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Ethnography and its technological parallels

Ellen Isaacs defines Ethnography as “the study of behaviour within a culture”. She argues that, by watching human behaviour, we can learn human habits and use those in the technological field to decide “what to invent next”. She uses the example of watching computer scientists use a 1980s Xerox machine in order to create the next generation of photocopiers.

Watching this historical video of these two men struggling to photocopy within the context of seeing it as an ethnographic film, one analyses their behaviour in order to collect information about how technology is used and how it could be improved or recreated. Technology often employs metaphor in order to be successful: think of “files” and “folders” on a “desktop”. But soon a generation of children will be born who are unable to visualise the reality of files and folders. When did the floppy disk symbol obtain the universal meaning of “save”? Soon, no-one will recognise it as an object, but it retains its metaphorical meaning.

Outside the context of technology, ethnography and ethnographic film can be used to improve lives. Isaacs goes on to discuss how she has observed people’s parking habits in the city and has analysed this behaviour in order to make suggestions for more efficient parking. What if we took that further? What if, for instance, we used ethnography and ethnographic film to observe, say, the banking and financial habits of a community in rural Afghanistan? Would we not better understand their needs and wants, learning how exactly they use basic financial systems, leading to a better rate of financial inclusion once we learned what they really wanted from a Shariya-compliant banking system?

Other examples spring to mind, but what remains important is that ethnic systems and traditional communities are respected. Isaacs draws an interesting parallel between ethnography and technology, and this is truly something innovative that can be used at a local level.

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