Monday, March 14, 2011

Cultural Anthropology Meets Computing

Often we think about Interdisciplinary Computer Science (or in a broader context Computing) as involving another science, mathematics or engineering. This makes sense as a starting point because the commonalities between fields are most obvious and it is easier to envision a true partnership where each field contributes equally to an activity.

However we need to go beyond the STEM disciplines and bravely consider the relationships that can be formed with the arts, humanities, social sciences. These areas are beginning to be considered. There are interesting explorations underway such as a recently completed NSF funded project bringing together journalism and computational thinking in K-12.

What about Anthropology? Not long ago I started a conversation with a cultural anthropologist who has been working at the intersection of computing and anthropology for many years. Arlene Atherton works in an area she calls Visual Linguistics. Many of her projects over the past two decades have involved evaluation of internet media (for example web pages, educational materials) from a perspective of different cultural perceptions. She takes into consideration two areas: what she calls the "human universal", i.e. those things that cognitively and physically we can all do as human beings, and "the unique" those aspects outside of intelligence or cognition, human aspects that derive from culture and manifest themselves in visual perception. Arlene has studied "traditional" anthropological groups, meaning from an outsiders perspective (mine in this case) ethnic, racial, stage of development. In addition she has looked at differences in other areas such as generational: Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers etc.

Arlene got me thinking about the role of interdisciplinary computing and anthroplogy and I want to try and lay out some ideas of what each field has to offer the other using her work as a jumping off point.

When I first heard the term "visual linguistics" the definition that popped to mind was: "what my eyes tell my ears". In other words what I see leads to what I *hear* i.e. perceive. When I shared my phrase with her, Arlene suggested this wording: "Visual Translations of Image Language".

Cultural Anthropology (CA for short) can offer Computing: a new way of thinking about the design and evaluation of online anything.  CA can bring to the table differences in how cultures (traditionally defined or otherwise) choose to use text and graphics - percentages of each, placement, meaning of text and graphics relative to one another in different placements. What messages are sent and perceived to different groups by the same page? User Interface design can become more explicitly culturally aware, especially as advances in technology lead to the greater embedding of text, graphics, and live media. These perspectives will benefit education, marketing, global politics and communication and much more.

Computer Science (computing) can offer Cultural Anthropology: the knowledge of how to make real the desired effects for online media. We have the knowledge of how to bring complex graphics to life in the most efficient, resource saving, and robust way. We can determine or discover the best structural designs and algorithms to take advantage of complex data streaming and networking technology even as we develop it. We can develop the tools and artifacts to leverage culturally different needs such that they will be effective yet transparent to the user. We can address the inevitable new needs for online security and privacy that arise in sensitive environments. I could go on. But what I am proposing is that in addition to the items listed above and others that you can think of, we can pull it all together technically, make all the pieces fit seamlessly, taking advantage of the latest advances across our field.

What other non STEM fields can you think of where we can work together like this?

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