• Category Archives Blogs by Mark
  • Blogging is soooooooooo 2006

    This is the time of year when blogs talk about their top posts for the 2009, the most important issues in their area of interest and otherwise reflecting with great insight on the past year or decade. I promise this blog will continue its long held tradition to avoid insights at all costs.  So forward, forward I say.

    But what to natter on about? I don’t have much interest in the debate about the military/cultural anthropology “conversation” any more. People have made their calls on a personal and professional level, and will go about their business as personal conscience leads them. The grassroots are wiser than the self-appointed protectors of the purity (read: ossification) of the field. It was fun to poke a stick at people for a while, but you can only make self-righteous people dance around and screech for so long before its boring again.  Now, if they screeched something different every time, that would keep my interest.  But, sadly it’s the same reason video games don’t keep my attention… not enough variety.  They are sort of like watching Glenn Beck, you don’t need more that a couple of minutes to get the gist of it.  Then it’s like watching Seinfeld.

    I’ll still write about design and innovation from time to time.. I was in the field for 15 years as a design anthropologist and still enjoy it.  But what else?  I am not doing anything the looks like ethnography anymore and there is not much pissing me off these days, my life is pretty damn dull.  I do a lot of book research and some consulting.  I still have my “what am I issues.”  Am I an anthropologist, yes… am I doing anthropology these days… no.

    Here is what I have been working on for the last few months, as a hobby not a job mind you: Learning and playing Texas Hold ‘em poker.  A totally fascinating, difficult, frustrating game filled with a combination of science, individual heuristics and folklore.  But that is what I do for fun in my spare time these days.  I play very low limit games (for example, what some would call penny ante and very low stakes tournaments).  I pour over my hand histories, read books on strategy and mostly gnash my teeth over my routinely poor play.  I am not getting any better, so we will see how long this lasts.  The Ordinary People Project lies fallow for the moment for no reason other than laziness.

    But there are other bloggers here and they add their interests and we will be adding new bloggers soon.

    What would you like to see more of?

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  • Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines Hui

    This announcement showed up in my e-mail, nicely formatted too:

    Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines Hui

    17 – 19 November 2010

    University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

    Kia ora koutou (Greetings to everyone)!

    New Zealand’s first international ethnography hui will give participants the opportunity to meet with like-minded researchers and experience the rich cultural tradition that is Aoteaoroa, New Zealand.  The hui, or conference gathering, will take place at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand from 17-19 November, 2010, with exciting pre-conference workshops scheduled for the afternoon of Monday 16 November 2010.  There is a stunning list of four cutting-edge keynote speakers—Norman K. Denzin, Linda Tuwihai Smith, Elspeth Probyn, and Neil Drew—who will challenge and invigorate delegates, and are looking forward to this exciting time together!

    The hui has three key threads;

    • Emerging Methods: traditional, experimental, transgressive forms
    • Practice and Advocacy: doing ethnography on the ground
    • Social Justice and Transformation: theoretical ethnographic visions

    This quadrennial conference welcomes all forms of engagement in ethnographic disciplinary practice, and aims to stimulate rich intellectual discourse.  Researchers and practitioners from across the disciplines of law, anthropology, education, health, management/business, psychology, sociology, cultural, and gender studies and – any other discipline where ethnography advances our understanding of the way groups and individuals interact and live their lives into being – are invited to submit papers. Contributors are invited to experiment with traditional ethnography, as well as new methodologies – and with new presentational formats such as drama, performance, poetry, autoethnography, and fiction.Presenters’ papers will be considered for a peer-reviewed compilation of four to five presentations per thread.

    You are invited to submit your abstracts online.  Please browse through the conference website www.nzethnographyconference.com for more information:  about Hamilton, New Zealand; about the University of Waikato (and the School of Education), our primary sponsors; about the thematic threads offered during this meeting; and about how to submit your abstracts for sessions (this link is now live!); http://nzethnographyconference.com/Site/Ethnography_conference/Themes.aspx

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  • Now Available for your Xmas giving, Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken!

    chief culture officerI am pleased to let people know about a new book by fellow social science innovator, Grant McCracken.  Hi book ” Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities” was a major inspiration for me when I started my career in design anthropology and have have been reading his blog ever since.  (Grant, please..please go back to the old format!).  Below is the press release, and I will follow up after I give it a read.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and then realized I have left it at the office!

    If you are interested in what anthropology has to offer business thinking and the practice of innovation, do your self a favor and pick up any of Grant’s books

    In Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (Basic Books; December 1, 2009) anthropologist and consultant Grant McCracken argues that products and ads succeed when corporations capitalize on culture.  Not corporate culture or “high culture,” but the world outside the company—the body of ideas, emotions and activities that make up the life of the consumer.  Major corporations like Apple, Nike, Virgin, and Volkswagen study and cater to their customers’ behaviors and values—they found a way to read their audience’s culture and then speak to it.  We can also see the costs of misreading culture: Coca-Cola missed out on the demand for a diverse selection of drinks to the tune of $1.4 billion; Best Buy purchased Musicland just as people began downloading music online; and Levi-Strauss missed out on the hip-hop trend.  In each case, executives failed to notice what was happening in world outside the corporation, and they paid dearly for it.

    Not only do corporations live or die by their connection to culture, but too often, many are completely dependent on big-name “gurus”—Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart, Silvia Lagnado—for insight and guidance. Or worse, they outsource the task to marketing firms, consultants, branding experts, or the office intern.  McCracken has consulted with an array of major companies, including Campbell Soup, Coke, L’Oreal, IBM, and the Children’s Television Workshop, always with an eye on the value companies can derive from culture.  In CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken argues that the American corporation needs a new officer in the C-Suite—a Chief Culture Officer, or CCO—who will harness the near-uncanny cultural insight exemplified by gurus like Jobs, and make it systematic and professional.  A company’s CCO would develop a deep understanding of culture—both its fast-moving trends and its deep, enduring waves—along with a strategy for applying this knowledge in a way that creates value.  With CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken hopes to reach those inside the company who want to make their company more intelligent, strategic, and responsive, as well as those outside the company who want to turn their knowledge of culture into a career.

    In an insightful overview of pop culture, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER takes readers through major cultural movements of the past century—the hippies, the yuppies, the new avant-garde, the networked community—and examines the successful qualities of popular television shows and movies, analyzes the preppy culture of the 1980s, shows how teens today identify with not one but several groups, and describes how “cool” overtook status.  McCracken’s witty romps through culture demonstrate how successful brands listened to and interacted with their consumers, while other executives led their companies in the wrong direction, following “hunches” and intuition alone.  And with an aim to put culture in the C-Suite, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER profiles a number of figures—from gurus like Jobs and Stewart to real-life “stealth CCOs” who are already acting the part—and reverse-engineers their skills and strategies.  Through these insightful character sketches, McCracken demonstrates that cultural knowledge involves not just keeping up with trends, but active participation, as well.  Only then can the CCO discover what their consumers truly value—and what makes them tick.

    To those inside the corporation, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides a bonus appendix with ten real-life candidates for the new CCO position—from a 17-year-old named Justin who loves military history, to Eric, who, while getting his physics degree at Stanford, also ran the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer FAQ and played volleyball.  And for the aspiring first generation of CCOs, the second bonus appendix provides a toolkit for understanding both slow culture and fast culture—from what to read, watch, and attend, to who to lunch, what to outsource, and how to transform others in the company into active, thoughtful observers of culture.  With authority, wit, and keen insight, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides the description—now it’s time for companies to post the job.

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  • The Chrysler Peapod, The Reason Innovation Gets a Bad Name

    I believe the time of the electric vehicle is drawing near. It makes a lot of sense: we already have the ubiquitous infrastructure for “fueling” – any electric socket -, can be recharged with renewable energy, and does not have the fear factor some people have about driving around with a tank of hydrogen in back of them. (BTW, hydrogen as fuel is as safe as standard gasoline using modern storage methods). The major issue is energy storage: batteries. They are heavy, take a long time to recharge, have a limited lifespan, comparatively expensive to make and very unfriendly towards the environment at the point of disposal. There is also a weight vs. energy issue, the reason why the vast majority of a rockets weight is in fuel to get it going. Gas has a pretty good ratio of stored energy to the weight, batteries don’t. But like personal computers, they will get there. It will not surprise me if my next vehicle purchase, maybe 5 years from now, is an electric vehicle.

    So long as we don’t get distracted by such goofy ideas such as the Chrysler Peapod. Even though I have left the product design and development world behind me, there are somethings that just cry out to be mocked as an example of why the lives of reputable, hard working, customer and client focused innovation folks are harder than they need to be. With a Chief Innovation Officer pushing this kind of “innovation,” it’s no wonder the word leaves such a bad taste in peoples mouths.

    PeapodThis is the Chrysler Peapod. Design-wise it is best described as the skull of a hydrocephalic squirrel-monkey grafted onto a Smart Car. It’s simply dreadful and not much to redeem it. This used to be the GEM, and then Chrysler inexplicably brought in Peter Arnell as its Chief Innovation Officer and spun off Peapod with Arnell in charge. Arnell’s history with Chrysler is considerably less than stellar, as he was the creator of a famously disastrous ad campaign for Chrysler that has only recently been eclipsed by his widely reported failures for Pepsi and causing a 20% drop in sales for Tropicana.

    But hey, lets get to the important stats of this transportation innovation: How Far, How Fast, How Much?
    It is has a top speed of 25 miles per hour!
    It is street legal in nearly 40 states!
    It can get “up to” 30 miles per charge!
    Takes only 6 to 8 hours to charge!
    Starts using my Ipod (a need we have all expressed right?
    It is illegal to drive on ANY road in ANY state with a posted speed limit exceeding 30 miles per hour!
    Looks like the skull of a hydrocephalic squirrel-monkey!
    All for $12k! That’s right only $12k for a… umm…um…. Golf cart?
    I hope it has a rack on the back for my Segway!

    The car has been dubbed an “NEV” for “Neighborhood Electric Vehicle.” Apparently this designation gets around those pesky issues like… um, safety regulations. Renaming an incredibly expensive golf cart to an “NEV” is akin to renaming a Pet Rock to a “Sedentary Lithic Companion” to distract you from the fact it’s just a damn rock. Neither one is a solution to the actual need and desire of people. On top of that other manufactures are already leaping far ahead with vehicles that, while more expensive, provide a much more holistic solution and look a lot like… a car. I know, cars are so 2009. I know what you are saying, I am missing the opportunity to be driving around looking out the eye holes of a squirrel monkeys skull, but I have enough dating problems already. Granted, I have wasted many hours sitting in my car, scrolling through my iPod selections trying to get my car to start with no luck. Usually by the next day I am towed to an impound lot where a helpful officer shows me how to use the same keys I use to open the door to start the car. I remember thinking afterwards “That’s so clever… after my opening the door, my keys are in my hand anyway… I can just put them in that little keyhole thingy on the steering wheel.” My step-mother, being much more technically savvy actually has a little plastic thing in her pocket that she does not even have to take out! Why just walks up, opens the door and drives away! However, there was an Apple store nearby, and maybe that is why the car started… more testing may be needed.

    Things like the Peapod that are strictly about one person ego (its PEA for Peter Arnell’s initials) have nothing to do with innovation. But worse, it gives more entrenched technologies something to point at and say why electric can’t work. For the discipline of innovation its ample evidence that innovation is just cotton candy and fairy stories without anything substantial behind it.

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  • The growing work of anthropologists with the military parallels the evolution of design anthropology – 15 years later…

    Lord knows I would welcome much stronger examination of the credentials of people that claim to be social scientists / anthropologists that are working in the military. There is the potential for the development of an excellent sub-discipline of anthropologists doing direct applied work for various forms of the federal government and the military (which for all I know already exists, I am new to this arena). I have no doubt there have been anthropologists working in all levels of Government/Military/Intel worlds for many years, but they may have not been/are called anthropologists in most official job titles I suspect. (note: I say it this way as I have not actually tried to find out, therefore it is assumption based on my past professional experience). This is not to hide anthropologists, but in my corporate experience, getting HR systems to create of a new kind of position description and title is something that requires so much red tape you used to wind up being called a “Staff Scientist” or “Human Factors Engineer” or “Analyst”. Never confuse institutional bureaucracy, ineptitude, disinterest and glacial speed of change with conspiracy, things that seem to be confused often.

    With programs like the HTS the role of anthropologists has become much more visible to people outside of the government and military worlds (including higher visibility to those in anthropology). This is ironic given that very few people in the HTS have any background in anthropology at all, much less appreciable experience in ethnography. (A curious waste of self-righteous resources to focus on an organization with so few anthropologists actually involved. Not to mention the little academic cottage industry of publications it has spawned has certainly profited the critics CV’s as well as bringing them to an audience they were unknown to before. But these are mysteries to be plumbed later.) But with this visibility, it also means the time is ripe for pulling a number of fragmented efforts together, but also this visibility and boomlette in the military hiring “social scientists” also leads to the hiring of numerous unqualified among the qualified individuals. To me, this development has interesting parallels to the boom, bust and then stability of the practice of ethnography and anthropology in the corporate world. And as in the corporate world, if the military and federal government sees enough value in the work provided long-term, anthropology/ethnography can survive the current fad and shake out the charlatans on the way to a more robust sub-discipline.

    I was one of the people that started working in the corporate world using anthropology to inform product and services development, strategy and business innovation in the 90s, the boom years, and until 2008. The uproar that currently exists about anthropologists working with the military world parallels with the uproar I recall that existed about anthropologists “selling out” to industry. Back in the mid 1990’s there were also calls in the AAA to ban all forms of proprietary research primarily as a way to devalue what anthropology could bring to the table in industry, since no company wants its business strategy research made public for competitors, and certainly not going to hire someone that won’t honor a non-disclosure agreement. As that discipline, often referred to now as Design Anthropology, grew (despite the AAA mind you) we also saw the rapid growth of hiring ethnographers/anthropologists. By 1996-97, “Ethnography” was the go to business fad of the moment and the more prominent ethnographers/anthropologists in the industry were getting written up in high profile publications such as Fast Company, Business Week, The NYT, Wired and more. I remember getting calls from companies that wanted to hire me to be an anthropologist but had no idea why they wanted one. All they knew was their competitors were hiring anthropologists and so they figured they should check out “what dinosaurs had to do with product development.” That is nearly a direct quote from one conversation that shows just how much in the infancy it was at the time.

    So the next thing you knew in the dot.com boom there was a massive uptake of anthropologists into industry to do User Experience Modeling (sometimes referred to as UA or UX), strategy, business consulting of all kinds. Many were unqualified due to lack of experience, unable to make the adjustment to the corporate world, unable to provide clients with understandable and actionable recommendations, and the many outright charlatans with dubious backgrounds but since they talked to people in their homes, it was “ethnography”. A lot of little consultancies grew then later crashed and burned as the never-ending faucet of money dried up with the dot-com bust and people started asking the really hard questions: What exactly are we getting out of having an anthropologist hanging around here anyway? Something more universities need to do as well, but I’ll save that for another day.

    Mind you, design anthropologists, like me, were not the first anthropologists working in the corporate world; many had been there for years, often referred to as Organizational Anthropologists studying the internal culture of the corporations. But with anthropologists taking a more active role on the profit creation side of the industry, actively working to make product recommendations, develop strategy and in may own case working as an inventor as well as strategy and product innovation, where was even a schism in that little niche.

    To start with, there were those that felt doing organizational analysis was OK, but actively working to develop new products based on interviews with people was not. Then even within the field then there was an academic/applied argument: Those that saw themselves as academics first and the need to make the material actually be of value to the needs of the corporate culture a distant second. Then the camp that saw themselves as academically trained product developers, strategists, experience modelers, and all kinds of buzz words that we frankly created as we tried to fit in someplace. Over time, those that saw themselves just as academics that happened to work in industry (and apologetic about it) were weeded out and went off to do something else. Over time, the major companies that had been doing working with, and in many ways helping to shape the field for a while, became more educated about not just how to work with anthropologists, but what to expect from them and most importantly, what crap research looks like. So many of the outright charlatans, though still around, have also been weeded out at this point in 2009. Mind you for those of us that have been in that discipline from since then (I chose to make a career shift last year), we went through the lean rebuilding years, which also required asking just what value we provide and to who, taking responsibility for informal standards and the creation of honored competitors. It improved the quality of the work and the services that companies receive and therefore increased the confidence and stability of the field.

    Perhaps that’s the point of this note: Applied anthropologists working in the military and other areas today are at the early stage of a discipline arc that Design Anthropologists experienced 15 years ago. Today, over a decade later, you can find anthropology programs that are actively working with students to pursue careers in industry, working in all kinds of capacities. To be sure, there are still those that don’t approve of such work for anthropologists, but I think they are not winning a lot of converts because, simply, the jobs aren’t there in academia and people often find Design Anthropology an interesting field to pursue. Many people in academic world are putting up a valiant struggle to make cultural anthropology relevant to more people that just anthropologists. Without those people, and if they don’t succeed, cultural anthropology could well become some academic backwater (I think it’s already well on the way) that is viewed as an interesting part of the evolution to a more robust and useful field that will be inter-disciplinary in nature. There is already a conference that embraces that group of strugglers called EPIC that attracts anthropologists, designers, human factors folks, engineers and others that consider themselves all part of that community. Oh, and the AAA and NAPA also help to sponsor EPIC, ironically in some ways, given the issues with proprietary research people would like to see addressed in the code of ethics.

    So, perhaps this argument about anthropologists in the military, as poorly crafted as it often is, is just a symptom of the potential development of a sub-field growing in visibility, and in some cases, not unlike coming out of the closet. Just as Design Anthropology did in the corporate world, this is an evolution of anthropologists going from writing about the culture of the military to actively and visibly working with the military to affect change on a host of levels. Just as in the corporate world, these applied anthropologists are taking a very active role in shaping directions of inquiry, how the military can approach cultural issues and in some cases shaping policy.

    But, taking that kind of active role is problematic, no question. Look, applied anthropology is messy and doing applied anthropology for the military or an NGO in a war zone / refugee camp / oppressive regime is going to be messier still from an ethical stand point, if you can’t deal with that, then perhaps being an applied anthropologist is not for you. You can’t take a one size fits all approach to ethics, it is counter-productive, naive and certainly does not prepare someone for the on the fly decisions that have to be made in the field. This is why long and vigorous discussions about ethics are paramount before going into the field. Not because you need to have the answers going in, but because you are always going to be in that situation you don’t have a clear answer for and it hopefully provides a firmer foundation to make those leaps from. At some point you have to quit wringing your hands and actually do something, and in turn take the risk of making a little, or very big awful mistakes. And yes, they have real world consequences. In the corporate world, if you are working at a higher level, your mistakes can cost people jobs, homes, health insurance. You go someplace where people’s lives are teetering on the brink, the stress of your choices is hardly reduced. There is no tenure, no do-overs, no intellectual jousting in journals trading quotes from dead French philosophers. People get fired, lose lives, put resources in the wrong place with all the follow on effects that can last for years and all manner of other problems.

    But for some of us, this inherent messiness is not a showstopper, it’s part of the work that you have to take into account and worry over as your try to move forward. Stop trying to convince those that disagree, it only takes up valuable time and holds back the development of and substantive arguments needed for this nascent field.

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