23 May 1985


Might there be an "Anthropology of Computers"?


There are precedents at least on the fringes of Anthropology for looking at particular technologies as they mold and are molded by people; one could easily argue that Anthropology of the Automobile should be a concern of twentieth century anthropology if only because of the ubiquity of the thing itself and the aura of cultural significance that surrounds it.  People are conceived, born, and die in automobiles; people devote large proportions of their income to the purchase and maintenance of automobiles; people invest their automobiles with human characteristics (names, gender, personality) and lavish affection upon them in various ways --buying talismans and amenities, ritual washing and stroking-- and often the automobiles themselves serve as status markers and expressions of social identity for their owners.  The fact that many of these behaviours are found wherever automobiles exist (with interesting variations) marks the subject as clearly falling within the ambit of anthropology.


While the Automobile is an obvious and perennially fascinating cultural artifact, it is in some respects just too easy as an ethnological target; a  researcher must wade through a morass of cliche and common knowledge to get at  the kernel of what makes the Automobile so significant a cultural artifact, and arrives at this nubbin only to find that it is principally males who worship at the Shrine of Our Ford, and further that the dynamics of this domain of culture are mostly superficial --styles and appearances appear to change, but in fact fundamental alterations in the culture of automobile behaviour have been  very few over the last four decades.


Another domain of material culture and technology that promises greater dynamism and that is probably of more wide-ranging significance is that of the Computer.  Here we deal with an artifact whose development and proliferation is mostly confined to the last 40 years, and therefore many potential informants have observed the whole process of evolution. Furthermore, this evolution is very extensively (albeit obscurely) documented and recent years have seen the beginnings of efforts to popularize and make accessible its history.  At present the technology is spreading very rapidly and finding its way into homes, schools, offices and stores all over North America.  Legions of the innocent are being encouraged to realize that their lives will remain incomplete until they purchase their own computers and that their childrens' future depends upon access to the technology.  A whole new domain of periodical literature has sprung up to abet the merchandizing opportunities, and it is reported that "computer books" account for more publishing than fiction!  In short, we have on our hands a process of technological change of unprecedented rapidity and great significance, yet it proceeds largely unstudied by anthropologists and sociologists; many of these same people are themselves enmeshed in the process, but seem not to have noticed its general significance.


It is tempting to examine the Computer Revolution as a parallel to the development of a religious movement; new Ultimate Truths are discovered by Prophets (George Boole, Alan Turing) and become the property of a small body of Disciples who become privy to the Central Mysteries and spread far and wide to communicate the Mysteries to new Converts, some of whom themselves become Priests of the new Vision and take on the responsibility of further spreading the Vision and further developing its Exegesis.  To outsiders (gentiles, heathen) this Priesthood's maunderings are mumbo-jumbo, but Converts are made among the young, some of whom leave home to follow a Pied Piper but on their return are unable to give a satisfactory account of what they have seen and done.  These new converts may be much changed in behaviour, with a tendency to abstraction and obscure muttering amongst themselves.  In some cases the Civil Power sees something to be gained from public support of the new Movement; such support tends to favour the creation of Orthodoxy amongst the members of the Priesthood, and thus to establish a clear set of steps that a new intendant must pass through in order to be admitted to the Mysteries and become an Adept and thus have access to a permanent position within the emerging hierarchy.  If the means of access to the Mysteries are kept in the control of the Priesthood and the Civil Power the hierarchy becomes entrenched and the pathways to power and other rewards are clear and severely limited.  But even the most seamless of Orthodoxies has within it the gnawing worms of Heresy, often in the form of young Adepts who wonder if It mightn't be better If...  Clever Orthodoxies find means to coopt such young Adepts, but there seems to be a never-ending supply of curious young who ask uncomfortable questions and aren't always to be satisfied with the old answers and received wisdom.  As long as the means to the Mysteries remain the monopoly of the hierarchy the heterodox can be controlled fairly easily; but once the means escape the control of the certified Priesthood a whole new ballgame develops, in which people who are not members of the Priesthood can directly experience whatever Ultimate Truth there may be.


There are points at which the parallel is unsatisfactory, but also a number where the picture is accurate enough to give one pause.  In any case, the process of evolution of the Computer within North American society has taken some significant leaps within the last decade as a result of a change in the accessibility of computers themselves.  Formerly the capital-intensive nature of the technology restricted it to universities, governments, the military and large corporations; a Sacred Priesthood makes a pretty accurate description for those who had access to the devices themselves, although a sizeable population of altar boys, handmaidens, acolytes, flower arrangers, vergers, janitors and deacons was also necessary to their proper functioning.  All that changed as technological developments in miniaturization of components vastly reduced the cost of Computes and made it feasible for a person to build a computer from scrounged and scavenged parts; Freiberger and Swaine's Fire in the Valley details a version of the process that eventually produced the Apple computer and thus made home computers available to a mass market.  What is most astounding about the process is its rapidity: a decade ago a small number of hackers were experimenting in garages; five years ago Apple, Commodore, Radio Shack and others had clearly established a mass market for microcomputers; presently all sorts of people have found that they can't live without their microcomputers.  It is difficult to identify any precedents for this rapidity in human technological history, and this is at least in part why social scientists seem not to have caught on yet.  What seems to be the direction or trajectory or tendency of the evolutionary process at one point in time may seem very different a year or even a few months later.  Likewise, "state-of-the-art" equipment is outmoded within two years and obsolete in less than five (at least in the sense that new equipment that does things better or faster reaches the marketplace and nudges out "old" equipment).


Whole new sectors of the retail economy have appeared in the last few years as franchises for the supply of hardware and software have proliferated and as mail-order supply houses have sprung up to take advantage of the rapid growth of the market.  Companies are founded and go out of business with bewildering rapidity, such that the list of advertisers in a cult mag like Byte changes spectacularly from year to year; 80 of the 346 in the April 1985 issue were among the 350 in the April 1983 issue.  With this volatility comes a number of recognized hazards; equipment bought one year may be "orphaned" the next when its manufacturer goes out of business, products announced or even advertised sometimes do not yet exist ("vaporware" is the term coined to describe software of this sort), and the phrase Real Soon Now is recognized ruefully as describing products that are not quite yet on the market but just might be along "next Quarter".


The anthropologist can find grist for various theoretical mills amongst the populations of Homo digitalis, but the simple tasks of descriptive ethnography remain to be done before the choicer cuts of the carcase are  apportioned and the less preferable fragments are left to be fought over.  A remarkable number of Murdock's Universals of Culture are manifested within or affected by the computer world, and one may with justification argue that few domains remain blissfully unaffected by the proliferation of microcomputers.  This invasion has not gone unresented and unopposed, and there are many people in the general population of North America who will on principle have nothing to do with the phenomenon, and still more who are for the present content to believe that they can live their lives without the aid of floppy disks and modems.  The latter group is, however, the population from which new suckers are selected every day, and selected by a process that deserves to be analyzed for its insidious inexorability.  A person who one day knows not RAM from ROM suddenly develops symptoms that point to a disease with a clear etiology (realization of the possibility that a microcomputer could solve a specific problem) and passes rapidly through a familiar sequence of stages which inevitably result in Purchase.  The sequence of actions is accompanied by a structure of rapidly elaborating rationalizations, beliefs, illusions and convictions, and the victim is almost wholly unable to keep his mouth shut.  He revels in newfound snippets of knowledge gleaned from magazine advertisements and becomes intensely boring to all who don't share his enthusiasm.  It is interesting to note that the masculine pronoun is quite appropriate here --partly because it is mostly males who succumb to micro fever, and certainly males whose symptoms I am describing.  The forms of the disease in females are a matter for empirical investigation; certainly the format and contents of the cult mags and the whole structure of the marketplace (advertisements, ambience and  operation of stores) marks the world of the microcomputer as Male Territory,  but there is much less inherent in the technology to restrict it to males than in, say, the world of the Automobile.  Indeed, the widespread North American belief that there exist sex-linked genes for keyboard manipulation would seem to give females an advantage in learning to use the microcomputer, but most of the software commercially available is oriented primarily toward activities that are culturally defined as in the predominantly Male domain.  Exceptions to this are such trivial applications of the information-storage and -retrieval capabilities of the computer as recipe files and meal-planning utilities, and such general utilities as word processing and household budgeting packages.  Still, it is clear from even the most cursory examination of computer advertising that women are relegated to a limited set of roles (count the token blacks and token women, and note the conventions of dress, posture and expression); the tried-and-true subliminal merchandising methods that have made America great are at work selling Hard Disks and Soft Ware to predominantly male customers.


Because of traditions of cross-cultural comparison and focus upon the nexus between belief and behaviour, anthropologists have a unique perspective on human capabilities and foibles.  Activities and conceptions that are taken for granted and seem mundane and prosaic (or fitting and proper) to members of a culture may serve an anthropological observer as keys to the underlying ethos of the people in question.  Miner's classic Nacirema article (Body ritual among the Nacirema) exemplifies the applicability of this analytical framework to societies with which we are intimately familiar, and it is within the tradition of Naidanac and Nacirema studies that the present research is undertaken.  It seems strange that studies of the complex relationships between North Americans and their technological matrix have not been more common; few realms of human endeavor are better documented than  the development of tools, machines and devices, but we know surprisingly little about what people think about them, or how they perceive their lives to have been changed because of specific technological innovations, or  how they have made accommodations to the presence of new devices.  We have plentiful literatures on the effects of various technologies upon people (children and television violence, rock music and hearing loss, tractors and displaced sharecroppers), but the adaptive side of the relationship seems often to be ignored, and consequently technology is seen as doing something to people.  The alienation implied in this view does indeed have venerable historical precedents and does represent one side of the relation between Man and his creations; often technological innovations have had the effect of lessening the freedom and increasing the oppression of individuals and groups, generally for the benefit of other more powerful individuals and groups.  It was this oppression, more than the machines themselves or the ingenuity that produced them, that provoked the wrath of the Luddites who smashed textile machinery in 19th century England.  It is important to evaluate any technological innovation in terms of its benefits and its costs, in both the long run and the short run; innovations that liberate energies and magnify opportunities are more likely to merit support than those that are merely profitable to their producers.


(this piece goes elsewhere)Entry into the microcomputer world is a process that commonly takes months and is fraught with Mysteries and pitfalls.  The neophyte must tread a narrow and dangerous path between the first impulse to "get a computer" and the actual purchase of hardware; there is much to know and either no place or too many places to learn the essentials.  Caveat emptor is essential advice, but the buyer is in a perilous situation compounded of his own hopes, illusions and desires.  There   are few disinterested but informed parties to assist, and many predatory vendors (often ill-informed) whose main interest is in moving product in a volatile marketplace.  The consequence is that some buyers find they have made wrong decisions in hardware or software or both, and many find that they can't quite do what they thought they were buying the wherewithal to accomplish.  This disability is partly a matter of the buyer's limited understanding of his own needs and capabilities, but also significantly a consequence of the sales tactics of and the level of post-purchase support available from vendors.  A variety of enterprises has sprung up, purporting to be in business to help people learn to use particular software packages by means of workshops, videotapes, and computer tutorials.


(this piece also goes somewhere else) Involvement with microcomputers is at once a solitary and a social activity; a devotee may spend hours incommunicado, staring at a screen oblivious to howling children and ringing telephones and seemingly in a world of his own making until a power failure or call of nature breaks the spell.  And yet what appears a solitary perversion is paradoxically a highly social activity: the devotee is mystically joined to thousands of others, known and unknown, who are using the same brand of machine or running the same software.  Again we have here a phenomenon with few precedents in technological history, although mutual participation in mass-media events like television viewing and radio listening are appropriate parallel cases.  What makes these activities "social" is the fact that people discuss them with one another --just as "Who Killed J.R.?" and "War of Worlds" and afternoon soap operas and the Kennedy assassinations linked people after the fact, WordStar and DBaseIII and Zork and PacMan users exchange information with one another when they meet and discover their common passion.  In much the same sense owners of Apple computers or Epson printers have information that is of significance to one another but to no one else; sometimes such links are formalized in "Users Groups" (some of which may even meet in face-to-face interaction) but often meetings are casual and may even be virtually anonymous, as when paths cross on networks or bulletin boards.  The details of these various venues for "social" interaction are a separate topic, and here I will only note that all those who are, for example, in thrall to Big Blue have interests in common even if they are not personally realized.   The legal profession recognizes this form of social relation in the twentieth  century phenomenon of the Class Action Suit, but it is less formally indicated  by such shibboleths as bumper stickers sporting the legend "I'd Rather Be Zorking" and Apple lapel pins. 


(and another) The empirical beginnings of research on North American microcomputer culture must address a number of questions on a continent-wide basis: who buys microcomputers? what do they do with them? what common experiences have they undergone in the passage from neophyte to User?  Some of the basic descriptive information seems readily available in the form of marketing profiles, and the advertisements in computer magazines are fairly clearly geared toward a narrow market, essentially middle class and male.  But just what people do with their computers is less easily ascertained, and what and how they think about them is still more obscure except for such fugitrivia as anecdotes and Letters to the Editor in cult mags.  Once the dimensions of variation are understood it might be possible to treat the array of mags as a corpus for content analysis, but it is important to recognize that there is great variety in knowledge and sophistication within the population.  Furthermore, the whole domain changes very rapidly indeed and generalizations made at one point in time about the state of knowledge or development of persons or groups are unlikely to remain true for as long as six months.  Just who is best equipped to attempt to disentangle the empirical and theoretical problems posed by the Microcomputer Revolution is likewise an interesting question.  Nobody knows enough of the right things to comprehend all of the relevant universe of people and data.  Insiders to the worlds of Programming or Hardware have insufficient perspective on the problems and viewpoints and expectations of the vast numbers of tyros who are just beginning to learn about computers, and beginners must thread their way through jungles of concepts and terminology that have grown up in the last 20 years to deal with new situations and problems that have few precedents.  A researcher beginning at any of the various entry points must learn a new lexicon (indeed, sometimes a whole new language...), only to find that elements of it are not portable from one sector of the Computer World to another.  The problems are remarkably similar to those of an anthropologist making first contact with tribesfolk whose lives and thoughts he or she hopes to distill into a dissertation or ethnography; it is necessary to have a sponsor to help one through the initial mysteries and make the appropriate introductions, and the identity of the sponsor has a lot to do with the perspective that the researcher eventually adopts as his or her own.