All / Originally Posted on Skirt / Technology & Society

Computing Anthropology

Lately I’ve been spending a LOT of time at the computer. The vast majority of my life, in work and entertainment, has revolved around this screen recently, in exactly those kinds of scenarios that writers like Faranheit 451 and Brave New World and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? got all worked up about.

This got me thinking. My computer isn’t the newest or the fastest or the lightest–frankly in computing terms it’s a toothless old rheumatic sheepdog, past its prime. But I’m not thinking about replacing it.

This computer has spanned continents with me. When I started my MA I got a shiny new computer, a blank slate to imprint with the coming years of graduate school knowledge. I toted it to Britain, where it provided an essential link home with the help of a trusty webcam and Skype.

This computer probably still has dust in it from my fieldwork days in Cairo, where it faithfully recorded all my notes, kept my videos and photos and audio files of my interviews, and helped me start reserach links around the world.

Fieldwork here, fieldwork there–everywhere I went, so came this computer. And wherever I am now, I can still keep in touch with all those people because of this computer right here. Sure, it has a tendency to retain heat and sometimes I’m pretty sure I can smell the distinctive whiff of overheating electrical components, and there’s so much data on it now that it takes its own sweet time to get started, and sometimes it freezes and just sort of sits there and looks at me with a blank expression for a few minutes before I can get it to respond. But we’ve fought battles together, me and this computer.

I actually do have a newer, sleeker, faster computer that I don’t use very often. It was very useful when I was in the final phases of writing up my PhD because I could pop it in my bag and not feel like I was lugging a cannon around with me. And the old computer doesn’t actually work with my printer (they are not on speaking terms) so it acts as a mediator for that.

Still, I prefer the old computer. Partly because it has a bigger screen and thus gives the feeling of a larger window on the world, partly because it runs on a version of Windows I’m more familiar with, but mainly because it is a talisman of my experiences for the whole time I’ve had it. (And, okay, partly because of the graduate student paranoia about throwing anything out. What if I accidentally delete all my research files, for God’s sake? They’re only backed up in three other places!)

On an individual level this is just some rather pleasant musing about an object of importance to me. But from a research perspective, there are some very interesting questions here. What makes people interact with particular types of technology? If we accept that it’s not always about newer, better, faster (assuming people have the capability to access those things if they want to), what other factors are in play?

Ultimately it becomes a question not only about what technology means to the individual, but the kinds of opportunities technology represents to society at large. Home computers perform a staggering variety of functions: they serve as one-way and two-way communications devices, they provide spaces to create and to test new ideas, and they store and protect important data from people’s unfinished first novels to last year’s tax returns.

There’s the flip side: the suddenly overwhelming amount of data unleashed at us can actually make it harder to find what we’re looking for. We now find that people may be looking at us in ways we don’t like, or maybe even don’t know about–think of the many, many stories about privacy issues in the news. And, as I described earlier, you can start feeling like your whole world revolves around technology. Suddenly it can seem like a barrier instead of a bridge.

I suspect I’ll be holding on to this particular silver magic box for a while yet. I’m curious about the kinds of things that might be available to try when I am finally ready to let it go. With the increase in cloud computing and remote data storage, will we be looking at smaller, lighter, more disposable devices that can be picked up anywhere, like ballpoint pens? Will there be a push back to fragmentation, with devices actually becoming simpler rather than more complex? (Remember back when you could have the TV on in the background? Somehow it’s not the same if it’s just open in another browser window.)

I think what I keep coming back to is remembering that in asking how people’s relationship with technology is evolving, the real question is how people’s relationship to one another is evolving. But I have to say that. I’m an anthropologist.

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