Looking into the Future with Ethnography

Recently, I have become interested in ethnographic research and in the question of how it can be used in the context of design. Introducing ethnographic methods into the design process has some clear benefits, like being able to base design decisions on a more thorough set of insights — for example, by taking the local culture into account. What I’m intrigued by is the possibility of using ethnographic studies as a starting point of designing for the future – or rather designing with the future in mind. The idea is to use ethnography to inform the design process and thereby foreseeing the impact of new technologies or services. Ethnographic studies could provide an opportunity to take a look at the future. I’m thinking of this quote of William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

There is an immense number of ethnographic studies available, that describe a variety of different forms of being and living. The descriptions include people living in tribal communities, in uprising economies or highly technological societies. If we look at states like South Korea or Singapore, which are high on the scale of the digital evolution, we can foresee a lot of the social implications that accompany the spreading of certain technologies. Similarly, we could also look at (online) subcultures, who have adopted contemporary mindsets and practice them in the unrestrained space of the internet. For example, the idea of Open Content has been tested in the web and proven to be a viable model that could be applied throughout different parts of society.

What if we did the user research not with the intended user group, but would look at people in the “future?” The rigor of ethnographic studies allows us to see the lived experience of an (ethnic) group in a complex social, cultural and political context. By differentiating the reasons for a change in society, it should be possible to identify if it really stems from the influence of a new technology or is rather due to the interplay of a new development with the cultural background.

Designing like this is still pretty speculative, but might be a bit more grounded in reality than a purely imaginative, anticipatory design approach. The results might be more suitable for real use in contrast to speculative design, which is often aimed at igniting a public debate. To what extent findings from ethnographic studies can be used in a seemingly unrelated context remains an interesting question. However, through globalization a lot of the cultural boundaries are blurring anyway and many societies are confronted with similar challenges.

Creating a new Narrative
After listening to episode 40 of The Conversation with Mary Mattingly, I thought about the idea of seeing first world countries as a testing ground for new developments. Just like Chile was used as a testing ground for neoliberalism in the 20th century, we could see developed countries as a laboratory for consequences of consumerism or digitization in a society. Thereby, we could create a narrative that frames the path of unlimited growth and blind progress as a failed experiment. The general dissatisfaction and diseases of affluence in first world countries could be seen as a cautionary tale for developing countries. Instead of chasing the wealth and well-being through consumer goods (like the dream of owning your own car), these societies would benefit if they’d skip directly to a more sustainable way of living. A lifestyle that might incorporate the spirit of the maker movement and relies on community, decentralization, and the likes. Ironically a lot of developing countries are currently not far from these ideals out of pure necessity. Not every society has to learn things the hard way and make the same mistakes as other countries in order to provide citizens a good life worth living.

I think this is an important topic, because a big challenge in fighting global warming is convincing huge populations of countries like india or china not to chase after a faulty idea like the “american dream”. “Convincing” sounds very patronizing in this context. Of course, this should not happen through heavy influence of the west, but in a more organic fashion from the inside of these societies.
How this kind of narrative could be created and enter the social imagination is still a big question to me. Maybe through pop culture, or something.

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