Anthropology and Technology: Solving Global Problems with Practical Solutions

JULIETTE NEU

CEO and Co-Founder, Cingeto

I am an anthropologist with a background in both applied cultural anthropology and anthropological archaeology and I work in the space, aerospace, and innovative tech sectors. On the face of it, anthropology and technology seem to be two disparate fields. Yet, when combined, anthropology and technology could not be more complementary. Anthropology teaches us to be curious, genuinely interested in others and in understanding their point of view. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes of UC Berkeley beautifully puts it, anthropologists are trained to free themselves from the fear of difference. They see people as precious repositories of knowledge. [1]. In turn, applied anthropologists use anthropological methods to solve concrete human problems. Anthropology has never been more relevant to addressing today’s business problems and informing technology ventures.

Why? Anthropology provides profound insight into people, their unspoken rules of engagement, their likes and dislikes, and their concrete needs and wants. Anthropologists are experts at nding answers to human-centered questions, challenging assumptions, and rede ning problems. This is what I do at an organizational level. My training in anthropology has enabled me to gain insight into employee relationships, power structures, unspoken norms, modes of communication, and overall inner-workings. This has allowed me to provide management with effective roadmaps for their talent strategy. I use these skills to help organizations build diverse teams who enjoy working together, own their vision and values, and deliver on goals. Anthropological methods, which rely on holism and a systemic approach to understanding people, make it uniquely valuable to organizations that wish to retain and engage their members. Anthropology serves as a tool to weave diversity into the group’s fabric. Diversity is vital to creativity, which in turn is essential to innovation.

We often forget that technology is created by people. Talent is frequently under-prioritized, yet it is key to the success of a business. In fact, innovative organizations are often hindered by a shortage of skilled professionals, poor team dynamics, and an unclear talent strategy. My team and I are working to change that. However, in the past few years we have noted a marked shortage of talent in certain Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) and Science Technology Engineering Art and Math (STEAM) specialties, most notably in the digital technology fields. Overall, there seems to be a general awakening in the market place regarding this shortage. But a number of private and public initiatives designed to remedy low student enrollment in STEM/ STEAM fields have shown mixed results. So how can we address that shortage using an anthropological approach? The demand is there but where do we find the supply and what are the mechanisms of empowerment that might be used to bring this about? You do not need to be an anthropologist to know that the future lies with our children. And while digital technology needs more children to pursue STEM/STEAM-focused careers, it also represents both a means to reach more potential budding talent and a medium of empowerment.

A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) entitled “Children in a Digital World” [2] highlights that out of the over 2.2 billion children living in the world today, [3] 346 million of them are not connected to the internet. About 63 million children do not attend school and World Bank data show that children are also the most vulnerable to poverty as half of the world’s poorest population is children.[4] The UNICEF report highlights that “connectivity can be a game changer for some of the world’s most marginalized children, helping them fulfill their potential and break intergenerational cycles of poverty” (pp9). In sum, there is a global need for talent in digital technology-related STEM and STEAM fields; not enough children are aiming for these fields and a statistically signifi cant portion of the world’s children do not have access to digital technology at all. At the same time, digital technology, and most specifically, connectivity, constitutes what UNICEF calls a turning point for some of the world’s most marginalized children.

Anthropology is a profoundly humane vocation that opens one’s eyes to a multitude of ways of thinking and apprehending the world. It equips you with a unique aptitude to think unconventionally. Anthropologists never stop learning, studying, observing, and taking in what is around them. People working on the project share the collective hope that by marrying technology, anthropology and the desire to solve a global problem with concrete business- oriented solutions, we can contribute to the advancement of technology and society that ultimately benefits all of us.

The best way to illustrate what we do as applied anthropologists is to present a concrete project that I am currently working on with partners in the satellite industry.

The project sits at the intersect of business, digital technology, education, mentorship, and poverty reduction.

USING DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY TO ADDRESS POVERTY

The issue of poverty and access to digital technology is complex and multilayered. By focusing on connectivity, our goal is to show that poverty can be addressed using the same technology that can also cause it to worsen. The expanding availability of communications technology and connectivity exacerbates poverty because poor people often do not have equal access to the physical devices that allow access and connection to a network [5] due to low income and the resulting inability to pay for them. Consequently, poor people also do not have equal access to digital information leading to less exposure to data, educational material, and support networks, which in turn further deepens disadvantage and poverty. Scholars of anthropology recognize information as a major source of power. As the old adage states, knowledge is power. So, while digital technology has rendered information omnipresent, and theoretically available to all, reality shows a growing gap between those able and unable to access connectivity and its associated access to information.

Looking specifically at the United States, in 2018, 17.5% of all children (12.8 million kids) lived in poverty[6]. Today, approximately 1 in 6 children faces hunger in the United States.[7] Helen Ladd has produced noteworthy data that show causality between family income and educational outcomes for children. [8] Recent studies in the US have also shown that schools in disadvantaged areas need more funding, which they do not get. In fact, a 2018 report by the Education Trust shows that schools in disadvantaged areas suffer from a chronic shortage of services, classroom supplies and technology due to lack of funding.[9] Because the families of kids in poverty-ridden areas cannot afford computers or access to the internet, and their schools lack additional resources, their ability to use modern tools and technology that would allow the sharing of teaching resources through the cloud or other connectivity solutions is negatively impacted. Children in low- income school districts do not bene t from the same access to educational tools and information as other children, which in turn fosters unfavorable educational achievement. Poverty is directly linked to achievement gaps, which strongly influences employability and the attainment of higher paying jobs. This entrenches people in a cycle of poverty that is hard to break.

Data show that children of poverty start school less equipped to succeed than other children.[10] Poverty is a complicated, multifaceted beast. There are many forces at work that need addressing to annihilate it. Early childhood education is one key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Studies have revealed that early intervention in school settings can provide a platform to success. [11] Family settings and care-givers strongly impact a child’s development but educators and other adults in the child’s surroundings also play a major role in counter-balancing circumstantial influences.[12] Throughout my career, I have met remarkable people meaningfully contributing to the science and technology sectors. Of those who come from dif cult beginnings and raised themselves out of poverty, each has had access to an inspiring figure who guided and/or motivated them. This individual gave the young child the necessary foundation for success: confidence in their ability, a sense of self-worth and the understanding that they were needed and could achieve their goals. This individual thus opened avenues for the child that might not otherwise have been considered and provided the necessary foundation for her/him to spring from, learn and succeed.

Human beings all share similar basic needs: to feel loved, valued, wanted, and important. Poor children are especially vulnerable because they are surrounded by struggles, stress, uncertainty, and their caregivers are often not available to offer adequate support. I am not suggesting that poor kids are not loved, but the fact that they lack necessities (food, electricity, and the presence of a caregiver), predictability, and a reliable positive influence in their life, negatively impacts their chance at succeeding in school. Academic achievements represent a passport out of poverty. A mentor can provide a guiding light to a young child and radically change their trajectory.

Poverty is exacerbated by unequal access to communications technology and connectivity. Equally, the quality of education – a formidable weapon against poverty – is affected by the socioeconomic circumstances of its pupils. No matter how advanced our technology is; human interactions and simple encouragements are still essential to shifting the fortune of a child living in poverty. Let us imagine that we could use cost-effective communications technology, including satellites, to connect mentors and mentees anywhere in the world. In addition, search engines, cloud-based applications, virtual reality experiences, artificial intelligence, all can be used to enrich a child’s ability to learn and augment the school experience. The tools are there, but they are currently expensive. However, in the last decade, the cost of satellite capacity has significantly reduced. In the next decade, another order of magnitude decrease will allow satellite capacity to approach or even be less than terrestrial connectivity costs. This is key to improving connectivity in schools globally and to providing the technological platform for all the opportunities mentioned. It will also allow educators the freedom to explore new ways of teaching students who might not respond to typical teaching methods. The push needs to be focused on STEM/ STEAM specialties related to digital technology because we want to address the growing shortage of incoming talent, but the model can work for education as a whole.

Let us allow our imagination to run a bit more. Picture yourself in a destitute part of the US. You are 5 years old. Your caregiver is scarcely home because they work three jobs to keep a roof above your head. Sometimes there has to be a choice between keeping the lights on or eating. No one has time to help you with homework or to encourage you. In fact, all you see and know around you is people struggling to make ends meet. All the kids around you share a similar situation. Thanks to digital technology, your school gets connected to a mentors’ network. A network made of STEM/ STEAM professionals who want to be agents of change and who understand that you, at 5 years old, represent the great potential that this new era so desperately needs. That network is linked to other schools like yours in other areas of the world. Each mentoring session is attended by a small group of children from the four corners of the planet. They, you, can be inspired by the mentor. They, you, can ask questions to each other and thus be exposed to a totally different, or surprisingly similar, way of seeing the world. You are no longer stuck in that destitute part of the US and you too can let your imagination run, toward a better future. Digital technology represents a formidable tool to better education and address poverty. The increasingly affordable modern communications technology, including satellite technology, combined with the proper use of the internet, cloud applications, and “good old” human connections, offer an incredible opportunity to reach more kids and disrupt current socioeconomic schemes. There are hurdles to overcome of course but the fact remains that a healthy mix between what digital technology offers and human interactions is a winning recipe.

This project was born from my experience applying anthropology to crafting talent in the technology sector. It is expanding thanks to the distinctive ability anthropology offers Its practitioners to bring communities together, be it internally to a business or externally in the public space. I was inspired by direct feedback from the marketplace on the shortage of STEM and STEAM talent and sought to nd a way to address that de cit. At the same time, I wanted to create an inclusive approach in order to give all children access to the world of innovative technology. Last, but not least, the project also came to be thanks to the keen sense of purpose and willingness to change the current status quo from partners in the satellite industry. This demonstrates how relevant anthropology is to tackling current challenges in the technical world through bringing novel ideas and people together.

References:

1. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “Can Anthropology Save the World?” Perspectives.americananthro. org, perspectives.americananthro.org/.
2. “The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World.” UNICEF, www. unicef.org/publications/ les/SOWC_2017_ ENG_WEB.pdf.

3. “World Population Prospects – Population Division.” United Nations, United Nations, popu- lat ion.un.org/wpp.
4. “9 World Poverty Statistics That Everyone Should Know.” Lifewater, 21 Dec. 2018, life- water.org/blog/9-world-poverty-statistics-to- know-today/.
5. Warschauer, Mark. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. MIT, 2004.
6. US Census Bureau. “Library.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 12 Sept. 2018, www.census.gov/library/publica- tions/2018/demo/p60-263.html.
7. No Kid Hungry, www.nokidhungry.org/ who-we-are/hunger-facts.
8. Ladd, Helen F. “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, vol. 31, no. 2, 2012, pp. 203–227.
9. Amerikaner, Ary, and Ivy Morgan. “Funding Gaps: an Analysis of School Funding Equity across the U.S. and within Each State.” The Education Trust, edtrust.org/wp-content/ uploads/2014/09/FundingGapReport_2018_FI- NAL.pdf.
10. “Poverty’s Long-Lasting Effects on Students’ Education and Success.” INSIGHT Into Diversity, 26 June 2017, www.insightintodiversity.com/ povertys-long-lasting-effects-on-students-edu- cation-and-success/.

11. mwilliams@newsleader.com. “The Complicat- ed Correlation between Poverty and Lower Test Scores.” The News Leader, 26 July 2015, www. newsleader.com/story/news/local/2015/07/26/ complicated-correlation-poverty-low- er-test-scores/30683627/.

12. Ferguson, Hb, et al. “The Impact of Pov- erty on Educational Outcomes for Children.” Paediatrics & Child Health, vol. 12, no. 8, 2007, pp. 701–706.


Juliette Neu is an anthropologist and enthusiastic explorer with the ability to apply anthropological methods to talent strategy. She is a result-driven multilingual and multicultural consultant with twenty years of international experience advising the leadership of space, aerospace and innovative technology companies. Juliette started her career in talent management in 1998 while based in South Korea, assisting international organizations focused on industrial innovation across East Asia. Juliette founded Cingeto in 2016 after a client asked her to design and lead its talent scale-up in North America and Europe for the rst-ever mass-production of satellites in the world. Prior to launching Cingeto, Juliette served as partner for the industrial practice of a large rm with a focus on aerospace and innovative technologies covering global accounts in the Americas, Europe and Asia. She has lived and worked in Europe, West Africa, East Asia, and North America and speaks four languages (English, French, Korean, and Spanish). Juliette holds a MA in Applied Anthropology from American University and began doctoral research in 2012 in Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh. Juliette is passionate about anthropology, advanced technology and space. She is currently working on an initiative where early education, mentorship, space sciences, and cutting-edge technology intersect to address the shortage of STEAM talent and curtail the devastating consequences of poverty on young generations.

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