Information Anthropology

Published 2005-05-05

I call myself an “Information Anthropologist” because I can’t think of any other way to describe what I do. My business hovers over the intersection of graphic design, technology, and user experience. I could call myself a “Jack of All Trades” (which is kind of true), but this always precedes “Master of None.” I see it the other way around: web design, web development, and user experience design are each sufficiently simple that a motivated individual can master all three.

For a web designer, the techniques of anthropology and archaeology have surprising utility: ethnography (of users, of organizations, of clients); stratigraphy (of data models); seriation (of content); and oral history (all those meetings). Anthropology taught me to think, to open up abstract concepts and see how they work. It taught me the value (and arbitrariness) of conceptual organization, and the greater value of getting computers to do the organizing for me. It taught me to draw maps, use computers, make databases, do math, and write coherently.

In studying anthropology (in particular, archaeology), I gained a key insight into human behavior. I saw firsthand that behavior produces artifacts, data trumps anecdotes, and anyone can say anything. Which is a nice way of saying “trust what people do, not what they say they do.” I further realized that people, collectively, don’t move at random. Individuals may have inscrutable purposes (i.e. their explanations for their behavior may be bullshit), but behavior is transparent in aggregate, when you regard human behavior as a kind of quantum phenomenon.

From archaeology I learned the value of fieldwork: theory is nice, but results are better. Archaeologists regard colleagues who shun fieldwork as ponderous blowhards. I was already predisposed to this mindset, but archaeology really ground it in: if you didn’t actually dig at the site, how can you know anything about it? Probably the unkindest thing I could say about someone is “all hat, no cattle” — a big talker but a slow walker.

No one can take more than two anthropology classes without realizing there’s nothing particularly special about your own culture. Polygamy, for example, has wider currency than monogamy, in most cultures and throughout most of history (this fact reliably blows undergraduates’ minds). The vogue these days is to decry such a perspective as “cultural relativism,” but there it is anyway. I love western culture (in particular American culture), but to nomadic yak herders, Free Market Capitalism, the Protestant Work Ethic, and the Constitutional Separation of Powers might seem like quaintly byzantine social posturing. And I’m sure I would find much of Nomadic Yak Herder culture unlettered or superstitious, but without which they could not imagine their universe. Such a perspective has nothing to do with web design, but, like realizing the universe does not revolve around the Earth, it does keep a person humble.