Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Meet EPIC2024 Co-chair Lee Cesafsky!


Lee (they/them) is a UX Researcher who has been part of the EPIC family since 2017. They specialize in complex technologies and AI/ML-driven products and work systems, having worked on AR/VR for Meta, autonomous vehicles for Waymo and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, and navigation systems for Lyft. Lee loves working at the ‘micro level’ close to the technology, the design, and the cross-functional team. As an IC, they find that deep embeddedness in the product process is the most direct route to deep strategic impact on the business.

Lee’s favorite personal contribution to EPIC is the EPIC Talk on Space and Place in the Digital Age they gave in 2021, though they have been privileged to wear many different hats in EPIC committees and conferences over the years. Lately they have been obsessed with all things GenAI. They recently posted a longform piece that reflects on the disconnect between what GenAI products enable a user to request (facts) and what they output (the ‘fact-ish’); how users put fact-ish information to work; and implications for the integrity of the digital public sphere. Lee holds a PhD in Geography, Environment and Society from the University of Minnesota.

Lee shared insights on their work, their favorite EPIC keynotes, and (in a very entertaining lightning round of questions) their go-to karaoke song!

How did you first become involved with EPIC? What is your favorite thing about the EPIC community?

My professional story is very tied up with EPIC. My first conference was in Montreal in 2017. I went on a whim – I was just finishing my PhD, still had one foot in academia, still more than half believed that nothing smart or interesting could ever happen in “Corporate America.” Montreal showed me just how misled I was. It introduced me to an outstanding group of peers and mentors, including keynote speaker Melissa Cefkin, who would become my first boss in industry and a dear friend.

My favorite thing about EPIC is that it’s my people, and it’s easy to be myself. Part of it is a shared background or interest in ethnography, and part of it is the warm culture that we create together.

What are some of your favorite EPIC presentations and experiences that inspire you as you build EPIC2024?

I’ve taken in some fantastic keynotes over the years. There’s a bunch more, but I’m thinking of Virginia Eubanks (“Automating Inequality”) in Hawaii; Zach Lieberman in Rhode Island; Ovetta Sampson (“Pulp Friction”) & Tonika Johnson (“Folded Map”) in Chicago last year.

Also fondly remembering a sweaty, totally stunning midday hike in Honolulu that a Hawaiian EPIC member led a group of about 10 of us on. So special!

When we think about your work, what comes to mind is grappling with foundational questions around work, place, navigation, and autonomy. Reflect on this body of work. What do you see as the key threads and what has shifted across these contributions?

Wow, thanks for the opportunity to reflect on this!

I am always thinking about technological change, about innovations to the infrastructures that undergird our working lives, our everyday lives. In my reading of philosophy of technology, a key thesis is that technological change is uncertain, dynamic, and political. Put simply, it creates winners and losers on the fly. In my EPIC body of work, I see myself grappling for workable points of emphasis between the critical and the pragmatic – between decrying the ‘bad’ (unequal or oppressive) and building up the ‘good’ (generative or liberating) – as I reflect on different moments and contexts of innovation. I’m always trying to say something useful and practical, but still authentic to what I truly think and feel.

No one hires ethnographers in business to be critics. Usually we are helping build technologies for the winners, or on behalf of them. In those EPIC contributions closest to my professional labor, you’ll tend to see a more pragmatic, optimistic stance. (That may sound cynical, but I think it’s natural, too). I’m thinking especially of the “Calibrating Agency: Human Autonomy Teaming” paper with Erik St. Gray. ‘Teaming’ is quite a (business-) friendly term that I cringe at a little today. I want to replace it with a value-neutral idea like ‘assemblage.’ At the time, though, I was genuinely excited by what we were doing, and that’s reflected in the tone and choice of words.

My PechaKucha on transportation systems and technological publics in Bogotá was perhaps my best attempt at balancing the critical and the generative. This is because it drew from my dissertation, where I worked very hard to tiptoe that tightrope.

In the panel on Reconfiguring Work in the Age of AI in Chicago last year, it was evidently difficult for me to talk about anything other than the ‘bad’ of the ‘GenAI revolution.’ I was – and remain – deeply concerned with how GenAI products are being made, sold, and used. Last year there were not many GenAI products out, though, and we relied more on prognostication. Today we as users, and as publics, have real GenAI product experience. I recently posted a longform piece on Medium called The Great Public GenAI User Test that reflects on what we are learning.

What is your relationship to LA? What fascinates, confuses, frustrates, or delights you about the city?

I’ve never lived in L.A., but it is the American city I’ve visited most. Growing up in the Midwest in the 90s, you imagine that all of L.A. is either Beverly Hills, 90210 (thank you, Aaron Spelling) or Compton (thank you, Dr. Dre). But then you finally visit and learn some interesting things: Beverly Hills is a strip mall, Compton is a strip mall – the whole city is one giant strip mall, plus some absolutely stunning parks, vistas, and museums. Far from being a high fashion capital, L.A. is a sloppy joe where you can be, and wear, On top of that, it’s disarmingly friendly. The “locals” smile at you, talk to you. The cultural diversity borders on absurd. Yes, the traffic sucks. It has to, because if it didn’t we’d all live there.

Can you tell us about your perfect Saturday afternoon in LA?

Hiking and lounging in Griffith Park with friends, followed by an early dinner in Koreatown.

What do you hope attendees will offer and take away from EPIC2024?

I hope everyone will come away feeling a little lighter and more joyous – a bit more excited about our profession and their place in it.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the EPIC community?

Keep coming back! Get involved! Spot the person in the room you are least likely to talk to, then go talk to them. It’s a safe space to practice being brave 🙂.

Now for a lightning round of questions!

Tacos or pizza? Please just one or the other, get outta here with your “taco pizza”
Beach or mountains? Beach for the weekend, mountains for forever
Cats or dogs? Absolutely 2000% dogs, I don’t have time for cattitude
Cockroaches or mosquitoes? I’m from Minnesota so I’ll go with my homie the mosquito. The devil you know, right?
Papers or PKs? PKs babyyyyyy. I like the performative aspect, the visuals, the pressure.
Time travel to the past or future? Neither! I try to stay present and live one day at a time.
Favorite music genre? The poetic. I seek out the true poets across Rock, Pop, Folk & Hip-Hop.

Favorite joke?
Why don’t California drivers use their blinkers?
It gives too much information to the enemy.
(A “joke” except / because it’s reaaalll)

Favorite social theorist?
I’ll always love reading Michel Foucault but, fittingly, John Dewey had the most practical influence on my life.

Favorite joke about a social theorist?
Why did Marx only drink bad tea?
Because all proper tea is theft.

You can learn more about EPIC2024 at The premier international conference on ethnography in business, this year’s gathering marks the 20th anniversary of EPIC Conferences, a pivotal moment when society, industry, and ethnography must achieve profound transitions to create liveable futures on the planet. Join us as we re-examine foundations, reckon with displacement, and craft new capacities for generation.