Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Association of Senior Anthropologists
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Technology
Secondary Theme: Science
This session approaches cultural transformations originating in the setting of this year's AAA meeting, now known as Silicon Valley. Panelists address the emergence of digital data processing, the use of personal computers, internet communications, the virtual office, and other innovations, linking these new departures to associated changes in livelihoods and lifestyles. Beyond summarizing the purposes, findings, and applications of anthropological research, panelists develop historical understandings by comparing what-we-knew-then and what-we-know-now in regard to the formative phases of the digital revolution. They focus on the distinctive role of our discipline in the cultural creativity of that era, contributing to innovations that also reflect adaptation in the anthropological imagination. While, in many ways, a globalized culture has fulfilled expectations from the early years, panelists consider unforeseen as well as foreseen social consequences and their implications for the future.
Presentations begin with a project at Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1977. Anthropology graduate student interns carried out office tasks as participant observers to help software designers prepare for the transformations personal computers would bring to the “office of the future.” The computer scientists found the reports useful and later employed anthropologists on a long-term basis. The second presenter reflects on a temporary career shift, providing an inside view of the 2-year life cycle of a computer manufacturer. In 1982, after a decade as an academic cognitive anthropologist, he was hired in a start-up company developing early laptop computers, becoming a manager before the company failed financially. This ethnographic experience provided insights about the emergent blend of academic and corporate cultures defining Silicon Valley. Similarly, the third presenter reports on “institutional innovations that made Silicon Valley Silicon Valley,” having left a position as an academic anthropologist to take a job with an AI startup. In addition to the academic and business collaborations, she identifies funding from the U.S. Department of Department funding as a key factor distinguishing Silicon Valley as an initial incubator of high-tech enterprise, with California dreaming contributing to the mystique. The last presentation also describes participant observation that began in the early 1980s, but tracks a think tank research career that has continued on through four decades, mainly at Xerox PARC—the setting of the first case study—and the IBM Almaden Research Center. While she bears witness to dramatic changes in technology “whereby computational devices would come to partner with humans in just about everything we do,” she notes that what hasn’t changed is an abiding belief among the innovators of Silicon Valley in the essential role of technology in enhancing human lives. Thus, the session develops ethnographic perspectives on the history of Silicon Valley, demonstrating the implementation of a distinctive ethos that has been highly influential in shaping the world we live in today.