Lydia Nicholas: how data, bodies and culture meet

Lydia’s MSc thesis looked at  public understanding of big data and data collection practices. Her passion lies in analyzing the interaction of humans and technology, and the way our culture is constantly adapting to new technologies.

We spoke to Lydia about what we can expect from her at Dots, as well as the role of anthropologists within organisations.

How important are anthropologists to businesses?

You can get a lot of information from usage data –  but it takes a different kind of work, with humans at the helm, to tell you why.

Exploring ‘why’ gives businesses all sorts of opportunities to think about what else your customers want, what they might need that they can’t yet articulate, what they might need next year or next decade, what worries or excites them, and what might tempt them away from your services.

You see anthropologists at a lot of major tech companies – Microsoft and Intel in particular – and people drawing on anthropology’s tools such as ethnography as businesses try to get better at understanding their users’ motivations. This moves companies from reacting to data, to serving unmet needs.

What inspired you to become an anthropologist?

I spent years alternating between developing software and websites (and all of the work with clients to uncover needs that comes with that), and doing higher level research into how technology was being developed and used to feed into media industry conferences. It took me quite a while to realise that what I loved was the point those roles overlapped; I loved both the intimate details of how humans interacted with technology, and the broader landscape of how culture both produced and adapted to new technologies.

Anthropology draws those big answers out of the tiny details, so I dove back into academia for a few years to equip myself with the skills and theoretical frameworks to work within that space more effectively, and have been lucky enough to stay in that space since.

What work are you proudest of?

This is a hard one because it feels every project feeds into the next. I feel enormously lucky that I get to spend my time answering questions that interest me, and even small quick projects often feed into larger ideas later on.

The insights from interviewing people about how they develop shared understandings of skill and success and earn fame playing sandbox computer games were very relevant to projects on gender identity and online dating, which were themselves relevant to exploring how people make decisions about privacy.

I feel like working with synthetic biologists on how information moved through their project, and what challenges they faced in communicating between different disciplines was probably a highlight, simply because I learned so much, and have found those lessons useful in other contexts.

You wrote your thesis on public understanding of big data and data collection practices. What did you find?

The most important point was that human relationships are built on sharing information with one another, and we use the same model when interacting with companies and services. Big data adds several layers of confusion and uncertainty to these relationships; we don’t know what we are revealing, how it might be used, how information about us have been found out.

This enormous network of uncertain relationships can be exhausting and occasionally spooky. It’s why the public doesn’t react to the model of one scary Big Brother watching us which privacy activists use. Instead there are much more nebulous worries about being misunderstood or losing control.

They can suppress or ignore those fears as they use social media or loyalty cards to get through the day, but it makes it much harder for groups who are trying to build trust, be open about their methods or do more sophisticated things with data, whether they are businesses or the NHS with health data, or the government with local services.

To hear more from Lydia, as well as other fantastic speakers, join us for Dots on Friday 16th September – get your ticket before they sell out.