Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Ethnography Taught Me to Fight Climate Change. But to Have Impact at Scale, Ethnography too Must Change   


In the spring of 2019 I met Klara, a fashion blogger based in Malmö with a growing reputation in sustainable design. Klara was a classic millennial of the type I had been studying for years: ambitious, anxious, confident and concerned about her future job security. In the course of a long interview about her laptop routines, she worried about depending so much on devices. She was one of several participants in different parts of the world who were cynical about tech companies’ constant push to sell new products. She had high standards for quality, but didn’t think there were enough products available that focused on sustainability. Rather than feel guilty about buying something that compromised her brand, Klara was considering making her next computer purchase second-hand.

Several months later, the research complete and the presentations over, I am listening to another young woman from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. “This is all wrong,” she was saying on stage at the United Nations Climate Summit: “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

Moved to tears, within a few days I found myself skipping work meetings to attend a protest march for the first time in 20 years. I made the most public statement I could think of now that I am a researcher in tech: I wrote about the need to fight climate change on LinkedIn. I started a regular work meeting to ask people interested in sustainability to bring along ideas for a new taskforce. I talked to Intel’s Director of Corporate Responsibility to find out how I could start working with her full time. A draft plan hatched, I went home to Australia to visit family and friends. Little did I know that it would be the start of the worst possible summer for my homeland, with bushfire obliterating houses, millions of animals, precious bioregions, and sacred sites. A global pandemic would also make this my last trip home for some time.

Back in the US to work for a new manager, I was determined to tie sustainability to my daily role. Greta’s “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” haunted my regular meetings, as colleagues focused on running the P&L of a Fortune 500 company. I continued to negotiate options. Using all the organizational nous I could muster, in a few months, I hired my first full time employee. It is only early stages, but our new Senior Director for Innovation and Sustainability, Michelle Chuaprasert, has developed a playbook to guide business strategy with the help of engineers, architects, marketing and finance teams across the world. We are meeting with key customers to consider how our product innovations and roadmap can satisfy the needs of users like Klara.

Meanwhile in May Intel announced its 2030 RISE Goals. This framework encourages Responsible, Inclusive, Sustainable and Enabling initiatives for consumers, customers and employees. Among the most ambitious commitments relates to the industry’s overall challenge “to achieve carbon neutral computing.” Seeing these words in print on an official Intel website made my heart sing at the possibilities that can happen with willpower and persistence. Coworkers across the company had worked collectively to make it happen.

I share this story with EPIC2020 to prompt reflection on what it takes to scale insights from our fieldwork. On a topic like climate change, the stories of individuals are important, and yet, the bigger problem is larger than any of us alone can fully express. Our personal preferences and habits are irrelevant in the longer course of planetary collapse or recovery currently unfolding. But narratives are important if we are to believe that our actions will make any difference at all. Inspiring organizations through stories is one way ethnographers can contribute to the demand for more to be done on social issues.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the limits of singular stories, especially in the context of large, for-profit firms. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh writes of the novel’s power as a force for celebrating heroic individualism: “it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human.” It is no coincidence that the romance of the individual reached its height in the fossil fuel era, according to Ghosh: “The acceleration of carbon emissions and the turn away from the collective” were the backdrop for artistic forms that gave credence to modernity as “a continuous and irreversible forward movement, led by an avant-garde.”

The avant-garde for today’s generation is Silicon Valley. The personal computer is the form. The ‘personal’ in personal computing reflects the preferences of an autonomous subject whose needs require constant empathy and attention from ethnographic experts. As a discipline, human-computer interaction positions the human as an equal to the device. It is a partnership facing renewed negotiation as the definition of intelligence evolves. In the new extractive economy – the data economy that fuels The Cloud – ethnographers need to consider their relevance as the best conduits for insight. What is the role of research in bringing the cumulative effects of individual consumer choices to wider debate?

Setting up a new team for Research and Experience Definition at Intel this past year allowed us to experiment with some potential directions. Two studies led by user experience researcher Caroline Foster asked people to seek out old PCs lying around in their closets. Inspired by the alarming evidence on the problem of ewaste, we pondered what kind of project would allow people to see the role they play in a wider problem. Using mobile diaries, we asked people to grapple with the inertia they faced in disposing old devices, whether through the secondary market, donation, or giving the PC another life with a neighbor. We asked each person to try to start the device, talk us through any files or photos that stood out as meaningful, and give us feedback on what they found.

Our hypothesis at the outset of the research was largely proven. The device had emotional value that was hard to separate from the variety of memories it had hosted. Without a ritual to say goodbye to the content on the machine, or a simple way to move it somewhere safely, users had trouble finding closure. The romantic narratives embodied in the PC obscured a frank assessment of the even more precious metals trapped inside. Once abandoned, devices stayed in an uncomfortable liminal zone, not quite acknowledged as waste. We called this non-use phase “bargaining with obsolescence,” in deference to the work of media historian Jonathan Sterne.

The backdrop of COVID-19 affected the findings of these studies. Limitations on movement as much as supply chain inefficiencies led to a newfound awareness of the need to redistribute resources locally to others who may not have equal access to computing. In these moments, we saw glimpses of an emergent relationship of responsibility to digital infrastructure. Surplus value can be more obviously realized when provisioning gaps gain wider attention.

Ethnography for the Anthropocene requires many more experiments in mapping individuals to regions, regions to economies, economies to markets, and markets to action. It involves tracing the impetus for conventional tastes and habits and examining these ethically in the context of a world where resources are finite. At a time when justice and equality are increasingly experienced through access to devices as much as clean air, our skills as ethnographers must adapt to survive. We need new stories to build societies that will flourish in a post-human economy.

Reflecting on my own transformation to lead user experience and sustainability at Intel, it’s clear the job to be done. Our role must change from enabling personal computing experiences to facilitating shared computing resources. To do this requires careful attention to where we sit in the broader chain of supply and waste, cause and effect. How we bridge the individual to the structural is thankfully a question ethnography has long been qualified to answer.


Amitav Ghosh (2016) The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Jonathan Sterne (2007) “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media” in Residual Media, Charles R. Acland (ed) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 16-31.

Image: “GDigitalDNA, City of Palo Alto, Art in Public Places” by Wonderlane via flickr (CC By 2.0)

Editor’s note: Intel is an EPIC2020 Sponsor. Sponsor support enables our annual conference program that is curated by independent committees and invites diverse, critical perspectives.


Sustainability Initiatives Succeed with Good Storytelling, Melea Press

What Is Going on with the Weather? Gaps Between Data and Experience, Hannah Knox

Toward Donut-Centered Design: A Design Research Toolkit for the 21st Century, Christopher Golias



Melissa Gregg, Intel

Melissa Gregg is Chief Technologist for User Experience and Sustainability in the Client Computing Group at Intel, where she leads the Research and Experience Definition team in Client Platform and Silicon Architecture. Her books include Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy; Work’s Intimacy; The Affect Theory Reader; and Media and Management.