What even IS this? Why tech companies are still failing us

Why do we know so little about the social implications of technology? It plays a starring role in everyday life, as essential as food, shelter, and clothing. A huge share (70%) of Americans use social media, and even 65% of senior citizens use Facebook  – that’s more than the number of people who eat family dinner at home, attend church, or have a pet.

Yet, we know so little about technology’s impact on everyday life. We are only just now recognizing problems like coordinated disinformation, breaches of personal data, and algorithmic discrimination.  Clearly, technology companies are falling short on understanding the social implications of their tools before and after they build them. But why? Why are tech companies failing us?

Woman in kitchen.
Woman in kitchen. Source: Art Institute of Chicago

Sadly, it is all too predictable that technologists underestimate, misjudge, or otherwise underappreciate how humans will interact with their technology. This is for one simple reason: engineering, as a discipline, does not bother to ask:  “What is this?”

Engineers are not scientists, much less social scientists. They typically have no knowledge of basic human behavior such as loss aversion or impression management, even though these are the building blocks of social interaction – and entry-level knowledge for social scientists.

Engineers could ask, “What is this?” but instead choose to ask: “Does this work?”

“Does this work?” underpins research within tech companies. Once upon a time, tech companies hired engineers they called research scientists and stuck them in labs to tinker endlessly with pieces of hardware and scraps of computer code. Even today, there are over 7800 job postings for “research scientist” on LinkedIn, which are typically engineers or computer scientists. A posting for an Uber research scientist intern is instructive. In addition to having a Master’s degree in a “technical field,” the intern is also encouraged to engage in “risk taking” and to “turn the dreams of science fiction into reality.”  Another job posting for a research scientist at Facebook asks for skills in the scientific method, but then specifically narrows that down to “evaluate performance and de-bug.” In other words: Does this work? Notably not mentioned: the ability to develop basic knowledge.

Academics would see much of this activity as more akin to prototyping than to scientific inquiry. Indeed, these engineers produced many technology prototypes, but not much in the way of generally applicable knowledge, or what the rest of us might call “science.” In other words, they never seem to stop and ask, “What is this?”

Painting by Salvador Dali
Inventions of The Monsters

Today, tech companies need to ask things like “What is a digital public sphere?” and “What is the nature of privacy?” and “What is artificial intelligence versus human intelligence?” Tech companies need typologies of human-computer interactions, motivations, fears, and human foibles. They need to create a system of knowledge around key questions of technology like artificial intelligence and social media.

Some argue that technology development doesn’t have time for “understanding,” that asking “What is this” takes too long and is too expensive. But this is a false economy. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum tells us plainly that we need that understanding, not for understanding’s sake but because it guides our planning:

“Understanding is always practical, since without it action is bound to be unfocused and ad hoc.” — Martha Nussbaum

In other words, if you don’t know “What is this” you’re probably going to build the wrong thing.

We can see this pattern of building the wrong thing in technology, over and over again. The term “user friendlywas invented way back in 1972. Curiously, “user hostile” wasn’t invented until 1996, just before Microsoft’s infamous Clippy appeared in 1997. Clippy’s abrupt entre onto the desktops of the world indicated that technology “researchers” had no idea what they had made. Word famously exploded from what appeared to be a digital typewriter, to a swollen behemoth that did everything from create a newsletter to automate mailing labels. Pick a lane, people. Clippy was there to tell users how to make Microsoft Word work, but no one bothered to find out much less explain what Microsoft Word actually was.  Word is still so swollen that a new user today can credibly ask “What even IS this?”

Clippy the paperclip
Source: NYMag.com

Flash forward to today, and the so-called “lean startup” approach to building technology is really just a faster, even more facile way to ask “Does this work.” In reality, tech companies still don’t know, “What is this?” even after they’ve built a working prototype.

In my former role as a hiring manager at a major tech company, it took an average of 100 days to hire just one ethnographer and more often than not, the job remained open much longer than that. These are the very people who can tell us, “What is this?” The demand for these social scientists only grows. Yet, the tech industry as a whole has not yet figured out they need to ask “What is this?” before they build something.

Were tech companies to ask, “what is this,” they would learn the basic properties of their tools, their coherence, intelligibility, performance, and affordances. Instead, they are fully occupied with “does this work,” and create horrific blights on our collective consciousness like Tay, the racist AI Bot on the relatively innocuous end of the scale, and Compass, the racist parole algorithm at the full-on evil end of the scale.

Technologists do not know what they do not know. Ethnographers hope for the day when they can just ask “What is this” without worrying about whether it works, because it doesn’t even exist yet. But tech development continues apace.

It’s time for ethnographers to stop this sad venture, and instead insist on asking: What IS this? Before another Tay, before another Compass. Technologists too must take responsibility because if we don’t, the 21st century will become even more technocentric, and even less intelligible. Let’s find out what’s going on before we build anything else.

Being practical: Heidegger’s lesson for design research

Next Wednesday, I’m giving a guest lecture in Katy Pearce’s social research methods class at the University of Washington. Dr. Pearce has asked me to come and talk to the class about some of the real-world applications of social research. I suggested I talk about ethnography in product design. She agreed.

My goal of the lecture is to show the students – many of whom are already working in professional capacities – that social research can and should play a significant role in the business world. More specifically, I plan to show them how ethnography is an ideal method not just to gather insight, but to “de-centre” themselves and put the customer at the centre of their enterprise.

Just using social research alone will not guarantee this epistemological shift.

Social researchers often approach product design research as an opportunity to flex their methodological muscles, not to understand or empathize with the customer. Perhaps because they wish to differentiate themselves from “mere designers,” social researchers such as sociologists, anthropologists and human computer interaction scientists, tend to employ advanced and complex methods to determine “significance” of a particular product feature. A case in point is the “time to completion” metric often employed by usability researchers. This metric is often stripped of all contextual meaning, and the focus becomes the metric itself. It offers no insight into the user’s actual interpretation of that experience, whether it is meaningful, useful or delightful. Yet, you will see “time to completion” metrics in private-sector usability studies, and countless published papers.

I avoid these kinds of decontextualizing methods in my practice, in part because I find them ineffective, but more importantly because I find them inconsistent with deep empathy with potential product users. What must one really understand to make great products? One must understand context, history, culture. In other words, one must be open to what potential product users themselves are thinking, rather than cramming a method on top of their experience and using it as the interpretive frame.  Choosing to use a more contextual research method is more skillful, empathetic, and selfless. It may not offer fancy calculations or complex interpretations, but it is absolutely more practical.

This is the orientation underneath my upcoming book Practical Ethnography, which is called “practical,” for a very good reason. It refers to Heidegger’s zen-informed, anti-modern conception of our modern world. In a sense, it is a concerted rejection of the “specialists’ world” which seeks methodological flourish over participants’ needs, desires, and mindsets.

 

In my lecture, I’ll talk about Heidegger’s idea of “being practical” versus “being theoretical.” (As an aside, Nassim Taleb takes up these ideas in his current book Anti-Fragile; he has little time and much disdain for “Harvard Business professors” who have never managed a business in their lives. Talk about “being theoretical”!)

Heidegger argues that “being theoretical” is to use ideas that you have purposefully chosen as being part of a specialists’ world.  You bring with you a set of beliefs as a researcher, for example, that brings you to a narrow, focused understanding of a particular phenomenon. You have chosen to measure “time to completion” because this metric has currency within your discipline. It makes sense to other researchers but very little to actual users.  For Heidegger, that narrowing is the problem. You are unable to “open worlds” and see only a tiny sliver of the phenomenon at hand.

Scholar Carole Steiner has an excellent (albeit very challenging) article on how this approach stunts innovation. Social scientists themselves are “being theoretical” in their research, she argues, because their theoretical knowledge limits their investigations. As researchers, we fail to “de-centre” ourselves and “re-centre” the participants. The result, she argues, is a stilted, overly specialized approach which ultimately fails to provide either human insight or innovation.

Instead, we should aspire to techne which refers to the original Greek work that roughly translates as “know-how.” A techne way of knowing the world does not involve disinterested knowledges or theories, but contextually defined understandings of our surroundings. As Heidegger explained, objects have “assignments,” or the historical imprints objects impress upon each other. Objects make sense together. They derive meaning from each other and their placements in relation to each other. Objects also have “involvements” or functions and uses made meaningful through human involvement.  The “assignments” shape and influence the human “involvements.” We make sense of objects through intuiting their assignments. We give objects “involvements” or possible human uses through our interactions with them.

We do not “make” assignments or involvements; they are revealed to us. We are thrown into this world which is already populated with objects and people. We do not make this world. It is revealed to us. Objects’ historical significances are revealed to us through their connections to other objects and their possible functions we infer therefrom. In this sense, Heidegger argues that we should be passive receivers of knowledge like assignments and involvements. This is what he means by “Da-sein” which could be translated as “be there.” We must simply be in the world and thereby understand its meaning.

We cannot “know” attachments and involvements without interacting with objects. We cannot “make” these by forcibly creating an object to have particular functions or uses. All objects have assignments and involvements that have little to do with purposive human activity, and more to do with historical human experience.

In short, no object emerges without assignments or involvements, pure and unencumbered. No object is an island. All objects are inextricably linked to other objects and to us.

We would do well, Steiner argues, if we approach research with this idea held firmly in our minds. We must approach the topic of our research with the logic of techne. This means that we see objects in our social world as necessarily embedded within their contexts. We must pay attention to its holistic and historical position. It is not sufficient for social scientists to occupy the world of the specialist; that would be “being theoretical” because it does not appreciate the world in its historical nature.

As Steiner writes:

[Social researchers]….cannot…be described as being practical just because they use equipment, have professional practices or do practical things: to Heidegger, they can only be practical, when they involve themselves with the complex relatedness of the historical, public world that is open to non-scientists, non researchers (Steiner, 1999, p. 592)

It is this appreciation of the public world that allows us to design and build great products. We must be engaged with assignments and involvements, and we cannot do this if we do not reflect on our participants’ worlds, rather than our own specialist ideas such as time to completion. To focus so narrowly means poorly conceived products. But worse, it can even trigger existential crises.

In fact, once we enter the specialists’ world, we risk total meaninglessness. As Wrathall has argued, this is Heidegger’s interpretation of what Nietzsche meant when he said “God is dead.” This is how God has died; we no longer have a fixed point of reference for meaning but are instead set adrift in a sea of disconnected objects, severed from their meaningful places in the world. Researchers could be complicit in such existential violence if they fail to re-contextualize their research. Product designers too would be mindlessly creating objects that pile up metaphorically and literally because they have no meaningful place in the world. One could argue this is the true root cause of over-consumption.

 

The Heideggerian approach is not new to product design research. Dotov and Chemero have used this approach in a usability-influenced study of computer users. They found that technology that “broke” suddenly became apparent to users. Johnson takes up in his article on user-centred design (UCD). He argues that UCD, ironically, has a deeply impoverished conception of use. He suggests we recover the word techne from its original Greek, which would include not just the technology itself, but also the know-how of putting it to use and the context in which we use it. In other words, to be better user-centred designers, we must know the attachments and involvements of potential objects that we bring into being. We must know their context.

This is the heart of my theoretical justification for ethnography in general and Practical Ethnography in particular. In the rest of the lecture, I’ll provide examples of how impoverished other methods are when attempting to understand attachments and involvements. I’ll also offer case studies from my own practice.