Ethnography of things

A thought based on the Design Anthropology Futures Conference in Copenhagen (August 2015): Discussing the implications of the emerging Internet of Things for our work, we pondered the idea that maybe we should experiment more with conducting ethnographic studies from the perspective of things rather than people.

Many current debates and publications around the Internet of Things tend to position people at the centre of the network, as they are considered to be the main instigators, drivers and beneficiaries. This assumes that the things in the Internet of Things are mostly focused on socialising with people, in order to better support and serve them. But quite likely the largest part of the Internet of Things will evolve around things being better connected to each other, and socialising between themselves.

What are the needs, preferences and concerns that emerge when we look at the Internet of Things from the perspective of the things? These are questions we are very used to addressing in our studies from the perspective of people, and it might not be such a big leap to re-purpose them into an ethnography of things. What can we learn from the behaviours, the successes and the failures of things, and how can we inform key improvements in the development of the Internet of Things based on this understanding? It would be very interesting to start experimenting with this.

Design Antropology is a suitable inter-disciplinary field to play a key role in developing new knowledge and generating new guiding principles from this perspective. In a way the Design discipline would be making a full circle; after having focused for a long time on objects and things, though mostly from a formal perspective, the field opened up to also consider people, the users of the objects and things, at first mostlly from a cognitive psychological angle, but later also by welcoming a more sociological or antropological angle that considered the wider social and complex dynamics of everyday live. Antropology on the other hand comes into this topic from the other end; having focused on people in their complex and social contexts for a long time, the discipline has been acquainting itself more and more over the past year with not only a scholarly focus on issue formation, but also by embracing thoughts and efforts on how engage with more generative processes such as design and innovation.

This dual background offers a perfect combination of theory and practice to dive into this new approach to the Internet of Things. A very important one as well, as history has taught us that big new developments such as this greatly benefit from more disciplines to be involved than just technology.

For further reading, take a look at the web page with papers and posters for the conference. The paper by Laura Forlano on ‘Empathy with Things, Assemblages and Possible Futures’ is of particular relevance here.