10 March 2014

Observing the technologists

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Nick Seaver, a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine, makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, like technology developers. This project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems.

“Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.”

Now I am curious what his research results actually showed.

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