21 September 2017

What can Anthro do? .... Discuss the Future Relationship of Design, Technology and its Human Creators

On September 27th, McMaster University will host Dr. Paul Hartley, a Senior Anthropologist at Idea Couture in Toronto, ON and now, co-founder and Director of the Institute for Human Futures.

The Institute for Human Futures is busy trying to reset the way we see our relationship with technology and to help everyone benefit from new approaches to build more ethical, sustainable, and human-centric technologies. Our purpose is to foster creative dialogue between thought leaders in the business world, design labs, and academia, and to develop actionable solutions to the problems inherent in integrating technology into our lives in a more holistic manner.

With words such as human-centric, dialogue, and (particularly) holism, Dr. Hartley's anthropological background is genuinely apparent.

Screen Shot from The Institute for Human Futures Homepage Video, 2017
Dr. Hartley's talk entitled Designing Human Futures: Reassessing our Relationship with Technology 
will be of interest to those wanting to know more about sustainable, ethical, and effective technological futures.

Full description of talk below:
We live in a technological world that is not entirely our own. Much of what we understand about our technologies and ourselves was crafted in the past, and our approaches were developed in response to the problems of the time. Many are no longer relevant, but we still apply them as we develop increasingly sophisticated tools. To build a more sustainable, ethical, and effective technological future for ourselves we have to shed many of these older ways to thinking and reassess our relationship with technology. This talk offers an alternative perspective on our relationship with the tools we build and explains how we are missing many opportunities for positive transformation by remaining stuck in outdated assumptions about what technology is, what it can do, and what it should do as we design a new future for ourselves. Together, we will reconsider our technological past, reassess our present, and look to futures that are currently closed to us because we still take a technology-first perspective in designing the tools of the future. Along the way, Dr. Hartley will introduce the human futures perspective and offer a vision of how it can be incorporated into design, development, and implementation of new technologies, products, and services.

Anthro Everywhere! has written about Dr. Hartley and his work in the past - as a Canadian anthropologist working outside academia - and @anthrolens blogger @JennLong3 is proud to promote this event hosted by the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice & Technology in Hamilton, ON, Canada.

Are you in hearing Dr. Hartley speak? Come out to this free event and register at designinghumanfutures.eventbrite.com

@JennLong3 will write a follow up post about the event in the coming weeks.

Quick Links and Further Reading:

18 September 2017

Innovative Like Me: Best Practices for Writing Unbiased Job Ads

Below is a post @anthrolens blogger @JennLong3 wrote on LinkedIn. In this post, I write about diversity and bias in Canadian job ads.


While drinking coffee this morning, I came across a job ad for an internship at a Toronto-based subsidiary of a FP500 Corporation.

In addition to one’s resume, cover letter, and copy of transcripts, the employer asked for:

  1. An overview of projects the applicant had worked on in the past - be they work or school-related or a personal project;
  2. Two in-depth case studies about any of these projects which highlight the process, insights or design principles, the output generated, challenged encountered; and,
  3. A list of the top three books or articles with the biggest influence on their practice and a description of why they’re important to the applicant.

For such a tall order, the employer explained their wishes:

They wanted to understand ‘how the applicant worked’ because ‘the documentation process was just as important to the final product’. They also requested that applicants provide specific details about their methods and frameworks because they were interested in understanding the why and the how of their process.

As a Communications instructor for the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology – I saw myself mic drop and walk away from this glorious display of the importance of communication in technical fields. This sophisticated call for applicants helped prove the importance of many topics covered in my class including: project documentation, reading widely in one’s field, the importance of discipline-specific vocabulary, putting theory into practice, self-reflection during project work, tailoring documents to specific audiences…I could go on.

In the end however, the ad stated ‘feel free to use whatever format or length…’ to showcase the applicants work. That’s where I stopped.

I teach my students that there are prescribed methods of communication in Canadian workplaces; that is, whether they know it or not, workplace correspondence and documentation follows long-standing formats of technical and professional communication. To do otherwise slows down progress, creates confusion, and has the potential to ruin work relationships. In class, we learn about direct and indirect writing styles, best practices of professional communication, and more. I tell my students that in following these best practices, they will get more done and make a better career for themselves.

The brief overview request aside, how should we teach students to write case studies and describe their favorite book without returning to the genre of essay writing or book reports that they left behind in primary or secondary school? Do the employers think their applicants will have sufficient expertise to write a business case study? If so, what are the implications of sharing such intellectual property during a job search process?

Perhaps this open-ended request is a symptom of the creative industry, that is, that they want to see what applicants can come up with; yet, there remain standards for communication in all workplaces that the intern will have to follow. Will they end up with a creative soul who can't interact professionally with a client? In a more practical sense, do they want to read thousands of book reports? (Obvious answer: No, you don't) As someone who has faced stacks of essays and literature reviews, it was those well organized, efficiently written (length requirements be damned) submissions which caught my eye and won out.

As a social science scholar teaching in STEM, I’m often struck by the ‘isms’ of Canadian workplace culture that bubble to the surface in everyday practice. In this case, I imagine that such a job ad would locate an applicant whose creative expression matched the recruiter's and whose well-loved book list matched their own. It begs the question: Is this the best way to source an applicant? In a word, no. Innovation – a word sprinkled throughout the ad – does not come from sycophantic following but productive conflict, i.e. difference in thought, in life experience, in world view. Written as such, this ad reflects the implicit bias found in the Canadian hiring process (see Ottawa Citizen, the Star) where employers hire similar and like-minded employees - and so the inequitable hiring and promotion cycle continues.

If you want an applicant who knows about the design process – why not have a quiz to test their individual knowledge? If you want to see creativity in practice, why not have a second stage where culled applicants respond to a past company project filled with real world issues. This would allow them to respond to situations from the brainstorming to production phase. Along the way, ask them to reflect on why they made the decisions they did, and how they would deploy their methods. Otherwise, include a template of a case study to level the playing field (and limit the page count). If you want different thinking, why limit creative knowledge to books and articles – a genre biased toward a particular readership? Instead, suggest potential interns submit a photo and write 250 words as to how this photo inspires their perspective on innovation or design practice.

In the end, I advocate the same thing to employers as I do to my students. Write reflectively, in a manner that considers the audience’s needs and which follows best practices of workplace communication. To do less, creates unproductive communication and has the potential to stymie innovative work processes.

14 September 2017

Solutionism - The Role of Technology in Solving SocioTechnical Problems

It all began, over a year ago (June 2016), with what author Ethan Zuckerman described as hate-linking. Through this practice, Zuckerman stumbled upon and read an article by Shane Snow who is the co-founder of a content-marketing platform. Briefly, in his article, Snow advocates for change in US prison systems - to lessen the financial burden and remove instances of violence - by locking everyone in a room...indefinitely and by feeding them the Silicon Valley version of Ensure. The role of technology - a crucial point to Zuckerman's response - in this prison life would be to give all those incarcerated access to VR (virtual reality) equipment and video games to socialize and learn. Snow's thought is that with less contact, there will be less violence and deaths.

In his lengthy response, The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems for the Atlantic, Zuckerman systematically pokes holes in Snow's proposed solutions to the US prison system (as a design developed out of context and without input from those living and working in such a system) and questions the role of technology as the prolific savior in sociotechnical issues.

As an engineering instructor at MIT, Zuckerman is interested in finding ways to: disrupt better, challenge knowledgeably, and engaging (or codesigning) new and better technology alongside the intended or target audience. Zuckerman drives home what he sees as an issue in (most) engineering design processes where many of the technologies we benefit from, weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely.

Zuckerman draws attention to Evgeny Morozov's critique of “solutionism” which Morozov describes as the act of focusing on problems that (only) have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” The problem with the solutionist critique, Zuckerman argues, is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. He advocates that robust solutions to social problems must incorporate technology as one of many levers toward social change.

Zuckerman mentions the work of Genevieve Bell at intel to briefly mention the role of ethnography and ethnographers in collecting important user information in the design process. He writes:
Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants, and needs.

Although an older article, Zuckerman's response to Snow's design situates anthropological and ethnographic analysis into the heart of the design process, where the heart does not represent the centre of a process, but the life blood of design and innovation. It's here that the expert - that is the user or client or target audience - and their knowledge is paramount.

Quick Links: 
  • Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems: What will it take to design socio-technical systems that actually work? Ethan Zuckerman in the Atlantic (June 23, 2016)
  • How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System (A Thought Experiment) - note, this has been revised due to feedback from the wider community - Shane Snow (Sept 23, 2015) 

  • For more links about technology on AnthroEverywhere!
  • Isuma TV - Indigenous Media collective (Sept 4 2017)
  • Anthropology Podcasting (Aug 24 2017)
  • Remembering & Memories: there's an app for that... (Jul 17 2017)