Welcome to Ask a Professor, our series that offers an insider’s view of life in academia. This month we interviewed Bonnie Nardi, a professor of Informatics, Cognitive Science, and International Studies at the University of California at Irvine. Bonnie’s latest book with Hamid Ekbia, Heteromation, and Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism, examines the way corporations use everyday computing activity to extract free and low cost labor in vast virtual networks, generating massive wealth. Her previous books include My Life as a Night Elf Priest, in which she examines the online game World of Warcraft (if you’ve ever wondered what a night elf priest looks like, just check out her author photo!). But this is just part of her much longer career publishing on JSTOR, which ranges from population theory, to information ecology, to the politics of anthropology in Sāmoa.
Alex Golub: What’s a factoid/tidbit about your field that most people don’t know?
Bonnie Nardi: We think of online problems such as cyberbullying and revenge porn as products of the contemporary moment, but research in my field documents that hostile behaviors such as flaming, griping, calling others out publicly, and early instances of catfishing go back to the origins of the internet, with the first studies documenting these behaviors published in the mid-1980s. We still do not completely understand why such behaviors are so prevalent online. Anonymity is often part of the equation, but people are less inhibited online even when they know their audience. “Toxic behavior” as video game companies call it, is a huge problem in both gaming and social media. Companies like as Riot Games and Weibo (the largest Chinese microblogging platform) have created systems that tie together human intelligence and algorithmic assessment in efforts to keep online venues reasonably civil. There’s something about the online context, going all the way back to the antediluvian days of the ARPANet, that mediates behavior such that we do things online we would not do face to face.
Have you ever worked with someone in another field, and what was the nature of your collaboration together?
Human-computer interaction is inherently interdisciplinary and pretty much all of my work involves other fields, especially computer science. For example, my co-author Hamid Ekbia started out an engineer, running a successful company in Iran, and then went on to get a degree in computing with a focus on artificial intelligence. My current work on radical approaches to sustainability (and how computing can help) includes computer scientists, social scientists, ecologists, and earth scientists. It’s funny how people can collaborate across boundaries when they share a passion, such as worrying about planetary limits in the case of the sustainability work. My work in activity theory includes a lot of people who study education, a very distinct subculture of social scientists. So I feel like a bit of a Renaissance woman sometimes, although my core identity is as an anthropologist, and that’s always how I describe myself. It has been amazing to work with so many different kinds of people, but I am grateful to have had the immersion in one traditional field that I still love.
What’s the next big thing in your field?
The next big things in human-computer interaction are virtual reality and intensive use of sensors. As someone concerned with planetary limits, I don’t see either of these being exciting. We need to be thinking about how to keep computing going, so we can preserve of all the wonderful benefits of information and communication it has brought us, as we struggle with the problems of increasingly insufficient inputs (e.g., expensive rare earth minerals and energy) and scary outputs, (e.g., e-waste). In operation, computing devices use only about 2% of our electricity. But there are other serious environmental impacts including manufacturing, transport, and disposal. Life cycle analysis does not measure them. We don’t even know what’s in our computers; there is no labeling. Some components include brominated flame retardants, known to cause health issues. I would like to see us conduct computing research into resource tracking, low-bandwidth devices, modular devices that can be rebuilt, efficient, convenient recycling/reuse, and data disappearance, as well as ditching the whole planned obsolescence gig. Beautiful user interfaces can be designed around text. Images (not to mention streaming) use more energy. Storing immense amounts of data is expensive. We act as though all of this is somehow free. Such a perspective flies in the face of the growth needed for the capitalist economy. It’s a tough problem. Hence my interest in the political economy of computing.
If you weren’t a professor what would you do and why?
I would see how many of my own calories I could grow in my backyard and write about it. Well, not just about my backyard, but about how the whole food system needs to be reconfigured. Industrial farming is really a bad scene, and we need to begin to distribute production of basic needs, not just consumption. There are interesting roles for computing in giving ordinary people the knowledge to practice agroecology, that is, creating ecosystems that produce food for humans that have the same high indexes of biodiversity as natural ecosystems.
What’s on your bedside table?
My bedside table is actually rather large, now that I think of it, and includes many family photographs, a lamp, one pair of computer glasses, sometimes a vase of flowers, and currently, Anita Brookner’s A Friend from England and Igor Arievitch’s Beyond the Brain (2017).