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Notes on the 13th digital ethnography reading (Takhteyev 2012)

August 22, 2016

Update 9 Sep 2016. @Liberationtech wrote: Why Silicon Valley is having trouble exporting its best practices https://engineering.stanford.edu/news/lost-translation-can-silicon-valley-export-its-best-practices

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Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

Notes by Tresa LeClerc
Non/fiction Lab and Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC), RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

In the August 2016 Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS), we discussed the introduction to Yuri Takhteyev’s book Coding Places: software practice in a South American city entitled ‘The Wrong Place.’ The chapter starts with a question “Why would you come from California to Rio de Janeiro to study software developers?” The group agreed this was a highly intelligent, well-written introduction to Takhteyev’s research. At times trained anthropologists can get paralyzed with the weight of the tradition, but he seems to be both aware of it and depart from it. Takhteyev showed an excellent balance between what he said about himself, his context, which was Brazil, and the theory. Several talking points were discussed in depth:

  1. Centre vs. periphery
  2. Ethnomethods
  3. Language in Coding

Centre vs periphery

Takhteyev’s research brings back the concept of knowledge being centralised as opposed to peripheral. His study takes us to Rio and centres in Rio, and how they have created their own niche in knowledge production. He discusses how culture is disseminated and thus brings back in the concept of diffusion rather than assimilation. Anthropology abandoned diffusion in the face of Malinowski’s fieldwork focus, and began to look at local ideas and cultures rather than cultural hierarchies. One problem could be the difference between dispersed practices and integrated practices. Takhteyev’s discussion of practice is quite general in the context of ‘worlds of practice.’ It is not clear that worlds of practices will travel better than single practices, which can diffuse more easily than an entire world. Is it even possible to have a global world of practice?

Ethnomethods

‘Ethnomethods’ was an interesting point in this introduction. Takhteyev learns, from within, things that work and don’t work within the Rio coding community. There is a point where he understands that the interviews aren’t giving him the full picture. He then starts running his own project on the Wiki, making himself useful to coders. After, there is a turning point where he becomes useful, a form of active participation, which provides him “with a partial solution”. It is interesting that he notes it is not complete access. We discussed this in relation to fieldwork and the way we understand things, first as researchers and then as participants. One of the group brought up the analogy of driving. “Until you become a driver,” he said, “it’s very mechanical. Then there is a point when you’re not thinking about it too much. Once you know how to do it, it’s very hard to bring up to consciousness,” noting that fieldwork can become more difficult to articulate once you get it. Following on from this, the argument that different types of engagement bring different kinds of knowledge was brought up, with the example of the Arab Spring and how the people that were on the ground did not know exactly what was happening because they were in a specific place, though the political scientists monitoring the situation had access to a range of sources of information and made different predictions. Thus, we discussed the differences between insider information, which runs the risk of being bound by empathy, and outsider information, with access to the big picture. As researchers we need to balance our empathy, for the experiences and perspectives of our informants, with other considerations such as other viewpoints and long-term consequences.

Language

Perhaps the most lively discussions of the meeting were sparked by the issue of language within Takhteyev’s observations of the coding community. Takhteyev not only learned Portuguese in the course of his research, but also the coding language. Lua, the program used by the coders in Rio, primarily uses English. However, the group wondered if this was representative of the entire coding community. Is all coding in English? If you read Kelty (2008), who talks about the global software movement and cultural significance of free software, you get the impression that this is global, that this ‘global community’ speaks English. Yet this is not true, nor is this discussed with reference to place (as far as we’ve read). This has reference to California being or considering itself to be the center of digital production and knowledge. Investigations and discussions, after the session, established that it appears to be true that majority of programing language use English syntax and keywords. Like, however, a number of other languages developed in non-English speaking countries, Lua has a smattering of the local language, i.e. Portuguese words. English may be the lingua franca, but non-English linguistic exchanges go on in smaller local developer circles. The danger is that this linguistic code-switching and -mixing goes on routinely can be overlooked when considering the wider uses of code.

Conclusion

We concluded that it would be interesting to read the book itself rather than just the introduction. We wanted to know more about the global world of practice, and the extent to which English influences communication in diverse situations across spaces and cultures – what does this mean for political worldmaking?

References

Kelty, C. (2008). Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2016 10:02 am

    Great write-up, thank you!

    Just to add a note, this book refers to an open source application. Open source coding culture differs from start-up and corporate software development in many ways, including political, social, and technical. The open source community and culture have very specific values that connect all of their projects. That’s where the language discussion may have sprung from.

  2. Sharon permalink
    October 3, 2016 4:44 am

    Also, now beyond what I wrote about open source culture – I’m just rereading a friend’s article on Postcolonial Interculturality and it resonated as relevant to this discussion. In it (link below), Irani & Dourish contend that their interpretation of postcolonialism, “as an approach to thinking about how local practice operates in contemporary transnational contexts affected by histories, relations, and logics of colonialism”, allow the understanding that people always have disparate contexts and epistemologies informed by histories. As applied to team formation and intercultural communication within the technology industry, thinking about differences and layers of cultural classifiers is prudent as “nobody represents a pure national culture.”

    http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/1500000/1499268/p249-irani.pdf

    This postcolonial perspective is useful in reference to this article in that one must be rethink questions around what makes a ‘Rio de Janeiro software developer’ and how one would communicate as such in a global open source software project.

    Got me thinking, anyways! 🙂

    Cheers.

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