Technology is Culture: Keep it People-Centered

Martha Bird

Chief Business Anthropologist at ADP

Learning Objectives

What happens to people in a world dominated technology? And how can technologists design tools that add value and enhance human capabilities? Cultural change and technological change are not synchronous, yet technology helps shape whole new cultural categories. Data serves as the foundation for these tools, so how can businesses ensure their data reliably connects to human matters? ADP Chief Business Anthropologist Martha Bird shares insights on navigating these cultural shifts, while maintaining the human touch in a digital tech-laden era.

Key Takeaways:

  • Examine impact of technology on people at work

  • Insights on how to keep human connection in tech-centered world

  • Analyze the human nature of data and how it can inform technology design

"Celebrations can be uploaded, our thoughts become threads, and our documents can be retrieved from digital folders and saved to computer memory. "

Martha Bird

Chief Business Anthropologist at ADP


Hi, I’m Martha Bird. I’m looking forward to sharing my observations both humans and technology with you today. I’ve chosen to call it a love story. Although frankly, I could have chosen any number of equally suitable genres—could be fantasy, romance, science fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, crime, thriller, or let’s just say, a mash up of all the above. But as a love story suggests, something is enduring and captivating, and there’s a risk of a fair degree of heart ache. So I’ll stick with with that title in mind.

What about this love story? What am I trying to suggest? What do humans and technology have to say about each other? Can technology tell us anything about humans? What can humans tell us about technology? Why a story? Part of being human is our ability to tell and share stories, and so I’d like to think I’m carrying on a time honored human tradition.

For millennia, people have used storytelling to convey important community information. Where’s the good hunting to be found, where’s the nearest water, what to be afraid of, etc. In this sense, language is widely considered one of the earliest technologies dating back somewhere around 150 to 100,000 years ago. Language and the ability to articulate symbolic thinking through words and art is a uniquely human aptitude. As long as humans have been around, we’ve been telling stories, sharing information, and preserving community knowledge.

So back to the story, the one between humans and technology. Like any relationship, there are ups and downs. Sometimes, it feels right on the mark, and at others, it feels downright off path. Sometimes, in sync, while at other times, annoying or even threatening. Still, it’s a relationship, and one with a history tied to the very foundation of what it means to be human.

So often we think about technology, we associate it with our current historical moment, with a kind of present day modernity. We think about things like smartphones, AI, data clouds, and social media platforms, and a host of other digital technical inventions with which we engage with daily. While these are certainly technological, it’s interesting to consider that humans have been inventing technologies for hundreds of thousands of years.

I want to share with you some of the ways humans and technologies intersect. In doing so suggests how these intersections continue to shape questions around what it means to be human, both in and out of love with technology. Humans have been around for about 300,000 years, and our inventiveness is foundational to this history. It’s a history about material culture, about environmental pressures, ingenuity, beliefs, and norms intersected throughout my complex networks of constraints and systemic illusions.

Before I get started into this, I’d like to take a few moments to share a bit about what it means to be a cultural anthropologist, and in particular, one who’s working in industry. I often forget that not everyone, in fact, most people don’t really know what an anthropologist is or what we do. So it’s my hope that some background might be broadly interesting, while also serving as a specific starting point from which to start.

At the most fundamental level, a cultural anthropologist honors the lived realities of people. We honor the different contexts that people occupy and the different beliefs, ways of articulating these beliefs, and norms and ways of living that people practice. We attempt to learn from the point of view of the insider, from the locals. We work hard to suspend our assumptions, and all the stuff that we we ourselves take for granted. We look for patterns in everyday lived realities, and we highlight these patterns out of a genuine commitment to demonstrate that while there are many things that make us different, there are also things with which we share as part of our common humanity.

As a cultural anthropologist working in a business setting, my approach to understanding people hasn’t changed. I remain fascinated by the many and varied ways different groups of people go about making sense of their lives. I do this by spending time in the places where people make meaning. For instance, as a business anthropologist for ADP, I’m particularly interested in how people make meaning with the tools that they use within the context of that use. In our case, it’s primarily HCM digital tools. I observe how different groups within an organization use language, for instance, how a marketing or sales professional speaks, and how both might differ from an HR professional, who speaks differently from a technologist. It is this kind of local knowledge that ultimately leads to products and services that actually fit into people’s lives the way that they live them.

So we do a fair degree of listening and learning and ask questions. In doing so, and being curious, being respectful, being self reflective, and being attuned to patterns, it is our intention to come away with a richer understanding than when we arrived. Understanding born of collaboration, reciprocity, and the generosity of the locals willing to share their time and knowledge.

As anthropologist Clifford Gertz put it, we as anthropologists do a lot of deep hanging out. I know that sounds pretty sweet deal. It is, but it’s not just hanging out and hoping something comes up. Basically, it’s an opportunity for us to go into the field, and see how things are actually done without it being in a formalized setting where you have questions and answers. We’re basically spending time in the places where people are doing what they’re doing without interfering with that, but also, participating in some instances. So we get a better vantage point from where to see what’s really going on, and we see it out of the corner of our eyes. We’re better able to see things at the periphery.

We’re often, in my experience, this is where the richest insights really come into focus. It’s both a mindset and a way of life. I love it. I feel deeply privileged to be able to have this as my vocation. Plus, I love tools and I love ingenuity. Some of this may come from the fact that I helped run a seventh generation family farm for about 15 years where generational thrift meant that we had a lot of old tools kicking around that we had to put to good use.

Humans have been making tools for a very long time almost as long as we’ve been around. For instance, in this case, we made things like these arrowheads from—this is data from around 10,000 BCE. Arrowheads like this one are characteristic of a time when humans began to settle down and start to raise crops instead of relying exclusively on hunting and gathering. So tools are a large part of the invention of culture. The ability to turn soil more effectively, sharpening implements, make storage containers, all tweak to a single truth, and that is humans invent things to enhance their physical capabilities in order to get stuff done.

Just today, smartphones store or memories, and Google Maps help us to get from place to place and robots perform both fine and heavy motor skills. As species, we continue to find ways to extend ourselves physically as well as cognitively in order to address environmental challenges, so we adapt. I’m reminded of my mother who became accustomed to her iPad in her mid 70s out of a desire to stay connected with her family. I think back, with great fondness, on the occasion when we were video chatting, and I surprised her with with a visit. She was on our iPad, and I was on my smartphone. When it came into the room, as she thought it was upstate actually, she thought when she’s speaking to me, I was in New Jersey where I was living at the time and she was in New Hampshire. She said, “Oh, I’m afraid to close the Skype machine for fear you might disappear.” Yes, we all learn new things. It’s quite amazing when you reflect on.

This simple apparatus, which many of you may know, is an abacus. It’s thought to have originated in present day Iraq around 5000 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of the ancient calculating machine dates back actually to Greece around the fifth century BCE. So just as symbolic language is used to share stories and tools to improve our physical capacities, humans have also been keen to count and calculate to keep account of people objects, animals, debts, and credits.

I remember recently showing a teenage friend some carbon paper that had been hidden away in an old filing cabinet. He had no idea what it was because his point of reference is digital, not analog. Even a filing cabinet is pretty obsolete at this stage in the game. How many of you have seen videos of toddlers swiping magazines in order to turn the page thinking was a touchscreen? Things change. I mean, actual material stuff changes, how we engage with our world and what is possible to imagine, and what counts as knowledge changes along the way, too.

As humans, we have an affinity for keeping records and storing information. The tools have clearly changed, but the impulse seems fairly foundational. For instance, this 3000 year old Papyrus, which served as a record of an official inspection of the royal tombs of Pharaoh Ramses IX made it possible to capture what would otherwise be lost if left to human memory. Not to mention creating a dataset that one could refer back to should something go missing or something be forgotten. In some respects, its function is not dissimilar from our smartphone applications, which help us keep digital lists that we can retrieve when our human memory bank has met full capacity.

Of course, comparing a 3000 year old tune record with a smartphone as soon as all sorts of gross oversimplifications that the intention is to make an even broader point that humans have continually sought ways to enhance their physical capabilities, and do so by evolving technologies to help them. Of course, comparing a 3000 year old tomb record with a smartphone assumes all sorts of gross oversimplifications. But the intention is to make an even broader point—that humans have continuously sought ways to enhance their physical capacities. So we evolve technologies to help us do so with consequences that are both planned and unintended.

Along with telling stories, augmenting our physical selves, counting, and recording stuff, humans have instituted methods for keeping an eye on other people. Fear, threat, and control from the pillar of technologies for surveillance. Algorithmic technologies, unlike the watchtowers of yesterday here, are designed to predict in advance who is seen and not seen, who is counted and not counted, who gains advantages and who does not. Thankfully, the data and data collection methods employed are being examined more critically, but there’s still much to be done in this area. For those of us committed to a more just world, we need to continue to educate ourselves on the human factors that directly and materially impact how data is corralled, interpreted, and leveraged.

I really like this image, because for me, it illustrates how our material culture, the stuff around us frames how we experience our lived environments. Think for a moment about traveling by train. You buy a ticket, you find your seat, you might look out the window with the landscape quickly passing by, you might be reading a book, you might be talking on your phone, you might be doing last minute work, avoiding the person next to you, or maybe making small talk and eventually arrive at your destination. All these practices and people exert an influence on your ideas around travel and your experience of it.

Riding in a horse drawn carriage, on the other hand, promises an entirely different set of experiences. The sound of the horse as it pulls you along, the speed in which you traverse the landscape, the stops and starts, the feel of the reins in your hands, the embodied immediacy of this mode of transportation, and the various cues implicit in it helps shape your understanding of travel.

Now, think about this. How many smartphone numbers can you actually remember? How do you feel when you lose mobile navigation? When was the last time you pulled over and asked someone for directions? When travel becomes simply a starting point and an end point to pin drops on a smartphone screen, what becomes of all the places in between? So yes, technology and perception of what is normal, our companions, cultural change tends to move relatively slowly compared to the exponential development of new technologies. The two are not synchronous.

For example, the human need to connect with family has remained consistent over the millennia. However, how we go about doing so has continued to change as technologies have evolved. Shifting notions around togetherness, personal space, celebration, and mourning are informed by new ways of communicating. Celebrating the first steps of a grandchild via video call is one such example how being there together has been changed through technology. I mean, just as ideas of travel, productivity, logistics, time, and efficiency have been influenced by machines like the steam engine, or think about concepts like privacy and rhythms of the day and how those changed with the advent of the incandescent light bulb.

Enter the digital, and we began to understand people as networks and information as links. Celebrations can be uploaded, our thoughts become threads, and our documents can be retrieved from digital folders and saved to computer memory. Then, we have data driven technologies that are heavily network like this cloud based factor. I mean, the story that can be told about agriculture are truly stories about hundreds of thousands of years of humans on the planet. I’m reluctant to bring it up here knowing that the topic really is deserving of a much thicker description, still a risk reductivism and offer a few observations in the hopes that these might pique your curiosity to learn some more.

I find this image extremely evocative. This is a cloud based computing and predictive analytics machine, a high tech tractor used today in precision agriculture. If you’ve ever driven through places like Iowa or Mississippi in the past few years, you might have seen one. In sheer size alone, it’s quite something. As a former farmer myself, I’m more accustomed to the intimate scale of a 30 acre family farm and a sizable, but not a gigantic tractor like this. This has gotten me to wonder how those farmers who had always plowed the fields with horses felt when steam and then gas powered tractors made the scene toward the end of the 19th century. Did they fall in love with this technology? Did they spurn it or was it more of a mixed bag?

Improved engineering during this period, during the 19th century, enabled the plow to move through the ground with greater ease, allowing farmers in North America and Europe to switch from walk behind oxen teams to sulky pulled by two horses. The rate of work accomplished in a day tripled from something like two acres to seven. So there was some love there in terms of productivity gains alone.

Now, jump ahead a few hundred years. Many large scale agra businesses—I’m talking farms with 12,000 acres—now rely heavily on sensor based data driven equipment. They rely on IoT, AI, ML, computer vision technologies, and of course, excellent connectivity. These multimillion dollar bundles of advanced tech to everything from alert the operator to when to water, to how much to fertilize, the ideal soil composition, where to target insecticides, predictions on crop value all from a computer in an office at a location typically miles from the field.

Of course, a lot had to change, had to accommodate these large pieces of technology. In fact, fields need to be arranged in grids. They must be relatively uniform with ample room for turning in order for the tractor to do the things that it needs to do. Farmers need to know how to interpret the data generated by hundreds of sensors. Food logistics and delivery infrastructures get on the network. Eventually, the whole thing doesn’t see, much like farming or the farmer many of us imagine. The farmer is a technologist and the definition of land itself changes to reflect an emphasis on the intensive production commodity crops using highly targeted practices.

There’s a lot to be said for these developments. Those adopting these technologies cite more responsible land stewardship, greater yields on wetland, less waste, and less environmental impact. What interests me though, is how technologies like this tractor have contributed to a reimagination of the meaning of farmer, farm, and land. So yes, technologies in humans are deeply interwoven.

There’s a great deal of creativity and critical rigor being devoted to ensuring future generations of advanced technologies serve all humans better and with more equitable outcomes. Diverse perspectives born of diverse life experiences and backgrounds are required to ask the kinds of questions necessary to work towards fair practices. Algorithms are designed by humans, and as such, we should be able to take them apart, turn them around and ask, “What’s going on here?” In today’s data driven era, the ability to interrogate how data is collected by questioning why it was collected in that way, and how it will be used is key.

This isn’t about the math behind algorithmic predictions, but it is about who is doing the counting, who is counted and who is not. As these data dependent predictive technologies continue to proliferate across all aspects of our lives, as a society and as individuals, we must become more literate in the practice and practical workings of how data is used and why. Like any relationship, it’s important to talk things out. Let’s not lose the humans when we do that.

I thank you for your time. I’m deeply appreciative of being able to share my perspective with you. I hope you all take good care.

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