EPIC 2013: Day 3 – Morning papers

The final day looms on what has been a fantastic EPIC conference. This morning’s papers are taking a different steer, concentrating on where the future of ethnography might be heading.




Eric Arnould, University of BathJulien Cayla, Nanyang Technological University – Consumer fetish: The symbolic imaginary of consumer research

Honestly, I didn’t follow what Eric was talking on, I think I’ve been out of academia too long, so here’s his synopsis:

“Commercial ethnography access the lived experiences of consumer that are constructed as the “others” that firms have to discover and seduce. In organisational contexts where the hyper-centricity of consumer desire and the necessity to accumulate organisational knowledge about markets have become paramount, the figure of the “consumer” has become a quasi-magical object bestowed with the aura of the real, a fetish that comes to stand for the market, and symbolizes the firm’s effective orientation towards the market.”

You can download his paper here. I did however manage to snap this great photo of him.


Jonathan Bean, Bucknell UniversityZeynep Arsel, Concordia University – Understanding mediated practices

Jonathan and his team looked at Apartment Therapy as a tool to try to explore how ethnographers can use online tools to backup qual research. In this case, looking at taste regime of AT and asking themselves: how can we use this blog data to gain insight.

Basically, this sums up apartment therapy's taste regime

Jonathan gained some deep insight by blogging for AT for a year and then used some online tools to pull the data down from the blog. The team used this data to uncover how ‘taste’ could be mapped into analytical categories. They had success by mapping text from the blogs into nouns, verbs and adjectives. This gave them an ‘inventory’ of the taste regime.

DSC02609 DSC02613

The team then gave these data driven results context by doing ethnographic studies with users and found that the blog users had various ways of linking the blog’s posts to their own environments through various rituals:


This was a great example of contextualise ethnographic insights through quantitative data.





Dan Lockton, Flora Bowden, Catherine Greene, Clare Brass, Rama Cheerawo, Royal College of Art, London – People and energy: A design-led approach to understanding everyday energy use behavior Dan spoke about the challenges involved in influencing behaviour change in the public when it comes to energy use. Dan’s message was about the importance of using research when designing behavioural change.


His particular area of interest was smart meters, and the issue that they’ve been designed with very little ‘human input’, after all, how useful is a number on a LCD screen telling you how many watts your using?


Dan’s team took an ethnographic approach to the issue. They worked with them to uncover how they would incorporate energy monitors into their households and their routines.

DSC02649 DSC02653

This human insight showed the team the variety of ways the data would need to be displayed. For instance, a happy or sad face wouldn’t be appropriate for users who have to use a lot of energy for health reasons. The team then tested their potential solutions in ‘living labs’, mock houses where they could conduct controlled tests for their ideas. You can see more about Dan’s project here: http://suslab.rca.ac.uk/ @danlockton

Dr Genevieve Bell Intel, London – Magical thinking Genevieve argued that technology is now at a strange where we build strong relationships with technology. Using the journey from the Furby to Siri to demonstrate how we’ve moved from machines that talk to us, to those which listen to us.


Through the developments in microscopes, the democratization of time through accessible and reliable timepieces, came the death of magic, Genevieve argued that with the renaissance, came a growing fear of the unknown and technology. With this came the first attempts to create life with technology, citing the automatic duck as the first automaton which could (almost) replicated the life cycle of a duck.


After this comes the the application of technology to shift the industrial workforce from a traditional workforce  to a mechanised one. With this came the rise of the luddite movement in England which saw looms being destroyed in factories in an attempt to prevent the growth the mechanised mills. Of course, these attempts were in vain with many luddites being convicted and sent to Australia.


Next Genevieve links the growth of electricity and the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and cites this as the beginning of the trope of: ‘If technology gets too developed, it will try to kill us”. This, Genevieve suggests, was the start of the fear of technology as we know it today. Then came the development of the computer with Babbages ‘first’ computer which Genevieve suggests had its first ‘real’ use at Bletchley Park in World War 2. She then gave an emotional and thoughtful biography of Alan Turing, and then cited his 1950 article “Can Machines Think?” which led to the well know ‘Turning Test’ 

The Turning Test (from Wiki)

The Turning Test (from Wiki)

The question then, Genevieve says, turns to whether machines can feel. Genevieve then took us on a journey to Japan where technology was embraced into society as objects of beauty and delight.


Genevieve showed us the above sign, which shows that Japanese culture isn’t afraid of technology in the same way as can be recognised in Western culture. The sign explains that autonomous robots operate on the road, whereas this could create unease in America. However, electricity’s introduction in America caused great excitement, with people travelling across the country just to see electricity. It was embraced by the population in various guises. After this, Genevieve told us about how Radium began to grow in popularity, even making it’s way into glowing makeup and even radium suppository. Then this ‘luster’ of radium faded, which is a similar journey of many technology cycles. Things are new and exciting, we embrace it, and then we fall out of love with it, as Genevieve says, “the moments of wonder fade”. Genevieve argues that we know why we are scared of technology now, so why can’t we engineer this idea into our designs. We should be creating magic in the products we create.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

The talk concluded with the need for us to keep technology magical and counteract the normal technologists attempts to make things more visible and human (which we know makes people uncomfortable).


Want to learn more? Download the speaker’s papers here

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2 Responses to EPIC 2013: Day 3 – Morning papers

  1. Pingback: EPIC Speakers, help me to help you |

  2. Pingback: Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference | Ethnography Matters

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