Innovation, Anthropology and Cultural Relativity
London, UK - 3rd January 2010, 00:35 GMT
Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends
[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]
Chandelier made of Recycled Plastic
Just as large development projects can fail if agencies do not understand their target communities, commercial products can also fail if companies do not understand their customers. Where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from "within"! With the arrival of micro and nano devices, anthropology has witnessed a mini-renaissance in the 21st century. As our lives become ever more exposed to technology, and companies become much more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand.
Anthropology is the holistic, global, comparative study of human beings and of their interactions with each other and the environment. It increasingly looks at the impact of technological dimensions on humanity's progress and our future development. Anthropology has been a discipline shrouded in mystery, with few people ever questioning what it does. However, now that anthropologists are playing with search engines, mobile phones, satellite navigation and digital television, there is growing interest. In today’s high-tech world, anthropologists are becoming much more essential and increasingly visible!
The more technology is integrated into everyday life, the more we are in need of paying attention to its effects. Contemporary studies of the social and cultural effects of the technology of print are a case in point. In history, print-technology permitted the emergence of new scientific disciplines and new ways of thinking including new religions and socio-economic doctrines. The way we acquire, record, transmit and publish data has changed enormously over the last few decades, with many solutions rendered obsolete along the way. Witness the near-death of photographic film in the last few years, as it is completely superseded by new digital media. The study of visual anthropology in the 1970s is an excellent template for mapping the impact of computing in the 1990s and the evolution of cyber culture in the 21st century. The uptake of small electronic devices had radical implications for the conduct of humanity starting a few decades ago. The recent accessibility and portability of information technology, including search engines anywhere and at anytime, is again morphing the digital landscape. This facilitates not only the collection and dissemination of visual and aural data, but its integration with everyday human activities on a scale not previously envisaged.
Anthropology is now described as the scientific study of the origin; the behaviour; and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans. It is distinguished from other social sciences –- such as sociology –- by its emphasis on what’s called Cultural Relativity! This is the principle that an individual's beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of his or her own culture, not that of the observer. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context –- the social and physical conditions under which people live –- and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. That's comparing one culture to another!
The body of knowledge that led to the development of Cultural Relativism has its origins in the German Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world. All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions according to sensibilities concerning time and space. Franz Boas, the Father of American Anthropology, first articulated the principle of Cultural Relativity in the late 19th century: "...civilisation is not something absolute, but...is relative, and...our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilisation goes."
The emerging anthropology of cyberspace deals with cybernetic systems, the culturally informed interrelationships between human beings and proliferating technologies. These inter-relationships include the attempts to fuse technological artefacts with human and other biological organisms, with human society, and with culturally shaped environments. When anthropologists started working with microprocessor firms in the late 1990s, they were accused of selling out! Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in the technology industry has become THE thing to do. In the technology sector –- particularly within emerging market divisions –- it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of leading companies including smart chip and mobile device manufacturers.
As a result, mobile devices are closing the digital divide across the world in a way the Personal Computer never could. International development agencies are now pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives based around mobile devices, phones and technology. The explosive growth of mobile-phone ownership in the developing world is largely attributed to a vibrant recycling market and the arrival of cheap USD 20 phones. Anthropologists working for mobile telephone companies spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the "bottom of the pyramid" might want from a phone.
In order for mobile devices to reach their full potential, we still need to understand fully what people in developing countries need from their digital communication products and how they can be introduced and applied in a way that has a positive impact on their lives. This is exactly where anthropologists and cultural relativity step into the equation!
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