Kevin Kelly Reading — “Ethnic Technology”

Leave a comment

The first Kevin Kelly reading was quite interesting, it also took me back to the reading of the OCLC Report Sharing privacy and trust in our networked world: A report to the OCLC membership . In this report five countries (USA, France, Canada, Germany and Japan) are looked at and the differences in their social media uptake and use are discussed. The differences between countries was, whilst not astounding, unexpected. In many ways the article “Ethnic Technology” below helps to put some context to those differences.

Ethnic Technology

By Kevin Kelly

It is puzzling why a particular technology does not spread everywhere throughout the world once invented. Why didn’t the plow, for instance, or backstrap looms, or the buttress arch, or any number of thousands of ancient inventions spread to all parts of the world once they had been refined? If they were truly advantageous, why would not their benefits ripple through a culture at the speed of news? After a century or two, any worthwhile invention should be able to cross a mountain or valley. We know from archeological remains that trade moved steadily, while innovations did not. Instead the spread of technology has always been uneven, even among places with similar resources, geography, climate and culture. It is very common for an innovation to be held up in one place and not cross into another region even as other innovations overtake it on the same route. It is almost as if technology had an ethnic dimension.

Anthropologist Pierre Petrequin once noted that the Meervlakte Dubele and Iau tribes in Papau New Guinea had been using steel axes and beads for many decades but their use had not been adopted by the Wanos tribe a “mere day’s walk away.”

This is true today still. Cell phone use is significantly broader, deeper, faster in Japan, say, then in the US. Yet the same factories make the gear for both countries. Similarly automobile use is broader, deeper, faster in the US than say, in Japan. This bifurcation is again not obvious in the similar state of technological infrastructure between both countries. Another example: the adoption of credit cards is wildly uneven among the developed world. But that unevenness is not for a lack of plastic, or electricity, or banks.

This pattern is not new. From the birth of tools, humans have preferred some forms of technology over another. They may avoid one version or one invention – even when it appears to be more efficient or productive — simply as an act of identity: “Our clan does not do it that way,” or “our tradition does it this way.” People may skip an obvious technical improvement because the new way does not feel right or comfortable, even though it is more utilitarian. Anthropologist of technology Pierre Lemonnier has reviewed the patchy interruptions in history and says, “Time and again, people exhibit technical behaviors that do not correspond with any logic of material efficiency or progress.”

The Anga tribesmen of Papua New Guinea have hunted wild pigs for thousands of years. To kill a wild pig, which may weigh as much as a man, the Anga construct a trap using little more than sticks, vines, rocks and gravity. Over time the Anga have refined and modified trap technology to fit their terrain. They have devised three general styles. One is a trench lined with sharp stakes camouflaged under leaves and branches; one is row of sharpened stakes hidden behind a low barrier protecting bait, and one is a dead-fall – a heavy weight suspended above a path which is tripped and released by a passing pig.

Technical know-how of this sort passes easily from village to village in the West Papua highlands. What one community knows, all know (at least over decades, if not centuries). You have to travel many days before variation in knowledge is felt. Most groups of Anga can set any of the three varieties of traps as needed. However a one particular group, the Langimar, ignore the common knowledge of the deadfall trap. According to Lemonnier “members of this group can name without difficulty the ten pieces that make up the dead-fall trap, they can describe its functioning, and they can even make a rough sketch; but they do not use the device.” Right across the river the houses of the neighboring Menye tribe can be seen; they use this type of trap – which is a very good technology. Two hours walk away, the Kapau tribe uses the dead-fall, yet the Langimar choose not to. As Lemonnier notes, sometimes “a perfectly understood technology is voluntarily ignored.”

It’s not as if the Langimar is backward. Further north of the Langimar, some Anga tribes make their wooden arrow tips barbless, selectively ignoring the critical technology of injurious barbs that the Langimar use, despite the fact that the Anga “have had many occasions to note the superiority of the barbed arrows shot at them by their enemies.” Neither the availability of wood type, nor available type of game hunted explains this ethnic dismissal.

Technologies have a social dimension beyond their mere mechanical performance.  We adopt new technologies largely because of what they do for us, but also in part because of what they mean to us. Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance reinforces, or crafts our identity.

Clip 178 Web

Not a Moroccan waterwheel

Whenever researchers look closely at the dispersal patterns of technology, both modern and ancient, they see patterns of ethic adoption. Sociologists have noticed that one group of Saami rejected one of the two known types of reindeer lassos, while other Lapplanders used both forms. A peculiarly inefficient type of horizontal waterwheel spread all over Morocco, but no where else in the world, even though the physics of waterwheels are constant. And in France farmers in one region (Hautes-Corbieres) continue to plow their vineyards while using herbicides while the rest of the country only used herbicides.  As Frenchman Lemonnier (1) notes: “These technically arbitrary [variations] appear to be largely produced with respect to factors whose logic is not orientated towards an action on matter.” In other words, technology is more than it seems.

In the modernized west, our decisions about technology are not made by the group, but by individuals. We choose what we want to adopt, and what we don’t. So on top of the ethnic choice of technologies a community endorses, we must add the individual layer of preference. We announce our identity by what stuff we use or refuse. Do you twitter? Have a big car? Own a motorcycle? Use GPS? Take supplements? Listen to vinyl? By means of these tiny technological choices we signal our identity. Since our identities are often unconscious we are not aware of exactly why we choose or dismiss otherwise equivalent technology. It is clear that many, if not all, technological choices are made not on the technological benefits alone. Rather technological options have unconscious meaning created by social use and social and personal associations that we are not fully aware of.

We should expect technology to continue to exhibit ethnic and social preferences. Groups or individuals will reject all kinds of technologically advanced innovations simply because. Because everyone else accepts them. Or because they clash with their self-conception. Because they don’t mind doing things with more effort. I know an author who writes science fiction books today in long hand. At least the first draft. Efficiency and productivity may, in the future, be seen as something to avoid.


De Rosa, C., Cantrell, J., Havens, A., Hawk, J. & Jenkins, L. (2007). Sharing privacy and trust in our networked world: A report to the OCLC membership. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC.  [ebook] Available
Kelly, K., (2009), Ethnic Technology, The Technium, Retrieved from

What is Web 2.0?

Leave a comment

I tend to think in metaphores … so for me, the best way to describe Web 2.0 is with the word Democracy.

From what I have been reading, Web 1.0 was like the Feudal System where the few absolutely controlled the many: How users interacted with the web was dictated by the (mainly) business oriented websites that were more concerned with having a web presence than the user experience of that presence. The web user had to take what they were given and be happy about it. As with the Feudal system, this wasn’t all bad — we had to start somewhere! However, as with all systems as they age, the many began to get restless and desire a way to express themselves within this system. Web 2.0 lets web users do just that.

As with democracy, there are still a few who are in control, but the many have input into the system to improve their experience of it. If the user doesn’t like something, they don’t use it – they don’t have to. If the user wishes to engage with other users, they can. If the user wishes to remain anonymous, they can and if the user wishes to express themselves just because they can, they can!

As with the feudal system, democracy is not perfect but it is a more empowering and inclusive system where the many will try to keep the few “honest”! And as with democracy, Web 2.0 gets better the more people engage with it!!

Social Networking

Leave a comment

For this first post for the subject INF206, I am to define social networking, to list social networking technologies I use and to describe my expectations of INF206.

To define ‘social networking’ is to define the (almost) indefinable! Social networking is not a new phenomenon: wherever people share thoughts, ideas or some other aspect of themselves to others, they are engaging in social networking. The following graphic from John Atkinson  shows a view of how ‘the world’ functioned before the internet. Notice the representations for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The Outernet

The Outernet (C) John Atkinson, Wrong Hands

Simply put, social networking is the sharing of all types of information, particularly thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. with other people (usually within some social construct; be that formal situations such as book clubs or sporting clubs, or informal situations such as coffee or drinks with friends).

With the proliferation of the internet and the World Wide Web, opportunities for social networking have become more visible and, for many people, more accessible. This means that:

  1. people living in remore areas have greater opportunities to engage with other people,
  2. people who may not agree with the views or ideas of those in their local area can locate and engage with others who share their ideas, and
  3. people who may not be able to physically engage with people locally, for numerous reasons, have greater opportunity to reach out and engage with others.

Currently I socially network in a variety of ways (including at the local karate club and during violin lessons), however the question I am to answer specifically states that I am to look at “social networking technology and sites”. Considering this then, I currently only use social networking for personal use, those being Facebook, Twitter and more recently LibraryThing. My work role, in the non-library plane, does not require the use of many social networking technologies, so the only social networking technology I use at work is email.

My main expectation of INF206 is that I will learn more about how social networking can be used to effectively seek out, engage and hopefully, retain users in the information world. How can a library seek out future library users? How can an archive engage archive users? How can these information providers retain those information seekers and encourage them to keep coming back? It is questions like these that I am hoping INF206 will begin to answer, although I don’t expect them to be completely answered because the world wide web has moved into beta mode which sees web sites (and web resident applications) constantly changing and moving in and out of public ‘favour’.

%d bloggers like this: