The Case for Anthropologist in Technology
During my time in graduate school I became increasingly aware of two major problems plaguing the field of anthropology. The first is endemic to any academic fields with strong philosophical traditions: the ivory tower effect. The second problem, both caused by and contributing to the first, is that nobody really knows what we do. I encountered the second issue fairly early on in my academic career when I told my mother I was studying anthropology she could only respond: “is that like studying bones?” To my mother’s credit, anthropology isn’t a word one encounters often growing up in urban slums so it was easy enough to forgive her for only knowing the field through Bones. However, I would find that this question (or the more unknowing “what’s that”) would become a commonplace discussion throughout my career.
Certainly these issues seem harmless enough. Who cares if a few academics want to keep to themselves in their secret club, right? Had I gone to school anywhere but Florida, perhaps I could have continued being naïve and agreeing with such a sentiment. But I attended college in the state governed by Rick, Voldemort and Lord of Darkness, Scott who, decided that anthropology in particular would be the target of his maleficence. For those unfamiliar with the story, in October of 2011 Rick Scott decided to publicly condemn Anthropology and single it out as an example of education programs for the chopping block omitting the part about his daughter’s inability to find a job with her anthropology degree. In one of his many attacks, Scott suggested moving funds from anthropology to STEM fields not realizing that anthropology IS a STEM field. Scott was not alone in his considerations. This is where anthropology’s small cool kids club becomes problematic.
But what does this have to do with technology? As I mentioned, anthropology is STEM field. In fact it is the STEM field that validated STEM in the first place. It can do so because of the unique approach anthropology takes to a given subject matter. It’s holistic tradition demands that practitioners examine a subject culturally, historically, biologically, and linguistically to get the real “big picture.” Rather than look at individuals or small groups, as psychologist do, anthropologist are truly concerned with the whole, but still focused enough on how the whole impacts individuals that it does not get caught up in “systems” as sociologist do. This approach maps itself to technology’s interaction with the consumer in a remarkable fashion.
Allow me to provide an example. When I design a website I have several consideration. What colors and fonts to use is a commonplace example. To answer that question I consider the impact fonts and colors have on the eyes (biological) and how that may psychological impact the user (cultural). For instance, red is alarming and conveys urgency. It is the first color all languages will have a word for (linguistic). This makes it ideal for calls to actions such “order now” buttons. My own site uses purple, a color historically associated with royalty and individualism that can be used to convey creativity (historical) yet in large doses can actually become emasculating due to its association with sophistication (cultural, again). As an anthropologist I am able to consider these various angles because I have over half a decades worth of training to do just that.
This is, of course, the most trivial example I could come up with. The applications for this skill site are wide reaching. A few examples include marketing to consumers, using historical context to judge if a product will be received well curbing pitfalls to consumer uptake before they happen, ethnographic analysis of facebook or twitter interactions that could led to better tailored content, and UX/UI design. In fact, UX/UI is, in my opinion, the place where anthropologist can thrive the most. Training in biology and culture can truly help a team understand exactly how a user might work an app, what physical complications could occur with finger touches or in AR/VR experiences and what cultural practices might keep a group from using your product. These considerations might have even saved Google Glass (or perhaps it was beyond saving at that price point).
Of course, there are still hurdles. Anthropologist must first recognize that their skills have value outside of academia itself. A symptom of being locked within the ivory tower is that everyone, from professors to students, believes that the only place for their skill set is the academy. Even worse, both the students and the world at large continue to believe that they are unable to thrive in other fields such as business and technology. Yet as I’ve show, this could not be further from the truth. The Tech industry especially could be well served by anthropologist. As two fields that embrace change, want to know how people behave, what they need, and they can do to meet those needs, their skills and goals could no complement each other better.