Sappho, Rexroth et al

Crossing the disciplines

Schools tend to maintain a sense of the separateness of disciplines. There are fundamental, discipline-specific skills and bodies of knowledge to be acquired, of course, but the most interesting work frequently arises where disciplines meet. I remember the excitement of encountering E R Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational, for example (though a classicist friend has suggested that of all Dodds' works, this one has endured the least well). (Amazon UK is currently offering this book in a bargain purchase — along with Clinton's My Life. Someone has a sense of humour.) Another work, more important by far to me and strange to many Western European sensibilities, is Milosz's The Land of Ulro — moving easily between literature, philosophy and theology whilst exploring the role in our lives of science and reason since the Enlightenment.


Matt Jones' bookshelf set me thinking a while back (he posted it on Flickr in September)…

To pick out a few titles: Salen & Zimmerman's Rules of Play, Pat Kane's The Play Ethic, Sutton Smith's The Ambiguity of Play, Roger Caillois' Man, Play & Games, Information Anxiety by Wurman, Uncanny Networks by Geert Lovink, Biomimicry by Jenine Benyus, Visual Function by Mijksennar, Designing for People by Dreyfuss, Norman's Psychology of Everyday Things, Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, Cities for a Small Planet by Rogers, Urban Future 21 by Hall & Pfeiffer, Metacity/Datatown by Winy Maas … (Of these, I have read only Lakoff & Johnson's work.)

There is something extraordinarily exciting going on in the world of software design. This last week, Anne Galloway and Smart Mobs picked up on a piece in New Scientist:

Every year, the people of the Trobriand Islands in the Solomon Sea off Papua New Guinea exchange ornamental seashell armbands and necklaces. It is a social ritual that binds their circle of fishing communities to each other, and strange as it may seem, this tradition has inspired a recent new service from communications company Vodafone.

This is just one of many insights that anthropologists are starting to bring to high-tech companies striving to make their products and services work with established human customs, not against them. …

Malinowski found that kula cements social bonds between island groups, and according to anthropologist Richard Harper this makes it an ideal basis for new ways to make technology useful. That is why Harper, along with many others of his profession, is increasingly being employed by the Research and Development departments of high-tech firms to apply lessons learned from traditional customs to tomorrow's high-tech products and services.

Harper has been working for Vodafone in the UK since 2003, where he has adapted kula-style gift-giving rules to encourage social bonding among groups of people in phone-texting networks. Under his guidance, Vodafone has launched its Postcard service. You send an MMS picture-and-text message to Vodafone, who will print it as a postcard and mail it to whomever you want. Like the islanders' gifts, Vodafone's postcards are permanent - unlike text messages. The idea is that the recipient will then want to send a postcard of their own, perhaps to a third party, and so draw more subscribers into the network. Exchanging more valuable artefacts, such as music or video files, may be next. …

Anthropologists' insights are not just for the future: they have already contributed to making existing technologies easier to use. Perhaps the most familiar example is the big green Copy button on photocopiers. Anthropologist Lucy Suchman famously suggested it when working at Xerox in the 1980s, after seeing how frustrated people became with the complexity of the machines of the day. Now based at Lancaster University, UK, Suchman says major technology companies often consult anthropologists, although their influence often goes unnoticed.

Travis Breaux, an anthropologist and computer scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, expects this kind of input to become more common. "As technology becomes more pervasive, the role of the anthropologist in its development will continue to grow," he predicts. "Ethnographic methods are being applied to friend-finding networks such as Friendster, multi-player online role-playing games such as Everquest and online dating systems," Breaux says. And these networks and games, he says, are returning the compliment by proving useful to social scientists in their academic research. "Future technologies will in turn be affected by our studies of the way people behave on these networks."

Commenting on the Smart Mobs posting, Ryan Kabir linked to a speech from an anthropologist, Genevieve Bell, of Intel Research who studies mobile phone usage in the far east (profile/"summary" here).

All of which made me re-read Christopher Allen's excellent August posting, Intimacy gradient and other lessons from architecture:

A number of my posts have been about integrating different domains of knowledge in order to better understand how human behavior should be incorporated in the design of social software. I found The Dunbar Number in sociology, and both Four Kinds of Privacy and Progressive Trust come from my work in the cryptography field. The topic of this post comes from the field of architecture. …

We are still breaking ground and exploring new ideas in the world of social software. However, there are already extant fields of study which may give us insight into this new venue. Architecture is one of them. By better understanding ideas of intimacy gradients, pattern language, refuge and prospect, savannas, and defensible spaces, we may gain new understandings of how to build social environments which are attractive and enjoyable to more people.

And here's Joel Spolsky writing in September of this year:

Social interface design is still a field in its infancy. I'm not aware of any books on the subject; there are only a few people working in the research side of the field, and there's no organized science of social interface design. In the early days of usability design, software companies recruited ergonomics experts and human factors experts to help design usable products. Ergonomics experts knew a lot about the right height for a desk, but they didn't know how to design GUIs for file systems, so a new field arose. Eventually the new discipline of user interface design came into its own, and figured out the concepts like consistency, affordability, feedback, etc., which became the cornerstone of the science of UI design.

Over the next decade, I expect that software companies will hire people trained as anthropologists and ethnographers to work on social interface design. Instead of building usability labs, they'll go out into the field and write ethnographies. And hopefully, we'll figure out the new principles of social interface design. It's going to be fascinating... as fun as user interface design was in the 1980s... so stay tuned.

What use is all this in teaching English Literature? How idea leads to idea is always an experience that quickens and enlivens the mind and soul, and the spin-offs are unexpected and quite unpredictable. This holiday, I will be re-visiting Huizinga on play and aiming to get round to some of those titles on Matt Jones' bookshelf.