Thinking out loud, chatting to people. Research Note 5
I’ve had three fantastic conversations this week. Each one of them was challenging in a different way.
Firstly, the OxDEG seminar this week was about the intersection of technology with managing refugee camps in Jordan. I’m not going to go into too much detail as the researchers are carefully balancing issues around access and power dynamics, but the thing that really interested me was about hearing about the use of blockchain to manage entitlements. My first response was doodling a dreary turd in my notebook and feeling angry that anyone would suggest something so over-the-top and solutioneer-y to fix (what sounded like it could be) an easy problem. But then the question got bigger. How do you opt out? Can you? Can you be forgotten? Who signs off on data plans. Do the blockchains ever get built or are they hype to get a foot in the door of international development cash. Of course, many of these bring their own levels of anger and disappointment with the systems in place, but at least the question is bigger.
It was the first time in a while that I felt snapped back to thinking about the “real world”. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
I had a morning coffee with Bill Thompson. A friend of the blog who has occasionally reviewed things I’ve written. We’d been having some crossover in what we’ve both been doing in Day Jobs recently, but as per last week’s realisation that tech and anthropology isn’t exactly new, it was good to talk about that evolution. As I mentioned before, I’ve been thinking a lot about repeated technologies. Reading Aramis by Latour and seeing exactly the same chat that we get about self driving cars being used for a posh train in the late 60s is… revealing.
Lastly, I am hunting for a co-supervisor. A deputy academic sheriff. A non-anthropologist. I went to talk to Vicky Nash from the Oxford Internet Institute on a general ticket of what my topic looks like with an OII lens on it. I came away thinking that a) it’s interesting when a different bit of the university knows your field site (civic tech) in a different way/context to you (she remembered teaching Tom Steinberg) and b) about understandings of the kind of democracy that civic tech organisations are pushing towards. As with all things, democracy is not an untroubled whole. This has added a large nodule to the side of my project that I am going to start chipping at and making useful.
This perhaps should have been obvious to me, but…
There is a meta-layer that comes with trying to do an anthropological analysis of something. It is about this pattern-seeking, analytical space. The thing I’ve been enjoying most has been having free-wheeling discussions about everything from Pegida in Leipzig through contraception in Italy, quantitative methods of measuring museum satisfaction and the best way to cook manioc (apparently, you need the right set of tools and you just can’t get the right stuff over here…). That’s why I’ve often liked events like Govcamp — the chat is eclectic, and now I’m getting that two days a week.
When I heard the blockchain thing, my immediate reaction was to try and take it to bits on a “what is the user need” perspective. Until I realised that wasn’t the issue. It’s more fundamental: what is the power dynamic that allows people to implement a blockchain/biometric ID thing without thinking about users’ needs. Hoping to have something more sensible to say about this feeling soon.
I’ve been consciously not going to events for a little bit until I’m doing the actual research. I’m saying no to things. I’m having time at home and compensating for being on a lot at the moment. Your events are still excellent, but I’m going to be rare for a bit.
- My musical taste has gone all 2005 again. Too many days spent creating tinnitus on long walks. But can you listen to metal on half volume? “No”, they cry.
- My policy didn’t get those big budget pounds. Send thoughts and offers of part time contract work. I’ll be looking for work c. 1.5–2 days per week starting in January. Open to offers, chats, ideas.
- I’ve written (and spoken) before about research librarianship. I sat through a thing for 90 mins this week that demonstrated that this is a solved problem. Can we not just put government user research in this thing that government indirectly owns/runs?
- Technical language. Both anthropology and gov/civic tech have really weird and specialised jargon for things. Does this help by allowing us to talk about detail without constantly defining terms or does it hinder because it is a massive pain in the arse to learn? Arguments continue.
- Do you like this? I can’t tell from the analytics. The reader count is weird (not predictable — up and down, but trending down) and there aren’t any highlights. What do you think would be useful to know about what I’m doing? Or is just reading my diary a good enough low-friction interaction?