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Artificial Intelligence and Ethnography

The Artificial Intelligence Community in Oslo

My fieldwork is multi-sited and stretches across various sites, floating or weaving. My ethnographic approach is in this regard very inspired by the anthropologist Nick Seaver. He suggests ethnographic tactics such as scavenging; textured access; interviews as fieldwork; and parsing corporate wording.

My fieldwork so far as such has been undertaken mainly in Oslo, although I got to visit Bristol along the way. I attended three different conferences: Anthropology + Technology (A+T), Oslo Innovation Week 2019 and Cutting Edge Festival 2019. In addition to this I participated in several hackathons. In participating I am working on my programming skills, however most of my participation so far have been through speaking engagements as such contributing to shaping the narrative and being part of it. I spoke at A+T, at Microsoft’s offices, on TEDxYouth, at a lawtech event; and in the final panel debate on Cutting Edge 2019. As will be mentioned I am undertaking a #500daysofAI personal project writing about artificial intelligence every day for 500 days, as such these can be considered end-of-day notes in an ethnographic context. However not yet very ‘thick’ in description describing adequately the human context. Additionally I joined a selected community online on Facebook relating to artificial intelligence and deep learning.

My motivation to write was instigated by a long engagement with sustainability, youth and entrepreneurship. After a talk with a weapon scientist about autonomous weapons I realised that the development may have adverse consequences on the environment and possibly for humanity as a whole. The current obsession people have with artificial intelligence (AI) made me want to explore it, which ironically led to me being perceived as obsessed with AI. It has been said that anthropologists are interested in studying what people are interested in. I am currently interested in tentatively drawing up questions surrounding artificial intelligence in society. My efforts consist of finding ways to do so. I was originally going to study autonomous weapons, however I did not gain access to this field and was suggested not to do so, which is why I decided to focus on what data is in the context of AI.

I do find the work conducted by anthropologists exploring the digital to be of great value. I think the practical implications of doing fieldwork or ethnography relating to the digital holds a variety of implications. Luckily these new selves and new research ethics (Ess, 2015) are being explored as well as the implications to consent (Elgsem, 2015). Reproducing text quotes from informants when that text can be somewhat easily searched online; how anthropologists have to understand GDPR; what is voluntary consent? These are important questions to consider when attempting to undertake ethnographic fieldwork.

However when conducting this fieldwork I did attempt as well to keep in mind challenging questions of positionality relating to my role as a young white man Norwegian man, especially when this human-computer interaction is dominated by white males and its gendered products (Breslin & Wadhwa, 2018). When I had little to no experience in programming my position was that of a person with an interest. However in the programming community, especially in education, you have to show that you have a personal passion project (Breslin, 2018).

My writing focus so far is more on methods than people. Being interested in what ‘data makers’ are interested may have led to my perception of data in my own writing being reflected by the people that I have met. There are a variety of situations that I wanted to describe more in detail, especially do better to document my own relationship to programming or other informants or “teachers” that I have met in the field. In addition to this I have a sense that my writing is not properly connected to my field notes, participation and interviews. I have far to go towards becoming a better ethnographer.

In December 2018 I sent out emails to several contacts I had in companies working with software solutions announcing that I was interested in artificial intelligence. Since I had knowledge of developments in certain companies I knew a few that had announced online or told me personally they were working on solutions in the field of AI. Having worked previously in a startup (new company) in Oslo as a Chairman of a small communications agency working in property technology I expected answers, however I got few. If I did get any answers they were usually negative, with one person willing to talk. It must be admitted that my email may have been somewhat cryptic. I wrote the following:

“Hello dear fellow human,

If you walk through the central station of Oslo you can see claims of Huawei on large posters telling you how intelligent their products are. Connotations of AI shining in big red letters above. As we look slightly confused upon these screens and crowds pass by we want to understand the fascination beyond the hype with this new technology and how it is influencing our culture or behaviour. Why is this important for Oslo? Who are the people writing the code — the people behind the buzzwords. Who will be leading the teams aspiring to develop Artificial Intelligence here in Oslo? Which international players are at the same time entering our markets and minds?

My name is Alex and I am doing a degree in Social Anthropology with focus on Computer Science. A subfield that interests me is digital anthropology, a study of the relationship between humans and digital-era technology. That is why I am contacting you regarding our upcoming research project […] We will mainly be focusing on ethnographic method with participant observation and semi-structured or unstructured interviews when possible. Do not be alarmed

as this will mainly consist of us visiting during lunchtime, at some events or reading on our coursework while staying in vicinity of your company, project or research group. This would naturally happen on your terms and we are willing to adapt.”email sent out Thursday, Oct 25, 2018, 10:31 PM

It was too strange and with my spark of interest as the only proof it was likely easy in busy companies to say no. Indeed the prospect of having me there may not have been very attractive as an offer at all. Therefore I decided to change this approach, and although I had not read the PhD of Samantha Breslin at the time I suspected my suggestion was outside of the interest within these technology companies and I needed a passion project or engagement that would contribute to letting me explore the field further.

My display of passion has been through my personal project: 500 days of AI, where I write a new article every day about artificial intelligence. This has changed how I negotiate access to my field. However my passion project started up spring 2019 changed to a large degree how I negotiated access to field. I set up an organisation called AI Social Research together with other students and held events. Later towards the summer I began writing articles about artificial intelligence every day, and after 100 days I started getting invited to speak at different conferences and events. Telling other computer scientists or data makers that I had a knowledge of basic programming helped too in this regard, as such ‘knowing the language’ which anthropologists have considered important for some time.

Ethnographic fieldwork at home (Madden, 2010) or at another location than the exotic anthropological destination (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997) is being discussed and seems somewhat accepted locally in Oslo. The wide variety of digital ethnographic work such as described by Gabriella (Coleman, 2010) is not readily available in its methodological approaches to a young anthropologist nor seems to be accepted in the academic circles yet. Especially if we combine the aspects of home, city and digital into one.

I found the article by Nick Seaver helpful in my own ethnographic approach. It could be argued that the approach is pragmatic, but the edited and positioned viewpoint of the ethnographer is too (Haraway, 1988). That is not an excuse, hopefully, rather an observation by a newcomer. I would have liked to study more than human sociality (Tsing, 2013) however I have not been able to grasp this relationship yet. Computers are stones, minerals and such so it is still ‘written in stone’ except data is stored through electronic communication — however the nature vs. culture divide is not a focus of my current writing.

In the journal Big Data & Society Nick Seaver wrote the article Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems. This article was published in a special edition called Algorithms in Culture (Nick Seaver, 2017). He argues that we should instead approach algorithms as ‘‘multiples’’ — unstable objects that are enacted through the varied practices that people use to engage with them, including the practices of ‘‘outsider’’ researchers. This is part of an emerging field of critical algorithm studies.

“Critical algorithm studies — broadly speaking, the application of humanistic and social scientific approaches to algorithms”

There are certainly different ways that we could go about this.

Observing the practices in the field of artificial intelligence online and through conversations with different data makers it is interesting to see how differently this is perceived by computer scientists than by anthropologists. There is additionally a dichotomy of small data and big data where anthropologists may be able to provide value or insight with smaller more understandable ways.

However during my fieldwork I did not manage to practice properly as an anthropologists and got stuck in the perspectives of those who I was observing considering the implications in technology rather than observing actions. I argue in summary that anthropologists can be of value if they falsify assumptions made in ‘big data’ as has been the case previously. Yet anthropologists must consider to learn programming when studying data makers if they want access to field or take part in these activities. One thing is certain: it feels as if I have failed as an ethnographer, however I did learn something valuable along the way and meet some wonderful people.

Breslin, S. (2018). The making of computer scientists: rendering technical knowledge, gender, and entrepreneurialism in Singapore (Doctoral dissertation, Memorial University of Newfoundland).

Breslin, S., & Wadhwa, B. (2018). Gender and Human-Computer Interaction. The Wiley Handbook of Human Computer Interaction, 1, 71–87.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2010. Ethnographic approaches to digital media. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39:487–505.

Elgesem, Dag. 2015. “Consent and information — ethical considerations when conducting research on social media.”, Internet Research Ethics, edited by H. Fossheim and H. Ingierd. Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk, pp 14–34.

Ess, Charles. 2015. “New selves, new research ethics?”, Internet Research Ethics, edited by H. Fossheim and H. Ingierd. Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk, pp 48–76. Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1997. “Discipline and practice: ‘The field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology”, Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, edited by A. Gupta and J. Ferguson. Berkeley: University of California Press. CANVAS

Haraway, Donna J. 1988. Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14 (3): 575–99.

Madden, Raymond. 2010. Being Ethographic: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography. London: Sage.

Seaver, N. (2017). Algorithms as culture: Some tactics for the ethnography of algorithmic systems. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717738104.

Tsing, Anna. 2013. “More-than-human sociality: a call for critical description.”, Anthropology and Nature, edited by K. Hastrup. New York and London: Routledge. Pp 27–43.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 144. I write one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.

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