Why people don't return shopping carts

Why do so many people just leave their shopping carts in the parking lot after unloading groceries instead of rolling them to the receptacles? Sure, one answer is laziness. But it's actually more interesting than that, involving what kind of cart user you are and how your motivation aligns with two general categories of social norms. You may be someone who always returns the cart, never returns it, only does so if it's convenience, feels pressure to return it from either a cart attendant or someone waiting to park in the spot where your cart is parked, you have children and they get a kick out of returning it. From Krystal D'Costa's "Anthropology in Practice" column in Scientific American:

Social norms fall into two general categories. There are injunctive norms, which drive our responses based on our perception of how others will interpret our actions. This means that we're inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us. And there are descriptive norms, where our responses are driven by contextual clues. This means we're apt to mimic behaviors of others—so what we see or hear or smell suggests the appropriate/accepted response or behavior that we should display.

Supermarkets can try and guide our behavior with receptacles or cart attendants, but they’re competing with our own self-serving goals, which in this case may be staying dry, keeping an eye on our children, or simply getting home as quickly as possible, and we’re being guided by the ways others behave on top of that.

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No, the meme-slinging alt-right Pepe worshippers didn't win the election for Trump

Despite the widespread belief that meme-warriors won the election through tactical shitposting of photoshopped Pepe the Frogs in Nazi arm-bands, the reality is a lot more complicated. Read the rest

Forensic anthropology examines skeletons found in archaeologist's home

Here's a fascinating story about advances in forensic anthropology based around a creepy case of an archaeologist who had several open coffins full of human remains in his home. He said they were all legally taken from ancient Guatemalan sites, but new forensics methods showed that some of the bones were pretty new and of different races than the archaeologist claimed. Read the rest

Why are hackers so political?

Gabriella Coleman is the "hacker anthropologist" whose book on the anthropology of Anonymous is among the best books on hacking I've ever read; her new paper in Current Anthropology, From Internet Farming to Weapons of the Geek, poses a fascinating question: given that hackers are as well-paid and privileged as doctors, lawyers and academics, how come hackers are so much more political than other members of the professional elites? Read the rest

An ethnographic interview with an AI

Tech anthropologist Genevieve Bell (previously) delivered one of the keynotes at last week's O'Reilly AI conference in New York City, describing how you could do anthropology fieldwork on an AI -- specifically, how you could do an ethnographic interview with one. Read the rest

Listen: Hacker Anthropologist Biella Coleman on the free software movement and big business

Gabriella Coleman, the anthropologist whose first book, Coding Freedom, explained hacking culture better than any book before or since; and whose second book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, told the inside story of Anonymous with technical and social brilliance, appeared on the Theory of Everything podcast (MP3) to discuss the ways that free software hackers and the more business-friendly open source world have fought, reconciled and fought again. Read the rest

White House contends with AI's big social challenges, July 7/NYC

Meredith from Simply Secure writes, "Artificial Intelligence is already with us, and the White House and New York University’s Information Law Institute are hosting a major public symposium to face what the social and economic impacts might be. AI Now, happening July 7th in New York City, will address the real world impacts of AI systems in the next next 5-10 years." Read the rest

Healthcare workers prioritize helping people over information security (disaster ensues)

In Workarounds to Computer Access in Healthcare Organizations: You Want My Password or a Dead Patient?, security researchers from Penn, Dartmouth and USC conducted an excellent piece of ethnographic research on health workers, shadowing them as they moved through their work environments, blithely ignoring, circumventing and sabotaging the information security measures imposed by their IT departments, because in so doing, they were saving lives. Read the rest

Beautiful animation about human origins

Design studio Kurzgesagt's latest fantastic "In a Nutshell" animation explores the origin of humanity and "What Happened Before History."

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Meet Homo naledi, the distant ancestor you never knew

In South Africa, scientists have unearthed a humanoid species from what appears to be a burial chamber hidden deep inside a system of caves. They discovered 15 partial skeletons, with evidence leading researchers to believe the hominids had enough intelligence to conduct rituals. This is the single largest discovery of its kind ever in Africa, and scientists claim it will change our ideas about our human ancestors. More on the findings in the journal Elife.

BBC News:

The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong. The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived - but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.

The team of scientists who discovered the Homo naledi remains pose for a picture

Here's the abstract:

Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology.

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End of the United States' "weaponized anthropology" program

After eight years, the US army's $725 million Human Terrain System, a controversial social science program ostensibly established to help the military understand the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, but criticized as a tool for propaganda and psyops, has ended. At CounterPunch, San José State University anthropology professor Roberto J. González published a fascinating history and critique of the program. From CounterPunch:

HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan (Weinberger 2011).

The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.

"The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System"

Human Terrain System (Army.mil)

(photo: Spc. Jason A. Young / Army) Read the rest

Memento Mori: the beautiful ways we have kept the dead among the living

Art historian Paul Koudounaris travelled the world, visiting 30 countries to document the practices—ancient to modern, solemn to joyous—by which human remains are displayed. From good luck charms to genocide memorials, his gorgeous art book Memento Mori collects the finds.

The truth about cavemen

Is that they only lived in caves seasonally, "maybe a couple of months a year at the most." At Nautilus, Jude Isabella interviews anthropological archaeologist Margaret Conkey, who sets the record straight.
Archaeologists are influenced by their culture, not surprisingly. We can’t be totally neutral—we’d be like a blob—but it’s important to recognize what biases we bring to our work. My colleagues and I are suggesting that we have certain biases about what constitutes a “home” and that mobile people didn’t think of home as a stationary physical structure. A “homeless” archaeologist would have a different perspective. Only instead of using the term “homeless,” which in our culture has a negative connotation, I use the term “spatially ambitious.” Clearly, based on what we found, our ancestors were way more spatially ambitious than the cavemen we had thought them to be.
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London, Tue night: Cory and Biella Coleman talk about "Hackers and Hoaxers: Inside Anonymous"

Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (author of the brilliant Coding Freedom) spent years embedded with Anonymous and has written an indispensable account of the Anonymous phenomenon. Read the rest

What's your favorite myth?

Not, like, modern misinformation on the Internet, but longstanding cultural myths, with characters and the gravitas that comes with being really, really old. Max Gladstone writes about his favorites at Tor. I'm a big fan of the origin story of the Maya hero twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, as told in the Popol Vuh. Read the rest

How To: Pronounce Nelson Mandela's middle name

The BBC's in-house linguists have an interesting piece about pronouncing words in Xhosa — a major language spoken in the region of South Africa where Nelson Mandela grew up. (Helpfully included in the story: How to pronounce "Xhosa".) Read the rest

What did Santa really look like?

The bones of St. Nicholas (or, at least, his purported relics) rest in the crypt of in Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. They've been disinterred, measured, and documented, and over the years various anatomists and forensic anthropologists have taken a stab at reconstructing what the real Santa might have looked like. The results vary widely. Why?

In 2010, Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification at the UK's University of Dundee wrote an easy-to-read (and publicly accessible) research paper about the flaws of facial reconstruction techniques — flaws that are exacerbated when all you have to go on are dry bones. Read the rest

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