Cultural Anthropology and Computers

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The Inquirer has an article reporting that cultural anthropologists are employed by a number of technology firms, including Intel and Microsoft.

Though just about anything that gives you the chance to get to know your customers better is a good thing, there’s a few quotes in the article that are hardly reassuring, and one rather glaring omission.

When someone keeps saying that’s it’s hard to figure out what to do with the data, that sounds an awful lot like, “We have great problems justifying our jobs because we can’t tell our bosses anything useful.”

Given some of the other comments in the article, it is easy to see why.

For instance, when someone from Intel tells you, “I know the difference between a snake hole and a lizard hole and which one not to put my hands down to get dinner,” I have real problems finding that a computer-related skill.

Maybe that’s the only way to get some people to relate to not sticking their fingers into CPU fans running at thousands of RPMs, or maybe into AC sockets, but that’s all I can come up with. How about you?

Telling me one of the researchers has a background in performance art raises an eyebrow, too. Given what some performance artists do in the “developed” world, any sensible native after seeing a demonstration of that would either call the spiritual authorities for an exorcism, an executioner for blasphemy, or both.

Or maybe it’s just a member of the Blue Man Group clinging on to the Intel payroll with a new gig. 🙂

It gets worse.

When you hear an anthropologist tell you that whole villages share mobile phones and computers because individuals aren’t considered as important elsewhere as in, say, America, that’s just spewed political correctness.

Villages and peoples don’t do that because of their “culture.” They do it because they don’t have the money to do otherwise. It’s just common sense for poor people to all chip in and share something than not have it at all. They’ve been doing that throughout the eons, and they stop doing it when they don’t have to anymore.

It’s not because they prefer it that way. I’ll grant you that if you and your neighbors are staggeringly poor, you get into the habit of sharing a lot just to survive, but give those people money, and the “sharing culture” just melts away. You certainly don’t see the rich in those cultures “sharing” like that.

This is not to say it isn’t a bad idea to realize that this kind of sharing does exist in some places, and a company making machines needs to adjust for that situation, but putting a political spin on it is not only wrong, it’s irrelevant.

Then it really gets wacky.

The anthropologist goes on to say that since religion is part of a way of life, that Intel RD labs think of viewing that as a starting point for future designs.

Excuse me? Could you please tell me how you design religious hardware? Does that mean designing circuits or making traces in the shape of religious emblems? Christian though I am, I have a real problem with two traces making the sign of the cross.

Will Intel start taking steps to make sure their computers are kosher/halal/whatever?

Do you build machines that won’t run unless they’re pointed towards Mecca or in whatever direction the feng shui suggests? Or maybe they just stop working at prayer time, or Christmas Day, or when you don’t Paypal alms to the poor?

Do you design machines that test the faith of the followers by needing a miracle to work? (Hmmm, that’s one way to recycle old, broken equipment. :))

Or perhaps this is an effort to utterly respect the local beliefs of others. “Why, yes, you’re right. This computer is inhabited by magical spirits, and when it doesn’t work, that’s because the bad ones have gotten the upper hand over the good ones.”

Might be just as as true as the explanation on an MS blue screen, and certainly more informative and comforting. What’s more intelligible to the average person, to be told:

An exception OE has occurred at 0028:C14D8AEC in VXD MSTCP(01) + 0000736C. This was called from 0028:C14BED7A in VXD VTDI (01) + 000000BA.

or

The evil spirit Popobawa has infected your computer! You’re in trouble!

After all, the average person ends up doing the same thing to solve the problem. Witch doctor/technical support person, same thing. Both do strange incomprehensible things, and neither can guarantee success. 🙂

BTW, I didn’t make up the name “Popobawa.” He’s a “real” demon in Zanzibar, and he’s a new one. He also has what might be considered a different way of getting unbelievers’ attention, too. 🙂

Imagine what marketers could do with a religious angle. Tell an Intel marketer that Christians believe that Jesus is everywhere, and soon we’ll see BIOS screens with the Intel logo saying “Jesus Inside.”

A very powerful marketing tool for many religions in history is the promise/threat of salvation/damnation. You have to admit that’s a far more powerful argument to the persuadable than hyperthreading or x86-64.

Do we really want the marketers to play in that mine-laden sandbox?

Instead of boring, confusing technical specs to compare, marketers could give us a simple clear choice, like “Intel or Hell.”

If Intel’s feeling competitive, they could try, “Intel or be dAMD.”

No doubt the AMDers will come up with catchy phrases like “Buy Intel, Go To Hell.” Or, given their limited marketing budget, maybe they’ll hire a down-on-his-luck deity like Thor to sell Hammers.

Come to think of it, some AMDers are already playing the religious angle. I’ve seen them modify Intel logos to say “Satan inside.”

A casual perusal of any computer hardware forum will show you that there already is a religious war between Intel and AMD people, or nVidia/ATI people, or PC/Mac people, or, or, or. They’re religious wars without gods. Imagine what will happen if you drag Him or Her or Them into it.

All bets are off if Popobawa gets into the act. 🙂

Do companies have to choose sides, or can they be ecumenical about it? Or does that just make them pagan infidel dogs to some group out there?

Aren’t we really opening up a can of worms here?

Again, this is a good concept in the wrong place. It might be a nice touch for MS to allow users to have religiously-based themes, or provide scriptures of the day. But expecting hardware designers to somehow incorporate religion into silicon seems like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to me.

The Obvious Omission…

The Obvious Omission

If you made me the head of a technology company and I found a bunch of anthropologists on my payroll, I’d give them something useful to do. I’d give them a society to study.

Mine. The one in my organization. The geeky one.

I’d find out how my company “ticked.” I’d find out how my corporate culture warped and distorted reality, and why.

I’d find out why what the average customer really wants from a computer (something as simple and reliable as a TV) and what my company gives them bears little-to-no resemblance to each other.

I’d find out why my manuals are often not written in normal language. I’d find out why my help screens answer every question except the ones people ask. In short, I’d find out how my corporate culture frustrates my customers’ culture.

I’d first change that. Then I’ll worry about cultural sensitivity. If I can do the first, the second ought to be a snap.

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