Author Archives: Melissa Cefkin

Melissa Cefkin is a Principal Scientist & Design Anthropologist at Nissan Research in Silicon Valley where she explores the potential of having autonomous vehicles as interactive agents in the world. She completed her PhD in cultural anthropology at Rice University and has years (decades?) experience at the intersection of ethnographic and anthropological research with design, business and technical system development. Previously she worked at IBM Research, Sapient Corporation and the Institute for Research on Learning. Melissa is the author of numerous publications including the Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter (editor, Berghahn Books 2009) and served in a wide range of the leadership roles, including president and conference co-chair, for the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) organization.

Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy

“Together we embark.” “Together we adjust.” “Together we drive.” These tag lines describe the Intelligent Driving System (IDS) concept car used in Nissan’s recent demonstration of possible futures in electric and autonomous driving. Unveiled by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015, the IDS concept car[1] suggests rich possibilities for future driving experiences. What I’m especially curious to explore as an anthropologist who has long been engaged in ethnographic and anthropological research in the context of technology development is how the seemingly dichotomous notions of “togetherness” and “autonomy” come together in advancing self-driving cars.  What visions of collectivity and sociality are at play amongst those involved in the development of self-driving cars, and how will the vehicles themselves embody these visions? My thoughts reflect my stance as a social analyst interested in socio-technical endeavors generally, and the social effects of automation specifically. It also reflects my vantage point as a collaborator in the process of autonomous vehicle (AV) development, as I will discuss. I’d like to consider two ways in which, to me, the notion of autonomy raises questions about notions of sociality. One way pertains to the vehicle itself, to visions for how the vehicle will function and look, and to the experiences it will enable. A second relates to the ways AVs are being brought into being. Here I am interested in how new social formations are emerging as people work together across previously distant and newly emerging industries, knowledge domains and practices. In what way do the activities involved in the development of autonomous vehicles suggest the rise of new global assemblages in which ideals of autonomy stand at the center of the reconfiguration of social relations? (read more...)