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Empathy of Anthropology — anthro/studio

The number one rule in practicing anthropology is to be empathetic. This rule is incredibly important in today’s technological landscape. As we get increasingly intimate with our devices, work places, and institutions, producers are beginning to employ empathy —— often under a process called human-centered design. The popularity of this “innovative” design philosophy made me wonder: what were they designing around to begin with?

Humans should have been at the center of the design process this whole time—not just for products, but for institutions as well. Our job market, for example, was designed around a capitalistic system in which workers produce a surplus. Humans then developed an economy of meaning based on their occupation — within which they experienced purpose through psycho/social/emotional well-being. With an automated workforce on the horizon for many occupations, we’re all scrambling to minimize the fallout when robots replace humans. Our initial fear, however, isn’t one of financial or economic instability. Instead, we paint a doomsday picture where people have nothing to do.

Many of us with a certain cultural bent will wonder, what is our purpose if we don’t work?

Job loss is emotionally on par with the grief experienced when losing a loved one. Ideally, if all goes well, we will use the ginormous surplus produced by the automated workforce to distribute a universal basic income. Nonetheless, this would be a sub-par severance package for abandoning our long-standing allegiance to the value of work. The impending future of automation demands empathy, both in our approach and design process.

When organizations embrace human-centered design and new wave design philosophies that are focused, “first and foremost, on the user,” they simultaneously acknowledge the flawed philosophy that they embraced prior to this. Consequently, when new design processes are embellished, glorified, and highly advertised—organizations are further distancing themselves and damning their previous behavior by such extreme differentiation. The cold beer in that keg in the break-room wouldn’t taste so good if the last company newsletter outlined the ten best design processes to exploit users and benefit stakeholders.

So, this shift could be seen as an opportunity for the genuinely empathetic anthropologist. We can tidy up our CVs and brand ourselves as ‘cultural strategists’ or ‘design researchers.’ If we want to, we can elaborate on our experience coming up with the right questions and conducting contextual inquiry (i.e., ethnography). We can talk about all of the focus groups and moderations that went into our research. All in all, our skills would be especially desirable to these forward thinking firms—and if you are incredibly targeted in your search and catch a firm at the right time, you could probably carve out your own department.

Most of these potential careers are on the cutting edge of the consulting industry. IDEO, frog, and other innovation consultancies are literally advising their clients on how to produce the future of our world. Even small advertising agencies like Sanders\Wingo are flying in speakers to talk about “design thinking” to better reach their audiences and serve clients.

Whether we help craft a message for automated cars, build journey-maps for a smart city, or help implement a new workflow for a hospital, anthropologists are the best professionals equipped to help usher in a positive future. This wave of human-centered design firms is a signal that it’s time for anthropologist to step up.

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