Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Cultural Anthropology is Suddenly Cool

I tease my college-age daughter about volcanology. She rolls her eyes. But I say studying volcanoes can be sexy. Don’t take my word for it. Country music star Brad Paisley wrote a song about it called, “Your Substrata Makes My Lava Flow.”

Anthropology and TechnologyI also tease my daughter about anthropology. More eye-rolling. I tell her Shark Tank‘s Mr. Wonderful, Kevin O’Leary, graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Now he is worth billions and flies around in his own plane.

She should listen to me. In the high tech world, cultural anthropology has emerged as the hot new skill set.

What, you might ask, does someone with an anthropology background have that high tech needs? Easy answer: They know a lot about human behavior based on millennia of demonstrable evidence.

You may think sifting through the rubble of lost generations and civilizations is a waste of time. But out of all that dust comes an understanding of how human beings behave. And that knowledge is put to work inside high tech companies shaping the way people today interact with computers and smartphones.

Human interaction with device“As tech companies strive to compress their time to market for new products, anthropology is helping to ensure that new rollouts are user-friendly from the get-go,” explains Adobe, which makes sophisticated software tools such as Photoshop, tin  blog titled, “Anthropology: The Secret Sauce for Building Tech We Love.”

Adobe retained an anthropologist to observe how Photoshop users in San Francisco applied the program. His observations extended far beyond interactions with the software’s interface to how the program played a role in larger professional ambitions and the formation of communities.

“I would spend a few days a week  –  watching, listening, asking questions and participating when appropriate,” says Charles Pearson. “I was new to this design world, but it was clear to me that the epicenter, the energetic core of web and app design, was right there and new practices and communities were emerging that Adobe needed to pay attention to.”

Adobe said Pearson’s observations over two years influenced Photoshop design features, as well as how the software company talks to users about its product.

ConsumerPreferences_FeatureRicoh also employs anthropologists to work alongside software engineers and marketers. Their anthropologists are deciphering the “ecosystem of the retail shelf.”

Intel includes anthropologists in its teams designing wearable devices.

Cultural anthropologists are crawling all over places like the Silicon Valley and Silicon Forest. They aren’t answering phones, making cold calls or sweeping the floors. They are at the forefront of some of today’s most promising and innovative technologies.

That possibility never occurred to me when I took a cultural anthropology class in college. But I did hold onto my textbook, which I glanced over recently to see how I could have missed such an obvious career opportunity. Instead, I went into journalism.

For those who think anthropology is old news, think again. Margaret Mead may have studied the sexual rituals of Samoans, but her professional successors are watching you tap on your laptop keyboard, stare at small displays and use your thumb to flip from screen to screen. Your puzzlement may become their Eureka! moment, altering the design of a device critical to your professional success.

brad-paisley-1024Maybe it’s time for Brad Paisley to write a ditty about anthropology. He could call it, “Your Fingers Make My World Go Round.”


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