Monthly Archives: May 2007

Haitian haunts

This Friday, I went to see the new Danish documentary, “Ghosts of Cité Soleil“, by Asger Leth, son of famed Danish film director, Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary about the gangs of the slum town called Cité Soleil on the outskirts of the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince.

These heavily-armed street thugs are called the ‘Chimeres’ in French which roughly translates as ‘ghosts’ and it was through the raw force provided by these gangs that former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sought to maintain his rule until the riots in February of 2004 forced him to flee the country.

The film follows two brothers, Bily and 2pac, who are also leaders of rival branches of the Chimere, through their daily lives up until the riots which also threaten to pull their lives apart. It is absolutely incredible to see how closely Leth has been allowed to depict the gang leaders and their surroundings, and how they are extremely honest with him and the camera throughout.

It is hard to believe that it is a documentary considering the action-pace and the military-grade weaponry that they show off. The motion of the camera feels very much like a person’s point of view, moving back and forth, being distracted and surprised. And the editor has done a marvellous job of connecting these frayed images into a coherent and fast-moving whole.

The film reminded me a fair bit of the film “City of God” – a fictitious film which similarly describes the everyday gang life and history of a Rio de Janeiro slum district called Ciudade de Deus. Interestingly, the two directors behind that film had made a documentary about gang violence in Rio previous to filming the fictitious piece, connecting the fiction with reality more closely than most people can appreciate.

“Ghosts of Cité Soleil” makes much the same connection, as you are constantly reminded of all those various Hollywood action films with ever-so cleverly coreographed violence – the only difference here is: This one is real.

Poetry which pretends to be scientific

I began with physical anthropology. I was taught how to measure the size of the brain of a human being who had been dead for a long time, who was all dried out. I bored a hole in his skull, and I filled it with grains of polished rice. Then I emptied the rice into a graduated cylinder. I found this tedious.

I switched to archaeology, and I learned something I already knew: that man has been a maker and smasher of crockery since the dawn of time. And I went to my faculty adviser, and I confessed that science did not charm me, that I longed for poetry instead. I was depressed. I knew my wife and my father would want to kill me, if I went into poetry.

My adviser smiled. “How would you like to study poetry which pretends to be scientific?” he asked me.

“Is such a thing possible?” I said.

He shook my hand. “Welcome to the field of social or cultural anthropology,” he said. He told me that Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were already in it – and some sensitive gentlemen as well.

From Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971
(taken from p. 201-210 of the book “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons”, good parts of which I give warm recommendation).

Anthropology careers

This Friday I went to the old Department of Anthropology’s annual Career day. This is where old anthropology graduates return to their alma mater to tell soon-to-graduate students about life outside the university. In the so-called “real world”.

The study advisors arranging the event had set the minimum attendance to ten, and required all participants to confirm that they would be there. They got precisely ten confirmations, and the show went ahead as scheduled, yet on the day we were only five hopeful students present to receive the pearls of wisdom from the anthropologists who had fashioned careers for themselves outside of academia. And since there were 8 anthropologists giving short presentations, there were actually more people giving presentations than there was to listen to them. Apparently, budding anthropologists aren’t that keen on a career in the “real world” these days…

But the few of us who were present were treated to a lot of good insight on how to present the anthropological craft to people who know little of such matters, yet are in positions to hire you to work on interesting things. Here I’ll present the insights of each presentation, but in nowhere near the original order of appearance. Mostly because I think it makes better sense in this way.

The old career paths
Inger Merete Hansen is now close to 60, and has spent 30 years working as a teacher and, until recently, a consultant on multicultural issues in Danish primary schools. She began studying anthropology in 1966, when there were very few anthropology students at the University of Copenhagen. But as the discipline grew in popularity during the late 60s, Inger began teaching undergraduate classes, among them later well-knowns such as Kirsten Hastrup, while taking her post-graduate courses, and she says that the best way to learn anthropology is to teach it.

She finished her degree in 1974, and wanted to go on teaching, but at that time, the only jobs available to anthropologists were low-paid positions in academia or at specific museums. Instead, she decided to combine her anthropology degree with primary school teaching, slowly fashioning her career around the meeting of cultures in the Danish school system. Anthropology gave her both a method and outlook which proved vital to her work, especially in order to work against the heavy-handed and indirectly racist school bureaucracy and work towards new ways of integrating immigrant children into the Danish society.

User-driven innovation
Kirsten Becker is employed by the Department of Anthropology as an enabler of sorts. She works to build relationships between the department and the “real world” outside. The department has found out that people in the real world has begun to take notice of anthropology and what it has to offer, and it is her job to showcase those capacities as best as possible.
She refers to a recent radio interview with Jørgen Rosted, the leader of the Danish government’s council on Innovation, who argues that technology on its own won’t be enough to make Denmark a successful player on the global market in the future. Rosted calls for user-driven innovation, arguing that we need to understand the depth of people’s actions and the inconsistencies inherent within these in order to improve on our daily lives. And vital to such an effort are qualitative disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.

Kirsten grins at this, but says that it’s quite true: Anthropology is being hyped at all of the conferences on innovation these days. “Before, nobody really paid attention when I spoke at conferences, but now everybody shushes and listens to every word. Being an anthropologist is like being a shaman – the industry thinks we have some secret magic they need. My job is to maintain that impression.” Another grin.

Her finest success story of showing the industry how they can use anthropological analysis and knowledge, is Coloplast, the Danish producer medical supplies, most notably the stomi bag. Kirsten initiated a test collaboration between the company and the university researchers, using ethnographic interviews to gather data on how typical patients use their stomi bag. And they broke new ground in showing that even though the patients say everything is fine, there are still situations where the bag can be improved. Now Coloplast is actually looking to hire anthropologists to integrate this perspective in their design work.

Talking to users
Camilla Kehlet is a (lone) qualitative consultant with the Danish branch of MediaCom, a big media agency which helps companies to communicate with their customers – not only figuring out who the customers are, but also how they best can appeal to them. It is an industry which has been dominated by quantitative statistical data, but now they are starting to focus on the latest hot thing, called “Consumer Insights” – or basically, qualitative, personal, empathic data. When she applied for the job, she had to convince the recruiters that an anthropologist actually would be able to perform such tasks, and, as she says with a tired smile, she has entered a very different world. One in which she spends much of her time explaining what her work is about and how she wants to do it, convincing all of the business school people in the company that the qualitative stuff is not just some gloss to be sprayed on a survey, but something useful in its own right.

“Who are you? What can you do? What do you want? What relevant work can you do for us? What relevant work can you do for our customers?”

Those are the questions she meets every day, and though it is hard work to convince all those MBAs to allow her to do more than just focus group interviews. But her ideas are growing on them, much to her satisfaction. She points to other leading lights within the field of corporate anthropology, such as Microsoft’s Anne Kirah as her inspiration and proof that anthropology can become a central part of industry practice.

Working on your own
Many anthropologists spent a long time studying and have grown accustomed to the freedom and open-endedness of this way of life. This often leads them to start out with their own small consulting businesses. Anders Dahl and Susanne Branner Jespersen have both done so, continuing in the thematic veins of their fieldwork, one has specialized in sex and gender issues following a fieldwork among male prostitutes, the other in conflicts and conflict resolution following a fieldwork in civil-war torn Guinea-Bissau. They write articles, do consulting work, arrange seminars, hold talks, teach the odd university course and generally keep enough projects going and keep themselves open to new opportunities to live off of it. It’s good work, but somewhat difficult to separate from their private lives. Anders’ main point of advice was: Get a good accountant.

Consulting – the dissection of data
Jakob Stoumann has gotten both of his two full-time consultant jobs to date by sending in applications on advertised positions. He has found that he uses anthropological methods constantly, but most important in his work is being able to get an overview of a lot of data, pull out the essentials and focus on that – especially with regards to writing fieldwork proposals. He has found that when consulting companies bid on various assignments offered by various institutions, what they submit is very much like a fieldwork proposal: Summing up the relevant literature on the field, suggesting methods to be used, making a budget… in short: Designing a project, an outline for further work. Quickly developing such an overview over a given field is essential for this sort of consulting work, and having been designed and undertaken his own thesis fieldwork has prepared him for what would otherwise have been a very daunting task.
As Inger Merete Hansen put it, “anthropology prepares you so that you aren’t scared at having such a giant animal in front of you, while you consider how you best go about dissecting it.”

More personality than paper
Anne Weber is in the curious position of working as a recruiter, and she gave general advice about what to consider when applying for jobs as an anthropologist. She argued that anthropology is just as much a way of personal development as it is an academic discipline. This is because we invest ourselves so much in our work, learning new ways of being present, of observing and of being surprised. Indeed, our “professional curiosity” which helps us wonder at situations others take for granted is our prime quality as anthropologists. It allows to build bridges between otherwise separate life worlds while at the same time positioning ourselves politically and academically within that field.

Thus, for an anthropologist, it is much more a matter of personality that it is about grades and recommendations when applying for jobs in the real world. It is all about whether you and your personality is a match for the organization where you are applying for a job. Thus, when applying for a job, you should write about who you are – not what you can do (because at first, you can’t do anything relevant anyway).

And you shouldn’t just tell about how nice a person you are – you need to show it. Show not only what you can offer, but also what you are looking for in a job. Use your resume to support this by listing activities that show that you have interest in the things that say you are interested in (as Anders Dahl said “I can easily present my life so as to make it look very purposeful!”)

In short: You need to burn through: Make yourself the obvious choice based on who you are.

Creating your own job
Susie Skov did this in a different way, since the jobs she wanted weren’t on offer. Instead, she went directly to the organizations where she wanted to work and started building networks around them. Investing herself in them through volunteer work and meeting the people she wanted to work with. In the end, she ended up going straight to them and saying: “I’m passionate about this work [work with young 2nd generation middle eastern immigrants in Denmark] – how can I get a job working with this?” And she ended up getting a job based on her prior commitment, and her ability to raise funds for the projects she had been involved with.

Representing anthropology
Through-out the career day, we heard lots of refrains. On the importance of anthropological reflection, on presenting yourself through what you do and who you know. But the most repeated and probably most important refrain was not to accept the category of the all-knowing expert by offering instant analysis and easy solutions which would be sure to disappoint people (eventually, at least), and instead do what anthropologists do best: Not offer up some shrinkwrapped solution, but saying “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know how to find out.”

Making left wing politics work

My recent post on Simplified Politics was inspired by a Thomas Sowell quote sent to me by my friend Kristian:

The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.

Now Kristian claims me as a conservative but actually my point was that neither of these two generalized political ideologies provide a complete match to how “we, the people,” behave. We are both selfish and empathic. Both seeking to better our own fortunes and helping others. We balance these opposite interests in our personal ethics – the choices and actions that we make every day. Politics, on the other hand, is how we balance these ethical interests when we try to live with other people, and the necessary agreements and compromises that come with making such a community work (or not).

What I like most about the Sowell quote, though, is its unadorned self-righteousness. Like any good conservative, he considers left wing politics and says “That’s well and good in theory – but does it work in practice?” And true enough, left wing politics have had a tremendously bad track record when it comes to turning its theories into viable practice.

But following that, I find that the strength of the left wing has never been its theory, which is usually naïve and passionate but nowhere near the thoughtful Realpolitik schematics presented by the right wing (for good or for worse). The left wing excels at its practice, and by extension draws remarks such as “That’s well and good in practice – but does it work in theory?”

And remarkably, it doesn’t have to. I find that when we don’t worry about making reality match our theories, as so many economists do, we can still surprise ourselves at what we’re capable of without being told otherwise. In a way, this is what is happening with digitally reproducible goods such as software, text, photos, music and film – the economics of which are being changed through the various intellectual property licenses which encourage open sharing contrary to the rationale predicted by all those economical theories.

To be fair, these theories all take scarcity as a basic premise, which is intrinsically not the case with digital goods. But it is still so with all kinds of physical goods. So, even if all that good practice succeeds in the digital realm, challenging not only conservative economic theory but also related political theory, the corporations and politics of the physical world will remain untouched and unchallenged.

Thus I’d like to see some way of turning the idea of a corporation up-side down. Usually, corporations only care about making profits for its stockholders, no matter how and likely at the expense of its employees, customers or competitors and with responsibility for any unsavoury actions firmly tied to the company rather than the individuals running it.

Being inexperienced (to say the least) when it comes to corporate law, I wonder if it is possible to invert this typical charter in the same way the GNU General Public License inverted the Copyright into the Copyleft. Would it be possible to institute a corporation which not only consider the interest of those investing in it, but also the interests and rights of anybody working, selling, buying, using or depending on the products of that corporation to such a degree as becoming something akin to an ethical obligation the way it is becoming in the digital realm.

I don’t know if this is simply something akin to the collectives and kibbutzes of yore, or the worker-led factory occupations as depicted in recent films such as “the Take.” I’d like to think that it is more than that.

What I think is needed is a kind of corporation that offers to build a social bond between producer and consumer that can help make production and consumption transparent to both parties, in turn affording a shared sense of mutual responsibility around their work and lives.

Take, for instance, a bottle sun lotion, for instance, as a (average) consumer, you have no idea about how it is made, what happens to it when left in the cupboard for the winter and how it actually protects your skin, yet you still rub it on your skin. Wouldn’t it be nice if you felt you could trust the people making this product enough to tell you the truth about this rather than having to fear that they might have ulterior motives such as seeking to sell as much sun lotion as possible?

I’m sure it would be possible to make such a upside-down corporation work. The problem would be, of course, that it would have a hard time competing with traditionally economic-minded businesses. In that case, I guess it comes down to branding. And I just adore the way a company like Innocent Drinks present themselves. I dare more companies to be so honest.

(and hopefully, the good practices will follow)

Oil addicts

I just came across British comedian and activist Rob Newman‘s show “The History of Oil” – it is an enlightening, provoking and funny view on the role of oil in global politics in the past century and what role it’ll be playing in the future, what with the Crisis in the Middle East, Peak Oil and all those other nasty buzz phrases.

Best of all. there is a highly recommended 45 minute cut of the show freely available for your viewing pleasure.

Hackers and censorship

Yesterday there was something like a tumult going on around a couple of the most popular tech news sites, as Digg, a site well-known for its populistic-democratic moderation system which allows users to vote stories up or down, almost collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of news stories all featuring the same item: The recently discovered processing key used to decrypt the next generation of DVD discs called HD-DVD and Blue Ray.

The key is a simple 16 digit hex number which can be used to remove regional and copy restrictions from the encrypted discs, and is thus easy to reproduce and almost impossible for the DVD-manufacturers to suppress. They had threatened Digg with a cease-and-desist letter to which the Digg moderators duly obliged, removing links and stories that featured the relevant hex number.

This caused the flood of news stories and posts containing the number, not only on Digg, but also on rival news site Slashdot where no such censorship took place. The number soon got its own song, was represented decimally as well as in hex, as a program, as a web site, even as a flag and in any other way that hackers could think of to represent the number in such a way to avoid censorship.

Soon enough, Digg caved in to its users, as founder Kevin Rose explained it:

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you??ve made it clear. You??d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won??t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

Again, this shows how quickly hackers can mobilize to reroute around any kind of censorship. But for me, the most interesting part of this whole affair was that I came across the original forums thread where the processing key was first exposed. If you’re technically inclined, I can only recommend reading a few pages of this to get an idea of the fervour and excitement with which the key was discovered in the first place (and how the key fits in the bigger system of decrypting the next-generation DVDs.