Why Anthropology Matters

Rich, Black, and Flunking tells the story of UC Berkeley anthropology professor John Ogbu‘s research into why upper-middle class black students were performing so much worse than other upper-middle class students.

While acknowledging that there were external societal factors that seemed to contribute (i.e., racism), he concluded that, essentially, the problem came from within the culture of the black students, who considered excelling in academia as “acting white.” Also, he saw that, generally, the parents assumed that educating the children was the job of the schools, and were pretty hands-off. (This lead to perhaps the greatest oxymoron, because the parents also were quite distrusting of the school as a white institution. “‘I’m still trying to understand it,’ [Ogbu] conceded. ‘It’s a system you don’t trust, and yet you don’t take the education of your own kids into your hands.'”

Needless to say, this caused a stir, particularly among those who favor pointing the finger of blame at factors beyond their control. It’s shocking and saddening that some of the parents accused Ogbu of simple knee-jerk “blaming the victim” stances, labelling him an “academic Clarence Thomas”… As a graduate of Cal’s anthropology program, I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that any professor of cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley is *exceedingly* aware of all manner of cultural sensitivity, be it race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class etc. etc.

In talking about this article with a friend, he mentioned that he’d recently read Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On,” about the spread of AIDS in the homosexual community in SF, and how the gays similarly were unwilling to accept any responsibility for the situation. Yes, the behavior of the Reagan administration was contemptible, but so is egregious denial.

Another element of Ogbu’s research is a distinction between involuntary and voluntary immigrants. Involuntary immigrants (slave-descended African-Americans, native Americans, Chicanos) don’t perform as well academically as voluntary immigrants. This mitigates some of the blaming of racism — recent African immigrants perform better than African-Americans, though one supposes they’re subject to the same societal racism.

Anyway, read the piece and see what thoughts it spurs.

Relationships and Compromise

Meg writes, “People will tell you the key to any successful relationship is compromise.” This is illustrated by alternating who chooses the movie, which is perhaps the most common example of relationship compromise.

This common belief disheartens me.

Let me address the minor aspect, the movie thing. Should couples feel compelled to see every movie together? Seeing a film alone is not a signal of the end of your love — it’s just a reflection of different tastes. In fact, it can be very liberating. I imagine that goading someone to see a film they’re uninterested in can only lead to a kind of seething contempt. But maybe that’s just me.

On the larger issue of compromise, well, yes, I can see compromise as being very important in relationships where people are thrown together by circumstance — work, politics, air travel, etc. To make the most of the situation, there will likely need to be give and take.

But love? That’s a relationship of choice. Why choose to be in a relationship where you have to compromise? While searching Google for “relationship compromise” mostly returns writing that supports the notion that compromise is a key to success, I found one insightful article that purports the opposite. The author of “Is Relationship really about compromise” argues that compromise “has no place in a relationship built on love, truth and respect.”

Compromise in relationship means to choose to be someone you would not naturally be, for the sake of the relationship. It is giving up being who you really are in the hope of guaranteeing the love of another. Compromise is based on the fear that unless we are somebody different to who we would naturally be, we risk losing love. All we are really risking is losing ourselves.

Contrary to a very popular belief that compromise supports love; the truth is compromise erodes love. When you compromise yourself for the sake of the relationship, very quickly resentment is experienced, not love. Love and resentment are mutually exclusive. They don’t live in the same house; they don’t even live in the same suburb!

I find that statement remarkably affirming.

I think it’s telling that when it comes to friendships, people don’t really compromise. If friends have to extensively maneuver in order to find common ground, they will inevitably drift apart. It doesn’t make sense to hang out with people who won’t let you be yourself. Does it make sense to deny aspects of yourself for the sake of love?

(I suspect Meg never thought her statement would engender such an earnest response. But it’s one of those Things I Believe, and it kinda triggered a chord.)

MMMM! MmmMmMM!

So, in the continuing story about the cease and desist notice with respect to my linking directly to a publicly available store of journal articles, a lawyer told me to

“revise your website as your publication of the means by which you illegally obtained access to our website is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
As you may know, the DMCA imposes both civil and criminal penalties on those
who circumvent or assist others in circumventing technological protection
measures applied to copyrighted works. Our online system is protected
through various authentication methods and your publication of any type of
work-around for others to follow in avoiding having to be properly
authenticated as an authorized user of our copyright protected products and
services is a violation of the DMCA.

So, I’ve “unpublished” my last post. Because the last thing I need to do right now is have arguments with lawyers.

What I found odd, though, is that it’s supposedly illegal to write about a publicly-available workaround. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that instead of linking to a publicly accessible article, I robbed a bank. Now, to the best of my knowledge, it would be perfectly legal to write about the details of how I went about robbing a bank — scouting the place, disarming security systems, etc. etc. People have written about the details of committing crimes forever.

Yet, as this lawyer is having me understand it, it’s not legal for me to write about how I stumbled upon a trove of publicly accessible, though copyright-protected, information, because of the DMCA. Is this true? I don’t know.

I do know this. I just donated $500 to the EFF. I ask that you do something, too.

Ceasing and Desisting.

Peterme.com received it’s first-ever cease-and-desist letter today. The folks at Proquest were none too happy that I pointed out a backdoor to their database.

I’ve decided to take that link down, but I’m also going to tell you how I found it through rather innocent clicking around on the publicly available Web.

UC Berkeley features “Pathfinder”, a web-based search engine for the library’s materials. I am an alumnus of UC Berkeley, and can check out materials from the library, so I occasionally see if they have stuff I want.

I’m doing some research on design issues, and discovered that the Design Management Journal had stuff that I was interested in. So I typed “design management journal” into Pathfinder.

The fourth result, for “Design Management Journal”, is what I wanted. You’ll notice a link to “Selected article text for 2001: link removed due to DMCA Gestapo at ProQuest“.

I clicked on that link, which popped open a new window, and then redirected me to the authenticated ProQuest site. I cut and paste the URL from the address bar, and provided the link.

If you click on the link removed due to DMCA Gestapo at ProQuest link now, you’ll see that they’ve blocked that redirect. So, someone woke up.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about all this. I mean, I like getting stuff for free. Though, I’m also willing to pay for it at a reasonable price (as my burgeoning “Purchased Music” folder in iTunes shows). I also don’t think I should be held responsible for someone else’s thoughtlessness. It’s as if a box of Design Management Journals had been left, open, with no one around.

Since the redirect no longer works, I’ve taken the direct link down — it’s clear now that that door was not meant to be gone through.

Way more about paths at UC Berkeley than you’d ever want to read.

Walking on the UC Berkeley Campus, I saw this:

Hrm. That seems like an odd place to put a barrier. It’s not like there’s a cliff to fall over.

Another angle makes things a little more apparent:

Still don’t quite get it? How about this bird’s eye view, taken 3 years ago, from Kevin Fox’s “Berkeley Paths” photos (gallery no longer on line):

Look in the upper-middle-to-right-hand corner. See how there’s an asphalt path, heading from up-and-right to down-and-left, which is then continued by a dirt path, linking to the bend in the road??

Well, as this new photo demonstrates…

…that path is now gone. So, that barrier was designed to protect the grass.

In a presentation I gave a long time ago on emergent information architecture, I used the first birdseye photo to demonstrate how people will take a planned design and modify it to fit their needs. In the face of this, designers have two choices — allow the modification, or throw up obstacles (God forbid you digress from the original Vision!).

So, the landscape folk at Berkeley, in their foolishness, have chosen the latter. Not that it matters. People, being what they are, simply walk around it…

For shame!

There’s another interesting development. Look at the center of the first birdseye photo, and the bottom-right of the second. In the first, there’s a wide dirt path cutting across the corner. In the second, there’s a darker green patch, showing where it’s been re-sod.

For some reason, Berkeley would rather spend it’s money reinforcing it’s poor landscape architecture with barriers and re-sodding, then recognizing that the paths suggest a valuable will of the people.

Though, this is not always the case. In another part of the campus, diagonal concrete paths were laid where it was clear that people walked, and are still in use:

Pretty soon, Berkeley is going to have to face a new situation:

As you can see, a path is getting worn in across this field, crossing from the top-right to the bottom left (it continues paths already set in asphalt). Will Berkeley choose foolish fascism or opportunistic organicism? Time will tell…

Newsletters worth subscribing to

Ramana Rao’s Information Flow. Ramana was at Xerox PARC, and is now at Inxight, and thinks a lot of smart thoughts about information, information visualization, etc. He’s begun a list of “49 Classics of Information Flow” which promises to be a tasty set of pointers.

Complexity Digest. A mix of super-academic and layperson-accessible links to articles on various subjects dealing with complexity, social networks, evolution, etc. etc.

User Experience Themes, Part I: Craft and Engineering

This past weekend I was asked to speak to a group of graphic designers and art directors about user experience in general, and my work in particular. This opportunity for reflection brought up four recurring themes in my work, themes that pose more questions than offer answers.

Of late, the theme most on my mind is Reconciling Craft and Engineering. A bit back, on a mailing list for information architects, Jesse wrote, “We are artisans, too often trying to get by with the methods of engineers.”

In my experience, we have to be both, and finding the appropriate balance is among the most challenging aspects of our practice. I suppose this is a classic left-brain/right-brain conflict.

My own gut tendency is toward engineering. (Had I not had a miserable experience in learning multi-variable calculus in 12th grade, I could have very possibly become some form of physicist.) I’m most comfortable solving problems through rigorous data gathering and analysis. I seek to understand how people process information so that I can tailor systems to satisfy them. I figure that if I get all the details right, order and meaning will emerge. I’m hesitant to consider any design as “final” that hasn’t been tested with potential users.

In the field of user experience the products we develop must, above all else, *work*. What I mean is that they must function in order to support their users. Before it looks good, before it conveys the latest business direction, before it satisfies the designer’s artisanal desires, the product must enable users to support their tasks at hand. Such a functional approach, by necessity, requires an engineering approach.

When dealing with web user experience, another factor to consider is that no product is ‘finished.’ Unlike other design disciplines where you create a final finished artifact (package, magazine ad, television commercial, industrial design product, etc.), web sites live on, and, so, must be maintained. Maintenance requires an explicit detailing of how the product works, why certain design decisions were made, and tools for keeping it running. This, too, favors an engineering approach.

In fact, I’ve worked at design companies that took an artisanal approach to web site design, where the designers crafted a beautiful solution derived from intuition and their incomparable ability to execute on it. Clients would receive this work, not know quite what to do with it (since they didn’t share or understand the artisanal vision), and would often alter it beyond recognition. In this instance, no one is happy–the agency can no longer point to the work as an exemplar, and the clients feel they spent a lot of money on something that didn’t work for them.

So, for the sake of playing it safe, we assume engineering methods, either from the field of usability engineering (in order to ensure our products will work), from library and information science (relying on accepted practice in the organization of information), and computer science (from database design to human-computer interaction).

Unfortunately those methods lead to overly reductive approaches, wherein you attempt to address every little problem in the system. We aim for solutions the success of which can be easily measured, and this doesn’t take into account the reality of the messineess of the systems we’re creating. We provide a false sense of structure and order on top of what is chaos.

Perhaps most damaging, and what I suspect Jesse was getting at in his statement, is that such reduction limits our ability for insight. For seeing the Big Picture. For making the intuitive leap that will push the design to the ‘next level.’

The logical extreme of this precedence of the engineering approach is that every site looks and operates similarly, because the reductive methods will result in the same solutions. And you’re seeing that emerge across the web, in travel sites, financial services sites, much of e-commerce.

And while it’s been important for sites to achieve that baseline of functionality and usability, we’re reaching a point where it’s imperative that we move beyond that. It’s time to utilize insight to provide a unique engagement for our visitors. Not that we ought to abandon engineering methods. Far from it — we need to figure out ways to merge craft and engineering to provide the greatest satisfaction.