Tag: ethics

How Not to Be a Bot: An Interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects. Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your earlier research on slot machine addicts? Natasha Dow Schüll: My approach as an anthropologist is to explore how technology mediates cultural demands in human experience, and slot machine play and online poker play are two cases I’ve examined to get at that. I see both forms of play as responses to contemporary life but the ways in which they are mediated by technology, and the experiences they afford, differ. (read more...)

Remembering David Hakken

This week, the CASTAC community received the sad news that Professor David Hakken had passed away. Hakken was Director of the Social Informatics Program at The University of Indiana. Trained as an anthropologist, Hakken conducted research at the intersection of ethnography and cyberspace. He was concerned about how digital technologies and culture are continually co-constructive. His prolific career included publication of a recent book co-authored with Maurizio Teli and Barbara Andrews entitled, Beyond Capital: Values, Commons, Computing, and the Search for a Viable Future (Routledge, 2015). Hakken presciently focused on critical areas emerging at the intersection of digital anthropology and science and technology studies. The outpouring on social media from his colleagues and former students has been truly touching and shows the depth of his impact on the community. Hakken was a principal founding member of CASTAC. As a pioneer in anthropological studies of computing in the early 1990s, Hakken initiated action on creating a committee devoted to particular concerns of anthropologists in science and technology studies. He was also a friend to the CASTAC Blog. He helped lend our fledgling endeavor gravitas by writing posts and graciously being interviewed. Please join me in honoring his life and work by enjoying this gem from the Platypus vault, which originally appeared on the blog in January 2013. I was honored to have the opportunity to interview him and hear more about his big ideas on big data. I first met David at a CASTAC summer conference (remember those?) nearly twenty years ago. Over the years, I personally benefited from his wise mentoring and vibrant disposition. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He will be greatly  missed. Colleagues who would like to share public remembrances about David for a longer tribute post should contact the editor, Jordan Kraemer. Patricia G. Lange May 6, 2016 (read more...)

Decolonizing Design Anthropology with Tinn

In fall 2014, I began building Tinn, a health data tracking application for people living with tinnitus. I approached building Tinn as an opportunity to explore what a socially conscious, feminist, and anti-colonial process for developing mobile applications might look like. The idea of pairing design, building, and anthropology is hardly all that innovative; “design anthropology,” a subfield of cultural anthropology focused on empirical studies of use cultures, has been around since the 1980’s (at least). What sets Tinn apart, however, is my commitment to working with communities of color in Portland, OR, that have been alienated by and from the technology and application development industry because of intersecting and juxtaposed systems of gender, racial, and access inequality. Perhaps one of the central epistemic problematics for the project, then, can be posed as a question: Can we decolonize design anthropology, and to what success ordegree? What might this entail? Decolonization is slippery. My “academic anthropology” is a historical ethnography of the ways media scientists after World War II shaped (and continue to shape) the gendered contours of global media flows in the British Empire, with a particular focus on sound, listening, and citizen-subject formation in Gibraltar. My work on Tinn gave me the opportunity to transform my critique of the violence done by media scientists into the starting point for a more ethical approach to user experience research with marginalized Native American, Latin@, migrant, and African American Oregonians living with tinnitus in Portland. Yet what I thought of as decolonizing and what my collaborators thought of as decolonizing was at odds in some instances. For one, while decolonizing anthropology attempts to re-balance the scales of recognition and redistribution in the research process, it is much more difficult to reconcile the colonial histories of designer and designed for. Yet, for my collaborators, this division didn’t actually matter. As Nephi, one of my politically astute collaborators, put it, “the ethics are too heady when we need material help. Someone has to do that work. It’s you today.” While Tinn began with my commitment to making the project open source (as resistance to the privatization and commoditization of collaboration — it’s not that simple), Nephi protested. “My labor is there, too. You’d give it away for free? There’s a long history of white men giving away the work of my people for free.” I said it wasn’t simple. While there were times where my collaborators and I didn’t agree on what constituted decolonization, we did agree on one thing: data poses a particularly tricky sociohistorical landscape for thinking about recognition, redistribution, and reconciliation. The rest of this post is dedicated to the complications of tracking data about tinnitus, and tracking data about vulnerable and/or marginalized users with tinnitus. (read more...)

Ethics of User Experience Research: What Anthropology Can Tell Us about Facebook’s Controversial Study

Where is the line between industry user research and academic human subjects research? And what rights do—or should—users have over how their (our) data is used? As user research becomes an established part of technology design, questions of research ethics become even more pressing. These issues came to the fore in the wake of Facebook’s recent controversy over a study of “emotional contagion” (Kramer et al. 2014) conducted by in-house researchers, namely Adam Kramer (no relation), with input from scholars at Cornell and UCSF, to test whether users’ moods can spread through what they see on their News Feeds. The study has generated vociferous debate among user researchers, academics, and designers (for a good overview, start with The Atlantic’s coverage) over whether the study was ethical (such as this article at The Guardian), expressing serious misgivings about its potential harm. The British Psychological Society (BPS) officially labeled the study “socially irresponsible,” and even the scholarly journal in which it was published, PNAS, has issued an (admittedly murky) “statement of concern.” Still others point out that the methodology, determining mood based on snippets of text, was deeply flawed. These critiques have sparked a wave of pro-user-research apologists, claiming that on the contrary, suppressing such research would be unethical, and that the study could plausibly have passed more stringent IRB regulations, which already make it too difficult for academics to conduct the kind of research undertaken in corporate settings. But much of this debate sidesteps a key issue social scientists have been contending with since at least Stanley Milgram’s studies of how far test subjects would go in delivering painful shocks to actors if an authority figure told them to—and that is, how to conduct research ethically. (read more...)

Greetings from Paris: A View from Ethnografilm 2014

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an exciting new film festival called Ethnografilm, a showcase of ethnographic and academic films that visually depict social worlds. Helmed by the festival’s Executive Director Wesley Shrum (Professor of Sociology, Louisiana State University), the event took place April 17-20 at Ciné XIII Théâtre, a unique venue in the Montmartre district of Paris. The variety of films was indeed impressive, and ranged from old-school anthropological investigations of “disappearing worlds” to animations that stimulated the eye and illustrated interactive tensions in visual forms. Despite fears about the disappearing anthropologist filmmaker, it was interesting to see that Jean Rouch’s classic film Tourou et Bitti (1971), which was screened on Saturday night, played to a packed house! Given that co-sponsors included the International Social Science Council and The Society for Social Studies of Science, it is perhaps not surprising that the festival included many technology-related films. Themes included both opportunities and tensions in areas such as online interaction, ethics, “primitive” technologies, and high-tech bodily enhancements. Below I profile a few of the films I was able to screen. (read more...)

Between Apollo and Dionysus

Anonymous is a banner used by individuals and as well as multiple, unconnected groups unfurling operations across the globe from Brazil to the Philippines, from the Dominican Republic to India. Since 2008, activists have used the name to organize diverse forms of collective action, ranging from street protests to web site defacement. Their iconography—Guy Fawkes masks and headless suited men—symbolically asserts the idea of anonymity, which they embody in deed and words. To study and grasp a phenomenon that proudly announces itself “Anonymous” might strike one as a futile and absurd exercise or exercise in futility and absurdity. A task condemned to failure. Over the last five years, I felt the sting of disorienting madness as I descended deep down the multiple rabbit holes they dug. Unable to distinguish truth from lies, and unable to keep up with the explosive number of political operations underway at one time, a grinding (read more...)

Dealing with Big Data: David Hakken Weighs In

Although anthropologists have been working with large-scale data sets for quite some time, the term “big data” is currently being used to refer to large, complex sets of data combined from different sources and media that are difficult to wrangle using standard coding schemes or desktop database software. Last year saw a rise in STS approaches that try to grapple with questions of scale in research, and the trend toward data accumulation seems to be continuing unabated. According to IBM, we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. This means that 90% of the data in the world was created during the last 2 years. Big data are often drawn and aggregated from a very large variety of sources, both personal and public, and include everything from social media participation to surveillance footage to consumer buying patterns. Big data sets exhibit complex relationships and yield information to entities who (read more...)