Observers Observed: The Ethnographer in Silicon Valley

by Tamara Kneese on November 9, 2023

It is undeniably powerful to hear workers’ stories in their own words. Movements can emerge from the unlikeliest sources. The oral histories of ordinary workers are often seen as distinct from the memoirs of outsiders in tech, many of them women, who have written about their experiences. The latter range from Ellen Ullman’s 1990s memoir from the perspective of a woman software engineer to Anna Wiener’s viral essay and then monograph-length account, Uncanny Valley.

Elsewhere, I have written about the politics of collecting stories from the margins of Silicon Valley. I argue that the femme tech memoir, as an iteration of the personal essay genre, can be read alongside workers’ inquiry as a way of finding solidarity across job descriptions and positionalities. Workers’ inquiry combines research with organizing, allowing workers themselves to produce knowledge about their own circumstances and use it in their labor organizing. This seems especially vital in an industry where even short-term history is hard to access and most workers stay with specific companies or in particular roles for short stints.

I came to this project as someone who was first trained in cultural anthropology and then entered the tech workplace myself as a researcher and, to my mind, an organizer-observer. I was specifically recruited into my research position because of my ethnographer background and my labor organizing skills.

In this brief essay, I call attention to another form of Silicon Valley personal narrative: the stories of the ethnographers who became tech workers, those whose “soft skills” and human-computer interaction expertise are often discarded during times of economic upheaval and who sometimes treat their own workplaces as yet another fieldsite for ethnographic investigation. What do the stories of the many generations of ethnographic researchers who joined and sometimes left the tech industry have to tell us about how Silicon Valley ideologies are taken up, embedded, and contested in workflows and products? How do the collected personal stories, or oral histories, of UX researchers interface with those of tech campus janitors and engineers? And is there something valuable that can be learned from their varied experiences about the sometimes ambivalent relationships between research, work, and collective action?

Since Xerox PARC’s early, experimental practice of incorporating social scientists into the product development process, ethnographers have entered the tech workforce and contributed to R&D efforts. Today, Responsible AI and other DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), sustainability, and ethics teams outside of or adjacent to product teams—corners of tech where social scientists have an outsized presence— are often marginalized within corporations. They are not necessarily empowered to make decisions about which products and features are developed and when they are shipped. Tech companies have the opportunity to use these teams to rubber stamp their products and policies, enfolding humanistic research and internal employee resource group-related organizing work in marketing campaigns.

At the same time, there is a long history of ethnographers going into the “field” of Big Tech, positioning themselves as participant observers in order to provide insights into the ideologies underlying Silicon Valley production. They tend to view themselves as perpetual outsiders while making new markets visible to corporations. Following the methodology of cultural anthropology, through the notion of “fieldwork,” or gathering data while embedding themselves in the collective lives and social rituals of those they study, through participant observation and interviews, many social scientists within tech don’t see themselves as full members of the enterprise. They always exist slightly outside of it and their observations of their everyday work experiences constitute a form of fieldnote documentation.

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) launched in 1976. The STS scholar Lucy Suchman writes about her role at Xerox PARC in her book chapter “Consuming Anthropology,” tying her personal experience to the larger history of anthropology. The discipline of anthropology made itself legitimate and legible by partnering with colonial governments and other institutions, which valued ethnographic information on the people in their colonies. Anthropology has a rich history of observers observing themselves and others in the field, a form of self-reflexivity or auto-ethnography which at times teeters on the edge of memoir and that occasionally attempts to do penance for anthropology’s undeniably murky past.

Many anthropologists in tech have similarly examined their own roles within corporate hierarchies. Suchman, along with several other anthropology PhD students at UC Berkeley, were placed in Xerox sales offices to track and analyze the company’s workflows and social relations in their sales and customer service work. Suchman writes that she is attempting to think “about the embedding of anthropological research within corporate enterprises in relation to the turn to markets as a research object in the social sciences.” By entering tech corporations, ethnographers created new field sites for themselves.

Suchman goes on to describe this method as being connected to, but a departure from, a pro-labor Scandinavian approach:

In particular, we drew the model for our own practice from colleagues in Denmark, Norway and Sweden; academic computer scientists collaborating with Scandinavian trade unions to develop union-sponsored demonstration systems informed by values of quality of working life and workplace democracy. In our representations of the value of participatory design to the corporation, however, political values were minimised in favour of potentially superior design outcomes, producing information systems better suited to working practices.

The North American justification for ethnographic research, typically internally referred to as UX, focuses on optimizing work through technology. Anthropologists anticipate the future needs of users, which can be used to guide company-wide strategy and R&D.

Anthropologists have long been employed at places like Microsoft Research, IBM, Intel, and the Institute for the Future. They are often explicitly charged with making the speculative future of work more visible and tangible. Lonny Brooks and Geof Bowker were resident anthropologists at IFTF, the consulting firm, as corporations attempted to navigate the growth of digital media in the 1990s. Brooks conducted ethnographic research on IFTF clients and internal research practices;

A symmetry of the research site was that the observer was himself being observed. If IFTF works (as we shall see) to develop a playground to contain the Other, the researcher represented for the company just the sort of Other they were seeking to incorporate – a marginalized graduate student from a relatively radical department.

For IFTF, Brooks was attractive precisely because of the outsider perspective, the role of the Other and the ethnographer, that he could play.

In recent years, there have been more examples of UX researchers looking back on their work in the field. John Sherry worked at Microsoft and then at Intel starting in 1997, when he was hired as their first anthropologist. The following year Genevieve Bell, with a PhD in anthropology from Stanford, was recruited into a research role at Intel, where she started the company’s first User Experience group in 2005. In a 2019 interview, Sherry argues that anthropologists should not be limited to UX teams. Rather, they provide a point of view and change the trajectory of technologies that are developed. He says:

New technologies are changing the world along so many dimensions, not just in terms of personal experiences but affecting our economies, our political systems, our whole social fabric…We need smart anthropologists thinking about impacts and helping us identify more equitable and humane futures. Luckily, a lot of companies are starting to wake up to this as well.”

But as happens with the ebbs and flows of industry, it is unclear if such nuanced roles will survive the growth of generative AI alongside mass layoffs.

As Mel Gregg says in her book chapter about her experience as a gender studies expert at Intel, there is often a disconnect between how the outsider-researcher is imagined by the company and their individual experiences. As a rare “technical female” in the enterprise, Gregg learned to carve out time to do the kinds of research, reflection, and writing that might actually produce a more humanistic form of technology. She didn’t have an office of her own and she booked meetings with herself to escape the forced innovation and collaboration of the open office plan.

Gregg, along with many others like her, myself included, always felt like they were slightly outside of tech because of their gender, sexuality, race, and/or class position. “Technical Female” is part of the same milieu of discussion as works by Ellen Ullman, Anna Wiener, Wendy Liu, and Joanne McNeil. But there is something especially rich about the stories of those who came to tech as observers, whose research was intended to deliver value to the corporation. What do their stories tell us about the changing values and labor conditions of the tech enterprise?

The participant observer position is not unique to anthropologists in tech. Many outsiders enter tech and never quite feel a part of things. The UX designer and organizer Yindi Pei’s The Valley of Misfit Tech Workers zine is emblematic of the organizing potential and camaraderie contained in the shared experience of being a misfit. On a quite different note, there are many  hand-wringing think pieces about the death of UX research because of its failure to deliver business value. During a time of increased precarity, it is clear that many corporations see ethnographic insights as expendable. Having left the tech industry, I feel compelled to comb through the stories of generations of fellow ethnographer-outsiders in tech in order to find commonalities and offer a way forward.

{ 1 comment }


Chris C 11.12.23 at 12:16 pm

Thank you for this essay! I’ve been meaning to read more personal experiences of marginalized people in tech, so I see your essay as a great starting point.

One recent book you might find interesting is Hacking Capitalism by Kris Nóva. It’s a manual for marginalized people in tech, describing how the industry operates to help the reader survive in it. The book is heavily based on Kris’ experiences as a trans person in tech. Here’s an emotional essay by Kris describing her motivations to write it.

Comments on this entry are closed.