The upcoming theme for the Association for American Anthropologists Annual Meeting is “Anthropology Matters.” While clearly signalling the need for anthropologists to engage and contribute to current social and political affairs in the U.S., the theme can also be interpreted more generally. Today, we’re announcing an upcoming thematic series, Disabling Technologies, which will look at how anthropological perspectives matter for technology designers working in contexts of health, disability, and equality across the globe.
The empirical starting point for our series is anthropology’s long-standing involvement in design processes, and the critical perspectives on technology it has offered. Social scientists have been involved in technology and design since at least the 1990’s (Xerox Parc being a primary example) and anthropology and human-computer interaction were initially thought to be a perfect match. Anthropologists and engineers interested in technology and its sociocultural lives have been a part of this interdisciplinary field of study for decades, often relying on ethnomethodological approaches (Button & Dourish 1996, Mackay 1999, Heath and Luff 1992, Hutchins 1995). However, this early enthusiasm for ethnographic insights into technology eventually dwindled as such insights tended to complicate design processes, with their thick descriptions and relativist interpretations that were difficult to verify. This in itself stems from understandings of anthropology as a mere data collection method (Dourish 2006).
Today’s anthropologists and STS researchers face the challenge of offering ethnographic details that will be valued as more than simply context or background, and treated as contributing in valuable ways to the work of innovation. In spite of Dourish’s treatise on the value of ethnography (2006), demands are still placed on non-designers to conjure up “implications for design.” From a design perspective, implications for design might be something like this: a deaf employee cannot hear the fire alarm when it sounds. This is detected through user tests involving deaf people placed in certain simulated environments in a lab. The test shows, unsurprisingly, that the fire alarm’s loud signal goes unnoticed and it is decided this is a serious health and safety issue which needs to be addressed in the design of the alert system. An appropriate design implication is drawn up: non-audible cues that communicate the same information to the user are needed to increase fire safety. The technology is designed (see picture). Now, in addition to a sound there is separate device that vibrates when the fire alarm sounds. As an extra accessibility feature this also vibrates when the doorbell rings. Each deaf person is asked to take this device and carry it with them at all times. A hearing person just rocks up. There are countless examples of these add-ons and accessibility features in all aspects of daily life from doors, to ramps, to mobile phones. Anthropologist Cassandra Hartblay (2017), however, has shown just how unsuccessful and discriminatory such add ons can be when they are not accompanied by a more robust understanding of the sociocultural systems in which they are embedded.
The anthropological critique of commonsense technological solutions has affected attitudes towards ethnographic research in fields such as Human-Computer Interaction, where an anthropologist can quickly become characterized as a naysayer, technophobe, or a Luddite. Dourish (2006) attributes this to a mismatch in analytic and methodological concerns. In anthropological terms, this boils down to different “culture.” I write this with a twinkle in my eye, because culture itself is a contentious concept among anthropologists. What I really mean is that the notion of “implications for design” is situated within shared disciplinary understandings and social practices. In engineering and design circles, implications for design are often concrete suggestions of features, design solutions, and plans for action. Are implications for design always as clear as they seem? Can anthropology contribute to design and engineering in this way?
Undoubtedly anthropology still has a lot to offer design – just as soon as we can work out what an “implication for design” is. As Alneng (2002) points out in an article entitled, “What the Fuck is a Vietnam?’ Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War),” there are intricate webs of social, cultural, and consensus meaning-making processes involved in defining entities and concepts such as, in his case, Vietnam. Alneng argues that Vietnam means and is different things for different people, in different settings, and for different purposes. The Vietnam of American cultural memory and tourist imaginaries differs radically from that of Vietnamese people living in Hanoi. Just walking into a cafe, with its subtle communist propaganda posters, khaki caps and military-issue coffee mugs; or one of Hanoi’s U.S. themed bars with propellers hanging from the ceiling, flags, and war helmets adorning the walls will attest to this (Alneng 2002). However, Hanoi inhabitants live in another Vietnam – one that is quite different from the tourist version, choosing only sometimes to recognize and even nurture the American tourist imaginary for political, economic, and strategic reasons. Vietnam (and in our case, “implications for design”) can refer to many things and take a variety of forms.
The same logics apply to any anthropological study of design and technology. While engineers and designers might define an implication for design in terms of design criteria or even usability criteria such as efficiency, ease of use, intuitiveness, and so on, anthropologists and STS scholars might argue for entirely different implications for design. Think of boyd‘s critical insights into teenagers’ use of social media (2014), or looking further back, Orr’s (1996) revelation that service technicians used storytelling practices rather than service manuals to help in diagnosing and fixing copy machines. These vital contributions point to the underlying cultural practices that intermingle with the ways in which technology is used. Although bullet points are notable in their absence, anthropological accounts present “implications” in a broader sense. One critical implication for design, and more importantly for the designer, is to take into account difference and to set aside any normative assumptions. As far as the context of health and disability goes, researchers such as Sara Hendren have worked to upset such preconceptions that accessibility is a mere matter of requirements listed in bullet form and manifest as physical ramps that meet standardized codes. They are instead, more fundamental and point to a recognition of different ways of doing, acting, and living in the world.
The posts in this series will work to re-affirm the reason anthropology matters for designers and engineers who design technologies for health, disability and under the guiding principle of equality. It matters, not because anthropology can help specify a list of design criteria and practical design solutions (although there is no need to exclude this possibility) but because it addresses the intricate ways in which designed objects, their intended uses and their situated uses (Suchman 2007) intersect with social worlds, imaginaries and emergent social practices and relations. The blog posts in this series will explore how the technology and its design are embedded in social imaginaries, tied to power and relationality in the contexts of health, disability and equality, as well as offer critical perspectives on how technologies can disable rather than able. In this manner, we will contribute with implications for design, just not in bullet-list form.
Alneng, Victor. 2002 “‘What the Fuck is a Vietnam?’ Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War).” Critique of Anthropology 22(4):461 – 489.
boyd, danah. 2014. it’s complicated. the social lives of networked teens. New Haven, USA:Yale University Press.
Button, Graham and Dourish, Paul. 1996. ” Technomethodology: Paradoxes and Possibilities.” in Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI’96, Vancouver, BC:19-26.
Dourish, Paul. 2006 “Implications for Design.” in CHI ‘06 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human
Factors in Computing Systems. Montréal, Québec, 22-27 April:541-550.
Hartblay, Cassandra. 2017 “Good ramps, bad ramps: Centralized design standards and disability access in urban Russian infrastructure.” in American Ethnologist 44(1):9–22.
Heath, Christian and Luff, Paul. 1992 “Collaboration and Control. Crisis Management and Multimedia Technology in London Underground Line Control Rooms.” in Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work 1(1):24-48.
Hutchins, Edwin. 1995 “How a Cockpit Remembers Its Speeds.” in Cognitive Science 19(3):265–288
Mackay, Wendy E. 1999 “Is paper safer? The role of paper flight strips in air traffic control.” in Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) – Special issue on interface design for safety-critical interactive systems: when there is no room for user error. 6(4):311-340.
Orr, Julian E. 1996 Talking about Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Ithaca, USA:Cornell University Press.
Suchman, Lucy A. 2007 Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press.