Archive for November 18th, 2013

Web Doomsday: Northeast Blackout Case Study   no comments

Posted at 6:03 pm in Uncategorized

10 years ago, on 14th August 2003, a combination of minor faults on power infrastructure led to a huge power outage that left over 55 million people in North America without power for as long as four days. In this post, I will give an overview of how people reacted and the long-term impact of the event. In particular, I will consider how the loss of power is analogous to the loss of the web as a convenience, a luxury, and as a life-supporting mechanism.  By making these connections, we should be able to get a better understanding of the anthropological and economic issues at hand, as these are very pertinent to how society has used both electricity and the web in human and economic development.

Donald was one person who experienced four days of the blackout. He told his story, detailing the troubles with living without electricity for four days.  He lived in Detroit and was at work when the power went out. Donald couldn’t continue work, nor could he make phone calls, because the networks were unavailable. The drive home was dangerous because there were no traffic lights. Donald had very little food reserves, nor any way to cook. He was not at all prepared for loosing a resource that he had not considered would simply stop. He had to make plans to leave and had to prepare for looting:

With only the couple snacks we had left, I knew Monday we had to get somewhere west of Brighton. We simply didn’t have any food left. I heard a story about a lot of looting on the news, but that story didn’t repeat. It must have been true. My Beretta 9mm was dutifully holstered to my hip at that point.

Donald Alley –

Donald’s experience echoed the experiences of millions. The initial nonchalant reaction of “oh, it’s just a power cut” gradually became a sense for survival: the urgent need for basic sustenance – food, water, shelter. The initial reaction of “great, a day off work” was undermined by the following few days of an inability to work, with estimates putting the economic cost between $7 and $10 billion [1].

Times Square during the Northeast blackout of 2003

Would loosing web would result in such extreme consequences?

Survival-motivated crimes, such as looting, are a result of loss of basic needs. Could loosing the web for an extended period of time foster this kind of reaction? If we consider the UK alone, approximately 87% of the population are internet users. In fact, almost all people aged 16-44 have used the internet. It’s pervasively used and we depend on it for communication, reading the news, and even for delivering us life-saving information. The web has been considered a tool for promoting freedom of expression and it might further be considered that internet access itself is a human right. The web might not have existed long enough to provoke rioting at it’s disappearance, but our dependency upon it would certainly lead to public disquiet.

And in terms of the economy, vast amounts of business has been transferred onto the web. It is by design easier and more efficient to work on the web, where data is easy to share and collaborate on. Many people could not work during the blackout because their work is based online. If the web were to disappear, we would face a similar economic disruption: work could not take place because current business infrastructures require the web to work. The economy has been affected by the web since it’s earliest days, when we experienced huge investment in the internet sector leading to the dot-com bubble, which then burst, leading to the failure of many technology companies (for example, Cisco’s stock declined by 86%).

The availability of electricity and the web are intrinsicly related issues in terms of the influence they have on society and the economy. From large-scale power outages, we can gain some insight into what the consequences of a web doomsday might be. We might not yet be aware of our dependency on the web, just as Donald was not aware of his dependency on electricity to give him his basic needs. This raises some interesting questions. Should we work to gain a better understanding of what we use the web for and how we are dependant on it, and from this, ensure that we can sustain ourselves without access? And in terms of the economy, should businesses be prepared for the loss of the web, so as to not lead to economic disaster in such a case?

In the next post, I will discuss how censorship in some countries (specifically the great firewall of china) is analogous to the lack of web availability. In this, I will consider how people have reacted and what the long-term effects have been.

[1] ICF Consulting, “The Economic Cost of the Blackout: An Issue Paper on the Northeastern Blackout, August 14, 2003.”


Written by Peter West on November 18th, 2013

Ethnography 3 – Methodologies & Analysis   no comments

Posted at 5:45 pm in Uncategorized

Researcher: Jo Munson
Title: Can there ever be a “Cohesive Global Web”?
Disciplines: Economics, Ethnography (Cultural Anthropology)

How one modern Ethnographer uses technology to perform fieldwork.

Methodologies in Ethnography

The primary method of collecting data and information about human cultures in Ethnography is through fieldwork, although comparison of different cultures and reflecting on historical data is also important in Ethnographic methodology. The majority of Ethnographic research is qualitative in nature, reflecting its position as a social science. Ethnographers do however make attempts to collect quantitative data, particularly when trying to take a census of a community and in comparative studies.

The methods used to collect information can be broadly categorised as follows:

Fieldwork methods:

  • Observation, Participant Observation & Participation – a feature of nearly all fieldwork, Observation can vary from a high level recording of events without interacting with the community to becoming wholly immersed in the community. The latter can take months or even years and will usually require the Ethnographer to learn the language of, and build relationships with the locals.
  • Survey & Interview – surveys can be structured with fixed questions (often used at the start of a fieldwork placement), or unstructured, giving the interviewee an opportunity to guide the direction of his or her answers.

Comparative methods:

  • Ethnohistory – Ethnohistory involves studying historical Ethnographic writings and ethnographic or archaeological data to draw conclusions about an historic culture. The field is distinct from History in that the Ethnohistorian seeks to recreate the cultural situation from the perspective of those members of the community (takes an Emic approach).

    Unlike Observation / Participation and Survey, Ethnohistory need not be done “in the field”. Ethnohistory has become increasingly important as it can give valuable insight in to the speed and form of the “evolution” of societies over time.
  • Cross-cultural Comparison – Cross-cultural Comparison involves the application of statistics to data collected about more than one culture or cultural variable. The major limitations of Cross-cultural Comparison are that it is ahistoric (assumes that a culture does not change over time) and that it relies on some subjective classifications of the data to be analysed by the Ethnographer.

Sources of bias

The sources of bias in Ethnographic data collection can be substantial and often unavoidable, some of the most common are:

  • Skewed (non-representative) sampling – samples can be skewed for many reasons. Sample sizes are often small, so the selection of any one interviewee may not be representative of the population. The Ethnographer can also only be in one place and will often make generalisations about the whole community based on the small section he or she interacts with. The Ethnographer is also limited to the snapshot in time that he or she observes the community.
  • Theoretical biases – the method of stating a hypothesis prior to investigation may cause the Ethnographer to only collect data consistent with their viewpoint relative to the initial hypothesis.
  • Personal biases – whilst Ethnographers are acutely aware of the effect their own upbringing may have on their objectivity (think Relativism), this awareness does not stop prior beliefs having an effect on data collection.
  • Ethical considerations – Ethnographers may uncover information that could compromise the cultural integrity of the community being observed and may choose to play this down to protect their informants.

Interpreting Ethnographic research findings

Whilst there is no consensus on evaluation standards in Ethnography, Laurel Richardson has proposed five criteria that could be used to evaluate the contribution of Ethnographic findings:

    Substantive Contribution: “Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social-life?”
    Aesthetic Merit: “Does this piece succeed aesthetically?”
    Reflexivity: “How did the author come to write this text…Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about the point of view?”
    Impact: “Does this affect me? Emotionally? Intellectually?” Does it move me?
    Expresses a Reality: “Does it seem ‘true’—a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the ‘real’?”

These reflections, alongside the statistical output of quantitative or Cross-cultural Comparative study can be used to reform Ethnographic theories and gain insight into human culture.

Next time (and beyond)…

The order/form of these may alter, but broadly, I will be covering the following in the proceeding weeks:

  • Can there ever be a “Cohesive Global Web”?
  • Ethnography 1 – Introduction & Definition
  • Ethnography 2 – Disciplinary Approach
  • Economics 1 – Introduction & Definition
  • Economics 2 – Disciplinary Approach, the Big Theories
  • Ethnography 3 – Methodologies & Analysis
  • Economics 3 – Modelling & Methodologies
  • Ethnographic Approach to the “Cohesive Global Web”
  • Economic Approach to the “Cohesive Global Web”
  • Ethno-Economic Approach to the “Cohesive Global Web”


The American Society for Ethnohistory. 2013. Frequently Asked Questions. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 31 Oct 2013]. 2013. Objectivity in Ethnography. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 31 Oct 2013].

Peoples, J. and Bailey, G. 1997. Humanity. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.

Richardson, L. 2000. Evaluating Ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6 (2), pp. 253-255. Available from: doi: 10.1177/107780040000600207 [Accessed: 31 Oct 2013].

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Written by Joanna Munson on November 18th, 2013

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