Heroism of Anthropology — anthro/studio

Human centered design and design thinking are on the up and up. Consultancies, agencies, and industries worldwide are finally understanding the power of a human centered research process. There is no shortage of kitschy case studies that highlight the value of this approach. My favorite is the story of a hospital system that was years behind on converting to a digital system. Programs were put in place to incentivize doctors to adopt the iPad based platform — but nothing worked. It was only when the iPad mini was introduced did the hospital convert to the new and improved way of doing things. Simply because the smaller iPads fit into the front pocket of their white-coats.

Wives-tale-esque stories like this one have a catchy formula. There is usually a positive outcome that isn’t engaged for a seemingly complex reason, only for us to find out a much simpler solution existed the whole time — right in our blind spot. The impeding factors in these stories (i.e., whatever was preventing doctors from adopting iPads) are assumed to be complex because of the tremendous value that people are missing out on by not ‘going digital.’ That is, we seem to complicate the perceived pathway to a more ideal state of being when we know a high pay-off is waiting on the other end. We are not completely wrong to assume that positive human behavior is inherently complex, but I have a feeling anthropologist would process this scenario differently.

In the case of iPads at a hospital, we share some general assumptions about the positive impact of digital technology. Some other similar stories, however, involve a more nuanced positivity. For example, a school teacher decided to run a workshop where kids controlled the classroom and designed it how they would want if they were in charge. The most impactful change turned out to be yet another simple fix — lowering the white board. Once it was moved down, kids were not only able to see the board better, but they also redefined the white board as a space for dialogue with the material they were learning (Check out Matt Rodda’s piece: The Diagrammatic Spectator for more on this phenomenon.

Awesome, right?

Over the past few months, I immersed myself in the vernacular of UX design + research firms who were committed to “design thinking, rapid prototyping, and iterative research.” Firm after firm, I felt that the case studies, insights, and methodologies were — well — second nature for a cultural anthropologist. We are all trained to create order and develop an understanding of the human condition. We all seek to articulate tacit values that different groups of people embrace. We all rely on phenomenological processes to remain agile during our time in the field. None of this was new to me.

In the end, I found that these ‘designers’ may be taking a bit of our thunder.

Kitschy case studies like this, for the most part, exist in isolation. The penultimate solutions were not informed by an increased cultural intelligence. I would argue that the processes at new age design firms are less demanding than the work of a true anthropologist because of the theological linearity inherent in human centered technological advancement. Unlike anthropologists, these firms operate within a framework where an ideal state is often defined on a spectrum of clarity (i.e., have doctors use iPads, high clarity, or increase kid’s interaction with material, low clarity). The client often knows the solution and has therefore defined a problem, which is not present in the work of true anthropology. Sometimes the client already has an idea and just wants confirmation for C-levels — a phenomenon which arguably making us over-qualified for the demands of these types of clients + consultancies. We are, however, perfectly equipped to make the world a better place through technological evangelism.

Artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics in the workforce, automated cars, high speed rail, and other impending futures are bound to alter our value system as a society. For example, when people living in North Georgia can commute 2 hours to Chicago by high-speed rail — the concept of “urban” to that southern region will no longer be an alternative fact. Rather, the concept of “urban” will be actualized and defined by someone’s true experience instead of the larger socio-political narrative.

These clearly articulated horizons of technological futures transform our cultural reality from an unpredictable and chaotic discourse into an entity (i.e., client) with clearly defined trajectories and outcomes. For the most part, we can all agree that increased connectivity is inevitable and has potential for tremendous positive impact on the world. It is simply a matter of implementation at this point.

Since the majority the human condition is made up of cultural adaptations, it is up to us, anthropologist, to make sure our cultural conditions are fertile for positive development. We can harness the theological clarity of these technological advances to usher in a better future for everyone.  I would argue that it is our duty to explore the impact that impending futures will have on world. We’ve got the most valuable client anyone could ask for — the human race.

This is why I’m starting anthro/studio, welcome.

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  1. Wonderful Marion! This is such an important and timely discussion. Can’t wait to see what this space becomes!

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