Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Agency and Innovation


EPIC2019 Panel, Providence, Rhode Island

Robotics, machine learning, and other technologies are provoking new hopes and fears about human agency. Tropes of the charismatic lone innovator, whether hero or villain, are also starting to lose popular currency. When we acknowledge that the agents of the built world are not just people who call themselves “innovators” but are made up of many kinds of people, and physical materials, new questions arise. How do issues of responsibility, accountability, attribution, and even regulation get solved in situations of distributed agency? What new stories about agency need to be told?

MELISSA CEFKIN is Principal Researcher and Senior Manager of the User Experience group at the Alliance Innovation Lab Silicon Valley, which focuses on exploring the potential future of having autonomous vehicles as interactive agents in the world. She has had a long career as an anthropologist in industry, including time at the Institute for Research on Learning, Sapient, and IBM Research. Melissa is editor of Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter. She holds a PhD in anthropology from Rice University.

DAWN NAFUS is a Senior Research Scientist at Intel Corporation, where she conducts anthropological research for new product innovation. Her ethnographic research has been primarily on experiences of time, data literacy, self-tracking and wearables. Most recently, she has been working on instrumentation and data interpretation for community-based environmental health projects. Her work takes place in the US and Europe. Dawn was co-chair of EPIC2018 and she is the editor of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, co-editor of Ethnography for a Data-Saturated World, and co-author of Self-Tracking. She holds a PhD from University of Cambridge.

MICHAEL LITTMAN studies machine learning and decision making under uncertainty. He has earned multiple awards for teaching and his research has been recognized with three best-paper awards and two influential paper awards for his work on reinforcement learning, probabilistic planning, and automated crossword-puzzle solving. Littman has served on the editorial boards for the Journal of Machine Learning Research and the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research. He was general chair of International Conference on Machine Learning 2013 and program chair of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Conference 2013. He is co-director of Brown’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative and a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and the Association for Computing Machinery.

CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA MAVHUNGA self-identifies as a critical thinker-doer who deploys historical research in service of problem-solving. Chakanetsa joined MIT as an assistant professor in 2008 after completing his PhD at the University of Michigan and is the founder of Research || Design || Build, a village-based institute in rural Zimbabwe dedicated to promoting interdisciplinary problem-solving, innovation, and entrepreneurship among Africa’s rural poor. Chakanetsa has published three books on science, technology and innovation in Africa: Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe; What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?; and The Mobile Workshop: The TseTse Fly and African Knowledge Production. He is working on the fourth, titled African Chemistry: Science with an African Totem. He has given numerous talks, including at TED and Google.

HELI RANTAVUO works as Senior insights manager at the Spotify Growth unit. She works on Spotify’s global markets growth, adapting the experience for users around the world, and investigating how to design products inclusive of global audiences with machine learning techniques. Previous to Spotify, Heli has worked in design research and strategic market understanding at eBay, Microsoft and Nokia in London, Stockholm and Helsinki, and as academic researcher while completing her Doctor of Arts degree in Aalto University. She is currently based in Helsinki, Finland.