22 Why Questions about the Web

Ever wonder why you can do certain things on the Internet but not something else? Or, why the web is like it is although it could be different/better - or could it?

Alexander van Elsas is a new media blogger and the CEO of Glubble, an online activity center for families. In his blog post, Alexander has asked 22 questions about the web under six different categories, which are:

1) Networks and destinations
2) Personality and identity
3) Data
4) Privacy
5) Business models
6) Behavior.

Some of Alexander's questions are rhetorical, some very easy to answer and some have no meaningful answer. Nevertheless the questions per se seem to tell us a lot about the web as a new way of being and about people's attitudes towards it.

My favorite questions on the list of 22:

5. Why am I forced to be fragmented across the web, instead of having one presence that can connect anywhere?
7. What is or defines my online identity? Am I my profile, my interactions, my data?
11. Can data lead to demand, or does it only take care of supply?
20. Why would we want to have thousands of friends and interact everywhere?
22. Why do we spend more and more time online while real life passes by so quickly?

See the rest of the questions here. (One commenter even had his staff answer the questions. Check them out!)

Pic of Alexander van Elsas from his blog.


Prelude to ICTD2009 Conference - Defining the Discipline

A group of researchers and I are planning a project on the use of mobile communication technology in several developing countries - my site being Tamil Nadu, India, where I used to do ethnography for my PhD dissertation.

Our project could be defined as belonging to the field of ICTD or Information and Communication Technologies and Development. As one might guess, it is a broad field concerning developing countries and the use of new technologies in them. To get to know more about the field, I will be attending ICTD2009 next week in Doha, Qatar.

There's another abbreviation, ICT4D, that has more or less the same kind of meaning than ICTD but perhaps with a slightly different orientation. In his blog post ICT4D, ICTD, or what? Chris Coward discusses the definition of the discipline.

Chris says ICT4D usually connotes "the application of (primarily digital) ICT to interventions that have an explicit developmental goal such as health, education, government transparency" etc. and it has a tendency to ignore conventional development goals or research about all kinds of non-developmental uses of ICT in the developing world context.

For example, according to Chris his colleague's paper about depictions of computers in Indian cinema proposed for ICTD2009 was critiqued for not fitting in the discipline. To Chris this is regrettable as,

"it is incredibly relevant to understand how the computer has become a symbol of aspiration within a society, how that symbol has changed over time, is the computer used for good or ill, what effect this has on people’s views of technology’s promise or pitfalls, and so on."
Chris goes on to compare ICT4D with ICTD which has a broader scope not excluding more research on how ICT is used in developing countries. ICTD doesn't necessarily have to have a developmental goal.

In defining the discipline that focuses on ICT in developing countries there is also the problem of defining "development" and, as Chris says, the need to discuss the meaning of lumping "countries into developing or developed buckets". Also, there's the big question of whether ICTD is a field at all, and if so, what should it be eventually called. Chris says he will take these issues up in an ICTD Curriculum Workshop at Doha. I'm sure there will be at least one interesting discussion at ICTD2009!

Pic sources: Indian monk with cell phone from W3C; ICTD2009 logo from the conference website; book cover of ICT4D: Information and Communication Technology for Development from Cambridge catalogue.


Could a Robot Replace an Anthropologist?

LiveScience (2 April 2009) reported about Adam the Robot Scientist of Abersystwythin University succeeding in creating and confirming a scientific hypothesis without human intervention. Adam predicted that in baker's yeast there are certain genes for specific enzymes encouraging biochemical reactions. The robot then ran experiments in its laboratory to test the hypothesis and analyzed the results.

Although hypothesis-producing robots are an "age-old" invention (since 2004), Adam is special because it can handle independent and automatized laboratory work. According to the computer scientist Ross King, in the future robots will become more widely applied as assistants in the routines and less-interesting tasks of laboratory scientists.

Now when do we anthropologists get our hypothesis-producing robots?! I would love to co-write an article with iMalinowski or Android Appadurai. Or, to get back on Earth, if a cyborg anthropologist is a tall order, it would definitely be interesting to use a robot in the field of, say, urban ethnography.

I can easily imagine an interactive robot such as the ones wondering around Incheon Airport, South Korea (see pic left) programmed to do participant-observation and interview people in a public space. Obviously, serious scrutiny of the method would be required but if low-cost and discreet robots were to be produced in the future, I'd see no problem in hiring a few. It would be fun too!

However, if robot-ethnographers are yet to take over, there is fortunately a lot of mixing between anthropologists and robots going on already. Many anthropologists such as Jennifer Robertson (Univ. of Michigan) and Kathleen Richardson (Univ. of Cambridge) are studying the human-robot interaction with fascinating results. It's definitely one of the major fields of anthropology's future!

So, if for now I can't enjoy the help of an ethnographer-robot I can at least study the emerging field of humans mingling with robots.

Read the LiveScience article on Adam here. See also the Mbnet article on the same in Finnish. Pic sources: Robot at Incheon Airport by Jukka Jouhki; Robertson with Asimo from (article orig. from The Daily Texan).