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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: Anthro VIsion

 I don't know how AnthroVision got onto my reading list, but I didn't realize until about a third into the book where I'd seen the name Gillian Tett before. Once she talked about the CDO/subprime crisis, however, I realized that I'd heard her on the radio and read her articles in the Financial Times about the mortgage crisis and how it worked. She was someone who'd covered the story even before it had blown up, and she was one of the credible people reporting on it.

The book's thesis is that anthropology is a hidden secret lens with which you can view the world, complementary to BigData (which can tell you correlation but not causation), and she does a good job describing the process of ethnography (I've long considered ethnography an under-utilized tool in business --- if you're a software engineer and you want to know how people are using your applications, there's no substitute for doing a user study --- and if you do it right, you're doing ethnography!). I loved the many business stories: there's one about how kit-kat became a cultural phenomenon in Japan (and also why there are many Japanese kit-kat flavors that cannot be found in the West), one about how one of the star managers of traders constantly rearranges the seating arrangements in the trading floor, and one about the rise of social-responsible equity investing.

But what caught my eye was the study an anthropologist of smart-phone addiction in teenagers:

As boyd sat in teenage bedrooms, she realized that the teenage middle-class American kids had striking attitudes toward time and space. A teenager called Maya in a middle-class suburb of Florida was typical. "Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don't have much choice in what I am doing Friday nights," she told boyd, listing her extracurricular events: track, Czech lessons, orchestra, and working in a nursery. "I haven't had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend." A white sixteen-year-old named Nicholas, from Kansas, echoed this idea: he said he was not allowed to socialize with friends because his parents had packed his schedule full of sports. Jordan, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old living in a suburb of Austin, said she was barely allowed out of the house due to stranger danger. "My mom's from Mexico and she thinks I will get kidnapped," she explained. Natalie, a white fifteen-year-old in Seattle, told boyd that her parents would not let her walk anywhere. Amy, a biracial sixteen-year-old from Seattle, observed that "my Mom doesn't let me out of the house very often, so that's pretty much all I to people and text on the phone, 'cause my Mom's always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house." The parents backed this up. "Bottom line is that we live in a society of a parent I admit that I protect my daughter immensely and won't let my daughter go out to areas where I can't see her," said Enrique, a parent in Austin. "Am I being overprotective? Maybe. But it is the way it is...We keep her very busy without making it depressing."

The parents and teenagers considered these controls to be so normal that they barely commented on them---unless asked. But boyd knew that in earlier generations in America teenagers had been able to  congregate with friends, collide with acquaintances, and physically travel out of the house. As a teenager herself in 1980s Philadelphia boyd hung out at the local mall with other teenagers. Now the mall operators---and parents---were banning that. Teenagers were being excluded from other public places, such as parks or street corners, if they tried to congregate there in large groups. The contrast with even earlier eras was even more stark: in the mid-twentieth century it had been normal for teenagers to walk or cycle to school, congregate in fields, take part in "sock hops," stroll around town, travel between venues by themselves for jobs, or simply congregate in large groups on a street corner or in a field. "In 1969, 48 percent of all children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family member," boyd noted. "By 2009, these numbers had reversed: 13 percent walked or bicycled while 45 percent were driven." Boyd does not make any moral judgements about these new constraints (although she does not that there is scant evidence that stranger danger has increased in recent years). But she told the Davos dinner that if you wanted to understand why teenagers used cell-phones, it was not sufficient to just look at phones or cyberspace. That was how parents and policy makers discussed the issue. So did the engineers when they designed phones; to them the physical real world of life outside a phone seemed less important than what happened inside it.

But while parents, policy makers, and techies ignored these real world, physical---non-phone---issues, they mattered. The reason was that controls in the tangible world made A"roaming" online doubly appealing; cyberspace was becoming the only place where teenagers could explore, wander, congregate with friends and acquaintances in large groups---or do what teenagers had always done in the real world---with freedom. Indeed, it was almost the only place where teenagers could push the boundaries, test limits, reshape their identity without "helicopter" parents watching them or the need to schedule an appointment into their busy schedules.

That did not absolve tech companies of responsibilities in relation to digital addiction: boyd knew that clever engineers were using "persuasion" technology to make apps appeal to people's brains. But it did mean that parents (or anybody else) had to acknowledge these physical controls if they wanted to understand why teens seemed addicted to their phones. Most people treated cyberspace as if it were a disembodied place and so they ignored the physical world. That was as much of a mistake as ignoring deivatives in finance before 2007. (pg. 144-146)

Wow. From an ethnographic examination of disparate families to draw the conclusion. Lots of computer scientists would sneer at this description  as "the plural of anecdote is not data", but would fail to realize that the big data approach to this problem would have completely missed the context of phone addiction. The need for teenagers to have autonomy and control over their schedule has been completely ignored by society, and it is the parents themselves who are to blame. And if you broadened the picture further, notice how the parents themselves felt like they had no control over the situation. Visit Europe and you have a completely different attitude:

Germans believe children have rights—or more precisely, Germans believe children have more rights than Americans are willing to give their children. The rights of children are encoded into German law and in the everyday actions of ordinary people. (Achtung Baby: Kindle loc 3427)

 I like Gillian Tett's thesis, and I think this book is well worth your time, whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who believes the context matters to human behavior. Highly recommended.

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