Research note 6. Ethics and places.
Quick note: I’m looking for work from January. Part time, no heavy lifting, policy, research, product stuff.
I’m running late. I spent the weekend fighting a tidal wave of snot that my body decided to deliver to my chest, and putting up these fetching bookshelves.
What I’ve been thinking about this week:
Ethics and anonymity
I filled in my ethics form last week and in it I made a bold choice. By default, I don’t want to anonymise people. I’m going to explain the nuances of this, but I’m interested in people’s opinions.
When you read an ethnography, sometimes it is trivial to doxx a participant. I was reading one about “a large german bank with head offices in London and Frankfurt”. I can probably guess who that is. So, when I’m going to be doing my research, there are times when the context of the speaker is more important than the name. Like, saying somebody works in “a civic tech organisation” is useless because there are so many with different aims, approaches and goals. But if I put in more detail “a civic tech organisation working on democratic data” then you can guess who it is, and the organisation is small enough that you can really guess who it is.
This isn’t to say that people can’t go “off the record” and I will anonymise/pseudonymise to prevent linking of “difficult” opinions to people without plausible deniability. That will always be an option that people will be made aware of in my interviews, just that there should be a presumption in favour of names.
A critique of re-decentralise
This is meant to be helpful. I read blogs by Bill Thompson and Irina Bolychevsky on the re-decentralising movement within tech. (here and here). What’s really useful in them is an articulation of the structural problems with power in technology. This boils down to there being too much digital “stuff” in too few places, a honeypot problem of data and power. This collides with the post 2008-crash mentality of too big/too transnational to be allowed to fail. We are starting to see governments across the world attempt to regulate the space that the internet has become, rather than the utopia that was promised.
My problem comes with the spiritual corruption in these places is entirely because of the power of the large companies and removing that will make things peachy. People have been bullied off mastodon, changing the model doesn’t get rid of trolls. Creating spaces for neo-Nazis to gather un-bothered isn’t a good thing, putting them on their own mastodon instance makes it easier to ignore, but harder to eradicate. Creating a system of ever fracturing spaces where each time government regulates one, a new splinter emerges is not going to fix the social and political problems we see on the internet today. I am not seeing a clearly articulated set of user needs, I’m seeing (valid) disquiet with the politics of the system as is, but the proposed solution doesn’t seem to answer the broader points of society on the internet and getting beyond a western data model that context collapses people into boxes and interactions that they did not design.
I know a lot of people are thinking about this, I’d love to read more as they work on it.
Question: is Richard Pope’s Oscon talk from 2016 a framing text that I can use in anthropology, is it data from a participant or is it in fact somewhere in the middle. I aim to find out. There’s a lot of talk in anthropology about co-production; that as an ethnographer your participants have a huge influence on the text you write so shouldn’t be seen as passive. There is a spectrum between the mantra that “the only person examined on the thesis is you” to this paper from CERN that lists almost 800 co-authors. I’m thinking about how the community of civic tech/govtech are part of what is written, where the writing that defines the reality of how we work sits when it’s put into academia and how many of you want to be in the acknowledgements.