people’s work accelerate past yours.